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Westminster Hall

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2016

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 February 2016

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Fuel Poverty

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fuel poverty.

I am grateful for your arrival, Mr Streeter. “My home lets out the heat. My heating fuel is expensive, and I can’t afford it. I am in fuel poverty.” That is the personal testimony of more people in my constituency than anywhere else in England, and the UK is the leakiest country in the EU, so homes in my neck of the woods could be among the leakiest in Europe. This is a national issue, not an isolated problem for the west country. Fuel poverty affects 10% of the population of England, and the situation is even worse in Scotland, Wales and Northern—may I say that I am so grateful to everyone who has turned up this morning to support and take part in the debate?

Jenny Holland, from the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said this just before the spending review:

“Of the 26 million households in the UK, four out of five have poor levels of energy efficiency, rated band D or below. As today’s findings clearly show, this places our nation right at the bottom of the European rankings for housing and fuel poverty and represents an energy bill crisis for UK consumers. Ministers must now embrace the opportunity for a national energy efficiency infrastructure programme”.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. As an MP representing a constituency in Northern Ireland, I concur with his viewpoint, but does he agree with me that opening up infrastructure funding for energy efficiency improvements has massive potential both to improve lives by reducing fuel poverty and to save the taxpayer money by reducing NHS winter costs?

Certainly. I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is absolutely right. Reducing the impact on hospitals in terms of admissions, but also creating skilled jobs and reducing emissions, are good reasons to use the infrastructure money to tackle and solve this problem.

I congratulate successive Governments on initiatives that they have introduced to tackle fuel poverty. I also congratulate the many MPs who have addressed this issue in this place. There have already been many Westminster Hall debates on fuel poverty, including one just a few weeks ago. However, my constituency demonstrates that not enough has been achieved. My constituency has more leaky homes than anywhere else in rural England. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are in the top three areas in England for homes without central heating; 14% of homes in Cornwall do not have central heating and 22% of homes in the Isles of Scilly, which is also in my constituency, do not.

One part of the United Kingdom that the hon. Gentleman left out at the beginning of his speech was Northern Ireland, but we will forgive him for that. It is the case that 42% of the households in Northern Ireland are in fuel poverty. The Government have promised, I think, £640 million or £650 million to go towards efficient homes. We trust—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me—that all the regions of the United Kingdom will get their fair share of that.

Certainly. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention, although I think that I did mention Northern Ireland at the beginning. If I did not, I apologise. It is certainly in my notes, so I apologise if I missed it out. [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend mentions the west country; Northern Ireland has been mentioned as well. Dorset and the more rural areas are also affected by fuel poverty. When it comes to improving efficiency, does he agree that there should not just be a fairer share, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said, but that the money should be targeted at those who are in fuel poverty in order to tackle this issue?

Certainly, because that would result in more help for my part of the world. We are not helped by the fact that we have an ageing population. We all know that right across the country the population is getting older and more vulnerable to ill health as a result of poorly insulated homes. Furthermore, the west country is very rural, which means that delivering solutions such as the energy company obligation is expensive and the energy companies have gravitated their efforts towards more urban areas. In my part of the world, ECO measures to help older people have been unremarkable, with only half the national average benefiting from that help.

I have noticed since being elected that it has become a tradition to read out constituents’ letters and emails in order to make a point. I now want to do just that, because I have had an email from someone on the Isles of Scilly who sums up exactly the scale of the challenge in my constituency. He says:

“I write from the Isles of Scilly, where I have just moved with my partner and my parents. We have moved into an old property which has little-to-no insulation and thus is extremely cold. I have therefore been researching grants which may be available to help, and in particular the Energy Companies Obligation Scheme…I was extremely disappointed to find that these sort of schemes seem to finish at Land’s End and that—as far as I can tell from my research—no energy company will provide free insulation for us on the islands. I understand, of course, that there would be increased costs involved for the energy companies to offer insulation on the islands, but frankly feel that a government-backed scheme should benefit all people in the country, irrespective of geographical location. On Scilly it seems we are hit by a perfect storm when it comes to energy bills. Much of the housing stock on the islands is very old and of traditional construction, so uninsulated. Incomes here are among the lowest in the country. Combine this with the fact we have no mains gas so have no practical alternative to inefficient and costly electricity to…our homes, and the fact energy companies will not offer free or subsidised insulation to households on the islands, despite this being a government scheme which should benefit all, and I think you will agree we have a serious problem.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, I have strong family connections to the Isles of Scilly so I am familiar with the situation there. The people are heavily reliant on bottled gas to provide for cooking and sometimes for heating. Does he agree that the Government could help the market for bottled gas? They could try to bring down the prices, which are often very high and do not seem to come down when other energy prices fall.

I welcome that intervention because 57% of homes in Cornwall are off grid. It is the right thing to address, and those bills need to be cut.

I accept that older homes are harder to insulate, that efficient heating systems are expensive, and that it is more costly to deliver ECO in a rural area. In a low-wage area such as mine, households do not necessarily choose to replace their windows and insulate their properties adequately. So, given the scale of the problem, is it really worth the effort? Does it really matter? Why is fuel poverty such an issue?

As we have heard already in an intervention, fuel poverty affects people’s health. It is more difficult for people to live full and healthy lives in cold homes and the result is extra demand on acute services and social care. That alone is a good reason for us to deal with the problem. It is difficult for young people living in a cold home to study and succeed as they cannot really concentrate, and it concerns me that people are held back simply through poor housing. We have high energy use and high carbon emissions.

The hon. Gentleman is making a succinct point but it is important to remember not only young people, but people such as the ex-miners in my constituency, who have chest complaints and need to keep the heating up a bit higher. Unfortunately, a huge number of people also suffer from cancer and have been deeply affected by fuel poverty as they have to keep the heating up because they feel the cold more than other people.

Just before the hon. Gentleman continues his powerful speech, may I point out that 13 colleagues are trying to catch my eye in the main part of the debate? Wind-ups will begin at about 10.30 am. Do the maths—13 speakers in about 35 minutes. The more interventions there are, the longer it will take and the fewer the colleagues who will be able to speak.

I take that point and I will speak quicker. I thank hon. Members for all interventions so far because they help to strengthen the argument that more must be done.

I mentioned high energy use and high carbon emissions. We are all now concerned about what we can do to look after the planet and we take that responsibility seriously. However, the real concern for me is that in one of the richest nations on the planet, people are still choosing to heat or eat. We should resolve that once and for all. I am concerned that as the Government quite rightly push forward with rolling out the smart meter programme—a piece of technology with enormous benefits—there is a potential problem. Some people may be sat in the corner of the room choosing to use nothing but an electric fan heater because of their concern about energy costs. A smart meter might further aggravate the problem, and they might choose to heat their home even less. We need to be careful that we provide the right kind of heating in people’s homes as the smart meter programme rolls out.

What am I doing to help? It is not fair for me to bash the Government if I am not prepared to tackle the situation myself. Soon after I was elected, I found a work experience student called Primrose at the local college. She now spends a day a week in my office, looking at the issue of renewable energy and fuel poverty. This Friday, she is bringing together people from my constituency and from further afield who are concerned about the issue, and who have solutions and ideas so that they can help me to understand the issue better. We have a conference on Friday to put forward a strategy for west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which I hope the Government will be able to work with me to deliver.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that every hon. Member must do more to raise awareness in the wider community of facilities, in terms of energy, insulation and the price of fuel, that are already available but are not being availed of in many cases?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have a responsibility to make people fully aware of what is available, and to help them take the matter into their own hands, if possible.

I shall be brief, because I want to bring my speech to an end. This is the time to address fuel poverty. Today, we have better information through research, we have advances in technology and innovation that bring the solution within reach, and we have a Government who believe in reducing energy use, reducing household costs, reducing hospital admissions and investing in infrastructure. I welcome all those things. We are well placed to wage war on fuel poverty.

There are things on which we need to shed some light. The Government’s fuel poverty figures state that 1% of fuel-poor households were brought up to band C in every year from 2010 to 2013. At that rate it would take 100 years to bring all fuel-poor properties up to band C. Under the new ECO from 2018, a target of 200,000 hard-to-reach properties will receive low-cost energy efficiency measures. I have 6,924 fuel-poor households in my constituency and I estimate that, within the 200,000 target, only 302 of those households will get help each year, so we have a long way to go to address the problem.

We are also spending £320 million a year on helping vulnerable households with their energy bills. As I understand it, and I am willing to be corrected, that money, although it is a lifeline to those households, does nothing to reduce heat loss; it simply reduces the cost of the heat that we waste. There must be a better way to get value for money.

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

My shopping list, and it is not very long, is that the Government should invest a modest level of capital infrastructure funding in an energy efficiency programme that can deliver those additional economic benefits, boost energy security and economic productivity, reduce fuel bills and save lives—it would also benefit our local economy.

I would like to see a system similar to Scotland’s. I have heard what Scottish MPs have said, but it is important to note that it is a devolved issue and local authorities in Scotland receive money on a needs-based formula that they can use to address this problem. I would like to see something similar in England and other parts of the UK, so that we can receive such funds on a needs-based formula, which responds to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), to ensure that all households in the area receive an offer to have the energy efficiency of their home improved.

I would like to see efficient heating upgrades and the installation of renewable heating systems in off-grid households. There are small businesses in Cornwall that have developed the technology to do that, and not only would we dramatically reduce energy costs and pollution but we would create skilled jobs. Porthleven is a fairly contained and important part of my constituency. It is off grid, and residents have been told that eight households will need to put in £3,000 if they want gas to be supplied.

One solution that the Government should enable, or at least support if they can, is a utility that uses ground-source heating. I have been in the building industry, and we have put ground-source heating in barns by simply running pipes into the ground to collect warm water and to take out the heat to heat our homes and supply hot water. It is possible to do that for homes, and it could be possible to do the same for large estates. We could effectively run a new utility, so that people can tap in and pay a standing charge to cover the cost of installation. That is one idea among many that we could use and pilot in my part of the world if the Government are looking for such examples.

It makes sense to invest in addressing fuel poverty—it is a win-win situation. I finish by quoting Ed Matthew, the director of the “Energy Bill Revolution” campaign:

“By far the greatest opportunity to cut energy bills is to invest in energy efficiency infrastructure programme for our nation’s leaky homes. Recent research from Frontier Economics shows this would bring an £8.7 billion net economic benefit to the country, comparable to HS2 Phase 1 and Crossrail. This would boost GDP growth, reduce UK reliance on gas imports and help deliver a net increase in employment across the country. It would also help keep energy bills down, reduce health costs and warm up the homes of the fuel poor.”

Thank you, Sir Roger Gale.

The late Sir Roger Gale. I apologise to hon. Members. I am afraid that unavoidable circumstances kept me from the Chair. Apparently I have no power to extend the sitting. I would be more than willing to stay in the Chair, but I have no power to do so, so I am afraid that I have cost you eight minutes by my tardiness. That means, given the number of Members present and wishing to speak, that I will have to impose a time limit. I suggest that we try for three minutes. I will not be as rigorous as I might otherwise be, but if hon. Members can respect that, we will try to get everybody in, as is my custom.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate and on a fine speech, the vast majority of which I agree with. I absolutely agree that fuel poverty is one of the most significant social problems in the UK and that more needs to be done, but what I find most frustrating about this debate is that this is an issue that can be solved. The technology and the workforce exist, but this country so often lacks the political will to address the issue. The Government’s strategy is not delivering the kind of gains that we need.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK has the worst fuel poverty in Europe except for Estonia. In my constituency, like his, some 10% of all households are in fuel poverty. What does that mean? It means that children are going to bed cold, that teenagers are falling behind at school when they should not and that pensioners are afraid to put on the heating when they need it, simply because our housing stock is so old and inefficient. Understanding that point is crucial, because we will not end fuel poverty until we can substantially reduce households’ energy consumption—not just the cost of each unit of energy but the overall consumption of energy in each household.

That is different from the Government’s approach. The Government often talk about fuel poverty. They talk about more liberalisation of the market and ending subsidies for renewables, but that will not bring us the gains that we need. Every form of new generation will require some form of subsidy. Renewables will need subsidy until they become cost-effective, nuclear will always need subsidy, and new gas will need subsidy as part of the capacity market. The only answer to those problems is greater energy efficiency and cutting consumption, which can be done.

Energy efficiency is the way that we can address climate change while keeping bills affordable, and of course it is far cheaper than any new generation that we could bring into the system. What does that mean? It means sorting out the simple stuff that needs to happen—cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, draft-proofing and modern windows. Energy companies are quite good at getting that out the door and into households, and they have gained considerable expertise in Government policy over the past few years. But energy efficiency also means addressing the very difficult stuff, such as solid wall insulation. Half of all fuel-poor homes in the UK require solid wall insulation, and a Government programme is required because it will never be economical for householders to make such large investments themselves.

In policy terms, we have now lost the green deal and the pay-as-you-save model. We are left with ECO, which I have never liked because it is not fit for purpose. ECO produces huge fluctuations in work for the workforce and in the price received for that work. Fundamentally, ECO does not go to the people who need it most. ECO brokerage will always find people who are in need, but not the most need. It will find people who qualify but who can also make a personal financial contribution, yet millions, or at least thousands, of people in the UK desperately need help but cannot make that contribution themselves. The Government changed ECO after one year of operation, and it does not offer anything for solid wall insulation. Now that we do not have the green deal, we are seeing many jobs lost in the energy efficiency sector at a time when we need them more than ever. Big and small companies have gone to the wall under this Government and at the end of the coalition Government’s time in office. That is a tragedy, because we need that workforce, those jobs and those skills more than ever.

The Government could pursue many alternatives to make things happen. We should have zero-interest loans, as happens in Germany, where they have been a tremendously successful programme for people who can afford to pay. There should be stamp duty incentives for buying a more efficient home or for turning an inefficient home into a more efficient one.

There should eventually be a degree of compulsion. Measures such as cavity wall insulation and loft insulation are effectively still free under Government programmes. Given our climate objectives, there has to be a point where we say to people, “If you want to move house, you’ve got to have these programmes in.” They are effectively free; it is just a matter of getting them out the door.

There are also a lot of small changes that can be made. In this country, 10 million homes do not even have thermostats. If someone does not have a thermostat, they cannot control their heating to any substantial degree, yet that problem could be easy to solve. In addition, we need to do something about the private rented sector, where I believe standards—particularly on energy—are extremely poor.

There is a lot more that I would like to say, Mr Gale, but I will respect the time limit. I will simply say now that we have the workforce and the technology to deal with this issue, but what we do not have is the political will. I would love to see that situation being addressed.

I recently had the privilege of launching in this House a report entitled “The poor pay more”, by the debt counselling charity Christians Against Poverty. It outlines concerns that I want to express today about a specific issue, which is the prepayment metres that 10.8 million people across this country use.

It is a sad fact that the poorest in our country pay more for their fuel. As the CAP report highlights, the reason is that people on prepayment meters face higher tariffs and charges than those who pay in other ways. They simply cannot get on to the best tariffs, so they are forced to pay more, and they often have to turn to payday lenders to do so. Their difficulties are compounded by the fact that prepayment meters are predominantly used by vulnerable consumers: lower-income households, the unemployed, those with long-term disability and often those with mental health challenges, terminal illness or learning disabilities.

I do not have time to cite CAP’s statistics, but they reveal how extensive the problem is. Prepayment meter consumers are more susceptible than others to consumer detriment, because they find it more difficult to engage with suppliers, or to switch to or obtain the best tariff. Higher tariffs are not just a penalty for those in arrears; they affect thousands of people who are unable to engage effectively and switch. Those people need more support to engage effectively, and I hope that the Minister will consider how that support can be provided.

Ofgem estimates that PPM users pay an extra £300 a year compared with those on the cheapest tariff. Moreover, even if those people can engage effectively, they face other significant barriers that prevent them from switching to more competitively priced deals, such as charges for the installation or removal of a PPM, credit card checks and security deposits. Put simply, this is a matter of social justice; the poor should not pay more for such a basic and important commodity.

The unfairness of the situation is starkly illustrated by the statistics in CAP’s report, and behind every statistic is a human story: 8% of PPM users never use their heating in the winter, and a quarter use it for less than two hours a day. People miss hot meals, or do not wash themselves or their clothes. Many people fall behind in making payments, or have no energy supply at all.

