Tuesday 9 June 2015
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Air Pollution (London)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered air pollution in London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate those Members who have turned up at this early hour for a debate on a vital subject for the people of London.
I urge the House to take notice of the unseen, silent killer stalking London’s streets—a killer unknowingly encountered by every single Londoner every single day. It is present when people drop their children off at school. It is present when they make their journey to and from work. It follows them throughout their weekends in the city. That malign presence is the noxious fumes that pollute the air we breathe. Specifically, the killer is made up of two components: particulate matter, comprising solid and liquid particles, and gases such as nitrogen dioxide. In London, the primary culprit for those killer chemicals is road traffic. Although industry is the biggest source of pollution nationwide, in urban environments such as London, where the accumulation of pollution and the related health impact is greatest, road traffic is responsible for up to 70% of all air pollution. Londoners are dying as a result. In 2008, across the capital, more than 4,000 premature deaths directly resulted from deadly levels of air pollution. In every year since then, thousands of Londoners have lost their lives early, and they continue to do so, simply because the air they breathe is slowly poisoning them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Given that the stretch of the A406 through my constituency has one of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the city, surpassed only by central London, and that Public Health England has linked air pollution to 7% of deaths in the London borough of Redbridge, does she agree that more needs to be done to address the problem, and particularly the congestion around Charlie Brown’s roundabout and Redbridge roundabout, as a matter of urgency?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an issue that needs greater prominence. Is she aware of the impact of London’s pollution on surrounding areas? In my constituency of Dartford, for example, westerly winds blow pollution from London on to the problems already caused by the M25, which adds to the bronchial and respiratory conditions suffered by local residents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. He will forgive me if I, as a prospective candidate for Mayor of London, talk about London, but it is important that the House is reminded that the high levels of pollution in London have an effect on surrounding areas.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which I am pleased builds on the work of the Environmental Audit Committee in the last Parliament. Although she may be a candidate for Mayor of London, and if she were elected she would be able to play her part in addressing air pollution, does she not agree that local authorities also have a significant role in addressing air quality in their boroughs?
I entirely agree that local authorities have a significant role. If I were Mayor of London, I would try to bring them together and offer leadership on this issue. It is not just a matter for the Mayor or the Government; it is also a matter for local authorities. It is also about the personal choices we make about our travel and our children’s lives.
Already this year, according to the latest research, up to 1,300 people have died across the city. The Clean Air in London campaign group argues that more than 7,000 Londoners a year are now dying prematurely as a result of toxic air. It is well established that toxic air is a direct cause of bronchitis, asthma, strokes and even cancer and heart disease. We all recognise that the level of childhood asthma is now far higher than any of us knew when we were at school. I cannot believe that there is no connection between those very high levels of childhood asthma and rising levels of air pollution.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I also thank the Clean Air in London campaign, Simon Birkett and others for their work. My hon. Friend makes an important point about childhood asthma, respiratory issues and the role of local authorities. Does she agree that it is important to raise public awareness of places where air pollution concentration can be higher, such as roadsides or places that are lower down, where the density of pollution can more greatly affect children in prams?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. When I think about the number of primary schools in Stoke Newington alongside heavily used main roads, I wonder about the health of children who have to attend those schools. Young people in our city are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Children growing up, or attending primary school, near the noxious fumes of busy roads have been clinically proven to develop smaller lung capacity and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Everyday exposure to air pollution, which is what children get when they walk to and from school daily, has been found to contribute to increased inflammation of the airways in healthy children, not to mention children already suffering from asthma. These chronically debilitating issues lead to serious medical problems that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
We have a duty of care to children, because adults can make choices about whether they drive, cycle or walk to work. Given the particularly damaging impact of air pollution on children’s lungs, why are the Government not doing more to support the production and dissemination of accurate, practical advice to help schools reduce the impact that pollution is having on the health and wellbeing of children in London and further afield? Awareness is key, and the Government are failing in their duty to raise awareness. Those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease are at greater risk of worsening their conditions due to the adverse effects of air pollution. As a whole, London has very high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, not least in Hackney. Our most vulnerable people are at risk, and not enough is being done to protect them.
The hon. Lady has referred to the action that the Government need to take, but does not Transport for London have a very large communications budget? TfL could and should use that budget much more effectively to publicise concerns about air quality and incidences of air quality issues in London.
When I refer to the role of the Mayor, I am of course referring to the entire Greater London Authority family over which the Mayor sits, which includes TfL, the Metropolitan police and the fire brigade. Now is the time for action. It is completely unacceptable that London’s air is the filthiest of any European capital. The air pollution on Oxford Street ensures that it has the unwelcome honour of ranking among the most polluted streets in the entire world.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about the problems near schools. In my constituency, I have some of the most polluted roads—the A4, the A40 and Hammersmith Broadway—and those roads have schools alongside them. In addition to talking about central London, will she talk about the other big problem in London? Heathrow also breaks EU limits. Does she agree that the worst thing we could do is increase the size of Heathrow by 50% with a third runway, thereby making it even more illegal and an even worse environmental danger?
My hon. Friend anticipates a later part of my speech. There is no question but that aviation is a major cause of pollution, and anyone offering solutions to the problem must mention it.
London has the filthiest air of any European capital. The need to improve air quality is recognised in EU legislation, which sets limits for a range of pollutants. As part of that legislation, member states are required to prepare adequate plans to reduce nitrogen dioxide to acceptable levels by 2015, but the UK has failed to do so. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that in the Greater London area, those limits—of which it is perfectly well aware—will not be met until after 2030.
I echo other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a vital subject. She mentioned Oxford Street, but there are also suburban equivalents. Horn Lane in Acton, off the A40, is one of the most polluted hotspots in London. Asthma UK, a neutral charity, has called the Government’s approach
“designed to mask the true scale of England’s air quality crisis rather than make any real attempt to solve it.”
My hon. Friend said that she would come to what the Mayor of London is doing. The record is atrocious: there have been attempts to glue down air particulates near air quality sensors, and there has been a failure to create the network of electric car charging points that was planned. Also, the ultra-low emission zone is also so far in the future that it will not help in the immediate term.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her important intervention, which deserved to be made at length.
The programme for meeting EU targets has been delayed. I ask the Minister to estimate how many Londoners will die as a result between now and 2030. Most shamefully, as a result of the Government’s abject failure to meet the EU targets, a UK charity, ClientEarth, had to take the Government to court. After referring to the European Court of Justice, the Supreme Court here in the UK has ordered the Government to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31 December this year. We had to be taken to court before the Government would come up with sustainable proposals. Why did it take the Supreme Court to make the Government and the Mayor of London take the deadly matter of air pollution seriously? Is not the provision of a clean living environment a basic duty for any Government to fulfil? Will the Minister admit that on a wider scale, this Government are culpable of gross negligence leading to the premature death of up to 30,000 UK residents nationwide?
If the human cost does not move the Minister, will he stop to consider, as the Government busy themselves with their latest round of cuts to vital public services, that we spend £16 billion a year treating the adverse effects of air pollution? If the human cost does not bother the Government, the financial cost incurred by having such levels of air pollution might. For us here in London, it is essential that air pollution is tackled as a matter of urgency. In many locations throughout the city, pollutant levels regularly exceed EU limits by a multiple of two or three. To put the severity of the situation into perspective, Oxford Street managed to breach the hourly limit on nitrogen dioxide for the whole of 2015 by 4 January, in just four days. Each and every Londoner suffers daily from the continued inaction.
The responsibility to address London’s air pollution scandal rests with central Government and the Mayor, although local authorities also have a role to play. As a start, I urge the Government to implement a new cross-departmental strategy to bring about change and reduce the impact of air pollution on public health. The strategy should involve Public Health England and non-governmental bodies such as NHS England. It is essential that it should include clear, measurable and time-bound objectives for the reduction of emissions, and for cost and health benefits, which previous strategies have sorely lacked.
It should become mandatory for all local authorities to monitor levels of smaller particulate matter, as they are already bound to monitor nitrogen dioxide and PM10. The results must be published regularly and accessibly so that Londoners can remain fully informed about the dangers to their health and the health of their children. In addition, early alerts from DEFRA and the Met Office are crucial in order to guarantee that those most at risk from polluted air can plan in advance and avoid symptoms. Both bodies should continue to develop links with organisations such as the British Lung Foundation, which is well placed to convey such information to at-risk groups.
In relation to the role and inactivity of the Mayor, I believe that with his direct executive powers over TfL—
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Before she gets to the Mayor, there is one omission from the list of responsibilities on central Government: the ultimate no-brainer policy of avoiding wilfully increasing traffic at pollution hotspots. The third runway decision has already been cited, but according to DEFRA’s own models, the plans for the construction of High Speed 2 will increase emissions of the most dangerous pollutants in my constituency by 40%. Is that not gross irresponsibility?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
Throughout the Mayor’s tenure, there has been a growing gap between what he has said about air pollution and what he has done on the issue. That is not unsurprising; Boris Johnson is a politician who talks a good game, but does not necessarily deliver. One example is the introduction of ultra-low emission zones, which would require vehicles travelling to central London to meet stricter emissions standards or pay a daily charge.
Since proposing the ultra-low emission zone nearly two years ago, Boris Johnson has taken a series of backward steps. His approach to the issue is inadmissibly weak. Waiting until 2020 to introduce the zone is simply costing lives. A range of organisations including the London boroughs, the London Health Commission, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Physicians have come together to call for the ultra-low emission zone to be strengthened, with early implementation, wider coverage, stricter standards and stronger incentives, but from Mayor Boris Johnson, we hear nothing. The financial costs to a fraction of drivers and voters must be weighed against the health benefits, including to those same drivers, who are the most at risk from pollution, and to the larger population, particularly children, who are exposed to air pollution in central London and beyond, all the way to Dartford.
Furthermore, Boris Johnson has paid no heed to the findings of the Marmot review of health inequalities, which linked higher exposure to air pollution among poorer communities with an increased risk of cardio-respiratory disease. Nationwide, 66% of man-made carcinogenic chemicals are released into the air in the most deprived 10% of English city wards. It is imperative that the incoming Mayor—I hope it will be me—widens the scope of measures and schemes designed to reduce pollution. By restricting his focus to central London and zone 1, Boris Johnson has abdicated his responsibility to the most vulnerable by excluding those in densely populated, heavily polluted and disadvantaged areas, and given no thought at all to areas outside London that are also affected by high levels of air pollution in London.
I want, and Londoners deserve, for London to become the world’s greenest capital city. The proposed solutions are as follows. We cannot fight the environmental challenges facing London, including air pollution, in a silo. We need a Mayor of London who will advocate for sustainability, low energy consumption and efficient waste reduction ideas that permeate all sectors, including housing, transport, healthcare, education and business. Not all London’s air quality issues result from the number of motor vehicles on our roads, but reducing the number and cleaning up their fuel sources would lead to big improvements. An incoming Mayor must incentivise use of electric cars and work actively to decrease the number of diesel vehicles on our roads.
With London’s population growing year on year, our city is at a crossroads on the issue of the environment in general and air pollution in particular. Londoners must choose whether they want a change for the better. A London with cleaner air and an increased reliance on renewable energy, and that is a safe city for cyclists and pedestrians, is an achievable reality with the right political will; I contend that the current Mayor has not shown that political will. An incoming Mayor must take urgent action.
For instance, it is unacceptable that statistics from 2013 show that the City of London has the highest carbon footprint per person in the whole of the UK. The average Briton produces 12.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, but emissions per head in the City are 25% higher than that. Maybe that is because the people there are more important or wealthy, but it is not acceptable.
The Mayor should consider the use of sustainable technologies. I visited a very interesting project in Hackney a week or so ago, where solar panels have been put on top of a big council block. That enables people there to get their electricity more cheaply, and it is also a sustainable energy source. It is a very interesting project, which could be potentially rolled out across London.
Current efforts are insufficient. Not enough progress has been made on increasing the number of hybrid buses in TfL’s fleet; rectifying that deficiency should be a priority. The fact that Oxford Street remains one of the most polluted streets in the world is evidence that measures to reduce pollution from taxis and buses are not being pursued with sufficient energy. We need to establish more accessible grants for environmentally friendly infrastructure development. London can become a global leader in the proliferation of renewable energy sources, such as solar power. London would do well to adopt such good practices as the creation of last-mile delivery hubs, to ensure that the carbon footprint of final-stage delivery is minimised. There are firms in the City that encourage their employees to walk more—if not to work, then at least between offices. We need to improve London’s sustainable infrastructure; that would create jobs in construction and logistics.
Also, the environmental future of our city must be considered when solving London’s housing crisis; we should think about sustainability and environmentally friendly projects. For example, housing developments that incorporate super-insulation would help to reduce the ever-increasing energy bills of Londoners. We also need to step up our efforts to make the city a safe and accessible place for cyclists. If more people could be encouraged to drop their cars and get on their bikes, London would be a greener and more liveable city. Not enough has been done to address that; it should be treated as an urgent necessity.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that Members of all parties understand that this is an important issue that has not been properly addressed. There can be no doubt that the airport expansion at Heathrow that is being talked about would be the death knell of efforts to improve levels of air pollution, because aviation is such a major cause of air pollution.
Toxic air in London is killing Londoners, and we urgently need measures to tackle it. Promises to meet EU guidelines by 2025 or even by 2030 are unacceptable, and it is shocking that it has taken direct action from the Supreme Court to force the Government and the Mayor to address this issue seriously. It is clear that we have a real opportunity to tackle air pollution through a wholesale shift in the way that we view our living environment. For London, Londoners and the wider population in the UK, it is imperative that we seize the initiative and put an end to this silent killer once and for all, and I am using this opportunity to urge all stakeholders to step up and take responsibility. Individual companies can encourage sustainable travel on the part of their employees; housing developers can encourage sustainable development that uses renewable energy; borough councils can do more to encourage cycling to school, and they can also give out information about air pollution; the Mayor of London, who I think we can agree has comprehensively failed on this issue, can do more; and so can the Government. People should not have had to go to court to force the Government to recognise their responsibilities under EU law.
This important issue is not being dealt with, and as we fail to deal with it thousands of Londoners die every year. I am grateful to the House for having been given the opportunity to bring it to the attention of Members.
Order. Before I call other Members to speak, I point out that I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from about 10.30 am. We have about 35 minutes before then, and a number of Members wish to speak. I will not impose a time limit, but if Members could keep their contributions to less than five minutes, and ideally to around four minutes, we will probably get everyone in.
I will briefly raise three issues because I believe that all levels of Government have failed my constituents and London overall.
Let us make it absolutely clear that there is no way that central Government can abide by the European directives on air pollution if a third runway at Heathrow goes ahead. Heathrow Airport Ltd has admitted for the first time—despite our arguing this for four decades—that 4,000 properties in my constituency will be rendered unliveable or will have to be demolished as a result of the increased air or noise pollution caused by the expansion of Heathrow airport. It would mean 10,000 people being forced out of their homes.
In addition, during every inquiry on Heathrow expansion until now, and particularly before the last one, we have been told that air pollution will inevitably be reduced by technological improvements in the aircraft themselves. In fact, before the previous general election, those making the argument for the third runway were comforted by the idea of the development of a new aircraft, which was noise-free and did not cause air pollution. However, we then discovered that no such aircraft was envisaged; it was not even on the drawing board.
We are now being told again—fictitiously, I believe—that a whole range of mitigation measures will be introduced if a third runway goes ahead, which will not only cap air pollution, but reduce it, so that we become compliant with EU legislation. No one in the scientific world believes that.
I have never believed any of the promises that Heathrow has made over the last 20 years, so I do not know why we should start now. However, even if Heathrow was right about quieter aircraft, one of the major causes of pollution is, of course, road traffic. If we increase the number of flights by 50%, we will increase the number of cars driving to Heathrow by 50%, and that would be a killer in itself on the most polluted roads in London.
What worries me is that when we presented this evidence to the Airports Commission—the Davies commission—it was treated relatively truculently. Only legal action forced the commission to consult again on air pollution. In doing so, it undermined the Government’s own guidelines about how to consult, including about the timescale for consultation. The commission’s report will now be tainted as a result of its failure to deal with this matter correctly.
If Heathrow airport is expanded, we will never be able to comply with air pollution limits, because of the extra air traffic and road traffic that will be generated as a result. Therefore, the conclusion in Government must be that Heathrow expansion cannot go ahead. If it does, that flies in the face of all the scientific evidence.
The other failure of government is, as has been said, the mayoral strategies. Those strategies have come up with all sorts of different devices, such as air quality management zones. We have had those zones in my area, but they have been completely undermined by individual planning decisions that have been supported by the Mayor, the Planning Inspectorate and local councils. I will give just two examples of such decisions in my area, and then I will allow other Members to speak.
The first example is the Conway bitumen plant development in my constituency. For a number of years, the Nestlé factory in my constituency pumped out emissions. We worked co-operatively with it to reduce the air pollution from that plant. When people in my area woke up in the morning, they could smell coffee if the wind was in the right direction. It gives a whole new meaning to, “Wake up and smell the coffee”. To give Nestlé its due, it worked over the years to reduce the emissions and it worked with the local community; I set up a consultative group. That factory is now closing.
Then, the local council, Hillingdon, gave permission for Conway to develop a bitumen recycling plant less than half a mile away. We are now regularly exposed to fumes from that plant. It is not controlled by the local authority, because the cutbacks in local government expenditure have meant that Hillingdon Council has cut its staff, and environmental and planning concerns are not being addressed effectively. The only reports on monitoring this company are produced by the company itself, which of course tell us that it is compliant with all the legislation.
Constituents of mine—and constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma)—wake in the morning and are nauseous and sick due to the overpowering smell of bitumen. Yet, as a result of the local council’s not being effective in doing its duty, we have not been able to act. I should welcome a meeting with the Minister’s officials to take advice on how we go forward in that regard.
In the same area, which is an air quality management zone, the Planning Inspectorate has allowed a huge out-of-town Asda shopping development with 500 car parking spaces. With a bitumen plant pumping out emissions at one end of North Hyde Road and an Asda development at the other end, there will be some 10,000 traffic movements a day on that road.
This is the way that central Government fail us. The mayoralty has proved completely ineffective. The local council either does not perform its duties effectively, because of cuts, or the Planning Inspectorate overrides even sensible decisions. Something is wrong here.
As a fellow Hillingdon MP, I stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on the issue of the third runway. Does he agree that the other great threat to air quality in Hillingdon is the construction of High Speed 2? Will he join me in pressing the Government to consider more seriously the option of extending the tunnel to spare us the problem?
This is my final sentence, Mr Crausby. I apologise.
The hon. Gentleman is basically correct. I have supported the concept of high-speed rail for many years, but we have discovered that HS2 would generate more traffic in our area, rather than reducing it and overcoming some problems at Heathrow.
Government, local government and the mayoralty need to get their act together on this. Last year, I supported the Environmental Audit Committee’s call for a proper inquiry into solutions to air pollution in London. We need it now and we need it urgently.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on her mayoral manifesto—sorry, on introducing a subject that is close to all our hearts. For the avoidance of doubt, Oxford Street is in my constituency, although it may one day be in her constituency. However, she is quite right about the problems on that thoroughfare, about which I also have a lot to say. As the father of two young children, living in the increasingly congested Victoria station district, the issue of air quality affecting everyday living is critical.
London is the largest, most established post-industrial city in Europe. It is no surprise that many competing interests jostle with air quality for priority. Our capital is proud to be a global city and it is the epicentre of the UK’s economy. Constant new investment in all our transport infrastructure is required for it to thrive, including—at times—roads. Only then can London maintain its position as a global leader.
More than 1 million people come to work in my constituency alone every day and the congestion this causes inevitably has a major impact on local air quality.
The 10-year age limit on taxis from 2020 should be welcomed, as these vehicles are responsible for a relatively large proportion of emissions in central London. It is essential that a taxi scrappage scheme is introduced to help drivers upgrade their vehicles.
It is worth praising TfL for its efforts on ultra-low emission zones, which are set to be introduced in 2020, although that is perhaps a little bit further in the distance than many of us would like. Investment encouraging pedestrian, electric cars and cycle lanes is also welcome, but I fear that it is insufficiently radical properly to address the heart of this issue.
In a bid to tackle climate change, successive Governments have, through taxation, incentivised drivers to switch to diesel on the basis that it produces less carbon dioxide than petrol. I am sorry to say that this has helped compound the problem. The lobby group, Clean Air in London, led by my indefatigable constituent and good personal friend, Simon Birkett, continues to campaign for a new Clean Air Act to deal with diesel engines, which emit some 20 times more polluting particulates than their petrol equivalents. Clean Air London is rightly calling for a scrappage scheme to remove diesel vehicles from our roads and for widening the congestion charge beyond London, with charges set purely on the basis of emission levels. Drivers may need to be charged far more to drive diesel vehicles through the most polluted areas during rush hour and the ultra-low emission zone should be expanded to include the heavily congested north and south corridors.
Diesel engines are dismally failing to meet nitrogen dioxide emission standards, by an average of some 4.4 times per kilometre in real-world driving conditions. Much of this is caused by the impact of congestion and speed humps, which are inexplicably not variants in the industry standard norms. As a result, nitrogen dioxide levels soar whenever a car’s accelerator is used. This is borne out by the UK being in breach of the EU’s mandated air pollution levels for nitrogen dioxide in no fewer than 38 out of the 43 air quality monitoring zones. These levels were meant to be met some five years ago, as the hon. Lady said, and that situation triggered the legal action that she mentioned. I suggest that, paradoxically, the EU-wide regulatory failing regarding diesel engine emissions has led to this problem.
