Tuesday 15 December 2015
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Transport for London Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Transport for London funding.
I wish to express concerns about the impact of the cuts to Transport for London’s funding that were announced in the spending review. I am especially concerned that a future Mayor, or even the sitting Mayor, might want to raise fares, which will hit my constituents particularly hard. I also want to suggest possible solutions to help plug the holes in TfL’s books.
Let me give the context to the Chancellor’s decision. Transport for London runs the public transport services and manages the major road network in the most important city in Britain. London is the gateway to the rest of the United Kingdom. TfL’s work is critical to Londoners’ ability to work and play, and to get to school and hospital; to business’s ability to get its workforce to work and its goods and services to and from customs; and to London’s many visitors’ ability to arrive, leave and travel to other parts of the UK.
London’s population is growing and is projected to rise from some 8.6 million today to about 10 million by 2030 and 11 million by 2050. London is seeing the fastest urban growth of any city in the European Union. Only a relatively small proportion of my fellow Londoners enjoy the luxury of being able to walk or cycle to work. In short, the vast majority of new and existing Londoners will be reliant on public transport.
The pace of the growth in the number of journeys on the tube is rising fast as well, from a growth of 8.7 million in 2010-11 to an expected 11.7 million this year, which is an increase of 26% in only five years. The docklands light railway has seen an even faster rate of growth in usage, up from a growth of some 6.3 million journeys five years ago to an expected 9.6 million this year—an increase of 52%. In only four years, the number of passengers served by TfL has increased by almost 0.5 billion a year; eight out of 10 of the busiest days in tube history were in the past two months alone; and, indeed, the busiest day ever on the tube was 4 December, when almost 5 million passengers travelled on TfL trains.
The need for further investment in London’s tube, rail and bus networks and in its roads is widely recognised. There are already problems safely managing passenger flows. At some locations, peak-time travel is not only uncomfortable, but close to unsafe.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the increased use of all public transport. Does he therefore share my concern that TfL, without any genuine consultation—just its normal, old, rubbishy questionnaires that ask the questions it wants the answers to, rather than the questions that should be asked—is to demolish Vauxhall bus station, the second biggest interchange in London, to get development that will include tower blocks? Does he understand the importance of the bus station to local people and its users, none of whom have been asked anything?
I bow to my hon. Friend’s much better knowledge of Vauxhall station. If she is concerned, I am sure that her constituents are concerned. She mentions Vauxhall; I was about to say that it expects a 40% increase in the number of passengers in the coming years. I agree that it seems odd for such a crucial interchange station to lose its bus station.
May I add a tiny point? The importance of Vauxhall bus station is that people are able to transfer from train to tube to bus without getting wet, because of a cover that cost £10 million and was put in only about 11 years ago. It is a travesty for TfL to be thinking of demolition.
My hon. Friend has made her point, and I stand with her on her concerns about Vauxhall station.
Also in south London, Waterloo’s overall passenger numbers have rocketed from 62 million 10 years ago to 100 million now. At some locations, peak-time travel is already close to unsafe, as I have said, and, for example, closure of Oxford Circus tube station due to overcrowding is now routine.
It is not just the rail and tube networks that TfL manages that are under pressure; its own estimates suggest that London’s roads are coming under greater pressure from increasing car usage, at a time when there is pressure to allocate more space to achieve safer cycling and good walking routes. If nothing else changes, by 2031 an increase in congestion of at least 60% is expected in central London; for the rest of inner London, congestion is set to rise by some 25%; and even in outer London, we expect to see a 15% increase in congestion. Traffic speeds are coming down and car journeys are taking longer. Congestion is already bad for ordinary car users, who face the nuisance of longer journeys, and it is bad for business, too.
As an aside, I hope the rumours that the Government are trying to ease air pollution controls are false, because in London the scale of air pollution, much of it diesel-related, is already extremely worrying. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. The continuing need for TfL to invest in greener, less polluting vehicles is widely accepted, but such investment is a not insignificant future cost. However, from 2010-11 to 2014-15, TfL income from the Department for Transport fell by more than a third. In the coming year, Government grants will amount to only a little more than 20% of TfL’s annual budget. The transport systems of major competitor cities in Europe receive a considerably higher percentage of their funding from central Government sources. In Paris, for example, transport gets more than 40% of its funding from a Government transport tax.
Transport for London receives two types of grant from central Government: resource grants and infrastructure grants. The Department for Transport was hit particularly hard in the spending round, so it is perhaps no surprise that TfL has been significantly affected, with a 34% cut in funding overall in 2016-17. In the spending review, the Government said that they would phase out the resource grant to TfL, claiming that that
“will save £700 million…which could be achieved through further efficiency savings…or through generating additional income from…land TfL owns”.
It would be more accurate to say that TfL will, as a result of the Chancellor’s decisions, lose about £3 billion over the business plan period of 2015-16 to 2020-21. Inevitably, the loss of grant funding will have an adverse impact on the quality of service that my constituents can expect. The resource grant is to be axed—crucially, earlier than TfL had been led to believe.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined the massive increase in usage of the underground and other TfL transport. Congestion charge takings have also increased, because of more vehicles. Does he not therefore agree that any resource funding needs to be viewed in the context of fares, which are coming in in larger numbers?
I will talk about fares in a little while, and of course one has to look at TfL income in the round. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister accepts that the loss of £3 billion over the current five-year business plan period is a huge reduction in funding.
Before the spending review announcement a couple of weeks ago, TfL had still expected to receive almost £800 million in revenue funding until as late as 2019-20. Any surplus in resource spending—there has consistently been a substantial surplus in the operating budget—has been reinvested to help fund TfL’s capital programme. Any loss in that funding will therefore inevitably have an impact on capital investment.
The announcement of those huge cuts comes at a time when TfL has had to announce a five-year delay to the wonderfully named sub-surface upgrade programme: a plan to increase by 40% the number of people who could travel on the District, Circle, Hammersmith and City, and—crucially for my constituents—Metropolitan lines. New trains and better signalling were to be delivered by 2018, but following the failure of the contract with Bombardier Transportation, the expected completion date has been shifted back to 2023. Will the Minister confirm that the cut in funding to TfL will not further exacerbate the delay in modernising the Metropolitan line and those other lines that were initially part of the sub-surface upgrade programme? TfL has estimated that the knock-on impact of the delay on London’s economy is £900 million. That is income and jobs that Londoners, some of them in my constituency, are set to miss out on.
TfL now claims that the cost of completing the modernisation of the Metropolitan line and the other routes under the sub-surface upgrade programme has increased by £1.15 billion since previous forecasts. To put that into context, TfL’s planned capital expenditure for 2016-17 alone is about £3.3 billion. Inevitably, the extra costs from the failure of the Bombardier Transportation contract, plus the huge cut in grant funding, call into question other investment projects and the speed at which they will be completed.
My hon. Friend is giving us a really good review of what is happening. Does he not think that TfL should go back to doing what it should be doing, rather than putting £30 million into a project to build a garden bridge that the local community does not want? It is shocking that TfL is putting £30 million into that when it could be spent on other, important issues.
I share my hon. Friend’s scepticism about the garden bridge. Like her, I wonder whether that money might be better spent. A whole series of projects in my constituency could use that £30 million well, and I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a couple of those.
On the garden bridge, which no one has ever asked me for, TfL intends to build the Silvertown tunnel in south-east London to relieve congestion at the Blackwall tunnel, but it says that local residents will have to pay for it through tolls, though no other river crossing in London has charges. Perhaps the garden bridge should have an entrance fee, so that it can pay for itself instead of taking money away from vital transport links that are needed in the rest of London.
Rather than getting into the detail of what may happen with the garden bridge, let me say that I would prefer to see that money reallocated to a series of other existing and necessary capital investment projects. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I think the priority is Harrow, but I am sure that he will be able to make the case for south London well.
I come back to the concern that the £3 billion cut in funding in the spending review and the extra costs from the sub-surface upgrade programme might put other investment projects at risk. The Piccadilly line refurbishment is particularly important for many of my constituents who live in Rayners Lane, South Harrow and Sudbury Hill. Will the refurbishment programme for that line go ahead as planned? There has been much speculation about when, or if, the night tube will go ahead. Perhaps the Minister can give us an indication of whether it is at risk of cancellation or substantial delay as a result of those cuts. In the Minister’s intervention, he raised a point about fares revenue. The upgrade of the four lines in the sub-surface upgrade programme would have generated extra fares revenue that will now be lost, as more passengers will not be able to be carried until much later. Some estimates suggest that that could be as much as £270 million lost.
In the eight years in which the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) has been Mayor of London, fares have rocketed. Some of my constituents, such as those who travel from West Harrow on the Uxbridge branch of the Metropolitan line, have seen a 60% increase in the cost of travelling into central London. My constituents and others who live in outer London and use the tube regularly have been treated as a cash cow by the Mayor of London for too long. I am concerned that the loss of that £3 billion may increase the pressure on the Mayor, and/or future Mayors, to raise fares still further.
I am also concerned that further job cuts on Transport for London’s network, which are now inevitable, will further compromise the safety and security of passengers, including my constituents. TfL operational staff fulfil crucial operational functions as well as many safety-critical roles such as managing peak flows of passengers and handling emergencies. On the tube, DLR and Overground, adequate numbers of staff are needed to identify and respond to emerging crush situations.
Adequate numbers of staff are required to limit fare evasion, too, which is rocketing—it is up to £61 million a year following a reduction in staffing levels. I pay tribute to Greater London Authority Labour colleagues, led by the excellent Val Shawcross, Navin Shah and Len Duvall, for that information. Visible staff help to deter and detect crime, including people preparing for or engaging in acts of persistent serious crime and even—God forbid—terrorism. Staff also reassure passengers during tense periods such as now, but staffing is at its lowest level in recent history and Government cuts make it look likely that it will drop further.
Under plans for staff cuts at stations, Leytonstone station, which currently has four staff in peak periods, will be reduced to two members of staff—a 50% reduction at a station where there has already been a worrying terrorist incident. That is just a small indication of the worry that further job cuts, driven by the major cut in Government funding, might force on us.
I understand that London Underground Ltd now plans to cut a further 838 front-line staff positions from normal traffic hour operational levels. New staffing levels have apparently been derived from so-called business need schematics formulae, which do not incorporate the need for security checks or other operational needs. As a consequence, staff are required to meet the demands of security checks and will have to be removed from their allocated customer service positions for sizeable portions of their shifts to do so, leaving their areas unstaffed and effectively unmonitored on occasion. That is a concern. Will the Minister be willing to review with Transport for London’s managing director whether the loss of those front-line staff is a sensible way forward and whether alternatives might be found?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given Oyster and the introduction of other smart ticketing systems, the move to get staff out of ticket offices and on to stations to assist passengers and help with security is good and something that we wish to see more of?
I might have been more sympathetic to the Minister’s intervention if there were not plans to shut more of the control rooms on the underground, because London Underground Ltd proposes that all but a few control rooms in the largest stations will be de-staffed. Proposed staffing cuts and that emphasis on customer-facing duties will require staff who are normally allocated to control rooms to work in the ticket hall. The result will be that there will be no routine monitoring of CCTV at more than 90% of stations, including some that have high volumes of passenger traffic, when major events are taking place. Will the Minister be willing to meet, with me, a deputation of the workforce who are concerned about the impact of the various job cuts on passenger safety? I look forward to his answer, and hope that he will, in the spirit of his interventions, and the spirit in which I have taken them, be willing to do that.
I want to raise some concerns about the impact of the cut in TfL funding on the accessibility of the London underground network. My constituency has six tube stations—exclusively tube stations—that are inaccessible to people using a wheelchair, and usually inaccessible to people with a pram. I understand that there are no plans for North Harrow, South Harrow, Sudbury Hill, Rayners Lane or West Harrow to be made accessible. There has long been talk of a plan for Harrow on the Hill to be made accessible, but it is not currently included for access to the small amount of funding that is available to make stations more accessible. I worry that the loss of £3 billion will reduce its chances even further. Perhaps the Minister would use his influence with Mike Brown, the head of Transport for London, who I am pleased to say came to North Harrow station to celebrate its centenary earlier this year, and encourage him to take an interest in the accessibility of Harrow on the Hill station.
My last point about the impact of the cuts concerns property income and the pressure on Transport for London to maximise its income from property sales or assets—essentially from the land that it owns. I should think that the whole House would think it a good thing to encourage Transport for London to make its land available for housing. The concern is that it is being put under heavy pressure to extract as much value as possible from selling its land or the housing on the land, with no consideration of Londoners’ broader needs for affordable housing. There are also concerns, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) knows well, about the methods being used to encourage Transport for London down the property development route. It has established a commercial development advisory group, which is chaired by Francis Salway, with Richard Cotton, Mike Jones and Richard Jones as the other members, but I worry that none of them has a background in social or affordable housing. I hope that the Minister may be willing to use his good influence to encourage Transport for London to see the bigger picture about housing in London, while at the same time seeking to maximise its income from its land.
My hon. Friend is right to be suspicious of Transport for London’s motives. It is on record as saying that two thirds of its sites will be in zones 1 and 2 and it is not looking for affordable housing in that area; but it is looking for some if it develops in zones 3 to 5. However, that is affordable rather than social rented housing.
My hon. Friend makes a good point and I look forward to his speech, if he catches your eye later, Mr Hollobone.
There was nothing in the spending review about funding for Crossrail 2. To be fair to the Government, I understand that they have set up a £300 million pot for advanced work on big infrastructure schemes. Will the Minister confirm that Transport for London can bid for money for Crossrail 2 within that pot, and explain whether the Government still support and recognise the need for Crossrail 2?
Of the £687 million in resource funding that Transport for London is getting this year, but which will be axed in future, £63 million is going to the capital programme; £137 million is going for borough improvements; £289 million is going on new greener buses; and £198 million is going for tube renewals and other investments. One has to wonder about the future of the investment in green buses, given the loss of resource funding going forward. It is striking that London Councils took the time to provide a brief for this debate, noting the impact of the funding received under TfL’s resource funding programme. It has been used to invest in road safety and maintenance, cycle parking and cycle training, car clubs, the installation of electric vehicle charging points, school and workplace travel plans, 20 mph zones and some further effort for accessible transport and pedestrian crossings. London Councils points out that much of that work—particularly that on road safety—has led to a significant reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured on London’s roads. The implication is that there is concern about how such work is to continue to be funded.
I want lastly to consider how the gap in Transport for London’s books might be filled. I have always been a strong supporter of fiscal devolution to the capital, and having criticised the Mayor of London for big fare hikes I should at least acknowledge the important work that he got Tony Travers to undertake on fiscal devolution. I welcome the Chancellor’s decision to devolve business rates to London, but I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that business rate income is often lumpy, if that is the word, and not always easy to predict. It would be helpful if, as the Tony Travers commission suggested, other property taxes were to be devolved to London. The devolution of stamp duty land tax to the London Mayor might help to unlock new investment in transport development, particularly in relation to the building of new homes that would be enabled by improved transport links. I understand that the vehicle excise duty incurred by Londoners who own cars amounts to about £500 million at the moment, and it might be suitable to invest that in London’s transport rather than taking it out of London and investing it in roads in the rest of England. I ask gently of the Minister, whom I saw shaking his head a little earlier, whether it is time for him and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to agree to redirect that £500 million to City Hall, to ensure that London’s road network gets the investment it needs.
Order. I have before me three of London’s finest Members and we have half an hour before I call the Front-Bench spokesmen, which I want to do no later than 10.30 am. If all three hon. Gentlemen want to speak, and to be fair to each other, I ask them please to take no more than 10 minutes each.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding over our business, Mr Hollobone. I am not sure where the three finest are, but my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) are here, as am I, and I hope that we can make a contribution to the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on an excellent opening speech. He comprehensively covered issues such as funding, resourcing and staff cuts, which saves us having to raise them, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is good to see that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), is here to represent Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is also good to see the Minister in the Chamber. I congratulate him on his recent promotion, which will hopefully make him more benevolent towards London. I intend to speak briefly—certainly for no more than 10 minutes—and to raise parochial issues, given that the opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West covered all the major funding issues.
I start by thanking Transport for London for its briefing, and its staff for all they do to keep this great city moving, ensuring that my constituents and I can get about. Their work is highly regarded and they do a fantastic job.
I was not going to mention the Silvertown crossing, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham raised it, it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments about what support the DFT will give TfL for east London river crossings. Half of London’s population now lives east of Tower bridge, yet we only have two crossings there, while there are 23 crossings west of Tower bridge. As tolling will be an issue, I would expect at least the same arrangements to apply to local residents in east London as those for residents around the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. Any tolling should be discounted, but I would be quite happy to put up with tolling to ensure that we get the crossing.
East London’s air quality is poor, and it is made poorer because of standing traffic and congestion from the Blackwall tunnel. We need to get that traffic moving. When the Blackwall tunnel has difficulties, as it regularly does because of collisions or oversized vehicles, there is gridlock in east London. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments about the Silvertown crossing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West talked about VED and support from licensing revenue in London. My understanding—this may be entirely wrong, so the Minister might correct me—is that the vast majority of local authorities across the country get road support grants to deal with potholes, repairs and the like, but London does not receive such grant. That gives the impression that dealing with potholes in London is paid for by tube and bus passengers, who are subsidising the missing grant.
If one thinks about financial pressures, one can draw conclusions that may be entirely erroneous. We have a new franchisee running the docklands light railway: KeolisAmey. When I started in the Commons, the DLR was carrying some 20 million passengers a year. It now carries 100 million passengers a year, including many colleagues from the Scottish National party when they travel to London City airport to fly back to Scotland on a Thursday night or Friday morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West set out the massive increase in journeys on the DLR. That fantastic railway is, of course, a driverless operation, which makes it separate from most of TfL’s other rail operations.
The new DLR franchise is only six months old, but its staff have already gone on strike for the first time in 23 years. One has to ask whether the resourcing of the DLR and pressure on the contract led the new franchisee to put pressure on staff’s conditions and wages. That is total speculation on my part, but the fact that we have had the first DLR strike in 23 years is not a good sign. It is certainly a concern for my constituents and a very worrying development indeed.
The final point I want to cover is another parochial one. I see that the Minister is wearing his red ensign badge proudly as shipping Minister—there is nothing wrong with that at all, and I applaud him for it. Yesterday, I attended a Port of London authority presentation at Tower pier at which it outlined its vision for the River Thames for the next 20 to 50 years. The most striking thing about the presentation was that whereas most people think that the Thames’s heyday is behind it—we have the visuals of riggers in the past 200 years and merchant vessels in the 20th century being unloaded in the docks—and that it is now much quieter, with Thames Gateway and the port of Tilbury, as the Minister will know, London is now dealing with more tonnage than ever in its history.
With new commuter routes being opened up all the time, there is more commuter traffic than ever. Construction projects such as the Thames Tideway tunnel and, to a certain extent, Crossrail, which require the Thames to be used and that get HGVs off London’s roads and traffic on to the Thames, are welcome. The PLA’s vision is that the Thames’s best days are ahead of it, so it is really disappointing that the proposed cruise terminal at Enderby Wharf, which has been approved by the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Mayor of London, does not have a ship-to-shore energy supply. That means that when cruise ships start arriving in London, they will have to run their diesel engines 24/7 to power them while they are berthed in the middle of the Thames, which is the equivalent of putting hundreds of lorries’ emissions back into London’s air. If we provided a ship-to-shore energy supply, which I believe would cost only up to a few million pounds, we could deal a big blow to London’s emissions.
Given that background, what funding does the Department for Transport provide for TfL to study air quality? Transport emissions play a big part in air quality, as they account for between 25% and 30% of all emissions. The shipping industry is growing, and we want to ensure as much as possible that its growth is environmentally sustainable and clean. Does the Minister have anything to add to the debate about the cruise terminal at Enderby Wharf? Can he say whether, even at this late stage, ship-to-shore energy supply could be introduced into the plan, given that the situation is a negative dark spot on what ought to be a positive clean bill of health for the Thames?
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West on securing this important debate. I have raised much more parochial points than him, and we will be interested to hear the speeches from the three Front-Bench spokesmen.
May I, too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this timely and important debate? This issue is raised frequently in both Houses. Yesterday, during questions in the other place, two of the points that my hon. Friend mentioned were raised. Lord Tope noted that the £639 million operational grant for this year will decline to nothing within three years, while Lord Dubs raised an important question that I will deal with: if Transport for London is going to become a property developer over the next decade, where and how will it build, and what will it will build? It is particularly important to note that there will be little social housing among the alleged 10,000 homes to be built.
The other place is also shortly to discuss the Transport for London Bill, a private Bill that has been limping through both Houses for five years. It would have been killed off in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago, had not the Government whipped 140 of their Members to vote for the revival of that rather sad and sagging Bill. If London MPs had their way, the Bill would be put to rest quite quickly. If I have time, I will deal with that issue but, in any event, I have no doubt that we will consider the final stages of that Bill in the new year and discuss at length the problems with it.
Should TfL become a property developer to make up the £2.8 billion that the Government are taking away from it between now and 2021, it will of course need to manage its estate properly. It has not always done that well in the past, and I doubt the capability and competence of transport organisations—even though many very good people work for them—to deal with some of the most rapacious and greedy property developers in London. Somehow the public sector also seems to come off worse when it enters into such deals.
Even what TfL is planning at the moment does not fill me with enthusiasm. It is looking for 75 sites spanning 300 acres, with the aim of raising £1 billion. As I said in my intervention, two thirds of those sites will be in zones 1 and 2, presumably because although there is less land in those zones, it is more profitable. Only when TfL subsequently begins to look at zones 3 to 5 does it expect to include affordable housing in its considerations. It is going to work in joint ventures with private companies, and the model for that is the tragic site at Earls Court, which is one of the largest development sites in London, with two thirds of it owned by TfL. The joint venture with Capital and Counties Properties plc covers 77 acres and includes the Earls Court exhibition centres and the Lillie Bridge depot. The third part of the site—22 acres —consists of two local authority housing estates with 760 affordable and social homes.