Official disconnection figures hide the true statistics. In 2015, there were only 192 instances of official disconnection. However, in most cases where a customer falls into difficulties, energy suppliers install a PPM instead of disconnecting a supply. Then when customers cannot afford to put money into their meter, they are classed as a “self-disconnection”, so they do not fall within the official figures. The number of such self-disconnections is high. In 2014, approximately 300,000 new electricity PPMs and 320,000 new gas PPMs were installed. Customer Focus estimates that one in six PPM users are self-disconnecting. Current methods of measurement simply do not detect the level of disconnection that exists or the human stories behind each disconnection.

I could go on, Sir Roger—there are other points I would have liked to make, for example the need for clarity about standing charges over the summer months. Currently, when PPM users put money in as winter approaches, they often find that all their money has gone, simply to pay for the standing charges. That situation needs to be looked at, and people need help to understand it.

We also need to ensure that more innovative social and smart tariffs are introduced. Steps should be taken to ensure the introduction of smart meters, which promise infrastructure savings for suppliers and cost reductions for PPM users. They should be given as a priority to those who currently have PPM meters. However, with full smart meter roll-out not expected for another five years, action is needed today to ensure that the price differentials that 10.8 million PPM users currently experience are eradicated.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Roger, although I will point out that if you were 23 minutes late for the jobcentre you would run the risk of being sanctioned.

I will deal specifically with fuel poverty in the highlands and islands. I am grateful to Changeworks, which has estimated the percentage of households in my region that are in fuel poverty. It bands each locality in the highlands and islands into groups. On its calculation, there is no district in my constituency that has less than 47.9% of households in fuel poverty, and there are a number of districts where fuel poverty is evident in at least 73.5% of households. If I look to the Western Isles, across from my constituency, fuel poverty is at an eye-watering 71% of all households.

The highlands and islands experience the harshest climactic conditions in the UK and record levels of fuel poverty. There is far greater area-wide dependence than elsewhere on electricity for heating, as well as for lighting, but the standard unit price charged is 2p per kWh more than in most other parts of the UK and 6p more per kWh for various “economy” tariffs that are on offer. Perhaps 2p per kWh does not sound much, but it is a price premium of 15%. That is the price set by this Government for living in the highlands and islands of Scotland.

On top of that, there is also far greater reliance on domestic heating oil and solid fuel in off-gas grid areas, which pushes up heating costs still further. The Government must accept that having 14 regional markets in the UK, with consumers in the highlands and islands paying a premium, is discriminatory. We must have a universal market throughout the UK. I must ask the Minister why highlanders and islanders are being penalised. The lack of action on creating a national market for distribution is partly responsible for the high rates of fuel poverty in my constituency. Fuel poverty is made in Westminster, but highlanders and islanders have to pay the price. Fuel poverty is delivered to Scotland from Westminster.

The Government have the responsibility and the power to do something about the situation. I might add that it should have been tackled under the last coalition Government, when Liberal Democrat Ministers such as Danny Alexander sat on their hands.

On 23 December last year, news that was designed to bring Christmas cheer to those of us in the highlands and islands was reported as follows in The Press and Journal:

“The UK Government has today announced that it will continue to protect bill payers in Scotland from higher electricity distribution costs.”

The Minister who is here today said:

“It is not right that people face higher electricity costs just because of where they live.”

I agree with that, but let us take the action today that is needed to create a national distribution market.

It is a pity that I do not have the time go through my other points, but that is the most important matter, and the Minister must act on it. Stop this unfairness, and let us create a national market in the UK.

Fortunately, I speak very quickly, so I hope that I can manage to say what I want to in three minutes.

I speak as the co-chair of the all-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, formerly the warm homes group, which tries to tackle the trilemma of fuel poverty, namely high energy prices, low incomes and the very poor energy efficiency of our domestic housing stock.

We saw energy bills falling early last year, with all the major suppliers passing on to their customers—to some extent—savings from the lower global wholesale gas prices. That should have helped many householders make their finances go a little further. I am pleased to say that the Government were also able to reduce energy bills by an average of £50 per household by reducing the green levies that had been placed on bills. However, we must go much further, as hon. Members have highlighted this morning.

I draw Members’ attention to a report by the Turn2us charity, which has highlighted people’s lack of awareness of the financial help and support that is currently available for households. There are many schemes that can provide support for people who are struggling to heat their home, whether directly through their energy supplier or by encouraging people to seek information from the many excellent campaigns, such as the “No Cold Homes” campaign, which ran last December, and the Home Heat Helpline, which I regularly recommend to my constituents—I believe that many hon. Members do the same.

This is cold homes week, when we will consider action on fuel poverty and excess winter deaths. Publicising excess winter deaths is a good way of raising the issue in the papers and getting headlines, but the reporting of such deaths does not cover the whole story. The truth is that cold homes cause excess morbidity and have a personal cost both for young people, who suffer many extra illnesses as a result, and for our older people, which causes extra admissions to our hospitals. The cost to the NHS and our social services must be enormous, and for some reason we never seem to manage to take those two different cost streams for the Government into account. One doctor commented to me, “If only I could prescribe insulation to my patients, rather than expensive drugs. How much more cost-effective that would be, and how many fewer admissions I would have to hospital and my surgery.”

When it comes to measures to tackle fuel poverty and home energy efficiency, one group of people is persistently overlooked, and that is park home owners. I have the biggest park home in the country in my constituency, Kings Park, and I was recently handed a petition by residents calling for park home owners to receive the same home improvement grants as other homeowners. I duly passed it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for a response. Park home owners are overwhelmingly older people on fixed incomes who have often lived rather beyond their savings. It is a superb way of downsizing and a marvellous lifestyle for older people. If we could have more older people in low-rise accommodation such as park homes, it would be a great blessing for social services and all the rest of it, but their issues must be addressed. Park home owners have told me that they are not eligible for the energy company obligation. Frequently, when they apply for it, the companies refuse them.

I conclude by saying that I will not offer any solutions. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) have offered suggestions, and it must not be beyond the wit of man to sort the problem out and end the need for an all-party group on fuel poverty.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this debate on a truly shocking issue. I am shocked that we are still having to debate it, but clearly the Government are not as shocked as me. In my constituency, more than 5,000 households live in fuel poverty. That is 13.5% of all the households in Burnley and Padiham.

What does fuel poverty mean? There has been a lot of talk about it in recent times, but that is all it is: talk. I will tell the House what fuel poverty means. The bottom line is that it means being cold. It means someone spending so much of their income paying for fuel that there is not enough for all the other costs of living. It means misery. It means children coming home from school on a cold winter’s day to a cold house. It means old people deciding to spend the day in bed to save on fuel or skimping on food so that there is enough money to pay the gas bill. It means avoidable winter deaths. In the UK, an average of 65 people die each day whose death can attributed to a cold home. In the past three years, an average of 40 people have died each year in my constituency because they could not keep warm at home.

This weekend, people will die of cold in their own homes in the world’s fifth largest economy because they cannot afford to pay the high prices charged by energy companies. Although the cost of fuel to the Big Six energy companies has tumbled, they have not cut prices to match. Rather than make them do so, the Government have chosen to attack renewable power. It is calculated that every seven minutes in winter, an older person dies from the cold. Even relatively mild January temperatures increase heart attacks and strokes. Nearly two thirds of over-65s worry that they will not be able to pay their fuel bills and say that they are more likely to cut back on their energy usage than turn their heating up, even on the coldest of days.

It is not only the elderly, either. More than five million British households live in fuel poverty, and people have to devote more of their income to energy than in any other EU country except Estonia. That is a national scandal. In the past two years, the wholesale price of gas and oil has fallen dramatically, and meanwhile the Government seem content to sit back and let the energy companies maintain ridiculously high prices. As with most things, it is the poorest and most vulnerable households that feel the pain most. They are more likely to have low incomes, more likely to live in damp or poorly insulated houses and more likely to pay through the nose for their fuel courtesy of a prepayment meter. Reform is long overdue, and it is time the Government put a stop to the scandal of our time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I echo others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this timely and important debate. My constituency in Somerset has a huge number of homes in fuel poverty. That is very much part of the unwelcome trend whereby we see a direct correlation between sparsity of population and fuel poverty. That is pretty bad news for the people of Somerton and Frome, scattered as they are across 900 square miles and more than 130 towns and villages. That real sense of isolation is reflected in the way that fuel poverty is often considered a bit of an outlier in debates on energy, and subordinate to the two big issues of renewables and headline energy costs for consumers.

However, I share my hon. Friend’s guarded optimism that in tackling the issue, we also create opportunities. Properly insulated homes will reduce carbon emissions and hospital admissions, as well as creating jobs. I am sure that Members of all parties will have welcomed the Secretary of State’s recognition that fuel poverty is a particular problem for rural areas, and I very much hope that the consultation that is currently under way will consider how the Government can respond to that correlation sustainably and productively.

The past four years have apparently seen 375,000 people taken out of fuel poverty, but we have much further to go. Recent estimates suggest that a massive 2.3 million households still need to be supported. Fuel poverty is a problem that sprawls across many different areas: deprivation, carbon reduction, health, the cost of living and rural isolation. That makes it all the more difficult to address directly, but perhaps that overlap presents us with an opportunity to have an impact on a variety of different issues that reinforce and entrench disadvantage.

This debate is important, and it is right that we reflect on it and on the representations made by so many constituents, but it is important that we think practically and that solutions are found, whether they are a UK-wide needs-based formula, greater efficiency awareness, insulation drives or stamp duty incentives. Whatever the solutions might be, this is a real and powerful issue on which progress seems rather overdue.

I thank you, Sir Roger, for allowing me to speak on this matter, and I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for setting the scene clearly. I think it is the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) who says that Jim Shannon can get more words to a minute than any other MP. That does not mean that I will talk even faster than I normally do, because that will make it more difficult for the Minister to understand, but I will make a short comment and raise a few important issues. It is a pity that we do not have the time, but that is where we are.

It is a sad reflection on society that in this day and age, people across the fifth largest economy in the world—our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—are unable to heat their homes. Other Members have said that, but I wanted to put it on record. Despite the fact that fuel poverty has been an issue for many years, it continues to grow across the United Kingdom. The population in my constituency, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom, is ageing, and we are seeing the economic consequences of that in older households. We can talk about protecting the most vulnerable in our society and advocate better treatment of our most vulnerable, but we need to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Average electricity costs in Northern Ireland are 15% higher than on the mainland, so we know the consequences of fuel poverty only too well. Unfortunately, we have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said that 42% of Northern Ireland households experience fuel poverty. That is a rate 13 percentage points higher than in Wales and 27 percentage points higher than in England. We need to look at the regional circumstances, which go some way to explaining why we in Northern Ireland have greater costs for energy and heating.

I know this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but to underline the issue the talk on the news this morning was about universal credit. I am not trying to be controversial or adversarial, but the news said that universal credit will cost everybody. It will add to fuel poverty issues, and I put that on the record too.

The Minister knows this, because she has been to my constituency and is a responsive Minister—I know she will be able to answer my questions—but we have had some good news with the natural gas network in my constituency, which will be extended to Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. That is good news, because that will help to bring costs down. We have the winter fuel allowance and the payments to alleviate fuel poverty, but they help only in the short term. We need to look at the long term too.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) spoke about park homes, and I want to put a marker down on that, too. Those aged between 55 and 80 are most likely to live in park homes, and that age group is most affected by fuel poverty. The Minister knows about that issue, but we need to address it. In Northern Ireland, we have looked at quality insulation, boiler systems and how heating systems can be upgraded. We have looked at all those things. In Northern Ireland we have some innovative and exciting projects to address fuel poverty. It is good to exchange those ideas across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I first want to thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas)—I know his area very well—for securing a debate on such a critical issue. It affects not only his constituents, but the constituents of all Members here today, including my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.

As I have previously stated in other parliamentary debates, statistics show that 40% of households in Scotland are considered to be living in fuel poverty. This, to me, is an unacceptable fact that sticks in one’s throat. Fuel poverty means more than simply not being able to keep the heating on. Critically, fuel poverty negatively impacts on the educational attainment and emotional well-being of children. It means that household income, which could otherwise be used to purchase healthy, nutritious food, goes to pay for high energy bills. The combination of mental and physical health problems, poor diet, emotional turmoil and diminished educational opportunity caused by fuel poverty is a recipe for condemning people to the cycle of poverty. In essence, it takes me back to an old Scottish Consumer Council report in 1994, “Poor and paying for it”, with 40% of households in Scotland face the consequences of fuel poverty every winter.

Fuel poverty is the result of a combination of, among other issues, low household income, fuel costs and the energy efficiency of homes. There are a number of practical ways in which those contributing factors can be addressed. For instance, lower household income can be tackled through a living wage for everyone. Recent policy developments implemented by this Conservative Government, such as increased benefit sanctions, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), put even more people at risk of fuel poverty because they hurt those in lower-income households. We must provide a fairer deal for hard-working individuals and families, and not force them to bear the cost of letting the producer interest come out on top.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) touched on the Big Six. We can no longer stand by while those companies make massive profits. That must surely end. The Competition and Markets Authority has in recent times found that energy consumers were being overcharged by £1.2 billion every year. Following its findings, I asked the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change what steps would be taken to amend policy in response to this high level of overpayment. To be honest, there has been very little response and a lack of robustness.

Finally, there is huge scope for the Government to assist in making homes more energy efficient. Unfortunately, this Conservative Government do not seem to think such programmes worth while. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently cut the budget for the Department of Energy and Climate Change by £70 million, £40 million of which will be cut from the budget for energy subsidies. This cut means that the green energy deal and the green deal home improvement fund, as well as solar power subsidies and feed-in tariffs, will be cut. The full impact of those cuts have yet to be seen. We can no longer stand by and allow this to happen. In a modern developed society, the fact that 40% of Scots face this dilemma every winter is a disgrace. Swift, meaningful action must be taken.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. He referred to a debate that was conducted in my name in this room in November, when I raised issues and gave solutions to the Minister. I am still waiting for answers, but I hope to get those.

The UK Government’s own figures show that 4.5 million people in the UK are in fuel poverty—one in five households. As a highland MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has already described the situation for our constituents and has called for the sensitive reconstruction of a universal market for people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that by 2020 an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will live in relative poverty after housing costs because of the UK Government’s welfare reforms—a matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—and this does not include the welfare changes announced in the summer Budget.

I want to ask three specific questions. The wholesale price of fuel is not being passed on to consumers. When prices rise for wholesalers, they rise for consumers; when prices fall for wholesalers, those falls are not passed on to the people, who do not see the drop in energy prices. The wholesale price of gas has fallen by 30% since last year and electricity by 8% in the same period. We are seeing suggestions of a reduction of 5.1% in gas prices from some companies, which is nowhere near enough. The Scottish Government’s energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has written to the UK’s leading energy suppliers calling for a fair deal for Scottish energy consumers. Will the Minister commit to taking action now to make sure that cost savings are passed on to customers at the earliest opportunity and to the fullest extent?

Secondly, the majority of the highlands, in common with other areas, is not on the gas grid. LPG is 100% more expensive, heating oil is 50% more expensive than mains gas, and people in off-gas areas are paying on average £1,000 more per annum than the dual fuel national average, according to the Highland Council report. That is a disgrace. Will the Minister commit to extend Ofgem to cover off-grid supply?

Finally, on welfare cuts, we have heard about the charity Turn2us and the staggering statistics—I do not have time to run through them all now, but they are eye-watering. The Scottish Government have done what they can by using millions of pounds. Again, I cannot go through the individual measures, but they were referred to by the hon. Member for St Ives earlier. So my final question—I could ask a whole lot more—is: will the Minister commit to ensuring that everyone has the entitlement to live in a warm home that is affordable to heat?

Any discussion of fuel poverty must necessarily include calls for the Big Six energy companies to cut their gas and electricity prices. One or two have now started to do this, but it is too little too late. As my colleague has pointed out, the SNP Scottish Government energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has written to the UK’s leading energy suppliers, calling for a fair deal for Scotland’s consumers. Wholesale costs savings must be passed on to customers at the earliest opportunity and to the fullest extent possible. No one can seriously believe that that is what has been happening to date. It is an absolute disgrace that some of the most vulnerable consumers, particularly those in remote areas without access to mains gas and those on pre-payment meters, should be paying more for energy costs.

The roll-out of smart meters is to be welcomed, but there must be concern about how the UK Government are planning to implement the programme, particularly when it comes to the costs of the roll-out, which will be borne by all energy consumers.

I apologise, but I have very little time.