In my constituency we have a number of hotspots, not just Oxford Street: Marylebone Road, parts of Knightsbridge and the area around Victoria have previously recorded the highest nitrogen dioxide levels in the world and this is causing major problems. Clean Air in London is rightly calling for Oxford Street to be pedestrianised to a large extent and for shops and offices to be fitted with regularly maintained air filters to help reduce nitrogen dioxide levels. I am told that regulations for issuing fixed penalty notices for unnecessary idling of vehicle engines have so far proved ineffective. That needs to change.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the City of London, which suffers from the highest average levels of air pollution. According to an Evening Standard campaign last Friday, the City was advising people not to go jogging during the day because of the pollution levels.
There is much more that I should like to say, but I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak. I finish by mentioning one of my favourite hobbies: walking in all corners of London. I know from personal experience, having been to Dalston and Stamford Hill and other parts of the hon. Lady’s constituency, which are less polluted than bits of mine, that there is none the less a pollution issue there as well.
The problems to which we refer are by no means limited to the city centre or the area around Heathrow airport, although I am sure that that is an important issue for many fellow London MPs. I dread to think of the damage that is being done to the lungs of huge numbers of children and asthma sufferers, of whom there are now a staggering 5.4 million in the UK.
I am delighted that this debate appears to be building momentum across the media. I give particular credit to the Evening Standard, because its campaign is important and will run for months and years to come. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously a lot of what is being said today, because this is and will continue to be a major issue for all Londoners that will unite the political class within London across the House, and we need to deal with it with some urgency.
I will do my best, Mr Crausby.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate my friend Stephen Knight, a London Assembly member for the Lib Dems, who has focused on the issue of air quality around schools. He did a survey that found, for example, that only 2% of teachers in schools were aware of a service call airText, which provides updates to people if air quality is poor. I understand that the Mayor’s target is to sign up 250,000 people to the service and that the number currently stands at 7,000, so he clearly has a long way to go. I hope he gets there, because people need the information.
Only 5% of teachers were aware of the Cleaner Air 4 Schools initiative, supported by the Mayor. As I said in an intervention, the Mayor should be doing a lot more in relation to information about air quality. There are often adverts for TfL on LBC, Metro or in tube stations. TfL is a huge organisation with a large budget that ought to be doing much more to prioritise communication on air pollution, and it can do that through its websites, emails and paid commercials. Given that the Greater London Assembly website has 200,000 hits a month and the TfL website no fewer than 20 million per month, there are lots of opportunities for the Mayor to communicate.
I welcome what the Mayor is doing on the ultra-low emission zone. However, I wonder whether doing it by 2020, as the Supreme Court has ordered, will be quick enough. We need incentives to encourage taxi firms to switch to cleaner vehicles. The Mayor first announced in 2008 that those would be available—but we are still waiting, seven years on.
One area where the Government and the Mayor can play an important role is with the Euro 6-standard lorries that are already available. I have been talking to a local constituency firm, Steve Frieze Removals, which has to rely on second-hand vehicles. Its worry is that there will not be enough appropriate second-hand vehicles on the market to purchase in advance of 2020, when its vehicles will have to meet the standard.
I turn briefly to the slightly different issue of air quality in Beddington Lane in my constituency. There is a proposal from Viridor to build an energy recovery facility on a site there. There is lots of opposition locally, but the opponents do not seem to be articulating an alternative solution, other than possibly trucking the waste much, much further than it currently goes. Do the Government intend to support a methodology that would allow the Environment Agency to control the total emissions from a range of sources, rather than simply linking the extra emissions associated with one site with the background pollution levels? My understanding is that that is how the Environment Agency has to handle things currently, but lots of facilities are emitting in Beddington Lane, and it is the totality of what is happening there that needs to be addressed.
I would have loved to have talked about Heathrow as well, Mr Crausby, but I think you are encouraging me to sit down.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on initiating this crucial debate.
The great smog of 1952 killed some 3,500 people directly and many more indirectly. The public outcry led to the hugely successful and almost revolutionary Clean Air Act 1956. Next year will be its 60th anniversary, as has been said, and air pollution is very much back as a significant public health issue. I will not go through all the bad news, because it has already been relayed, but I make one point: more than 1 million Londoners live in areas that exceed legal limits on nitrogen dioxide, and that should be enough to highlight the importance of the issue.
As London expands—its population is expected to hit 10 million by 2030—the problem will inevitably grow, and tackling it will require the same level of energy that stopped the 1950s smog. Despite some of the things that have been said, I think we have seen leadership from the Mayor. For example, no other city in the world has a congestion charge and a low emissions zone, or plans for an ultra-low emission zone; I accept that there is a strong case for bringing forward the establishment of the ultra-low emission zone and for the zone to be bigger.
We have seen record investment in cycling over recent years in London and take-up has radically increased, but given that we cannot invent more roads, we will need that trend to ramp up massively if we want to avoid absolute gridlock on our streets. For the same reason, we should be investing in infrastructure to make far greater use of the river to carry freight and, for that matter, people. The numbers have improved in recent years, but they need to be ramped up dramatically.
London is growing by the equivalent of two extra tube trains a week—the equivalent of one bus every two hours—so it is hard to exaggerate the case for expanding our rail and tube network. We also need a revolution in electric car ownership. It is extraordinary that, despite falling costs, the fact that getting around in electric cars is dramatically cheaper than conventional alternatives and the installation of 1,400 new charging points in the past three years—a consequence of the Mayor’s intervention—that revolution simply has not happened. It will inevitably happen; the market dictates that it will, but the market needs a boost. The economics are already such that there is no reason why new minicabs should not all be electric or zero-emissions, or why companies with big fleets, such as delivery companies, are not automatically replacing their old vehicles with electric alternatives. The maths already stacks up, but somewhere along the line we need a powerful nudge.
London has the largest electric hybrid bus fleet in Europe, but the vast majority of London buses are still diesel. Many cities, including New York and Rome, have introduced whole fleets of electric buses. We have to ask how long will it be before all our buses in London are electric—or at least zero-emissions in other forms. I only learned this recently, but construction equipment, such as diggers, accounts for a staggering 14% of particulate emissions in London. Surely contracts should be awarded only to construction companies that have retrofitted the engines or have vehicles that are new and clean.
There is masses that we can do in London—I do not have time to go through the full list—but central Government must play a role. Denmark and France have introduced highly successful feebate schemes; a new tax is placed at the point of purchase on the dirtiest cars, with all the proceeds being used to bring down the cost of the cleanest alternatives. It is revenue-neutral, it is not retrospective, it is popular and it works.
While I am on the subject of central Government and without wanting to repeat too much of what has already been said—although I am loving the consensus—I want to emphasise that if we are serious about air quality, the Government simply have to rule out Heathrow expansion. Heathrow is already in breach of legally binding air quality limits, and any expansion would make that far worse. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just produced data showing that Heathrow is likely to be the second most polluted part of London by 2030, irrespective of whether it is expanded.
It is worth noting that one extra runway would lead to 25 million extra road passenger journeys, and, according to Transport for London, the cost of accommodating that by adapting our road networks is £15 billion more than Heathrow bosses have admitted. To put the issue in context, Heathrow expansion is incompatible with any prospect of meeting any legal air quality standards. It needs to be removed from the agenda once and for all. I thank you, Mr Crausby, for your indulgence.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for securing this debate. I will cover two issues: Heathrow and Mogden sewage works. In my maiden speech, I mentioned the impact of Heathrow traffic on the A4 and the M4, which are important corridors through my constituency. People do not experience air pollution just as the silent killer of respiratory illness and morbidity, but also as that greasy dirt that can be seen on washing that is put out, on cars and on garden furniture. We know that the key pollutants around Heathrow are nitrogen dioxide and PM10. As previous speakers have said, the UK is already in breach of EU air quality legislation and that is likely to continue to be the case, whether or not Heathrow is expanded.
Some feasible improvements can be made at Heathrow, such as cleaner planes and a kiss and drop scheme. There could also be greater public transport use through increased capacity on the Piccadilly line, as well as through Crossrail and Airtrack. There is also the tunnelling of the M4, which would move the pollution, rather than decrease it. The modal shift from those public transport improvements, however, will not be significant. We are already seeing increased passenger numbers at Heathrow, even before additional runway capacity is built. There is no evidence that the changes would be adequate to meet the challenges of an almost doubling of air traffic movements, should the third runway or the Heathrow hub go ahead.
More extreme measures have been suggested. Clean Air in London talks about an ultra-low emission zone around Heathrow airport, but to be effective that zone would have to be so enormous that it would have a serious impact on the economy of the Thames valley area and be virtually impossible to enforce. Given what previous speakers have said, it is clear that on air quality grounds alone expansion at Heathrow, whether a third runway or the Heathrow hub, cannot go ahead, because it would imply further breaches of EU air quality legislation.
I turn to a completely different area that also creates air quality issues for local residents. Mogden sewage works is the second largest sewage works in the UK and is situated in the centre of my constituency. For those who live near Mogden in Twickenham, Hounslow South and Isleworth—Twickenham is not in my constituency, but is very close to it—air quality issues are an almost weekly occurrence. I had 16 email complaints from residents near Modgen in my inbox yesterday. In a couple of months, Twickenham rugby stadium will host the rugby world cup; the UK could be rather embarrassed if many matches are spoiled by the stench of sewage floating over the stadium.
The problems are occurring despite a £140 million expansion at Mogden sewage works last year that almost doubled its capacity. In my previous role as a councillor, I worked for many years with the Mogden Residents’ Action Group—MRAG—as well as with council officers and the MPs before me, to address the issue. My predecessor, Mary Macleod, met the Minister’s predecessor, Dan Rogerson, to ask the Department to address the issue with some urgency. The storm tanks need covering and there should be more of them, because, apart from the smell, Mogden sewage works continues to discharge dilute sewage into the Thames regularly, every time there is heavy rain.
I know that time is short and others want to speak, so I will conclude by asking the new Minister to meet me and local residents and councillors to try to reach a solution to this problem.
I will be very brief, Mr Crausby.
If we are to get serious about improving air quality in London, we must not lose sight of the ultimate no-brainer policy—not wilfully to increase traffic in pollution hotspots. If we are serious about improving air quality in the London borough of Hillingdon, the current plans for the construction of HS2 must be revisited. We are being asked to host multiple construction sites, some of which will be in existence for 10 years. They will flood narrow suburban roads with HGVs. The roads are already clogged and are surrounded by high-density housing. The area is home to clusters of schools, to which children walk. The impact will be disastrous.
I will illustrate my point by discussing three roads. Swakeleys roundabout is already highly congested and in breach of EU limits; the current HS2 plans will increase HGV traffic there by 1,672 movements per day. On Swakeleys Road, there will be 1,860 new HGV movements per day. On Harvil Road, there will be 1,360 new HGV movements per day. To make that live a bit, I should say that that means a new HGV movement every 25 seconds on key artery roads that my constituents use to get to work in and around the borough. This is in an area where pollution levels are already high—in some cases, already in breach of EU limits—but, through HS2, the Government plan wilfully to increase the traffic.
On HS2 Ltd’s own traffic projections, fed into the Department’s own forecasting model, emissions for PM10, PM2.5 and NOx will be set to rise by between 30% and 40%. That feels like irresponsible madness, given the threat that the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) articulated so well—the silent killer that she described. This is Government policy pulling in different directions.
There is a solution: bury HS2, literally, by extending the proposed tunnel so that it crosses the Colne valley. It can be done technically, and the London borough of Hillingdon’s report shows that it can be done for more or less the same price as the existing proposals. There are lots of reasons to do it, but today we add to them the opportunity for the Government to avoid wilfully adding to the terrible problem of the quality of air that Londoners breathe.
I will be very brief, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate. She has demonstrated what an effective parliamentarian she is—and why she should stay in this House.
I will not repeat the description of the pollution in London, other than to say that, apart from Oxford Street, areas such as Putney High Street and Brixton Road are also heavily congested and have serious air pollution.
I want to mention schools. It is deeply worrying that, with life expectancy reduced by 11 years, so many London school kids are suffering with air pollution because so many parents are choosing to drive to school. London needs a new initiative, led by the Mayor, to encourage parents to walk to school. That will help to address both the issue of obesity and the fact that so many engines outside school gates in the morning and at the end of the school day are causing real problems for young people’s lungs. The British Lung Foundation has had much to say on that.
It is also important to do something about cycling. Clearly, the funding must be increased, because 1% of the TfL budget is not sufficient. There are real problems relating to cycling in suburban areas, and we need to speed up cycling super-highways. Currently, London’s 40% ethnic minority population is not choosing to cycle. Cycling proficiency training must come back into schools—it has largely disappeared because the money has left local government—because unless we increase cycling, we will not make any progress on air pollution.
The Mayor’s electric car hire scheme has been a spectacular failure. Over the coming year, he should learn from places such as Paris, but I hope that the next Mayor—who, of course, I hope will be me—will do something about accelerating electric car use in the city.
Crossrail 2 will be hugely important in expanding our tube network and ensuring that people stay on the public underground system. As chair of the all-party group on Crossrail 2, I reiterate that it is important that as Crossrail 1 finishes, we move forward with Crossrail 2 in this city and over the next horizon.
Air pollution is chronically bad, and more needs to be done. Much has been said about airport expansion in this debate; I will add nothing—let us see what happens next week—except that, in the end, most pollution is down to diesel. The next Mayor must address that in the congestion zone as well.
I will now call the Front-Bench spokesmen. I would be grateful if they could divide the time evenly, and leave time for the Minister. Under the new proceedings, I can call the mover of the motion to speak again at the end of the debate.
I speak on behalf of the third party. Perhaps I should make it clear at the start that the SNP is unlikely to have a candidate in next year’s mayoral race. Nevertheless, we are extremely pleased to be here today to support our colleagues in London in raising awareness of this important issue. Members can consider this one small step towards building the progressive alliance of which we have talked. We hope to be part of that alliance, and that it will go across party lines.
I used to be a resident of this city and have some affection for it. I lived here for 11 years, although that was some 20 years ago. Coming back to London, it is noticeable how much the city has improved in many ways—how much cleaner it appears to be on the outside and how things seem to be better organised—but today we are discussing the things that we cannot see. I have a personal interest in this debate, because five years ago I was diagnosed with asthma. Like other sufferers, I know more than the average person that just because we cannot see something, it does not mean that it is not there, doing us harm.
I found nothing to disagree with in the comments of right hon. and hon. Members. I very much support their ambition in trying to raise the profile of this issue. I would, though, like to make a couple of additional points. The first applies not only in London but throughout the United Kingdom, and particularly in Scotland: we value very much the quality of our air and our reputation for having clean air. That is true not only for the residents of cities, but for the people who intend to visit. If a place starts to get a reputation for having dirty air and being a polluted environment, that reputational damage will have a long-term effect on whether people will want to visit and spend time in our towns and cities.
This afternoon, we will start the debate on whether we should remain part of the European Union. If ever there was a response to the question, “What has the European Union ever done for us?”, I think it would be: “It has set controls and limits relating to air quality, with which we have to comply.” It is a simple fact that the pollutants in our air do not respect the administrative boundaries of cities or countries. Only by acting together and setting strict controls on emissions and pollution can we protect our citizens across such boundaries.
I am pleased say that my colleagues in the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities have been working hard to try to improve the situation where we live. For the purposes of compliance, the UK is divided into 43 areas, of which 16 are not in compliance at the moment, though they were meant to be by this year. Of those, I am pleased that only one is in Scotland, the Glasgow urban area, and we anticipate that it will be in compliance by 2017, once the current road has been upgraded to motorway status and completes the M8.
We are doing our bit in Scotland, and we want to support colleagues here in doing what they can to raise awareness. We implore the Government to take action to improve the situation in London. Our support can be relied on for that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on initiating this timely debate. She has laid down a serious challenge to both the Mayor of London and the Government.
Of course, the Mayor now has a dual role, as he is also the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). I hope that his new responsibilities lead him to question seriously the adequacy of some of the measures that he has proposed as Mayor to tackle air pollution in this great city. In his constituency, the children at Pinkwell and Cherry Lane primary schools face carcinogenic air pollution that is twice the annual legal limit. We know that children attending primary schools within 150 metres of a main road grow up with lung capacity impaired by up to a third, and that they have an increased risk of asthma and heart disease. Indeed, along with others this afternoon, I will host an event with the healthy air campaign precisely to highlight those risks and to encourage hon. Members to press for real and urgent change.
The impact of air pollution on London’s children is shocking. We know from Public Health England that London’s toxic air has already caused more than 1,300 premature deaths this year. That the poorest children are worst affected, with those least able to defend themselves the most exposed to that danger, should make us feel particularly ashamed. In Britain, health inequality has become inseparable from environmental inequality, and it is quite simply the poor who live in the most polluted environments. No one would choose to live or go to school on a dangerously polluted road; those who do usually have no choice in the matter. They are forced to live with the risks, but the Government do have a choice and a responsibility.
The Government spent three years in court trying to wriggle out of the responsibility placed on them by annex 15B to article 23(1) of the air quality directive. They argued that the directive put no requirement on them to prepare a plan to improve the situation, but the judgment was absolutely precise about the seriousness of the breach. The ruling was:
“The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the Commission not later than 31 December 2015.”
The Government revealed in court that they did not believe they would solve the air pollution issue under their plans until 2030. Particulate matter alone is currently responsible for more than 3,000 deaths a year in London. When the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants is finally allowed to report its findings on nitrogen dioxide next month, it is predicted that that figure could double. A conservative estimate, therefore, suggests that by 2030 the Government’s failure to tackle air pollution could lead to the death of more than 50,000 Londoners. In the words of the judgment, the Secretary of State has an
“obligation to act urgently under Article 23(1), in order to remedy a real and continuing danger to public health as soon as possible.”
The Government and the Mayor have been playing a mutually convenient blame game. Last year, the Government wrote to every local authority in which air pollution exceeded legal limits to explain that ultimate legal responsibility for air pollution lay with local authorities and that any fines levied on the Government would be passed on to them. The Supreme Court judgment shows that that letter was wrong, so, in the light of that judgment, will the Government send a correction letter to all those local authorities?
The Minister is not the only Member who needs to send out a correction letter. Over the weekend I received a briefing from the Mayor on air quality in London for today’s debate. I am sorry that he could not be here—my office contacted his office earlier and found that he was attending an LBC pre-record, which clearly took priority. In bold type, the briefing says,
“London does not have the worst air pollution on the planet”.
We must all be relieved about that, though actually a presentation at the environmental research group at King’s College London by Dr David Carslaw last year suggested otherwise. On Oxford Street, the annual mean nitrogen dioxide, measured continuously, was 135 micrograms per metre cubed, while World Health Organisation guidelines state that the average should not exceed 40. The WHO also states that levels should not exceed 200 micrograms per metre cubed for more than 18 hours in a single year, but Oxford Street recorded levels above that—not for 18 hours, but for 1502 hours in a single year.
While the Mayor’s briefing is careful to talk only about average annual levels of nitrogen dioxide, Dr Carslaw is quite explicit when he refers to both the Oxford Street figures. He said:
“To my knowledge this”
“is the highest in the world in terms of both hourly and annual mean.”
Of course, as the Mayor has done so often, he has used distraction technique. This is not some perverse international contest of “my pollution is bigger than yours”. The real issue is that the average annual nitrogen dioxide level in London’s busiest street was more than four times higher than the World Health Organisation says it should be. It exceeded the maximum permissible hourly spikes by more than 8,344%. That is the issue, and no amount of international comparison can render that acceptable.
The Mayor’s briefing claims that since 2008, when he took office, there has been a 12% reduction in nitrogen dioxide. By my reckoning that still leaves us with a very long way to go. It also says that
“London is implementing the most ambitious package of measures of any world city”,
and it cites the ultra-low emission zone as proof of that. I am sorry that the Mayor does not consider either Berlin or Copenhagen to be a world city.
Low-emission zones have already dramatically reduced air pollution here, but the truth is that London’s proposed ultra-low emission zone will not come into effect until 2020, and even then it will apply only in the central congestion charging zone and cover only 7% of the main roads in London that suffer from the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution. It will also exempt buses from meeting the highest Euro 6 standard and require only that all new taxis are zero-emission-capable by 2030. The other 93% of the most polluted roads in London will be outside the zone and may in fact experience greater pollution as more vehicles circumvent the zone and come into more residential and poorer parts of the city. If ever there was a perfect example for the phrase “Too little, too late”, that is surely it.
Enough, already. With cities across Europe adopting low and ultra-low emissions zones, there is a huge prize for manufacturers of low and zero-emission vehicles and there are significant risks for manufacturers that choose to bet against that trend. A responsible Government would reduce risk by adopting the highest standards here today. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made to establish long-term goals and timescales for a step-by-step rebalancing of fuel duty and vehicle excise duty, consistent with reducing not just CO2 emissions, but NO2 and particulate matter impacts? Emissions-based pricing must be the way forward. To achieve that, I ask the Minister to initiate a strategic assessment of the relative benefits of the different options to encourage the manufacture and purchase of low and ultra-low emissions vehicles.