The development of that site, which I believe is a template for what TfL will do in the future, will provide 8,000 homes with no additional social homes, even though according to planning targets, and even the targets of the Mayor of London, there should be 2,000 such homes. The 760 existing homes will be demolished, which will affect the entire community. The Earls Court exhibition centres are beautiful and their loss is tragic. Earls Court One, an art deco building that is currently being demolished, provided 30% of London’s exhibition space.
I laughed at what TfL told the Financial Times when it announced its plans about six weeks ago. It said it was
“working with its operations team to ensure that it learns from mistakes made by the national rail network in the past and only ‘develops sites where no transport capacity growth is expected so as not to constrain operations.’”
The other part of the Earls Court site that is going is the Lillie Bridge depot, which is one of the main manufacturing and servicing depots. It is an ideal place for servicing and provides 500 skilled jobs, which is why the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has considerable concerns about the development.
If Earls Court is a blueprint, God help us when TfL begins to develop other sites around London. It has already identified three. One, which is in Hammersmith and Fulham but not in my constituency, is the Parsons Green depot site. The very good Labour council there is negotiating hard with TfL to include affordable housing on the site. There will be 120 new homes, but no homes for social rent are planned, although I hope that that will change following negotiation with the local authority.
As I know that area extremely well, I can give an example of what can happen. Almost opposite the proposed site is an almost identical depot site that was owned by the Co-operative Group. That has been developed with 100% affordable housing—50% intermediate and 50% for social renting. If such a target can be reached, TfL’s ambitions in an area with a crying need for affordable housing, especially in zones 1 and 2, should be at least a lot greater. I note from the property pages of today’s Metro that the average price of a property in Hammersmith, let alone Fulham, is more than £1 million, and that is exactly the type of luxury property that TfL is endeavouring to build on its land.
A measure in the Transport for London Bill—during its early stages some four years ago, my constituents petitioned against it—would have given TfL the power to sell land without reference to the Secretary of State or any outside body. I am pleased to say that, following scrutiny, the relevant clause was withdrawn, because otherwise TfL could have done exactly what it liked. Given the Government’s housing policy, which we will discuss in the House later today, I have no confidence that the Secretary of State’s intervention will represent a proper remedy. In any event, the Bill is deeply flawed because it encourages TfL to enter into limited partnership agreements and allows it to go further even than it went at Earls Court by having unsuitable, voracious partners in the property development market. That may or may not provide a profit for TfL, but it will do nothing for the neighbourhood and interests of ordinary Londoners.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West talked about the upgrading of the sub-surface network, which includes the Hammersmith and City, Circle and District lines. It would be a tragedy if that were postponed for another five years. Those incredibly busy lines have some of the worst signalling on the underground network. I believe the signalling at Earls Court dates from the 1960s, so perhaps the Minister will comment on that today. My constituents would not welcome him saying blithely that the upgrading will be delayed by another five years.
A specific problem is the removal of Olympia station from the timetabled network. I was pleased to have the first newly built station in a century on an existing tube line at Wood Lane as part of the Westfield development. TfL made a big song and dance about that, but less of a song and dance when it took a station off the timetabled network, despite Olympia serving one of the most densely populated communities in London and linking to the very good overground service at that station. We were told at the time that the reason was congestion at Earls Court—that has been the case for about 40 years—and that TfL wanted to prioritise the Wimbledon branch of the line. That was not popular with my constituents.
When the signalling is upgraded—whether that is in 2019 or 2023—it will relieve the problem. There will be more capacity, longer and more effective trains and better signalling. With that full expectation, I wrote to the new managing director of London Underground to ask for at least a commitment that Olympia would be put on the timetabled network again, but I was told, “No. There is no intention of doing that.” What is the point of investment and of TfL becoming a property developer if the net result is that the investment in its own network does not do what its passengers and fare payers want?
In May 2016, we will have a new Mayor—hopefully a Labour Mayor. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has promised to freeze fares, to provide one-hour hopper tickets and to run TfL in the interests of all Londoners, not in the interests of property developers, its own highly paid managers or bailing out the Chancellor. However, we currently face a double whammy of losing central Government investment, which no other civilised country would do to its capital city, while at the same time we do not see any other improvement in Londoners’ quality of life because TfL is simply rushing madly into property development.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this important debate. I start by associating myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on the cruise liner. I will not go into detail because I do not intend to speak about that, but I entirely agree with his points.
I, too, want to be parochial and I will talk mainly about the proposed Silvertown tunnel in the context of TfL’s funding. I have long called for a solution to the problem of traffic congestion on the approach roads to the Blackwall tunnel. It is a daily environmental disaster and occurs when queues of traffic build up, particularly at peak times, causing a huge environmental problem of air pollution in that part of our borough. The topography of the area means that a lot of pollution collects in the river valley, and having stationary traffic stuck there for long periods just adds to the problem. That traffic will not disappear. It needs to go somewhere and the problem needs some relief. There are no alternatives. We do not have the London Underground in south-east London beyond North Greenwich station and people rely heavily on surface and suburban rail services, which are already at over capacity so we need to increase capacity there. I will come to that later.
In many circumstances, people are forced to drive. That applies particularly to residents of the boroughs of Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Newham, for which the Blackwall tunnel is the nearest river crossing. People have to use that crossing to get across the river, so we are seeing a significant impact on people’s daily routine because quite often they are delayed and cannot predict when they will be able to get through the tunnel. In addition, many businesses lose time and money because of the traffic congestion. We need to deal with the traffic congestion at the Blackwall tunnel and we need a third bore, but dealing with the issue by building a road crossing alone will not be sufficient.
We have been offered buses by TfL, and we will take the buses. They have buses in other parts of London, and of course we want more buses. However, the equivalent of a small city has been built in Docklands. We have seen massive expansion not just of housing, which will continue to grow, but of businesses and leisure, and more and more people want to go north and south on the eastern part of the Thames corridor, rather than on the traditional route, like the spokes of a wheel, served by suburban rail that goes in and out of central London. Without increasing significantly public transport links that go north and south across that east Thames corridor, we will congest even more the central London transport system, because people have no choice, if they want to use public transport, other than to go in and then out.
It is always good to give a Northern Ireland flavour to a debate on London transport. The hon. Gentleman referred to using more buses. I, too, encourage people to use more buses, because if more buses are bought, they will come from Wrightbus in Northern Ireland, so it is always very good to have that.
I cannot think of a better reason to want more buses. To get even more parochial for a minute, I want to put in a plug for TfL finally to deal with the issues with my local services, on which my constituents have been campaigning. I am talking about the B16 and 178 buses through Kidbrooke. Those issues must be resolved; we are not accepting no for an answer, and we welcome the moves that it has made already on the B16.
The 132 bus runs from Eltham to North Greenwich, and when I became a Member of Parliament I campaigned for its introduction. TfL came to my office to meet me and said, “There’s no demand for such a service.” It was to provide a public transport link along the route corridor of the A102, the Blackwall tunnel approach road. Finally, as the Olympics approached, we got an extension of the 132 bus route down to North Greenwich. It was a single-decker bus and it quickly filled up, so a double-decker service had to be introduced. That service is now often oversubscribed and passengers are left behind at the terminal where the bus starts—at North Greenwich—such is the increasing demand from people for public transport links along the route corridor of the A102, which connects with the A2 and my constituency of Eltham.
A road crossing, therefore, will not be sufficient: we need to have the DLR. If TfL is not going to build a DLR link, there is no point in building the Silvertown link, because it will just become as congested as the Blackwall tunnel is now. People will have no alternative to switch to—in the large numbers that we need them to switch—if we are to protect that route from becoming congested again in the future, just with more cars. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West pointed out, the DLR has in recent times increased its usership significantly—by more than 50%. It has gone up from a few million passengers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, to nearly 100 million passengers a year. That shows how effective it can be, so a DLR link from Silvertown to North Greenwich—that is then brought down the route corridor of the A102 to places such as Kidbrooke and Eltham—will have a significant impact by changing people’s choices of the transport method that they use to get across the river in that part of the city.
We cannot allow traffic to grow, and I accept that some form of tolling will be needed, but no one else in London pays to cross the river by their local bridge. I do not see why my constituents should have to pay to cross the river when no one else in London does. If TfL says that the only way to fund schemes in the future—because of the cuts to its budget—is to introduce tolling, I say that it has to be fair to my constituents, who in recent years have watched billions of pounds being invested in the London underground, which does not come anywhere near where we live. We accept that it is a major contributor to London’s economy and is vital—no one disputes that—but the comparison between the investment in other parts of London and that in outer south-east London does not stand up to scrutiny. We have bus services, but other than that, TfL spends precious little on investment in that part of London, so asking for—no, demanding—a DLR link as part of the scheme is just asking to be compensated for the lack of investment in previous years.
If people in my area are to be asked to pay a toll to pay for the river crossing, we should toll every river crossing in London and make everyone pay to cross the river, because that is the only fair balance that we could strike. I see the Minister’s eyebrows going up as he thinks, “Actually, there might be a point there. We might be able to make some money.” It is true that we have sat by in south-east London and watched money being spent on the London underground, while getting precious little—
They might well, but there are bridges beyond Vauxhall. I can point all the bridges out to the Minister if he needs me to do that; I can name them all. We need the Silvertown link, but it cannot be built without the DLR.
I want to move on to talk about a site in Kidbrooke, Henley Cross that is owned by TfL. TfL is definitely trying to maximise its income from that site, but we need such sites, which are in public ownership, to be used to provide local services and vital affordable housing where possible, not just sold off to the highest bidder. I would like to put in a bid to TfL to consider that site in relation to the Kidbrooke regeneration and the need to identify sites for secondary schools in the borough of Greenwich. Henley Cross is situated between the motorway—well, the approach road to the Blackwall tunnel—and the railway. The site is unsuitable for people to live on, but it would be suited to other uses. Perhaps some sort of land swap could be arranged with the Kidbrooke Village regeneration and a school could be built where it was intended to build a Sainsbury’s supermarket. I urge TfL to sit down with the London borough of Greenwich and with Berkeley Homes, which is doing the development, to consider that option, rather than cramming housing on to the site, which is unsuitable because of its location.
Finally, I want to turn to TfL taking over the running of suburban trains, which are vital for my constituency as it relies entirely on suburban trains as the major route into London because—as I said—we do not have direct links to the London underground. If that is to happen, TfL needs to start planning ahead now. At peak times, trains that run through my constituency—through Eltham, New Eltham, Plumstead and along all those routes—are heavily oversubscribed. They have so many passengers they have PIXCs—people in excess of capacity. We need to increase capacity on those lines. That means that when the Thameslink scheme is completed and the new rolling stock becomes available, the current Thameslink rolling stock must be made available to Southeastern, which wants to purchase it, so that it can increase capacity on those vital services in south-east London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the Minister of State on his recent promotion, and I know that he will enjoy the additional challenges it brings.
I have been asked to sum up for the third party, and I will try something quite unusual, which is to do so in a third-party way, and to be as apolitical and as helpful as I can. I want to refer to Scotland and what the Scottish Government are doing, because I believe in their approach, and I think it would be helpful to bring it into this discussion.
The hon. Member for Harrow West talked about Transport for London services being crucial to business and to people. He talked about London’s urban growth being the fastest in the European Union. I have something in common with him, because Inverness is the fastest-growing city overall in Europe. I know exactly what he is talking about, but perhaps on a different scale.
People coming into London have an interest in this issue as well as those already in London. People need to make internal connections, but external connections cannot be ignored. It is every bit as important to make sure that links such as the Gatwick Express operate properly. I hear again that it is a disaster this morning, incidentally, with two trains cancelled and another stuck for many minutes on the line. The hon. Gentleman talked about roads being under pressure, and the knock-on impact of a failure to invest. That came through in all hon. Members’ contributions, as did the point that what may have been missing is a longer-term vision and an overall view of how things should be developed.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made an important intervention in which she talked about the absolute need to engage people in major decisions. That brings me to my first point about the approach in Scotland, which I feel passionate about. I think there is agreement across parties on an outcomes-based approach to development, where we take things forward towards a longer-term outcome with people in mind, rather than as an afterthought. That came through time and again.
The Minister spoke in an intervention about smart ticketing, and I compliment him on doing so. We have to make it easier for people to use different modes of transport, but it is important—we must mention this early—that smart ticketing be fair. It should be carried forward in such a way as to enable everybody to interact with it. A point was made about fairness later on, and adopting an outcomes-based approach makes a big difference to that.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) rightly mentioned the hard-working staff on the network. Too often, we forget that when we ask people to take charge of new developments and bigger challenges, those involved in their delivery will be put under pressure. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to mention those people. We should reflect in the same way on the people who work in the transport system across the nations of the UK. He made the telling point that the DLR recently had its first strike for 23 years, and that tells us something about the communication that is needed. He also made an important point about the growing need to take shipping into account.
One thing missing from the debate—I am not trying to score points, but I want to take in the context—was any discussion of possible airport expansion. Hon. Members do not know where the pressure will be in London, because the decision has not been made yet, but that must be taken into account in future planning.
I agree about that frustration. As I have said, I will not try to use this debate to score points, but we must look at making decisions that are connected to others that we make. Other hon. Members brought that out in spades today.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about Transport for London as a property developer. He asked what kind of developer it would be, and what it would do in future. The point about outcomes for people shone through in his questions, and it is important to look at what kind of outcomes there will be. If property development will be a vehicle for investment, he is quite right to say that we should know what kind of investment will be made. He asked what the point was of TfL investments if not to improve transport for people.
The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) talked about air pollution, having the correct infrastructure requirements, and the need to see what people want to do in the future, which goes back to my point about outcomes. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is unfortunately not in his place, mentioned buses in an intervention. I want to mention Britain’s largest bus manufacturer, Alexander Dennis, in Falkirk. It would, I am sure, be delighted to supply vehicles. What is needed is an outcomes-based approach with a longer-term view. People should not, as the hon. Member for Eltham pointed out, be made to pay more just because of where they live. That should be taken into account when deciding how to take things forward.
I said I would talk about Scotland. Since 2007, more than £15 billion has been invested in transport, and the Scottish Government have adopted an outcomes-based approach to policy, through which they look for a healthier, wealthier, greener approach to development. I believe that that is now considered to be the right approach by those from across the different parties in Scotland. We have looked at sustainable transport options that will encourage people out of their cars, and made sure that we made the investments necessary to connect people.
Our conversation this morning contains a contradictory message, and I will fire back a bit of a warning to hon. Members. They cannot say, “Let’s not invest in cycling and walking” while moaning about emissions and congestion. There has to be a balance between those things. In Scotland, since 2011, we have invested in 190 km of cycling and walking routes. We have also made the largest single investment in Scotland’s transport history with the £3 billion upgrade of the A9, because it is a vital part of the transport mix, and it is what people asked for and required. I am delighted to say that it connects my constituency with Perth, and that connection is ongoing. That development was vital to the highlands economy, and it was part of our work on a mix of transport options, which included simultaneous investment in the rail links between Aberdeen and Inverness, and Inverness and Perth. Investment is not limited to those lines, however; hon. Members will be aware of the recently opened borders railway link, with which we threw off the ghost of the railway cutback and built the first new railway in Scotland since the Beeching cuts. In our rounded approach, we take an outcomes-based look at how transport has to be put together.
I will not take much more time. In summary, people’s absolute need and right to be connected fluidly to all the different transport options available came through clearly this morning. That is a substantial challenge for an organisation as big as Transport for London, but if it takes an outcomes-based approach—I fundamentally believe that all hon. Members’ contributions this morning indicated the need for such an approach—it will start to get somewhere with looking at the wider picture and the longer-term view.
Of course, if greater public investment is to be made, the public need to be involved and feel involved. It would be a good move for Transport for London to look at how it engages with people and how it will take forward conversations with the relevant communities, so that it can ensure that it carries forward in its planning the points made by hon. Members this morning. I hope that it will heed my warning and take an outcomes-based approach to such development.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this debate, and the Minister on his recent promotion. We have had a fantastic discussion in which hon. Members have spoken with passion and conviction about their local area. It is important that those points are heard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West gave an excellent account of the whole range of issues. I was struck by his mention of potential delays to the upgrade of the underground system. I hope that the Minister responds positively to my hon. Friend’s hope that he might meet a delegation of staff, particularly given the number of staff cuts in the control rooms. My hon. Friend concluded with some interesting suggestions about how the funding gap might be closed, and I am sure that the Communities and Local Government team will listen closely to that.
Will my hon. Friend encourage the Minister to clarify—if not today, then shortly—whether the British Transport police will maintain their funding levels and, therefore, the numbers of constables and other police able to operate on the tube? There seems to be some doubt about whether they have benefited from the Government’s largesse to other police forces.
I am sure that the Minister will have heard that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) made some fascinating points. The point about the cruise terminal was new to me, but I hope that others will hear it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) continued his fantastic campaign on the Transport for London Bill, reiterating points that were made in a debate a few weeks ago and that, doubtless, will be made again. I will return to those.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) took me back to my childhood: I used to be driven by my parents from south London through the Blackwall tunnel when there was only one tunnel. I remember the pong, which I think was from a dog biscuit factory. Some things do not change, really, and there is clearly much more work to be done. His points about the unfairness of potentially charging his constituents to cross the river were well made.
I want to talk a little more generally about London’s transport system. As someone from outside London, I have to say that London’s system is widely admired as a model of excellence. There are now more passenger journeys in the capital than in the rest of England combined. In the UK, other metropolitan areas—including Manchester, notably—are keen to bring in Oyster-style, multi-platform, integrated smart ticketing. Indeed, I understand that Singapore’s Land Transport Authority last year announced a new Government contracting model after explicitly studying the bus systems of London and Australia; they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that is clearly the case here.
We all know that the Department for Transport took a huge hit in the comprehensive spending review, as did the Department for Communities and Local Government. I fear that the repercussions will reverberate through the quality and connectivity of the transport system across the entire country. I am also sure, regrettably, that the savage reductions in funding and subsequent cuts to transport services will be keenly felt by all those who rely on them to go about their daily life. It is distressing but simple: cuts to central Government funding and local authority budgets mean that services will suffer.
Let us remember that in 2013 TfL’s operational funding was slashed by a quarter, requiring it to identify £16 billion in savings by 2021. Last month it was announced that the grant worth £700 million in 2015-16 will be phased out by the end of the decade. The Department for Transport said that this may be mitigated by “new commercial freedoms” for TfL. The implications of those commercial freedoms are potentially significant, and I will largely focus on them.
Along with funding for cycling nationally, London’s dedicated transport funding has been deliberately targeted in the spending review. As of 2014-15, a record 8.6 million people were living in the capital. By 2030, that figure is forecast to reach 10 million, rising again to 11 million by 2050. The pressures on the capital’s transport system will only intensify. TfL has already been making fierce and highly controversial cuts, but even it said in its annual budget last year:
“It is becoming progressively more difficult to achieve this without compromising our core services.”
I would be grateful if the Minister could offer some assurances about how the cut to TfL’s revenue support has been planned. It is well known that before the late 1990s, London Regional Transport was plagued by a pattern of annualised budgets and sudden funding reductions, which in turn created huge inefficiencies. TfL has more long-term financial certainty under Labour’s Greater London Authority Act 1999, but can the Minister really guarantee that additional costs will not be created—for example, in variations to TfL’s commercial contracts—as a result of this decision? We need further assurances.
Since October 2013, the bus service operators grant, which was previously paid to bus operators that were running bus services under franchise to TfL, has been incorporated into the general grant paid to TfL and the Greater London Authority. Now that TfL’s grant is being snatched by the Treasury, so too is this important grant that pays bus operators to keep costs down and helps to subsidise fares for ordinary people. BSOG was already cut by 20% in the previous Parliament, with the total value of the grant across the country falling from £469 million in 2009-10 to £298 million in 2013-14. Now the Government are quietly removing it from TfL entirely. That is unacceptable, and we will not let it go unnoticed. I would greatly appreciate the Minister’s assurance that BSOG will again be allocated to the capital on a separate basis; otherwise, this is clear discrimination against London.
TfL passes part of its grant to the boroughs to spend on local road maintenance and improvement. I am sure that those boroughs would be pleased to be told how that will be funded when TfL’s operational funding is soon reduced to zero. We have heard about the other possible method that TfL might use to alleviate the loss of the grant and to raise revenue to invest in London’s transport network. That method—the so-called commercial freedoms—is proving especially controversial, and many of my hon. Friends have already raised concerns about the wider implications.
The Department for Transport has stated that TfL could save the necessary £700 million a year by generating additional income from the land it owns in London, or with the “additional financial flexibility” that the Government will provide it with. TfL is one of the largest landowners, owning 5,700 acres of land in the capital and more than 500 potential major development sites. Against this backdrop of cuts, it is only natural that TfL wants to plug at least partially the gap that the grant will leave by selling off existing or underused facilities. We support making good use of assets, but there are certain issues that really must be addressed.
First, we need to be sure that forced sales will not, paradoxically, have an adverse impact on the very transport system that they are trying to fund. Selling off land might seem like a good deal in the short term, but it might not look so bright a few years later, when it transpires that the land is needed to expand transport services to meet increasing demand. If TfL land is to be used for housing, let us at least ensure that it is housing at a price that ordinary Londoners can afford. We need a pledge from the Minster that there will be a strong affordable housing element in such developments—particularly important given the disastrous general housing policies being pursued by the Government. Sadly, I have little confidence that that will be achieved.