In addition, some of the meters being installed are not of the highest specification, and there are fears that this will make it problematic for consumers to switch supplier in the future. Vulnerable customers must be given greater protection, as the SNP Scottish Government have been arguing. The programme must be delivered to the greatest possible number of Scottish consumers at the lowest possible cost, while enhancing the benefits to the most vulnerable in our society and those at risk of fuel poverty.

It is deeply disappointing that the Smith agreement fell well short of the Scottish Government’s proposal for joint governance of energy regulation, which would have allowed the Scottish Government to better protect consumers. But make no mistake: the new powers that Scotland has will be used in the strongest possible way to build a better energy market for Scottish consumers.

With £12 billion of further welfare cuts to be imposed, fuel poverty is set to become a deeper and wider problem across the entire UK. The charity Turn2us, which has been mentioned, found last year that one in two low-income households are struggling to afford their energy costs. The Scottish Government are doing what they can to put measures in place, with £104 million to mitigate the worst aspects of welfare reform in 2015-16, but there is still much to do. I hope the Minister will take cognisance of our particular concerns about fuel poverty in this wider context. I urge her to set out proposals that recognise that this is a health issue, a quality of life issue, and an issue that means that far too many of our most vulnerable, those living with disabilities, our children and our families are living in cold houses because they cannot afford both to eat and to heat their homes. I grew up in a home where we did not have the heating on because it cost too much money. I do not want any other child in the UK to grow up in such circumstances.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this extremely important debate.

Fuel poverty has wide-ranging impacts. As well as affecting people’s ability to keep their homes warm, it can affect their ability to feed their families and to manage other essential bills. It is also a long-standing health issue, in terms of both physical and mental health. The impact and emotional pressures caused by living in fuel poverty have been recognised for decades by researchers, medical professionals and policy makers alike. Turn2us has recently highlighted the fact that one in five people struggling with energy costs have experienced stress and other mental health problems, which compounds their difficulties.

From speaking to Denis Curran MBE, chairman of the Loaves and Fishes charity in my constituency, I have learned that some of the people who use his food bank specifically request food that does not need to be cooked. He is extremely concerned about the effects on children who are not receiving proper nutrition, and highlighted the plight of some desperate parents who are forced to use his service and ask for foods that require only hot water. He is concerned that further welfare cuts will invariably perpetuate the problem of people having to choose between the fundamentals of heating and eating. Denis told me:

“I have mothers walking three to four miles in the rain with children breaking their hearts in despair, asking for anything at all.”

The UK Government must act now to address poverty and energy prices. Wholesale gas and electricity costs have fallen, but the benefit does not appear to making its way to customers. I consider myself to be relatively bright, but I cannot understand some of the price comparisons, or even the price structures that the energy companies advertise. I am particularly concerned about my constituents who have prepayment meters and pay what appear to be disproportionate amounts. They must be supported with the installation of smart meters. I am also extremely concerned about the difficulties of my constituents who live in rural areas. They have no access to mains gas in the local area and must often choose bottled gas, oil or coal-based heating. Aside from the additional costs, their homes may be older and less insulated. All that contributes to physical health problems and illness in the elderly. There is a significant risk of mortality.

We must address the following issues promptly. We must look at renewable options; we must ensure clear pricing and competitive price comparisons; we must support people by changing their prepayment meters to smart meters; and we must ensure that those in rural areas are adequately assessed and resourced. Fundamentally, we must ensure that the most vulnerable in our society never have to choose between heating and eating.

Order. Members’ conduct has been exemplary; you have almost made up for your Chairman’s shortcomings. Mr McCaig, if you can confine your remarks to eight minutes, we will be back on track.

Thank you, Sir Roger. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing it. We have had an interesting discussion that has taken in both aspects of the issue. First, there is the issue of direct fuel poverty—how we insulate our homes and pay for our bills, and how we can make that better. Secondly, there is the broader issue of poverty—if people cannot afford to pay for anything, fuel poverty is clearly going to happen. I am always somewhat perplexed that we focus our poverty debates not on poverty itself but on specific manifestations of poverty. In this case it is fuel poverty; sometimes it is food poverty or child poverty. The issue is not the individual manifestations but poverty as a whole. Nevertheless, as this is a debate on fuel poverty, I will address my remarks accordingly.

The hon. Member for St Ives gave an excellent speech. The phrase that stood out to me was that it was time to “wage war on fuel poverty”. That is absolutely correct. I was struck by the comment by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that we need to learn from the different approaches in the UK’s different jurisdictions. I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives about the Scottish Government’s projects and how they could be replicated in England to deal with rural constituencies such as his. The situation in Scotland is by no means perfect, and we can learn from others. Debates such as this can help.

The hon. Member for St Ives also mentioned making fuel poverty a national infrastructure priority, which is what the Scottish Government have announced. That could bring jobs and support, along with benefits in terms of climate change, but above all it could ensure that people can live in homes that they can afford to heat. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned the lack of political will and how many of the attempts to tackle fuel poverty were being directed at reducing subsidies for renewable energy. That is completely and utterly the wrong way to go about it. The cost of the contributions to renewable energy projects is infinitesimal when compared with fuel poverty. Yes, we should be looking to bring down bills, but a far bigger issue is the failure to pass on savings from wholesale prices, as has been mentioned. We risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater and missing some of our climate change targets, which will not help those in need.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) both mentioned the scandal of prepayment meters and how those who are in greatest need face the highest bills. I can see no justification for that—I have heard several justifications for it, but none of them cut the mustard. It is unfair and iniquitous and it must stop. There are barriers to switching and it is a trap for people who can least afford to be trapped like that.

A number of Members talked about how fuel poverty is incredibly acute in rural areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) mentioned the need for a universal market. In a previous debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey secured a commitment from the Minister that she would launch, around the end of last year, a public consultation on the most appropriate level of support for electricity distribution charges in the north of the country. It is clearly now the start of this year, so when will that consultation be coming?

One of fuel poverty’s hardest impacts is its effect on people’s health, education and lives as a whole. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) mentioned a GP talking about prescribing insulation—that really stands out as testament to the scale of the problem. We are tackling the symptoms of fuel poverty and paying millions to deal with its manifestations. Investment at source in the form of insulation is money that will pay itself back many, many times in improved health, education and social outcomes, as well as in reduced bills and less need to seek energy from elsewhere.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. He will be aware that the country that has reduced fuel poverty the most in the world over the past few years—indeed, it has also reduced carbon emissions—is the United States. That is because gas there is now one third of the price of our gas. Does he think that unconventional oil and gas in our country could make a big contribution to relieving the fuel poverty he is so concerned about?

I have had several conversations with people in the onshore and offshore oil and gas industries. Because of the nature of the European gas trading market, very few people seem to think that such options would reduce the costs here anywhere near as much as they have in the United States. They are also likely to be less cost-effective, so I do not believe that that is the answer to fuel poverty. It might be an answer to another question, but that is for another time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that district heating systems, such as the biomass system that has been installed in the West Whitlawburn housing co-operative in my constituency, can really help to alleviate fuel poverty? Such community-driven initiatives are to be truly commended.

I certainly do agree. That was one of the things on which I was going to close my speech. Most of the contributions to this debate have been on rural fuel poverty, and of course I accept that it can be more acute in rural areas because of the extra charges and costs. Nevertheless, I represent an urban constituency, and fuel poverty is an issue there as well. One way it has been addressed is through district heating, which is an important way of solving some of the problems. I often look with jealousy at our northern European neighbours, because they do things so much better: properly insulated homes, proper district heating schemes, and a social support network that means people can afford to pay their bills. The solution is not beyond the wit of this country, so it is time we got on with solving the problem.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. Alas, this is the second time in my short career as a shadow Minister that I have had to speak about fuel poverty. That underlines just how serious a problem it is. Today’s discussion has again been informative and shed light on many pressing matters. Alas, it is not light that millions of our constituents need, but heat.

Let me go through some of the points that hon. Members made. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) spoke at great length about his frustration at the Government’s lack of action on energy efficiency. I, too, will touch on that issue shortly. Other Members talked about the fact that we have the worst fuel poverty in Europe with the exception of Estonia. I have been to Estonia, and I saw the 1950s Stalinist housing bocks that spread out across the country, so that is a sad fact if true.

Members spoke about prepayment meters and the fact that the very poorest—those least able to pay—are charged more for their energy. That is a perverse state of affairs, if ever there was one. In the highlands and islands of Scotland, some districts struggle with 71% fuel poverty, which is completely outrageous in the sixth-richest country in the world. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who sits on the all-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, spoke about the trilemma of high energy costs, low incomes and poor energy efficiency. I was struck by the words of a doctor that she quoted, who said he wished he could prescribe insulation rather than medication. We must highlight that not investing in energy efficiency and not having proper fuel poverty strategies is a false economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) painted a moving picture of the grim reality that fuel poverty represents for millions of people across the country. The hon. Member for St Ives said that our nation has some of the oldest, leakiest housing stock in Europe. Fuel poverty saps people’s ability to work and study, and to get ahead in life. It affects people’s health and wellbeing. I am keen to hear the Minister address the question whether the Government will make affordable warm homes a basic human right that all people should be able to access.

The hon. Gentleman is making some compelling points. Does he agree that we need to include energy efficiency in infrastructure spending to deal with the issue of fuel poverty throughout our housing stock, whether in the social or private rented sector?

Yes, I agree. I went to see the new head of the National Infrastructure Commission, Lord Adonis, with Frontier Economics and E3G, which have been quoted. We asked him whether energy efficiency could be made a priority in the National Infrastructure Commission’s first tranche of spending. I will not say we were given short shrift—he was very polite—but I understand that he will not make the case for such spending in his recommendations. I think that is a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, the Treasury still refuse to see energy efficiency spending as infrastructure spending. Frontier Economics made a compelling case when it said that the characteristics of spending on energy efficiency are exactly the same as those of traditional infrastructure spending on, say, transport or broadband. We will press Lord Adonis on that issue, and I will happily keep the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) informed.

I have worked on fuel poverty and participated in debates on that issue, and I am struck by how easy it is to get sucked into the statistics and detail. Other Members made that point, too. Clearly, the detail is an essential to understanding not only the scale of the problem and the sheer depth of the Government’s failure, but the resources required to turn the problem around.

Before I get into the stats, let me remind hon. Members that behind every percentile, every missed target and figure and every set of depressingly high numbers there is a fellow human being. Perhaps they are one of the thousands of people expected to die this winter as a result of living in a cold home. Perhaps they are over 65—an age group in which one person is expected to die every seven minutes because of fuel poverty. I am sure someone much better at maths than I am will be able to work out statistically how many will have died over the course of this debate. Perhaps they are disabled, unable to get out of their home, and reduced to living in one or two rooms for the duration of the winter because they fear racking up excessively high fuel bills. Perhaps they are one of the 1.5 million children living in fuel poverty across the UK. Perhaps they are one of the Prime Minister’s strivers, and are working as hard as they can but are still struggling to heat their home. There is somebody in work in more than half of the 2.3 million households in fuel poverty.

That is the reality behind the statistics. Those are the people who, this winter, will pay a heavy price for the Government’s failure to tackle this issue meaningfully. I see that failure compounded day in, day out. I sit on the Energy Bill Committee, and throughout our proceedings the Government have routinely used fuel poverty as an excuse for inaction or, worse still, for slashing the UK’s renewables industry. They claim to care so much about poorer consumers, yet by attacking the two cheapest renewables—onshore wind and solar—they damage investor confidence, increase risk, and push up the price of renewable investment and, ultimately, our energy bills. At the same time, they are setting an incredible strike price for nuclear-generated electricity and are happy to heap those costs on to consumer energy bills.

One of the most cost-effective ways of meeting our climate change commitments and tackling fuel poverty is to increase energy efficiency, which has been mentioned so many times today, but it is being fundamentally undermined. Any serious attempt to tackle fuel poverty will require serious action to improve our housing stock. Poor-quality housing and fuel poverty are almost inseparable. The figures speak for themselves: 73% of households in fuel poverty live in properties with the lowest energy ratings—E, F or G. Only 2% live in properties with the highest energy ratings—A, B or C. The Government’s goal of ensuring a minimum energy-efficiency rating of band C by 2030 is woefully inadequate.

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying on renewables. Is his position on the speed and velocity with which we should go down the renewables route—ours is the fastest, certainly in terms of energy emissions targets, in Europe—the same as that of the Scottish National party, which regards its impact on bills as infinitesimal? Does he think that the Government and Opposition have a duty to match the speed of carbon reduction with cost, so that at the margin there are fewer energy deaths in the short term?

The Energy and Climate Change Committee is clear that the most cost-effective option for decarbonising our economy is set out in the carbon budgets. We have made it clear in the past few weeks that if we intend to decarbonise our economy, renewables will play a crucial part. Our problem with Government policy is that it is going backwards on renewables. Renewables will play a crucial part in ensuring that this country meets its climate change commitments and carbon budgets cost-effectively. We must have a balanced energy portfolio; the dash for gas and going all out for fracking is not the way forward. The Opposition are calling for a more balanced approach as the best way to achieve our commitments.

Between 2010 and 2013, only 70,000 fuel-poor households upgraded, leaving 95% still to be improved. As the hon. Member for St Ives said, at that rate the Department will miss its own target by 100 years. The Energy and Climate Change Committee estimates that investment of £1.2 billion to £1.8 billion per annum is needed to attain the Government’s fuel poverty strategy for England. The cheapest third of our approach to tackling our climate change commitments is the energy that we never use. Energy saved through efficiency is the cheapest. We talk about energy security, but energy that we never use is the securest. Funding for energy efficiency for the fuel-poor has been cut in real terms by a fifth, and the installation of energy efficiency measures has been cut by a third. As Members are aware, two new Government incentive schemes were introduced in 2013: the green deal and the energy company obligation. Two years later, the green deal has been stopped, and support for ECO is yet to be set beyond 2017 and no new funding is due to be announced until 2018.

Schemes aside, we come to the grim reality of this litany of failures. An estimated 43,900 excess winter deaths occurred last year in England and Wales—the highest number since 1999. Some 27% more people died in the winter months, compared with the non-winter months. It does not take a genius to understand that the situation will get worse the longer this Government refuse to have any semblance of a coherent fuel poverty strategy, and as long as growing inequality and poverty are at the heart of their economic policies.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) touched on that and we sometimes forget that fuel poverty is often just another term for old-fashioned poverty. Why? The vast majority of the 2.3 million households living in fuel poverty are also on low incomes. The link is inescapable, but rather than tackling it, the Government have opted to lower the bar and reduce their ambition. Dithering, inconsistency, U-turns and failure are the trademarks of this Government on this matter, and I look forward to hearing the Minister explain how they will tackle this most pressing issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing such an important debate, and on the conference that he is holding in his constituency this week focusing on what can be done to address the matter. Several hon. Members from across the House have asked me what they can do to help their constituents, and it is fantastic that so many are interested in seeing what they can do on the ground to help. I am thinking about providing some kind of support for Members who want to get involved locally.

Tackling fuel poverty is of utmost importance to the Government and energy security is the No. 1 priority. We have been clear that keeping the lights and heating on while meeting our decarbonisation targets at the lowest possible cost to consumers is a priority in this Parliament. All our policy work since we came into office last May has been resolutely focused on what more we can do to keep costs down for consumers and how technology can enable people to manage their own costs better. The human dimension matters enormously. Better insulation, better heating systems and better heating controls possibly sound a bit dry, but they can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Ultimately, this is about people living in warmer homes, paying lower bills and having more control over their own lives and comfort.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), raised the importance of focusing all our schemes on tackling fuel poverty. I can assure him and other hon. Members that we are reviewing all our policies to ensure that they prioritise the fuel-poor in every possible way. We have already made a difference. Since April 2010, Government policies have supported the insulation of 3.8 million lofts and 2.1 million cavities. In fact, the number of households in fuel poverty in England has fallen every year since 2010, but it remains a massive problem. Over 2.3 million households remain in fuel poverty in England alone, and our fuel poverty strategy must and does set stretching goals to continue to address the challenge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned the particular problem for those with prepayment meters, and I agree that the challenges are huge. She will be aware that the Competition and Markets Authority is looking at how energy suppliers are behaving towards those with prepayment meters. Smart meters can make a big difference to the cost of a prepayment meter, and I urge all consumers to consider switching. They can seek help from their citizens advice bureau. In previous debate in the Chamber, I was able to highlight some of the cost savings that can be achieved even for those on prepayment meters with the support of the CAB.