On one point the Mayor’s document is certainly correct: the Government and the EU need to take complementary action and work with local authorities such as TfL to create a national framework of low emission zones, accelerate the uptake of zero-emissions vehicles and ensure that the Euro 6 standard does not reproduce the mistakes of Euro 4 and Euro 5, where the actual performance under road conditions is vastly inferior to that under test conditions.
The trouble for the Minister is that his Government’s own reports show that, far from trying to improve the standards, they have been working to undermine those very EU air pollution regulations since 2012. On 1 April 2015—I assure you, Mr Crausby, that I have not got the date wrong—the Government announced that, as part of their red tape challenge, they were working in Europe to undermine the enforcement of the air pollution regulation. The announcement said:
“Working in partnership with other Member States,”
the Government would
“negotiate to: reduce the risk of financial penalties from noncompliance, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions”.
Somewhat ironically the paragraph ends:
“whilst maintaining or improving health and ecosystem protection”.
The Minister is no fool. I respect him greatly. He must recognise that there is a causal relationship here. We cannot introduce amendments to the air quality directive that raise the permitted limits of nitrogen dioxide and improve public health at the same time. The Government need to wake up and take responsibility for this public health crisis. Extensive lobbying efforts by environmental and health organisations persuaded the Government and the European Commission to abandon efforts to dilute the clean air directive. The new Minister therefore has an opportunity to start with a clean slate. I ask him in his summing up to make a commitment today to dropping all objections to current European standards, except those made on the basis that the standards are too weak, and to work to increase air quality in Europe, the UK and London. If he will not make that commitment, will he answer one final question: what is the point of a Government who cannot and will not deliver clean air for their citizens?
It is a great privilege to have my first opportunity to speak in Westminster Hall on this subject. The attendance is fantastic. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for securing the debate. She expressed eloquently many of the reasons why this is such a deeply important issue. Part of the problem, as she said, is that we are considering an invisible substance—the air that we breathe. I also particularly welcome the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who spoke powerfully about his experience as an asthmatic and made a great contribution by bringing brevity and common sense to our discussion.
Poor air quality is incredibly serious. As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington pointed out, air is not simply an invisible substance, but is the very heart of our breathing and our organic matter. We are only just beginning to understand the processes that affect air quality. I have a lot of sympathy for her argument, but I want to pick up on two small points of fact, to frame the debate. First, it is not the case that when she was growing up the air quality in London was somehow better and that there is more childhood asthma because air quality has declined since she was young. There are significant challenges for air quality in London at present, but, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, it has improved significantly. Since 1970, PM levels have fallen by 70% and nitrogen dioxide levels by 62%. There is an enormous amount still to do, but we should not believe that it is somehow worse now than in the past. Things have been improving; we should work to improve them more quickly.
Although this may sound like a petty point, we do not spend £16 billion a year on health costs connected to this issue. That is the estimated figure for social costs. The amount spent on related healthcare costs is approximately 100th of that. It is not that there are not significant health costs—there are, possibly running into hundreds of millions of pounds—but when we are thinking about the implications for public policy, we do not want that figure of £16 billion in lights.
The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington raised the issue of London’s carbon footprint. That is linked to another major complexity, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), namely the relationship between carbon emissions and nitrogen dioxide emissions from engines.
I turn now to the specific points made by the many Members who have spoken today. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned Horn Lane. It is a highly complex situation. A range of different industrial plants operates there, including a cement works and a waste transfer station, all increasing the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere. Some mitigating measures could be introduced, ranging from walls to absorb particulate matter to cleaning the tyres of vehicles moving in and out of the stations in the area. Transport for London and Ealing Council have been looking at some technical issues, including using bus lanes to move road-cleaning vehicles more readily, and the Government have offered support to the council if it is interested in applying for road-cleaning vehicles. It is a serious issue, but we have a clear idea of possible mitigating measures. I encourage the hon. Lady to work with me to put pressure on the council to bring those measures in.
Is not part of the problem that local authorities are punished by EU fines if they do not meet the targets, but do not have the power to do anything? Our manifesto promised to put £30 billion of devolved spending behind the issue. That is not happening now. Does the Minister have any plans for anything like it?
Specifically on Horn Lane, I am afraid that I disagree slightly with the hon. Lady. Without wishing to be too controversial, I think that the local authority could have done a little more. For example, Government grants were available for road-sweeping equipment—I personally would have liked the council to apply for that money—and there could have been more imagination and flexibility on using bus lanes for road-sweeping equipment. However, I am happy to take the matter up in more detail with her. Similarly, I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and his constituents to talk through the specific issues related to plants in his constituency.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster gave a fantastic speech that put London in context: it was the first city of the world in the 19th century, the first city to industrialise and the first post-industrial city. Colleagues in the Department for Transport will be interested in his specific proposals about taxis, and I am happy to talk to him about those. Speed bumps are also important and worth looking at. I join him in paying tribute to his constituent who has led the campaign by Clean Air in London.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) gave striking statistics about awareness in schools and put forward some good ideas about how we can work towards better communication on the issue. He asked whether total ambient emissions are reflected in permits. My understanding from my officials is that they are. If he or his constituents have discovered a specific case in which they are not, he may by all means come back to me so that we can follow that up, but the guidance should address total ambient emissions.
My understanding is that when the Environment Agency looks at extra emissions from a particular plant it can do so only against the background level and cannot take into account the totality of emissions from a number of plants in an area, which might exceed permitted levels of pollution.
I am happy to follow that up in more detail. It is possible there is a distinction here between the responsibilities of the Environment Agency, which focuses on industrial plants, and those of DEFRA, which focuses on air quality in general.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) raised a number of important issues. I liked his striking example of two extra tube trains a week representing the population growth in London. He emphasised the need to increase the use of the river, although there are issues around pollutants even from river-borne vehicles, which account for a substantial percentage of nitrogen dioxide emissions in London.
Electric cars must be central, because if there is a single technology that can address many of these issues—air pollutants, public health and carbon emissions—it is them. The Government have introduced a number of quite striking measures, ranging from working with Formula E, to providing incentives to electric car manufacturers to locate in the west midlands and looking at charging points, including motorway charging points, for electric vehicles. I agree that electric vehicles are the most exciting area, and it would be fantastic to work with my hon. Friend to push us harder and to challenge us to do more.
That brings us to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who mentioned the Mogden sewage works and, in particular, the quantity and covering of the storm tanks. Again, I would be delighted to take up the request to meet her and her constituents. If we are lucky enough to get the Thames tideway tunnel through, it may be able to deal with some of those factors—
I clearly have a lot to learn from the hon. Lady about Mogden sewage works, and I look forward to having a detailed conversation about them with officials.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) mentioned HGV movements. Again, we had a striking statistic. He estimates that HGV movements will happen every 25 seconds under the HS2 proposals. He has a great sense of what we should do, literally, about HS2—he used the phrase “bury HS2”. Again, I am happy to look at the issues in detail.
That illustrates the incredible number of challenges around pollutants and air pollution in London. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, we would, in many ways, wish to support such proposals. HS2 could have considerable environmental benefits if it can move people out of vehicles. At the same time, however, it could create immense air pollution in London during its construction.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) made a wonderful broadcast for his campaign to be Mayor. He said something that it is difficult to disagree with, and which I would very much like to get behind: we want to encourage parents and children to walk, rather than drive, to school. Of course, doing that is easier said than done, but it would address issues around obesity and public health. Also, those idling engines outside schools emit nitrogen dioxide at an extraordinary intensity, and it would be sensible to address that.
Investment in cycling also seems sensible. TfL has produced some impressive and startling statistics on the increase over the last five years in the number of people cycling, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is correct that more can be done.
Does the Minister agree that sustained investment in public transport is essential to deal with not only congestion, but air quality in London? I am thinking of strategic river crossings in east London, where, if we have investment in extra roads, which is often seen by some as a panacea for congestion and poor air quality, we will also need, at a minimum, to have sustained investment in public transport so that we can continue the modal shift from private vehicles to public transport.
That is absolutely right. These are issues of incredibly complex modelling. As the hon. Gentleman implies, the construction of a new bridge raises a series of new issues. Investment in public transport is essential, and I think TfL takes that on board.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), made a number of striking arguments. I do not want to get too much into the details of where Oxford Street stands in international rankings. As he said, there are a number of issues about hourly measurements and mean average estimates. As somebody who lived in Kabul, in Afghanistan, for three and a half years, I find it difficult to believe that the levels of particulate matter in Oxford Street are higher than those we experienced there. As he said, the more legitimate comparison is with developed European cities, and we need to make sure that London is moving in the right direction.
The issues of fuel duty, nitrogen dioxide and emission-based pricing in general are important. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to pre-empt the Treasury or to start disrupting markets by talking about such fiscal instruments, but he is right that they are, logically, one thing a responsible Government should investigate in looking at a panoply of responses to emissions.
European standards were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East. It is, of course, correct that we owe Europe a debt of gratitude in many ways for holding to account not only us, but 17 European countries that are in breach of their nitrogen dioxide thresholds.
We should recognise that the problem of pollution has faced London since the beginning of the 19th century. In many ways, the issues we face today are the end of nearly 200 years of struggling with pollution. As early as 1813, particles of carbon, dust and even faecal matter were so thick in the streets of London that it was not possible to see across the street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park said, the smog in December 1952 managed to kill 4,000 people in just four days. That is where we are coming from in London.
Since then, we have severely restricted coal-burning in central London and introduced catalytic converters in vehicles. We have reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by 88%, we have reduced particulate matter by 70% and we have reduced nitrogen dioxide by 62% since 1970. Particulate matter is now below the EU-defined threshold. However, there is, as right hon. and hon. Members said, much more to be done.
The Minister is giving a very thorough answer to all our points, but many Members raised the issue of Heathrow. Will he address it directly? What concerns do the Government have about air pollution at Heathrow, particularly in the light of its possible expansion?
The responsibility of DEFRA—I am slightly evading the issue, because I am not going to take a grand stance on Heathrow—is indeed to police air quality and air pollution in London. We will continue to exercise our responsibilities—says he, evading the issue.
I was particularly struck by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park focused on non-road mobile machinery and the potential there to reduce emissions by up to 40%. It is worth looking at that. There is also the issue of domestic and industrial boilers. We have focused a lot on vehicle movements, but there is potential in other areas.
I agree with the hon. Member for Brent North that Europe has done a great deal, but I am disappointed that, three weeks ago, we were not able to get other European member states to address the fact that the Euro 6 engines are not performing outside a laboratory. If we could get agreement on that, it would make a huge difference.
Although some progress has been made, each new step is becoming more and more difficult. We are not dealing simply with one issue, such as diesel cars, but with a dozen different issues, all of which contribute almost equally to diesel emissions.
I do not have an answer for the right hon. Gentleman, but I am happy to sit down and talk through the details. We are certainly bringing together an air quality strategy, but I do not have a date for him.
To conclude, there are dozens of measures we need to take. This is a highly complex issue. However, I am very open to ideas from anybody in the room on how we can make improvements on this extraordinarily important matter. We face enormous challenges of scientific prediction. As London addresses these issues, we should be certain to share best practice with other countries—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Dyfed Powys Police Helicopter
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Dyfed Powys police helicopter.
I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate him on his appointment following the general election.
To give an opportunity for the Chamber to clear, so that I can hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, I should say that I have been reappointed rather than appointed. I was in this role before the election. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Crausby.
The helicopter is a prominent and vital asset for policing the communities of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Powys. That can, of course, be said about any police helicopter, but Dyfed Powys is a special place—geographically, it has the largest police force in Wales and England. The landscape is dominated by some of the most stunning mountainous terrain in these isles. Dyfed Powys covers about half of Wales and serves a population of about half a million. It has unique policing challenges, and the helicopter is a vital tool in policing operations. It is used for surveillance, vehicle pursuits, gathering intelligence and evidence, and aerial photography. It is also used to search for missing people, suspects and vehicles. It transports specialist teams around the police force area and is used for casualty evacuation.
The police helicopter has been prominent in our communities for many years. Indeed, Dyfed Powys was the first place in the UK to operate a police helicopter. The reason for my debate today is that, under current plans from the National Police Air Service, our dedicated helicopter will be lost from 1 January next year and our state-of-the-art helicopter base, which recently opened at a cost of millions of pounds, will be closed. As the Minister will be aware, NPAS is the result of the Police (Collaboration: Specified Function) Order 2012, which provides for police air support in England and Wales forces to be exercised in accordance with a single police collaboration agreement. A crucial point is that the order is a Wales and England measure, as policing is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If policing were devolved in Wales, as my party advocates, it is highly unlikely that we would be having this argument.
The order does not dictate the number of aircraft or bases to be used by the new NPAS service, and that cuts to the fundamental reason for today’s debate. In 2010, 31 helicopters were used in policing operations around Wales and England, from 29 bases. In 2011, 30 helicopters were operating from 28 bases. After consultation with police authorities and chief constables, NPAS’s business plan was amended to recommend a delivery model of 23 aircraft, plus three spare, from 23 bases. In November 2014, NPAS announced that it would operate 25 aircraft from 22 bases. Crucially, in its prepared communication briefing last November—which I am not completely sure was meant for the public to see—NPAS said that its 22-base model was the right one to deliver the operational capability needed for the public. Just three months on, it announced that it would be operating 19 helicopters and four fixed-wing aircraft from just 15 bases.
The creation of NPAS and the model that it intends to introduce next year will mean the number of active bases in Wales and England being halved, and the number of helicopters being reduced by almost 40%. I would particularly welcome the Minister’s comments on the merits of the current 15-base model, given that NPAS itself previously said that a 22-base model was the right one for the public.
Maps of proposed future coverage accompanied the recent NPAS announcement about reducing the number of bases. They show great swathes of the Dyfed Powys force area that will be reachable only after a minimum of 30 minutes’ travel time from bases at St Athan or Bristol. It does not take a detective to work out that extended travel times will significantly diminish safety and the service available to my constituents.
The proposal flies in the face of one of NPAS’s main objectives: to reach 97% of the population within 20 minutes. To add insult to injury, NPAS proposes one fixed-wing aircraft to serve the whole of Wales in addition to the west midlands and the south-west of England. That is completely at odds with the findings of the fixed-wing aircraft trial that took place in Dyfed Powys in May 2012, which concluded that such an aircraft had few positive features when operating in the Dyfed Powys terrain, and that it spent 80% of its time manoeuvring and only 20% locating lost or injured individuals. The main drawback cited was its inability to land and hover.
The crew at the Pembrey base is not made up just of pilots. It is also made up of trained police officers who often, metaphorically speaking, swap their aviation hats for their police hats when they land the helicopter, to help catch criminals, find lost persons or assist the injured. Such tasks would be impossible without our dedicated service for the force. The various maps produced by NPAS imply that a fixed-wing aircraft will be based in Llandeilo in my constituency; on that basis, estimates are made of average flying times to the rest of Wales. What the maps do not show is that that fixed-wing aircraft will be based in the midlands. For the maps to be accurate, the aircraft would have to be circling Llandeilo constantly; it would have to be refuelled in mid-air when required, before being dispatched, which is plainly ridiculous. The arguments being put forward by NPAS to justify its new enhanced coverage are purely hypothetical and deeply misleading.
The aim of NPAS, of course, is to centralise police air support services to cover the whole of Wales and England. Police forces that sign up to NPAS hand over their assets for the promise of increased coverage and reduced costs, as the Minister will no doubt argue. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. NPAS has been tasked with finding efficiency savings of 37%—23% in 2012 and now a further 14%. It is simply unable to deliver what it promised to individual police forces when they signed up. The assurance of a more efficient and effective service with increased coverage is undeliverable. Indeed, the opposite is happening. A simple internet search will tell the Minister of the concerns that police commissioners and the public throughout Wales and England are raising about the lack of cover that their forces have been witnessing since joining NPAS.
We are told in Dyfed Powys that we will enjoy 24-hour coverage under NPAS, in contrast to the present 12 hours a day. I understand that on only 13 occasions has a helicopter been needed in Dyfed Powys outside the usual operating times over the past four years. That averages just three times a year, with support always available from neighbouring forces. That is a voluntary air support service, so to speak. There is minimal demand for a 24-hour service in Dyfed Powys and the seemingly undeliverable promise of such coverage cannot make up for the loss of our local dedicated service.
The deal between NPAS and Dyfed Powys police announced by our police commissioner in November set out how Dyfed Powys police would pay about £890,000 a year to join NPAS, instead of paying about £1.1 million a year to run and maintain our own dedicated helicopter. The intention to restructure a service to save money is honourable, but it cannot happen if that service is diminished.
Maps produced by aircraft pilots who actually operate police helicopters suggest that air support for priority calls in my area of Dyfed Powys would be completely non-existent within a 20-minute timescale. Not only is that is at odds with what NPAS promises, but there is a strong argument to suggest that instead of Dyfed Powys saving about £200,000 by joining NPAS, it will pay about £900,000 a year for little or no emergency coverage. That is without considering the state-of-the-art Pembrey helicopter base opened only a few years ago, at a cost of £1.2 million to the public purse, with a planning condition permitting its sole use as a police helicopter base. Its closure would be a colossal waste of public money.
The most notable and emotive recent uses of our police helicopter were the searches for little April Jones, who was abducted from outside her Machynlleth home, and for young Cameron Comey, who fell in the River Towy in Carmarthen three months ago and is, tragically, still missing. Additionally, although the air ambulance had been called out to Monmouth, our police helicopter was first on the scene at Cilyrychen quarry, Llandybie, to rescue Luke Somerfield and transport him to Morriston Hospital. That is without mentioning the countless times when the helicopter has been called out in recent weeks to assist in surveillance, or its arrival first on the scene to assist a little girl who was sinking in quicksand at Llansteffan beach. It is impossible for me to list all the incidents in which the Dyfed Powys police helicopter has been involved, but I can say that the prompt response of our local helicopter crew gives innocent young children a fighting chance, and criminals fewer chances.
The police and crime commissioner for Dyfed Powys has been heavily involved in NPAS, and has served as the police commissioner representative for the south-west region on the NPAS strategic board. A freedom of information request was made to obtain the minutes of those meetings. Those minutes left many people in Dyfed Powys saddened, as they showed that their local police commissioner has sat on his hands and is allowing the Pembrey base to close.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I represent Ceredigion, which is part of the 4,188 miles covered by that invaluable service. The hon. Gentleman spoke of his disappointment and puzzlement, but does he share my bewilderment at the fact that in November we were given clear, unequivocal assurances that the service would remain intact, yet several months later it is in doubt again? That undermines the process and, as the hon. Gentleman said, sadly brings into question the commitment of our police commissioner.
I will get to that point later in my speech. As a Member of Parliament representing Ceredigion, the hon. Gentleman knows that the police helicopter from Pembrey can get to his constituency within 20 minutes. Based on NPAS’s current models, it is unlikely that when the service is closed the helicopter will be able to get to Ceredigion in that time. He is right to raise that important point.
Despite the announcement in November that Dyfed Powys would join NPAS and would retain our helicopter and base, the minutes state that when the new proposals were presented the commissioner, Mr Christopher Salmon was “reluctant to oppose” the removal of our helicopter from service. The commissioner wrote in one of my local newspapers last week that he was powerless to stop the loss of our helicopter. His words were a far cry from his pledges to the electorate. His second election pledge in 2012, which was still live on his website this morning, states that he will
“Fight to save Dyfed Powys police helicopter so police can reach all areas”.
Mr Salmon did not pledge to save general helicopter coverage. He did not say he will get the best deal for the area, as he appears to be saying now in the press. He said he will fight to save the Dyfed Powys helicopter.
The commissioner has broken his promise to the people with his reluctance to oppose the NPAS model, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said. I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record my deep disappointment in Mr Salmon because of his abject failure and apparent unwillingness to stand up for the best interests of the residents of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Powys. If the commissioner feels powerless, perhaps it is time for him to leave his job.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on this hugely important issue for my constituency. Does he agree that the key issue is to have an efficient helicopter service? We know how important that is. Parts of my constituency are almost five hours away from Pembrey by road, and perhaps an hour and a half away from Hawarden. When looking at the whole service, we need an efficient helicopter service that serves the whole of Dyfed Powys and is not confined to an administrative boundary. There are a lot of other issues, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will address that fundamental principle.
It is precisely because of efficiency that I am raising this issue. If I thought the NPAS proposals would lead to enhanced coverage for my constituents, I would happily support them. The reality is that the NPAS proposals will lead to a second-rate service, compared with the dedicated helicopter service we have at the moment.
That is a valid point, which is why the campaign being run in west Wales by the Carmarthen Journal, the South Wales Guardian, the Llanelli Star and many other local papers is gaining such traction in our local communities.
The Minister and the Home Secretary would be well advised to read the minutes of the NPAS strategic board meeting of 19 February and satisfy themselves that the decision to operate a 15-base model is not open to judicial review. One chief constable on the board states that it was
“virtually impossible to have effective consultations with Forces in a region 4 days before a meeting”.
The chief constable stated that it was
“highly problematic to accept an operating model without an understanding of the costs and savings distribution.”
The minutes state that the approved 15-base model
“had not gone to National Chiefs Counsel.”
Even the Dyfed Powys police commissioner, although reluctant to oppose the new model, acknowledged that the agreement he had previously signed with NPAS had changed without his knowing. On the face of it, it seems that the process followed to approve the 15-base model is on extremely shaky ground.
The weekend before Dissolution, the Teesside Gazette reported that the Home Secretary had ordered a review of the NPAS decision to remove a police helicopter from Teesside and relocate it to Newcastle. Having seen the story, I wrote to the Home Secretary on the morning of Dissolution outlining the strong case for a review of the decision to close the Pembrey base.