We are deeply sceptical of the Government’s motives and fear that the asset sell-offs will be all about short-term gain at the expense of securing a future transport system for ordinary Londoners. I do not have time to go into the nitty-gritty of the argument, but the proposed mechanism for property development—namely, the provision allowing limited partnerships—is deeply worrying. I am sure that there will be time enough to discuss that controversial element when the Transport for London Bill wends its way back to us from the other place. Ultimately, a long-term investment strategy aimed at raising money to reinvest in the transport system is one thing, but short-term profiteering on property development is quite another.
In conclusion, TfL’s transport system works, and it ought to be protected, but it is at serious risk from a Government who seek short-term savings and do not understand the importance and value of a widely admired but pressured system that keeps our great capital city moving.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) on securing this debate about Transport for London funding, which is timely following the spending review. I will put the cart before the horse by dealing first with some of the questions that have been raised, meaning that if I do not have time to conclude my remarks, what I want to say will be cut off, rather than what hon. Members might want to hear.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the upgrade of the sub-surface lines will be further delayed by the cuts in Government funding, and I have to point out that the delay was announced before the spending review. Indeed, the delivery of the upgrade is a matter for the Mayor. We have protected TfL’s capital funding and expect the Mayor to prioritise such tube upgrades as part of that process. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether other projects will be delayed; once again, it will be a matter for the Mayor to prioritise such projects. We will be agreeing a settlement letter with the Mayor that makes it clear which infrastructure projects we expect him to deliver, and by when.
I certainly take note of the hon. Gentleman’s point; no doubt that issue will be raised during the upcoming mayoral election.
The hon. Gentleman raised the specific point of accessibility at Harrow on the Hill station, and I will ask Mike Brown to provide me with a report as soon as possible about the practicality of addressing that. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, many of our Victorian tube stations do not lend themselves to such upgrades at a reasonable cost, although we have made considerable progress. In particular, the new Crossrail project will vastly increase accessibility for people with mobility problems.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether there could be further devolution of property taxes, which is, of course, a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has announced that business rates will be 100% devolved to local authorities from 2020. There will be a consultation on that in 2016, including on how the system will work in practice. Various things will need to be considered, including how the income from London’s business rates will be split between the Mayor and the boroughs, and which Government grants that will replace.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) talked about the garden bridge. The Government and the Mayor have each agreed to make a funding contribution, but most of the costs will be met by the private sector. The garden bridge will be an iconic and attractive addition to the capital, and it will be free—there are no plans to charge people who use it.
The hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Eltham (Clive Efford) raised the issue of the Silvertown tunnel, which is, again, a matter for the Mayor. Transport for London has recently consulted on the proposal. We agree that the tunnel is an important project and hope that the Mayor can deliver on it quickly. TfL is considering what package of public transport improvements might be needed to complement any new crossings, which might include DLR extensions, but the Mayor will need to take a view on the relative priority of such extensions compared with other schemes.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse also mentioned the cruise ship terminal. I have visited both London Gateway and the port of Tilbury, and I was impressed by the investment going into those projects. Indeed, London is re-establishing itself as a major port. I pay tribute to Dame Helen Alexander, whose term as chair of the Port of London authority ends at the end of this month. She has been a driving force behind the work that has been going on.
The hon. Gentleman raised in particular the issue of ship-to-shore energy supplies in a number of ports across the country, on which I am keen. Indeed, ports could derive income from supplying electricity. We will certainly consider how that might be funded, but such sensitive sea areas come under the quality of marine fuel regulations that have been agreed throughout the European Union, so ships will have to use low-sulphur fuel or to be fitted with mitigation equipment to ensure that they at least take care of sulphur. I am aware that ships produce other pollutants when in port.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who speaks for the Scottish nationalists, talked about smart ticketing, which has been revolutionary since I arrived in London just over 10 years ago. I was then buying tickets, so the introduction of Oyster has been fantastic. Of course, a new aspect of ticketing, which is already in force on the west coast main line and is an element of the new Northern and TransPennine franchises, is automatic refunds when trains are delayed. I hope that new franchises take that on board. In due course, I hope it becomes the norm that if a train is delayed, a customer, having bought their ticket or season ticket on the train operating company’s website, will automatically get a refund, rather than having to apply. Passengers in the north of England are looking forward to that service becoming available.
I think it was the hon. Member for Harrow West who talked about meeting staff at the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. I occasionally meet the RMT, but more through my responsibility for shipping. I suspect that the Mayor of London would primarily be moving forward on that issue, but I hope that, following further discussions, we can soon deliver on the night tube. Many people look forward to some sort of agreement on that, particularly at this time of year when London’s night time economy is so vibrant. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of manning for British Transport police. Many people were relieved when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that overall police funding would not be subject to the cuts that many had predicted, but I will look into the specific issue of British Transport police and get back to him.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said that TfL is facing a huge hit to its revenue budget. Actually, in terms of capital funding, this Government will nationally be deploying 50% more than the previous coalition Government, which is good news for people who use our train services and roads. He also mentioned the bus service operators grant, which is indeed a fuel subsidy. One criticism that I get from bus operating companies and bus manufacturers is that the BSOG is a disincentive for the roll-out of environmentally friendly or green buses. For example, electric buses that use no fuel get no BSOG.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the fact that Transport for London will soon no longer need any day-to-day operating subsidy, which is a good news story as that has been made possible by our sustained investment in London in recent years allowing TfL to make significant operational savings. London’s growing population and successful economy mean that more and more people are using public transport in London, which in turn, as I pointed out earlier, means that TfL receives more and more income from fares. TfL’s commercial development programme is also allowing it to generate more income from the private sector.
Having not got on to my prepared introductory remarks, I shall conclude by making the point that the spending review settlement shows that we recognise that London today is a city on the move. The capital’s economy is moving emphatically in the right direction, and our support is helping to transform London’s transport network. I am proud to be part of that transformation together with all our partners, including TfL. The investment that we are making for the next five years will not just keep London mobile, but will equip the city for the challenges of the future so that it can compete and win in the 21st-century global economy.
I thank the Minister for his replies to many of my specific questions and the manner in which he approached his winding-up speech. I particularly welcome the fact that he will consider prioritising the Metropolitan line in the letter of agreement that he will sign with Transport for London following the spending review, and I am grateful that he will ask for a report on accessibility issues at Harrow on the Hill station.
I hear what the Minister says about further fiscal devolution being a decision for the Chancellor, but I gently suggest that he might want to use his not inconsiderable influence—he has been promoted—to press the case for the devolution of vehicle excise duty and stamp duty land tax. I heard his gentle sidestep of the request for a meeting with representatives of the workforce so that they could raise concerns about security, so I ask him to reflect on that. There are real concerns about security on the underground, not least as a result of the Leytonstone incident. Whatever he may think about unions in general, the workforce on the tube have reasonable points to make about security, so I encourage him to reconsider being willing to meet them.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) in paying tribute to all the staff of Transport for London who do such an important job. I am grateful to their representatives—the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the RMT and ASLEF—for providing us with briefings ahead of this debate. I am particularly grateful to TfL, London Councils and London First for their briefings, too.
This being the Christmas period, and while we are looking positively to the future of TfL, the last thing to say is I hope that there will soon be a Labour Mayor of London again. I particularly welcome the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) to a fares freeze, which gives some hope to my constituents that they will no longer be treated as cash cows for Transport for London.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Transport for London funding.
Spending Review and Autumn Statement: Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015 on Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Last month’s autumn statement was an opportunity for the Government to deliver a fair deal for Wales; to support Welsh families, to invest in skills and infrastructure and to give the Welsh Government the tools that they need to fund the vital public services that we all depend on. Unfortunately, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did none of that. Instead, he delivered yet more cuts to the Welsh budget and to the budgets of thousands of families across Wales.
Thanks to Labour’s campaign, the Chancellor was forced to abandon his plans to cut tax credits that would have hit 135,000 working families in Wales. However, we now know that those cuts have been delayed, not dropped altogether, and thousands of Welsh families will be hit just as hard through the Government’s cuts to universal credit. Families across the UK are expected to lose £1 billion this year and over £3 billion by the end of the Parliament because of the cuts to universal credit. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted losses of £1,600 a year for 2.6 million working families and cuts of £2,500 a year for 1.2 million families who are out of work.
Although fewer than 6,000 Welsh people are currently on universal credit, the number will rise significantly over the next few years, as other benefits such as tax credits and jobseeker’s allowance are phased out. In my constituency, 656 people are currently on universal credit, but 14,250 people are claiming one of the main out-of-work benefits.
Working people in Wales will be worse off on universal credit, leaving those who are currently on tax credits with a perverse incentive not to take on a new job or extra hours for fear that it will change their circumstances and cause them to be moved on to universal credit. In Wales, 167,400 working families will feel the impact, 134,600 of whom are families with children.
In Neath, 6,200 families were on tax credits as of April this year; 5,300 of those were families with children, all of whom will be negatively affected by the changes and cuts to universal credit, should they take place. That neither meets the Government’s aim of making work pay, nor ensures that those on middle and low incomes are protected. Wales already has the highest level of child poverty of any of the nations of the UK. One in three children lives below the poverty line. Half of the people deemed to be living in poverty are actually working—an unfortunate truth that is often ignored when painting a picture of worklessness and a benefit-claiming culture of poverty and deprivation.
On the autumn statement, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made it clear:
“There was little in this Statement to tackle the causes of poverty and it was a missed opportunity to support low income families. Without action”—
the foundation warns, our economic recovery will be
“built on rising poverty and insecurity.”
In Wales, we are particularly at risk, and the Chancellor’s plans are bad news for low and middle-income earners across the country. However, just as we successfully opposed his pernicious cuts to tax credits, we will continue to highlight the fact that the Chancellor’s plans will leave Welsh families worse off.
The autumn statement also saw yet another cut to the Welsh budget. Over the next five years, Wales will see a real-terms revenue cut of 4.5% and a cut to its overall budget of 3.6%. When Labour was in government in Westminster, we increased the Welsh budget from £7 billion in 1999 to £16 billion in 2010.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. In my recollection, going into the last UK election, the Labour party said that it would broadly copy the fiscal policy put forward by the Conservative party. Will she tell us what the cut would have been to the Welsh budget under Labour?
No, we did not actually say that—if the hon. Gentleman checks his facts, he will see that we did not.
As I was saying, by the time this Conservative Government leave office in 2020, we will have seen an 11% cut in the Welsh budget. For all the Government’s talk of economic recovery, they have delivered a mountain of cuts since 2010, and their decisions will do further harm to the Welsh economy over the next five years.
The hon. Lady talks about 11% cuts to the Welsh budget, but how does that compare to the regions and Departments of England? She has not once mentioned the commitments on the national living wage. Will she welcome that as well as banging on with the diatribe we have heard on universal credit?
The hon. Gentleman may think it is a diatribe but I do not—these are the facts, and the so-called national living wage is yet more rhetoric from the Conservative party.
In Neath Port Talbot, the county borough in which my constituency sits, the local authority has seen a cumulative cut of £65 million to its budget since 2010, not including this coming financial year, with further planned cuts potentially of £37 million over the next three years—a total of £102 million being taken out of its budget in eight years. That has meant its workforce has shrunk by 20%, and it is important to point out that those cuts have come as a direct consequence of UK Government cuts to the Welsh budget. That has hit local services hard, leading to the unwanted but necessary reduction in support for community facilities, such as libraries and leisure centres.
The IFS has estimated that the tax and social security changes introduced in the last Parliament cost the average Welsh family £560 a year and took £700 million out of the Welsh economy each year. According to the IFS, the Chancellor’s plans mean that Welsh households will lose a further £500 each year between 2015 and 2019, meaning an annual loss of £660 million to our economy.
The Chancellor made much of implementing a Barnett floor to ensure that the funding gap between Wales and England does not widen further. I welcome that announcement. Six years on from the Holtham report, which recommended such a floor, I am pleased that the Government have finally pledged to deliver that mechanism, but the simple fact is that the floor makes hardly any difference when spending on Wales is falling. What is unacceptable, and completely at odds with the recommendations of the Holtham report, is that the Barnett floor is only being set at its present level of 115% of spending in England for the duration of this Parliament, with the amount being “reset” at the next spending review
“to take full account of the Welsh Government’s new powers and responsibilities.”
Not at the moment—I have to make progress.
We are all well aware of the Chancellor’s habit of slashing funding from central Government then expecting local government and the devolved Administrations to make up the shortfall. That policy ensures that the poorest areas are hardest hit. If the Chancellor plans to use the devolution of income tax to Wales as a cover to cut Welsh funding further and to lower the Barnett floor, that will understandably be seen by the people of Wales as an unacceptable outcome.
The autumn statement was also largely silent on the vital infrastructure projects that Wales needs. Despite its strategic importance to the Swansea bay city region, of which my constituency is a part, there was not a single mention of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon in the Chancellor’s statement. Along with the 22% cuts that the Chancellor announced to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, perhaps that silence signals the Government’s lack of commitment to green energy.
In light of the landmark agreement reached in Paris last weekend, we know that projects such as the tidal lagoon are essential if this country is to meet its international obligations to combat climate change. Unfortunately, although important progress was made in Paris, I understand that the pledges will not achieve the aim of limiting global average temperature rise to below 2 °C, so further action is urgently needed.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way again. Will she take the point that there is also the Cardiff lagoon to consider, and that investors around the world are being shaken by what she and other Labour Members are saying about tidal lagoons at a very critical point, when we are negotiating the strike price? They are endangering lagoons, and not just the Swansea lagoon.
I do not quite understand what that intervention means. We are not causing the uncertainty; the Government are.
The Swansea bay tidal project is also of critical importance because of the potential jobs and investment that it will bring across south Wales, as well as the apprenticeships promised to institutions such as the Neath Port Talbot College group. It is estimated that up to 1,900 jobs could be created during the lagoon’s construction phase, with many more jobs being created in the supply chains. Local businesses are eagerly anticipating the investment that the project will bring, so it would be a travesty if the UK Government failed to deliver this opportunity. Will the Minister confirm that the Government remain committed to the project and to agreeing a strike price for the tidal lagoon?
Another project that is of vital importance to the whole of south Wales is the electrification of the Great Western line from London to Swansea. Again, the Chancellor paid lip service to the scheme during the autumn statement, but he did not give any further details and now we know why. Since the autumn statement, it has emerged that electrification of the line between Cardiff and Swansea, which was due by 2018, will not be completed until between 2019 and 2024. That is an unacceptable delay and one that has the potential to damage the economies of south-west Wales, which will still be waiting for electrification years after electrification to Cardiff is complete.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member; she is being extremely generous in giving way again. I agree with everything she has said about the electrification to Swansea; we have been seriously let down on that particular issue by the UK Government since the election.
The comprehensive spending review came with the statement of funding policy document, which refers to High Speed 2. In that document, Wales gets a 0% rating, which has a drastic effect on the overall comparability percentage when the Barnett formula is applied. Can the hon. Member explain why the Labour Government in Cardiff are accepting the line of the Tory Government here in London that Wales will not lose out on many millions of pounds in the future because of that decision?
The news about HS2 comes just weeks after the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the £1.5 billion rise in the cost of electrification to Cardiff was “staggering and unacceptable”. It is now down to the Government to get a grip of the project, to ensure that the upgraded line is delivered quickly and with the maximum value for money for the taxpayer. With that in mind, can the Minister please tell us when he expects the electrification to Swansea to be complete?
The Chancellor was also noticeably lukewarm about proposals to develop city regions in Swansea and Cardiff, which are landmark developments with the capacity to transform transport and economic opportunity across 10 local authorities. The Welsh Government have committed £580 million to the project and the local councils have pledged £120 million, but the autumn statement just confirmed that the Government were committed “in principle” to the proposals. Can the Minister please confirm whether the UK Government will match the funding pledged by the Welsh Government?
Finally, the Chancellor confirmed that highly skilled Welsh workers in Wrexham, Swansea and Porthmadog will lose their jobs with the closure of more tax offices across Wales. We have already suffered through the closure of offices in Carmarthen, Merthyr, Pembroke Dock and Colwyn Bay in 2013, which, for example, forced workers from Colwyn Bay to travel to Wrexham to work. Are those employees now expected to travel to Cardiff to work?
The effects of the autumn statement will soon be felt by families across Wales, many of whom have suffered because of the last five years of cuts. The spending review should have been about delivering a sustainable settlement to boost the Welsh economy. Instead, the Chancellor avoided the big infrastructure challenges facing Wales and delivered another cut to the budget of the Welsh Government, and his cuts to universal credit mean that thousands of Welsh families will begin losing out from next year. What is more, we learned that the Government are removing the requirement of a referendum on devolving tax powers to Wales. I regret that the autumn statement did not have the interests of Wales at its heart, and people in Wales will suffer as a consequence.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship once again. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for securing this debate on the Government’s spending review and autumn statement. It is an opportunity to try to answer many of the questions that have been put, and to clarify the great opportunities that the autumn statement brings for our nation.
The Chancellor set out in the spending review and the autumn statement how the Government will deliver economic security, national security and opportunity for Welsh families. In Wales, the Government’s economic plan will build on the improvements made during the last Parliament. Since 2010, only London has grown more per head than Wales; unemployment in Wales has fallen by 26% since 2010; and in the last year alone, employment in Wales grew by more than 43,000. This investment continues to be made in this Parliament. Hopefully Labour Members will agree that the increase in capital funding for the Welsh Government—an increase of more than £900 million, or 16% in real terms, over five years—will support investment projects that matter to Wales and the Welsh economy.
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Neath focused on revenue expenditure, and at the close of her speech she talked about the lack of infrastructure investment. A 16% increase in capital spending certainly allows any infrastructure deficiency to be fixed by the Welsh Government. I suggest that all Members focus their attention on delivery, including the delivery by the Welsh Government of many projects, such as the M4 relief road, the electrification of valleys lines and other capital projects around Wales. When the hon. Lady’s predecessor, Peter Hain, was the Member for Neath, he cancelled the M4 relief road back in 1997. It is hard to believe that despite there being a Labour Administration in Cardiff Bay since 1999, we are still debating the same project, which is vital for the prosperity of Wales, given the commercial opportunities that it would create.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way, and his reply will be very useful to me as somebody who represents the communities in the west of our country. When the borrowing powers were awarded to the Welsh Government, was there a caveat that enhanced borrowing powers would only become available if the money was invested in the M4 relief road, or has that decision been made by the Labour Members in the Welsh Government independently?
I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with further details. I can confirm now that the Welsh Government’s power to borrow up to £500 million for capital spending was initially due to start wholesale in 2018. The UK Government recognise that those powers are integral to the delivery of the M4 relief road, so early access to the borrowing powers was facilitated. The hon. Gentleman will know that that happened some years ago, but we are yet to see those borrowing powers being exercised to deliver that vital road project.
The hon. Gentleman will also know that during the recent rugby world cup, many demands and calls were made for that relief road. That is why, as I have pointed out, it was sad that that project was cancelled in 1997, following the previous Government’s decision to deliver that road.
This is not just about the big projects. Our capital city is still without a ring road, and the eastern bay link has been on the cards for many a year. Even when it comes to smaller capital projects, the Welsh Government just do not get on and deliver.
My hon. Friend highlights another infrastructure project that has been called for. I can certainly remember that project from before the turn of the century. Businesses would welcome it. Bear in mind the resources available: the 16% increase in capital spend gives the Welsh Government the opportunity and the power. Instead of focusing on some of the issues raised today, this debate should focus on delivery by the Welsh Government, because all the resources have been put in their hands. The spending review saw more than just economic investment in skills and infrastructure.
On the implications of the autumn statement beyond economic development, one of the consequences that was not, I think, specifically announced in the Chamber on that day was a very big cut to the support for Sianel Pedwar Cymru, the Welsh language channel, from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Does the Minister share the disappointment that those of us who love the Welsh language—I know that that includes him—feel about that huge reduction in support? It may have an implication for the BBC’s support for S4C. It is particularly disappointing for the Minister and me because of our party’s record in stimulating the Welsh language and S4C over the past 30 years.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. S4C is crucial for the vitality of the language, and it creates social, cultural and economic opportunities. It would be wholly improper for me to provide a running commentary on the charter renewal negotiations. They are ongoing, but I am pleased to hear that Tony Hall said that broadcasting in the nations needs to be protected by the BBC, and I would hope that that would extend to S4C.
The Minister seems to have forgotten a line from his party’s general election manifesto, which said that if elected, his party would safeguard the funding and editorial independence of S4C. How does he square that commitment with what happened in the comprehensive spending review?
The hon. Lady needs to recognise that the amount of funding from DCMS is relatively small. The proposal to cut from £7.6 million to £5 million over an extended period of time provides an opportunity for S4C to make its contribution to the savings. The spending review proposed £400,000 of funding savings from S4C in the first year, but she needs to recognise that negotiations with the BBC are ongoing, and to recognise the statements coming from Tony Hall. We welcome those statements and hope that the BBC will be able to deliver on them.
The Welsh Government’s total funding is underpinned by our commitment to introducing a funding floor, as the hon. Member for Neath said. I would have hoped that she would have welcomed the funding floor, because it was only two weeks before the autumn statement that there was a debate in this Chamber about the need for a funding floor. There was doubt that it would be delivered, but a funding floor of 115% will be introduced. That is well within the Holtham commission’s fair funding range, and I would have hoped that that would be welcomed by the hon. Lady.
The surveyor and architect of fair funding for Wales, Gerry Holtham, analysed the position and came up with a range of solutions. After the autumn statement, he said that it was a fair settlement. That is the fundamental point. There will be political commentary from all around, but the person commissioned by the Welsh Government to provide the assessment and establish the financial relationship between the UK Government and the Welsh Government has said that it is a fair settlement, and that is testament to the strength of the Administration in Westminster, which has delivered on something that has been talked about, but never delivered, by the Opposition.
My apologies, Mr Hollobone, for arriving a minute into the debate. On the 115% Barnett floor, why is it only for the term of the Parliament? What is the Government’s thinking behind that? The Minister will be aware of the worry that there is no long-term commitment. I am sure he will say, “Governments can only bind one Parliament”, but what is his thinking, long term?