The Conservative manifesto contained a promise to insulate 1 million homes in this Parliament but, as the Minister just said, 5 million homes were tackled in the previous Parliament, which was lower than in the Parliament before that. Can the Minister see why hon. Members of all parties present feel that the target does not represent a particularly ambitious Government objective?

I can assure all hon. Members that focusing on tackling fuel poverty is our priority.

From April 2017, a reformed domestic supplier obligation focused on energy efficiency measures will upgrade well over 200,000 homes a year and tackle the root cause of fuel poverty. Our extension of the warm home discount to 2020-21 at current levels of £320 million a year will help households at the greatest risk of fuel poverty with their energy bills. We will focus our efforts through both policies increasingly on households in fuel poverty and will be consulting within weeks on how we can do that.

The hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members have asked what the UK Government are doing, but they are all aware that fuel poverty is a devolved matter. I am sure that they will be raising their views with their own Parliaments as well as in this place.

It is important to address the point about a single national network charge, particularly for Scotland. We had a debate in this room only recently and I pointed out that Ofgem’s recent report shows that there would be winners and losers from a national network charge. Some 1.8 million households would face higher bills and 700,000 would see reductions.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She said at Christmas that no one should be penalised for where they live. Is it not fair, right and sensible to have a universal market? People should not be penalised for living where they do.

I have just addressed that point. Conceptually, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but he must realise that many would be worse off. It is important to note that while fuel poverty is a devolved issue, some of our schemes to help tackle fuel poverty—

I will not; this is not really about Scotland per se. Some of our schemes to tackle fuel poverty are GB-wide, including the energy company obligation, which has delivered energy efficiency measures throughout Great Britain. Some 83% of the ECO was delivered in England, 12% in Scotland and 5% in Wales, meaning that 35.3 households per 1,000 homes were treated in Scotland, which is the greatest share of the policy.

The issue of the high energy costs that many face was also rightly highlighted during the debate. For instance, households that are off the mains gas grid are more likely to face higher energy costs and are more than twice as likely to be in fuel poverty as households connected to mains gas. Off-gas grid households pay more for their energy and are more likely to live in a solid-walled property with a low energy efficiency rating. We have announced £25 million in funding through the central heating fund, which will be managed by local authorities, specifically to help support non-gas fuel-poor homes. We expect the fund to deliver up to 8,000 new central heating systems to low-income households in England.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) and the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the specific challenge of the energy efficiency of park homes. I can tell them that the ECO is now being offered in park homes. Solid-wall insulation has been provided for a few hundred, with more still to come.

As many have mentioned, support must be available to help people with their energy bills during winter. In the long term, the cheapest energy is that which is not being used, which is why energy efficiency is so important. On that point, I fully agree with the hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) and for Norwich South (Clive Lewis). People also need help with their energy bills right now, which is why we are supporting 2 million customers a year with the warm home discount. We have increased the level of the discount, and over 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners received £140 off their electricity bill in 2014-15, with more than 1.3 million of them receiving the discount automatically. Some 600,000 low-income and vulnerable households, including families, will also benefit from £140 off their bill. Altogether, a total of £1.1 billion of direct assistance has been provided to low-income and fuel-poor households since the scheme began. The hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) mentioned the over-65s, and I can tell her that the winter fuel payment, which went to around 12.5 million older people in 9 million households last winter, will continue alongside the cold weather payment, which is paid to vulnerable people during periods of very cold weather.

I would like to emphasise the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives about the importance of local action. The Government also have several energy efficiency schemes that are delivering through local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point mentioned health-focused schemes, and I can tell her that we have provided £1 million of funding to local GPs to provide health-related referrals for local people.

I hope that hon. Members are persuaded that the Government are absolutely focused on tackling fuel poverty, on prioritising those in the greatest need and on doing everything that we possibly can in this Parliament to try to ensure not only that costs come down, but that people can choose how and when to heat themselves.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Would Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly, and may I again thank Members for their understanding this morning?

Serious Fraud Office: Bryan Evans

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Bryan Evans and the Serious Fraud Office.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Roger. I bring this matter to the House so that Mr Bryan Evans, my constituent, may have his account of events put on the parliamentary record. It is a complex matter that involves many actors, which I hope to make clear. I know that this matter has affected other people, which is made evident by the number of colleagues here today and those who have co-signed a letter to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills that asked it to examine the ongoing allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation and collusion involving banks and the receivers used by those banks.

I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who have previously brought forward cases from their constituencies for debate and worked hard and with great diligence on the issue. I hope we will continue to make progress on a cross-party basis.

I have known Mr Evans for several years—I first met him when I was his Welsh Assembly Member—so I am well aware of his case. I have been directly involved for some time, so I am aware of the devastating effect that it has had on him and members of his family. Mr Evans is firmly of the belief that he is the victim of fraud, and that he has evidence to substantiate that. Indeed, before he took his evidence to the South Wales police economic crime unit some four years ago, it had been reviewed by two retired senior fraud officers who both confirmed that, in their opinion, a fraud investigation was warranted. However, to this day Mr Evans is adamant that his case has not received the attention it warrants. An investigation into the conduct of Mr Evans’s case by the aforementioned crime unit is currently being undertaken by the professional standards department of South Wales police, which endorses Mr Evans’s beliefs.

Mr Evans tells me that he, along with his former MP, Martin Caton, and I, as his Assembly Member, had been misled from the highest level. Furthermore, he forwarded his evidence to the Serious Fraud Office two years ago, and here again he says that no proper action was taken.

Mr Evans was the managing director and 50% shareholder in EP Leisure, with the other 50% being owned by Mr Robert Sullivan. The company was a vehicle to develop a prestigious piece of land that it owned on the seafront in Mumbles. The site was, and still is, being run as a car park, grossing approximately £180,000 a year. The land was adjoined by council-owned land and it had been agreed to unify the sites for a comprehensive development.

In 2003 EP Leisure engaged Poolman and Harlow, a firm of valuers. The firm was owned by Roger Poolman and Bob Harlow and the latter worked closely with Mr Evans on all aspects of the proposed development. EP Leisure was funded by Barclays bank. In April 2006 Poolman and Harlow were bought out by a national firm, Lambert Smith Hampton. It is believed that Messrs Poolman and Harlow received a substantial amount of money for their property portfolio, part of which was EP Leisure’s land. Mr Harlow continued to work with Mr Evans under the Lambert Smith Hampton banner.

In 2007 Mr Harlow placed a valuation on EP Leisure’s land of between £4 million and £6 million, and that value would increase if certain criteria were achieved. The valuation was so buoyant that Barclays was happy to return equity to Mr Sullivan that had been supporting a loan, so the loan of some £2.2 million became free-standing. In 2008 Barclays introduced a manager, Mr David Little, into the frame. It was at that time that Mr Evans tells me Mr Harlow started liaising more frequently with Mr Little, which led to Mr Evans asking Mr Harlow if he was now in a conflict-of-interest situation. Mr Harlow assured Mr Evans that he was not.

In November 2008 Mr Evans was informed by Mr Little that Bob Harlow had now devalued EP Leisure’s land to £1 million, leaving Barclays “significantly under water”. Oddly enough, 18 months later, Mr Evans attended a meeting with his solicitor and his accountant where he met Mr Jonathan Hoey of TLT Solicitors and Mr Sainsbury, the head of recovery for Barclays bank. Mr Sainsbury told him that that valuation did not exist, and it is that valuation report that is at the heart of the case.

Mr Evans told me that Mr Little’s attitude became extremely aggressive. He tried to pressurise Mr Evans into acquiring the adjacent council land and putting it under EP Leisure’s ownership. Mr Evans refused to do that and wrote the first of many letters to the then chief executive of Barclays, Mr John Varley. Mr Evans later wrote to two subsequent chief executives and the chairman of Barclays. Subsequently, Mr Little was removed from EP Leisure’s account.

In July 2009, at the behest of Mr Varley’s office, Mr Evans, along with his co-director, Mr Derek Morgan, met Mr Steve Thomas and Mr Wynne Walters of Barclays to resolve all issues. However, at that meeting Mr Evans was told that his file had already been sent to London by Mr Little for recovery. Mr Evans said that that was later proven to be untrue in writing from Martin Sainsbury. In September 2009 Mr Evans was written to by Martin Sainsbury, asking him either to sell the land or to refinance the debt. Mr Evans agreed to the latter. Mr Sainsbury also requested that Lambert Smith Hampton take the lead in all future negotiations. Mr Evans explained that that was not possible and Mr Sainsbury accepted that.

Mr Evans had become extremely suspicious of Mr Harlow’s actions. He believes his suspicions were borne out when, out of the blue, he received a letter from Mr Sainsbury that stated that he was disappointed that he was not co-operating with Mr Harlow, and that he was placing Lambert Smith Hampton as Law of Property Act receivers over his land. Mr Evans contacted Mr Sainsbury to explain that Mr Harlow was at all times fully informed of all matters and the threat of receivership was withdrawn.

In November 2009, after receiving another report from Mr Bob Harlow, which was to be later referred to as a pre-receivership report, Mr Sainsbury placed Mr Andrew Hughes and Roger Poolman of Lambert Smith Hampton as LPA receivers over EP Leisure’s land. That report is at the heart of Mr Evans’s allegation of fraud and of Mr Evans losing his land and Lambert Smith Hampton’s gain.

In a similar case, a constituent of mine has alleged that NatWest committed a fraud by persuading him to surrender a 25-year buy-to-let mortgage in exchange for a 12-month loan in anticipation that he would subsequently receive a 25-year mortgage, but that was not forthcoming. Written agreements are missing and my constituent has suffered material disadvantage. The ombudsman has ruled against my constituent, so I want to ask the Minister what is to be done in such cases.

I am grateful for that intervention, which goes to prove that there are many ongoing cases.

Mr Evans believes that Mr Harlow was determined to prevent him from refinancing with another bank as Lambert Smith Hampton would lose the contract for the development, which could in turn lead to Poolman and Harlow having to reimburse Lambert Smith Hampton for that loss, which is commonly referred to as a clawback.

Mr Evans engaged Geldards solicitors in Cardiff. Over a period of time, Mr Karl Baranski of Geldards discovered that Barclays had no legal charge over EPL’s land and therefore its actions to date could be challenged. Mr Baranksi also pointed out to Barclays that Lambert Smith Hampton was in a conflict-of-interest situation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. As I listen to him laying out the particulars, it seems to me that we are hearing the same plot, although with different characters, as in our recent debate with the Minister and in the point made by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). When I asked the Minister, who is a good friend, about when the Serious Fraud Office gets involved, he helpfully laid out its statement of principle. It considers

“whether there is new species of fraud…whether actual or potential economic harm is significant…whether the actual or potential financial loss involved is high”

and so on. I suggest that that threshold has been passed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Mr Baranski also pointed out to Barclays that Lambert Smith Hampton was in a conflict-of-interest situation. In a shocking twist, Lambert Smith Hampton assured Barclays that it had never represented EP Leisure or Mr Evans. Mr Evans says his solicitor then presented Barclays with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, which it subsequently ignored.

At that time, Mr Evans took his case to the police. Detective Inspector Runnells and Sergeant Owen of South Wales police interviewed Mr Evans with regard to his allegations. The two detectives then interviewed Karl Baranski and Jonathan Griffiths of Geldards. As a result of those interviews, Mr Sainsbury of Barclays bank was informed by Sergeant Owen that they would be travelling to London to see a report written by Bob Harlow in October 2009.

On arrival in London, Mr Sainsbury was represented by Mr Jonathan Hoey of TLT Solicitors. Mr Hoey was told that if he sat in on the interview, he could no longer represent Lambert Smith Hampton. He assured the police that he was now “100% the bank’s man”. As will be shown later, that was not to be the case. At the meeting, the bank refused to show the police the report, and this is where Mr Evans’s story takes a rather unwelcome turn: the police returned to Swansea and decided to take no further action, with DI Runnells stating that he did not think fraud had been committed.

Mr Evans says he has asked the police on numerous occasions how they can conclude there is no case to answer if the evidence at the centre of the fraud has been withheld. He believes that the police have more than enough evidence to seek a production order for that report, but to this day they have shown a great reluctance to do so.

Mr Evans is of the opinion that the police have spent an inordinate amount of time and public funds to avoid seeking a production order, which would have had no financial cost. He has dealt with several senior officers of South Wales police—in fact, they are too numerous to mention. At present, Mr Evans is dealing with a new inspector, Detective Inspector Hough. Mr Evans states that the situation has got to the point where Barclays bank now says it cannot release the report as it belongs to Lambert Smith Hampton, which in turn says that it cannot release the report as it belongs to Barclays—a farcical situation, to say the least. One may ask why, if this report is so innocuous and could vindicate the actions of both Lambert Smith Hampton and Barclays, they will not release it.

Returning to the situation with Barclays, in May 2012, after a lengthy period of negotiations, Barclays, in order to “reflect what had transpired”, offered to reduce EP Leisure’s debt by £1 million, lift the receivership and refinance the outstanding balance of around £1.25 million for 12 months. During that period, EP Leisure would seek to refinance with another bank, give Barclays legal charges over the property and make monthly payments of £3,600. The deal was to run until June 2013. Mr Evans also had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

At this point, it should be noted that Mr Jonathan Hoey of TLT Solicitors, despite the assurance he gave to the police in London, was now representing Barclays bank, the two named receivers and Lambert Smith Hampton. Mr Evans tells me that during the negotiations, Mr Hoey tried to force Mr Evans into dropping his allegations against Lambert Smith Hampton as a condition of the deal with Barclays. Mr Evans refused to do so and reported Mr Hoey to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for abuse of power and conflict of interest, but it was unwilling to take any action, saying, “I know you think it’s blackmail Mr Evans, but it’s just business.” Mr Evans has stated unequivocally that the SRA introduced the word “blackmail” and he did not.

During the following 12 months, Mr Evans discovered that the receivers had acted illegally by signing contracts in the name of EP Leisure and registering for VAT in the name of EP Leisure. That registration has now been voided, but those actions made it impossible for Mr Evans to refinance. He kept Barclays fully informed of the situation and carried on making the agreed monthly repayments after the June 2013 expiry date. Indeed, payments were made in July, August and September and were accepted.

In October 2013, Mr Evans received a letter from Barclays asking for full repayment, otherwise action might be taken to recover the debt. Just two days later, EP Leisure, without any warning, was placed into administration by Barclays, with TLT once again acting for both the bank and the administrators. EP Leisure’s land was sold within days and it has now been wound up, despite Mr Evans telling the administrator that the company could well be owed substantive damages. Mr Evans believes that that is just a sinister ploy to silence him and prevent the truth from being exposed. He intends to reinstate the company and pursue all claims. Furthermore, Mr Evans has reported the circumstances of the sale to the police, who say they intend to investigate, but I am sure Members will appreciate that Mr Evans has dwindling faith in their intentions.

The domino effect of the aforementioned action has resulted in Mr Evans and his family losing absolutely everything, including his house. He poses the following questions, which need to be answered. Why have the police prevaricated and refused to properly investigate serious allegations of fraud? Why have the police refused to seek a production order? Why has the SFO also refused to take any action? How can a solicitor—in this case, Jonathan Hoey of TLT—represent Barclays bank, Lambert Smith Hampton, the two named receivers, Andrew Hughes and Roger Poolman, and the administrators without a conflict of interest?

How can a firm of valuers that had been representing EP Leisure for many years devalue EP Leisure’s assets significantly then become receivers and take control of EP Leisure’s land and income? How can Jonathan Hoey of TLT, as an officer of the court, negotiate a settlement with EP Leisure on behalf of Barclays bank with the knowledge that the settlement could not be honoured? For instance, he would have known that the receivers had possibly acted illegally, hence his insistence that as a condition of the settlement, Mr Evans would take no action against them.

This case and others give rise to wider questions surrounding the motives and actions of the banks and receivers involved in such cases, and whether there has been collusion and fraudulent representation. What we are dealing with here has had a devastating effect on the victims and their families, with a trail of devastation and ruined lives. These cases must be answered, and it must be ensured that the law on such matters is upheld by the Government.

In conclusion, Mr Evans believes there has been a conspiracy to defraud, but to date, no one has been held accountable. He continues to seek justice for himself and to reinstate his business. The whole episode remains, frankly, a mess that could easily have been resolved by the relevant actors performing their roles with transparency and diligence throughout the whole sorry affair. It is not too late, and I have secured this debate in the hope that we will receive positive action for Mr Evans.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies), who brings his case to the House with passion as not only a constituency Member of Parliament but a former senior police officer, with a degree of insight into the matters we are discussing. I think he would agree that the thrust of his speech, which I listened to carefully, dealt with issues relating to the police, their involvement in this case and—I will put this neutrally—the lack of positive progress made for his constituent, Mr Evans.

