House of Commons
Thursday 10 December 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
Wass Inquiry Report
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of parts of a Paper, entitled The Wass Inquiry Report into Allegations Surrounding Child Safeguarding Issues on St Helena and Ascension Island, dated 10 December 2015. —(Jackie Doyle-Price.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What plans his Department has to increase the number of HGV drivers. (902628)
We have taken measures to reduce waiting periods for large goods vehicle driving tests. So far this financial year, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has recruited 78 new driving examiners, a further 65 are undertaking training, and another 41 have been offered posts. That will allow experienced examiners to move over to LGV testing. More than 55,000 tests were conducted in 2014-15, which is the highest total for six years.
With 45,000 qualified professional drivers needed to fill the skills gap in the HGV industry, will the Minister confirm whether the HGV driver standard has been approved as part of the Trailblazer apprenticeship programme? Will companies be able to use that funding to pay for licence acquisition?
I confirm that the Trailblazer apprenticeship was approved in the last day or so, but that is a question for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I have not yet been fully informed about all the details of that, but it is important to encourage people to take that test. We know there is a shortage of HGV drivers, and we recognise the vital role that the road haulage sector plays in driving growth and keeping our economy moving. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that there has been a 36% increase in drivers taking that test in the past year.
While recognising that there is always a need for safety, will the Minister and his Department consider whether HGV licences are needed for certain types of vehicle? Given that there is now so much automation on some of the larger vehicles, does someone really need an HGV licence to drive them?
That is a very interesting question. I have driven one of the new high-tech HGVs; obviously, without a licence, so it was on a testing track, not the highway network. I was struck by how helpful the vehicle is—it includes large numbers of automated systems —but also by the amount of information that comes at the driver. I do not think we should compromise on safety, and I suspect that the current regime is just right.
What is the Minister doing to encourage negotiations between the DVSA and staff in relation to their dispute? There was a high turnout in the vote for industrial action. Will the Minister either refer the matter to ACAS or push the powers that be into negotiations?
Across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are 60,000 vacancies for HGV and LGV drivers, but many people are unable to take up those opportunities because of the price of training. I know that the Minister has considered that issue, but will he consider the possibility of a loan or grant for the £4,500 that it takes to train an HGV driver?
I know that the industry is keen to focus on that, and I am keen for more people to take that test. The average pass rate is only 52%, so considering what can be done to increase that will be my top priority. I will consider these matters, but I do not think it will be possible to start subsidising individual licence applications; otherwise, we would have to extend that measure across the piece.
High-speed Rail Network
I have had a number of discussions with the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities. The UK Government and the Scottish Government are working closely together to consider options to further reduce journey times, and we hope to make a statement on the next steps in the new year.
The Secretary of State will recognise that Scotland has a reputation for excellence in delivering major infrastructure projects. What consultation has he undertaken to ensure that businesses and their workforces in Scotland realise the full benefits that HS2 will bring, for example through design and construction?
HS2 has been very effective in doing a number of presentations to businesses, right across the country, on the opportunities that will arise from one of the biggest construction projects the country has seen. I hope all companies, be they in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, have the opportunity to apply for some of those jobs and contracts. There is no doubt that the first stretch of HS2 phase 1 will bring reduced journey times to Scotland. The announcements I made last week will add to that.
As the wonderful people of Scotland eagerly anticipate the announcement on the high-speed rail network, they will become ever more reliant on air travel. Clearly, there are slot restriction problems between Scottish airports and London. Does the Secretary of State anticipate making an announcement soon about airport capacity in the south-east?
Labour supports the extension of high-speed rail services to Scotland. To get there, however, we will have to get to the north of England first. Why are we still waiting for Ministers to confirm the route and the stations for HS2 north of Birmingham, and does the Secretary of State understand that this lack of progress is placing their commitment to HS2 in the midlands and the north in doubt?
With the greatest charity, I do not think the hon. Gentleman can get away with that. We have been making progress on HS2. In 13 years, Labour only woke up to the HS2 project in year 13. The progress we have made far outstrips the progress the Labour party ever made.
The M6 junctions 16 to 19 smart motorway scheme commenced the start of works in October 2015. Work on the project is progressing well, with preparatory works such as site clearance currently being delivered. The main works for this project are due to commence in early 2016 with a 23-month construction phase, meaning the scheme is expected to complete in early 2018.
Several of my constituents living near this stretch of the M6 consider the measures to mitigate the effects of noise and environmental pollution to be inadequate, both in terms of the current impact during the works and the impact of the widened M6 for years to come. Will the Minister meet me to discuss my constituents’ concerns?
That section of the M6 is very busy: it carries about 132,000 vehicles a day. There are measures that can be taken to help with noise, such as a low noise surface being laid on the road or installing noise barriers. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.
I thank you for your indulgence, Mr Speaker. I am rather out of breath, sir, and I am very grateful to have caught your eye.
The local enterprise partnership in Cheshire identified this stretch of the M6 as a problem that needs work, but it failed to identify the M56 in Cheshire where major delays and serious accidents are an almost weekly occurrence. Will the Minister, while he is looking at M6 junctions 16 to 19, consider yet again the problems on the M56 and whether he can bring road safety forward in that part of Cheshire too?
That is a very entrepreneurial extension of the question. I am always happy to look at issues of road safety wherever they are on our road network. We have already had a Westminster Hall debate on this issue, so the hon. Gentleman is fully aware of the Government’s view.
Rail Electrification Programme
Since 2010, 50 miles of track have been electrified, including the full route between Liverpool and Manchester. Last month, Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, at my Department’s request published his proposals for delivering the multibillion-pound rail enhancement programmes, reconfirming this Government’s commitment to electrifying over 850 miles of track—the biggest modernisation of Britain’s railways since Victorian times.
In my opinion, the Government’s handling of their electrification programme has been nothing short of shambolic. The pausing, then the unpausing, of the TransPennine and midland main line electrification painted a picture of a Department in disarray. What is the added cost to the programme because of the Government’s U-turn, of which there was no mention in the Hendy review?
This Government are committed to electrification, unlike the previous Labour Government that electrified less than 10 miles of track in 13 years, when the economy was booming. I gently remind the hon. Lady that this is a Government of delivery. We want to make sure that the promises we set out can be delivered. That is why it was right to look at the programmes to make sure that they could be delivered, and they will be delivered. Yesterday I was very pleased to announce one of the biggest upgrades in the modernisation of rail travel for her constituents that this country has ever seen. We are scrapping the Pacers. We are introducing new trains. We are transforming the rail network in the north—something else that her Government completely neglected to do.
Will my hon. Friend say a bit more about how the electrification project, plus the award of the new franchise for Northern Rail and TransPennine, will address the acute need to find additional rolling stock in that part of the country?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I can confirm that the midland main line will be electrified to Bedford and to Kettering and Corby by 2019, and to Sheffield by 2023. We will electrify to Cardiff by 2019. We will complete, we think, Liverpool to Newcastle by 2022. That means that there can then be a cascade of rolling stock right across the country. However, it is not enough for the people of the north to wait for cascaded trains—they deserve brand-new trains to replace the Pacers that have been chugging round that network for 40 years. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) chirrups away. Her Government had a chance to replace the Pacers in 2003 and 2004, and they did not. The rail passengers of the north deserve better. We get it; Labour does not.
Sir Peter Hendy’s report followed the breakdown and cancellation of previous promises. Will the Minister guarantee that these new proposals will be implemented on time and with the cost as set out, with the right rolling stock in the correct place at the correct time?
I know that the hon. Lady shares the absolute aspiration that what is promised is delivered. It was right for Network Rail to take a long, hard look at itself, because it had been in the business of peddling promises that went out of control in terms of funding and over time in terms of delivery. [Interruption.] I might remind the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) that a few years ago his party wanted to make Network Rail the “guiding mind” of the whole railway. We do not hear much about that policy these days. It is absolutely right that we have changed the management structure at Network Rail. We have put in Sir Peter Hendy, who is an exceptionally experienced railwayman, and we have asked the organisation to think very hard about delivery. Crucially, only last week in the spending review, we were able to reconfirm the Government’s funding commitment, which means that the money is there for this transformational project.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the largest investment in the railway since the Victorians on the Great Western main line will have a huge impact on the Bath and west of England economy. What progress is she making on the four miles of track that will link the electrified Great Western main line with Heathrow?
Again, this is part of the overall proposals. As my hon. Friend knows, the western rail link is absolutely vital. It has been set out, and work is going on to make sure exactly how it is delivered. We understand how important it is. My hon. Friend represents a fine city. He and I went through Box tunnel together on a little people mover—[Interruption] That sounds worse than it is—with others to see at first hand the transformational effect that electrification work is having on his city.
The unpausing of the rail electrification programme is welcome, but the news that completion will be delayed and the costs much higher has understandably caused dismay. The cost of the electrification programme is now set to be at least £2.5 billion more than planned. As a result, Network Rail’s borrowing limit has had to be increased by £700 million, with the rest of the money being found from the sale of its assets. What assurances can the Government give that these asset sales will be sufficient; and given that the costs have already risen by 70%, what happens if they rise further still?