Having been a Minister, the hon. Gentleman will know that no Government can bind another Government, though I would largely welcome a Government that could bind a Labour Administration, hopefully in the long-term future, to prevent them from pursuing the sorts of policies that they would want to introduce. Clearly, that is not how democracy works. It is obvious that this Administration can only plan for this Administration, and it would be wholly wrong and inappropriate to come up with commitments that bind any future Administration. The hon. Gentleman tried hard to draw something from me, but I hope he will respect the argument that he would be making, were he standing in my position.
I hope that Opposition Members recognise the commitment. The surveyor and architect of fair funding said that this was a “very reasonable” and fair settlement. Any political rhetoric on the issue needs to recognise the comments of that independent commentator.
Another element of the autumn statement enabled the Welsh Government to alter Welsh rates of income tax without a referendum. That offers exciting opportunities to attract new investors, and tax powers to reform the Welsh economy. The Welsh Government can take on more responsibility for how they raise money, as well as how they spend it. The National Assembly will finally take its place alongside other mature legislatures by being accountable to the people it serves. The new tax-raising powers put important fiscal levers in the hands of the Welsh Government, which they can use to grow the Welsh economy, to deliver new opportunities and to attract new investment.
Silk estimated that a 1p cut in the higher rate of tax would equate to a drop in revenue of £12 million. That is only a little more than the Welsh Government reportedly lost selling land in Monmouthshire, for example. Think of the opportunities that the cut of one penny could create: tens of millions of pounds might be spent on business support, or other discrete areas of the Welsh Government. People can now make a comparison: should they pursue one policy, given its cost to the taxpayer, or another, such as reducing the rate of income tax to attract investors and entrepreneurs to Wales?
The leader of the Conservative party in Wales has opened up the front on this matter by proposing a 5p drop in the top rate of income tax. That would equate to £40 million or £50 million, which is not a drop in the ocean in terms of the Welsh budget. It is curious that the leader of the Conservative party in Wales thinks that that is the best way to incentivise entrepreneurship, rather than investment in infrastructure, the innovation funds and everything else. Why does it have to be a cut in the top rate of tax? How many people on the frontline of our public services, including nurses and the police, have already been cut? Have the Conservatives made those calculations when committing to a 5p cut in the top rate of income tax?
The hon. Gentleman is demonstrating his misunderstanding, because he compares capital projects with revenue projects. The rate of income tax would affect revenue projects only. These are the sorts of policies that could be presented in a manifesto. People can choose whether they want to see money spent on pet projects of the Welsh Government or a cut in income tax. People will make their choices according to their objectives, but it is up to each political party to make its case. The whole point about the autumn statement is that it empowers the Welsh Government to make the case on whether it should be spending more or less.
It is up to people to make judgments on what are pet projects. The point I am making is that we are in a serious debate. The opportunity to cut income tax rates is an opportunity to attract more investors and entrepreneurs to Wales.
In the 20 seconds that remain of the debate, I want to scotch any concern about the Barnett consequentials for HS2 funding in the autumn statement. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has misunderstood the tables presented in the statement. We will happily go through it and write to him with the detail.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Specialist Neuromuscular Care and Treatments
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
Thank you very much, Mr Brady. I was not sure whether you were going to say something more from the Chair before I spoke again. May I welcome you warmly to the Chair? Perhaps we will get through this debate together without knowing too many details about the procedure.
I also welcome the Minister to his position. When one is a Minister, one sometimes finds oneself in debates where it is déjà vu all over again, as they say. I am afraid that this is probably going to be one of those debates, but it is no less serious than the debate that we had last week on this subject, and I am grateful for the opportunity that the House has given me to reinforce that debate, by allowing this debate today. I see colleagues in the Chamber who were also here last week, and they will know how passionately I feel about this subject; indeed, many of my colleagues, from all parties in the House, feel passionately about it.
I really am delighted to have an opportunity to speak about this subject, because as I think we all know, there are more than 60 different types of muscular dystrophy and related neuromuscular conditions. It is now widely accepted that approximately 1,000 children and adults for every 1 million of the population in the UK are affected by these muscle-wasting conditions, and it is estimated that some 70,000 people right across the UK are affected.
I appreciate that there are other areas that we could discuss under this topic, and I am sure that we will hear from colleagues about them. However, I will use this opportunity to concentrate on muscular dystrophies such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, on which I have been working hard with my constituents, the Hill family, in order to gain access to a drug called Translarna.
Around 2,500 children and adults in the UK have Duchenne and almost all of them are male. The condition is caused by the lack of a vital muscle protein called dystrophin. It leads to muscles weakening and wasting over time, and to increasingly severe disability. The vital heart and breathing muscles are affected, which often causes devastating cardiac and respiratory difficulties. In older patients, assisted ventilation can be required, which necessitates 24-hour care. Some patients have to undergo a tracheostomy procedure and, sadly, few people live with this condition past their 30th birthday.
Duchenne has a huge impact on families and on the individuals who suffer from it. Only about 100 boys are diagnosed with it every year in the UK, but it is hard to overstate the devastation to the individual and the surrounding family that it causes. The diagnosis is really hard to come to terms with, and the family must deal with huge challenges as the condition progresses and the patient grows older. It usually leads to full-time wheelchair use, surgery for scoliosis, which often involves inserting iron rods into the patient’s back, and the use of full-time assisted ventilation.
As the Minister knows, there is a very brave little boy who is my constituent. He is called Archie Hill and his parents, Gary and Louisa Hill, together with his brother, Leyton, have campaigned tirelessly for access to Translarna. To put things in context for my colleagues who are here for this debate, I can do no better than to use the words, once again, of Gary and Louisa Hill, which I hope will help people to understand the devastation that this condition causes:
“Being told your child will probably die before you, has to be the most devastating thing you can tell anyone. Archie was diagnosed in 2008. Over the next couple of years we became very reclusive, barely getting out the car at school drop off, sometimes not even answering the phone...we wanted to grieve on our own (grieving is not too strong a word). We’re angry, we look at other families and wonder why us?”
They wonder why it has happened to their beautiful child. They blame themselves, even though they know it is not their fault.
The emotional effect on siblings is really apparent, although I have to say that, having met Leyton, I know he is a fantastic support to his brother and to his mother and father. He is an integral part of this team and should be equally praised for his courage and perseverance. I know that he struggles with his concentration, and that he is deeply affected by his brother’s condition, but he is also a very brave little boy coping with this in his family.
Archie faces huge day-to-day challenges. His parents say:
“He is taken out of lessons for physio on a daily basis. He suffers from…mood swings”.
I find that hardly surprising. They go on:
“Every so often he will ask us questions about his condition; does it only affect my legs? Do I always have to take this medicine? Why do I have to wear the night splints?”
He asks all the sorts of questions that a child of his age would ask their parents when they knew that they were suffering from this condition.
Despite that, Archie has great stamina, and he has spent whole days here campaigning, marching up to Downing Street and telling the Prime Minister what he wants and what the Prime Minister should do about it. Quite frankly, he is one of the pluckiest little spirits that I have ever met in my life.
I see the Minister nodding his head; I know that he agrees; anybody who has met Archie will know that what I am saying is true.
It is not just Archie who is affected by this condition. Sue Barnley, whose son Harry would benefit from Translarna, says:
“If Harry could get Translarna now whilst he is the best he is ever going to get, ie not gaining any more skills, only deteriorating then this will enable us to have more fun on a day to day basis. We gain a lot of support from our family and friends already, this will only increase as time goes on.”
She goes on to say:
“It seems cruel that the drug is there to make a massive difference in our lives, yet it is totally out of reach. Living with Duchenne is like living under a very dark cloud, we as parents know what Harry’s…future holds, to have some extra time living for the ‘here and now’ would make a BIG BIG difference, time to make and treasure some extra memories before our lives become totally engulfed by this awful disease.”
As the Minister knows, I have worked quite closely with Muscular Dystrophy UK and I have nothing but praise for that organisation, because it goes the extra mile for the people it represents. In my experience, the way that it deals with parliamentarians, offering them briefs and helping them, is second to none. It is an organisation that I trust, and I believe that it gives us the right information at the right time. It says that for older boys and men who have this condition, the respiratory function is compromised and the challenges get even greater for them and their families, because they have to engage with and face what many find to be truly frightening aspects of the condition.
One mother with whom Muscular Dystrophy UK works closely was called out to her son’s residential home at 2 am one weekend in September due to an emergency incident. Although her son was not hospitalised long term, he was experiencing increasing difficulties, and his mother told us that
“he is very conscious of his own mortality.”
Other young men are hospitalised frequently and often for long periods of time due to chest infections, which are very difficult to shift and are life-threatening. The current time of year is a frightening time for young men with Duchenne, because as we all know, respiratory infections abound, but in their case, hospitalisation is much more likely than it is for other people.
The Minister knows that Translarna is available from a company called PTC Therapeutics. We should put the benefits of Translarna in the context of a very short life. The early loss of the ability to walk is associated with a faster progression of the disease, and the later stages, as I have just described, are frightening and absolutely devastating. In a short life, the main goal is to spend as much of that life as possible in the best state of health and with the best quality of life. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence—we are waiting for its decision on Translarna—must apply significant weight to any benefits that can be obtained through the use of Translarna in the context of that short and limited life. A delay in any of the devastating consequences of the disease, no matter how short, contributes to quality of life.
While Translarna is not yet licensed for use as an end-of-life medicine—it is still to be tested in clinical trials with older patients—evidence from existing trials shows that it delays the progression of the disease during a significant stage of a boy’s life. The trials also indicate that it is likely to delay the end of life, as a proxy measure. NICE has to give special consideration to the limited life expectancy of these boys when it is looking at this issue.
Translarna was the first licensed drug to tackle the underlying genetic cause of Duchenne and to keep boys walking for longer. Boys with the specific nonsense mutation of Duchenne, such as my constituent Archie Hill, have been waiting a year and a half since the European Medicines Agency approval in May 2014 for a decision on whether Translarna will be approved in England. It was a conditional approval, but the rubber stamp with it meant that the drug was then available in such countries as France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Denmark. That prompts the obvious question: if a European citizen can travel to any of those countries and get Translarna, why can they not get Translarna here in England?
I appreciate that there is a process that has to be gone through, and that due process needs to be followed, but it seems a cruel and unusual punishment that we have been waiting for more than a year and a half to see whether the drug can be made available to children in our country. As things stand, families face the prospect of a further agonising delay to NICE’s decision over Christmas. If I have stressed it once, I have stressed it over and over again: every day counts as those boys lose ambulation and become ineligible for Translarna.
Boosting clinical trial capacity for Duchenne muscular dystrophy is important. As Translarna becomes available for treatment, as I hope it will, it will apply only to 10% to 15% of boys with Duchenne. Other treatments are beginning to emerge. With the growth in clinical trials for Duchenne, specialist muscle centres—that is where the studies are conducted—are reporting that they are having to turn studies away due to a lack of resources and capacity. As part of a new initiative by Duchenne charities to address those concerns, Muscular Dystrophy UK has conducted an audit of clinical trial capacity and submitted that to the accelerated access review as evidence confirming that worrying picture. If the issue is not addressed, as the Minister knows—he is nodding his head in agreement—there is a risk that the promising drugs for Duchenne that are in the pipeline and in clinical trial will not continue to improve and meet their potential, hampering the search for effective treatments.
Muscular Dystrophy UK’s audit also found an excessively high clinical workload being placed on small and overstretched teams, which means that they are unable to participate in clinical trials through, for example, recruiting patients. That also means that children affected by Duchenne are unable to enrol in trials where they could access a new therapy. To aid the development of clinical trials, it is important that standards of NHS care for Duchenne patients are high across the country to ensure that patients on clinical trials are generally in the same state of health and physical shape. While there are some centres of excellence, such as Newcastle and Great Ormond Street, other parts of the country have much less developed services, and essential therapies, such as specialist physiotherapy, are not regularly provided.
Centres have also expressed concern that excess treatment costs—the additional costs of treating patients enrolled in research—are not being reimbursed to centres by clinical commissioning groups. That is a clear point of friction, and it limits the centres’ ability to take part in research. NHS England recently issued guidance on the issue, but it is not yet clear whether that will be enforced in practice.
Turning to the NICE guidelines on uncommon neurological conditions, a huge problem faces families and health professionals because there is no NICE guideline for any muscular dystrophies or neuromuscular conditions, which is why NHS England has asked NICE to develop clinical guidance on the assessment, diagnosis and referral of uncommon neurological problems. Muscular Dystrophy UK attended the initial scoping workshop on 11 November and will be participating in the consultation, which I understand has already started. While muscular dystrophies and neuromuscular conditions were listed as among the many conditions covered by the guideline and despite past assurances from NICE, there is concern that the focus on muscle-wasting conditions might be minimal unless the complexities of the conditions are highlighted. Given the internationally recognised standards of care for Duchenne and spinal muscular atrophy, it is disappointing that the NICE guidelines that are being developed are far more generic than the original guideline proposed by NICE to cover uncommon neuromuscular conditions in a letter to Muscular Dystrophy UK in November 2013.
Muscular Dystrophy UK has proposed that the guidelines should address the following: paediatric neuromuscular services specifically for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, in conjunction with current guidelines; the use of steroids as effective therapy in terms of the age when the optimal effect can be achieved, whether there should be a continuous or intermittent dosing regime, and how to manage the side effects; spinal surgery to correct or prevent scoliosis, with evidence regarding the optimum age and management pre and post surgery; and respiratory support, with a comparison of the evidence regarding invasive and non-invasive interventions, including comparisons with experiences in Denmark, where evidence suggests that men with Duchenne are living into their 40s because of the relatively high standard of respiratory support. So far as adult neuromuscular services are concerned, the guidelines need to address: diagnosis and the importance of GPs recognising the conditions, making early referrals and ensuring effective links from primary into tertiary care; respiratory support, as I have talked about before; and cardiac support, including regular monitoring to detect and address the deterioration of the heart through the progression of muscle-wasting conditions.
High costs can be involved in unplanned emergency admissions due to Duchenne and other muscle-wasting conditions, and in living with such conditions. There is a cost attached to not taking action to implement preventative care. Access to specialist multidisciplinary care, including access to respiratory, cardiac and physiotherapy support, can contribute to reducing avoidable, unplanned emergency admissions to hospital. A clinical audit of emergency hospital admissions that was led by Professor Mike Hanna revealed in June 2012 that 40% of these costly admissions could have been prevented if patients had been able to access expert tertiary care, specialist physiotherapy and—this is the worst finding of all—vital medical equipment. It has been estimated that addressing those issues could save the NHS more than £32 million a year as the appropriate proportion of NHS spending on neuromuscular services.
The cost of living with Duchenne is enormous. In the first study of its kind, academics found that the overall care for each patient with Duchenne cost the UK economy about £71,000 a year, giving a national total of £120 million. That survey was led by Newcastle University and a team in Sweden. Some 770 patients and their primary caregivers in the UK, Germany, Italy and the US were asked to complete a questionnaire on their experience of living with Duchenne and its impact on their need to access medical care, employment, leisure time and quality of life. The direct cost of the illness across all countries was at least eight times higher than the average health expenditure per person, and the figure for the UK was 16 times higher. The overall figures included medical treatment as well as the cost associated with the loss of employment among caregivers. In the UK, nearly half of caregivers reduced their working hours or stopped working completely owing to their relatives’ Duchenne muscular dystrophy. I therefore have several questions that I hope the Minister will answer during his winding-up speech.
When we discussed access to medicines last week in Westminster Hall, the Minister mentioned that he had made contact with NICE about both Translarna and Vimizin. I hope he feels that he may have reached a point with NICE such that he can talk about those drugs. I understand that they are used in similar situations, so if there is good news about Vimizin, we hope there will be good news about Translarna, and vice-versa.
Will the Minister provide more details on ensuring standards of care for muscular dystrophy and neuromuscular conditions? I really hope that clinical trials will be developed, so will he say a little more about that? I also want him to ensure that NICE gives more prominence to muscular dystrophy and neuromuscular conditions in the development of the uncommon neurological conditions guidelines, as was outlined in the original proposal.
Lastly, I hope the Minister will join me in congratulating Muscular Dystrophy UK on its work to develop information and resources for people with muscle-wasting conditions and to support health professionals through its “Bridging the Gap” project. More than 400 GPs and 150 physiotherapists completed the online learning modules about muscular dystrophy. The charity has sent out 4,500 alert cards for specific muscle-wasting conditions and 300 care plans, which is a positive step forward to improve how we treat and look after our patients with Duchenne.
I finish with a plea to the Minister. When I asked for this debate, as he knows, it was entirely based on trying to get Translarna cleared for Archie Hill. The Hill family went on holiday today, I think shortly before the debate began. I do not know what the Minister can do to speed the process along but, for the Hill family and Archie, and for all the other children and their parents at this time of year, if the Minister could ask NICE to bring forward a positive decision on Translarna, it would be the best Christmas present that any parent or child could get.
Order. Five or six Members want to participate and I want to get on to the winding-up speeches by no later than 3.35 pm. Although there is no formal time limit on speeches, if Members can keep their remarks to around six or seven minutes, we will be able to accommodate everybody.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on speaking with such passion once again about her constituent and neuromuscular disorders. Such disorders often do not receive the profile of other medical conditions, yet for each of the 70,000 people affected, they are all-encompassing. I want to talk about a range of services and the challenges within them. I recognise that the conditions affect adults as well as children. I declare my interest as a physiotherapist who has worked in this field in the NHS for 20 years and is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. I want to examine three themes: specialist services and how they are delivered; transition; and a timely response at the time of need.
I will deal first with specialist services. A multidisciplinary team is essential for delivering services to people with neuromuscular disorders, but access can often be challenging. District hospitals have teams of staff who specialise in paediatrics, neurology or other fields, but those people might not have the specific skills that are needed when dealing with neuromuscular disorders. Practitioners are practised in the principles of such conditions, but might not be as familiar with particular syndromes, given that there are so many—60 or more, as we have heard. This situation is likely to be exacerbated in the community when general practitioners and community physios do not have the specific skills, so it is important to ensure that people with these conditions can access those with the right skills who understand the pathology of the disorder and the specialist treatment that is required.
For instance, there are two specialist centres in London and one in Oxford for the whole of the south-east, so people have to travel vast distances to consult a specialist team. Owing to the nature of their disability, that can be very challenging, and the centres can even prove to be inaccessible, especially as their disease advances. How do we bring specialist services to those with neuromuscular disorders? How do we train staff to provide optimum care in the community, and how do we provide a rapid self-referral service when that is needed?
If I take muscular dystrophy as an example, paediatric patients in York benefit from Leeds general infirmary’s outreach service. That provides an opportunity for families to meet specialist practitioners but, obviously, some have to travel to those services. Will the Minister ensure that funding for that outreach hub-and-spoke model of service provision will continue and that clinicians will be able to travel to deliver their services, either individually or as a team?
It is important that services are placed in appropriate locations. For example, if a patient will benefit from hydrotherapy, we need hydropools to be available. Anisa Kothia, a member of the York muscle group, has a son, Yusef, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and hydrotherapy is a vital component of his treatment. It relaxes his muscles so that his limbs can be taken through their range of movements, and the buoyancy of the water helps his movement. Will the Minister support a national review between the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government into hydrotherapy provision and ensure that any deficits are addressed?
Ongoing services rely on clinicians with less of a specialism, however, so that requires professionals to be trained and the provision of regular updates, which is why Gita Ramdharry, associate professor at St George’s, University of London, and Kingston University, has been working with Muscular Dystrophy UK to develop new online physiotherapy training. Will the Minister set aside resources to ensure that we can have specialist online training to equip professionals to provide the optimum treatment? Obviously, more specialist care training is also needed which, for physio, can be very hands-on.
I have had discussions with senior clinicians in other fields about global medical education. I think that that is relevant for neuromuscular disorders, because such disorders often require a global view that enables recruitment from around the world to participate in webinars, to examine case studies and academic papers, and to demonstrate learning by making a submission. We need to take medical training to another level, so will the Minister look at that more deeply, particularly with regard to neuromuscular conditions?
Before I move on, I want to highlight that much of the care for long-term progressive conditions is provided by the family. Good self-management is key, as Labour’s expert patient initiative has proven. If the professional knows the patient and their condition, the treatment will be optimal and will provide the best support. For example, a chest infection often accompanies a neuromuscular disorder, and a chest physio who knows the patient will know how best to support sputum clearance with a combination of the best postural drainage, manual support, and expectoration or suction techniques. Knowing exactly what the patient needs is critical, and can be life-saving.
All physios have the competencies required to treat a patient, but knowing the individual can make the difference. Rapid access to services can be transformative, and self-referral is very important, so will the Minister ensure that all services provide rapid-access routes to the appropriate clinicians and that all patients can self-refer, rather than having to go through the normal access channels? In north and west Yorkshire, we have only one neuromuscular care adviser to cover more than 3,500 adults and children. Will the Minister recognise the need to provide additional professionals in that role, including in north Yorkshire?
I have previously talked about the need to review the transition between child and adolescent mental health services, and adult mental health services. We should do the same for neuromuscular disorders, because using someone’s age as a measure is arbitrary. The pathology of Duchenne muscular dystrophy is more likely to be understood in paediatric services than adult services, owing to the number of children who, sadly, still do not make it to adulthood. A person’s medical team and physios know that individual and know how to progress their treatment. It is entirely arbitrary and nonsensical that someone’s birthday should determine that they have to transfer to another team.
Continuity of service provision is important. The condition of those who do reach adulthood is often at an advanced stage, so they need continuity. The findings in the field are that young adults are often lost in the service and then re-emerge later with problems that were preventable. Will the Minister take a serious look at the interface between paediatric and adult services right across the Department of Health, and particularly with regard to neuromuscular disorders, because surely specialism should override age?