One of my first letters in this Parliament was to the Home Secretary to request a meeting to discuss this issue in more detail, and once again to press the urgent need for her intervention in this matter. I am disappointed that I have not received a response to the first letter. I have received a response from the Minister to my second letter, which arrived in my constituency office yesterday, but I am disappointed that the Minister will not meet to discuss this issue.
The residents of Dyfed Powys have been failed by their police commissioner and ill-served by NPAS. If the Home Secretary is not prepared to order a review, as she has done in the north of England, it will be seen, quite rightly, as the residents of mid and west Wales being ignored by the Government. To satisfy my constituents, the Minister must say that the Home Office will initiate a review of the NPAS proposals for Wales, and Dyfed Powys in particular.
The Dyfed Powys police helicopter has undertaken incredible work in our community and has been at the centre of operations—some of them heartbreaking—across the force area. The reduced NPAS model appears to be focused on more densely populated areas; as far as it is concerned, it seems, the rural communities of mid and west of my country look deserted. Going ahead with the current plans would send a strong message to Wales that our communities are an afterthought. If one police force needs a dedicated helicopter service, it is the one that serves the largest and most rural population in Wales and England. The value of our dedicated helicopter service is immeasurable.
In closing, I would like to quote from a piece by a former police officer and best-selling author, Mike Pannett, who said of NPAS:
“Cutting police helicopters is a charter for criminals and real worry for police on the ground that search for vulnerable missing persons on a daily basis. Criminals will act with impunity outside of the helicopter coverage and escape into the night and the lives of the missing and vulnerable will be lost where every minute counts.”
I implore the Minister and Home Secretary to intervene and ensure that Dyfed Powys maintains its base at Pembrey. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) for allowing me to make a short contribution. I congratulate him on securing a debate of huge importance. This is a long-standing issue, and he went through the record of the changes. I was closely involved in a debate about fixed-wing aircraft, which are entirely unsuitable for rural areas such as the whole of rural Wales—not just Dyfed Powys.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, because helicopters are important not only for police and security work but for the health service. Wales Air Ambulance has become a crucial part of service delivery in rural Wales. This issue is therefore really important, and I am looking forward to the Minister’s response.
As I said in an intervention—I did not know whether I would get the chance to speak—Dyfed Powys is a huge area. For example, it would take almost five hours to get from Pembrey to Llangynog, a village I represent, if one remained within the speed limit, and from Hawarden it would take perhaps an hour and a half. Clearly, it is not the same in every part of Dyfed Powys. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that any new system will serve the whole of Dyfed Powys. I am concerned that the helicopter service is limited to a geographical area defined by an administrative boundary, not by the ease with which the helicopter service can deliver services to the people who need them.
There are advantages to the new system. It will be a 24-hour service, and it will be cheaper. One cannot discount the importance of cheapness for the police service. If one is spending money on a helicopter service, there is clearly less money to spend on the visible presence of policemen on the beat, which we all want to see. This is therefore not a straightforward issue.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on behalf of everybody who represents Dyfed Powys, and everybody who lives in the south and the north of that huge area. We all know that the issue is important, and we are all looking forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in my first debate after being reconfirmed as Minister with responsibility for the police—and now for crime, too, including organised crime. I am at both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—buy one, get one free, apparently. On a serious note, it works very well being the Minister both for the police and criminal justice.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate. If I were the MP for his constituency, I would probably call for a debate on this subject as well; I hope he understands exactly where I am coming from on that point. However, I am not an expert or a police officer—I do not believe there is one in this Chamber, unlike in the old days, when there would have been one—so I take my advice from the frontline.
I will try to address some of the issues raised, but if hon. Members do not mind, I will not address the personal attacks on the police and crime commissioner. I do not think they were appropriate for this Chamber, when we are trying to work together. The PCC is duly elected; when the next elections come, perhaps the party political stuff will start—who knows? At the moment, however, I am sure that he is trying to do the best job he can for the people he represents, as we all are in this Chamber.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. As someone who represents a very rural constituency in the Dyfed Powys area, I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) for securing the debate, because it is absolutely vital that we discuss this issue.
Will the Minister comment on just how hard our police and crime commissioner has worked to get benefits out of this system? I understand that the helicopter broke down—the gearbox had to be replaced—and was off-air for three weeks, during which we did not have any cover in Dyfed Powys. Under this new system, we would have cover constantly. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr spoke of criminals escaping into the night, but said that we would have 24-hour cover under the new system, whereas there had been just 12-hour cover, so if anything, we will have a better system and larger coverage.
My hon. Friend has been reading my speech—or perhaps he wrote it for me. He is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said in his intervention and short speech, we need to get away from the constabulary boundaries—the old, artificial boundaries—as NPAS has done. The truth is that the helicopter was offline extensively; it was not available 24 hours a day. There will be facilities now; there will be more cover. The North Wales, Birmingham, South Wales and Avon and Somerset forces will all be providing cover, so with this new scheme, we have broken away from saying, “This is ours. You can’t have it, and if you do, it’s going to cost you a small fortune.” The police have bought into that, and it is a really important thing to have done.
There are obvious and understandable concerns. I remember when I did a review of the coastguard and everybody said to me, “This is a very dangerous situation”, but just because we had things in a certain way, it did not mean that that was right. The changes that we made to the coastguard stations have worked, not least—interestingly enough—because we get more cover at times than we had before.
It is not for a Police Minister or a Member of Parliament to tell the police their operational duties or how they should run their forces. We can only dream of having the sort of expertise that they have.
I will give way, but I am conscious that because of the interventions that have been allowed, I will be cut off in a moment, and I want to try to respond to what has been said. Before I give way, I say to hon. Members that if I do not answer all the points raised, because of the time restrictions, I will write to them. I will meet the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, too; there is some logic to doing that once we have had the debate, rather than before.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for agreeing to meet; that will be welcomed in the communities that I represent. If it is not the role of Government Ministers to intervene in strategic decisions by NPAS, why has the review been held of the situation in north-east England?
I will be perfectly honest: I have not had an opportunity to look at that, but I will find out and write. I am not in exactly the same role as I was before—I was responsible for this, but I had no opportunity to look at it. The Minister in the previous debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), was brutally honest, and anybody who knows me knows that I am brutally honest as well. If I do not know the answer, I will get back to people. There will be a review. It was due to be 12 months from when the scheme started, and it started slightly late. I will check and write to the hon. and right hon. Members here today, but my assumption is that it should be 12 months from when it started, so if it started after Christmas, that is when it will be.
The key to this is flexibility. As the Police Minister, I know the value of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. We should not undermine the value of fixed-wing aircraft. I was a Minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism in the Northern Ireland Office; I have to be slightly careful about how I say we use fixed-wing aircraft, but they are enormously useful in policing in particular parts of this great country of ours. We must not underestimate the fact that if there is 24-hour cover, there is the facility to fly anywhere. That is greater than having something on the tarmac at any base at any one time, but not being able to use it.
The police commissioners and chiefs bought into the scheme, and I think they were right to do so. I have looked at the plan that the hon. Gentleman alluded to, and I am comfortable with the situation. I have been judicially reviewed before, when I did not expect to be, but there we are. I am comfortable with the decision that has been made. I did not hear representations that caused me concern about that meeting. However, we never know what is in the post in the morning.
We have to be really careful and look at the big picture, which is what my role involves as Police Minister for England and Wales—for the greatest police forces, I believe, in the world. I say that day in, day out. They are let down occasionally by some individuals, but in general, we have by far the best police in the world. We police in a way that most other countries would love to, but do not. I am particularly referring to the fact that we do not have universally armed police.
The role of NPAS is strategic throughout. When it looked at the issue, it was particularly considering how to cover the gaps, for example when there is engine failure, as has been alluded to, or when we did not have 24-hour cover. Of course, it also looked at the costs. It is obvious that we are responsible for spending taxpayers’ money; we are sent here to monitor and be careful about how taxpayers’ money is spent. The police forces looked at the issue and said, “There could be this model”; then they looked at it again and changed the model. I fully accept that there was a change of model, which is why there will be a review.
We must all sit back, and, as emotive and difficult as it is, say, “This is what will happen. Let’s see how it works.” This is what the police are comfortable with, in relation to the myriad different roles that the helicopters have. They do everything from rescues—even though other facilities can be called on in this part of the world and in other parts of the country—to tackling organised crime and, in particular, cannabis growing. Hon. Members may not yet have had an opportunity to see some of the videos available from heat-seeking cameras, which help us to know exactly who is doing what in properties where cannabis is being grown.
Helicopters are vital for these things, but we all know that they are very expensive, so we must ensure that we use them in the best way. If fixed-wing aircraft are suitable, they should be used. As I said, we must not underestimate the capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft. However, a helicopter moves at great speed. Many of the assumptions are based on the idea that the helicopter would not already be airborne, but it might be airborne; it could have been on an exercise, or be coming back from another operation. The speed at which it could get to different parts of the country would therefore be much quicker.
Clearly, we need to keep the matter under review, and NPAS has agreed to do that. I fully understand individuals’ concerns, but if we want the police to do the job that we are asking them to do, we must listen to the police when they tell us what they need and then react to that. This has been an important debate. I am pleased that other hon. Members have had the opportunity to attend, if not participate. Half-hour debates are always difficult—so difficult that I have managed to gain myself an extra minute by congratulating those who have intervened.
The key is not boundaries; it is not individual constituencies or police authorities. Actually, the police authorities have gone; police and crime commissioners are in place; it was a slip of the tongue to refer to police authorities. It is a good thing that PCCs are in place. We await the elections next year, when I hope the turnout will be much better than it was before. They will coincide with local elections in many parts of the country. People will be able to see what the PCCs are doing for them in their communities. Hopefully, we can leave the politics out of that for a couple more years.
Question put and agreed to.
Vocational Qualifications Day
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
It is great to have such a free and frank Chairman for this occasion. Thank you, Sir Roger. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Vocational Qualifications Day is critical, because it celebrates the success of young people. However, we need to do that not just annually but throughout the year, because it is that success that young people, our society and our economy need. It is worth emphasising that vocational qualifications are something that we should celebrate for everyone, at every level. That is one essential underpinning of the speech that I shall make and, I hope, the debate that we will have.
The second point, of course, is that we want to see equal value between vocational qualifications and academic qualifications. That is an essential part of the whole debate about our education system and the way in which our young people and everyone else, including those who go into new careers at the tail end of their working lives, want to experience it. This is the eighth year for Vocational Qualifications Day. That demonstrates continuity and success, and underlines our very strong feeling about the subject.
We have to promote several key messages. First, we need to raise the status of technical, practical and vocational learning. We have to ensure that people see that as a direction of travel for their careers, aspirations and hopes. Secondly, we need to demonstrate and celebrate the fact that everyone, of all ages, both genders and wherever they come from, can be part of the vocational qualifications world. Of course, we also want to ensure that there is a sense of parity between vocational studies and academic studies. Parity is important because that leads to esteem that is equal and benefits everyone.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that parity is of the essence, but is not there a dark cloud over all of us in the vocational qualifications sphere, because there is no red line around further education spending? As well as the ambition and the high priority, we need the resources to invest in further education.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course we need resources, but a good FE college is adaptable enough—flexible enough—to find those resources where appropriate. I shall go on to describe the experiences of my local college, Stroud College, which has now merged with Filton College to create an exciting range of opportunities for young people. That has lifted the reputation of FE in my community and provided fabulous opportunities for young people. The issue is not just ring-fencing, but freeing up colleges to benefit from the opportunities that they can find.
I am sorry that I cannot stay for the whole debate, but I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue for discussion this afternoon. He is right to say that colleges, such as the excellent Trafford College in my constituency, can do imaginative things to draw in new resources and form new partnerships, but does not he agree that we should take this opportunity to press the Minister on the impact of the 24% funding cut suffered by further education?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. My hon. Friend the Minister will have heard it—indeed, he is writing a note about it. Obviously, all areas of education have an interest in fair funding and more funding, but there is a cake and we have to slice it up in a sensible way. We will be having that debate throughout this Parliament.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this very important debate, but let me press him further on funding. Although further education colleges are in the vanguard of providing vocational qualifications, they have had to suffer, in addition to the cut in February that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, an in-year cut of £450 million in post-16 funding and another £450 million cut in FE and higher education funding—in-year and retrospective—for which they have not planned, so however brilliant they are, these are challenging times for vocational education.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for appreciating my success in securing the debate. The key point is really the one that I made to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). There are opportunities for FE colleges, working with business and working in their communities, to develop novel and interesting ideas about getting funding from sources other than the ones that hon. Members are talking about. That is what we should be thinking about, and I will articulate more thoughts about it as I progress through my speech.
I join in the expressions of support for the debate that my hon. Friend has secured. I hear what other hon. Members are saying with regard to funding in further education, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s commitment in this area is clear in the funding that has been put in for apprenticeships, and the success that the Government have had in increasing the numbers of people securing apprenticeships in our communities?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. She makes a very good point. We have already created 2.2 million apprenticeships in the last five years and we plan to create a further 3 million in the next five years, so that is 5.2 million. That is a fabulous contribution to the success of our economy, but above all are the achievements of the people who have those apprenticeships. That is absolutely right.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off apprenticeships, may I make this point? I will not intervene again, but it would be wrong if I did not say this. He and I and the rest of the usual suspects in this excellent debate all know one another and know the background, but may I just say this? Will the hon. Gentleman not let himself be sucked into what was the coalition Government’s mantra? It was a fig leaf: “Look at what we’re doing with apprenticeships.” A lot of those apprenticeships were short term—for one year or less—and did not lead to a qualification. In contrast, FE delivers real skills and costs more money, but that is the real choice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am a firm proponent and supporter of the FE sector. I have been a governor of two or three colleges and have worked hard for the success of them all, so hon. Members can be sure that for anything that happens about the FE sector, I will be there, fighting its corner.
In short, what we are hoping to do and should be doing is celebrate achievement and promote aspiration through vocational qualifications. That is a good strapline for this debate. Our purpose is essentially to enable people to fulfil their lives. That is a very important thing in the structure of my political beliefs. I want people from all walks of life and all places to be able to fulfil their lives, and they will do that through satisfying and rewarding work, which in many ways comes from good vocational training and qualifications.
Our purpose is also to ensure that we can create an economy that is full of opportunity, responsive and modern, and I think that that is completely in line with vocational qualifications and the whole framework around them.
Thirdly, we must ensure that our economy has the skills that it needs—the appropriate pools of skills in all the big sectors. For instance, in engineering, we will still need 83,000 new engineers each year to keep the show on the road, and many of them will be individuals with vocational qualifications. However, this is not just about engineering; the world of construction is just as thirsty for these kinds of qualification. That is an essential part of this debate.
We need an education system that is adaptive, responsive and aware of the changing framework in the world of work and in society. Our working patterns have changed, our aspirations are greater and our attitude to work is different, because we expect to find more opportunities, to advance in our careers and to change careers from time to time. That difference is reflected in our society as well, because we want our families to be able to develop their careers.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that careers advice is crucial, and that it is unfortunate that even today, 63% of young people, when asked, can name A-levels but cannot name any vocational qualifications? That shows the distance that we need to travel to achieve the parity of esteem that we need if vocational qualifications are to deliver in the way in which he indicates, quite rightly, that we need them to.
I will go on to address that issue, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has touched on it. As I will say in a few moments, we need to make it clear that it is not just A-levels that people need for future employment; there are a whole range of other possibilities.
We need to reinvigorate practical learning. We all know that that happened in the past and still happens now, but it must happen more. We need more specialist schools in the 14 to 18 sector to address the skills shortages—I have already alluded to some—that various sectors have identified. University technical colleges are part of that, but there are other ways of providing such schools, which have a relationship with the business world and the community, and which can run appropriate activities. We should be encouraging that.
I support a baccalaureate to recognise young people’s achievements up to the age of 18. That is in line with what the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) has said. A baccalaureate is the right way to demonstrate that huge achievement has been notched up through vocational qualifications, and I want to put that firmly on the agenda.
We have to work hard at bringing together the world of education and the world of business, the professions and employment in general. That is important not only for education, but for employers and organisations that might extend some form of training. Unless the interface between those sectors and organisations is improved, opportunities will constantly be missed because schools produce one kind of output and businesses require another.
I have come across that problem in my constituency, and I tackled it by setting up the Festival of Manufacturing and Engineering. One in every four jobs in my constituency is connected to manufacturing and engineering, but when I first went around the schools, I did not get the sense that they understood that at all. I felt that they were quite unaware of the appetite for skills in electronics, in certain aspects of the automotive sector and in aviation, so I got schools and businesses to work together and we came up with the Festival of Manufacturing and Engineering. It is held every year, and it really brings young people into the world of work. It ensures that schools understand what kind of job opportunities are coming along, and it underlines the need for vocational qualifications. We should recognise the importance of bringing those sectors together.
We have talked a bit about further education, and I want to underline its importance. Right now, 3 million students are being equipped with valuable employment skills. That is a huge chunk of our young people, and it demonstrates the large footprint that the further education sector has in the matter. We need to recognise that the FE sector has a role to play. In my patch, as I have mentioned, a really good college has seen the strategic advantage of merging with another, and it is now able to produce a whole range of useful courses and training opportunities for young people and for adults who seek to change their direction of travel.
In fact, the arrangement is now so successful that we are going to have a new training centre at a disused—but properly maintained—nuclear power station. It will be known as Berkeley Green, and it will provide training opportunities for people who are interested in renewable energy, nuclear energy, manufacturing and other activities. That huge investment has been made because the college understands that there is a huge requirement for such skills in my constituency. That has led to another investment in a university technical college to ensure that advanced manufacturing opportunities are being offered and places are being filled by people who are properly trained, as we would expect them to be, at a UTC.
I think I will go on with my speech. The point that I am advancing is that we can really make sure that the FE sector plays its part. If it has strong leadership, which I hope is the case in all areas, that is exactly what will happen. We need to seek more of that.
One of the Government’s key themes is increasing productivity, and we need to do so in this country because the productivity gap is too large. For example, the OECD suggests that the gap between us and Germany is 29%. That is huge, and we need to address it. There are two good reasons for doing so. First, it will alter the terms of trade and export. Secondly, it will enable our young people to get jobs that lead to higher salaries and more opportunity. That is the antidote to any cost of living crises that we might be concerned about. It seems to me fairly obvious that vocational qualifications can play a part in improving productivity, which is one reason why we must make sure that the opportunities are laid before us.
One other aspect of the productivity question is the role of local enterprise partnerships. It will be increasingly important for LEPs to have a clear understanding of their local labour market, where skills are needed and how they will be provided. LEPs should have an interface with FE colleges and providers of vocational qualifications to ensure that there is a better fit between requirement and provision. That would be of great benefit.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned the difficulties caused by simply assuming that A-levels are the only things that matter, when there are lots of other options. I have already advanced the idea of a baccalaureate. Interestingly, nearly 46,000 students who have gone to universities in the past year have had a BTEC as part of their application. That further reinforces the point that vocational qualifications matter. Importantly, a large number of those students have managed to persuade employers to pay a large part, if not all, of their student fees, either because they are doing a course that includes vocational training or qualifications, or because they have already done a course that was underpinned by vocational qualifications. The value to that student and to the potential employer is, therefore, all the greater. That underlines the importance of vocational qualifications.
Another organisation that wrote to me after I secured this debate was Sports Leaders UK, which highlighted the value of soft skills, especially in developing leadership capacity. In our modern economy, which is developing very nicely, leadership will be paramount for entrepreneurial activities and large numbers of growing small and medium-sized businesses. Leaders are needed within structures and organisations to implement changes or direct new operations. Such a vocational qualification route, supported by the sorts of soft skills that develop leadership capacity and other useful characteristics, adds to the value of the individual and their appreciation of the opportunities ahead and to that of the economy as a whole. That is yet another reason for celebrating vocational qualifications.
Vocational Qualifications Day is a good thing to celebrate. It is about empowering people to do the things that they want to do and making sure that they have aspirations that they can achieve. It is about ensuring that we have a mix across the spectrum of education and training that meets everyone’s needs and all the opportunities that are available, and that reinforces the direction of travel, which must surely be towards the creation of a real economy that is modern, vibrant and able to support families, young people and older people who, ultimately, want work that is rewarding, satisfying and capable of giving them the capacity to fulfil their lives. Vocational study, training and qualifications can play a paramount role in delivering such an economy and society.
It is a pleasure to speak briefly in support of this debate. We should all seize the opportunity to celebrate vocational qualifications, and it is good that we are doing so today. Vocational qualifications play a huge part in the mix of qualifications that young people and older people gain throughout their lifelong learning and development. I was a co-ordinator for the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative back in the 1980s, and I know well that vocational education is a holy grail that politicians, academics, practitioners, the general public, parents, businesses and industry have been working towards for many years.
This is not a quick fix, but we must ensure that we take full advantage of this day that celebrates vocational qualifications. Further education colleges, along with other institutions, are the fulcrum of ensuring that things happen in that space. My local FE college, North Lindsey College, does an excellent job of bringing together the worlds of work and study, because it has a pivotal role in the local community. The college has lots of links with local companies and businesses, and students of all ages come to work and study at its various premises. Further education is a key partner, and it needs to be backed and supported. I illustrate that with a local example: the work that North Lindsey College is doing with Bradbury Security on Youth Engineering Scunthorpe, a scheme that gives people who have been out of work for some time an opportunity to come back into it, doing work that would otherwise not exist. That work is not displacing jobs that would otherwise be taken by other people; these are new jobs. The scheme is onshoring jobs that Bradbury Security previously delivered from China. We need such work in order to reskill, develop capacity and secure and grow new business.