The hon. Gentleman raises the delivery risk inherent in all these things. This is the biggest transformation project for more than 100 years, and he is absolutely right that it has to be funded with both Government money and third party asset sales. A huge amount of due diligence has gone into that work, which is ongoing, but we now have a plan and are confident that £38 billion will be committed and that 850 miles of track will be electrified.
I welcome the news that the electrification of the Chase line is on track for completion in 2017, but, unfortunately, that is little comfort for commuters experiencing serious overcrowding at peak times. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on all relevant organisations, including London Midland and Amazon, to work together to find a prompt solution to this overcrowding?
Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy
As a keen cyclist myself, I am delighted that the Government continue to encourage more cycling and walking across England. We did good work under the last Conservative Government: spending per head rose from £2 in 2010 to £6 now and more than £10 in the cycling ambition cities. On the long-term vision, we have made it clear that we want to make the UK a cycling nation. One step will be to publish a cycling and walking investment strategy next summer. The recent spending review committed more than £300 million to support cycling.
The comprehensive spending review contained little new money: just £1.49 per head over the Parliament. My predecessors in the all-party cycling group recommended £10 per head per year, which the Prime Minister agreed with. How can we deliver an effective cycling and walking strategy with only £1.49 per head?
I commend the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for their co-chairmanship of the all-party group. She is right to focus on the need to invest, but in our view, and hers I think, the investment should be targeted, which is why the cycling ambition cities get more than £10 per head. Her analysis does not include our commitment that every mile of new road built by Highways England must be cycle-proof or the additional money for local growth funds so that cities and towns that want to encourage cycling have the freedom to do so.
It is now clear that cycling took a big hit in the spending review and that there will be little left for the cycling and walking investment strategy when it finally appears. The Minister has had the air let out of her tyres. Will she confirm that the figure of £1.49 is the real figure for cycling outside London and that spending on cycling has effectively been halved?
The hon. Gentleman represents a cycling city that I am proud to visit, but I have yet to see him on his bike pedalling past our front door when I am up there—but I am sure I will soon. I completely refute his assertion, however: we have made incredible progress on cycling. He need only drive in to see the chaos created by the Mayor’s east-west cycle highway being delivered in the city with the highest level of cycle spending historically. That is the cycling ambition target now being reached in eight other cities. I want to reconfirm that we have ensured that every mile of new road built will be cycle-proof, which is something Labour neglected to do.
As the Prime Minister told the House a few weeks ago, it is the Government’s ambition for the UK to become the European hub for commercial spaceflight, and we hope to launch the competition to select the location for the base in the second half of 2016.
It has long been believed that Prestwick airport was the only place in the UK visited by none other than Elvis. It is an area in desperate need of attention and economic investment. Will the Minister follow in the king’s footsteps and pay a flying visit to see how the Government can help regenerate that vital airport in the west of Scotland?
The coalition Government spent £41 billion on transport infrastructure between 2010 and 2015. On an equivalent basis, this Government plan to spend £61 billion on transport infrastructure between 2015 and 2020—an increase of 50%. This includes £15 billion for the biggest road improvement programme seen in Britain since the 1970s, and the electrification of 850 miles of railway—the biggest rail modernisation since Victorian times.
My right hon. Friend will know the importance I attach to the north-west relief road—the final bit of the road around Shrewsbury, which has a cost-benefit ratio of 5:4. He says that the project is going to be the responsibility of the local enterprise partnership. How will his Government work with LEPs to ensure that they have adequate funding and logistical support to carry out and implement these vital schemes?
My hon. Friend is right, and he has been to see me to make representations, with a number of people from the council and from Shrewsbury itself. It is right that this is taken forward by the LEP. Funding for the major LEP schemes has been set aside and was agreed as part of the spending review. Details on how to bid to the fund will be announced shortly.
With no news on the privately financed electrification of the line between Selby and Hull, and with yesterday’s announcement on the TransPennine franchise failing to give additional services to Hull for city of culture 2017 and providing only refurbished, not new, trains, can the Secretary of State understand why people in Hull were rather taken aback by the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) on “Look North” when he said that investment in northern transport is about to overtake that of the south? Do not those words show that the Under-Secretary is away with the Christmas fairies?
I do not know whether I would want to go into Christmas fairies so far as the current Labour party is concerned, as Labour Members might be seeing fairies in many places. I believe that the Department for Transport has been helpful to Hull in its preparations for the city of culture, not least with the improvements at Hull station and the proposals I have worked on with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) to ensure that the footbridge project is brought forward much more quickly to provide access to the Hull dockside. I am sorry that the hon. Lady cannot welcome that.
Will the Secretary of State consider reviewing his spending priorities? Is it not true that billions of pounds would be available to spend on transport infrastructure across the whole country between 2015 and 2020 if the current plans for HS2 were replaced with a conventional high-speed line running at 155 mph? Money would be available to pay decent compensation, provide improved environmental protection and faster investment in HS3 and HS2 phase 2, which should be a much greater priority than cutting 10 minutes off the journey between Birmingham and London?
I have to say that I do not think I will ever convince my right hon. Friend on this particular subject—so I am not sure I am going to try. Let me simply say that the investment in HS2 is not just about speed—a point that I cannot get over enough—but about capacity and the huge increase in people travelling on our railways. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend says that we could just build another conventional line, but that would cost 90% of what HS2 is costing in any case, so there would be no significant savings. I make no apology for being part of a Government who are investing for the future of the nation.
The future infrastructure project on which the Government have to make a decision that is of most interest to most people is that of airport expansion. People of all positions on the issue are interested to know when a decision will be made. On 1 July 2015, the Prime Minister said in response to a question:
“What I can say to her is that we will all read this report and a decision will be made by the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1474.]
On 5 October this year, the Secretary of State said at the Conservative conference:
“The Davies commission has produced a powerful report, and we will respond by the end of the year.”—
and he repeated that in an interview on 30 October. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that a decision will be made on airport expansion by the end of the year, or will party politics and the London mayoral elections come before a decision for the nations of the UK?
Given that answer and the potential for delay, and given that the Davies commission had accepted that links with regional airports are vital for the future—especially for airports such Inverness and Dundee—will the Secretary of State undertake, as a matter of urgency, to present proposals on public service obligations for such routes, and to amend the regional air development fund to keep regional air routes sustainable?
Would the Secretary of State or the rail Minister be willing to discuss with me the issue of transport infrastructure investment in south London? Proposals from Transport for London and the Department for Transport, on which local authorities have not been consulted, would lead to a reduction in the number of fast services to Victoria, and I should like to discuss that with Ministers.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the rail Minister would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. The simple fact is that, in London and, indeed, throughout the country, we are seeing an ever greater demand for transport, and we are doing all that we can to meet those requirements. As a result of huge investment, the Victoria line now offers some 37 trains an hour, and there have also been upgrades on the Northern line. However, the pressure for further upgrades is an important issue.
The Government are providing £15.2 billion between 2015 and 2021 to invest in our strategic road network. This is the biggest upgrade to our motorways and A roads for a generation, and it is adding capacity and tackling congestion.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend says, but is he aware that there are many ways of reducing congestion that are not anti-motorist? Has he read “Green Light”, a report by Councillor Richard Tracey, which concludes that most traffic lights could be turned off between midnight and 6 am, and that that would reduce both congestion and pollution? Why should a motorist have to sit at a red traffic light when there are no pedestrians in the vicinity, and no vehicles are seeking to use the junction? Will my right hon. Friend persuade local authorities to review their policy on traffic lights, and get them to turn some of them off?
I rather thought that at this time of year people were turning lights on rather than off! I know that my right hon. Friend feels strongly about traffic lights, and I should be more than happy to look at Richard Tracey’s report, but, in the main, this is a matter for local highway authorities. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could exert some influence on those in his constituency.
22. Having visited my constituency a number of times, the Secretary of State will know that the specific and complicated problem of traffic congestion in Bradford on Avon is having a significant impact on business and residents. Can he suggest a way of dealing with it? (902652)
I visited Bradford on Avon with my hon. Friend earlier this year, and I know that she is right about the traffic congestion in the town. I should be more than happy to meet her, along with my hon. Friend the roads Minister, to discuss in detail what we could do to help, but this is, in the main, a matter for Wiltshire council.
The pinch-point scheme at junction 24 of the M60 in Denton has been a great success in tackling congestion. Unfortunately, however, one of its unintended consequences has been the increased motorway noise experienced by nearby residents of Thompson Close. Highways England has promised to introduce noise reduction measures, including new road surfaces, in the next financial year; will the Secretary of State please ensure that that happens early in the next financial year?
19. One of the key campaigns in my constituency to reduce road congestion is for an M4 link to the Avon ring road, which would involve an extra junction, 18A, on the M4. Next year the joint transport study commissioned by the local enterprise partnership and the surrounding councils will look at how to reduce road congestion in the area, and I hope the M4 link will be an integral part of that. Will the Transport Secretary meet the LEP, the local council and me to discuss this? (902649)
I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this. As I have said, a huge amount of investment is being made available to Highways England. I visited the site with my hon. Friend earlier this year, and it would open up a large area of potential development, which is very important for his constituency.