We should be making a timely response to need. A worsening situation has been observed across the spectrum of neuromuscular disorders. It has been seen by clinicians in practice, and now constituents are writing to me about it. Orthotics, wheelchairs and equipment must be in place when they are needed. Infants and children grow, and disease processes may degenerate, so the combination of the two means that expediency is important. Patients are waiting far too long for appropriate equipment, and that is essentially an issue of under-resourcing and poor prioritisation.
If someone is measured for a chair, they need that chair, but people are waiting month upon month before their chair arrives. While they are waiting, they will be positioned inappropriately and might not even have enough support for their frame. That can exacerbate pain, as well as compromise a patient’s musculoskeletal situation and, dangerously, their respiratory function. There is absolutely no excuse for that. When a chair arrives, a patient needs it, so we need to ensure that we get the right equipment in the right place at the right time.
Planning for what equipment will be required is part of the management process, because people must always be prepared for the next stage, and the outsourcing of services has made the situation far worse. With life-limiting conditions, there is no time to wait. Will the Minister agree to carry out an urgent review of the situation? Will he ensure that, starting on 1 April 2016, there will be a waiting-time marker for the renewal and provision of equipment so that the time between the initial request for an assessment and the patient receiving the equipment is measured?
For someone with a rare condition, their future depends on the whole NHS and care service working around them to provide optimum support. I have not touched on research and pharmaceuticals, nor on advances in science, but there are things that can be done immediately that can really change someone’s outcomes. We need the best provision and to give individuals hope to ensure that we can extend their life and improve their quality of life. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who secured this important debate today. It is on a recurring theme which she brings us back to time and again. Not only does she work tirelessly to highlight the case of her constituent, Archie Hill, but she is extremely knowledgeable, so I will endeavour not to repeat any of her comments because I want to give other Members the chance to contribute.
Like my right hon. Friend, I have a constituent who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Jagger Curtis is a pupil at Romsey Abbey primary school and is just eight years old. I have highlighted Jagger’s case in this Chamber before and I have raised it twice at Prime Minister’s questions, but, like Archie, Jagger is still waiting for an answer on whether he will be allowed to have Translarna. I will focus briefly on the issue of treatment, but mainly I want to echo my right hon. Friend’s calls, asking when families such as Jagger’s can expect to be notified of guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on access to Translarna.
I know the Minister is aware of the time sensitivities of access to this drug—it has to be prescribed while the patient is still mobile—so I ask him to consider meeting me and my constituents, Jules Geary and James Curtis, who are Jagger’s parents, to discuss how the process might be accelerated. It might not necessarily be accelerated now, for their son, but it should be for the other hundred boys who will be diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy every single year. We have been waiting many months for a decision on Translarna, and every deadline appears to result in a decision to prolong matters further. There are concerns about the clinical trial capacity for drugs developed to assist neuromuscular conditions; will the Minister please assure me that he is actively promoting the network of specialist muscle centres as a means to overcome that problem?
Other issues associated with Jagger’s care have also raised huge concerns. He has had to wait far too long for his specialist wheelchair, and there seems to be little understanding that the chair is a lifeline for Jagger and his parents. Last week he went on holiday to Tenerife, and his wheelchair arrived literally just in time—the very day before he went on holiday—despite the fact that it was ordered back in May. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to the fact that children grow and change, and their needs change. It seems to be an absolute tragedy that a child can wait all those months, and then by the time the chair arrives the danger is that it will no longer be correct for their condition.
Jagger still has his mobility, but his parents have done an arguably very difficult thing in making sure that he has that chair. Inevitably, as a child with a condition in which his muscles deteriorate, he tires really easily, so that chair is his lifeline and his access to continued mobility now and in future. He is still suitable for treatment with Translarna—he is one of the boys who has the nonsense mutation—but his family feels as though the clock is ticking very quickly.
Muscular Dystrophy UK has highlighted the problems with wheelchair provision throughout the country. Clinical commissioning groups are now responsible for commissioning wheelchair services. I am really conscious that in west Hampshire there have been delays for many people, not just Jagger. For those with neuromuscular conditions, as the hon. Member for York Central said, it is all about getting the right chair at the right time. It can be particularly devastating for children to have to wait for a chair that enhances their freedom.
I recently saw that Jagger’s mother had posted on Facebook a picture of him proudly showing off his new chair. However, it also said that the family had launched a GoFundMe page to buy a powered sitting and standing chair to enable Jagger to live his life as fully and actively as possible. It is heartbreaking that they are trying to fund that through GoFundMe because they do not have the confidence that the CCG is going to provide that sort of facility for them.
In the south-east we lag behind the rest of the country in the provision of neuromuscular care and adviser support. As we have heard, there are two specialist treatment centres in London and one in Oxford. That is a two-hour journey for a child in a wheelchair, coming via Waterloo, and his parents tell me that it is incredibly difficult for them to do that whenever Jagger needs to come to London for treatment. There is also a problem with specialist guidance. These families are looking for support—they need support, advice and information.
We are lucky that in Romsey we have brilliant GPs, but Jules Geary told me the tale of trying to get Jagger diagnosed. As a first-time mum, she was often dismissed as a worried mother, when in fact she was the one who knew her son best and knew that there was a problem. I do not blame the GPs at all, because if 100 boys are diagnosed every year, one would not expect a GP in Romsey to see it very often. It was not until James read an article in the Daily Mail about Duchenne muscular dystrophy that he pointed his finger and said, “Those are the same symptoms that Jagger has.” They took that article to the GP, and it was only then that the specialist tests were done on Jagger.
I know that we keep returning to this subject, but that is because it is important. It is right that we keep returning to it. Quality of life, especially for children, is crucial. I hope the Minister will look round this Chamber this afternoon and hear the cross-party and apolitical calls for help for those with such conditions, and I hope he will address some of the points that we raise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this debate on a vital issue that affects many young people throughout the UK.
As the right hon. Lady said, neuromuscular diseases come in many different forms. In fact, there are about 60 different types of muscular dystrophy and related neuromuscular conditions, which makes it difficult for the NHS to provide clear-cut statistics on the number of people affected by such diseases. However, research undertaken by Muscular Dystrophy UK suggests that out of every 1 million of the UK’s population, approximately 1,000 children and adults are affected by such muscle-wasting conditions. On that basis, we can estimate that some 70,000 of our constituents, of whom approximately 2,000 live in Northern Ireland, are affected by those conditions.
Another way of totalling the scale of the issue is to look at the admission rates of those with neuromuscular diseases to accident and emergency departments. Muscular Dystrophy UK undertook work on that issue and found that in Northern Ireland in 2011, 787 people with a neuromuscular condition were admitted to A&E departments requiring emergency treatment, at an estimated cost of £2.2 million. Those figures are broadly in line with the GB average. There were 28,000 emergency admissions in the UK, at a cost of £81 million. Relying on the emergency services to fill the gaps in treatment for people with such conditions robs people of their independence and costs the NHS much more than a well-designed system that helps people to manage their conditions and avoids emergencies.
I am sure everyone in this Chamber is in agreement on this issue and wants the best possible treatment and care to be provided to people living with the effects of this cruel disease. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. There is still much work to do—in particular, on an issue that the right hon. Lady already referred to: Duchenne muscular dystrophy and the need for Translarna to be commissioned by NICE and approved by its guidelines. It is important that that happens, because Translarna is already in use in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Families in those countries can use it, but families here are waiting for it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree. His point illustrates that we urgently need a decision from the Minister. I hope the Minister provides us with some welcome information on that issue. It is deeply regrettable that families will go through Christmas not knowing for sure whether the drug will be approved. In the new year, NICE’s decision must not be delayed further. We must end the difficult wait of those families and children.
In Northern Ireland, there has been a commitment for more adult neuromuscular nurse specialists and adult neuromuscular consultants. I share the hope that, when combined with increased care adviser support, the new specialists will begin to improve our currently overstretched services, although there are still valid concerns about how that can be carried out effectively in the context of broader reorganisation and funding scarcity. If we are to achieve the standard of care we all want, much more must be done to co-ordinate better and join up services to ensure patients with muscle-wasting conditions get the help they need efficiently and effectively.
Before I conclude, I want to mention one of my constituents, a lady called Michaela Hollywood, who is wheelchair-bound and was born with spinal muscular atrophy. She was born without ears and is permanently in a wheelchair. She is now 25 years old. She received a Points of Light award, and on Thursday last week she was with the Prime Minister when the Christmas tree lights were turned on in Downing Street. She is on the BBC’s list of the 100 most inspirational women. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Ulster University, and she hopes to go back to do her PhD. She is a lady of immense capacity. She is a campaigner for young people like her with muscle-wasting conditions and, although she spends every day of her life in a wheelchair, she very much enjoys every one of those days because she is a constant campaigner with enormous zeal for life.
Michaela gave evidence to the all-party group on muscular dystrophy in the Northern Ireland Assembly for its report on specialist neuromuscular care. What she said is most important, because it highlights the need for joined-up Government thinking, whether here at Westminster and in the Department for Health or in the devolved Administrations. She said:
“There’s physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, trying just to cover everything. I do receive physiotherapy but it’s a tricky issue because when you’re under 18, with a neuromuscular condition, you have respiratory physio in the community; when you’re over 18 and in the community, with a neuromuscular condition, you’re with disability physios, even though you’re deemed as having a respiratory problem. So that I think is something that is a prime example of the disjointed care that we’re receiving. If we have one specialist multidisciplinary team…that would make things so much easier. If we had a physio that concentrated on neuromuscular diseases but also had experience within respiratory areas, that would make things easier. Also, if we had a cardiologist who pretty much had a good knowledge all round, that would help too.”
Michaela’s words make the case for a joined-up service better than any of us could, so I will end by simply reiterating her appeal for specialist multidisciplinary teams for the treatment of muscular dystrophy to be established. I call on NICE to make its decision on Translarna with the utmost urgency. I hope the Minister will give us some favourable answers to alleviate the distress that is felt by many people throughout the UK.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who made an impassioned plea on behalf of her constituent. Every one of us has constituents who suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and other diseases and problems, so it is always good to make a plea on behalf of them in this Chamber. As always, it is good to see the Minister and the shadow Minister here.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on setting the scene for us all. She clearly outlined the issues, and asked questions of the Minister that we all endorse and support. I thank all other Members who have spoken. I am my party’s spokesperson on health, and I hope to find out about promising developments on the mainland that can be taken back to Northern Ireland, and that thoughts from Northern Ireland can be explained to the Minister. Perhaps the combination of the two can help us to look forward together, in ways that are to our advantage.
As other hon. Members have said, there are some 60 different types of neuromuscular condition, and it is estimated that around 60,000 to 70,000 people in the UK live with neurological conditions that affect their muscle function. Duchenne muscular dystrophy has been mentioned in particular. A couple of my constituents have that condition, and I am aware of the issues. At an event at the Methodist central hall across the way, people with the condition from across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland clearly explained their needs, the issues—such as the massive advances in medical technology—and the best approaches. There are different levels of Duchenne, and what is medicine for one may not be medicine for another; that is the point I am trying to make.
In Northern Ireland, an estimated 1,600 people in the Southern Health and Social Care Trust area alone are diagnosed with neurological illnesses each year. That is equivalent to the number diagnosed with a major cancer; the conditions we are debating are of as great a relevance as some better-known ones. An estimated 34,000 people in Northern Ireland suffer from a disabling long-term neurological or neuromuscular condition such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or one of the rare disorders such as motor neurone disease or muscular dystrophy, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Neurological symptoms such as headaches are one of the most common reasons for seeing a general practitioner, and they account for up to 8% of emergency department visits.
Last year, a new dedicated out-patient centre for neurology, with some responsibility for neuromuscular issues, was opened in Northern Ireland. That has been a positive development in the Province, helping with the nationwide momentum for access to treatment, and better treatment, for those living with neurological conditions. The new facility helps us to move towards meeting some of the latest standards in caring for people with long-term neurological and neuromuscular conditions. Since it opened, feedback has been very positive. Improved access to a modernised facility makes life much easier for patients and greatly improves their overall experience of their care.
I understand that the proposed multidisciplinary team will include neuromuscular consultants, neuromuscular physiotherapists and speech and language therapists, along with other care professionals. One of the key service outcomes, which I welcome, is that all patients with long-term neurological conditions have an individual care plan. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) commented on access to wheelchairs; it is important for each individual to have a wheelchair that suits them. That might seem a small thing to some people, but to the patients it is massive. With 60,000 to 70,000 people in the UK living with neurological conditions, we must take those conditions seriously and prioritise our responsibility to those living with them.
A landmark decision could end the agonising wait for the delivery of the treatment that we are talking about to all those eligible to benefit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For those in Northern Ireland who benefited from the dedicated out-patient service I mentioned, I am sure this would be an additional boost. Nationwide, the momentum is now in favour of those living with neurological conditions. That may not always be how it feels, but there is a step forward, and we have to look at that, and at how to deliver that better. Although the move is very well intentioned and welcome overall, concerns have been raised and reservations expressed.
I know that the Minister will respond to what has been said about the NICE conditions. Lately he seems regularly to make particular reference to NICE in responding to debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and I think that is what Members are interested in. There is a need for a specific NICE response. It has asked for further clarification from PTC Therapeutics of the degree of benefit that its drug Translarna provides in the treatment of a type of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. DMD is one of a group of muscular dystrophies, which are inherited genetic conditions that cause the body to produce too little dystrophin, a substance crucial for muscle functioning. Seeing some of the young patients who have the condition focuses one’s attention quickly on how critical the availability of the medicine is. The condition leads to changes in the muscle fibres, which gradually weaken the muscles, resulting in an increasing level of disability. The decline in physical functioning in DMD leads to respiratory and cardiac failure and eventual death, usually before the age of 30.
Ataluren is the first licensed treatment for DMD that addresses the loss of dystrophin, the underlying cause of the condition. It has a conditional marketing authorisation in the UK for the treatment of DMD. The families of children affected, and Muscular Dystrophy UK, have campaigned for NHS England to make the drug available, since it became the first EU-approved drug for tackling Duchenne muscular dystrophy last August. The condition affects 2,500 people in the UK, causing increasingly severe disability and cutting lives short. It would be useful if the Minister and his Department could address NICE’s concerns, as it has asked questions. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to NICE and outlined four or five questions. I think that the focus that will emerge from the debate will be on how to improve the NICE guidelines and improve access to drugs throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Whenever I attend health debates in Westminster Hall, I ask whether we can have not just a regional strategy but a UK-wide one, bringing Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales together. Will the Minister consider that? The four regions can benefit from each other’s knowledge. Collectively, we can do better.
I want to speak not so much about Duchenne muscular dystrophy as about Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease—particularly the latter, which is also a neuromuscular condition. I will consider the problem of getting appropriate diagnosis and in-care support from neurologists. That is critical. We have already heard about the difficulty that those living in the wrong part of the country have in obtaining a quick diagnosis and the right support as they progress through the condition.
Neurological disorders account for up to 20% of acute medical admissions, and there are more than 60 different neuromuscular conditions. I was helped to understand the patchwork problem that people experience in getting access to neurological advice, support and guidance by a report commissioned in 2014 by the Association of British Neurologists. With 60,000 to 70,000 people in the UK living with a neuromuscular condition, there is considerable pressure on neurologists, and on specialist diagnosis and support. In 2011, a joint report of the ABN and the Royal College of Physicians, “Local adult neurology services for the next decade”, recommended that all relevant patients be admitted to hospitals that had an acute neurological service led by consultant neurologists. We are nowhere near that position now.
In 2014 a survey by the ABN found that the likelihood of a patient with a neurological problem being seen by a neurologist varies dramatically depending on where they live. The availability of a neurological review varied according to the type of hospital the patient was admitted to—whether it was a neuroscience centre, a neurology centre or a district general hospital, with or without neurological support. It was significantly better to be seen at a neuroscience centre, where there was support on 91% of days. Those who went to a neurological centre got support from a neurologist on only 80% of days. District general hospitals with a neurologist based at them had access to a neurologist on only 58% of working days. In contrast, access for patients at district general hospitals with no resident neurologist was available on only 32% of days. That is totally unacceptable, when we know that access to such neurological support dramatically changes the impact on a patient; there is an effect on their capacity to continue their life, and on their prospects of being discharged from hospital with a good quality of life.
I am concerned about the fact that access to CT and MRI imaging varies between hospitals. MRI was available 24/7 at only 30% of sites in the UK. The 2014 study identified a wide variation in access to specialist services for patients presenting with acute neurological disorders. As liaison neurology services change the diagnosis and management of a high proportion of patients, improving outcomes and reducing length of stay, there is an opportunity to improve both patient care and cost-effectiveness.
The all-party parliamentary group on motor neurone disease recently heard emotional and dramatic evidence from Mark and Katy Styles. Mark worked in local government and Katy was a secondary school teacher before she gave up work to become Mark’s full-time carer. Mark has a form of motor neurone disease called Kennedy’s disease, which is slowly progressive and genetic, passed from mothers to sons. He lives in Canterbury, and they have to travel to University College hospital in London to see a neurologist. That is nonsensical. Support should exist locally, because his condition may soon deteriorate to the extent that he cannot access the neurological support that he and his wife need. When Katy was working, she earned £150 a day. She now gets £67 a week to provide the on-duty, 24/7 care that her husband needs. We must recognise the invaluable work of carers and ensure that they get the necessary support.
Some 30% of people with motor neurone disease will die within one year of diagnosis. It is absolutely critical that they get rapid access to help and support for their condition. I will not repeat all the words that have been said about access to wheelchairs, but I stress that if someone with MND has the wrong wheelchair, they may not be able to communicate that. An ill-fitting wheelchair causes acute pain, but MND sufferers rapidly lose their speech and the ability to move their hands and upper limbs. They cannot communicate that they are in pain or distress, so the provision of wheelchairs is critical.
The APPG commissioned a report last year called “Condemned to Silence” about access to communication support. The issue is not money, because the Government have put money in place for communication support; it is poor roll-out, and something must be done to improve it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that people are not condemned to die without access to communication support, which they need to talk to their loved ones and carers about their needs, and to avoid suffering the indignity of being unable to communicate if they are admitted to hospital.
I have two final points. First, access to care support is critical as conditions deteriorate. People cannot wait for further assessments, or be put on waiting lists for care support, when they often need double-handling care support. If people are not to be condemned to lie in beds, support must be available immediately. Access to hoists and high-low hospital beds is often delayed. We must get faster at providing them. Secondly, access to finance to research such conditions is vital if we are to give families hope, and a sense that time and research will give them—and perhaps family members, who may inherit a condition—a better life in the future.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for securing a debate on a subject that clearly touches many people for various reasons. It is also of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Those Members who know my background as a lawyer and a businessman may be forgiven for asking, “Why are you here to speak about neuromuscular diseases?” I am not a member of the SNP health team, which is lucky to have the profound experience of my hon. Friends the Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), but I am developing something perhaps even more important and certainly more profound: I am living with motor neurone disease within my family.
If I can declare an interest of sorts, Mr Brady, my mother has motor neurone disease and, if Members will allow me, I will restrict my comments to that experience. I do not mean to sideline the 59 other important neuromuscular diseases; I want to ensure that what I say comes from a real place, not just a bunch of briefing notes. That notwithstanding, I want to add my voice to the calls to the Minister to persuade him to get Translarna approved as quickly as is humanly possible. I know that he looks sympathetically on that cause, and we have heard many vivid stories today about how it would affect people quickly.
Like everybody, I would lay claim to my mother—and indeed my wife—being the best that there is. She is the most selfless, dedicated mother in the world. She has literally lived her life for me, my brother, Nicholas, and my baby sister, Poppy—a baby who is now in her twenties. We have been her life. She has lived her life exclusively for us. My brother and sister and I will always be grateful for that. My mother was diagnosed 20 months ago. She kept it a secret with my dad for 16 of those months—thank goodness that she has my dad, with whom she has an unbreakable bond—so I have only been living with it for a few months. It is difficult and, as may become obvious during this speech, extremely raw.
During those 16 months, we witnessed the deterioration of my mother’s speech and joints. She explained the speech by way of fictional dentures that she had apparently had implanted. She explained the hands with reference to a historical arthritis problem in our family. Both were plausible and not really questioned up until the point that she decided to tell us. She did not tell me, my brother or sister or our extended family until after I was lucky enough to be in this place and make my maiden speech. She was determined that I should pursue my dream, and of course her dream, of making Scotland a better nation. I suspect that what she really wants now is a second referendum before it is too late, but I suppose that you get the point.
I will return to my mother later, but I want to pick up on some points made by other Members in this enlightening and touching debate. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is right to say that there are 60 different types of neurological disease, and I hope that she will forgive me for indulging myself with only one of them today. She talked about the Hill family, particularly Archie. I have this vivid image in my mind of Archie running up to 10 Downing Street and giving the Prime Minister what for—if only all of us could get that opportunity.
The speech of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) was touching indeed. She brings a wealth of practical experience, to which the Minister ought to listen carefully. I was particularly captured by her assertion that equipment needs to be made available when needed. It needs to be the right equipment in the right place at the right time, because time moves too quickly with such diseases. I hope that the Minister will pay careful heed to the hon. Lady’s practical experience, which has substantially benefited the debate.
I was particularly touched by the story of Jagger from the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I hope that he enjoys his break in Tenerife and that the Minister will listen to calls for Translarna to be approved as soon as possible.
The debate has been consensual so far, and I want to take the politics out of what I am going to say. I want to touch on some things that Scotland is doing well on motor neurone disease, but I do not mean that to be a criticism of the UK Government. I hope that everybody’s ears are open. If we are doing things right, I sincerely hope that the UK can learn. If the UK is doing things right, my ears are open and Scotland can certainly learn. There is no politics in this whatsoever. As an aside, as new Member I have been frankly dismayed at how health services are politicised by both sides of the House. I have become increasingly amenable to the suggestion that perhaps the health service should not be run by politicians at all, but by people who have at heart the interests of the people whom we are here to serve.