My hon. Friend knows more about this sector than almost anyone else in the House of Commons, and I defer to his great knowledge and professional experience. This is not party political, but does he agree that, across successive Governments, further education has been the neglected area of UK education? Does he agree that FE has been neglected in terms of budget, focus and interest for many years?
My hon. Friend is right that further education has been a Cinderella area of education and training. One reason why I applaud Vocational Qualifications Day is that it represents a real effort to rebalance what we are saying out there, and what is being said back to us. It is important that we seize that with both hands.
Careers advice is an area in which the Government need to up their game. We have a new careers and enterprise company in place, but it is not clear—the Minister might tell us that it is crystal clear—exactly what that company is doing, or how it will address the current deficit that means that whereas 63% of young people can name A-levels as a post-GCSE qualification, only 7% can name apprenticeships and only 26% are able to name national vocational qualifications as post-GCSE qualifications. Despite the plug that the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) gave for BTECs, only 19% of pupils were able to name them. When I was a college principal, I expanded the BTEC curriculum within my college because it acts as a very good bridge between the academic and the vocational. That applied learning is the sort of bridge we need in order for people to develop and move on to both vocational and academic pathways, as he described.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of careers advice in raising young people’s awareness of alternative education and qualification routes, but will he say something about what can be done better to inform parents? Parents influence their children’s choices, and many parents assume that a university education is the best and only suitable option for their children.
Absolutely. That is where there is a real danger in the fragmentation of schools, academies, UTCs and other provision. Sadly, the evidence is that in schools with their own sixth form, the quality of careers education, as regards raising awareness of the various pathways available, is lower than in schools that do not have their own sixth form. We must ensure that impartial advice is available to all young people, wherever they undertake their secondary education. That includes connecting better with parents and ensuring that they get information about the range of available pathways from the secondary school, which is the main vehicle through which they receive such information. Research commissioned by the Association of Colleges shows that only 14% of 11 to 16-year-olds have heard of apprenticeships, which is just not good enough. That is evidence that, collectively, we all need to up our game.
The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned LEPs, which are well placed to maximise the value of careers education locally. They seem to be the other player in the mix, with a good connection with the worlds of work and education. LEPs are in an opportune place to bring those things together. Given that LEPs are becoming more mature as organisations, any opportunity to allow them to show more leadership with regards to careers information, advice and guidance would probably benefit young people in their area. I commend Humber local enterprise partnership for its work in promoting gold standard awards for quality in careers information, advice and guidance in the Humber area. It is an example of good practice.
The adult skills budget is disappointing. Vocational qualifications are not just for younger people; they are for older people, particularly because many people will lose one job and have to retrain for another. Given that people are living longer, that is likely to be a challenge for older as well as younger people. It is disappointing that the adult skills budget was cut by 24% in February 2015, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said earlier. It is equally disappointing that just last week, further cuts were announced of £450 million to the non-schools budget and £450 million to the further and higher education part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget.
Those cuts will cause challenges and pressures, particularly if there are retrospective funding cuts. As a former principal of a college, I know what it is like to set out my stall and put my plans in place. If schools are told halfway through the year that they need to save more money, it is difficult to do so, even for the best-run organisations. I have concerns about the impact on providing the better vocational education and better pathways that we all want for young people, as well as better understanding and support for older people retraining. We might accidentally achieve the opposite. I know that the Minister is passionately committed to ensuring that this works, and I am sure that he did not decide to decrease funding in certain areas to benefit the bit of the world that he champions. I am sure that he will take away from this debate the desire to bat even harder in private for the people whom we want to deliver well for us in public: that is, young people coming into the workplace, as well as older people needing retraining. For both those groups, vocational qualifications are a key underpinning of bridges and platforms into the future.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, in this interesting debate. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He is absolutely right that awareness of further education qualifications is one of our key challenges, and I will discuss that in my contribution. However, the issue is not just about awareness; it is also about attitudes. They are part of the key to finding the solution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate and for giving us all the opportunity to recognise the eighth annual national Vocational Qualifications Day, as well as the organisers of the day; it always takes a great deal of organisation to ensure that such days have longevity. My hon. Friend put his finger on it when he spoke about productivity. It is one of this Government’s greatest challenges to ensure that Britain is fighting fit for an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Today, in the main Chamber, right hon. and hon. Members might be discussing the future of the EU, but I am sure that many Members would agree with me that we should be looking beyond the EU to consider what trade deals we can do with other countries to secure the future of the United Kingdom. Productivity—ensuring that we are as competitive as any other country in the world—will certainly be one of our biggest challenges. Although the Government’s investment in infrastructure such as high-street broadband, railways and roads are all important, the key to productivity is skills: ensuring that our workforce is as skilled as it can be and that every single citizen can contribute to the best of their ability, making us a successful nation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I look forward to hearing other Members’ contributions.
The right hon. Lady is making a brilliant speech, but does she accept that this conundrum of the lack of productivity in our country, which we face across parties, is often related to management—a skill that we do not talk about enough? A recent report shows that there are a lot of highly skilled people in our nation, but they are poorly managed. Does she agree?
The hon. Gentleman makes his own point. I am not sure. If we look at the analysis of productivity, we see that among the most important factors are transport systems. As a result of woeful investment in recent decades, this Government are running to catch up with some of the problems that we have inherited. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but we should not forget that productivity is not just about skills; it is about the ability to export and to move goods around a country. I congratulate the Government on how much support they are giving transport systems, some of which are woefully unable to relieve congestion. We should not forget that productivity is not simply a UK problem but a problem of all mature markets, so we should not beat ourselves up too much.
Before moving to my own comments, I want to respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said about the festival of manufacturing and engineering in his constituency—an idea that I think all of us will want to emulate. What a great way to highlight to young people the job opportunities available in their community and the importance of vocational qualifications to securing such jobs! It is a fascinating idea that I am sure we will all want to consider in more detail.
My constituency understands further education, primarily as a result of incredibly strong leadership in FE at Basingstoke College of Technology. I have had the privilege of introducing Anthony Bravo, the principal of that college, to my hon. Friend the Minister, who was extremely generous with his time, in order to discuss some of our ideas for FE, particularly apprenticeships in Basingstoke. Business responds well to such strong leadership. We have engaged businesses in Basingstoke in further education and in valuing its role, particularly apprenticeships, in a way that has impressed me. I also echo the point about the role of local enterprise partnerships in providing such leadership. We in my constituency are fortunate to have one of the best LEPs in the country: the M3 LEP, which has implemented a special management position to consider apprenticeships and how we can maximise them in our area, as they are critical to business growth.
I will make three short observations on the future of vocational education and how we can make it even more vibrant, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The first was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in her intervention earlier. It is important to support a positive attitude to vocational qualifications and ensure that schools and parents, as has been mentioned, understand what role such qualifications can play in their children’s educational careers.
Both my grandfathers were tool room workers. There was no way to work one’s way up the ladder 60 or 70 years ago without embracing the idea of apprenticeships. For my family, it was a huge way to move forward. We talk about social mobility; apprenticeships were critical to families such as mine in the black country all those years ago.
In the drive to increase university participation—I was incredibly fortunate to be part of it, as one of the first people in my family to go to university; the London School of Economics, a fabulous university, set me up for life—we have, in many ways, marginalised the further education that my grandfathers’ generation so valued. I urge the Minister to share with us, perhaps today, how he anticipates the Government working with not only schools, but parents, to encourage them to understand how vocational qualifications can fit their children with the right skills for life and help in retraining us all, as we work for much longer and have one, two or three different careers.
My second point relates to the importance of building business into a vocational educational approach. The reason why we in Basingstoke have been so successful in driving forward apprenticeships is our links with local businesses. My local college has taken that to such a degree that it is developing a work-based university centre to deliver degree-level apprenticeships in digital engineering and the construction industries. It has an employer advisory board, which includes the likes of Sony and the Atomic Weapons Establishment—I am fortunate to represent one of the top 10 centres for employment in the south-east, and many such household names are local employers. I applaud the work that Anthony Bravo is doing on the degree-level apprenticeship, because such developments can help to build further education’s credentials.
My third point picks up on some of the funding concerns that other Members have raised. If we want to encourage people to see further education as a viable option, they need the confidence that the funding is there. On a slightly different note, the Minister will remember the conversation he had with me and Anthony Bravo about the funding issues around apprenticeships, and I hope he has been able to make progress in removing some of the uncertainty, which, as we discussed, was creating delays in expanding the number of apprenticeships.
In conclusion, education is all about fulfilling the potential of every citizen in the country. It is the reason why I became a Member of Parliament, and why I am fascinated by the issues we are discussing today. Vocational qualifications have a huge part to play in getting young people on to a career ladder and in helping us all to stay in a lifelong programme of employment. The country faces a productivity gap, which we need to address head on, and although infrastructure investment and better ways of trading with other nations are important, skills are central. The Minister knows that and in him we have an effective champion in the Government. I look forward to hearing his thoughts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this important debate and on raising vocational education’s profile in Parliament. I cannot claim to have been a college principal, but I can claim to have studied a BTEC ordinary national certificate in engineering, which is probably as rare as hen’s teeth in this place.
I do not think there is any possible response to that.
As a result of my background, I am a passionate supporter of further education. Warwickshire College, whose headquarters are in my constituency, is one of the best such colleges in the country. It has six centres across Warwickshire and Worcestershire, with more than 15,500 students attending each year. It offers more than 1,000 courses across 20 different subject areas, including management. It has the highest enrolment among 16 to 18-year-old students and one of the highest success rates among larger FE colleges in the country.
To its credit, the college has developed strong links with employers. As result, it trains more than 1,750 apprentices every year in a variety of sectors, from agriculture and farriery to construction and digital media—an area that colleges are beginning to embrace with open arms. The college offers a broad range of courses and subject areas, and it is, importantly, addressing two national skill shortage areas.
Capital investments of more than £10 million mean that two important projects—in horticulture and engineering—will be completed by September, ready for students attending from the start of the academic year. As part of the college’s expansion and development, a new engineering building is being constructed at Warwick’s Trident College. The new complex will comprise specialist engineering workshops, 12 teaching labs, three computer labs and three specialist, tailored engineering technology labs. The aim is to create the capacity to meet demand for an additional 285 advanced and 253 higher apprenticeships in the manufacturing, mechanical, electrical, electronic, automotive and product-creation sectors, providing skills the country desperately needs.
There have been fantastic achievements in terms of the number of students who progress directly into higher education, although that is not the essential goal. To mention just a few examples, the number in agriculture is 95%; in construction, it is 94%; and in computing and IT, it is an astonishing 99%.
As parliamentarians, we must discourage the perception that further education is a second-tier choice—to be taken up only if one’s first preference has not been achieved. In fact, FE is quite the reverse. Many students now see the benefits of a practical and vocational education that provides them with the skills and real-life work experience they need to get on.
Links with business are key for the FE sector. Businesses can recruit from colleges, but they can also help them financially and practically as they tailor courses to the needs of business and the wider workforce. For the last 18 months, for example, the college has been involved in the trailblazer apprenticeship scheme, which allows employers—in this case, Jaguar Land Rover—to partner with the college to reform apprenticeship frameworks and ensure that they are the best training for future employees. In engineering, the college also has links with more than 40 small and medium-sized enterprises, with the aim of increasing that to 65.
Nationally, support from the Government is essential. The Government have done a great deal over the last five years to invest in vocational education. Two million apprenticeships were started during the last Parliament, and I fully support the aim of delivering 3 million by 2020. Businesses can also support vocational education. As I mentioned, encouraging them to partner with colleges and other FE providers benefits all concerned.
We must work hard to ensure that vocational education’s contribution to the economy is more widely acknowledged and that there is appropriate recognition for vocational education. We must commit to working towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications by continuing to raise the standards and promote the benefits of vocational education.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger, for a Westminster Hall debate early in the new Session. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this interesting and important debate to celebrate national Vocational Qualifications Day.
Romsey and Southampton North is quite unusual in that within the constituency there is no 16-to-18 state sector provision, which means that those in that age range are effectively exported out. That is sometimes seen as a negative, but I regard it as something of a benefit, because it gives me the opportunity to work with a range of college principals, albeit at the edge of my constituency.
For example, I am an advisory governor at the further education college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies). For many years I have been invited annually to Eastleigh College to present the awards at its apprenticeship celebration event. That is exactly the sort of initiative that we want to happen everywhere, to celebrate the apprentices and their achievements, as well as the achievements of the employers who have taken the plunge and taken apprentices on. Many employers arrive annually having been nominated by their apprentices for the brilliant experience that they give young people in the Hampshire area.
We want more vocational qualifications and more high- quality apprenticeships. It is crucial that apprenticeships should provide the quality training that young people deserve. I have been pleased over the past nearly 12 months to have a business administration apprentice in my office. That has been a learning curve for us and for her. I hope that she has benefited from the experience. I guess we will know about that at the end of it, and I hope that she will get a good certificate, which she will be able to take to future employers, or potentially to university. We have a responsibility to practise what we preach, and that was one reason for my taking on an apprentice. I was struck by Eastleigh College’s determination to promote its provision and to make things as easy as possible for the employer. That is crucial. Sometimes there are far too many barriers, although many are perceived rather than real.
The hon. Lady is right that taking on an apprentice—and I have taken on two so far in my current role—helps to educate us as employers about the challenges in taking on such a responsibility. It is hugely rewarding, and we should celebrate the employers’ role.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Taking on apprentices is great for us, for the employers, and for the economy and everyone else. I have long held that the first rung on the employment ladder is the hardest, and that is why vocational qualifications are so important. They provide a fantastic bridge from school to work. Whether they be tech-levels or technical awards, and at whatever age they are achieved, we need the suite of qualifications of which they are part to be attractive and available to students, and we need it to have parity of esteem, as various hon. Members have said.
Life is about more than a clutch of good GCSEs. It is about acquiring the life skills necessary to make the transition to the world of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the soft skills that can be obtained from work experience and vocational qualifications—whether in retail, catering or the example that he used of sport. Such opportunities can also build confidence, which is important for young people who too often have just experienced the classroom, and who lack the interaction that they will need in later life to play a constructive role in the world of work.
Southampton has some great vocational qualification providers, such as City College in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and the Southampton Engineering Training Association, which I enjoyed visiting last summer for its annual presentation and celebration evening. There are hundreds of courses for thousands of students, which all provide obvious and successful routes into work. City College makes much of the fact that its young people who undertake vocational qualifications often go on to be self-employed. They will be small business owners, employing other people. We need to encourage that, because if every small business employed one more person we would have zero unemployment.
At the SETA evening, 70 young men and one girl received engineering qualifications. We still have an enormous amount of work to do to encourage young women to take up engineering qualifications and follow that vocational route. We must make sure that, just as GCSE and A-level results are celebrated annually in local papers, when we see young people with brilliant achievements and fantastic certificates, there is also an opportunity to celebrate just as vehemently and vigorously those who get vocational qualifications. It is great to see exactly that happening on the website of the Edge Foundation, but I would love to see more of it in my local paper.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) made a point about careers advice, which is crucial. In my constituency there are some great examples of best practice, with opportunities to expand on career options and choices. The Romsey School has done brilliant work, particularly with young girls, on vocational qualifications. They set up their own beauty studio in the school, to try to get across the message that science qualifications are needed to go on vocational courses in beauty and hairdressing. That was a practical way of conveying to girls the importance of continuing with science studies, when perhaps they were not finding them that interesting.
Just up the road is The Mountbatten School, which has done brilliant work linking up with local businesses. That is crucial; we must have such opportunities to bring companies into schools, so that young people can see the opportunities and the range of jobs out there. I take part annually in what The Mountbatten School refers to as its enrichment day. The poor year 10 children have to do a mock interview with me. They appeared slightly horrified the first year I did it, because they were used to doing it with their teachers, but the event has expanded every year, and the school now brings in the Rotary Club and eminent members of the local chamber of commerce. The children are confronted with real live employers and they go through a real interview, so they understand how tough it can be to make that important first impression. We must make sure that 14-year-olds make the right decisions about their future, based on what they want, enjoy and are interested in, and that they avoid the age-old problem of choosing to do exactly what their friends are doing.
I congratulate the Edge Foundation, which has done great work on establishing, celebrating and promoting VQ Day. It plays a crucial part in reinforcing parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. In the words of Lord Baker,
“By 2022, 90% of the most in-demand job areas will be accessible through technical, practical and vocational learning.”
That gives a very clear steer about the scale of the opportunity, and we must make sure that we grab it with both hands.
Today I have given some local examples of best practice throughout Hampshire, and there are others throughout the country. We need to celebrate and promote them, and make sure that they are rolled out across the country.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing the debate. I was of course very disappointed at his re-election to the House, but I notice that he is back with an increased majority; that is a testament to the work that he has put in, in his constituency. He reminded us of some of the reasons for his re-election by making an excellent speech in an excellent debate.
I want to add a word of praise and congratulation to the organisers of Vocational Qualifications Day. The wisdom of the hon. Member for Stroud in securing the debate has been much in evidence as we have listened to a wide range of excellent speeches. It can be seen, at the beginning of the present Parliament, that there is great interest in this field of policy, and a shared agenda across the House for strengthening it and moving it forward. We all know how important it is to our economic future.
I also congratulate the Minister. I am disappointed that he is doing the job and I am not; but there is no better member of his party to serve in that role. He has taken a huge interest in the subject and has bothered to spend a great deal of time in colleges, talking to students, teachers and principals. I hope that he will bring energy to the brief, and maintain and sustain it in the months and hopefully years ahead. What this field of policy needs above anything else is stability, and I very much hope that he will provide that. For my part, I will provide the Minister with all the support and scrutiny that he has enjoyed over the last year. When he does well, he will get hymns of praise, and when he does badly he will get a forensic verbal assault here and elsewhere. I hope that the hymns of praise greatly outnumber the words of verbal assault.
However, I will start where the hon. Member for Stroud started: I too welcome the fact that, rather belatedly, the Chancellor has woken up to the grave productivity crisis that our country confronts. The truth is that we have the worst productivity record in the G7. There is something like a 20% productivity gap between ourselves and our major competitors, and it is not getting better; it is getting worse. We have to ask ourselves what it is about this country today that means that despite our long history of genius and innovation on these islands, what the rest of the G7 finishes making on a Thursday afternoon takes us until the end of Friday to get done. If we want to break out of the cost-of-living challenges that many families still confront, we have to earn more as a country, and skills are absolutely at the core of that problem.
I look forward to the Chancellor putting his money where his mouth is in the Budget later in the parliamentary Session, because of course setting out a Budget that seeks to raise UK productivity is incompatible with further withdrawing money from skills and from the Minister’s domain.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not implying that workers in this country do not work as hard as workers elsewhere. Perhaps he will agree that, when considering productivity, he cannot ignore either the figures on congestion on our roads or the need for us to trade more broadly as a nation.
That is absolutely right. The right hon. Lady helpfully points to the fact that global competition is intensifying, and if we are to improve our performance in trade markets in which we have been losing market share during the last four or five years, we will have to raise our game. Skills are absolutely at the core of that, because there is a risk, given the pattern of economic development over that time, that our country is becoming a cheap labour economy. About 80% to 85% of the jobs that have been created have been low-paid jobs, which is a problem if we are to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis that we are trapped in. There are not necessarily the column inches devoted to this issue that there should be; The Economist has done a good job, as has Nigel Nelson of the Sunday People, in highlighting the risk associated with this change.
We have to look hard at the competition that we are up against. When the programme for international student assessment results in Shanghai are so much better than ours, when China is about to spend more on science than the whole of Europe put together and when four out of the top 10 global tech firms are Asian, we can see how the battle for good jobs will intensify over the next 10 years, and the risk is that we will lose it. We will not beat the global competition without a much bigger and bolder plan to improve the skills of our country in the years ahead.
Of course, that situation has particular consequences for not only families but young people. All of us now serve the younger generation, which is the first generation in a century that is worse off than the generation that came before it. Social mobility is, in effect, going into reverse; none of us can be proud of that, and all of us must want to alter it. Young people in particular desperately need breakthroughs in this policy area, and I know that the Minister is absolutely focused on it, like a laser.
I hope that the Minister will use this debate and this great day to begin telling us a bit about an ambitious vision for system reform—reform that is evolutionary, perhaps, but revolutionary in scale. The truth is that although we talk about a system of technical education in this country, we do not have a system worthy of the name. We have a piecemeal, ad hoc system of institutions, exams and funding entitlements that are yoked together, often in a very rudimentary way. That does not allow young people from the age of 14 a clear line of sight for a technical education career that goes up to the degree level of skill, which many hon. Members have talked about, celebrated and underlined as being critically important.
In his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) forensically exposed the inadequacies of the current system. If I might be so bold, I will throw a few suggestions on to the pile that hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Stroud, have given us this afternoon. In our schools, there has to be a bigger and bolder effort to expose more 14-year-olds to technical education. That is why I support many of the reforms pioneered by Lord Baker. I hope that the Minister, with his colleagues at the Department for Education, can continue to lobby for practical and empirical subjects.