Over the summer, roads to the channel ports ground to a halt, lorry drivers who were stuck in their cabs needed emergency water to drink, and local businesses were hit as Kent villages near the motorway network were cut off. The Chancellor’s announcement of a new lorry park may be a step in the right direction, but it will not keep the traffic moving of itself and it falls well short of highways management road improvement works that local partners tell me are needed if Kent is going to be protected from similar snarl-ups in future. Does the Secretary of State consider his lorry park “job done”? If not, what else is he going to do before, rather than after, the people of the south-east go through the same thing again?
I do not regard it as “job done” but I regard it as a great step in the right direction to find that level of resources available to solve what was an unacceptable situation for people in Kent last summer. It is definitely a step in the right direction, but I will obviously keep every other option under review.
Transport Minibus Fund
The community transport minibus fund will provide over 300 organisations with a new minibus so that they can continue to provide the vital services that they offer. Approximately 70 organisations whose vehicle requirements are very specific will be grant-funded to purchase their vehicle and we have started delivering vehicles to these organisations already. The competition to supply the remaining vehicles commences next Monday.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he ensure that Lancashire County Council is aware that this scheme can be utilised? It is currently proposing to cut the subsidy to rural buses and others even though it has almost half a billion pounds in reserves.
Like my hon. Friend, we fully understand the vital role buses play in our community. The community transport fund is to help not-for-profit organisations continue to meet the needs of passengers who may otherwise have no access to public transport, but may I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the £250 million a year bus service operators grant, which the Government provide and the purpose of which is to help run bus services that may otherwise not be viable? I cannot instruct Lancashire County Council, but I hope it is considering how to apply this funding in a way that can reach rural areas that need a good bus connection to help improve their economic growth and social inclusion.
Derbyshire County Council is to cut the funding for community transport from April next year, which will see Erewash Community Transport in my constituency lose nearly £150,000—a similar story to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris). This is yet another attack on the elderly and vulnerable by Derbyshire County Council, which is playing politics with vital community services. Ahead of my Westminster Hall debate next Wednesday, will the Minister agree with me that we should be supporting these services, not cutting them?
Following on from that question, is the Minister aware that the real culprit in this business is the Tory Government? They have cut Derbyshire County Council’s grant by—are you listening?—£157 million. Give Derbyshire the money back and we can sort everything out in the whole county.
We are making good progress on implementing smart ticketing across transport modes and across England. On railways, some train operators are already using smartcard and barcode technology; all our major cities have smart ticketing schemes; and we have committed £150 million to support the vision of “Oyster for the north”.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Devolution to Greater Manchester includes plans to introduce a multimodal smart ticketing scheme. Will she assure me that from the outset travel data will be collected and interpreted so that further improvements can be made to Greater Manchester’s public transport system?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of gathering data and how great it is that this devolution agenda is working for passengers in Manchester. I agree with him about the importance of data and I will certainly make my views known to Transport for Greater Manchester, which is responsible for introducing these schemes.
The Minister will know that I have raised the issue of automatic refunds before and campaigned for their introduction in Kent, so that my constituents can benefit from refunds when their trains are delayed by a few minutes instead of the current 30 minutes. When will this scheme be introduced nationally?
First, I commend my hon. Friend for consistently promoting the interests of his travelling constituents. He may be aware that from next February, c2c, which runs trains throughout his neighbouring county in south Essex, is introducing an automatic compensation system, which will provide compensation after two minutes of delay for those customers who are registered and signed up to its system. That is exactly the sort of scheme I want to see nationally, so we will closely monitor the roll-out of this programme to see whether it can be rolled out across other franchises.
Flexible ticketing was announced in 2013 and was wildly popular in the south-east when it was trialled in 2014, but there are rumours that it is being kicked into the long grass. Will the Minister scotch those rumours for long-suffering commuters in the south-east by announcing the date for its roll-out?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the south-east flexible ticketing scheme, to which the Government have committed £80 million, is being implemented. We are currently looking at the best way to roll that out across the train operating companies. It has already gone live on Southern, Govia Thameslink Railway and indeed on c2c, and we are talking to Southeastern about the right date to introduce it. I would be happy to meet him to work on this together.
Emergency Towing Vessels: Northern Isles
I have received a number of representations from those in Scotland with an interest in the future provision of the emergency towing vessel operating from the northern isles. The Government fully recognise the importance of ensuring shipping activities off the coast of Scotland remain safe. To that end, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will consult interested parties shortly on the need for and scope of putting alternative towing arrangements in place beyond April 2016.
The Secretary of State will remember the interesting and lively discussions we had leading up to the decision to retain that emergency towing vessel in 2011. He will recall that the people in the MCA and in his Department who wanted to remove it then argued that cover could be provided by the offshore oil and gas industry working in the region. He will also be aware that the price of oil has fallen sharply since then and that there is now much less activity in the north North sea. May I gently say to him that the case that led to the right decision in 2011 is even stronger today than it was then?
Just to put the record right, the conversations in 2011 that the right hon. Gentleman refers to were not held in the Department for Transport—they were held elsewhere. I very well remember both the case he made and visiting the vessel in the summer of 2013.
Rail Services: South-East
The Government are investing heavily in service improvements in this region through the multibillion pound Thameslink programme, in which new trains, service and station improvements will finally start to be delivered next year. However, I am the first to recognise that the current performance, especially on the Brighton main line, has been well below expectations. That is why I continue to chair the Southeastern quadrant taskforce, which focuses on driving up performance on these vital routes. I wish to invite my hon. Friend and all other interested hon. Members to a new year taskforce meeting in which we will discuss performance improvements specifically for those routes.
I thank the Minister for her reply and her hard work in dealing with this issue. Given that Southern rail is about to roll out a new timetable on the Brighton main line and that its performance has been so poor, will she provide all Sussex MPs with a monthly performance report so that we can personally put pressure on Southern rail to deliver?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. I am told that all that information is on the Govia Thameslink Railway website, but I confess that I find it quite difficult to find and quite hard to interpret. I will ensure that the information, which is already provided by the operator to my Department and published, is made available to members of the public and their MPs in the most obvious and transparent form, so that we can all see the performance improvement that we want.
A bit like many Members of Parliament, when I am here in London and the south-east, I use Southern rail, and I will be very pleased if it is to be improved. None of us begrudges that investment, but we do put it into perspective, which is that we are not getting enough infrastructure investment in the north, linking the big towns and cities. It must be north first and south second.
The hon. Gentleman is a good friend, and I would hate to suggest that he was snoozing yesterday rather than watching the news, because we announced a transformational package for railways in the north. Let me tell him what is happening in Huddersfield: new TransPennine trains; new services between major cities; three new stations; 500 new carriages across the network; an end to those hated Pacers forever; and on-board improvements for passengers. He might shake his head, but it will happen. He can say bye-bye to the Pacers from 2019. This Government are absolutely determined that the northern powerhouse comes to life based on transport investment, and I am so proud that we are the Government who are delivering.
20. My constituents find it extremely difficult to get to the south-east because we do not have a direct rail service to London. Will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that the rail regulator, which has had an application with it for two years, makes a quick decision?
It is impressive stuff, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend will know that the open access competition to which he refers is a matter for the regulator, but it has been quite clear that his constant campaigning is paying off. He is getting £88 million of funding for the dualling of the A160 near Immingham and resignalling for the north-east Lincolnshire region, plus the massive franchise benefits that we announced yesterday, including improvements at Cleethorpes station.
The Department engages extensively with the market to raise awareness of forthcoming business—equipping British firms with the information and skills they need to respond to opportunities. Through the Rail Supply Group, we are working to strengthen the capability of the UK rail supply chain so that UK-based suppliers are better able to win work here and abroad.
I can promise you, Mr Speaker, that my tie was not based on the original design for Spaghetti junction.
Much of the infrastructure that will be built as part of the plan will also benefit my constituents, because most of the lime that will be used will come from the High Peak quarries, hugely benefiting the supply chain and the wider economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when we look at the Glossop spur, which we are promised as part of the infrastructure plan, the biggest gain will be to my local companies as they can get business in and out of the area? Furthermore, if that work was extended around Tintwistle, as I would like, it would further help and encourage my local businesses and local economy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the opportunities for firms in his constituency, which I know incredibly well. Indeed, I have visited Tintwistle with him on numerous occasions and he has pointed out the improvements that he wishes to see. The road investment programme will, in part, help us to move towards those improvements, but the work that Colin Matthews is doing on the wider issue of a tunnel will also be important for his area.
Since I last addressed the House at Question Time, Cumbria, Lancashire and the north-west have experienced record-breaking rainfall, which has led to the worst flooding since 2005. It closed the west coast main line, but Network Rail’s orange army has worked tirelessly to restore the service and I am pleased to say that at 14.00 on Tuesday 8 December trains were once again running from London to Glasgow via Preston. Since then, rail services have restarted on all the affected routes. This Christmas, Network Rail will undertake a significant programme of work, delivering the Government’s record £38 billion investment in the railways.
Given the imminence of the announcement, I shall resist the urge to ask about Heathrow and will ask instead what steps the Secretary of State’s Department will take on irresponsible pavement parking in view of the cross-party support gained for the private Member’s Bill that we debated in this House last Friday.
A very useful debate took place last Friday and commitments were given to have further discussions on this important issue. I will ensure that those discussions take place and that we try to address some of the issues. Local authorities already have a lot of powers, however, if they wish to use them.