My hon. Friend asked some specific questions, in particular why the police refused to seek a production order from the bank. Of course, I am aware that Mr Evans complained to South Wales police about the outcome of the original investigation, and that its professional standards department is currently investigating that complaint, which I very much hope will be concluded. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of that, or indeed the merits or otherwise of the case. From what I have heard, however, it must be a deeply troubling and huge problem for Mr Evans. Stepping into his shoes for a moment, I can understand why he feels as he does.

As one of the Ministers with a superintendary role over the independent Serious Fraud Office, it is important, in the context of the debate, that I outline as succinctly as I can the principles and guidelines that the SFO applies in determining whether to embark upon an investigation and a prosecution. As I said, having an independent agency is vital, bearing in mind the constitutional importance of having an independent prosecutorial authority, but I remind hon. Members that the SFO was created under an Act of Parliament—the Criminal Justice Act 1987—to deal with the top tier of serious and complex fraud cases. We know the sort of cases that the director, David Green, has taken on—cases such as Rolls-Royce, GlaxoSmithKline and Tesco, to name but a few. They are high-profile and high-risk, involving huge sums of money, great numbers of victims or species of fraud. That is not to understate the seriousness of the loss that my hon. Friend’s constituent has suffered.

Is it not the case that there might be in aggregate a very large sum of money involved in similar cases?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I listened with interest to his earlier intervention and that of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I know the point he is making, and the straight answer is that the SFO keeps the matter very much under review. If there is indeed a cumulative effect and a clear modus operandi that suggests widespread and similar frauds of this nature, the circumstances will clearly change.

To answer directly the question that the hon. Member for Ogmore asked, I do not quite think we are there yet, but let me explain further—I know he is very familiar with this issue, because he has asked written questions, to which he will get very swift answers, I promise. However, he gives me the opportunity to outline the statement of principle.

The decision by the director of the SFO on whether to launch an investigation has to be made on the facts and circumstances of each case. Being overly prescriptive would not be appropriate, bearing in mind the unique circumstances of every case. Many factors are taken into account, but for guidance, the statement of principle sets out that when considering cases for investigation, the director will consider the following: first, whether the apparent criminality undermines UK plc commercial or financial interests in general and in the City of London in particular, causing reputational damage to the country; secondly, whether the actual or potential financial loss involved is high; thirdly, whether actual or potential economic harm is significant; fourthly, whether there is a significant public interest element; and finally, whether there is a new species of fraud.

“That is not a tick-box exercise where, if every one of a set of measures is met then the SFO will open an investigation. That would inevitably lead to cases being taken on by the SFO which did not require its unique model of investigators, prosecutors and other professionals working together in one organisation or its set of powers.”

I will quote from the “Protocol between the Attorney General and the Prosecuting Departments”, which sets out that the decision for the SFO to investigate and prosecute is

“a quasi-judicial function which requires the evaluation of the strength of the evidence and also a judgment about whether an investigation and/or prosecution is needed in the public interest.”

That will not always be an easy decision, but for the vast majority of financial crimes, the traditional model of a police investigation and a Crown Prosecution Service prosecution is the best model. That is because the police, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower knows, rightly have primary responsibility for investigating crime in this country, and Action Fraud has been established as the national reporting centre to which reports of alleged fraud should be referred in the first instance.

I repeat that the SFO’s role is limited to investigating and prosecuting cases of serious or complex fraud, so it cannot and should not take on every case referred to it. To give that some context, the SFO takes on between 10 and 20 cases each year. It receives nearly 3,000 reports of fraud directly from the public each and every year, so the vast majority of referrals are not about matters that it can properly investigate. Complainants are then advised that the complaints will be referred on to Action Fraud for dissemination to the relevant police force where appropriate.

The SFO retains the material and uses it for intelligence purposes, and that is the point that hon. Members have made. That intelligence material is part of the SFO’s work in building an intelligence picture, and through that information and material it can properly identify the top-tier cases that are appropriate for it to investigate. In other words, debates such as this are invaluable in bringing into the public arena information that can then be collated and properly reviewed. I said that to the hon. Member for Ogmore in September and I repeat that assurance today.

My constituent, Michael Fields, who has suffered, is part of a large network of people—I know he has been touch with the Minister personally. The Minister talks about not being quite there yet. Do we know how far off we are? Are we halfway up the hill? Have we much further to go? That network is working hard to identify other people who are similarly affected, to try to build the critical mass that may well lead to consideration of the matter by the SFO.

I know that the hon. Gentleman raised that point in an intervention in the September debate, so he has consistently advocated on behalf of his constituent. It would be wrong of me to start prejudging or second-guessing what the independent prosecutorial authority should do—that would be inappropriate—but I can tell him that the co-ordinated work that he, his constituent and other similarly affected people do, of course, improves the intelligence picture. It cannot do anything but assist the authorities in understanding the true extent of frauds of this nature, so I am grateful to him.

The Solicitor-General is giving a very helpful answer. Is he struck, as I am, by the incredible system similarities between the case outlined today by the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) and the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and I outlined? The parallels between the two cases are incredible, and I know of at least half a dozen more out there that other Members of Parliament have raised.

I have heard the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. Although I do not want to start making evidential judgments about similar fact evidence, I take the point.

In the brief moments I have left, I turn to the specific allegations that my hon. Friend has made today. It is, of course, unusual to comment in detail on specific allegations, but I want to say a few brief words about the case.

As has been explained, Mr Evans had obtained a secured loan from the bank in relation to a land development in 2007 on the basis that the land would be turned into a mixed leisure development. It was valued accordingly at between £4 million and £6 million. However, by 2009, due in part to some planning permission issues, the development had not been carried out. The bank appointed a receiver and the value of the land, which was security for the loan, was reassessed and subsequently put at the dramatically different figure of £1 million. The allegation is that this was an orchestrated devaluation by the bank and the receiver.

The reason why the SFO has not opened a formal investigation relating to Mr Evans’s allegations is that they do not, of themselves, amount to the type of matter that the SFO is there to investigate. That is not to minimise the seriousness of the allegations. The situation would have a significant impact on most of us if it happened to us, but in the context of the SFO criterion, the potential scale of the loss is somewhat limited and the allegations are not complex. They relate to one surveyor falsifying a valuation on behalf of a bank, and therefore I have to be honest and frank and say that the issue of the wider public interest does not actually apply, so the situation would not call for an SFO investigation.

However, as I have said, the SFO will keep the allegations and the information that it has received on file, and will consider the matter again if further information comes to light. In particular, given the points that hon. Members have made today, if there is evidence to suggest that the allegation is part of a more widespread issue, the matter will be revisited.

I hope that what I have said gives my hon. Friend the Member for Gower some assurance that the Serious Fraud Office has fully considered the allegations referred to it and will consider any further evidence, but, for perfectly proper reasons, at this stage has decided not to investigate the allegation.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Local Government Funding

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That the House has considered changes to the level of local government funding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to start by paying tribute to councils across the country that are doing amazing work in very difficult circumstances to get better results for their citizens and better value for taxpayers’ money. I am a long-standing champion of reforming public services, and over the last 12 months I have seen countless examples of innovative councils rethinking what they are doing by joining up local services, shifting the focus towards preventing problems in the first place and giving local people more say and control. But welcoming and supporting the excellent work that many local authorities are doing must not obscure the brutal reality that councils now face.

My own council has suffered grant cuts of 37% in real terms since 2010 and has had to make £100 million of annual savings. Over the next four years, Leicester City Council will have to find an additional £55 million of savings.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. In the light of the Prime Minister’s recent letter to Oxfordshire County Council, does she share my concern that the significance of the problem seemed to take him by surprise?

I indeed find it ironic at best that the Prime Minister is writing to complain to his own council about the cuts his Government are forcing it to make. Many councils, including mine, are considering making very difficult changes in future. Even if they do that, as my council is trying to, and use up virtually all their current reserves, they will not be able to fill the gap, and the impact on vital local services will be severe. This picture is being repeated up and down the country.

If the Minister does not believe me or thinks I am biased because I am a Labour MP, he should listen to the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter. After the spending review, he said:

“Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.

These local services which people cherish will have to be drastically scaled back or lost altogether as councils are increasingly forced to do more with less and protect life and death services, such as caring for the elderly and protecting children, already buckling under growing demand…Local government has led the way at finding innovative ways to save money but after five years of doing so the majority of savings have already made.”

He finished by saying:

“Tragically, the Government looks set to miss a once in a generation opportunity to transform the way money is spent across the public sector and protect the services that bind communities together, improve people's quality of life and protect the most vulnerable.”

I agree.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that while the big political picture often passes people by, what does not pass them by is when front-line services, often delivered by their local council, are impinged upon and restricted, as they seem to be in her local area? That is when hard-core political issues affect ordinary local people and they complain bitterly to their elected representatives.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

This huge problem is clearest in the hugely important area of adult social care. Already under this Government, 400,000 fewer older and disabled people are receiving publicly funded social care. That is a fall of 25% at a time when our population is ageing. More than 1 million people who struggle with the very basics of daily living—getting up, washing, dressing, feeding and going to the toilet—now get no help at all from paid carers or their families. Last year, the Care Quality Commission found that one in five nursing homes does not have enough staff on duty to deliver good quality care.

The latest survey from LaingBuisson shows that, for the first time ever, more older people’s care beds closed than opened. Five of the largest care providers predict significant provider failure over the next 12 to 24 months. I want to issue a warning that another failure of a big care home provider could be on the cards. Three of the larger home care providers have already withdrawn, or signalled their intention to withdraw, from providing publicly funded care.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that if councils like mine in Birmingham or hers in Leicester followed the Chancellor’s advice and raised extra money through the precept for social care, they would still have the problem that the King’s Fund identified? If every council in the country did that every year for the next four years, we would still have a social care funding gap in excess of £3 billion.

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. I will come to the social care precept. These problems will not go away. In fact, they will get far worse. Far from what the Government would like us to believe, there is a growing gap in funding for social care, which will have dire consequences for elderly and disabled people, their families and the NHS.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. I remind her that in areas such as mine, which is run by her party in a devolved Administration, we are suffering great difficulties with local authority handouts. My local authority is suffering a 4.1% cut and delivering rural services exactly as she was describing. The cost of delivering those services to rural areas has doubled, if not trebled. That massive problem has been delivered by the hon. Lady’s Administration in my area.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I know where I believe responsibility lies. It lies with the current Government. They say more money for social care will be provided, first, through the better care programme, although this money is not what it seems and is arriving far too late, when the sector is already in crisis. There will be no increase in better care programme money until 2017 and even then there will be only £105 million extra. The full additional £1.5 billion that the Government said social care is getting will not be available until 2020.

That will not all be new funding, because £800 million of it is supposed to come from savings in the new homes budget. Due to the way the money is distributed, a handful of councils will receive no additional better care programme cash and others will lose more in their new homes bonus than they gain. It is completely unclear whether the full £1.5 billion extra in the better care programme will still be allocated if the Government do not achieve the saving in the new homes bonus.

New powers to raise council tax by up to 2% to spend on social care—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) referred to this—were announced in the spending review, but they will be nowhere near enough to fill the gap in social care funding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Having faced £156 million of cuts over the last five years, Southwark Council has to find £70 million in cuts over the next three years, and that is expected to include about £30 million in social care services. Is she aware that the social care precept will contribute only £1.7 million per year if Southwark Council chooses to implement it?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right, and I will say more about that in a moment. In Southwark Council, like mine, there is no way that the social care precept will fill the gap.

My hon. Friend is being generous in taking interventions and is making a brilliant speech. Does she share my concern not only about the funding shortfall, but about the gross unfairness of the 2% council tax precept? Areas such as Newcastle, with the greatest social care needs, also contain the people who are least able to pay that additional sum of money. Once again, the Government are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even with the social care precept, the King’s Fund says that the gap in the funding required for social care will be about £3.5 billion by the end of the Parliament once the costs of increasing the national minimum wage in the social care sector are taken into account. And as my hon. Friend says, the social care precept could actually end up disadvantaging deprived areas and further widening inequalities, because the councils with the greatest need for publicly funded social care tend to have the lowest tax bases.

Leicester City Council and, indeed, Southwark Council will be able to raise only about £6.50 per head of population from the 2% social care precept, whereas Richmond upon Thames will be able to raise almost £15 per head. How can that be fair when Leicester, Southwark and other councils like that have a greater need for publicly funded adult social care than better-off parts of the country? In total, Leicester faces increased costs for adult social care of £21 million by 2020, but according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has modelled this—I would be happy to give this information to all hon. Members—the council will be able to raise only about £7.5 million. That is only one third of what is needed. Where will the extra money for vulnerable elderly and disabled people come from?

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does she, like me, wonder how the Minister will square the fact that adult social care has lost £4.6 billion since 2010 with the fact that the £3.5 billion that is being talked about will come in at a maximum of £400 million a year, as she is so carefully pointing out, and the fact that the better care funding will be only £1.5 billion by 2019-20? What we have is a gap that is widening by £700 million a year and money that is so risky, back-loaded and late.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Once again, we see the difference in the funding deal that social care gets compared with the NHS, where the money is more front-loaded. The social care funding is back-loaded, and what are councils supposed to do in the meantime?

These cuts to services are morally reprehensible and economically illiterate. They will leave elderly and disabled people without the help that they need. They will push families to breaking point and force even more people to give up their work so that they can look after elderly or disabled relatives because they cannot get the support that they need. That will deprive the economy of their skills and increase the benefits bill, and all of that will pile further pressure on an already struggling NHS, which will cost the taxpayer more.

We now have the second highest ever number of delayed discharges from hospital since data were first collected. One third of those are due to a lack of social care. In the last year alone, there has been a staggering 65% increase in delayed discharges due to a lack of care in the home. That makes sense for no one. The Government must urgently rethink their immediate support for council care services in the upcoming Budget, to ensure that people get the support that they need, and they must grasp the nettle of the long-term reforms that we desperately need to truly join up the NHS and social care, so that we finally have a single budget for these local services that people depend on and we stop the farce of continuing to rob Peter to pay Paul, pushing the costs up for everyone.

The hon. Lady is making a passionate speech highlighting what she thinks the problem is. Will she enlighten us on what the solution is? Will the solution be more borrowing, or which other Departments will she take the money from?

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would know that the first point is that we are spending more money unnecessarily because we do not have a fully joined-up NHS and care system. We are spending more on elderly people ending up in hospital and getting stuck in hospital when they could be cared for at home. Also, we need a fairer funding formula. If the most disadvantaged communities, who most need publically funded care, do not get it, we will increase costs and demands because people will end up in the NHS. We need proper reforms of the system to get the best results for the people who use it and the best results for taxpayers’ money. My worry is that the Government are thinking, “The NHS and social care? Job done,” which is to be completely ignorant of the crisis that is unfolding and not take seriously the reforms that we need for the future.

I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I will finish by asking the Minister some questions about the Government’s plans to change the way local councils are funded in the future and to give councils additional new responsibilities as a result. As a strong supporter of devolving more powers to local councils, I welcome the spending review announcement that councils will be allowed to keep 100% of their business rate growth by 2020. That will help to give councils some of the tools that they need to boost jobs, growth and investment and for which they have been arguing for many years. However, there is a real risk that that change, combined with the total abolition of grants, will exacerbate existing inequalities between different parts of the country and further harm deprived areas, which have already been hit hardest by the Government’s cuts. Once grants are abolished, how will the Government ensure a fair distribution of resources, especially when more deprived areas, with higher levels of need, may be less able to raise funds from business rates and council tax?

Can the Minister confirm that the additional responsibilities that the Government are considering giving councils by 2020 include funding all of public health services, attendance allowance and the administration of housing benefit? How will the Government ensure that future revenues from council tax and business rates keep pace with demand for the services for which councils already have responsibility, such as adult social care, and the new responsibilities that they may gain, such as attendance allowance, especially when our population is ageing?

The Government must work closely with local councils to provide proper answers to those questions and, crucially, to hardwire fairness into the system to ensure that the local services that my constituents and those of all hon. Members here today value and depend on continue to get the support that they need in the future.

Order. As everyone can see, there is heavy demand to speak in this debate. I do not like setting time limits, but to try to accommodate everyone fairly, I will have to impose a time limit of three minutes each.

It is always a pleasure to see you, with your acerbic wit, in the Chair, Mr Davies.

I thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). We all know that there is not enough money in the pot. I accept that cuts have to be made, but I want to make the case for fairer funding. I know how wasteful government can be, although generally, local government has delivered broadly the same service over the last five years despite having to face considerable cuts. I want to make the case for fairness between urban and rural government.

For my local district council, West Lindsey, Government -funded spending power—the overall funding available for local authority services—was £76 per head for 2015-16. The Government propose to cut that to just £52 for 2019-20. Many hon. Members here represent urban councils. Let us take Wolverhampton as an example. For 2015-16, Wolverhampton’s funding was £559 per head. It is being cut to £455 per head over the same period. That means that the people of Wolverhampton face a reduction of just 18.6%, while my constituents in West Lindsey will have to bear cuts of 31%.

The facts are just as bad at county level. The average amount awarded in Government grant per head across urban England is £486, while the grant per head in rural Lincolnshire is just £385. Metropolitan non-fire authorities face cuts of 19% over this five-year period, while shire counties, non-fire, are being saddled with an average of 34% cuts, and predominantly rural unitaries, non-fire, face cuts of 30%.

We have to face the fact that the sparsity allowance is totally inadequate. It does not even meet the higher operating costs of running essential services in rural areas. Urban residents are receiving a grant settlement from a Conservative Government that is about 50% higher than that received by rural residents. It is a double blow, as we in rural areas face higher council tax burdens, which have to be extracted from people who, on average, earn less than those in cities.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, despite the Government’s intention to narrow the gap between local government funding in rural and urban areas, the new formula seems to widen the gap and make the matter even worse?

Yes, it widens the gap. We are asking the Minister not for more money but for fairer funding between rural and urban areas, which is precisely the point that my hon. Friend makes.

I have worked alongside Lincolnshire County Council and West Lindsey District Council for decades, and they are not spendthrifts. They count every penny, but they are being penalised for having saved so much in the past. They know the needs of our people far more than anyone in Whitehall does. We have already given up much of our invaluable network of local libraries, and got rid of our magistrates courts and our police stations. Are we going to get rid of our fire stations now? How much more does Whitehall really expect that rural England can take?

Closing the gap between the Government grant to the urban dweller and to the rural inhabitant by just 5% over five years would make a huge difference to service provision in rural areas. In Lincolnshire, it would mean an extra £13,130,000 per annum at the end of a five-year period. Right now, good, hard-working people in rural areas are subsidising much better provision of services to people in urban areas, and that has to change.

Does the hon. Gentleman think it is a good idea to keep robbing Peter to pay Paul, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) said in her speech? As she laid out so well, adult social care has been cut by 31% across the urban councils that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. It is really necessary to cut funding for those councils more to bring fairness to the councils he is talking about?

Obviously that is the argument that those representing urban areas will make. I do not deny that the Minister has a delicate balancing act to make, but let right be done. Let there be justice. How can we have such an extraordinary discrepancy? People think of rural areas as fundamentally prosperous. I represent Gainsborough, a small industrial town, and the south-west ward of Gainsborough is one of the most deprived wards in the entire country under any measure.

No, I must finish now. Rural areas nowadays are not like some Gainsborough or Constable painting. There are real areas of deprivation, and we ask for justice. We know that it is not practical to have absolute parity per head across the country, but it is totally unacceptable that, in a time of tightening, we are not bearing the burden equally. Are we not one nation? The settlement is totally unfair to the rural taxpayer and our rural authorities. It must be revisited.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I will raise just a few of the significant concerns that Cumbria County Council has spoken to me about regarding the provisional local government finance settlement. I am sure that everyone is aware that Cumbria suffered very badly in the flooding before Christmas, but what people perhaps do not realise is that it is ongoing. Another bridge collapsed last week. Our problems are not over. The amount of money with which the Government propose to support us is so woefully inadequate that it will add to the difficulties we have with the settlement.

I will speak about rurality and the fact that we have a super-ageing population. Rural residents on the whole—certainly in west Cumbria—earn less than their urban counterparts, yet they pay more in council tax, get less in Government grants and receive poorer and fewer services, which often cost residents to access them because they might have to move. It is not a fair system.

Although I have some sympathy with the argument regarding the rural and urban comparison, surely this is not a matter of rural versus urban. This is a matter of some of the most deprived authorities, whether they are rural or urban, being hit the hardest. My district of Bradford will face up to £260 million of cuts by 2018. Does my hon. Friend agree that the most deprived authorities, regardless of whether they are rural or urban, are the worst hit, and that that will increase inequality and deprivation and decrease opportunities?

The fundamental point of argument, which I will come to, is about the way that funding is decided on need. That relates to what my hon. Friend says.

Cumbria has one of the fastest-growing populations of older people in the whole country, which will put extra pressure on the council in the future. This is about not just the funding formula now but the proposals for future years, and that is not taken into account.

The timing of the announcement and the consultation process is important, but it often gets glossed over. The announcement of the provisional settlement came very late in the year, more than three weeks after the autumn statement and the announcement of the spending review. Inevitably, that resulted in a short consultation period, which happened over Christmas. I understand that that was done to keep to the timetable for the announcement, but it is not helpful when councils are trying to manage their budgets and prepare for the future. There were significant changes, which should have meant a proper consultation, as Government guidance states that “12 weeks or more” is appropriate when significant changes are being made. The consultation fell well short of that. I urge the Minister to look at how we can improve consultations and their timings.

On the proposed approach to allocating the funding, I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) said, but the methodology does result in rural areas losing a significant amount of funding.

As the hon. Lady may know, I represent a constituency in Cornwall that faces many of the same challenges as her constituency. Does she agree that part of the problem—this is not a party political point, because this has been true under successive Governments —is that deprivation is not measured in the same way in rural areas as it is in urban areas? It is often hidden, but it is just as much of a real issue.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely pertinent point. People who live in rural areas often have very low expectations of the level of service they should receive, so they often put up with receiving an awful lot less. That is not sufficiently taken into account.

I will briefly touch on the topic of social care, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West made some powerful points. My understanding was that the Government’s stated desire—the Minister may put me right on this—is for greater protection for councils that provide adult social care. Therefore, it does not make sense to me that that money is diverted away from the county areas, such as Cumbria, that have a larger proportion of ageing people and a faster-growing elderly population. It has a profoundly negative impact on the stability of an already very fragile care market, and will have a knock-on effect for the wider health sector.

The distribution of funds for councils should take into account not only resources but needs. The proposals do not reflect that, and it is important to address that for the future. If we do not reflect need, where are we going, particularly with regard to social care? Cumbria County Council struggles to deliver social care and mental health services. To come back to my first point, social care and mental health care will be under increased pressure because of the impact of the floods. I urge the Minister to consider how he can support us in those areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this important debate. She and I serve together on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and we have received deeply worrying briefings of late on the future of local government finance, some of which I will touch on.

It is right, as a principle, to offer councils a four-year funding settlement to help them plan for the future. I welcome the Government’s initiative. However, when councils simultaneously face rumours about huge new services, such as the attendance allowance or public health, for which they may be expected to take responsibility over the same timeline, they are left with no security in their financial planning. I speak to council finance directors who are struggling to understand what will be expected of them over the next four to 10 years, which means it is incredibly difficult to plan.

The reality is that many councils have very little room left for long-term financial planning. My council tells me that it is firefighting from budget to budget without long-term certainty, and that it will be 2.5% worse off in 2020 than today, compared with national average cuts of about 0.5%. That figure does not seem very big, but it is about the size of the entire libraries budget, and let us not forget that it comes on top of incredibly severe cuts over the past four years that mean that Kirklees Council will be spending about 15% less than it spent in 2010.

I do not believe that anyone becomes a councillor to cut local library services by 32%, to cut children’s music services by 94%, to remove £700,000 from the budget to cut grass or to completely scrap community events and festivals, which is what is happening in Kirklees. Many of my constituents are feeling the even sharper end of council cuts to adult social care and other important services. My fear is that the Government want to blame local councillors.

I am struck by the fact that families living in a £70,000 terraced house in Batley in my constituency will now be getting £60 less per family member in council services than they did in 2010, but families living in a £2 million home in Oxfordshire will be getting £50 more per family member. That seems blatantly unfair, and my constituents struggle to understand it. That disparity in core spending power over the course of this Parliament is staggering and seems to be growing. For councillors such as mine in Kirklees, it does not feel like we are all in this together.

I welcome the intent behind the proposed business rate growth retention, but the Government’s announcement leaves many unanswered questions. In Kirklees Council, the potential funding gap—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this debate. There can be no doubt that local government has been hit harder than almost any other area of the public sector over the past six years of the Government’s austerity programme. Among local authorities, councils with the most deprived populations have been hit the hardest of all. I represent part of Lambeth and part of Southwark. For simplicity, I will talk about Lambeth today, but exactly the same picture is played out across the border in Southwark.

Lambeth Council is the 29th most deprived area of England, and it has experienced the 13th highest level of cuts to date, with tens of millions of pounds of cuts still to come. Councils have been through six rounds of efficiency savings, and Lambeth has consolidated the number of core office buildings from 14 to two, reduced the number of staff by 1,000, cracked down on fraud to raise an additional £3.6 million and innovated to deliver more services online and share services with neighbouring boroughs, but it has lost more than 56% of its Government funding since 2010. Despite efficiency savings and innovation, cuts of that scale mean that the council still faces further impossibly difficult choices.

As the Prime Minister is aware, cuts to front-line services are hard to bear. Councils are increasingly forced to make a kind of Hobson’s choice between: the essential statutory services upon which our most vulnerable residents rely, such as the safeguarding of children and social care for older residents; the services that bind us all together, such as libraries, parks and street cleaning; and the services that help us build for the future, such as planning and school places.

The Government have taken a system designed to allocate resources to councils on the basis of need and turned it on its head, so that the councils with the greatest needs are dealt the greatest cuts. While the Government have cut, needs have continued to grow. The Government’s disastrous approach to housing has resulted in a dramatic increase in families presenting as homeless and needing temporary accommodation. Lambeth’s expenditure on temporary accommodation has increased from £2 million in 2011 to £11 million last year, and an ageing population means that the need for social care continues to grow.

By 2020, councils will receive no revenue support grant from the Government and will be funded entirely from council tax and business rates, with 55% of funding coming from business rates. That is a fundamental shift from a system of local funding based on allocation according to need to a system that will benefit councils with strong council tax raising abilities, a large business sector and the capacity for economic growth. Although there will undoubtedly be some winners in that system, there could potentially be some very big losers. There are big questions about how the Government will redistribute funding to councils with significant need to ensure that those with limited capacity to raise additional business rates do not face unacceptable consequences.

There is limited time today, and I will finish on time, but I hope that the Minister will answer some of those big questions about the mechanism for redistribution, and about the better care fund and how it will be distributed across the country. Without those clarifications, this major reform of council funding is a big leap into the unknown, fraught with risk.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) both for securing this debate and for her excellent contribution. Birmingham is the city of Chamberlain, the workshop of the world, the birthplace of municipal governance and municipal enterprise, and the biggest council in Europe. It is an ambitious city with immense potential, but it is also a city of high need. The constituency that I am proud to represent, Erdington, may be rich in talent but it is one of the poorest in the country.

Birmingham is suffering from the biggest cuts in local government history. Some £567 million has gone already, and £258 million will go over the next four years—£90 million will go this year. More than half of Birmingham’s spending power has gone, with serious consequences for a caring city struggling now to care. I was at the Royal Orthopaedic hospital last Friday and was told about its desperate difficulties in discharging patients into the community precisely because there are no people there to care for them.

School crossing patrols have been put at risk; home starts supporting vulnerable families, likewise. It is not just the council but our police service and our fire service that have suffered enormous cuts and been treated unfairly. A grotesque unfairness of approach has been common throughout. In relation to the police, for example, Surrey has been treated twice as favourably as the west midlands. The National Audit Office has frequently criticised the Government’s approach to the council, and the provisional settlement this year sees Birmingham’s spending going down by £100 per household, which is much more than the average—in Oxfordshire, after the intervention of the champion of Chipping Norton, the figure is but £37.

That is why all the parties have come together in our city. In the words of the Birmingham Mail, which has been championing the campaign for a fair deal, “No More #Brumcuts”. This is a well-timed debate because the local government and police settlements will be announced next week. Birmingham MPs of all political parties recently met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and made the kind of case that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West made for a fairness of approach. We argued that we need a more sensible, longer-term approach. Of course it is about quantity, but it must also be based on need, and not pretending that the social care precept will address the problems of the mounting costs of social care. We also made the case that if fairness is acted upon now, it would see our city £85 million better off.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to hear today that, where councils and NHS providers are willing to propose innovative ideas to try to address some of the social care problems, the Government will put up some extra funding now to make that a possibility?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. When we met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to discuss the immediate problems, we also discussed the wider and longer-term problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) will be working together at the next stage on a sensible integration of health and social care, which we badly need nationwide, and particularly in our city. We want to make progress, but it will take time because we are confronted by an immense task.

There are big wider and longer-term problems, but here and now the plea from Birmingham is simply for a fair approach. If Birmingham is treated fairly, it will suffer but £5 million cuts this year, as opposed to £90 million cuts. If Birmingham is treated unfairly—I say this with all earnestness—children going to school will be put at risk, vulnerable families will be let down, and those badly in need of care, likewise. Those who wish to come out of hospital to rejoin their loved ones at home will be stuck in hospital. I therefore urge the Government to listen to the case for the fair treatment of our city.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this important debate and I start by paying tribute to Liverpool City Council, the councillors and, in particular, the elected Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, who have provided outstanding leadership over what has been a very difficult period—almost six years—since they took office.

Liverpool faces funding cuts from central Government of 58% and the first response of Joe Anderson’s administration has been to seek efficiency savings. Another response has been to find innovative solutions to problems. For example, the council is undertaking very significant community asset transfers to ensure that savings can be made and services protected.

Liverpool City Council is working with the other Merseyside councils and it has been determined to achieve serious devolution through the agreement that was reached for Liverpool city region devolution. It is not a council that is turning its back on efficiency, innovation or reform. Far from it—Liverpool wants to achieve all those things—but even with efficiencies and measures such as community asset transfers we are left with a massive gap, and it is a very similar story to the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) has just told with regard to Birmingham.

Like Liverpool, many councils in that situation are looking, first, towards making efficiency savings and, secondly, towards innovative ideas. However, those things only go a certain way and then something must give. Most of those councils are now in that place where front-line services—libraries, cleaning services and all those important community services—are on the verge of closure. Once again, does my hon. Friend agree that this situation will have the biggest negative effect on those people who are already living in deprivation and poverty?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has anticipated the next part of my speech, because his argument is exactly the one that I want to make, and that a number of our hon. Friends have already made. It is precisely the poorest areas of the country that are being hit hardest by the scale of the cuts in local government spending that we are witnessing. Efficiencies take us so far, and innovation can save money and sometimes improve services, but we are still left with a very wide gap.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West spoke about the challenges in social care. Liverpool City Council, like other local councils, has been allowed to increase the council tax for the coming year to pay for social care. That will raise about £2.5 million, which is a fraction of the money that Liverpool will need to plug the gap in social care.

One of the biggest challenges facing us is how to ensure that those who most need support in social care are getting the support they deserve. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West said, the saving in council money is not necessarily a saving in overall public spending, because a lot of those resources then have to be spent by the NHS in treating people who might otherwise be out receiving social care.

Therefore, when the Minister responds to the debate, my plea to him is to understand why it is that in some of the most deprived parts of the country, such as Liverpool, there is so much anger about the scale of the cuts that are being faced. Liverpool has said, and I believe is saying this genuinely, that it will struggle to meet its statutory responsibilities as a local authority if cuts on the scale being proposed go ahead. Liverpool has had a 58% cut in central Government funding since 2010, which is simply not sustainable. I urge the Minister—working, of course, within the constraints that his Department is operating under—to look again, especially at those authorities that are facing the largest scale of cuts.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West has given us this opportunity today to air these important issues.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for securing what is a very important debate.

Under this Government and the previous one, local authorities have faced enormous cuts to their budgets while receiving an ever-increasing workload. Rather than power, the only thing that seems to have been devolved is austerity. The Chancellor’s spending review and the recent local government settlement were further blows for Rochdale.

During the last Parliament, Rochdale was hammered. The council was forced to cut more than £200 million from local services, which was almost half the available budget. The council leader, Richard Farnell, has been preparing for a £40 million cut over the next two years, but he will now have to plan for a further 4.5% cut to spending powers after the local government settlement, when the average cut across England was only 2.8%.