I hope that we make serious progress in building a stronger careers service during this Parliament. I think it was the CBI, of all organisations, that said before the election that the careers service in this country was “on life support”. That situation will not help us to compete with the global competition that we now confront. Although small amounts of money were offered before the election, the Minister will know, and in his heart believe, that that was not a solution to the problem, given its scale. We need a radical increase in apprenticeships; I am glad that there is all-party consensus on that. The Minister will know that we intend to focus constantly on ensuring that quantity does not come at the expense of quality. Quite simply, there is no point in putting our people on to programmes that do not genuinely equip them with the skills to compete globally. I know that he, too, cares about that issue passionately.
However, the bigger and more complicated question is about the whole system of qualifications, entitlements and funding arrangements for our constituents who are aged between 18 and 24. At the moment, there is not a smooth pathway on a technical education track for our constituents in that age range. There are entitlements to maintenance, which stop at the age of 18 but restart at the age of 24, with the availability of advanced learning loans. The funding entitlements for colleges differ according to whether their students are under 18, between 18 and 24, or over 24. There is a quagmire of qualifications. There are too many qualifications; they are too disjointed; they are delivered at far more cost in England than in Scotland; and, frankly, the whole field of technical qualifications needs a good root-and-branch review. I know that there has already been some simplification of the system, but we have much further to go.
Crucially, there must be a revolution in the collaboration between further education and higher education. Hon. Members made some very good contributions this afternoon about the need to join those systems up. It is not good enough that just 2% or 3% of apprentices go on to degree-level skills; we will not compete globally if that situation continues. There have been some welcome advances, which I know the Minister helped to drive through before the election, but there must be a revolution in the number of apprentices going on to degree-level skills. Apprenticeships should be a route to the top in the same way that doing A-levels and going to university is. At the moment, I believe that many people are not taking the apprenticeship route because they know that the ladder only goes so far up the wall. We want an apprenticeship to be a fast track to the top, in the same way that a degree at a good university is.
I know that all of this work will be detailed and involved, and there are few better minds than that of the Minister to puzzle all of it through. However, his bigger challenge will of course be the funding settlement that he will have to contend with. As the last Government put up our national debt to £1.5 trillion, this Government will have to deliver some savings. I hope that they will also sensibly raise some taxes from those who can afford to pay just a little bit more. The Budget will tell us more.
If we are to close the productivity gap that our country confronts, we must support technical education in a radically new way. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe made an excellent point when he sounded the alarm about the 24% cut in adult skills delivered in-year.
During the many visits he made before the election, the Minister will have been lobbied about some colleges now being unviable. I know this because I visited many colleges after him. Some colleges are at risk of falling over without urgent action this year. On top of that, a third of the cuts announced by the Chancellor last week are set to hit the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education. Many colleges are already on the brink. The Minister will have to move fast with his colleagues at the Treasury to ensure that colleges do not fall over and become unviable, despite the Chancellor saying that we need to fix the productivity gap, and many in this House saying, “Look, technical education is key to this.”
The Minister will also want to, or have to, consider other funding pressures, including the performance of advanced learning loans for those over 24, because they are vastly underperforming at the moment. There has to be a sevenfold increase in the number of people taking up these loans if the budget is to be consumed. I want to put on record my thanks and congratulations to the Association of Colleges and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education for their work in consistently highlighting this risk.
I hope that the Minister shows us a little bit of leg this afternoon as regards his plans for system reform. We famously designed a wonderful system of technical education for the new Germany after the war, but forgot to implement a similar blueprint for our own country. Perhaps it is time to move on and introduce system changes of our own. I hope that the Minister can tell us about those changes. I hope that he can say a bit more about his ambitious plans to devolve control over skills to local authorities, and particularly city regions. Many people throughout the country told me that they would not have had to contend with a 24% cut to the adult skills budget this year if they had just been given the budget they were entitled to and were allowed to make decisions about priorities much more locally.
I hope that the Minister tells about his conversations with the new Minister for Universities and Science, whose father was rather unfair in attacking his lack of exposure to science as a young man. I have always found that new Minister a thoughtful, clever and progressive individual. I hope that the Minister here today and the new Minister in BIS will make a good double act, because, heaven knows, there is an awful lot of work to do.
Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship during my first outing in Westminster Hall since the election and my reappointment as Skills Minister.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this important debate. He congratulated the Edge Foundation on setting up this day of celebration of all that is good in technical and professional education, and all those people, young and not so young, who take advantage of those opportunities to secure qualifications that enrich their lives and promote their careers. This is an excellent debate with which to kick off the deliberations in this five-year Parliament. Technical and professional education has an important role to play in making our economy more productive and providing opportunities for all people in all parts of the country.
Before getting into the meat of my argument, I want to deal with a few issues raised by hon. Members. First, it is important to say that the 24% cut in the adult skills budget—in the allocations offered to colleges and providers —is obviously an average figure and, more importantly, relates to the non-apprenticeship portion of the adult skills budget. It does not take a genius to work out that if the overall scale of a budget is reduced and the size of an important element in it is doubled, there will be larger reductions in what is left. Even I could work it out. That is what has happened to the non-apprenticeship portion of the adult skills budget. We have reduced the overall budget and doubled the spending on adult apprenticeships funded out of that budget. That has necessitated rather larger cuts in that particular area.
I fear that cuts often require difficult choices to be made. Colleges are all trying to ensure that they make economies chiefly through efficiencies and in areas of lower value. Following on from that, I should like to correct something said by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the relative value of full-time FE courses and apprenticeships. I am not for a minute suggesting that full-time FE courses do not have a positive impact—they do—but their positive impact on people’s earnings between five and seven years later is not nearly as high as the positive impact of apprenticeships. We have just done one of the biggest data studies undertaken by Government, matching people’s education performance and their earnings as recorded by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Almost 500,000 individuals were covered by this study, which found that a level 2 apprenticeship leads to approximately a 16% improvement in the individual’s earnings five to seven years later, whereas the impact for a full-time level 2 is roughly 6%. At level 3 it is 16% for those on an apprenticeship, against 4% on a full-time course. There are positive impacts from full-time courses and some of those courses—not least the BTEC mentioned by my hon. Friend—may well have a higher value, but the averages suggest that it is sensible to do what the Government have been doing and shift resources out of full-time FE courses into apprenticeships, while continuing to invest in full-time FE.
My neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), mentioned the in-year cuts to both the DFE and BIS budgets. Although I cannot go into detail, because it would be way above my pay grade to do so, he should not assume that the only way of cutting the unprotected part of the DFE budget is by cutting funding for 16 to 19 education, including funding for FE colleges. He should also not assume that the only way of cutting the part of the BIS budget that has been subject to in-year cuts is by cutting funding for FE colleges. No doubt everybody will have to make a contribution, but he should not assume that those cuts involving large figures will fall entirely on the sectors that he so admirably represents in the House and in this debate.
We are at the start of a five-year Parliament, so we have a bit of time to think and plan and be strategic, and to try to build something that addresses some of the problems that have afflicted us as a country for decades. There has been a huge amount of agreement across the House about the nature of the productivity challenge that we face as a country. We have lower productivity—all that means is how much value people are producing for every hour that they work—in part, I am glad to say, because we manage to find jobs for people with very low skills who are less productive. Of course, a large number of the least productive workers in countries not too far from here are not employed, and by necessity that means that their average productivity per hour of employment is higher. I prefer to live on this side of the channel rather than on the other side, where that is so, but that does not in any sense diminish the challenge to us of ensuring that the productivity of everybody, whether relatively low-skilled or high-skilled, is improving so that they can command higher wages, pay higher taxes and have better lives for themselves and their families. That is, of course, a fundamental challenge for this Parliament.
The Opposition spokesman was right to say that Members of all parties have long bemoaned our inability to create a system of technical and professional education that commands the same level of understanding in the country, and in families and schools, and in this House—not to mention the level of respect—as the academic education system, which is admired around the world. He is absolutely right to challenge the Government in these early weeks to grapple with the problem systematically, rather than in a piecemeal way, and I hope and intend to rise to the challenge.
I will resist the temptation, long though my legs are, to show too much of them in my response to the debate. That is not because I am coy, because I am not naturally that coy, as you may have noticed, Sir Roger, but because it is a little premature for me as a Minister, although I was in this post for 10 months before the election, to start rushing to judgment. I would like to hear from others, and it has been tremendously useful to hear the contributions of my hon. and right hon. Friends and Opposition Members on the elements of the system that they see as needing to be reformed, changed or improved.
I also want to learn from other countries. The Opposition spokesman referred to the example that we always beat ourselves over the head about: the German system of technical education. He is right to say that we honourably and admirably had some part to play in creating that system, but it is also right to observe that it is the product of a deep economic, educational and social culture that is somewhat different from ours. We need to ensure that we are looking to learn from relevant examples that are, in a sense, transferable and applicable to our system. I am keen to look at—I encourage Members to come forward if they have better example—the Dutch example. The Dutch economy is more similar to our own in culture and approach than the German one. It is smaller, but it has what we would see as—I am not sure that the Dutch would accept this—Anglo-Saxon features. As the Opposition spokesman said, they seem to have a better system of clear routes through education to high, degree-level qualifications.
The Minister is absolutely right to sound a warning that it is impossible to import one system wholesale to one economy from another. The key thing we have to learn from the German system is that smooth pathway through. A couple of things have been mentioned in the debate that are important to incorporate into some of the Minister’s research, of which one of the most important is the growth in self-employment and enterprise. There are superb colleges up and down this country—not least Sheffield College and others in the Peter Jones network—that are doing a first-class job in encouraging an entrepreneurial revolution among our young people. They are a good example of how we cannot simply import a system from a country such as Germany that does a much less good job at fostering a culture of self-employment, the skills for self-employment and a yen for enterprise, too.
I thank the shadow Minister for that; it was very interesting and I entirely agree with him. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised this, too, but when people are working for 50 or 60 years of their lives in a fast-changing economy, we have to consider the kind of qualifications that are relevant by being sufficiently flexible to cope with the different employment situations that a person is likely to want to go through, which may well include working for themselves, setting up their own business and acting in a whole range of different circumstances.
My new and fantastic Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris)—she is the Select Committee’s loss, but my gain—is also operating as the PPS for my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science. If any Member here would like to come through her with any suggestions or answers to the following questions to which I will be seeking sensible and systematic answers over the next few months, I will be incredibly grateful. The first question is: what do people think should start at 14 and what do people think should start at 16? That is an age-old debate that will not be settled in this parliamentary term, but we should have it again, not least when we look at the work of the university technical colleges and Lord Baker in introducing to the system some education that starts at 14. Should that become a common thing or remain an exception to the rule?
The second question is about the institutions. We have all talked with affection, admiration and praise about the further education colleges in our constituencies, and I am lucky enough to have two such institutions. Are those institutions in their current guise equipped for all the demands that we are going to place on them and the financial pressures that are inevitable, even if we can maintain funding broadly at the current level? Should they specialise more? Should some of them focus more on higher level skills and others more on training for people who have not received an adequate education at school? What institutions do we need, what institutions have we got and how can we get from one to the other? That naturally leads to the question of who should be making such decisions. Should it be the Minister in his Whitehall office with the help and guidance of the Skills Funding Agency, should it be local enterprise partnerships, or should it be combined authorities on the Greater Manchester northern powerhouse model? Who is properly placed with a sufficient understanding of the local economy to decide what institutions are needed locally to meet the full range of young people’s and employers’ needs?
The final question, although it is only the final one because I will probably run out of time soon—there will be many other questions—is on qualifications. The shadow Minister raised it, as did several other Members who talked about the different qualifications and how badly known and badly recognised they are among parents and young people. Do we have the right set of qualifications? Have we been prescriptive enough? We have weeded out a whole lot of very weak qualifications, and I think we can all agree that that was a necessary and a good step, but do we need to be more prescriptive about the combinations of qualifications that denote a sensible route to a high-quality career and so should receive the benefit of taxpayer funding?
The questions about who should be involved in making the decisions about local institutions and qualifications will lie at the core of the long-term system plan that the shadow Minister has urged on me. While I know that he will be forensic and at times even a little brutal—I know, because I have witnessed it before—in his examination, I also know that he and all other Members will make a positive contribution, because ultimately we want the same thing: a country where everyone can get the skills they need, at whatever point in their life that they feel the need for them, so that they can prosper and have fulfilling lives.
Thank you, Sir Roger, for chairing this effective and excellent debate. I thank all the contributors, too, because the debate has been constructive and allowed us to set out the issues. I also thank the Edge Foundation for all it has done to make the Vocational Qualifications Day work, because, as we have all acknowledged, it is an important day. The track needs reform, more rigorous thought and more attention to detail. We should be doing more on productivity, and there is a lot more we could be doing to ensure that young people understand what vocational qualifications are and why they should be seeking them.
Above all, it is a question of ensuring that our education system is adaptable and responsive enough to the emerging modern economy that we are all part of. We cannot stop at our shores, because we are in a global economy, and that has a significant impact on how we should operate. The Minister’s three questions will help to focus what we do in the next five years so that in five years’ time we can say, “Britain is well placed in the provision of skills. We have matched our competitors in productivity and we have demonstrated that we are concerned that each and every one in our country can make the most of themselves and fulfil their lives in a way that reflects their aspirations and the emerging economy.” We have the opportunity to make this a country that is founded on good working practices, strong ethics in education and the appreciation of society.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered annual Vocational Qualifications Day.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of libraries in Harrow.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time in this Chamber, Sir David.
I want to set out the case for the continuation of public libraries in the London borough of Harrow, part of which I am privileged to represent. Over the past 25 to 30 years, I have had great involvement in libraries in both Brent and Harrow. When I was first elected as a councillor in the London borough of Brent, the Labour administration in the borough at the time tried to close libraries. That attempt was overturned after a long campaign by the community.
When I became leader of Brent Council in 1991, we invested in public libraries and turned them into assets that were used to the ultimate. In fact, I was almost considered a revolutionary because I opened Willesden Green library on Sundays so that students could study. Sadly, in 2010, the Labour administration in Brent decided to close four libraries and create a new civic centre library. That resulted in a long community campaign that eventually led to a community library in the ward that I used to represent reopening as a community-run library. That demonstrates how much the public want libraries to continue.
In contrast, in the London borough of Harrow over the same period, only one library has closed: the Gayton Road library. I will return to that later, because it is important in the current context. Over the past five years, the library service has been put out to tender and various aspects have changed, resulting in the diminution of the services provided to library users. When the budget process started last year, the Labour administration in Harrow claimed that it needed to find £75 million in budget savings over four years. That would have been okay, but the next day it reinstated its chief executive position, with a salary of £160,000 per annum. It then went further by rehiring the same chief executive whose post had been deleted some six to nine months earlier. It could have saved £1 million over four years—quite enough to fund all the borough’s libraries. The council has changed its view and now says that it needs to find savings of £83 million. We are not sure whether the figure is £75 million or £83 million.
As part of its saving drive, Harrow council proposed the closure of a swathe of public facilities, including Harrow’s only arts centre and Harrow museum. Of course, there was a huge backlash. I joined forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) to prevent the closures, and I am pleased to say that the council has backed down on closing the arts centre—temporarily, at least—and alternative funding arrangements are being made. Nevertheless, the urgency of the situation is demonstrated by the fact that from 5 pm on 13 June, four of Harrow’s 10 public libraries—the Bob Lawrence, Hatch End, North Harrow and Rayners Lane libraries—will be closing their doors, despite the local protests.
Harrow Council undertook a consultation on the current proposals between 24 November 2014 and 19 January this year, and found that 71.48% were against the closure of the libraries. Of course, that has not stopped Harrow’s Labour-run council from wanting to close them. In fact, the consultation was flawed, because it specifically suggested that, as alternatives, library users in Edgware could use Kingsbury library in Brent or Burnt Oak library in Barnet. I am not sure whether the council tax payers of Barnet or Brent would welcome Harrow’s council tax payers using their libraries free of charge, but there is also another issue: Barnet council is currently consulting on the closure of Burnt Oak library. The consultation was therefore completely flawed. There is a strong feeling locally that the decision had been made before Harrow council’s consultation started and that the process has just been one of rubber-stamping the council’s decision.
All campaigns against the current situation are being ignored. There was an excellent campaign in Edgware to preserve Bob Lawrence library. Campaigners gathered a petition with more than 5,000 signatures from people who want to keep the library open. Both my hon. Friend the Minister and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), visited Bob Lawrence library to see how it is used and the good work done there. It is not only a centre for reading and lending books; it is a place where young people study. Students and young people at school who do not have facilities at home can go to the library to do homework and project work. Indeed, members of the public visit the library for various community events.
The local community put together an excellent business case for keeping the Bob Lawrence library open and fully funded, with a revenue stream, and identified a number of income streams, including social enterprise funding. They even proposed taking over the library as an organisation under the community right to bid. Sadly, the problem is that the council decides whether such a bid is allowed to proceed. Surprise, surprise, the council rejected the business case without giving any specific reason—it just said that the case did not pass muster.
Those currently running Harrow Council want to place the blame at the Government’s door, but that is disingenuous. It is worth pointing out that, thanks to the work put in when Harrow council was run by an Independent Labour and minority Conservative administration, the council had a balanced budget for 2013-14 and 2014-15, and delivered savings of £22.8 million over those two years. That shows that it is possible to achieve savings without closing public facilities.
In March, the Prime Minister came to Harrow and this subject was raised with him directly. He made the point that, actually, Harrow council had spent less than its budget envisaged and its budget for 2014-5 was higher than it had been the previous year. The council has reserves—it has the capability to fund the libraries if it so chooses. There is no need for libraries to be closed on this scale.
The council has recently announced a new library for Harrow town centre, with
“state of the art facilities and self-service technologies”.
That proposal is currently being considered, but, on closer inspection, the site has not yet been redeveloped and no planning permission has been granted. The planning application is extremely controversial, because the proposed building would be very tall. There is a lot of local opposition to the consideration of the planning application itself, let alone to the setting up of a new library. The site under consideration is that of the old Gayton Road library—the proposal is merely to replace the library that was closed with a new state-of-the-art library.
According to the council, as of April 2014 total library membership in Harrow was 146,661 people, about 40% of Harrow’s population. That, I suggest, means that the people of Harrow greatly value their community libraries and do not want to see them close.
According to demographic information completed at the time of joining, in August 2014 46% of active borrowers were under 18 years old and 13% were aged over 60. Given that the Office for National Statistics states that 20% of people in Harrow are under 16 and 14% are over 65, those figures represent huge levels of use from both age groups. Libraries are vital resources that must be retained for schoolchildren, older people and all groups who want to use computers but do not have them at home.
Furthermore, Harrow Council’s own data in 2013-14 show that there were 1,104,846 visits to Harrow libraries and that 1,147,630 items were loaned. Harrow is always ranked in the top quartile of outer London boroughs for book loans and it is ranked fourth out of 18 for that period. Local residents want to use their libraries for study purposes, recreation, computer access, social activities and, importantly, to access council information. It is vital that those facilities are provided and that that continues. One of my concerns is that if the Bob Lawrence library were to close, the nearest library to it, the Kenton library, is some two miles away, which would be a long journey on foot for elderly people and a challenge for younger people as well. There is also no direct bus or train service between the two.
It is quite clear that Harrow Council cannot blame the Government for its decisions on cuts and spending. The Government commissioned the independent library report, led by William Sieghart, to advise on the future of libraries and one of its central recommendations was to increase the number of libraries with internet and wi-fi. As a result, £7.4 million was allocated in the 2015 Budget to deliver that. The Arts Council, supported by Government funding, has also allocated £6 million to help libraries increase the range of facilities they provide to visitors. Some libraries have chosen to stage exhibitions of paintings by local artists to increase the number of visitors, which shows that entrepreneurial spirit can make a difference.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my Harrow neighbour, for giving way. He is making an interesting argument and, similarly, I hope that North Harrow library can be kept open. I think he went a tad too far in suggesting that the Government cannot be held to account at all, given that potentially Harrow Council will be hit with £83 million of cuts over a four-year period. That inevitably means that, on the tough decisions that it has to make, it is between a rock and a hard place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for that intervention. As I said at the beginning of my speech, Harrow Council seems to want it both ways: it cannot seem to make up its mind about whether it faces £75 million or £83 million of reductions. If it cannot make its mind up about £8 million of savings, the council must have a really serious problem at its heart. If it offers, I will take up the challenge of reorganising its budget, but that is another matter.
As has been demonstrated, local authorities can make efficiencies without closing community facilities. The council received two community takeover proposals, which related to the Bob Lawrence library, which I mentioned before, and North Harrow library, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I believe that the North Harrow library proposal is still being considered, but the Bob Lawrence library proposal has been dismissed out of all regard. I wonder whether there is a political reason for that, because while the proposal for the North Harrow library is being led by a former leader of the council who was also a notable Harrow Labour councillor, the Bob Lawrence library proposal is led by a former mayor of the borough who has fallen out with the Labour group on Harrow council.
Libraries provide a vital service, offering people the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills and opening up new possibilities in work, education and culture. Harrow is a rapidly growing area, so we will see greater pressure on school places, at primary school level in particular, and we need additional public knowledge facilities that our children and elderly people can access.
The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says:
“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.
The Act imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to
“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act.”
Given the large number of people using the services, the extreme dissatisfaction with the consultation phase and the apparent unwillingness to look at alternative strategies, there is a case for reviewing the decisions made by Harrow Council to ensure that those statutory requirements are being met.