The closure of roads and rail lines in recent days is a timely reminder of the strain extreme weather events place on transport networks. We all remember the flooding at airports in 2010 and 2013, the loss of the Dawlish seawall and, as the Secretary of State said, the heroic response of Network Rail’s orange army. So will the Secretary of State explain why the Dawlish resilience options report, due last month, has not been published? What assurance can he give that the lessons of previous periods of disruption have been learned?
We always look to learn from experience and that is the case with the Dawlish repairs and the work that has been done by Network Rail to ensure that the line is secure for future use. Excessive weather conditions such as those that we saw last weekend put extra pressure on the network. One of the most important things, however, is ensuring that the network continues to operate safely.
I hope that we do learn from experience. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) had a little go at this, and I am going to give the Secretary of State another chance. On airport expansion, the Prime Minister told this House in July:
“The guarantee that I can give…is that a decision will be made by the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1473.]
Employers have been clear that the Government should bring forward the decision they promised, but fear a further politically motivated delay. Was the Prime Minister making a clear pledge—no ifs, no buts—or are residents who live near Heathrow and Gatwick about to be subjected to yet more blight and uncertainty?
I will not take any lectures from the Labour party on planning infrastructure. Labour was woeful at it and did very little of it. The simple fact is that we now have a Government who are more committed to infrastructure than the Labour Government were for 13 years. The simple fact is that when an announcement is to be made, I will make it in the House.
T2. I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Cardiff last week and discussing electrification, among many other issues. I welcome the fact that this Government are making Great Western railway electrification a top priority. More broadly, what will the bimodal trains mean for Cardiff, Swansea and the south Wales economy? (902619)
I was very pleased to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency with him last Thursday, as well as other areas in Wales. I believe that the upgrades—the new inter-city express programme trains—will be very important because of their bimodal nature. They are undergoing testing at Melton Mowbray and they are very impressive indeed. They will lead to a much improved service for his constituents and those people who live toward Swansea, as well.
T3. Disabled people—particularly wheelchair users and those with sight loss—are finding it increasingly difficult to access public transport, particularly buses. Will the Secretary of State consider encouraging bus companies to give their staff more disability awareness training, and will he also consider the statutory introduction of audio-visual announcement systems in the upcoming buses Bill?
I will certainly give encouragement—not that they should need it—to the bus companies to make sure that facilities for disabled people are available and that their staff know the right way of making those facilities available to them. That is incumbent on all bus companies. As for a future bus Bill, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until it is published.
T5. My constituents leaving for their holidays from Stansted airport would like to be kind to the environment and give the A14 and the M11 a miss, and use CrossCountry trains, but they often cannot do so because the trains run too late for their flights from Stansted airport. Will the rail Minister have a word with the rail regulator to restate the importance of rail and airport connectivity? (902623)
My hon. Friend is right. Stansted airport, along with local MPs, lobbied hard to get that early morning service from Liverpool Street, which stopped people having to sleep at the airport to catch early flights. I will happily discuss this with him and we can have a conversation with CrossCountry.
The committee on the medical effects of air pollution estimates that 60,000 deaths a year occur in Britain because of the effects of air pollution. That is 20 times the number killed in all road traffic accidents. The Government state that they will not achieve their legal limit on nitrogen oxide pollutants until 2030. Is this not a disgraceful situation? What will the Government do to take on Volkswagen, which has been accused of causing 12,000 avoidable deaths in Britain alone by gross deception in relation to its vehicles? What is the Minister doing to accelerate the clean-up of NOx air pollution in this country?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman has not forgotten that the biggest increase in the use of diesel vehicles took place between 2001 and 2010. As I have said in the past, the behaviour of Volkswagen is a disgrace. It must put right what it got wrong. I am having further meetings later today to discuss that with Volkswagen.
T6. Will my hon. Friend provide an update on the availability of funding from the new stations fund? The town of Wellington in my constituency would make an excellent candidate for a new station. There is a great deal of interest in it from business and locals. I am having a meeting tomorrow with those people and it would be great to give them a little more information. (902624)
I am happy to confirm that the Government mad £20 million of further money available for the new station fund in the summer Budget. It is up to local authorities and local businesses to bring forward proposals for new stations. We want them to be rooted in the benefits that they deliver to the local community. I would be delighted to review with my hon. Friend a proposal for Wellington station and look forward to working with her. We would like to get new stations built.
One of the consequences of the catastrophic floods in Cumbria has been the near-disappearance of the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick, which in effect cuts the Lake district in two. Will the Government consider applying for EU solidarity funding to make sure that we reopen or replace that road imminently so that the Lake district, which continues to be the most marvellous place to spend Christmas and new year, can be reconnected?
I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and the way his constituents have been affected. I am sure the feelings of the whole House are with them and those in neighbouring areas who are facing chaos in their homes and who, in some cases, will not be able to get back into them before Christmas. We discussed EU funding on Monday and said that we would look at it. I will be looking for more immediate help for his area, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be in Cumbria tomorrow.
T7. I was so encouraged by yesterday’s announcement that two Northern Rail franchises were to receive a massive £1.2 billion boost to rail services, with 500 brand-new carriages, that I would like to ask my right hon. Friend whether that was intended as a signal to the three bidders for the Greater Anglia franchise as to what is expected of them if we are to help the Anglian region to—in the words of the announcement—“realise its full economic potential, ensuring it has a modern 21st century transport system”? (902625)
The Secretary of State will be aware that under the current proposals for HS2, although the overall journey time to Scotland will be reduced, the journey time north of Crewe to Scotland will actually increase, owing to changes in the stock used. Will he therefore commit to bringing forward a definitive timetable for the proposed further upgrade works discussed with the Scottish Government for north of Crewe?
Some of the issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers will obviously be taken into account at the next planning round for Network Rail, but we are making upgrades on the line now. In fact, over the Christmas period I hope to see some of the improvements being made at Stafford, which will help to increase capacity further up the line.
T8. The creation of the west midlands combined authority provides an opportunity to take a strategic views of the region’s transport needs. Does the Secretary of State agree that it also provides an opportunity for his Department to work with local operators, such as London Midland, to relieve congestion on the Rowley Regis to Birmingham line, which is becoming a big problem? (902626)
Among the franchises announced yesterday was one owned by the German state rail company, DB, so can the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of the ticket fare paid by UK commuters will be used to subsidise the fares of German commuters in Germany?
If a foreign company was to set up in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, would he be complaining about the jobs it brought? I am very pleased that British companies are winning rail contracts to provide services in Germany. I believe that the marketplace works. The announcements we made yesterday represent a seismic change in the service for both the Northern and TransPennine franchises, which I would have thought he would welcome, as nearly every local government leader in the area has, most of them being Labour.
Absolutely. As my hon. Friend and others will know, it is very difficult to do that upgrade work without disruption, and I thank people for their patience, but if anyone doubts that this Government are serious about transport investment in the north and the electrification programme, they just need to go and see what happens on Monday morning when those trains start running through the tunnel again.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, on 29 November 2013 a police helicopter plunged through the roof of the Clutha bar in my constituency. The air accidents investigation branch published its report on 23 October this year and made a number of recommendations, including installing black box recorders in helicopters. When will the Government respond to the report?
The air accidents investigation branch was able to answer these specific questions—indeed, Keith Conradi was in Scotland on the day the report came out—and show that there is nothing to prevent police authorities and local authorities from already including that equipment in helicopters. I am working with the Civil Aviation Authority to determine the next steps in relation to the report, which has to be taken very seriously.
As no doubt you are, Mr Speaker.
The Secretary of State has already mentioned visiting Stafford, no doubt to see the work at Norton Bridge, excellently undertaken by Network Rail. With the advance of the first stage of phase 2 of HS2, there is the question of the impact on infrastructure, particularly on roads in the area around Stafford and mid-Staffordshire. Will he kindly meet me to discuss that?
Will the rail Minister repeat the figures she gave to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety annual conference this week about the appalling number of suicides on our rail system and the disruption and dreadful impact that has on the victims and on the travelling public?
What I told the conference organised by the hon. Gentleman, whom I commend for his decades of work in this area, was that every 30 hours somebody takes their life on the rail network. That is a tragedy both for the families of the victims and for the drivers and staff, for whom it is a deeply distressing experience, and it also affects those whose travel is disrupted. I commend the work the hon. Gentleman’s group is doing and the work that Network Rail is doing with the Samaritans. We want to see those numbers coming down.
The creation of the local majors fund in the autumn statement is very much to be welcomed. The much needed third crossing in Lowestoft will look to bid into that fund early in the new year. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that the fund will be up and running as quickly as possible after Christmas?
Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust
The whole House will be profoundly shocked by this morning’s allegations of a failure by Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust to investigate over 1,000 unexpected deaths. Following the tragic death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk at Southern’s short-term assessment and treatment unit in Oxfordshire in July 2013, NHS England commissioned a report from audit providers Mazars on unexpected deaths between April 2011 and March 2015.
The draft report, submitted to NHS England in September, found a lack of leadership, focus and sufficient time spent in the trust on carefully reporting and investigating unexpected deaths of mental health and learning disability service users. Of 1,454 deaths reported, only 272 were investigated as critical incidents, and only 195 of those were reported as serious incidents requiring investigation. The report found that there had been no effective, systematic management and oversight of the reporting of deaths and the investigations that follow.