Motor neurone disease is a neurological degenerative disease. In simple terms, the mind is fine and continues to operate with full function, but the body gradually gives up. The signals do not go from the mind to the body to make it work: that is how I think of it. Patients are affected differently. My brother-in-law died from it a couple of years ago, and his limbs were affected first. His legs started to give way for no apparent reason. However, my mother’s speech was the first thing to go—this was a lady who liked to talk, who seriously liked to talk! To have that stripped away from her must be incredibly difficult—and I know it is.
Scotland is doing many things well on motor neurone disease. Over the past year we have announced that we will double the number of motor neurone nurses. We are very much in the early stages, but the Scottish Government have provided funding to local authorities to ensure that things happen. At the moment local authorities are recruiting and assessing the need, and I hope that process will be speeded up as we go on.
That funding is a recognition of the difference that specialist nursing can make to motor neurone disease. My mother has to rely on a motor neurone nurse who comes from another region and who can only come on a part-time basis. A very proud woman, she was initially most reluctant to consider any form of help, but she has since come to realise what a benefit the nurse is. She has asked me to take up the cause of getting more motor neurone nurses throughout not only Scotland, but the rest of the UK—we are all human beings, despite our political views.
The change in Scotland has been praised in all quarters. Huge thanks are due to people such as Archie and Jagger. In Scotland a gentleman called Gordon Aikman, Christina McKelvie MSP, and all the staff at MND Scotland have done an incredible job of persuading the Government of the immediate need for those services. We have committed to giving a free voice box on the NHS and to paying families directly for support, not as a patronising gesture to pay people to look after their relatives, but to ensure that support is available if needed. We have also increased investment in palliative care.
I live in a town called Stranraer. The UK average is two people with motor neurone disease per 100,000; the Stranraer average is 13 per 10,000—an astronomical figure. I have asked the chief executive of our local health board to figure out exactly why—
Order. I am sorry, the hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I am loth to interrupt a very personal story, but we need to leave time for both the official Opposition spokesperson and the Minister to wind up. I have allowed more than eight minutes, and I am keen to allow the same to the official Opposition.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Brady.
As others have done, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing the debate. She gave a moving account of the Hill family in the light of Archie’s diagnosis and of the impact on Archie and his family of Duchenne. We have also heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and the hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless).
The all-party group for muscular dystrophy has carried out essential work to raise awareness and understanding of the needs of people living with muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular conditions. I congratulate the APG on the quality of its inquiries and reports. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham also paid tribute to the work of Muscular Dystrophy UK, and I join her in that tribute.
Providing access to treatment for people with muscular dystrophy is complex, because it is a rare condition. There are challenges in delivering localised, specialised care to people who have multiple, complex needs, but that cannot be an excuse for poor-quality care. As we have heard, some 70,000 people are affected by a neuromuscular condition in the UK. We must ensure that the NHS delivers equal treatment for equal need and that those with complex needs may have access to the treatment and support necessary to help them achieve the best quality of life possible.
In 2009 the APG’s Walton report showed clear deficiencies in the provision and planning of, and access to, care for people living with neuromuscular conditions. It found cases where care was “inadequate and not acceptable”. Although the report offered many sensible recommendations to improve the quality of care, the potential for progress was limited by the coalition Government’s reforms of the NHS under the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
Given those reforms, the APG undertook a six-month inquiry that considered their impact, releasing another report in March this year. Sadly, the reorganisation of the NHS and other reforms had done little to improve access to and availability of treatment for patients with neuromuscular conditions. Sadly, in fact, the reforms had made it even harder for patients to access support as a result of significant regional variations in the commissioning and funding of services. That is the nub of what I want to say.
There is a failure to join up services, and confusion about responsibilities and processes is a common theme. The hon. Member for South Down gave us an excellent quote on that lack of joined-up services. At the national strategic level there has been no specific mention of neuromuscular conditions in the five-year forward view, nor anything in the consultation document on the draft NHS mandate, which suggests a failure to recognise the specific needs of such patients at the strategic level. In fact, the five-year forward view groups together rare diseases and cancers, but there is a great deal of difference between all the conditions that we have discussed today and rare cancers.
There is a lack of clear guidance on which bodies in the NHS fund certain services and, as we have heard, sometimes people are not even receiving crucial respiratory support. Locally, there were examples of clinical commissioning groups failing to fund sessions of specialist neuromuscular physiotherapy or to provide sufficient funding for people to receive the right wheelchair at the right time. That is clearly so important and was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central and the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North. It must be right for a child to have a comfortable chair while growing up.
The coalition Government’s reforms have also contributed to a delay in decisions on the availability of drug treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a life-limiting illness that affects about 2,500 boys and adults. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham talked about that so well. To have to wait with a condition such as Duchenne for a decision on the drug Translarna is clearly agonising. It is a shame that the issue has been caused by NHS England halting its assessments to review its processes. I was not present at a Westminster Hall debate last week in which I understand that the Minister present said that he was “hopeful” that access to the drug would become available:
“I am hopeful about Translarna…NICE has been consulting on the process, and I believe the company has been engaging with NICE on pricing. I am hopeful that there will be a decision in the next few months”.—[Official Report, 8 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 274WH.]
As he went on to say, however, the decision is not in his gift.
I hope that the Minister’s optimism is well founded, because as we have heard today it must be recognised that time is an important factor. The decision is different from some others, because the timing can affect the benefit that the boys will receive. I wish to ask, as everyone else has done, about that decision, and what he is doing to ensure that delays do not happen again. We must ensure that system of wider support is available for patients and their families and carers. In some cases people need 24-hour support and care; homes must be adapted; physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy need to be available; and carers need access to the right advice and support, as has been said.
I am concerned, like others, that the Government’s failure to protect social care funding and other non-NHS health funding, such as training budgets, will mean that that wider network of support is not available when needed. The Walton report highlighted issues with social care back in 2009, but since then the number of people with access to publicly funded social care has fallen by 25%. The availability of the right support for people with specialist care needs is unlikely unless we have a sustainable funding settlement for both the NHS and social care. The difficulty with recent funding announcements, if the Minister intends to refer to them, is that the 2% social care precept and the better care fund are back-loaded funding mechanisms, with nothing this year and little next year.
We have heard about the regional differences in access to care. The Walton report highlighted that there were only 13 neuromuscular care co-ordinators when 60 were felt to be needed. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central said that there was only a single neuromuscular care adviser in North Yorkshire; in fact, no neuromuscular care adviser support is available for adults living with such conditions in Greater Manchester or the surrounding areas of the north-west. That is in spite of the fact that an estimated 8,100 people with a muscle-wasting condition live in the north-west. There is a need to ensure that clinical commissioning groups and other regional health organisations are aware of their responsibilities. Sadly, the findings of the 2015 APG report suggest little progress in the issue of unequal access.
Given the devolution deals on health and social care in certain parts of the country, will the Minister assure us that the inequalities in specialised services that we have heard about will be addressed and that the relevant bodies will be made aware of their responsibilities, which they do not seem to be at the moment? The debate has highlighted the fact that we have ingrained problems in our health and social care system. The lack of a sustainable funding settlement for social care and other recent reforms have led to fragmentation and instability in services. That means that inequalities in care sadly will continue. I urge the Minister to consider in full the most recent report and recommendations from the APG. We must ensure that people with neuromuscular conditions receive the care that they need, and that those inequalities in care are addressed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am left with 10 minutes in which to try to deliver my speech and the answers that I have carefully prepared while listening to colleagues’ comments. If I run short of time, I will undertake to write to everyone in the Chamber with answers to the points raised.
I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for securing the debate. She is a tenacious advocate on this issue, as on others. I join her in paying tribute to Archie and his family. I have met patients who suffer from these diseases and their families, and one’s heart goes out to them. One wants to pay tribute to the bravery with which they deal with their conditions. As is so often the case in the history of medical progress, the families, patients and carers are those who advocate and, in the end, win through to make their point heard, with the help of colleagues from across the House. My right hon. Friend eloquently paid tribute to the families of children with these disorders and diseases who, in many ways, suffer every bit as much as the patients who show such incredible fortitude. She asked me last week whether I would give her an A grade for effort and persistence. I will happily give her an A-plus in this end-of-term summary, but the people to whom we really want to give an A-plus are NICE and NHS England.
I want to touch on some of the excellent points that were raised. My right hon. Friend raised Vimizim and Translarna, so I will say something in detail about the timing of those decisions in a minute. She also made an important point about standards of care across the NHS in clinical trials, which was mentioned by numerous colleagues, and the importance of NICE giving more prominence to the time aspect of these conditions, which are unusual because they can deteriorate with every week’s delay in getting treatment.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) gave us the benefit of her front-line clinical expertise. In case I run short of time, I shall say now that I will happily convene a meeting at the Department of Health with officials from my Department and NHS England, to which I invite colleagues from all parties who want to discuss the issues she and others raised about front-line care, because a range of practical issues about such care has been raised, in addition to access to drugs, and giving colleagues the chance to raise such points on behalf of their constituents would represent a powerful opportunity. The hon. Lady talked in particular about training and the interface of paediatric and specialist services, which I come across in connection with numerous different specialist conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) spoke passionately about James, Jules and Jagger Curtis, and the importance of expediting those particular decisions and quicker assessment, as well as adoption in general. That is a passion of mine, which was why I launched the accelerated access review to look systemically at what we can do to expedite getting new medicines into the service. She also touched on the importance of wheelchair access.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked eloquently about Michaela and the importance of specialist, multidisciplinary teams. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who gets the prize for appearing in more debates with me than any other Member of the House, which is a tribute to his activism as the Democratic Unionist party’s spokesman on these issues, highlighted the importance of Belfast as a hub of research and regional strategies in Northern Ireland and spoke about his constituents. This is a devolved matter, and while I pay tribute to the work of researchers and medics in Northern Ireland, it is important that the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland put in place a similarly enlightened commissioning process.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) raised the broader issues of Parkinson’s and neurological disorders, while the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) spoke passionately about his mother’s suffering. Before I came to Parliament, I worked in Scotland and, as he highlighted, in this area, as in several others, Scotland pioneers some of the clinical commissioning work. The supreme irony of the debate was brought to light by his request that we depoliticise the NHS. For me, one of the greatest steps following the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was the separation of the NHS from the Department of Health. NHS England now operates under its own arm’s length management, subject to a mandate from Ministers
We do not control the NHS—believe me that if, for one afternoon, I could do that, I wish it was now. I would love nothing more than to pull the lever and give all these children the drugs that we all want them to get before Christmas, but that is not in my gift, and I suggest that it is in all our interests that it is not. It is right that such decisions are taken by NHS England and clinical professionals, advised by the very best people at NICE.
In the few minutes I have available, let me say a few things about the main issues raised. I pay tribute to Muscular Dystrophy UK, Robert Meadowcroft, Emily Crossley, the Duchenne Children’s Trust, Action Duchenne and all the other organisations that work so hard in this area, and specifically on the two or three key drugs.
I remind the House that the decision from NICE on Vimizim is due before the end of the year. Without breaching due process, I have asked that, if that decision is in the pipeline, it can be made as quickly as possible, ideally before we all break up for the Christmas holidays. That is not in my gift, but I made that request. Similarly, I have requested that the Translarna decision, which I believe is due in February, is similarly expedited. However, again, that is not in my gift, and while during the year the Prime Minister and I have urged NICE and NHS England to do everything they can to expedite their decision making on those drugs, we do not have the power—rightly, in my view—to step in and breach process. It is fair to all patients in the NHS that decisions are taken properly.
The Minister has given us a sympathetic hearing and I know that he has done everything in his power to try to bring forward that decision. Quite rightly, it is not his decision to make, but, through him, may I appeal to the men and women who are making that decision? If they have any humanity about them, they ought to make a positive announcement before Christmas.
My right hon. Friend made the point more powerfully that I could. On Vimizim, I am delighted that BioMarin, the company concerned, has, following exhortation from me and others, sat down with NHS England and gone through pricing flexibilities. I have been able to grant an access agreement. The drugs are incredibly expensive, which is what makes NICE’s work difficult, so if anyone from PTC Therapeutics, the company responsible for making Translarna, is watching, I urge them to sit down with NHS England and adopt a similar approach.
On specialist commissioning, we lived through and focused on difficult decisions, and this summer NHS England agreed to 23 new treatments, including Duodopa, which controls the symptoms of patients with Parkinson’s disease, wider access to proton beam therapy, and extending treatment with ivacaftor for cystic fibrosis involving G551D mutations.
We live in an age of extraordinary biomedical progress, but budgets struggle to keep up with the rate of progress that our scientists and researchers make. I know that this is of little comfort to my right hon. Friend and to Archie and his family, but I hope that hon. Members agree that, in deciding which treatments should be procured on behalf of us all, due process must apply. However, I share their frustration, which was why I launched the accelerated access review, which will report independently to me in the spring. That substantial piece of work is examining whether we can do more to embrace breakthroughs in genomics and informatics to give NICE and NHS England new flexibilities to speed up how innovations for patients are assessed, as well as to explore new pathways and flexibilities for different models of reimbursement to get innovation through quicker.
I want to pick up the point that was made about specialist neuromuscular care. The truth is that there are few curative treatments for most of these diseases, so we are talking about the importance of routine care for people that is provided by local primary and secondary care services via local CCGs. However, a number of specialist services have been designated among the 146 that NHS England is responsible for commissioning nationally, which are set out in legislation and commissioned directly by NHS England through 10 area teams. Twenty-five specialised neurological treatment centres across England ensure that patients can access high-quality neurological care where they live.
As I said, I will be happy to convene a meeting in the Department with officials and NHS England to talk about how we can address some of the practical issues raised when providing front-line, integrated services. I fear that the clock is against my being able to go through the 22 questions for which I had answers prepared, so I close by saying that while we all would want to pull a lever to make this happen quickly, the truth is that we need a system that is rigorous, robust and evidence-based, but quicker, in recognition of the effects on these patients.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Weymouth to Waterloo Rail Line
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Weymouth to Waterloo rail line.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and a great pleasure to see the Minister here, whom I regaled, for half an hour of her precious time, only about two hours ago, so I thank her for that. It is very nice to see her in her place.
Welcome to a number of colleagues, and to a right hon. colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin); it is a particular pleasure to see him here. I will talk for about 10 minutes, then another colleague would like to say something, and I think others want to intervene. After that, the Minister will obviously respond.
I start by saying that Dorset is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled counties in the country, with a Jurassic and world heritage coastline that is the envy of the world. That combination of sea, coast and countryside attracts millions of visitors and tourists. At the height of the summer, the road system struggles to cope and frequently does not. That is not to say that we are all crying out for a motorway—indeed, the lack of one is part of the attraction. However, we simply cannot sit back and depend on seasonal jobs, which do not provide a secure enough career and future prospects for many of our constituents. We need to attract investment into the area, and rail connectivity is key. The lack of it already makes things very hard for those who live and work in Dorset, thwarting many ambitious plans.
Take Portland port, which is a growing port: commercial road traffic there is expected to treble in the years ahead, and the number of visiting cruise ships continues to rise, dropping off countless thousands of customers, who then go into all our constituencies. In the centre of my constituency, a newly announced enterprise zone on the outskirts of Wool is expected to generate thousands of jobs—so too, hopefully, are our expanding marine and engineering industries, new museums and tourist attractions.
For all those to work, we need to improve our infrastructure, and with little scope for more roads, for reasons I have explained, rail is the only option. There has been a railway line to Weymouth for 148 years. The terminus, originally designed by one of Brunel’s assistants, sits only yards from the resort’s golden beaches. The line was decisive in opening up the town, which was first made fashionable by George III and his followers in 1789, hence the façade. It is not hard to imagine the scene as the early tourists enjoyed the waters from their wheeled bathing huts. The same train continued to the Channel Islands ferry terminal at the mouth of Weymouth harbour, winding its way through the town, led by a man waving a red flag to clear the way. Times have changed, but the significance of rail travel has not, and if we are to ensure that both Weymouth and Portland can thrive today as they did back in the 19th century, some imaginative thinking is required.
Two trains an hour serve Weymouth from Waterloo. Typically, they take three hours to travel only 130 miles, so the time is considerable. There is an infrequent and sporadic service to Yeovil and Bristol. With the aim of speeding up trains to Weymouth, I began to investigate the various possibilities with South West Trains. We came up with three options. The first was to run a faster, third train in each direction on the current route via Bournemouth and Southampton, but that would require substantially more power, platforms and rolling stock, making it expensive and, due to the bottleneck in the New Forest, essentially unworkable. Even if multimillions of pounds were spent on new electricity substations, the increasing number of passengers from projected new housing developments would give any franchisee little flexibility to drop a station in order to generate faster journey times on a line that is already run to capacity.
The second option is to make one of the two hourly London trains “fast” and the other “slow.” However, the negative impact on intermediate stations effectively rules that out. The third option is via Yeovil, and I and many others—not least the colleagues sitting around these tables—believe that that is a goer. With much of the infrastructure in place, it is more affordable and has major advantages. It would: reduce the journey time from Weymouth to London to two hours and 25 minutes; provide more room for passengers on the existing line through Bournemouth and Southampton; expand capacity and business opportunities across a number of south-western constituencies; connect Dorset to Heathrow—I sorely hope that the planned expansion there eventually gets the go-ahead—and take up some of the ample capacity on the Weymouth-to-Bristol line.
The proposal would mean an additional service to Waterloo via Yeovil and Salisbury, with reduced stops, calling at Weymouth, Dorchester West, Yeovil Junction, Salisbury and London.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree that if the new route via Yeovil goes ahead, it still has the potential to benefit my constituents, who neighbour his, by increasing capacity on the trains, hopefully thereby increasing rail use and relieving a great deal of pressure on our roads, particularly in and around Wareham?
I entirely agree. As my hon. Friend well knows, the charity railway, which will be linked from Swanage to the main line through Wareham, will also play its part, which is very good news. And yes, that will relieve pressure greatly on the line through his constituency. I have also heard today that he and others are looking at a new metro service running between Christchurch and Wareham, or something of that nature. In itself, that will take up more capacity on the line, which makes my plan less workable, although his constituents will be able to travel backwards and forwards more efficiently and more ably, which is very good for him and others.
The work needed for the third proposal would be relatively minimal—certainly less than would be required on the Bournemouth-to-Southampton line. That work includes some short stretches of new track, enhancements to platforms at Weymouth, Yeovil and Salisbury, an increase in the speed limit on parts of the line, and the extension of a footbridge. I—or we, I should say—believe that none of those is impossible.
Does my hon. Friend not recognise the absolute imperative, however, of having clarity about the infrastructure costs required, and particularly the cost of dualling the track between Yeovil and Salisbury, which would be key to unlocking a secure future for his plans?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In fact, it is key, as the Minister well knows, because this is a point that we raised with her only an hour or two ago. I say to her gently and humbly that if Network Rail could possibly do the study and come back with some sort of affordability plan, that would help us. We went away from the meeting that the Minister kindly held feeling very positive. At the moment, the local enterprise partnerships all down that line—this is the plan—would be very keen to draw up some sort of business plan and come back to her. What we do not want—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) mentioned this—is to do all the work, and for Network Rail to come back and say, “That’s not how we did it,” or “They have missed out this or that,” or “They haven’t put this into the equation.” That would be unfortunate, particularly if a great deal of money was spent on the report that the LEPs are considering drawing up. Some clarity from the Minister at the end of the debate would be most helpful.
It is estimated that the plan for a service via Yeovil would take between three and five years to complete; as with all these things, it would not happen immediately, but it chimes with the Dorset local master plan to reconnect the south and north of the county by train for the first time in almost 30 years, and to link Dorchester and Weymouth to Exeter in the west. As the Minister knows, the Members to my west, east and immediate north are all involved in this potential project and would benefit equally. We are all in this together.
I and many others believe that the proposal would have a dramatically beneficial effect on Weymouth and Portland and, as discussed earlier with the Minister, the whole region. Weymouth and Portland would be connected to a vital east-west arterial route, and that would promise better access for businesses, visitors and tourists, and hopefully generate more investment in the resort.
It is lovely to see my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset here. Dorchester would play a key role because it is in a key location. With the housing on the Prince of Wales’s land—this was discussed with the Minister earlier—and other developments across that part of the world in the years ahead, we must have an updated, modern railway system; otherwise, we will simply not cope.
It is absolutely true that my constituents in Dorchester and Sherborne, and indeed those between them, would hugely welcome the plan that my hon. Friend is describing. Does he agree that if we could get the LEPs to co-ordinate with Network Rail on the specifications of the report, we should be able to establish a very strong business case?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It would be useful to have some clarity from the Minister. We are very willing to help out and to do our part, but some guidance from Network Rail would be hugely helpful, so that it does not say that all the work that we have done does not come up to scratch. Some negotiation between the two parties would be hugely beneficial.
The knock-on effect—all good—would be dramatic for train times. Pending a study, it is estimated that Weymouth to Waterloo would take two hours, 25 minutes; the typical time now is three hours. If there was a direct service from Salisbury to London, that time could be reduced by a further 10 to 15 minutes. That would have a knock-on effect for the rest of the region. Yeovil to Waterloo would take two hours; Honiton to Waterloo would take two hours, 30 minutes; Exeter to Waterloo would take two hours, 50 minutes; and north Devon—a crucial area that is growing and has very little rail network—to Waterloo would take three hours, 55 minutes. If the non-stop Salisbury to London service introduced a third service in the hour, it would greatly reduce the time—by another 10 to 15 minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is very keen on that.