I would be grateful for confirmation that the Secretary of State will pursue that. I have written to him today on that subject, inviting him to call the decision in and to ensure that the libraries do not close next Saturday. I look forward to the Minister’s response to our reasoned arguments.
It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Sir David. Indeed, this is the first debate in which I have taken part in this Parliament, although I did participate in oral questions last week.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his excellent speech, which set out the position in Harrow. Before I turn to that specifically, with your indulgence, Sir David, I will talk a bit about libraries in general. In the 21st century, no one should underestimate the importance of libraries. Last week, I spoke at a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians, and I made the point that in a digital age libraries are arguably more important than ever.
Perhaps the threat to libraries is about nostalgia. Many commentators on libraries perhaps benefited from them greatly in their youth by going in and borrowing books, but they now offer a huge range of other, equally important, services. In essence, and without downplaying at all the importance of borrowing books, reading and literature, they are important community spaces and hubs.
I agree with what the Minister has said thus far. Given his comments about the future of libraries, does his Department have any sort of library modernisation fund that could be accessed by those who are trying to turn North Harrow library in my constituency, which the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) referred to, into a community library, to help move things forward?
That is a useful point, which I will come to in a second. However, I want to make it plain first that under the 1964 Act, every library authority is required to provide a
“comprehensive and efficient library service”.
It is open to the Minister to call in any plans to alter that library service if they think, prima facie, that the duty is not being carried out. It is important to emphasise that that power has been exercised only once: in 2009 in respect of Wirral libraries. That was useful, because the Sue Charteris report that emerged from that was a good guide for local authorities who are undertaking reviews.
As far as libraries are concerned, the Government have not stood still. Libraries are provided and funded by local authorities, as has always been the case, but the Government can and should play a role. One of the first decisions I took as Minister was to merge the functions of the then Museums, Libraries and Archives Council with those of the Arts Council. That merger was long overdue; when the 1964 Act was being debated, the role of libraries in local culture was emphasised, so it was important to put the Arts Council and libraries together. There is a £6 million lottery fund; it is not for the modernisation or transformation of libraries per se, but allows libraries to host cultural events. Much of the money has been used, but some is still available.
We also commissioned William Sieghart to look at e-lending. In a digital age, more and more library users may want to borrow books digitally, but it is important to get the right balance between libraries and the needs and legitimate concerns of publishers running commercial businesses. From that process emerged a second report, as we commissioned from him a wider report on the future of libraries, which made a number of recommendations. One was to set up a task and finish group; it is chaired by the Local Government Association and has a chief executive, Kathy Settle, who is on secondment from the Government Digital Service. That group is looking at real practical measures to help libraries. It called “task and finish” because it is time-limited and focused—it is funded for the next two years—so as to make a real impact.
William Sieghart also called for all libraries to have wi-fi. In the last Budget before the election, the Chancellor awarded £7.4 million to libraries to help them put wi-fi in. That answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) to a certain extent, although I appreciate that the fund that he is looking for would perhaps be wider.
Were North Harrow community library—supported, I am sure, by Harrow Council—to put in a bid to the lottery fund for some of the £6 million pot that the Minister alluded to, and to write to him with the details, would he be willing to consider writing in support of that request for finance?
It is important that such decisions are taken independently. The fund will be managed by the Arts Council and the criteria for applying to it—whether applicants should be local-authority-provided libraries or could be community libraries—will be established by the council in the coming weeks. The fund will go live in July. It is important to emphasise that the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued guidance for community-managed libraries. It is also incumbent on me as a Minister to make sure that community libraries are aware of potential funds from tangential sources—the kind of community funds that the DCLG oversees.
Much of my time as Minister with responsibility for libraries has been taken up with concerns about library closures. I should emphasise that despite the mood music provided by some library campaigners the scale of closures is not what people would have us believe. Fewer than 100 static libraries—effectively, library buildings—have closed. It is a sad reflection on them that five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour authorities as by Conservative ones. At the same time, there is good news. Lots of libraries have been refurbished and many have reopened. Indeed, some Labour authorities—Liverpool and Manchester—have refurbished their central libraries, and Birmingham has built the largest library in Europe, although that was started under a Conservative council.
The specific situation in Harrow, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, is somewhat depressing. I forgot to mention that I was privileged to spend some time with him in his constituency earlier in the year. It was a pleasure to spend time with such a hard-working local MP, and although it may have surprised some people, it did not surprise me at all to see his majority increase at the last election; that was well deserved. I was privileged to visit the Bob Lawrence library with him and meet the people working there, as well as some of the library users.
When one looks at what Harrow is proposing, a number of questions arise. As I said earlier, although books are important, libraries are about more than just books; they are community hubs. What has the council done to look at other services that it could provide through libraries? What has it done about providing, for example, homework clubs for children, or adult education opportunities, or perhaps the opportunity for community nurses to talk to people about their concerns and give advice? Is it planning to apply for the wi-fi fund? Indeed, do all its libraries have wi-fi—libraries that do attract many more users?
Are the council’s libraries fully integrated into all its services? Has it looked, for example, at how its libraries could work with jobcentres to help people who need to use a computer to apply for benefits online or to brush up their CVs? As my hon. Friend said, is the council providing opportunities for young people to study? Has it worked hard enough with the community to allow the community to take over a library? I was concerned by, and will look in more detail at, what my hon. Friend said about the bids to take over a library under the community right to bid. Community libraries are an important aspect of library services, and where the community is prepared to step forward it is incumbent on councils not to shut the door but to open it and welcome the community in.
Has the council looked at different models for how it could run its library services? In Suffolk, an industrial and provident society took over the libraries, kept them open and extended the opening hours. Has Harrow Council looked at mergers with other library authorities? Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea merged their library services a few years ago, saving £1 million and keeping all the libraries open; in fact, I think I am right in saying that one of the authorities opened another library. There are a whole range of options and features that it is now incumbent on library authorities to look at. Important though it was, the Charteris review took place some five or six years ago, and we have moved further forward in the past few years in terms of the ways in which libraries are seen, and the huge opportunities that they now have to play a role in a fast-moving society in which more and more people rely on becoming more digitally literate and engaged.
As I mentioned, library closures have not been on so great a scale as some library campaigners would have us believe. However, importantly, every single proposal by a library authority to change its library service is looked at by Ministers, and we get independent advice on whether it is appropriate to call a proposal in. Up until this point I have not done so, because a lot of library authorities have undertaken careful reviews, but it is important to put on the record—I have always said this—that I have never taken the position that I will never call in any proposal. I will always look closely at any and every proposal for significant change to a library service.
Coming back after the election, I have engaged once more with the Society of Chief Librarians, an excellent organisation, and talked to library services that are enthusiastic and ambitious. Perhaps my vigour has been further renewed—spurred on by the excellent task and finish group that William Sieghart prompted us to establish, led by chief executive Kathy Settle—for banging the drum again about the importance of libraries, and for encouraging local authorities to see libraries for what they actually are. They are neither a burden nor something at the front of the queue for cutting, but an enormous asset for councils, through which they can engage with communities and provide citizens with a huge range of opportunities.
My hon. Friend is a hard-working MP who represents an extraordinarily diverse constituency. In a diverse community, there can be no more important place than a library; when people come into a community and want to put down roots, there can be no better thing for them to do than walk through the doors of a library to find a warm welcome and a map to navigate their new life. I will certainly look at Harrow’s proposals, and we will come to a decision as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
City Regions and Metro Mayors
I beg to move,
That this House has considered city regions and Metro Mayors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the Minister to his post; I am sure that one of the joys he is looking forward to is responding to endless Adjournment debates.
This debate has excited a certain amount of interest; it is somewhat topical. We have a new Government with a newish agenda, two key themes of which I am personally keen on. One is devolution and the other is the northern powerhouse, both of which I support in principle. For England, we are largely talking about devolution to city regions, but it is wholly unclear, as many hon. Members have already said in the Commons Chamber, what will happen to areas outside city regions.
I understand city regions, because they are essentially the rediscovery of what we used to call metropolitan counties, which were abolished as collateral damage when Mrs Thatcher got rid of the Greater London Council. She was so antagonised by signs across the road from County Hall that she decided it had to go, and to make it not seem personal and vindictive she got rid of the metropolitan counties as well, just to prove the point. There has always been a necessity for sub-regional bodies of one kind or another, which was proved by the need to recreate the GLC as the Greater London Authority, with an associated Mayor’s office. It was also proved by the fact that the met counties more or less persisted in one form or another. They persisted in most areas as four joint boards or authorities dealing with police, fire, transport and waste.
That is what Mrs Thatcher did. What we are seeing now is almost a reversal of Thatcherism—the Minister may not be comfortable with that, but that is what is happening. Police authorities, which Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives who followed her tried insistently to depoliticise by adding to them cohorts of magistrates, independents and so on, have now become politically accountable police and crime commissioners—I am not particularly fond of that proposal, but nonetheless it is a politicisation. There is a promise of a devolution of power from Whitehall to what we have learned to call our combined authorities, which have essentially replaced the joint boards and the met counties before them. The only real difference is that they are indirectly nominated rather than directly elected.
Governments are often trapped into having to reinvent the wheel. There is always a need for a sub-regional structure to make the big economic and transport decisions that are beyond the individual competence of even a sizeable council. Governments have also learned that those kinds of decisions cannot be made well or to local satisfaction by Whitehall.
What is odd about the Government’s proposals is their insistence that this sort of devolution requires something called a Metro Mayor—a Mr Big or a kind of civic Mussolini—which is different from having an effective council leader or a figurehead, for which many people see the need in certain areas or for certain purposes. It is essentially the appropriation of executive power to one individual.
There is a great deal of confusion about the real shape of the metropolitan areas and the Metro Mayors. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the research that suggests that the emphasis on big cities such as Leeds or Manchester will squeeze and have a deleterious effect on smaller towns and cities, such as my town of Huddersfield?
I will come to that point later, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
The interesting thing is that this is the sort of devolution that people have requested and want. There is clamour up and down the northern cities and conurbations—people are saying, “Let’s have a Metro Mayor.” But it is a Government-knows-best, Procrustean model. The Chancellor has been explicit that proper, full devolution—devolution that is worth anything—will be on that model. If I were being unkind, I could accuse the Government of dogmatism, ideological stupidity, blind prejudice or even a predilection for civic Mussolinis, but I am genuinely struggling to follow their argument. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that conurbations with all-powerful mayors thrive any better or any worse than those that do not. Some clearly do, but a lot do not; governance is not always a decisive factor. There is no evidence that one man alone always makes a better decision than a leader surrounded by his peers or a group of adequately informed, able people.
There is an appreciable body of evidence that shows that systems that invest power in a single decision-maker are vulnerable to a number of things. They are vulnerable to cronyism—that kind of accusation has been made against the Mayor of London. They are vulnerable, in the long term, to an element of corruption, as decisions become less transparent, and to political obtuseness and people flying a kite—I am thinking of things such as Boris’s island airport. Collective decisions, rather than individual decisions, are always more transparent and more open to challenge, because they have to be argued for. They are not always quicker, which may be why the Government are infatuated with the Metro Mayor idea, but if corporate bodies are required to make quick decisions, most can think of an intelligent scheme of delegation that enables them to deal with the particular problem. Few people would argue that a President of the United States, surrounded by advisers, perforce and naturally makes better decisions than a Prime Minister of England, who has a Cabinet and has to get things through Parliament.
In Merseyside, we have a particular problem. From our point of view, it is essential that decisions that affect the whole region have proper input from all parts of the region. All voices—those of Southport, Sefton, the Wirral and St Helens—should be heard. It is not simply all about Liverpool. One person, however good, qualified and sensitive they are, is unlikely to be equally alert and caring or equally bothered about all areas.
In my area—right on the margins of the Liverpool city region—we worry about marginalisation. We are already in a borough that is controlled by no one elected by Southport or who belongs to a party that has been elected in Southport. There is genuine unhappiness about being in the council we are in, and we will make representations later in the Parliament about boundary changes. But how much worse will it be for my constituency when not even a Sefton voice is involved in the decisions that directly affect us? We will become a marginalised community.
Our tourism, for example, could be overlooked in Liverpool’s drive to boost its own tourist economy. There does not seem to be an adequate restraint on that. Following on from the intervention of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), what we want is a better engagement with the areas immediately outside the city region. It is important to us to find out what is going to happen in our neighbouring authority, west Lancashire—a district highly dependent on the city region economy, but exiled from it, no part of it and not able to join it. We need to talk about transport links with west Lancashire, and it is not obvious that having a Metro Mayor would be of any assistance to us.
The situation genuinely would not be so bad if, as in the ResPublica pamphlet, which backed the proposal of “Devo Manc”, the prospect of a Metro Mayor was presented as an option—as something in the toolkit. But it is not; it is a precondition, regardless of local opinion. It is not devolution by demand, but almost devolution as the Chancellor demands. To that extent, it has to be questioned.
I do not think these problems are unique to the area of Merseyside, or even just to Merseyside, Manchester and the north-west. The same issues can be found in Tyneside, the Sheffield area and Birmingham. The fact that Manchester has been such a success recently in terms of its devolution—it was picked as an early candidate for devolution without a Metro Mayor—proves how tangential the presence of a Metro Mayor is to genuine devolution.
Let me conclude by summarising the problem. We want devolution, just like the Scots—it would be nice, of course, to have the same level of per capita funding—but the Government’s offer, as it is at the moment, is simply piecemeal. We are leaving many areas completely orphaned. We are patronising other areas by suggesting that they can only have one particular form of governance, regardless of what the electorate actually wants, otherwise they will not get the funding that devolved areas will have. We are marginalising communities, such as mine of Southport, within the city region, and we are confronted with a wholly unproven, unevidenced strategy.
The worst thing is that there is absolutely no opportunity for the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this devolution to have or express a view on the template that the Government offer them. That is not devolution; it is imposition.
To help the Chamber, I should say that the new arrangements for sittings in Westminster Hall are as follows: this debate finishes at 5.30 pm, and the Scottish National party, Labour and Government Front Benchers each get seven minutes at the end of the debate. As colleagues can see, there is very little time to be shared between 13 people. I am very happy to call everyone, but they will have only three or four minutes to speak, so I ask colleagues to bear that in mind. Whether they want only to make interventions is entirely a matter for the Chamber.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate, which is not only about city regions and Metro Mayors, but, as he ably put it in his speech, about where devolution is ultimately leading us.
Devolving the decision-making process closer to communities and tackling our nation’s historic north-south divide head on make perfect sense as principles. Empowering the north to achieve its true potential will ensure that we do not surrender to the unyielding rise of London. I say that because rather than dragging our capital down, we should instead empower the rest of the country to rise to the challenge.
Britain is at its best when all our cities and regions have the freedom to champion their unique strengths in order to generate more highly skilled jobs and greater prosperity. Clearly, it would be a mistake to restrict the offer of greater powers to a small, elite club of metropolitan centres. Every region of the country must be free to seize the opportunity of controlling its own destiny. That is the only way in which devolution can be truly successful.
I am therefore delighted that the proposals for devolution, as we see them at the moment, will now be considered much more widely, regardless of where they come from. For me, the essence of Conservative philosophy is that it is not where someone comes from that matters, but where they are going and what they can achieve in life. That is ultimately where the devolution argument has to lie.
After the excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Southport, I would like to take this discussion across the Pennines and focus attention on the impact of the devolution debate on the great county of Yorkshire and my city of York. As the historic heart of Yorkshire, the city of York is uniquely placed to benefit from the Government’s offer of devolution. We are fortunate enough to benefit from the membership of two local enterprise partnerships, and we are strategically linked not only with the economies of west Yorkshire, but with the more rural hinterland of North Yorkshire and the East Riding.
Although it is true that parts of our economy are intertwined with west Yorkshire, our connections with the rest of North Yorkshire run far deeper. We share many of the essential services with North Yorkshire, and our proud heritage as the northern capital of both the Romans and the Vikings—as the city of York—provides us with a more intangible connection with the rest of the county.
I remember when the proposals for combined authorities were first mooted and first debated in the House. I, along with many other colleagues, voiced my concern about the lack of alternatives for places such as York to take a different path from the one proposed for major cities. I am delighted that the Government look set to deliver on this key commitment and I sincerely hope that York will be able to achieve its ambition of working closely with its long-established partners, such as North Yorkshire and the East Riding, to deliver greater benefits for our local communities.
The importance of York, North Yorkshire and the East Riding as a valuable counterweight to the competing interests of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull must not be overlooked. The new Conservative-led City of York Council, which has a Conservative leader for the first time since the authority was created over 20 years ago, has a great opportunity to make devolution work for our society and truly unlock York’s potential.
It has been made abundantly clear that the only way in which we can achieve a Yorkshire powerhouse and make sure that devolution percolates right the way through our great county is to dissolve the responsibilities for investment in our transport infrastructure. On transport infrastructure and the need for investment, we can look no further than the northern ring road in my constituency. It provides the main access to key retail and employment and leisure sites. However, as the numbers of vehicles using that particular road have increased by more than half over the past decade, large stretches of the route are now at full capacity. Without further investment, journeys that take 20 minutes today will take over an hour in 2020, so devolving transport funds to York would provide the ancient city with the tools that it needs for a modern transport infrastructure that fits the demands of the 21st century.
I will just touch on this next point, because I know that other people want to come in. If we are really going to put wings under our devolution project, we must also devolve funding for our local airports. As many Yorkshire colleagues will agree, it is essential that access to Leeds Bradford airport—one of the fastest growing airports in the country—is greatly improved. We have to get rail links in there and not just road links, as we have at the moment. Again, devolution can really put the wings under that airport and move it forward, so to speak. As such, we need that long-term approach to funding, with a dedicated rail link into the airport.
Clearly, the possibilities offered by devolution really have the potential to be transformative, not only for many of our cities, but for our rural communities. However, we must make sure that it percolates right the way through, across our great country, empowering rural communities and cities such as York, leaving nowhere behind. It must not just be about the metropolitan centres.
I entirely agree. As I was saying, if devolution is to work, we must ensure that it percolates right the way through, leaving no area or community unaffected. We must ensure that it gets right across the country, into our rural communities, and is not something just for the metropolitan elite, as we see it at the moment.
My hon. Friend is talking about devolution and has mentioned rural communities. I agree about that; I come from a rural community. But how does that link to the Metro Mayors concept? Is the Metro Mayors concept as appropriate to somewhere such as Oxfordshire as it is to somewhere such as York?
As I have said, if devolution is to work across the country and we are not to end up leaving communities behind and widening the divide between metropolitan centres and our rural communities, we must ensure that that link does work. I look forward to what my hon. Friend the Minister will say on that. I am sure that he will come up with many arguments as to why rural communities should be reconnected. I know that that will affect his constituency and the north as much as it affects mine and the great county of Yorkshire.
While we are talking about Yorkshire and the city of York, I should say that if the rural communities that surround York are to play that leading role in devolution, we must ensure that it gets right to the heart of them. If we can achieve that, we can ensure that all communities play a leading role in what I would argue delivers for my area a Yorkshire powerhouse to rival that of Manchester and London.
It is a pleasure to see you back in your place after the election, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing this important debate. I also welcome the Minister, a constituency neighbour, to his place on the Front Bench. I hope that he will be working in the interests of Teesside and the wider north-east. This debate is a good opportunity to start probing the Minister on what he will do for our area.
In the short time available, I want to make four points. First and foremost, and as the hon. Member for Southport established in the course of his excellent opening to the debate, the Government are trying to show their enthusiasm for devolution and letting go of power to local areas by insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to governance. Areas can have further devolution, but only if they adopt the Government’s way. That seems a pretty odd way of devolving power to local areas in order to ensure that local wishes and circumstances prevail. If devolution is properly chosen by the Government, how on earth can the Minister justify that?
Following on from that, my second point is that the Government, in adopting this approach, are disregarding in a very significant way the wishes of local people. It seems a fundamental principle of British politics that if there is a significant change in the model by which people are governed, the people affected should be allowed a say. Indeed, the House is at this very moment debating the Second Reading of the European Union Referendum Bill.
The principle has been true at national level, with the referendum in 2011 to change the parliamentary electoral system. It has been true at regional level, such as with the referendum in 2004 in my own region of the north-east to determine whether we would have a regional assembly. Significantly, it has also been true at local level in my own constituency. In 2001, the electorate of Hartlepool decided in a referendum that they wanted a mayoral system of governance at local level—and they elected a monkey. In 2012, after a decade of a directly elected mayor, the good people of Hartlepool decided in another referendum that they had had enough of that and rejected the model. Given that my constituents, in recent years, have had their say on which local models of governance they prefer, and given in particular their rejection of a mayoral model, why are their views so obviously ignored by the Government?
My third point is about something that was raised eloquently by the hon. Member for Southport. Much of the economic drive in future decades will be fuelled by cities, but by no means all of it. In my own area of the north-east, Newcastle is a superb city. I used to work there and my eldest son is at university there. I want to see Newcastle thrive and it is in the region’s interests for it to thrive. But I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) at the debate. What about Sunderland and Nissan? What about somewhere closer to home—the Teesside area and the great manufacturing firms there? City regions will not be the sole drivers. What will the Minister do to ensure that smaller towns and cities, such as Hartlepool and Stockton, are able to benefit? That is incredibly important.
Can the Minister confirm that the combined authority for Teesside is working well? Those local authorities are working adequately together and can work together; there is no need for a change in governance, so can he discount here and now a Metro Mayor for Tees Valley?