Prior to publication, or indeed showing the report to me, NHS England rightly asked the trust for its comments. It accepted failures in its reporting and investigations into unexpected deaths, but challenged the methodology, in particular pointing out that a number of the deaths were of out-patients for whom it was not the primary care provider. However, NHS England has assured me this morning that the report will be published before Christmas, and it is our intention to accept the vast majority, if not all, of the recommendations it makes.
Our hearts go out to the families of those affected. More than anything, they want to know that the NHS learns from tragedies such as what happened to Connor Sparrowhawk, and that is something we patently fail to do on too many occasions at the moment. Nor should we pretend that this is a result of the wrong culture at just one NHS trust. There is an urgent need to improve the investigation of, and learning from, the estimated 200 avoidable deaths we have every week across the system.
I will give the House more details about the report and recommendations when I have had a chance to read the final version and understand its recommendations, but I can tell the House about three important steps that will help to create the change in culture that we need. First, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that, according to the leaked report, only 1% of the unexpected deaths of patients with learning disabilities were investigated, so from next June, we will publish independently assured, Ofsted-style ratings of the quality of care offered to people with learning disabilities for all 209 clinical commissioning group areas. That will ensure that we shine a spotlight on the variations in care, allowing rapid action to be taken when standards fall short.
Secondly, NHS England has commissioned the University of Bristol to do an independent study of the mortality rates of people with learning disabilities in NHS care. This is a very important moment at which to step back and consider the way in which we look after that particular highly vulnerable group.
Thirdly, I have previously given the House a commitment to publishing the number of avoidable deaths, broken down by NHS trust, next year. Professor Sir Bruce Keogh has worked hard to develop a methodology to do this. He will write to medical directors at all trusts in the next week explaining how it works, and asking them to supply estimated figures that can be published in the spring. Central to that will be establishing a no-blame reporting culture across the NHS, with people being rewarded, not penalised, for speaking openly and transparently about mistakes.
Finally, I pay tribute to Connor’s mother, Sara Ryan, who has campaigned tirelessly to get to the bottom of these issues. Her determination to make sure the right lessons are learned from Connor’s unexpected and wholly preventable, tragic death is an inspiration to us all. Today, I would like to offer her and all other families affected by similar tragedies a heartfelt apology on behalf of the Government and the NHS.
These are truly shocking revelations that, if proven, reveal deep failures at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. The BBC has reported that the investigation found that more than 10,000 people died between April 2011 and March 2015. Of those 10,000 deaths, 1,454 were not expected. Only 195 of those unexpected deaths—just 13%—were treated by the trust as a serious incident requiring investigation. Perhaps most worryingly, it appears that the likelihood of an unexpected death being investigated depended hugely on the patient: for those with a learning disability, just 1% of unexpected deaths were investigated, and for older people with a mental health problem, just 0.3%.
We obviously await a full response from the Government when the report of the investigation is published, but a number of immediate questions need answers today. First, does the Health Secretary judge services at the trust to be safe? A recent Care Quality Commission report found that
“inadequate staffing levels in community health services was impacting on the delivery of safe care.”
What advice can he give patients, and the families of patients, currently in the care of Southern Health?
Secondly, the Health Secretary confirmed in his reply that NHS England received the report in September, but can he explain why it still has not been published, and can he provide a specific date on which the final report will be made publicly available?
Thirdly, when was the Health Secretary first made aware of concerns about Southern Health, and what action did he take at that time? What does he have to say to the relatives and friends of people who have unexpectedly died in the care of the trust and who, today, will be reliving their grief with a new anxiety?
The issue raises broader questions about the care of people with learning disabilities or mental health problems. Just because some individuals have less ability to communicate concerns about their care, that must never mean that any less attention is paid to their treatment or their death. That would be the ultimate abrogation of responsibility, and one which should shame us all. The priority now must be to understand how this was allowed to happen, and to ensure this is put right so it can never happen again.
I agree with what the shadow Health Secretary says. She is absolutely right in both the tone of what she says, and in the seriousness with which she points to what has happened. It is important to say that this is only a draft report. To put the hon. Lady’s mind at rest, I am completely satisfied that NHS England took this extremely seriously from the moment we understood that there was an issue about the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk. David Nicholson, the then chief executive of NHS England, and Jane Cummings, the chief nurse, met the family and ordered the independent investigation. It is a very thorough investigation.
As the hon. Lady will understand, when there is an investigation about something as serious as avoidable mortality, we have to give the trust the chance to correct any factual inaccuracies and challenge the methodologies. It has taken from September until now to get to the point in the process where the report is ready to be published. I have been assured by Jane Cummings this morning that it will be published before Christmas. We will not allow any further arguments about methodologies to stand in the way of the report being published before Christmas, as was always planned.
On the hon. Lady’s very important question about whether services are safe at Southern Health, we have the expert view on that, because we set up a new chief inspector of hospitals and a new inspection regime. There was an inspection of Southern Health, and it got a “requires improvement”. The inspectors were not saying that its services were as safe as they should be, but that its services, along with those of many other trusts in the NHS, needed to become safer. She was right to draw attention to some of the failings alluded to in the report.
The hon. Lady can draw comfort from the fact that this matter has been taken seriously. NHS England commissioned a report, which is, by all accounts, hard-hitting. I have been following the situation since we first understood the issues around Connor Sparrowhawk’s tragic death, and so has NHS England. That is why we have a report that I think will lead to important changes.
The fundamental question on which we all need to reflect is why we do not have the right reporting culture in the NHS when it comes to unexpected deaths. We have to step back, be honest and say that there are reasons, good and bad, for that. People are extremely busy, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the frontline. People have an understandable desire to spend clinical time dealing with the patients who are standing in front of them, rather than going over medical notes and trying to understand something that went wrong. Sometimes, there will be prejudice and discrimination. The whole House will unite in saying that we must stamp that out. Sometimes, people do not speak out because they are worried that they will be fired or penalised. We have to move away from a blame culture in the NHS to a culture in which doctors and nurses are supported if they speak out, which too often is not the case.
The whole House will want to unite in supporting the leaders of the NHS who want to change that culture. It is unfinished business from Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust; it is important to get it right, and I know that the NHS is determined to do just that.
The allegations in the draft report about Southern Health are deeply disturbing, and I welcome the steps that the Secretary of State has announced. In particular, I am pleased that he will not treat this as an isolated incident. The key findings of the draft report show that in nearly two thirds of the investigations, there was no family involvement. Will he immediately send the message out to all trusts that it is vital to involve family members, particularly when we are talking about those who cannot speak for themselves?
I will do that, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to do so. We see this situation all too often. There was a story in the Sunday newspapers about a family being shut out of a very important decision about the unexpected death of a baby. It is incredibly important to involve families, even more so in the case of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities. The family may be the best possible advocates for someone’s needs.
We need to change the assumption that things will become more difficult if we involve families. More often than not, something like litigation will melt away if the family is involved properly from the outset of a problem. It is when families feel that the door is being slammed in their face that they think they have to resort to the courts, which is in no one’s interests.
I echo what the Secretary of State said about family involvement, which should be routine in investigating an adverse event. It definitely takes the heat out of the situation.
There are two issues here. One is the shocking difference between 30% of adult deaths being investigated, and just 1% of deaths of people with learning disabilities, and Connor represents the human face of that, which is frightening. The second issue is about individual trusts being left to decide what and how much they investigate, and what they produce, because a much more systematic consideration of the data is required. NHS England publishes annual mortality figures. Strikingly, 16 trusts that were identified with higher than expected mortality levels also had higher than expected mortality the year before, yet it appears that no action was taken. The benchmark appears to be “average”, but if we have poor performance, that average is lower. We should set our aspirations higher than that.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The 30% figure was for people with mental health conditions, not for all adults, but I question why we are investigating only 30%—the highest figure at Southern Health NHS Trust—of unexpected deaths. These were not just deaths; they were unexpected deaths, and it is the duty of medical directors in every trust to satisfy themselves that they have thought about every unexpected death. We must reflect on these serious matters.
The hon. Lady is right about the need to systematise processes when there is an unexpected death, so that we do not have a big variation between trusts. The exercise that Sir Bruce Keogh is doing, going around all the trusts, is about trying to establish a standardised way of understanding when a death is or is not preventable. The hon. Lady has been a practising clinician, so I am sure she will understand that at the heart of this issue is the need to get the culture right. Clinicians should not feel that a trust will take the easy route and blame it all on them, rather than trying to understand the system-wide problems that may have caused a clinician to make a mistake in an individual instance, and that is what we must think about.
Behind each statistic is a person and a family, and the Secretary of State is right to say that finger-pointing should not be directed at clinicians alone; it is more important to consider the whole system and the culture in a trust. Will he encourage all trusts, and all medical and nursing schools, to make the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire compulsory reading? There is so much in there that could prevent such occurrences in future.