I am grateful to my borough neighbour for giving way. Like others, he has made an important point about the unfairness of the cuts. To illustrate that unfairness, if Manchester had had a fair share of cuts over the course of the last Parliament—not being protected from cuts but just suffering our fair share of them—we would be £1.4 million a week better off. Surely that is unfair to the really deprived boroughs in this country.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the unfair way that these cuts have been spread across the country.

Services in Rochdale have already been stripped back to the bare bones. For example, £8 out of every £10 in Rochdale is spent on children, the elderly and the disabled. The cuts to our budget will have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable people in our town.

I do not say this lightly, but Rochdale is one of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom. Unemployment is higher than the national average; people in the town are earning £635 less per year than they were in 2010; and on top of that, under this Government we have to accommodate more than 1,000 asylum seekers every year.

Rochdale has repeatedly been one of the three councils in the country that have been hardest-hit by successive cuts under this Government. There are proposals to cut the public health grant, despite the grant providing vital support for preventive services around drugs and alcohol, and for community health improvement. We are struggling with these issues in Rochdale, and such a cut would be devastating.

As has already been mentioned, measures in relation to the social care precept are welcome. I welcome the concept but there is an added problem, because these measures are just scraping the surface in terms of the problems facing local government. The measures will disproportionately benefit wealthy areas, not least because most of Rochdale’s housing is in council tax bands A and B, which means it only raises £1.3 million for the local authority. That money will go nowhere in terms of meeting the demand for social care. It will not even meet the increases to the minimum wage for workers in care homes; that is how inadequate the policy is.

Let me briefly turn to the point about the 100% retention of business rates, which gives Rochdale a similar problem to the one I have just described. We do not have the ability to generate the same level of resources locally for the services the area requires compared with councils with a higher tax base.

I will finish by saying that if we truly want to empower our local communities, we need to fund them properly. A one-size-fits-all policy will not deal with the issues that we need to tackle: health, education, jobs and local regeneration. Rochdale needs and deserves a better funding regime than this Government are currently creating.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this really important debate on local government funding.

It is clear that Government cuts to local authorities have impacted on the authorities’ ability to deliver services. That is certainly true in Coventry, where Government cuts are hollowing out our local communities. Since 2010, Coventry City Council has lost £94 million from its budget and by 2020 its Government grant will have been cut by a massive 65%. As a result, the council is being forced to consider proposals that will further reduce its ability to deliver the services that my constituents deserve and depend upon.

Coventry City Council has rightly prioritised the needs of vulnerable people, and despite the pressure on its budgets the council has found more than £10 million to invest in children’s services, to help to turn around a service that is overwhelmed by children who need support from the social care system.

Like many other local authorities, however, Coventry City Council is also seeing a significant rise in the number of elderly residents requiring support from adult social care. While I recognise that the Government have permitted local authorities to add a further 2% to council tax as part of the adult social care precept, that simply does not go far enough. Social care budgets are facing a perfect storm of rising demand and rising cost, but funding is not increasing far enough to cover that.

No, I will not. I am going to finish in a bit, as I only have a minute. In Coventry this year, adult social care budgets are predicted to have been overspent by £6.7 million, but the social care precept will add only £2 million. That leaves a massive gap that the council will need to cover by reducing spending elsewhere, and it is to that expenditure that I now turn.

Many have spoken about the “graphs of doom” that show local authorities ceasing to be able to provide anything other than the most basic of statutory services and social care. Those predictions are becoming a reality in Coventry. The council has made a frank assessment that in future it will be unable to fund, among other things, libraries, community centres, voluntary agencies and road repairs to the same level that it has in the past. That means that the colour and lifeblood of our communities will begin to dwindle as support that they once received from the council is no longer there. If the Government want to help people escape poverty, tackle poor levels of productivity and deal with the long-term problems associated with worklessness, they must provide local government with the resources it needs to let our communities grow and flourish.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I first commend my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for the clear way in which she set out the issues, in particular the impossibility of councils’ social care obligations being met. For all the talk of devolution, the reality is that the Government have shown contempt for local democracy. They are devolving not only power, but cuts, risk and blame. Worst of all, they do so in the most cynical and Machiavellian way, using sleight of hand at every opportunity. Indeed, they have got so good at spinning on these issues that they have even managed to fool the Prime Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out earlier.

One consistent concern that I have heard from local government is about how the Government keep moving the goalposts. The most recent autumn statement contained a total of 10 changes that have left my council, Cheshire West and Chester, £8.4 million worse off. That is on top of a funding formula error that means the council will receive £2.3 million less than previously indicated. Overall, the council will lose £90 million of central Government grant over 10 years, and in-year cuts such as those to public health not only make planning difficult, but will cost us all more in the long term.

There is widespread agreement that devolution is a good thing, but I do not believe the Government are so good at putting it into practice. True devolution means central Government trusting local government. An example of where they have not done that is the proposal to deny councils the new homes bonus where planning permission has been granted on appeal. That is a blatant attack on local democracy. It seems we have a transfer of responsibility, but not a genuine transfer of power.

The council tax reduction scheme is a classic example of the Government passing on a cut locally, but dressing it up as a new power to be enjoyed by local government. It is an invidious choice for councils: do they cut local services or take money off some of the poorest people in their communities? Another example is the Housing and Planning Bill, which proposes an annual raid on council housing revenue accounts. The retention of business rates is in principle a welcome measure, but in its current form it passes on risk and uncertainty while failing to pass on the power and flexibility to allow councils to grow their local economies.

There has to be greater consistency in the powers given, so that it does not look like local government is just getting the difficult decisions that central Government want to swerve. The Communities and Local Government Committee has just published a report on devolution, and I want to draw attention to one comment in it:

“We also believe that the Government’s approach to devolution in practice has lacked rigour as to process: there are no clear, measurable objectives for devolution, the timetable is rushed and efforts are not being made to inject openness or transparency into the deal negotiations.”

I hope the Government will take heed of those comments, as they not only apply to devolution, but rather neatly sum up many of my criticisms of how the council funding regime operates. Local government is full of great innovators, and they should be given respect, true freedom and fair funding.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on the clarity with which she presented her case and the characteristic forcefulness of her argument.

I mainly want to say a few words about Knowsley Council and how it is affected by the settlement, but before I do that, it is worth looking at the context of the past 10 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) referred to our city region. Over the past 10 years, the support to local authorities in the Liverpool city region has been cut by a staggering £800 million. In Knowsley, that has meant a cut of £90 million, which I calculate to be £1,500 a household. He rightly mentioned devolution, which the local authorities and he and I welcome, but any pretence that it will resolve the problems we are confronting with funding for local government is fraudulent, because all it brings with it is £30 million a year in extra funding for infrastructure problems, and it will not resolve any of the issues that concern us in some of the most deprived parts of the country.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talked about the difficulties that his local authority is experiencing. I have every sympathy with him, but his area has not been subject to the reductions in grants and support over the past 10 years that areas such as Knowsley, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham have. He sets up a slightly false dichotomy between rural and urban areas. The dichotomy is between the areas with the greatest need and those with less need.

I want to say a few words about some of the issues that the Minister might mention when he comes to reply. We welcome the additional 2% flexibility on social care, but in Knowsley’s case that produces only £550,000 a year, when we face pressures of £3 million a year. There will be a massive reduction in the resources available. With the new homes bonus mechanism, for every pound that is withheld, we only get 38p back, so that is not much of a help. Finally, we do not even know what the figures on public health are at the moment, but it is likely that there will be a reduction there, too, and that is disgraceful.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing a debate that is close to my heart. I was a councillor before I entered Parliament, and I saw at first hand the effects of the Government’s policies because I was in charge of a £22 million budget. The Chancellor will often talk about making tough decisions to secure economic stability, but when it comes to direct attacks, such as cuts to tax credits or police budgets, the Government make embarrassing U-turns. However, when it comes to cuts to local government, they persist, because they can shove the blame on to local councillors and local councils, who then have to face angry residents.

When I was on Camden Council, we were told to find £80 million of cuts between 2010 and 2014. That level of cuts cannot be found just through efficiencies and cutting the fat and discretionary services. We had to cut front-line services. Consider this: by 2018, Camden Council will receive half of what it receives from central Government. In a few years’ time, the council will have to have cut £180 million from its budget. That represents one year’s spending on adult social care—including mental health services—at £99 million, homelessness support at £33 million and waste services at £36 million.

Parts of Brent are in my constituency, and that borough has had an £80 million shortfall. It will face further cuts of 25% over the next three years, and it is considered to be one of the four most vulnerable boroughs in London. It ranks in the top 10% of vulnerable boroughs in the country. Some 31% of children in the borough live in families that are dependent on tax credits. One third of residents live on salaries below the London living wage, because of our low-wage economy.

My hon. Friend mentions the difficulties and cuts in social care services. Has she seen in her local NHS the problems of more elderly people going into hospital and the delayed discharges from hospital, which, as I have argued before, cost the taxpayer more?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, I have seen real-life examples of the situations she describes. We could focus on many vulnerable groups, but I particularly want to mention people with mental health problems. The Prime Minister has said over and over that we should have a frank discussion about people with mental health problems and not talk about them in hushed tones or whisper around the topic. Well, let me tell the House: people with health problems are the ones who are shouting the loudest, because local services are a lifeline for people with mental health problems. One constituent of mine tells me that the day centre she relies on—which helps her to handle her mental health problems and helps her with independent living and support—will not be there any more because it will be receiving £100,000 of cuts in the next few years.

We cannot talk about fixing the roof when the sun is shining if we crush the roots of local democracy, which is what is happening by disfranchising people and taking away the services they rely on. I urge the Minister to think carefully about how local councils are struggling and suffering as their budgets are hit over and over by national Government. If we have to make tough decisions, we have to take it on the chin in national Government and not simply push the blame on to local councillors and councils that are dependent on handouts from national Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this debate on the far-reaching, deep and savage cuts to local government funding.

My involvement with local government goes back many years. I was elected to Liverpool City Council in 1973 and remained there until 2000. I had a front-row seat during the Thatcher years, witnessing the devastating effects of a Government determined to bring local government to its knees. Today, sadly, I see that happening all over again, but I fear it will be even worse this time. The Government are pushing local authorities to the financial brink, to the limits of their organisational capacity, and pushing even statutory services to the point of collapse. The Government explain the need for cuts and assure us that front-line services should not be affected. We have heard it on the NHS and policing time and again, but the reality is very different.

Lancashire County Council had projected to make £65 million in budget reductions this year, with a £263 million funding gap by 2020. The Government formula, imposed without consultation or any transitional arrangements, means that the council is required to make £76 million in savings, and by 2020 will face a £303 million gap. Those are staggering sums of money, but it is often difficult to know what it really means. Besides cuts in social services, in West Lancashire there is a long list. Vital bus services, such as the 3A and 5, are facing the axe. Schoolchildren and people wanting to go to the doctor’s, the hospital or social events are being abandoned. Eroding the principle and availability of public transport has a direct financial and sometimes personal cost. There is an irony in offering people a bus pass when there are no buses to use them on. It is like giving people a free TV licence and confiscating the TV. Public transport is an absolute lifeline.

The Government talk about choice in education, but there is no choice if people cannot get a bus there. In West Lancashire, the Environment Agency’s budget has been cut, and now there is talk of turning off pumps, which will mean that the area is flooded even more. We have been subject to the most savage and awful flooding in recent weeks.

I do not think it is dramatic to say we are facing a crisis in local government. The Government need to make the right decisions—fair decisions—and they cannot stand by, tie the hands and feet of local government, kick them into the river and stand back and say, “Look, they can’t swim.” Now it is clear that the Conservatives know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) has mentioned, areas of deprivation have suffered more in cuts to council funding than more prosperous areas. Inner London boroughs, metropolitan areas and councils in the north have seen disproportionately harsh cuts. Hartlepool Borough Council’s grant has been reduced by 40% since 2010, and, as per the 2010 index of multiple deprivation, Hartlepool is the 24th most deprived local authority out of 354 areas in Britain. I see the consequences of austerity and deprivation every day.

For Hartlepool Borough Council’s budget over the five years to 2015-16, there has been a cut in spending power of £313 per person, the highest of any local authority in the north-east, which is itself the region with the highest cuts to council funding. In December, it was announced that the local authority would lose a further £2.1 million in Government grant in 2016-17, on top of an anticipated £2.8 million. How does the Minister think that areas such as Hartlepool can have such levels of unfair cuts? Why has he moved the funding formula away from a needs-based approach for the provision of local government services?

My second point relates to business rates and the unusual, if not unique, position of Hartlepool and the nuclear power station. Hartlepool is the second smallest unitary authority in the country, although there is nothing wrong with being small. About £33 million comes from council tax generated locally. Business rates are a bigger provider of local government finance, with a total rateable value of nearly £100 million. The nuclear power station in my constituency provides about a third of that entire business rate income, at just over £33 million. So the business rates bill equates almost identically to the council tax revenue.

The unique position of Hartlepool is two-fold. First, there is nowhere else in the country that has such a large payer of business rates proportionate to the rest of the business rate base. Secondly, the nuclear power station has often quick and unexpected shutdowns for health and safety purposes, with a consequent loss of business rates that cannot be collected, and the council has no ability to manage or plan for that. In addition, there has been a revised valuation of business rates, which means that the power station pays less—£3.9 million this year and every year in perpetuity. To put that in context, to make up this shortfall of income, there would need to be an increase in council tax of about 11%, or the construction of 2,700 properties paying band D council tax: the equivalent of increasing the size of the town by 12%. That is simply not going to happen.

The Secretary of State was kind enough to meet with me, the leader and the chief executive of Hartlepool Borough Council to discuss this matter. Will the Minister continue to look at this so that Hartlepool residents do not suffer?

Just to confirm, the Front-Bench spokesmen are not subject to the same time limits, but I want to get to the Minister before 10 minutes to 4, to give him time to answer the points raised and also for the hon. Member for Leicester West to briefly sum up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and my colleagues from the Communities and Local Government Committee for their contributions this afternoon. It seems absolutely clear that there is a serious crisis in local government in England in terms of funding and the resources allocated according to the funding formulas that are in place. I cannot say that I am greatly familiar with how the funding formulas operate in England, but it seems clear that, regardless of which part of the country Members come from, there seems to be a sense that the funding formula does not work.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made clear his concerns about the funding formula, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and Members from other places, both urban and rural, raised concerns about how it works for them. The Minister really ought to look more closely at the formula to see whether there is another mechanism that could be used, because there clearly is a problem.

The disproportionate level of cuts that local councils face in England is stark. We are having a debate in Scotland about local government funding, and we have been able to protect it in Scotland to a far greater extent than has been possible here. What is happening here is a choice. The Government have chosen austerity and they are passing the blame for austerity on to local government, which is completely unfair and unjust. That really should be looked at again.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about cuts being passed on in the guise of powers. That is true and really quite stark. It is a very sleekit way for the Government to duck their responsibilities and pass on cuts. It is really unfair for them to pass on the social care precept as a tax rise for local government to carry out.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) spoke movingly about vulnerable people and areas of deprivation. People are already suffering great injustices and there are great societal imbalances in how people live that are now being compounded. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) said about the Thatcher years, when councils were brought to the brink. We are coming round to that again. In parts of Scotland, particularly parts of Glasgow, we are still living with the social impact of those cuts, and that will be true for constituencies throughout the country. Many families have already lived through that. We do not want to see it again if it is in any way avoidable, because it seems completely unfair.

With some exceptions, such as the hon. Member for Gainsborough, there are relatively few Tories present. The House of Commons Library debate pack provides some evidence that Conservative MPs and councillors throughout the country have concerns about these matters, so it is a shame that that was not reflected in the balance of the debate.

I do not want to take up much more time because I know that Members will want to the Minister’s response.

This is the first time I have attended a debate for which you have been in the Chair, Mr Davies, and we have known each other a long time. I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I want to give her an idea of what is happening in places such as Coventry, which by the end of the decade will have lost something like 60% of its budget to cuts. Over the next three years it has to find about £28 million. That is a hefty sum in anyone’s language. She made a telling point in her opening remarks: we have to remember that the Conservatives always pick up from where they left off the last time they were in government. If people do not see that, they must be blind.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The Government are making a choice. I hope that councils throughout the country will challenge them very strongly on this. The Communities and Local Government Committee hears concerns from across the country about the range of policies that are coming and the funding gaps that are emerging. We have to be extremely careful, because it will be our constituents who come back to us and say, “What’s happened to the service provision in my area?” It is this House and the Government’s austerity obsession that are causing all these problems locally. We need to challenge that wherever we can.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this important debate and thank the many Members who have turned up to take part.