I have done the train journey to Weymouth in my constituency; three hours is a long time for visitors and businesses, and is beyond daily commuting. What we need, as I am sure the Minister knows, because she has been to my part of the world many times, is to break away from the seasonal hole. It is important to my constituents; they can have longer-term careers and prospects only if we attract investment. I have said, and will say again, that because of the inability to improve our roads dramatically—we can tinker at the edges—rail connectivity really is the key, just as it was for George III and his team. If it was good enough for him, it is good enough for my constituents.
As the Minister knows, the Yeovil option has the support of the local chamber of commerce and the local enterprise partnerships up and down the line. I know of two that are behind it, and further work has been done. I cannot see them not being involved. Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, North Dorset District Council, bordering LEPs and councils, my right hon. and hon. Friends who are sitting around me, and many others who are not here would benefit. I am sure that those who are not here would have been here, if they could.
Bringing these huge benefits to so many for a relatively modest investment in railway terms—the Minister said how amazing it was that even a little work costs a lot of money, but in railway terms, this would be a fairly modest investment—would be an achievement that we could all be proud of. Dare I say that as Conservatives—I am proud that we have a Conservative Government—we always go on about jobs, prosperity, wealth and the northern powerhouse, which I totally accept and am totally behind, as I am sure are my colleagues, but how about the south and south-west powerhouse? It depends so much on rural activities, and we need all the help we can get.
I have requests for the Minister. First, will she consider commissioning Network Rail, with the LEPs, if indeed that is the way we go, to undertake a study to look at this idea? Secondly, will she instruct the Department to include the scheme in the south-western refranchising specification, if indeed that is possible? I believe this project is innovative, affordable and doable, and has far-reaching benefits for my constituents and those represented by MPs who are here, and those who are not here. Let us not forget that one of them—the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)—is a Labour MP; I am sure that if he knew this debate was taking place, or could attend, he would be just as keen on the project. I hope that the Government will play their part in making it happen.
Thank you, Mrs Moon. It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). Delivering jobs and opportunities to the south-west is at the centre of my mission as an MP and a major focus of our Government. Somerset is a key gateway to the south-west and presents substantial economic opportunities, including in Dorset, as we have heard.
The Government are spending a massive amount on dualling the A303 and A358 corridor, and this scheme would be a perfect complement to that. It would enhance the prospects for jobs as well as networking our centres of economic growth to allow them to grow more rapidly together than would otherwise be the case. Double tracking the line between Templecombe and Salisbury is essential for that and could unlock substantial further growth. Importantly, it would help a great deal while the A303 work is being carried out because that will probably cause serious congestion that might otherwise present a substantial challenge to the area.
It is important that the analysis of the potential upgrade is carried out in a joined-up way with, and at the same time as, the current analysis on double tracking west of Yeovil. Network Rail is undertaking that analysis as part of its investigation into increasing the resilience of the south-west peninsula. It is hard to think about how trains will be scheduled and what enhancements are necessary without looking at capacity over the whole route at the same time.
South Somerset, of which Yeovil is the key town, has ambitious plans for growth in housing and industry, and would be greatly enhanced by the plan for better rail connectivity, which could bring Yeovil closer to London by up to 40 minutes. That would represent a real step change with knock-on benefits for the whole of the south-west, including Devon and the rest of the south-west peninsula. I cannot emphasise the idea of networking enough. Whenever I have looked professionally at economic projects around the world, the element of new public infrastructure to connect places and reduce journey times, thus raising economic potential, has been a major feature. This is a major plan for jobs and opportunities in the south-west, so we must grab it with both hands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate on the important issue of rail services between Weymouth to Waterloo. As he mentioned, we had a very fulfilling and useful working session earlier this afternoon, which was attended by some of our other hon. Friends in the Chamber. It is telling that so many right hon. and hon. Members are here today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), who represents an important constituency on this line. In all such debates, we hear a lot of joined-up support from MPs representing people living in towns, villages and cities right the way along the relevant routes, and I shall go on to address why that is so important.
I join my hon. Friend the Minister in congratulating our hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate and everything that he said, but will the Minister indulge me and reiterate that she supports the large improvements that will be required over the years to come at my station in Woking, which is on the line?
Indeed; I would be happy to support that. I was going to come on to say that the Weymouth and Waterloo termini are at either end of the south west main line. That line has the third-rail system, which is rather old electrified technology, and we know that that is one reason why its trains run more slowly than on lines with overhead technology. My hon. Friend raises an important point. Ultimately, the aspiration is to bring all electrified track up to the state-of-the-art level, which would include the investments that he references.
As we heard, journey times on the line are anywhere from two hours 40 minutes to three hours. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset came to see me well before the general election to discuss the idea of upgrading the electrical supply along the line to provide a power boost. Some work has been done and, as he rightly said, it is difficult to see the cost-effectiveness—the business case—of those specific investments. As he is a person who does not give up easily, he therefore turned to option 2, which is the idea of connecting that line with the one running through Yeovil, thereby allowing a diversionary route that, of course, would benefit stations in Yeovil and Salisbury, which are represented by hon. Friends in the Chamber. That proposal is interesting, and we had an excellent session this afternoon to run through what would actually need to be done to deliver the journey time improvements that we want. We want to deliver the increased frequency and decreased journey times that would deliver the economic benefits about which we have heard a great deal.
As we know, this is a vital franchise area for the country. Waterloo is the busiest station in the UK. This franchise carries millions of people every year, which was why we announced this year that we would have a franchise competition with a view to getting a new operator in place for 2017. This is a fortuitous time to be discussing infrastructure, because the franchising opportunity gives us a chance to look at what we really want to achieve for the whole of the south-west network. There are proposals to introduce faster trains, and perhaps diesel or bimodal trains, which might be something that bidders come back with to deliver improvements to journey times overall.
There is also the question of how to get investment for infrastructure. My hon. Friend spoke about this, and I am always amazed by how expensive it is to do things on the railway. However, we are talking about a small set of projects—this is not something of the scale of the Great Western electrification. We have clearly signalled our desire not to route all railway investment through Network Rail, but to use the train operating companies as the commissioners, as well as the operators running on the network. We have an example of that, because FirstGroup is already taking the lead role in the Selby to Hull electrification project.
While we are going through the franchise process, there is an opportunity to engage with the bidders and determine their appetite is to deliver improvements. Of course, the question is: what is the cost to them? My hon. Friend is right that one cannot set out the business case without knowing the cost. In all honesty, I do not want to burden Network Rail with any more projects at the moment, given its enormous challenge of delivering the projects that we have already set out, but I will discuss with my officials a way of trying to get a better analysis of at least what the range of costs might be for these improvements. We can then start to build a case that takes account of those costs and examines the benefits that improvements to journey times and greater connectivity could deliver.
What was so refreshing in today’s meeting—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, as well as others who attended—was that we had the local enterprise partnerships and local councils present, as well as MPs assiduously representing their constituents. All were thinking about how this network might look for the region, and that is the way to crack the investment conundrum. I have become aware that it is often surprisingly difficult to generate a business case for transport investment. The Jubilee Line extension, High Speed 1 and the M25 were all things whose benefits people in my position many years ago had to struggle to get recognised.
If we start to bring in the broader benefits, such as the housing that these transport improvements could underpin, the businesses that would move to the area and the local growth that could be unlocked, we could really start to capture the value that transport investment can bring. The right way to do that is to engage from the bottom up with the local enterprise partnerships and the council, which can then pull through investment for the benefit of their towns, cities and region.
I therefore urge my hon. Friends, working with their LEP and local council colleagues, to get this issue into the consultation for the franchise, which will run until 9 February. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset is not going to come up with a wish list. Any proposal will be targeted, but we could look at that as something that could be put into the franchise competition for the bidders. Then, by the way, we would be starting to get some competition around the bidding process, which could only be to the good.
In the longer term, as I said, there is an aspiration to improve the electrification right along the line, but we need to be in the business of the delivery of infrastructure. For too long, many Governments have been in a “jam tomorrow” place. Now, we have a fully funded list of improvements and projects that Network Rail will deliver over the next four years, after which we can start to bring together the investment horizon for the future.
What is so refreshing about this debate and the amount of work that went into preparing all the documents that my hon. Friend brought to our meeting is that we are not only spending a record amount on the railways—it is the biggest investment programme since Victorian times—but spending it in the way that most benefits local communities. The investment is being not pushed out by the Department for Transport, but pulled out by those in the regions, because without good transport investment, it is not possible to grow a local, regional or national economy.
I commend hon. Members for attending the debate and speaking so passionately for their railways, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset for all his work. I undertake to consider whether we can come up with a way of getting the numerical range to which I referred so that we can at least start to have a more detailed conversation as the franchise period progresses.
Question put and agreed to.
Access to Justice: Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to justice in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Access to justice is not a special privilege, but a fundamental right. No one should be denied access to justice because of who they are, where they live or how much they earn. Everyone is equal before the law. The two-nation system is something on which the Secretary of State for Justice and I would possibly agree. When he was appointed, he said:
“There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class...And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.”
What he did not say was that his policies, and those of his Government, have created much of the injustice that we see today. Cuts to legal aid, tribunal fees and court charges have all put a price on justice, and ordinary people across Wales have suffered as a consequence.
The cuts to legal aid implemented by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition have had a dramatic effect on access to justice in Wales. The number of cases granted funding has dropped by two thirds. Solicitors in my constituency say that cases have “decreased significantly”, and the number of debt cases supported by legal aid fell from 81,000 to just 2,500 over a one-year period. Every one of those cases involves real people, who are being denied the help that they need when they are at their most vulnerable. It is the most vulnerable people in Wales who are being hurt by the changes.
Earlier this year, the Select Committee on Justice and the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Government’s civil legal aid changes, saying that they limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and that, in some cases, they resulted in cases becoming more difficult and therefore costing the taxpayer more. Does my hon. Friend agree that that very much echoes the cases that we see, week on week, in our constituencies?
It certainly does. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to discuss that further. When we put a price on justice, those with the means to pay sky-high legal fees will be fine, but people who are in debt, women experiencing domestic violence and parents seeking custody of their children will not be. Ten law centres have already closed in England and Wales, and many more are unable to cope. We are talking not about legal aid lawyers supposedly raking in millions of pounds in fees, but about centres, staffed by volunteers, that can no longer offer fundamental support to those who need it most. Solicitors’ firms in my constituency have told me of the obstacles facing their clients:
“The evidential requirements are stringent. There are occasionally cost implications for clients in seeking evidence to support their application for public funding which is difficult for them if they are on benefits.”
They say that
“everything the Legal Aid Agency is doing is making it harder for both clients and lawyers to get legal aid.”
The cuts have removed legal aid from nearly all family law cases and led to a sharp increase in the number of litigants in person. In the first quarter of this year, 76% of private family cases involved at least one party who was not represented. The Personal Support Unit, which has an office at Cardiff Crown court and which offers advice to litigants in person, has seen the number of people accessing its services more than double from 20,000 in 2013-14 to an estimated 50,000 this year. The idea that someone who has had their children taken away from them and who may be fighting allegations of domestic abuse is able to defend himself or herself as well as a lawyer could is ridiculous, but that is the reality of the two-nation justice system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important subject of litigants in person. I have spoken to court staff and judges who are deeply concerned about the impossible position that they are placed in when they have to make a decision on cases involving, but at the same time end up giving advice to, litigants in person who are desperately unable to cope with the complexities of the legal system in which they have to operate.
My hon. Friend refers to the reality that the two-nation justice system has created. Cuts to legal aid are having a significant impact on advice services for those experiencing housing, debt and welfare problems. A report commissioned by the Welsh Government shortly after the first changes were introduced found that cuts had “severely affected advice services” and resulted in
“specialist welfare benefits advice being significantly reduced by Legal Aid funding.”
The Welsh Government have done what they can to mitigate those cuts, investing an extra £1 million a year to support front-line advice services, in addition to the top-up of £2.2 million a year to Citizens Advice Cymru to help it to provide a specialist advice service for those who need it. The reality is that thousands of people in need of support will still lose out because of the Ministry of Justice cuts. In Wales, the number of free, face-to-face welfare law advice sessions provided by the not-for-profit sector is estimated to have fallen from nearly 20,000 to barely 3,000 in just one year.
Last month, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the Government snuck in an increase in the small claims court limit, which means that the majority of people injured in road accidents, regardless of how severely they were injured, will lose their access to legal representation. Whether for people injured in accidents, families facing debt proceedings or those of limited means who want legal advice before a court hearing, the Government’s changes have had a profound effect on access to justice in Wales.
Few people are more in need of support than women who are experiencing domestic abuse. I am talking about women who have suffered years and years of physical and sexual violence, who turn to the family court to seek help for themselves and their children. Women who may need legal aid to divorce an abusive partner, or even to apply for a child arrangements order to protect their child from an abuser, now have to convince the Government that they have been abused before they can get any help. Worse, the narrow set of criteria proposed by the Government means that many women are unable to prove that they have been abused.
Charities such as Women’s Aid expressed serious concerns about the evidence criteria before the law was changed. Women’s Aid now says that 54% of women who access services as survivors of domestic violence would not meet the evidence criteria initially proposed. The cuts were railroaded through, however, and in one year the same charities found that 43% of women who had experienced domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence required to access family law legal aid. The Government have let those women down and, more importantly, let their children down.
In the light of that, it came as no surprise when the Justice Committee concluded last year that the reforms had failed three of the Government’s four tests. The reforms have not discouraged unnecessary litigation or targeted help at those who need it the most. On the Government’s claim that the changes were necessary to cut costs, the Committee said that the Ministry of Justice
“has failed to prove that it has delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer because it has no idea at all of the knock-on costs of the legal aid changes to the public purse”.
The changes have not delivered value for money. Instead, they have forced vulnerable people to represent themselves in court and taken vital support away from abuse survivors.
The Government are charging ahead with changes to criminal legal aid, and we will face the same problems. From next year, the number of contracts issued to solicitors’ firms for criminal legal aid will fall from 1,600 to just over 500. Solicitors’ firms in parts of Wales, especially in rural areas, have warned that there simply will not be enough firms left to do all the work.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She will be aware that in the area that the Ministry of Justice names Dyfed Powys 2, which consists of all of Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and all of Powys—the Opposition Members present will be aware of the geography of the terrain—it is suggested that only four solicitors’ practices will offer the reduced legal aid. Does she agree that that is the worst kind of access to justice imaginable?
I would go as far as to say that it is almost zero access to justice.
The tendering process has been shown to be a complete shambles—the implementation date has slipped from January to April of next year and possibly into 2017. The president of the Law Society of England and Wales has spoken of a
“serious risk of a knock-on effect on access to justice for clients.”
That warning comes just weeks after the Government were forced to drop their criminal courts charges, which led to some 50 magistrates resigning from the profession in protest. In the words of the Justice Committee, the changes were
“having effects which are inimical to the interests of justice”,
including the creation of “perverse incentives” for innocent defendants to plead guilty. I am glad that the Government have finally realised that the court charges were not fit for purpose, but it was not before countless people potentially changed their pleas because they could not afford to say that they were not guilty.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the point of criminal courts charges, I am a member of the Justice Committee and we have just agreed that it was right to change the system. However, of the £5 million that was levied, only around £300,000 has been raised, leaving a debt on a large number of people who should not have had that charge imposed on them in the first place. Through my hon. Friend, I ask the Minister to tell us what will happen to those who have been levied the charge and who have not yet paid.
It is clear that, alongside access to justice, the Government’s reforms to the criminal courts system have risked another fundamental British principle—the right to a fair trial. One of the most basic attributes that we expect of any justice system is that it is fair. Those who have committed crimes must be punished quickly and effectively, but everyone has the right for their case to be heard and nobody should have to decide how to plead based on whether they can afford to pay the fees—not least because victims of crime deserve better.
Will the Minister agree to an urgent review into how legal aid costs are affecting access to justice in Wales? As court charges—one of the flagship policies—have now been dumped, what confidence does he have that the other changes are not having a similar perverse effect on justice and the right to a fair trial?
Members across the Chamber have serious concerns about the proposal of the Ministry of Justice to close 11 courts and tribunals in Wales. In large parts of the country, it is already hard enough for those attending trials to reach their nearest court in the allotted time, and the decision to close those courts will make that harder still.
The Law Society has found that many people will find it impossible to get to their nearest court within an hour when travelling by public transport. If the Government go ahead with their plan to close, for example, two courts in Carmarthen, just 32% of people taking public transport to my constituency of Swansea for family law cases would be able to get there within 60 minutes. For criminal cases, the figure is 31%. Across Wales, in areas where there is limited or infrequent public transport, it is a very real possibility that defendants and witnesses could end up on the same bus to the court hearing. Members can imagine the distress and legal complications that that will cause.
The Minister did indeed say that mobile phones would be the way forward for my constituents. We are facing closures in Pontypridd and Bridgend, which are difficult enough to get to at the moment. To tell those constituents to come down the valley and change transport to get to Cardiff will add another impediment to access to justice. Through my hon. Friend, I would say that the Minister really needs to think this through again and to think about the geography of Wales. We are not flatlands with a huge transport hub; we are valleys. I know that your constituency is affected by the issue as well, Mrs Moon.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The Law Society has expressed “grave concerns” that the proposal to close courts—I agree with this point—could “erode access to justice”. Its worries are shared by many people across the region.
Whether it is closing courts, slashing legal aid or any other reforms that I have not had an opportunity to address—such as employment tribunal fees, changes to judicial review or the plan to scrap the Human Rights Act—Government policies are having a severe impact on access to justice in Wales. It is the responsibility of any Government to ensure that our justice system does not become the preserve of the wealthy and unresponsive to the needs of those who need to use it most. It is vital that the justice system is accessible when we need it and accessible to all. I seriously fear that after another five years of this Government, neither of those opportunities will be open for Wales.
Order. I have before me only two names of Members who have asked to speak. At 5.20 pm, I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Labour party and the Scottish National party, who will have five minutes each, and then the Minister, who will have 10 minutes. I will first call Albert Owen, and if other Members wish to speak, they will have to rely on the generosity of the hon. Gentleman and the next Member to be called if they are to get in before 5.20 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on an excellent speech that covered most of the points that need to be considered.
I will actually start by agreeing with the Minister and the Ministry of Justice that access to justice for all is a fundamental aspect of our society. That is what it says in the consultation document on proposals for the provision of the court estate in England and Wales. I totally agree that we all want access to justice for all. Indeed, I would say that local justice and democracy are the pillars of a modern society, but we are moving away from that—I shall develop that argument a little later.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber, because he was kind enough to acknowledge my submission to the consultation and to meet a delegation that included Citizens Advice and a local solicitor. We were able to outline many of my concerns for my area and, indeed, the periphery area of north-west Wales, including Dwyfor Meirionnydd, because the representative from the solicitor represented the whole old county of Gwynedd. However, it is Christmas, and I am going to subject the Minister to my concerns once more because it is important that they are on the record.
People know the importance of direct access to justice. The Ministry of Justice wants to close the two remaining courts in my area in Llangefni and Holyhead. Llangefni is the principal and municipal town of Anglesey. Holyhead is the largest town on the island, but also the furthest from Cardiff and London—it is on the periphery area. It is the hub to the Republic of Ireland and has a large transit population, as well as local residents. The proposal to transfer to Caernarfon court is therefore fundamentally flawed. What is more, the alternative that the Minister has talked about—the virtual courts and the digital fines—are equally flawed. Frankly, the one-size-fits-all proposal of the Ministry of Justice does not fit Wales; each part of Wales should be looked at on its merits. I understand, as I think does every Member in the Chamber, the need to modernise the justice system, but denying access is not modernisation. It is a backwards step and the proposal does not take into account people’s distances from court.
The Government talk about courts being 30 miles away and taking about an hour to reach. The journey from Holyhead to Caernarfon is 30 miles, but it can take an hour and a half. It can involve train journeys, two buses and changing. As has been said, many of those who have to travel will be witnesses, not just those who are up in court.
I believe that the proposal is flawed because it is driven by the Treasury. One of the main reasons why the exercise is being carried out now and in such a way is to save money on the estate. Yes, we need to get value for money, but the process is driven by the Treasury, rather than the Ministry of Justice. It is important to put that point on the record and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to it.
Access to local justice has to be practical, and people have to be able to have such access. The Minister talks about virtual courts, but they will be virtually impossible to implement. There are very few buildings in my constituency that could accommodate a virtual court. He talks about access via the digital age, but the digital age has not arrived in many rural or peripheral parts of Wales. That is an important point because the superfast broadband roll-out is happening at the exchanges, but not going to many towns and areas that need it. It would be difficult to have a virtual court in north-west Wales, for example, because the information and communications technology systems simply are not there—they are intermittent. I am pleased that the Government have done a U-turn with regard to universal coverage, but that will not come in until 2020, at the earliest, and these proposals are going through now. When will the Minister respond to the consultation exercise and make his recommendations and proposals? I believe that he should wait until we have proper infrastructure if he wants to experiment with the digital age for accessing justice.
I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, so I will not go over most of the issues that I discussed with the Minister. However, I highlight the fact that in the 21st century we still need a court system that individuals can access. The public want individuals to be tried in their area, as has happened historically. If we are to move forward into the digital age, we need the necessary infrastructure in place, and the Ministry of Justice needs joined-up thinking with other Departments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important that digitalisation is done properly in Wales because we are a bilingual country and people must have access to justice in the language of their birth? If that language is Welsh, they must have access in Welsh.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was going to make that point in my closing remarks, because when we talk about “local”, we are talking about local culture and local languages as well as the basic principle of access to local courts.
The Government talk about putting in place devolution and decentralisation, yet their record is one of the complete opposite. They are centralising tax offices, for example. If the Government’s proposals go through, the nearest tax office to Anglesey will be in Liverpool, which is nearer to my constituents than Cardiff. We are now talking about courts moving 30 or 40 miles away from their population, which is nothing but centralisation. I urge the Minister to look again at these proposals, to put them on hold, to talk to local communities and to listen to the consultation. He should not rush through the proposals because while I agree with him, ultimately, that we need free and fair access for all, that will not happen if these proposals go through.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Moon, and I will be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on raising this issue. She talks about the emergence of a two-tier system, and there will be a very strong divide between rural and urban communities.