No one knows more about the Francis report than my hon. Friend, because of the direct impact that it had on his local hospital, and he is right to talk about that culture change. There is an interesting comparison with the airline industry: when it investigates accidents, the vast majority of times, those investigations point to systemic failure. When the NHS investigates clinical accidents, the vast majority of times we point to individual failure. It is therefore not surprising that clinicians feel somewhat intimidated about speaking out. People become a doctor or nurse because they want to do the right thing for patients, and we must support them in making that possible.
The coalition Government rightly established a public inquiry to look into the appalling care at Stafford hospital, and the Secretary of State has pointed to the challenge to the culture that the Francis report engendered following that scandal. Is this the moment to consider something similar for people with learning disabilities, or those with severe and enduring mental ill health, who too often continue to be treated as second-class citizens in our NHS? Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother, has called for a public inquiry. Will the Secretary of State consider that? It seems that it is time to shine a light on what is going on.
I am happy to consider that. The right hon. Gentleman and I are completely on the same page on these issues. My only hesitation is that a public inquiry will take two, three or four years, and I want to ensure that we take action now. I hope I can reassure him and the House that by, for example, publishing Ofsted-style ratings for the quality of care for people with learning disabilities across every clinical commissioning group, we will shine a spotlight on poor care in the way that the Francis report tells us that we must. I do not see the treatment of people with learning difficulties as distinct from the broader lessons in the Francis report, but if we fail to make progress, I know that the right hon. Gentleman will come back to me, and rightly so.
Many of my constituents are service users of Southern Health, or the family members of service users. They are looking for reassurance from the Secretary of State that there will not simply be an immediate intense spotlight but an ongoing one, so that they can have confidence that the scrutiny and oversight, particularly for young people with learning difficulties, will be ongoing.
I can absolutely give that assurance to my hon. Friend’s constituents. I hope they will consider the tone of my earlier remarks and realise that we are not looking at this simply as an issue for Southern Health. Clearly, important changes must happen there and must happen quickly, and we will do everything we can to make sure that they happen. I also think, however, that there is a systemic issue in relation to the low reporting of avoidable and preventable deaths and harm, and the failure to develop a true learning culture in the NHS, which in the end is what doctors, nurses and patients all want and need.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and congratulate NHS England on what sounds like a very thorough report. I remind him that challenging the methodology was exactly the same first line of defence used by the now disgraced management at Mid Staffs hospital. Will he answer the specific question my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) asked as to when Ministers first knew about problems in the trust, which we hear go back to 2011, and what action they took as a result?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I hope I did address that by saying that the first time was when we realised there were issues around the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk. That is what started the process and led to the independent investigation. Because NHS England wanted it to be very thorough, that investigation went right back to 2011 and up to 2015. It looked at all unexpected deaths in that period, and at the reporting culture and lessons that had or had not been learned as a result. A lot of action has been taken. I can also reassure the right hon. Gentleman that during that period we have been implementing the recommendations of the Francis report, which has meant that throughout the NHS there is a much greater focus on, and transparency in, patient safety.
It is important to give the NHS credit. During the past three years, we have actually seen a 25% increase in the number of reported incidents. I think people are treating this much more seriously than in the past, but there is much more to do.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the news that he plans to accept the recommendations of this very sobering report. Will he reassure the House that anyone found to have been deliberately contributing to patient neglect or failing to investigate avoidable deaths will be held to account both by the professional regulators and the full weight of the law?
I can of course give my right hon. Friend that assurance, but there is a note of hesitation in my response. That is partly because professional standards, as my right hon. Friend knows, are not a matter for politicians—they have to be set independently by the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council—and partly because if we are going to improve the reporting culture, which in the end is what the report is about, we have to change the fear that many doctors and nurses have that if they are open and transparent about mistakes they have made or seen, they will get dumped on. That is a real worry for many people. Part of this is about creating a supportive culture, so that when people take the brave decision to be open about something that has gone wrong they get the support that they deserve.
As well as asking the Secretary of State how the learning on this very important issue will be shared with the devolved Administrations, may I ask whether all other trusts are being advised that they will now probably receive approaches from families —no doubt Members may be contacted in this regard, too—who have questions about their own experiences? Will he ensure that they will be sensitive to such approaches about possible historical cases?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. Trusts understand that that is already happening and has been happening. All trusts will have families that have been in touch with them with concerns about potentially avoidable or preventable deaths. I hope that this will be a reminder to all trusts that they need to take those concerns very seriously indeed.
The disparity in excess deaths between vulnerable groups at Southern Health is truly shocking, but of course responsibility for looking after the people in question spans health and social care. Is my right hon. Friend content that we have in place the informatics that will allow outliers to be identified, and therefore rectification to be under way? One assumes that that could easily be done by NHS England, but at the moment the informatics seem to be problematic in this respect.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why Professor Sir Bruce Keogh is developing a methodology to help us understand the number of avoidable deaths and the reporting culture at a trust level. We have a good methodology for understanding the number of avoidable deaths on a national level. The Hogan and Black analysis says that about 3.6% of deaths have a 50% or more chance of being avoidable. However, we will not get real local action until we localise it, and that is the next step.
I am afraid that that probably does happen. We all, in all parts of the House, passionately believe in and support the NHS. It should never come down to lawyers. When there is a problem, we need a culture where the NHS is totally open and as keen as the families are themselves to understand what happened, whether it could be avoided, and what lessons can be learned. If nothing else, that is the big lesson that we need to make sure we act on as a result of today’s leaked report.
It is clear from my right hon. Friend’s statement that there is a cultural problem in Southern Health and across the NHS. Does he agree that far too often NHS management and clinicians are far too defensive and end up arguing about the data rather than addressing the underlying causes, which would fix the problem in the first place?
My hon. Friend is right. It is quite heartbreaking that when these things happen we seem to end up having an argument about methodology and statistics, and whether it is this many thousand or that many thousand, rather than looking at the underlying causes. We have to ask ourselves why people feel that they need to be defensive in these situations. We have to recognise that everyone is human, but, uniquely, doctors are in a profession where when they make mistakes, as we all do in our own worlds, people sometimes die. The result of that should not automatically be to say that the doctor was clinically negligent. Ninety-nine times out of 100, we should deduce from the mistake what can be learned to avoid it happening in future. Of course, where there is gross negligence, due process should take its course, but that is only on a minority of occasions. That is where things have gone wrong.
Not many people are as grateful to the NHS as I am, having just returned to full health thanks to the intervention of the wonderful team at Guy’s hospital, so any criticism I make of the NHS is in the generality. Many of us have known for a long time that there is a problem with access to full NHS treatment for people with learning difficulties. In particular, speaking as a member of the newly formed Autism Commission I can say that many people on the autism spectrum have poor communication skills and finish up with inadequate access to the health service. I do not particularly want a public inquiry; I want fast action to change the culture now. The Secretary of State is absolutely right about that.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman was looked after by Guy’s and St Thomas’s, where my mother was a nurse and where I was born, so I have connections to that trust as well. He is right about making sure that we get the culture right. It is about creating a more supportive environment for people who do a very, very tough job every day of the week. When we have a conversation along those lines with patients and with our constituents, they understand that as well. More than anything else, they want to know that lessons are going to be learned and acted on.
I hope the report will be published next week. The commitment I have from NHS England is that it will be published before Christmas. I am confident that, whenever it is published, it will generate huge media interest, rightly so and partly thanks to the shadow Health Secretary’s urgent question. When the draft report was sent to the trust, it came back with 300 individual items of concern, and it was right for NHS England, in the interests of accuracy and justice, to consider fully all those concerns. It has given me an assurance, however, that, whether or not it can reach an agreement with the trust about its contents, the report will be published before Christmas.
Sir Robert Francis’s report “Freedom To Speak Up”, which I received and presented to Parliament just before the election, looked specifically at this issue and the difficult problems people face when they speak out about a problem in their trust. Sadly, on occasions, not only are they hounded out of that trust but they find it difficult to find a job anywhere else in the NHS, because word gets round on the old boys’ network. I think, however, that if we need whistleblowing at all, we have failed. We need a culture where, when people raise concerns, they are confident they will be listened to. That is a big statement to make, but other industries have managed it, including the airline, nuclear and oil industries. I do not think any health care service in any other country has managed to get this right. Individual hospitals—Salford Royal in this country, Virginia Mason in Seattle—have fantastic learning cultures, but I want the NHS to be the first whole health economy to get that culture right.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer to the urgent question. I speak as a Member with a hospital in special measures that had the seventh-highest mortality rate in the country in 2005-06. Does he agree that to address this problem we need tough CQC inspections, good local leadership—Medway hospital now has an excellent chief executive—and the right support from the Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It seems wrong to draw any crumbs of comfort from the awful things in the draft report, but we can draw some comfort from the fact that the NHS itself is commissioning hard-hitting reports that do not pull any punches—the new CQC inspection regime does exactly that. I commend all the staff at Medway hospital who have worked so hard to raise the standard of care over the last few years. I know it has not been easy for them.
The Secretary of State has not yet mentioned the role of the medical examiner. Does this latest tragedy not illustrate that the introduction of a national system of medical examiners, as recommended by the Shipman, Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay public inquiries and supported by the Royal College of Pathologists, is now long overdue?