My fourth and final point relates to the matters that could be devolved. I would wish to see economic development, regeneration, skills and transport devolved, but I would also hope to see health matters devolved properly. My constituents and I want to see hospital services return to Hartlepool—the Minister will know about this issue all too well—but my constituents feel powerless to ensure that that happens. Surely real devolution allows local people to feel empowered.
Of course clinical safety has to be paramount and medical advice has to be prioritised, but decisions on hospital services are made by the NHS foundation trusts that do not have the support of the local population. Hartlepool Borough Council, regardless of political affiliation, is against the changes. I want to see hospital services return to Hartlepool, but there is a lack of real devolution, power and accountability at local level. The people of Hartlepool do not feel that they are being listened to. If we are to have real devolution and accountability, that should always include public services vital to the people of an area, and there is no bigger such public service than the NHS, so will the Minister say something about how local people can have a real say about this?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That integration—ensuring that local authorities are working in conjunction with different parts of the NHS, which are often very silo-like in approach—is the key to ensuring that my constituency, as well as his own, gets the best possible health and social care.
I shall summarise by saying that the people in my area would like more power over their future and their destiny, but the model proposed by the Government is rigid and fixed according to their own agenda rather than that of local areas. The Minister knows our part of the world incredibly well. I hope that he will show some flexibility in allowing proper devolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. I will try to be brief, because I agree with an awful lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said, particularly his references to the great county of Yorkshire, but I do want to talk about devolution in the Humber and our concerns about how that may go.
I start by expressing my support for the Government’s agenda to devolve more powers. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is shocked that I am supporting the Government line, but this is a new Parliament and we are all ambitious! I spent 10 years as a local councillor in the Humber, on Hull City Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who was sitting next to me until a moment ago, spent 26 years on the council in north-east Lincolnshire, or the precursor to that council. Our experiences as local councillors during that period were, under any Government, of centralisation of power to Westminster and a lack of trust between central Government and local government. If something did come out to local government—an extra power or funding—it always came with strings attached; we were told how to spend the money.
Inevitably, the money ran out at some point, but we still had to continue doing whatever it was, so I pay tribute to this Government for being the first in a long time at least to talk about devolving powers and taking them away from Westminster. For me, a proud Englishman as well as a Yorkshireman, the current structures will never work. As someone who believes in a federal Britain, I do not believe that we can ever right the constitutional settlement that we have, given the powers that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly have.
I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about regional airports. Although the Scotland Bill is going through the House and we will be voting on that—the Committee stage is on Monday—it is a concern that air passenger duty, for example, will be devolved to Scotland. For airports in the north of England, there is a real risk there. Although devolution to local government along the proposed structures is to be welcomed, it will not, in my view, right the constitutional settlement that the Scotland Bill will make a lot worse for constituents in England. That is a debate for elsewhere, however.
I agree with the comments made about not trying to be too prescriptive. I noted the surprise expressed by the hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about the idea that central Government might demand something fixed and rigid. That should not be a shock to anybody who has been here or in local government; it is generally the way of things.
I concur with what has been said, however. We do not want a solution to be imposed on the Humber. I represent an area served by three local enterprise partnerships, which are all doing different jobs but doing them very well. We do not want the return of Humberside, and we do not want a Metro Mayor for the great city of Hull. Hull is a fantastic city, which is going to be UK city of culture in 2017 and which is really important to our region, but my constituents in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in Goole and on the south bank of the Humber in north Lincolnshire do not want to be part of a governance structure with Humberside. I believe that the Government’s position is that nothing will be imposed against the will of the people. That will be reassuring to my constituents, who are very concerned about the idea that anybody might try to recreate Humberside.
Finally—I am trying to keep within three or four minutes—if local authorities come forward with radical and innovative solutions, I would like two assurances from the Minister. First, I would like an assurance that regional boundaries would not be a barrier to such solutions. I represent north Lincolnshire, which is in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, but which sees itself as part of Lincolnshire because it is, of course, part of that great county. If north Lincolnshire wishes to pair with any of the district authorities to the south, which are in a different region—they are technically in the east midlands, although in north Lincolnshire we have far more in common with Lincolnshire than we do with west Yorkshire or even York—regional barriers must not be a barrier to its doing so.
Secondly, if unitary authorities want to work with district councils in places where there are also county councils, which is the situation in Lincolnshire—in north Lincolnshire we are a unitary authority, but Lincolnshire proper still has a district and county model—there may be a problem if district councils agree to the structures but county councils do not. Although I understand the desire for us to proceed on the basis of agreement, district and county councils have a history of disagreeing with each other on pretty much everything. I hope that the Minister will tell me that if a district council wishes to partner with a unitary authority, the county council will not have an absolute veto on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. I am wholly in favour of devolution, but I would like to quote Charles Kennedy, who got it exactly right when he said:
“I want to see far more decisions taken far closer to the patients, the passengers and the pupils. Far more power for locally and regionally elected politicians who understand best the needs of their areas.”
I could not have put it better myself. He was a very wise gentleman who will certainly be missed.
One of the key issues about devolution is funding. During the past five years under the previous Government, finance to local government was reduced by some 37%. If that is the way that this Government will go, passing powers down through Bills but cutting the funding, that is wholly unacceptable. We have to give localities the power to collect the money that they require.
Having said that, I support and welcome the extra powers in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, and I welcome what the legislation could provide to Greater Manchester. I add a note of caution—this has been touched on already—about the focus being too much on cities rather than smaller towns. Rochdale, for example, is on the periphery of Manchester, and there are some disadvantages attached to that, although the city of Manchester serves Rochdale well. The Bill must ensure that the powers that are passed down give equal weight to the peripheral towns, not only in Greater Manchester but in south Lancashire and east Lancashire. That is worth bearing in mind, because there are inequalities not only between regions—those are fairly obvious—but between sub-regions within the regions. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, I am in favour of directly elected Metro Mayors. I believe that they provide greater accountability, more decisive action and a visible local champion whom the people can get behind and support.
Finally, a number of good people are coming forward in Greater Manchester hoping to be the Metro Mayor for the city region. I advise hon. Members who would like a flutter that I am 20:1 and my good wife Karen is 33:1. I will not comment on who is the better bet.
First, I want to recognise and welcome what the Government are doing. I believe that the proposal is a recognition of the failure of more than 70 years of centralisation. It may not be completely perfect—there may be warts on it and difficulties with it—but it is the first real reversal in England of centralisation since the second world war, and as such, it is to be welcomed.
Secondly, regarding some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) and others, it is very easy to find the faults in the proposal. It is easy to argue about boundaries or about consistency between different areas, and to say that the shires will not do as well as the cities. One problem that has bedevilled those of us who have argued for decentralisation—in my case, over the past third of a century—is the fact that nobody can agree on boundaries or on a consistent view. Cornwall is very different from Kent, which is very different from Manchester, which is very different from Birmingham. Each area has to argue the case for what is appropriate for Cheshire or for Kent, rather than looking to central Government to impose a uniform system across the whole country. That is what devolution should mean. If we try, as in the early ’70s, to find a completely homogeneous system, we will end up with no change whatsoever.
Thirdly, I want to make a point about the municipal Mussolinis that the hon. Member for Southport mentioned. His argument was deficient, quite frankly. He said that there was no empirical basis for the proposal. The difference between this country and the democracies in Europe and north America is that all those democracies, in essence, have elected mayors under the strong mayor model, the weak mayor model or variations of those models. We may be talking about mayors of tiny villages that nobody has ever heard of in the middle of France, but the mayoral model is well understood and there is a huge empirical basis for it. Those who argue against the mayoral model must respond to this point: I do not think that there is any empirical basis for saying that the system of local government that has grown up in this country, which was originally based on committees and elected leaders and which now has scrutiny committees and executive members, is better than elected mayors.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) that a mayoral system has the fundamental democratic advantages of transparency and accountability. In London, for example, people know who is responsible for transport in the city—it is the Mayor—but they often do not know who is their local councillor or the local leader of the council, who is elected under secondary legislation. If democracy means anything, it means that people understand who takes decisions on their behalf because that individual is elected, and that people can throw that individual out if they do not like them. If that is the case, I think that the mayoral model works well.
There is a huge amount to be said about the matter. As a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament, I welcome the proposals for Greater Manchester. Having looked at the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, I believe that there are still areas of it that need improvement and clarification. I do not see why the Deputy Mayor should have to be the leader of a council, and why they cannot come from a different sector altogether, as they do in London. That restriction is unnecessary. Why is it necessary to have a separate Bill to transfer transport powers so that we can re-regulate the buses in Greater Manchester? I worry about that, and I want to see what will be in that Bill to ensure that we get a good deal. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) that the bonus of devolution is that we could integrate healthcare and social care so that we can take decisions on hospitals and the rest of healthcare locally, preferably by this method. Overall, the Government are on the right track, but there is some detail to get right. The proposal is welcome.
Time is short, so I will try to get through my remarks as quickly as possible. There is huge potential in the north-east for economic growth, but if the past five years have taught us anything, it is that our region is experiencing disproportionate funding cuts. We need a fairer deal from the Government this time around. Any talk of regional devolution has to go hand in hand with action to address that unfair funding imbalance.
Although I welcome the Chancellor’s belated recognition that the north does not end at Manchester or Leeds by incorporating the north-east in his plans, his proposed settlement on devolution for our region is deeply flawed. Devolution should mean empowering local regions to decide how best to spend their resources in order to nurture economic growth. Indeed, he has promised to give local authorities the levers they need to grow their local economy and ensure that local people keep the rewards, but under his current proposals only areas with a directly elected mayor will be given such levers. Devolution by diktat seems a strange form of empowerment to me.
The Government may believe that directly elected mayors represent the best means of ensuring accountability on devolved decision making, but Ministers have yet fully to make the case for why they believe that to be true. I am sceptical about whether local voters will agree with them. People in the north-east should be given the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. Forcing them to accept devolution on the Government’s terms is not devolution at all.
Sunderland and Newcastle have previously rejected directly elected Mayors in referendums. The 2004 regional assembly referendum was very clear. If that opposition remains, why should the north-east and the communities I represent be denied the benefits that devolution will bring, especially as the North East combined authority has made significant progress in a short space of time, not least on local transport matters? Plans to re-regulate local buses are under way through the quality contract scheme, a change for which I have long campaigned and that I have long supported.
I welcome the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) to his new role, and I am pleased that he, at least, has recognised that a one-size-fits-all approach to the devolution of regional powers is flawed. But if, as he says, the so-called northern powerhouse is not a proposal to force a uniform model on everyone, why has the Chancellor gone on the record as saying that he will settle for nothing less than elected mayors? Which is it? If the Government are serious about creating an economic powerhouse that encapsulates all of the north, local people must be given freedom to determine their own destiny, free from prescription or interference from Whitehall. The Government’s proposals, in their current form, will deny the people of the north-east that opportunity.
I have listened to this debate with great interest more as an observer than as someone who seeks to impose their views. As a Scottish National party Member, and as a former local councillor, I think it is important that local areas take decisions for themselves because they understand what best suits their needs. The debate on city deals for England is interesting because we have a city deal in Scotland. The area I represent has a partnership of eight local authorities covering Glasgow and the surrounding areas, but a mayor has not been imposed because it is not part of the Scottish local government tradition to have an elected mayor. Indeed, in Glasgow we have a political head, the leader of the council, and a civic head, the Lord Provost. Those two roles are separate and understood. I can see the point of conflict between urban areas, which may suit a mayor, and rural areas that, for different reasons, may not.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this debate because we have diverse areas in Scotland, too. Our 32 local authorities include the city of Glasgow with a population of some 600,000 and Clackmannanshire with a population of only around 50,000, but both local authorities are set up in broadly the same way. Devolution is working well in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament’s powers have been used to address local demands and to set a separate course for Scotland where we think things can be done in a particularly Scottish way for the benefit of our people. I will watch this debate with great interest. Much detail is still to appear, but we agree that, if the Government are giving powers to local areas, finance ought to be provided, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate.
I make it clear that Labour supports devolution to cities, counties and communities in every part of the United Kingdom for a simple reason: decisions are better if they are taken closer to the people they affect. In the past, Governments of every political colour have been too centralising, which is one reason why people have lost trust in politics. Power feels too remote, too unaccountable and too disconnected from people’s everyday lives and everyday concerns. The time has come to get power out of Whitehall and into the hands of people across the country.
The previous coalition Government claimed to be localist, but the evidence tells a different story, and I speak as someone who led a reasonably high-profile council until I was elected to this place in December 2012. Education was centralised in Whitehall, with civil servants and national Ministers taking decisions about where schools would be built and who would run them. There was little, if any, engagement with parents, local communities or local government and, as a result, mistakes were made. The Government told councils how and when they should empty bins, how they could communicate with local residents and how much council tax they could charge. They told councils what level of financial reserves they should hold to cover known risks, and then they denounced those councils for not spending the same money on the day-to-day services that they had to operate. I even received a letter from a Minister telling me how and where the council should organise street parties.
Now we have a new Government also claiming that they will devolve and decentralise. That sounds good, but the omens are less good. We have just had our first sight of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which does not include any proposals for devolving specific powers. Devolution must be on offer to every part of the country and should benefit every city region, not just Greater Manchester. Devolution should benefit towns and county regions, too, not just our major urban areas. And devolution should not stop at the town hall. Tenants need more control over the homes they rent. Patients need more control over the health and care services they use. Parents need more control over the schools their children attend. Unemployed people need more control over the support on offer to help them get back to work. Devolution should be about handing power to the people.
Fundamentally, devolution cannot work without a fair funding settlement or longer-term funding deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) said, the areas that are being identified for devolution are those that have suffered the greatest cuts. Areas are being set up to fail, which feeds my concern, shared by many others, that the primary thing the Government want to localise is the blame for cuts they have made in Whitehall. Perhaps the starkest contradiction of all is that devolution is on offer only if it comes with an elected mayor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said:
“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
Surely localism means trusting local people to take decisions for themselves, rather than having to rely on the occupant of No. 11 Downing Street.
Why do the Government feel that devolution needs to be accompanied by a mayor? Does the Minister not think that combined authorities are capable of finding a model of governance that is acceptable to the people they represent? Why are the Government choosing to propose only one model with a “take it or leave it” offer designed in Whitehall? There is nothing localist about doing it that way. Labour wants much more devolution and decentralisation, and Labour-run cities are at the forefront of the devolution agenda. Combined authorities need a wide range of powers to create jobs, build homes, keep communities healthy and provide support to those who need it most, but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. That does not work, and the Government should not be putting barriers in the way of parts of the country that want more devolution.
Why do the Government not give local people a choice? They cannot end the culture of “Whitehall knows best” by letting Whitehall override the preferences of areas that want more devolution but also want to choose how they are governed. Why are the Government denying local areas that choice? I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is ready to think again.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local people should be involved in devolution and the right to take powers. At present, if they want to have a referendum and elect a mayor locally, 5% of the population must sign a petition. Would he be agreeable to reducing that to 1% or 2%, given that he wants local people to make decisions?
My view of localism is that we must allow more such decisions to be taken by local authorities or local combined authorities in the areas that they seek to represent. The key point is that the Minister should not determine such things on behalf of those people. He cannot claim to be localist while imposing decisions on local communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing a debate that is clearly of such interest to colleagues of all parties. Members have raised a range of issues, many of which are fundamental to how the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will work and many of which feed directly into hon. Members’ understandable concerns in the early stages of this debate. I hope that I can address most of those concerns in my comments.
The hon. Member for Southport accused me of the reversal of Thatcherism and the re-creation of metropolitan counties. I am not often accused of such things, nor did I expect to be accused of them on my first appearance as a Minister in a Conservative majority Government; I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. We are not re-creating the metropolitan counties. They were large, cumbersome organisations with layers of bureaucracy that often conflicted with themselves. Instead, we are seeking to do what we can to transfer powers down to people sensibly and efficiently, and to build on combined authorities by empowering them to make decisions more locally and quickly and tailor those decisions to the needs of the communities that they serve. We have been accused of wanting to create Metro Mussolinis. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The hon. Member for Southport mentioned uniformity of approach—the Procrustean approach to devolving powers. Again, that is not the Government’s intention, nor is it contained in the legislation that we hope to introduce. We are seeking bespoke deals. We are saying to local areas, “Tell us what works for you. Tell us what geographic area works for you and what powers work for you. Come to the Government and make a deal with us that will help you grow your local economy, deliver better services for local people and, fundamentally, play a part in the northern powerhouse project that this Government are introducing to rebalance our economy so that the north of England can grow at the rate it should be able to expect, and so that the success enjoyed by London and the south over many years can be replicated across the country as a whole.”
Will the Minister comment on the feeling in the midlands that we are somewhat left out by the talk of a northern powerhouse? We are home to 10 million people, and we are the beating heart of manufacturing. Does he understand that there is some concern that we do not appear to be maximising ministerial favour and interest, given all this talk of the north versus the south?
The talk is not of the north versus the south; it is about how the rest of the country can catch up with some of the successes realised in the south not just recently but over many years. The midlands have just as important a role to play in that process. The Chancellor was in the midlands not long ago, talking about the midlands engine and what we can deliver there. Devolution can work for the midlands just as it can for the north. The majority of comments in this debate have been from Members for northern constituencies, but by no means does that mean that the Bill will apply only to those areas; it will provide opportunities to the country as a whole.
I want to address the accusation of uniformity of approach and prescription. That is not what the Bill will do; it is not what the Government are proposing. We propose to go to each area and find out what will work for that area. The legislation that we want to introduce is enabling legislation: it will allow different, tailored approaches to be delivered where they are needed, and in ways that have local agreement.
Members have raised concerns about the Metro Mayor model. It has been asked why the Government have been clear that we want to require the Metro Mayor as part of the devolution package for some city areas. If areas want the big devolution deal that places such as Manchester are getting, it is absolutely true that a Metro Mayor is a Government requirement as part of that package. The legislation enables but does not require that to happen. That is because we are talking about a wholesale transfer of powers, right down to a much more local level, in a way that has not been done by Government in this country for generations. We have seen power move away from local communities under successive Governments of different party political colours, and we want to reverse that trend. We want to say, “What can you do better locally, what do you need and what can we deliver for you?” With that, however, there must be accountability and responsibility. The mayoral model has been shown to work all over the world, and a directly elected and accountable individual is an important part of that model.
Can the Minister clarify something? Regarding the north-east, where we already have a combined authority, will devolution of further powers be conditional on a Metro Mayor? I am a bit unclear. On the one hand, he says that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach; on the other hand, he says, “It is, because you must have a Metro Mayor.”
I am happy to clarify matters to the hon. Lady to the extent that I can, because it depends on what the areas that want to take part in the devolution process want to get from it. If they want the Manchester model—the exciting package of powers that we are already delivering to the Greater Manchester area—a mayor will be a requirement of it. We in the Government believe that that needs to happen, and we will insist on it. If they want something less, then we can have a discussion about what that might look like. But yes, fundamentally, if areas want to push ahead with the sort of devolution package that areas such as Greater Manchester are already in line to get, a mayor will be a requirement of that process or will be part of that deal.
The Minister has repeated some of the mantras that I think we have heard before on this subject. However, what I genuinely want to know is this: why is that impossible in the Government’s mind? It must be impossible for there to be a prescription; if the Government are insisting on a Metro Mayor, that means they do not think that other things will work. Why is it impossible to give a level of devolution to a combined authority similar to that on offer in Manchester? What capacity does a combined authority lack that a Metro Mayor has?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that combined authorities are made up of individuals who, while they are elected in their own respective local authority area, are not directly elected by the totality of the people they are there to serve. It is that democratic accountability that we are trying to deliver with this model and prescribing.
The answer to that argument is that if the reason for having one accountable person is that it will make things more accountable to the public and serve them better, why will the Government not give the public a chance to decide whether they want that template in the first place?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities already have the power to put mayors in place, and local authority mayors are different from what is being proposed under the Metro Mayor model. Local authorities already have that power, without referendums. We as a Government are trying to give combined authorities the same power to deliver that accountability for those larger areas, and the directly accountable individual that local people can hold to account.
I will touch on a number of other issues that hon. Members raised, including the question of whether this project is just for cities. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Carlisle (John Stevenson), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and the hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), asked whether counties count too. The answer is that of course they do. The Bill we are considering is an enabling one that will allow us to tailor packages for different areas right across the country. We want to see cities succeed—they can be drivers of growth—but counties contribute a huge amount to our economy as well, and we want all those areas to come forward, make deals and find devolution settlements that work for them, so the Government are making an absolute commitment to pursue devolution not only for cities but for counties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also asked about boundaries. This is a bottom-up process, and I say to him that if proposals come forward from local areas both for the powers they want and the areas they want them to apply to, we are open to listening to those proposals and making a deal with those areas. We want local areas to come forward with that approach.
The health budget was raised in the context of powers that might be devolved. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made an important contribution on that issue, recognising the opportunity that arises when health and social care budgets can be brought together, and the work that can be done locally to drive better provision of those sorts of services. That approach is already being pursued in the Greater Manchester model.
This Bill is an opportunity that the Government are introducing to rebalance our economy, to drive the northern powerhouse while driving economic growth across the country as a whole and to transfer powers away from Whitehall in a way that will not only provide accountability at a local level but allow local areas to make decisions more quickly and effectively, tailoring them to their needs, so they can grow their economies for the benefit of us all.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).