Mercifully, there is one courthouse left in my constituency, in Aberystwyth. That is the only one, as our courthouse in Cardigan was shut down five years ago. I reiterate what the hon. Lady said about the challenges of geography and distance. In the debate that I secured when we tried to stop the closure of Cardigan courthouse, we heard that as Cardigan was only 38 miles from Aberystwyth, all would be well, because there would be ease of access to our court in Aberystwyth, but that is not so. It might be quick and easy to travel 38 miles down the A55 or the M4—or perhaps not—but the situation is a different kettle of fish for people living in rural communities. As she said, the problem is compounded by my constituents’ experience of trying to access public transport in rural areas where no such system exists.
Access to our courts is a very real issue. If I were being parochial, I might say that my underused courthouse in Aberystwyth will gain more work when the courthouse in Dolgellau is shut, but I do not say that because, from experience, I believe that the situation goes to the heart of access to justice for many of our constituents.
Let me talk specifically about the point about which I intervened on the hon. Lady. She alluded to the limitations of legal aid, and I want to talk about the number of practitioners out there in the country. When the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is now Leader of the House, was Secretary of State for Justice, he proposed a two-tier system for delivering criminal legal aid. That proposal has continued under the current Secretary of State. The scheme involves a bidding process for the limited number of contracts within each bid zone, and I repeat what I said in my intervention. My vast constituency of Ceredigion falls into the Dyfed Powys 2 zone, which includes Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and the whole of Powys, including the towns of Brecon, Llandrindod Wells, Newtown, Welshpool, Machynlleth, Aberystwyth and Cardigan. Incredibly, the Ministry of Justice decided that only four contracts would be made available in that vast area, which is dangerous nonsense.
When I talked to solicitors’ practices about the prospect of bidding, the reality soon emerged that no single firm in Dyfed-Powys would be able to service such a contract because the volume of legal aid work in mid and west Wales is so low that it could not sustain a business undertaking such an endeavour. The characteristic of our model for delivering criminal legal aid in Ceredigion, which is not dissimilar to that in other places in rural Wales, is of one or two solicitors within a high street mixed practice effectively subsidising legal aid work. When the Government made their proposal, the fact that there was no plan B suggested that it was doomed to fail. As of July 2015, there are only five firms undertaking legal aid work in Ceredigion, which suggests that many firms have already decided that such work is not profitable. None of the firms in my constituency felt able to bid for the duty contracts, either on their own or collaboratively. The Government suggested at the time of the announcement that small practices would come together, but that was not going to happen. Such an arrangement is fraught with difficulties.
We are where we are, but I am not quite sure where that is. The hon. Member for Swansea East said that we were led to believe that the bidding process would be concluded in January 2016, but it is now suggested that it will be concluded in April. There are contingency contracts around, which suggests that the situation might not be resolved until 2017. That is causing great concern among solicitors’ practices and a lot of uncertainty. When can we expect a resolution? The spectacle of there being only three or four providers across mid and west Wales makes one shudder, which is why a renewed number of legal aid concerns have been raised in all our surgeries. It is also why there is huge pressure on the very limited citizens advice bureaux across our constituencies, to which I pay tribute.
The other thing that needs to be mentioned is the Welsh language, which is spoken by more than half my constituency’s population. I am concerned about whether the providers, especially if they come from outside my area, or outside the broad expanse of mid and west Wales, will still be able to present their services through the medium of Welsh. That remains a great worry, whatever the Legal Aid Agency suggests, because when these services were being delivered by small solicitors’ practices in high streets throughout the country, we had a guarantee. As those practices were based in Welsh-speaking communities, their services could be provided in the mother tongue, whatever that mother tongue may be. Again, I sadly reflect that the situation illustrates how the Ministry of Justice has scant knowledge of and regard for rurality and, I believe, scant regard for the Welsh language, too.
Order. I have received a number of notes from Members advising me that they notified the Speaker’s Office of their wish to speak. I have not been advised that those requests were received by the Speaker’s Office, but in an attempt to get in everyone who has approached me, I shall set a three-minute time limit on speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate on such a crucial issue at such a crucial time. Access to justice in Wales is under threat. In employment tribunals, for example, there were 16,456 single-claim cases in 2014-15, which represented a 52% fall on the number in 2013-14. That fall was due to the introduction of the fees system that has levied up to £1,200 on people who have lost their jobs and are not in a position to spend that amount of cash.
I practised in the Welsh courts as a barrister for 11 years before entering this place, and while I remain a door tenant at Civitas in Cardiff, I no longer practise. I am fully aware of what has been going on, especially in relation to employment matters. The changes mean that literally thousands of people are no longer able to enforce their legal rights before an employment tribunal.
There are 11 scheduled court closures. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) pointed out that the Minister has talked about telephone hearings already happening in court, but let me make the distinction clear. Interlocutory hearings, especially those in the civil courts that last for less than an hour, have for some years been done on the telephone—that is absolutely true. It is also true that in certain trials and certain specific circumstances, witnesses have given evidence by video link. However, extreme care has always been taken with trials, when it is best that the veracity of witnesses is judged face to face. Their demeanour has to be judged; it is not simply a case of what they happen to say through a particular visual medium. It is crucial to realise that there has to be a limit to what is done through the so-called digital revolution in the court system. Certain trials simply cannot be done on the telephone or via such a visual medium, so the Ministry of Justice must take that into account.
Local justice is crucial, because it is important that we do not see justice as distant. Justice should reflect the culture of the area, and I fear that the closure of 11 courts will put that at risk.
I urge the Ministry of Justice to be wary of false economies on civil legal aid. It is one thing to take down the legal aid bill, but it is quite another if one ends up with far more litigants in person in the court system. There is nothing wrong with people representing themselves, but they should not do so simply because they cannot afford to access a lawyer. If that does happen, I am afraid that the court system will be slowed by having so many litigants in person, and the Minister will find that the cuts in civil legal aid are simply counter-productive.
One of my first contributions after being elected to the House of Commons in 2010 was to fight in this Chamber on behalf of the two magistrates courts that remained in my constituency: Ammanford and Llandovery. The Government proposed closing those courts on the basis that services would be provided in Carmarthen magistrates court, yet here we are debating the future of that court and the state-of-the-art family, tribunal and probate hearing centre that was opened in Carmarthen by the Lord Chief Justice in 2012. That goes to show, to use a famous Welsh political phrase, that centralisation is a process, not an event. I wonder how long it will be, with services being centralised in Llanelli, before we are arguing about the centralisation of services to Swansea, which is only a dozen miles to the east. It is easy for Ministers and their civil servants to sit here in London and draw lines on a map and crosses through budget lines without understanding the full effect of the changes on the communities we represent.
I oppose the proposals for the west of my country for five primary reasons. First, Carmarthen is the legal capital of the west of my country. It was afforded that status by James I in 1604, when he made it a county corporate by charter. I am struggling to understand why the Minister thinks he knows better than James I. Carmarthen is one of only two towns in Wales that still has a town sheriff, and that gives a clear indication of the importance of the role that Carmarthen has played in the legal system in the west of Wales.
Secondly, the Ministry of Justice has spent £1.7 million on the two courts in Carmarthen in the past seven years, so it would be a colossal waste of money to close those courts following such investment. When the family court was opened in 2012 by the Lord Chief Justice, it was seen as a pathfinder for the future of legal services in Wales and England because of all its video-conferencing technology. The Minister says that such technology is the way forward, but I am informed by magistrates that none of that equipment has actually been installed. I therefore find it difficult to understand how the Minister can make the case for closing that court in Carmarthen—it has just been opened—on the basis of a lack of operational capacity. He will argue that the way forward is remote justice but, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, we are talking about areas that are known to have broadband “not spots” and to lack fast mobile provision. It will be difficult to deliver such a legal system in the areas we represent.
Thirdly, Carmarthen is the natural travel hub for the west, north and east of Carmarthenshire. It could take five hours by public transport for someone from Newcastle Emlyn or Llandovery to make it to Llanelli to attend court. The natural transport hub for Carmarthenshire is the county town, so it does not make any sense to close the courts in Carmarthen. Fourthly, as has been mentioned—
Diolch yn fawr, Gadeirydd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate. It is an important topic, and it is particularly important to my rural constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Fifteen courts were closed across Wales during the last Parliament, and since the 2015 election, a further 14 have either closed or are being earmarked for closure by the UK Government. The proposed closure of Dolgellau magistrates court in my constituency, for example, means cases will need to be transferred to either Caernarfon or Aberystwyth, which, incidentally, is outside the North Wales police region. The issue of inadequate public transport in Wales is well documented, but Members will understand that a journey from Dolgellau to Aberystwyth or Carmarthen is not simply a matter of getting on a tube with an Oyster card. For my constituents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and indeed for many people across Wales, it is simply impossible for public transport to get them to a magistrates court for a 9.30 am start.
The Ministry of Justice claims its programme of cuts is necessary to save money, but what will effectively happen is that the cost of providing justice will be passed from the state to the citizen. The cost will still be borne, but by the individual regardless of ability to pay, while the state washes its hands.
I have left out a number of things due to time pressures, which is unfortunate, but I return to the issue of courts. I have a background in teaching through video conferencing, so I welcome the Minister’s commitment last month to undertake a Welsh language impact assessment before coming to conclusions about the future of courts in Wales. On the other hand, I am also interested in efforts to increase access to justice through the use of technology, particularly video technology.
Given the swathes of court closures and the particular problems they will cause in rural parts of Wales, allowing hearings to take place remotely may be welcome. I note however the eight conditions set out by Lord Leveson’s review of efficiency in criminal proceedings in January 2015. He considered those conditions to be prerequisites for remote hearings. The first of them seems obvious, but is in fact crucial: the equipment used and the audio and visual quality should be of a high standard. Given what fellow Members have said, I wonder what consideration has been given to the quality and reliability of digital infrastructure in those areas where courts are to be closed. I particularly urge that consideration is given to Lord Leveson’s recommendation that a committee of criminal justice professionals be charged with identifying best practice for hearings conducted via video link, not only to maintain the gravitas of the court environment, but, more importantly, to ensure that justice outcomes via communications technology are consistent with justice outcomes in a conventional environment.
I also urge the Minister to consider alternative public buildings if a court building—this is understandable—is no longer deemed suitable for 21st-century justice. In the case of Dolgellau, the Meirionnydd council chamber would require little adaptation, and offers such facilities as parking and translation equipment. As an aside, it is also nearer the cells and the police station than the present court—
It is a privilege to serve under your chairpersonship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing a very important debate. It has been amplified by the number of Welsh Members who have attended this afternoon to put their point across very passionately. It is further amplified by the lack of the 11 Tory MPs who occupy certain sections of Wales. The only thing more surprising is that Wales still has 11 Tory MPs; I hope the people of Wales will deal with that at the next general election.
Scotland is fortunate; we have had a separate legal system since the Act of Union. It was enshrined in the Act, so during the last 300-odd years we have been able to design certain elements of our justice system differently to suit the needs of the people of Scotland. Many of the complaints raised this afternoon would be fixed to a great extent by devolution of justice to Wales. I urge Welsh Members to think about that as a serious concept. Justice decisions made closer to the people that they affect would inevitably be better decisions.
The Government have created several bars to access to justice over the past few years. We have seen criminal court charges, which, thankfully, they have agreed to end. We do not have them in Scotland. Employment tribunal fees have been imposed on employment tribunal cases, as we have heard. We have committed to abolish those in Scotland as soon as the matter is devolved. The slashing of the legal aid budget has impacted on access to justice. We are not immune from such cuts in Scotland, but we feel we have been able to manage resources better so that they do not have the impact that they have had in Wales.
I have been very impressed by some of the submissions that we have heard, particularly from the hon. Member for Swansea East. She gave a passionate speech about the real effects on ordinary people. That is always the story with austerity, which impacts on the most vulnerable in our society first. The Government’s austerity agenda impacts on access to justice in Wales. That is undeniable.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made another fantastically passionate speech and coined the phrase “one size fits all”. It goes back to the whole devolution prospect. I do not believe as a matter of principle that a one-size-fits-all approach across the UK is sensible for all the Celtic nations. He is absolutely correct when he says that access to justice is driven by the Treasury. The Ministry of Justice has not come up with a grand plan to increase justice provision, yet reduce costs. The Justice Secretary has rolled over in negotiations with the Treasury, whereas other Departments have not done so.
Given the pressure on time, I will conclude my remarks. I support the proposal that Wales should have more decisions taken by the Welsh Parliament, closer to the Welsh people, to make better decisions for the people of Wales.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am conscious of something that George Bernard Shaw once said. He apologised for writing a long note because he had not had time to write a short note. I fear I have written rather a long note, but I know you will keep me to delivering a short speech.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing today’s debate and on such a wide-ranging, passionate and practical speech that highlighted some of the real problems with access to justice in Wales. I really hope the Minister will take these matters on board and make some changes. The debate has been phenomenal. We have had contributions from 10 Back Benchers and a visitor from Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless). We have had contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who made a very important point about the Justice Committee and we look forward to a response from the Minister on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) talked about the issue of litigants in person. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). The latter referred to many issues relating to his constituency, but he also referred to an issue that really needs highlighting: the prospect of the accused and the defendant travelling on the same bus. Imagine a victim of domestic violence and the perpetrator on the same rural bus. That is a really important point that shows many of the flaws in the current proposals.
We heard a speech from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on rural communities, especially in mid and west Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) showed his extensive practical experience of legal representation and some of the flaws in the current proposals. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) rightly complained about centralisation, and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) raised, among other issues, remote hearings. Labour Members often talk about the importance of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but for this Government and their proposals it is tough if you happen to be a victim of crime, which is very different indeed. It is extraordinary that no Conservative Members are here. They had an increase in numbers at the general election and they are still not here representing the interests of the people of Wales.
There are many problems, but I want to focus on two issues. The first relates to the impact on the Welsh language, which several Members mentioned. Few of us ever have to testify in court, and even fewer will testify against an attacker or an abuser, but, for the people who do, being able to communicate effectively and to hear and understand everything that is said is essential. For many first-language Welsh speakers, that means being able to engage with the court in Welsh. That right goes back nearly 70 years to the Welsh Courts Act 1942, which overturned the ban on Welsh in courts that had been in place since the 16th century.
Everyone can surely speak English, but I refer Members to the words of the Labour peer, Viscount Sankey, during the passage of the Welsh Courts Act:
“No doubt many members of this House read French easily and speak it well; many speak it perfectly; yet how should we like to be examined and cross-examined in French? Should we not be rather nervous and embarrassed witnesses and fail to do ourselves justice?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 October 1942; Vol. 124, c. 662-8.]
I am not sure Members are quite as proficient in French as they probably were in the 1940s, but the point remains that being able to communicate in one’s own language before a court is essential. It is not a nicety. The Ministry of Justice’s own Welsh language scheme admits that the Department has failed to evaluate the linguistic consequences of its policies. Securing the rights of Welsh speakers and promoting the equality of Welsh and English are not optional niceties; they are statutory requirements, and the disregard is positively shameful.
The Welsh Language Commissioner has criticised the way in which the closures have been proposed. As she points out, a
“decision to change the court estate, should aim to promote and facilitate the use of Welsh in Wales.”
We want an answer.
Let us look at the case of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn calls it. Some 70% of people on the island have knowledge of Welsh, with 56% describing themselves as Welsh speakers. If I am allowed, I will refer to the Human Rights Act—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. I commend you on having managed to get through so many speakers in such a short time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I also thank the many colleagues who have turned out for this debate; that demonstrates its importance. Individuals have spoken with passion, both on constituency matters and more generally. Several points have been raised, and I intend to address as many as I can. I ask Members to be patient if I do not instantly respond to their issue in the first minute or two. I will make one thing absolutely clear at the outset: the Government share the hon. Lady’s passion for a justice system that works for everyone.
The hon. Lady referred to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor’s eloquent comment that the Government’s commitment to one nation justice was fundamental to the rule of law. At the heart of one nation justice is equality, and a justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable and works better for victims and witnesses. Our justice system does not always do that, despite the fantastic efforts of those who work in it. That is why the Ministry of Justice is leading a major reform programme. As the hon. Member for Swansea East will know, the MOJ has secured more than £700 million in funding to invest in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. We are working closely with the senior judiciary to deliver a justice system for everyone, at a lower cost for all those who need to access the courts.
There is much agreement that our courts and tribunals need urgent reform, and a high degree of consensus that the current system is not only too slow, but unsustainable. Despite the best efforts of front-line staff, the infrastructure supporting the administration of the service is inefficient and disjointed, and based on technology that is, in some cases, decades old. I hope Members agree that that has to change. That means using up-to-date technology, which I will discuss later in my speech, and modernised working practices, and having a more appropriate and efficient estate. It will also mean victims and witnesses being able to attend some hearings remotely, and not having to experience the stress and strain of a personal visit to a court, or, indeed, having to take a day off work.
Mention has been made of victims and witnesses travelling together. Clearly, that is a situation that none of us would want. The beauty of a remote system is that there is no danger of meeting people on the bus to court. The victims will not be travelling with the witnesses and the defendants. They may well be in a local civic building of some kind, in a video-conferencing suite to which people go by appointment at a specific time. They will be far more comfortable there, and will not have the stress and strain of going to court, which would be a strenuous and stressful experience for most people.
We are replacing paper forms, automating much of the administrative process, and allowing defendants to indicate their plea online. The use of telephones was mentioned. Let me make it clear that we are piloting a scheme in Manchester in which pleas can be made online, using either computers or smartphones. That is happening right now, as we speak.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, but I will address his point. He rightly said earlier that there will be some cases where digitalisation is clearly not appropriate; that is why we will maintain courts. Nevertheless, for many cases, court will not be necessary. The majesty of the court will remain for appropriate cases that deserve to go to court, but it is important to remember that access to justice does not always mean access to a court, with all the time and expense that that entails. Nor does it mean that people should always turn to taxpayer-funded lawyers. Where suitable alternatives are available, we want to see more cases diverted from the courts.
There is no doubt that in many cases court should be the last resort, not the first. Encouraging greater use of mediation has been a key part of our wider reforms to the justice system. Mediation can be quicker, cheaper and certainly less stressful than protracted litigation. For the taxpayer, who would otherwise be paying solicitors, barristers and for time in court, there will be a saving. For the parties involved, it is far better to sit around a table and have constructive engagement than to be in a court scenario, where there is often—I speak as a former solicitor—a destructive environment, rather than one of constructive engagement.
There might be some validity in that, but how does the Minister square it with the rise of litigants in person? We may well see the well-heeled being able to get the best legal advice in the world, while those on the other side of the dock have to represent themselves in person. Surely that is not fair.
I plead with the hon. Lady to be patient; I will turn to litigants in person shortly.
From April last year, the Children and Families Act 2014 made it a legal requirement that anyone considering applying to court for an order about their children or finances should first attend a mediation information and assessment meeting, which we call a MIAM, unless exemptions such as domestic abuse apply. The requirement was introduced so that parties could consider the benefits of mediation before the start of court proceedings, which can be long, arduous and expensive. From November last year, we have funded the first single session of mediation in cases where one of the parties is already legally aided. In such circumstances, both parties will be funded for the MIAM and the first session of mediation.
I hope Members appreciate that legal aid is only one part of a balanced access-to-justice provision, although of course we recognise that in some cases it can be a vital part. We also recognise that those in greatest hardship at times of real need should have the resources to secure access to justice. When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. We had to find significant savings, which meant making difficult choices. Despite that, we have made sure that legal aid remains available when it is most needed: where people’s life or liberty is at stake; where they face the loss of their home; in cases of domestic violence; or where their children may be taken into care.
In the case of domestic violence, evidence is required to ensure that the correct cases attract funding, but we have listened and made changes to the amount of evidence required. One of the first things I did when I was appointed Minister in October 2013 was meet certain stakeholders, who told me that the conditions were too stringent. As a consequence, I made the appropriate changes. We will, of course, continue to listen and to make changes where necessary.
The fact remains that even after all the reforms, our legal aid system remains one of the most generous in the world. Last year we spent more than £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is around a quarter of the Department’s expenditure. We have also made sure that funding is available through the exceptional funding scheme, where that is required under the European convention on human rights or by European law. We believe that the reforms to the legal aid scheme are sustainable, but we have provided that there will be a review within three to five years of the implementation of part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
As far as the Welsh language is concerned, let me make it absolutely clear that Welsh-speaking users can call the Civil Legal Advice Welsh-language operator service, or request an immediate call back from a Welsh-speaking operator. The bilingual site architecture has been designed to ensure that the same service is available in the Welsh language as in English, and that the content can be easily kept up to date. We continue to work with the advice sector to develop sustainable and collaborative ways of working to ensure that people can obtain advice when they need it.
On litigants in person, we have provided £2 million for a strategy led by the advice, voluntary and pro bono sector. It maximises the provision of support to litigants in person, and there is an increase in the provision of face-to-face, phone and online support.
In the few moments I have left, let me address a few of the points raised. The hon. Member for Swansea East said that there has been a reduction in the number of criminal contracts, but there is a far higher number of contracts for own-client work, which means that people can continue to work for the clients that they already have. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who has a distinguished record in government, asked about the criminal court charge. He will know from his time in government that laws change. Until 24 December—the date that the Lord Chancellor gave—the law will apply. I have already touched on the issue of telephone access, but I emphasise that the digitalisation process that we envisage will clearly not apply to all cases. The physical presence of courts, which people will need to go to when appropriate, will always remain.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East on securing this debate, and I thank all Members for taking the trouble to attend. I hope I have been able to give some comfort to Members, and assure them that we are very keen to ensure that access to justice remains.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered access to justice in Wales.