People will be both saddened and dismayed that after Mid Staffs and the new CQC inspection regime such problems can still arise. Does the Secretary of State agree that, although there is no simple solution, the solution certainly does not lie in trusts adopting and relying on a tick-box approach to safety?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth saying that the tragedy that sparked this report happened before the new CQC inspection regime had got under way. The old CQC regime was rather a tick-box approach, partly because the people doing the inspections were often not doctors who could make peer-review judgments about the quality of services. If someone is not a doctor, there is a tendency to want to tick yes or no in reply to a question rather than to deal with the underlying issues. Having judgment in our inspections will be a very important step forward.
I think it is tragic when anyone has to resort to the courts to get justice. Sara Ryan is one of many who have had to go to huge out-of-pocket expenses to get justice and the truth with respect to their loved ones. Last week, I went to the launch of James Titcombe’s book. He campaigned for years and years to get justice and the truth about the death of his son, Joshua. That is exactly what we have to change.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the draft report also covers the Southern Health Foundation community-based mental health services for adults? That received a “good” in the CQC report published in February 2015. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the CQC report was rigorous enough?
I believe it does cover the mental health services for adults, but I will check and write to my hon. Friend. When the CQC does its inspections, it is important for it to inspect individual elements of what a trust does, and it gives different ratings to different parts. We need to recognise that even within one trust it is possible to have big variations in the quality of care. As I say, I will look further into this and write to my hon. Friend.
The Secretary of State rightly mentions the fact that the culture needs to change so that people can be more uninhibited about talking about the problems they face within trusts and hospitals. May I remind him that the culture is set from the top? I therefore invite him to come to the Dispatch Box again and inform the families and the House when Ministers first knew that there were problems in this trust.
I think this is now the third time I have said it, but the answer is that Connor Sparrowhawk’s tragic death happened in July 2013. Sara Ryan then campaigned bravely. As always on these occasions, it started with a local process where concerns were raised with the trust. The matter was escalated to NHS England in early 2014 when David Nicholson, the chief executive, and Jane Cummings, the chief nurse, got involved. Ministers were kept informed throughout, and that was the point at which Mazars—[Interruption.] I have just said that Ministers were kept informed of what NHS England was doing throughout, but that was the point at which the report by Mazars was commissioned. It is a very thorough report, and we will see it when it is published before Christmas.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 14 December—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a European document relating to the relocation of migrants in need of international protection, followed by debate on European documents relating to the European agenda on migration.
Tuesday 15 December—Opposition day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on climate change and flooding, followed by a debate on the Government’s housing record. If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Wednesday 16 December—Consideration in Committee of the Armed Forces Bill, followed by debate on a motion relating to the welfare cap, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Riot Compensation Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 17 December—Debate on a motion on protecting 16 and 17-year-olds from child sexual exploitation, followed by a debate on a motion on conception to age two, the first 1001 days. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
After that, we will break for the Christmas recess. The provisional business for the week commencing 4 January 2016 will include:
Monday 4 January—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 5 January—Remaining stages of the Housing and Planning Bill (Day 1 of a two-day Report and Third Reading). It will be helpful if I remind colleagues that the House will sit at 2.30 pm that day, while Westminster Hall business will be scheduled between 9.30 am and 2.30 pm. Further details will appear on the Order Paper.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 17 December will be:
Thursday 17 December—Debate on a new tobacco control strategy.
Next week there will be a statement on the outcome of the climate talks in Paris, a statement on local government finance, and—as I promised during business questions a couple of weeks ago—a statement updating the House on the situation in Syria.
Happy Hanukkah, Mr Speaker.
Tuesday of this week saw the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the Race Relations Act 1965. It was by no means perfect, but that was the first time a Government—and it was, of course, a Labour Government—had attempted to tackle racism in this country. The Bill was passed by a majority of only 261 votes to 249, because all the Conservatives voted against it.
I remember very clearly that, when I was a curate in High Wycombe, one of our churchwardens, the wonderful Ellie Hector, used to talk to me about how shocked she and her family had been by the racism they experienced when they arrived in this country from St Vincent in the 1950s—and it was not just the “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” signs. She said, “We had been taught at Sunday school in St Vincent, by English Sunday school teachers, that we were all created equal, but in England, even in church, people used to move to another pew just because they had found themselves sitting next to someone who was black.” Well, thank God, Labour legislation helped to change things in this country.
Talking of which, I am delighted that the House is to debate international human rights day this afternoon. It commemorates another Labour Government achievement, the European convention on human rights, to which this country was a signatory in the 1940s, and which we followed up with the Human Rights Act 1998. We will fight to defend that, because we are proud of our Labour legacy.
The Tories, however, seem intent on abolishing every vestige of the Grayling legacy. I predicted that the new Justice Secretary would get rid of the ludicrous courts charges, and lo, it hath come to pass. The prisoners’ book ban, the Saudi execution centres, the “secure college” —all scrapped. So terribly sad! Now the Information Commissioner has described the view of the Leader of the House on freedom of information as a return to “the dark ages”. I know that I am in danger of becoming the love child of Russell Grant and Mystic Meg, but I hereby predict yet another U-turn. Would it not be better if the Leader of the House did his own U-turn this time, rather than allowing the Justice Secretary to do it for him?
The petition requesting the banning of Donald Trump from entry to the United Kingdom now has more than 400,000 signatures, which means that we will end up having a debate about it in the House. Indeed, there are so many signatures that the website has actually crashed. I am sure that every single one of us in the House would want to say to that man, “You are a nasty, mendacious bigot, and your racist views are dangerous.” The obvious answer in the United States is simply “Vote Hillary”—I should inform the Hansard reporters that that is spelt with two Ls—but just in case Mr Trump gets on to a plane bound for the United Kingdom, I have a solution. I think that the Home Secretary should steam down to Heathrow, or whichever airport it may be. I think that she should position herself on the tarmac, dressed in one of her Gloria Gaynor outfits, and tell him “Just turn around now, ’cause you’re not welcome any more.”
The Leader of the House announced that the Committee stage of the Armed Forces Bill would be debated on Wednesday. May I urge the Government to consider new clause 6, which would require the Government to institute a review of compensation for former members of the armed forces who suffer from mesothelioma? It is surely a scandal that members of our armed forces are given only a small proportion of the support that is available to civilians with exactly the same condition. Mesothelioma is a hideous disease, and most sufferers die within a few months of contracting it. Surely we, as a country, can do better than this.
We would think that in Advent the Government would want to do everything to ensure that everybody has a stable home—not a home in a stable—but on the very last day of the Committee stage of the Housing and Planning Bill the Government have tabled a niggardly little amendment that is aimed at forcing people out of their council home after just two or five years. Is that really the Tory Christmas message? Do they not understand that home is where the heart is? So can the Leader guarantee that at the final stages of the Bill we will have two days for Report, legislative consent and Third Reading?
May we also have a debate on the sanctions regime affecting benefit claimants? If a claimant arrives even a minute late for an appointment or an interview, he or she will be sanctioned, often as much as three months’ benefits. But this week the Work and Pensions Secretary turned up fully 15 minutes late for an interview himself, and the latest figures suggest that his great universal credit scheme, which was meant to have been rolled out to 7 million people by now, has reached only 141,000. At this rate he will not be a few minutes late; he will be six generations late, as it is going to take 150 years to get there. Surely he should practise what he preaches: should he not be sanctioned and have three months’ salary docked from his ministerial pay?
We know the Government are determined to sneak as many changes in through the back door using secondary legislation as possible. That is why we want an oral statement before Christmas on Lord Strathclyde’s report on the powers of the House of Lords, but the latest piece of skulduggery is the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which will scrap maintenance grants for the poorest students. The Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that this means that students from the poorest backgrounds will leave university with substantially higher debts than their better-off peers. Surely that is wrong. Because of the way the Government are doing this, there is no guarantee we would even have a debate on this drastic measure, so will the Leader agree to early-day motion 829 and grant us a debate as soon as possible?
[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1951), dated 29 November 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2 December 2015, be annulled.]
We also want an oral statement on airport capacity. To be honest, we would prefer a decision, as would the whole of British business, but as the Government are still in a holding pattern some 30,000 feet above Richmond Park, we will make do with a statement. Will the Leader of the House guarantee, however, that there is not going to be some press conference in which the non-decision is announced, and that the announcement will be made in this House first?
I was ordained a deacon 29 years ago on Monday, so I hope you, Mr Speaker, will allow me to revert to type for a brief moment. I hereby publish the banns of marriage between Luke James Sullivan, of this parish, the Opposition Chief Whip’s political adviser, and Jemma Louise Stocks of the parish of Ashington, at St Maurice’s church in Ellingham in Northumberland this Saturday. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other, you are to declare it. Speak now or forever hold your peace. We wish them well.
At least we know that if unfortunate circumstances arise in the Rhondda the hon. Gentleman can return to his old career in the Church.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his award by ITV Wales as MP of the year? I give him my warm congratulations—and I am sure the award will be very well received on his own party’s Benches. May I also say to Members on both sides that I hope everyone is aware of the call for evidence from the restoration and renewal Committee? It has been circulated to all Members, and a number of informal discussions and drop-in sessions will of course be held while the Joint Committee does its work. I know that the shadow Leader is doing that work with Members on the Opposition Benches, and I am doing so with Members on the Government Benches. The call for evidence is designed to invite responses from any Member who has an interest in these matters, and I encourage everyone to take part.
On the comments made by Donald Trump, let me make two things clear. First, I believe the Muslim community in this country is a valuable part of our community and that it is made up of decent, hard-working, law-abiding citizens who have nothing to do with a tiny extremist sect within the Islamic world that is threatening deeply unpleasant things not only to the people of this country but to Muslims in the middle east as well. I utterly reject any suggestion that our Muslim community is to blame for the terrorist threat the world faces. But I also say in relation to Donald Trump that I believe it is better to deal with this in a democratic debate, and for us to reject those views absolutely and to make it clear to everyone that such views have no place in a modern society.
On mesothelioma, I will take a look at the issue the hon. Gentleman raises; I have every sympathy with the view that it is a dreadful disease and I will take a look at that point.
On the Housing and Planning Bill, I am not sure that he was listening to my statement, because I announced the first of two days of debate for its Report stage and Third Reading. He will therefore have plenty of time to debate these matters.
The hon. Gentleman talked about being late for Department for Work and Pensions matters, but I noted last week that the Leader of the Opposition was late for the wind-ups in the Syria debate—perhaps the most important debate of this autumn session. After the shadow Foreign Secretary had started his speech it was a good five minutes before the Leader of the Opposition shuffled in, so I do not think I would talk about lateness if I was on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the House.
On student finance regulations, the hon. Gentleman is well aware that if he wants a debate on a regulation in this House, all he has to do is pray against it. I am not aware of any recent precedent where a prayer made by the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Cabinet colleagues has not led to a debate in this House. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that that is a simple process.
On airports, I am sure that when a decision has been taken—it has not been at this moment in time—I will discuss with my colleagues how we can bring the right information to this House.
I have a couple of other points to make. I echo the words to the happy couple; we wish them well for this weekend.
Let me finish by talking about the justice system. I am very proud of what this Government have done on the rehabilitation of offenders. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) started the work and I continued it, as the Lord Chancellor is doing. Today, if someone goes to jail for less than 12 months, they receive 12 months’ support after they have left. Under the Labour party, people were released with £46 in their pocket and left to walk the streets without necessarily having anywhere to go, and with no support and no guidance—no nothing. I will therefore take no lessons from the shadow Leader of the House about legacies in the justice system—I am very proud of mine. He talks about the ludicrous criminal courts charge, but I just remind him that he voted for it.
Happy Hanukkah, Mr Speaker. The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee has been called away on urgent constituency business and he asked me to explain what has happened with the business for next Thursday. The Committee advertised the normal pre-recess Adjournment debate, but by the close of business on Monday only five Members had requested to speak in it, so on Tuesday the Committee took the decision of allocating the debating time to two items that have more than 30 Members wishing to speak on them. I trust that Members will understand the rationale for the decision making.
I now come to the issue I want to raise. This week, Harrow council has announced that it is going to slash public health funding by 60% over the next three years. That short-sighted decision will mean that programmes on smoking cessation, tackling obesity, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases and other aspects of public health will go awry. Clearly, other councils may be deciding to take a similar approach. When this money was allocated to councils I warned of a risk if it was not properly ring-fenced. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on the important issues of public health, because in the long term addressing this will cost the NHS millions?
First, I thank my hon. Friend for explaining the reasons for the debate structure next Thursday. I was slightly disappointed that we are not having a standard Adjournment debate, as I know one or two other Members are. We should take this opportunity to send a message across the House to say that to ensure that this debate does happen in its usual form before future recesses, Members need to put in a request to make sure that there is demand; otherwise we end up with the kind of debate that he described.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about public health. It is often a false economy to economise on public health, but as a senior member of the Backbench Business Committee he is very well placed to secure such a debate on a topic that he rightly says is very important.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business.
More than 400,000 people have now signed a petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK, following his appalling and outrageous comments about banning people of the Muslim faith from entering the United States. In Scotland, we have already stopped him being one of our GlobalScots and stripped him of his honorary degree from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. I hope that the Leader of the House will find some leadership and convey the strong sense and feeling that exists in the whole country. Why not bring this e-Petition to the Floor of the House in Government time so that all the issues can be properly debated? Such is the sense of outrage throughout this country that the public expect us to do that.
I note from the business statement that we have two days for the Housing and Planning Bill. We could not have two days for a debate on Syria, yet we have two days for what is considered to be English-only business in the House. I do not know how the two issues can be conflated. Surely we should have two days to discuss Syria. I am glad that the Leader of the House has announced that there will be a statement on Syria before the House rises for Christmas. I hope that the Prime Minister will make it, because we must hear from him about the efficacy of United Kingdom action thus far. A number of us have great concerns about what is happening in Syria. I am talking about not just the difference that our four or six planes make on the ground, but the targets that are being selected. I have questions about how 12 countries, which have been bombing Syria and having difficulty in identifying targets, could neglect a big oilfield in the desert until the UK got involved. We need to hear from the Prime Minister about action thus far.
The Leader of the House likes his anniversaries, so I am pretty surprised that he did not mention the fact that the Prime Minister has led the Conservative party for 10 years—and what a legacy thus far. The “Scandal of Hunger” report from the all-party group on hunger speaks of “armies” of people going hungry in the UK, with the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee talking about children going for days without a meal. Is there not something wrong in the reign of Dave when we can spend obscene amounts of money on weapons of mass destruction, and find money at the drop of a hat for ill-conceived military action, yet leave children to go hungry in every constituency in the United Kingdom?
We are also surprised that there was no mention of the Strathclyde report on the House of Lords, because that was supposed to be here before Christmas. I am sure that the whole House is interested to hear how this Government intend to deal with these recalcitrant be-ermined tribunes of the People, though I think it is a bit of a foregone conclusion that they fully intend to cook the ermine goose. Given that the Lords like to dress up like some ill designed Santa Claus, is this not the time of the year that we think of the peer?
The hon. Gentleman never loses his abilities as a natural performer. I gently remind him that Lord Strathclyde said that he hoped to complete his work before Christmas. I hope that that continues to be the case. It is my intention to update the House as soon as I can.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the remarks of Donald Trump. I can reiterate only that I wholeheartedly disapprove of what he said—frankly, it was nonsense—and I am aware of the petition that is growing in size. Of course it is not for me to decide how to handle a petition; we now have a Petitions Committee. It is right and proper that it is the House that decides what matters should be brought for debate through the mechanism of the Petitions Committee. Doubtless, he will make his representations to the members of that Committee.
I have a slight sense that the hon. Gentleman is trying to reopen the debate on Syria. Let me remind him that the House debated the matter for eleven and a half hours, as part of 20 hours of debate and questions over a nine-day period. The debate showed the House at its best. We heard some really fantastic, thoughtful and well-articulated speeches that set out both sides of the argument. We heard some insightful comments from the Scottish National party. We had a magnificent speech from the shadow Foreign Secretary and some really thoughtful speeches from those on the Conservative Benches. The House voted and decided overwhelmingly to extend the action from Iraq to Syria, and we will update the House when it is appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman will also recognise the need to update the House on two other important areas: the humanitarian work and the peace process, which will hopefully deliver a lasting political solution to Syria. We will keep the House updated on all those factors, and we will have a full update before the Christmas recess begins.
The hon. Gentleman talked about food banks and hunger. I simply remind him that, under this Government, unemployment has fallen sharply. Crucially, the number of children growing up in workless households has fallen by hundreds of thousands. That will make a transformational difference to many of the most deprived communities in this country.
The hon. Gentleman said that I should perhaps have drawn attention to the Prime Minister’s 10th anniversary as leader of the Conservative party, but he was in the Chamber during questions last week and he must remember that I did it then.
In the light of the foolish and mean-spirited decision to end the tradition of the Christmas Adjournment debate, which allows between 15 and 20 Members to raise matters of a general nature, will the Leader of the House consider in future setting Government time aside for the debate and view it as a Christmas present to the House?
One of the disappointments about the Backbench Business Committee’s decision is that the House will not have the opportunity to hear my hon. Friend’s customary magnificent, insightful and thoughtful speech in the Adjournment debate before the start of the recess—a tradition that neither I nor the House would wish to lose. It is very much my hope that the Backbench Business Committee, swamped with requests for a debate ahead of the next recess, will be able to continue this important tradition of the House in future.
On 17 October, the Government held a steel summit in Rotherham. The outcome was that the Government committed to having three working groups that would report before Christmas. Obviously, we have one more week to go. I would be delighted to have a commitment from the Leader of the House or the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise that they will report back to the House either verbally or in written form on the outcome of those three working groups.
As my right hon. Friend knows, for some while now I have been campaigning for the decriminalisation of prescription errors made by community pharmacies. Before the election, the all-party group on pharmacy was told that the Government would publish proposed legislation by the end of the year, but I now understand that that is unlikely before the spring. May we have a statement from the Department of Health on this very frustrating delay?
I know how assiduously my hon. Friend has pursued this matter, as he has a number of other important issues. I am aware that the Department of Health is moving ahead as rapidly as possible and intends to introduce changes at an early date. The Health Secretary will be back in this House on the day that we return in January and I advise my hon. Friend to take advantage of that opportunity to ensure that that momentum continues apace.