I really hope that the Minister is in listening mode today, because my goodness, he has had a powerful lesson in the impact of his decisions on communities right across the country. I predict that when he responds he will claim that he and the Government have protected local government funding, but they have not. In fact, they have cut £1 in every £3 available to councils as the settlement funding assessment falls by 34%. They have cut some NHS budgets, handed them over to local government to take the blame and included that figure in the core spending power so that it does not look like spending has fallen by so much overall.

To partly fill the gap, the Government’s funding assumptions expect councils to increase council tax by 1.7% a year, every year, and on top of that impose a 2% social care precept. That still leaves a giant £1 billion social care funding gap, which will hit the poorest communities in the country the hardest. All that adds up to a 20% council tax rise over four years—a council tax rise that was designed in Downing Street. The scale of the Government cuts that are being imposed means that council tax payers will be forced to pay more while getting less.

Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that the Conservative party’s manifesto for last year’s general election promised to keep council tax rises to a very low minimum?

Given the rest of what the Government are up to, I am not surprised at all, but I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment.

As we have heard this afternoon, local government funding under this Government is deeply unfair. That is illustrated by the fact that the 10 most deprived councils in England have been hit by cuts that are 18 times higher than those for the 10 least deprived councils. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that during the last Parliament, social care spending fell by £65 per person in the most deprived areas. We have more frail and older people in need of care, but less and less money to pay for the services they need.

Even the Tory-led Local Government Association has warned that after the local government settlement, social care will still face a giant £l billion funding black hole by 2020. That can mean one of only two things: either more older and disabled people will be denied the vital services that they need, or other vital public services will be cut back even harder to make up the difference. That means services such as keeping street lights on at night, filling in potholes, repairing broken pavements, sweeping the streets, removing dumped rubbish, emptying the bins, maintaining parks, providing youth services and children’s centres and keeping libraries and museums open. All those things that affect the quality of life of every community are under threat because of the Government’s decisions on funding local services. I urge the Minister to explain whether it is his Government’s policy to close the funding gap and ensure that older people get the care that they deserve—or will he stand back and watch as services are decimated?

The Government have come up with a cunning plan to cut the NHS while pretending to have kept their promise not to. Services have been taken out of the NHS and then cut before being handed over to councils in the clear expectation that the councils will take the blame for the chaos that will follow. Particularly affected will be treatments for drug and alcohol abuse and work to tackle the country’s obesity crisis and to prevent sexually transmitted infections. Not only is that a bad idea in health terms, but it makes absolutely no sense in financial terms. We will all be made to pay the cost of dealing with health crises as they get worse because of short-sighted, short-term funding cuts. In the words of the LGA, which, let us remember, is led by the Conservative party, these

“drastic cuts will have a major impact on the many prevention and early intervention services carried out by councils.”

Labour welcomes the Government’s proposal to allow the full retention of business rates, although we are disappointed that that will not happen before 2020. Nevertheless, without an effective equalisation measure, the Government’s plans for business rates devolution will make the system even more unequal. Without certainty about what further services will have to be paid for, there is no knowing whether it is simply cover for yet more Government cuts. Westminster City Council accounts for 8% of England’s entire business rates intake—that is more than Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Bristol combined. The Minister promised me in the main Chamber that the Chancellor would make the equalisation mechanism clear during the autumn statement, but the statement came and went with no announcement. Worryingly, the Municipal Journal quotes a senior official saying that the Department for Communities and Local Government has done “no thinking” about how the system will work. Will the Minister explain why not? Does the fact that the Department has done no thinking explain why the Chancellor did not make the announcement that the Minister told me he would?

The entire financial crisis stemmed from the irresponsible behaviour of the banks, but instead of being open about their response to dealing with it, the Government are cutting councils harder and harder while coming up with ever more ingenious ways to try to cover up what they are trying to do. By the end of this Parliament they will have cut council funding by more than two thirds, with Britain’s poorest communities suffering the biggest cuts. Unfair funding, council tax hikes and an assault on the quality of life of every community in the country—that is the Tory record on local government funding. It is simply unacceptable.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to respond to it. Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of councils across the country over the past five years and the contribution they have made to improving local services in challenging times. However, we need to make more savings as we finish the job of eliminating the largest deficit in post-war history.

We listened carefully to councils when preparing the provisional settlement that was recently consulted on. I thank everyone who took the time to respond to the consultation and made considered comments about our proposals. I and my fellow Ministers spoke to local government leaders from across the country and many colleagues in the House. Although the hon. Lady did not make representations to that consultation, I am pleased to be able to discuss these issues with her today. I thank all Members who took the time to respond to the consultation, and I thank councils for their detailed and considered comments on our proposals. We are reflecting carefully on them at the moment.

We have previously had one of the most centralised states in the world—almost 80% of council spending was financed through central Government grants at the start of the previous Parliament—but councils will be entirely financed by their own resources by 2020. Local government will retain 100% of the business rates, fees and charges raised by councils, leaving them fully accountable to the electorate rather than Whitehall. Those huge changes will not be made without careful consideration and consultation in the coming months. Hon. Members will have the chance to have input into the design of the new business rates retention process, which is the other side of the Government’s devolution agenda.

The Minister might recall that that was almost exactly the argument that was used to justify the poll tax—[Interruption.] Oh yes, it was. Does he accept that local authorities with lower tax bases will not benefit from the changes unless there is a proper recognition of need? If anything, the situation will get worse.

I have got very little time, but I have made my views on that point very clear to the House in recent months.

Hon. Members will have the chance to get involved in the process of business rate retention in the coming months. The Government do not underestimate the challenges. Local government representatives consistently tell me, as they told my predecessors over many years, that greater certainty about their income over the medium term would enable them to organise more efficiently and strategically, and put their safety-net reserves to more productive use. This settlement will for the first time ever offer a guaranteed budget to every council that desires one and can demonstrate efficiency savings for the next year and every year of the Parliament. Four-year settlements will give local government more certainty and confidence. Councils will also be able to spend 100% of capital receipts from asset sales to implement cost-saving reforms.

As we move to a world of full localisation of income, it does not make sense to talk simply about Government grants, as a number of Opposition Members did. As colleagues know, the revenue support grant will be phased out by 2020, but local government will still spend significant sums of money. Therefore, it makes more sense to talk about the wider measure of council spending power, which we improved after listening to the Public Accounts Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee. We no longer include the NHS-scored better care fund or the ring-fenced public health grant in the calculation, since councils cannot spend those funds as they wish.

Overall, our proposals are fair. Councils’ core spending power will remain virtually unchanged over the Parliament—it will go from £44.5 billion in 2015-16 to £44.3 billion in 2019-20.

I am sorry, but I have not got time to give way again. There are a number of things I need to talk about, but I will come to the issue of rural areas in a moment to address my hon. Friend’s earlier point.

Real-terms savings of 6.7% are required over this spending review period, compared with the 14% savings announced in the 2010 spending review. Even the Institute for Fiscal Studies recognises that that is substantially lower than the spending reductions that councils had to deliver between 2009-10 and 2015-16.

On adult social care, we responded to the clear call from all tiers of government and many colleagues in the House to recognise the importance of the growing cost of caring for our elderly population. The Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services asked for £2.9 billion by 2020 as a contribution to the cost of social care. In the settlement, we make up to £3.5 billion available by that year. It will be distributed fairly to local authorities with social care responsibilities. There will also be a package of support for councils working with the local NHS to address pressures on care, a dedicated social care precept of 2% per year, and a fund of £1.5 billion by 2019-20 to complement the new precept. We recognise that councils providing services in rural areas face additional costs, so we have proposed that the rural services delivery grant should be quadrupled from £15.5 million this year to £65 million by 2019-20 to address those issues.

Let me cover one or two of the points that the hon. Member for Leicester West made. She and a number of other Opposition Members spent a lot of time talking about the effect that the reduction in central Government spending will have on local government. They have very quickly forgotten that their election manifesto clearly set out a path for reducing local government spending. They may wish to take that into account. The core spending power measure is the most accurate way of measuring councils’ expenditure. Leicester has a core spending power of £2,003 per household this year, compared with the English average of £1,829, so I hope that reassures the hon. Lady that Leicester is not getting a bad deal.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) about council tax, the Conservative party will not listen to any lectures from the Labour party. Council tax is 11% lower in real terms than it was five years ago. I remind the hon. Gentleman that council tax doubled under the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010, so the Labour party clearly says one thing in opposition and does something else in government.

We recognise the challenges that have been raised today and those that lie ahead. This is a time of big opportunity and expectation for local government reform. We are moving to a world long desired by local government, in which councils are financed by local sources. Whitehall’s apron strings will be cut. Central and local government are decisively addressing social care pressures, and we are beginning to design long-term integrated care and lasting local solutions.

I know that these changes require a lot of hard work from councils, but changes always do. However, I am confident that, after we have carefully considered the consultation responses before announcing the final settlement, and after we have undertaken a further period of meaningfully engaging and working with local government to design a 100% business rates retention scheme, hon. Members will agree that a better future of proper local control is becoming a reality at last.

With the greatest respect, that was a head-in-the-sand denial of the problems. The Minister said that, overall, the Government’s proposals are fair. They are not. The areas with the greatest need and the most deprived communities have been hit hardest.

I ask the Minister to look again at what is happening to adult social care. I am deeply concerned that care home providers will fail and that vulnerable elderly people will not get support. That will pile pressure on the NHS, and in the end we will have to pay the cost, but it will be more expensive and done in the least efficient way. Opposition Members will continue to press the case for fair funding for our councils and communities.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Bootham Park Mental Health Hospital

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the closure of Bootham Park mental health hospital.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It has taken four months to secure today’s important debate about the circumstances surrounding the sudden closure of Bootham Park hospital. I am still waiting for the round table that I requested with the Minister, and for the vital independent investigation into what really happened at Bootham. Although City of York Council and NHS England are carrying out an operational review, but not a strategic review, we must remember that NHS England is not independent of what happened at Bootham.

Today, I will describe the story behind the headlines of how the system failed mental health patients in my constituency and put their lives at risk, why the issues cannot be ignored any longer, and how what happened at Bootham has national implications. Without urgent change, the problems could be replicated anywhere in the country. Two successive Care Quality Commission inspections in 2013 and 2014 highlighted risks at the 240-year-old hospital, including the line of sight around the quadrangle wards, ligature points and doors that presented suicide risks, and not enough staff. Those issues should have impressed upon all involved in the service that the setting was not safe and urgent action should have been taken, but even with the CQC report, inertia followed.

First, too many bodies were involved at Bootham Park. NHS Property Services Ltd owned the site. The commissioning was done by Vale of York clinical commissioning group. Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust was the provider. York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust provided maintenance. English Heritage—now Historic England—had an interest in the listed buildings. Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust—TEWV—became the new provider from 1 October 2015. By the end, other bodies, including City of York Council’s health overview and scrutiny committee, NHS England, Monitor and the CQC, had a role in proceedings but, strangely enough, the safeguarding board did not.

The problem with the system was the unbelievable scope for too many organisations to blame one another for the lack of progress in addressing the CQC’s safety demands. I do not have the time today to run through each authority’s lack of action, but their cumulative inaction put lives at risk. There should be one authoritative body and one controlling mind, not different jurisdictions with different lines of accountability and different interests that do not relate to one another as they need to. They did before 2012. There must be a place where such matters can be settled. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 gives scope for confusion, which is admitted by those involved and evident from what happened. There are conflicting authorities, so there must be one clear and authoritative oversight of decision making in the NHS, so that everyone knows where responsibility lies. If clarity is needed, it should be quickly and easily established. This is about good governance.

Secondly, there was an issue with making things happen. Why did years pass without the CQC recommendations being implemented? How was that allowed to happen? The CQC stated the necessary improvements, but then the very bodies criticised are the ones who have to implement the repair plan. The lack of external oversight of the work meant failure and delay. External leadership must be provided, to ensure that the right solutions are expedited. Assignment to NHS Improvement would seem the obvious choice. The CQC’s enforcement policy is clearly not working, and who polices it? The CQC has powers, including when there are repeated breaches and when action has not been taken to remove risk, but they were not used. If an effective system was in place, there would be no slippage, confusion or blame, and patient safety would be at the forefront.

Thirdly, the service was to be recommissioned. There was clear dissatisfaction with the provider’s performance and an alternative provider was selected. However, a board member at the time has reported that the Leeds and York partnership trust did not invest in the required upgrades

“in case it did not win the contract”.

In other words, the contract interests of the provider outweighed patient safety, the problems were not addressed expediently, and the hospital was left in an unsafe condition.

I thank the hon. Lady, who is my neighbour, for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I agree with what she has said so far. Does she agree that the Leeds and York partnership not only failed at that point, but had failed for many months down the line? That is why we have to get to the bottom of how it behaved throughout the whole system at Bootham Park.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We need to get to the bottom of why there has been continual failure not only at Bootham, but in the general delivery of clinical services.

The board member’s revelation was shocking and demonstrated that the current system allows for interests other than that of patient safety to be put first. Leeds and York did not invest in mental health in York, which was noted by staff and patients alike, and let the service be deemed unsafe by the CQC not once but twice, and then a third time, following a third inspection, which I will come on to later. It is also clear that the other bodies involved were not able to accelerate the inactivity. It is not that nothing was happening; discussions were ongoing, and the CQC and the Department of Health knew that a plan was slowly being drawn up by the CCG-led Bootham Park hospital programme board to address the CQC report’s findings, but “slippage” was evident. However, it is clear that frustrations existed between the bodies and blame for inaction was passed from one to the other. People hid behind jurisdictions and clear leadership was lacking once again, which is why there must be external oversight.

How can we have a health system in which there is scope for other interests, lack of focus, delay, lack of enforcement and blame, and in which CQC findings are not managed as a priority? We are back to poor governance and poor frameworks, which is what this debate is really all about. Leeds and York lost the contract to provide mental health services for the Vale of York CCG to TEWV. The trust appealed the decision to Monitor last June. Leeds and York then ran a highly public and politicised campaign that showed it was not interested in improving patient safety at Bootham, only in contractual matters, as I witnessed when I met with its chair. Monitor rejected the appeal and TEWV became the new provider. However, TEWV understandably wanted to inspect the plans for the building from which it would be delivering its services. I stress that the Bootham Park hospital upgrade could only ever be a temporary step, as I outlined in my maiden speech on 2 June 2015. The only safe solution will be a new build.

The CQC made an unannounced inspection on 9 and 10 September 2015. I have been unable to ascertain if this was at their instigation or that of Leeds and York partnership, but it is clear that the 20 weeks’ notice for Bootham to be removed as a suitable location was shortened due to the Monitor appeal process requested by Leeds and York, which the CQC told me impacted on its processes. However, as soon as it was clear that Monitor had turned down the Leeds and York appeal, the CQC knew that the trust would deregister, and that TEWV would have to be registered. The CQC also knew of the safety risks at Bootham, and that repairs had not been made. The CQC therefore knew that it would not be able to register Bootham as a location for TEWV to deliver services. That prompts two questions. First, why did the CQC leave the inspection until September, which then led to a rapid closure? Secondly, why did it then wait over two weeks to announce the inspection’s outcome? A longer run-in would have given more time for transition. We must keep remembering that mental health patients were put at serious risk.

The third inspection found a worsening situation. In addition to the safety risks already identified, staffing levels were worse and unsafe, record-keeping was poor, the water was found to be at a scalding temperature, and the kitchen, lounge and activity rooms gave access to an urn, electrical wires, scissors and knitting needles. A long-standing leaky toilet was leaking urine and foul water to the ward below and there was a risk of Legionella. There were other poor maintenance issues—as the CQC’s inspectors were assessing Bootham, a piece of masonry fell from the ceiling.

The CQC reported more than two weeks later, on Friday 25 September, that Bootham Park hospital must close because of the ongoing safety risks. The need for closure by midnight on 30 September 2015 was because the CQC could not re-register the facility against the new provider as being safe, because it was not. However, if the current provider were to continue to deliver the service, other options would be available.

The Leeds and York trust chief executive said on that same day that if the Vale of York CCG at the eleventh hour did not transfer over the service at the end of the month and let Leeds and York continue to provide it, it could keep the hospital open as it would not have to re-register. He said it was important that that was achieved for months until repairs were addressed. Even as patients were being cast out of their beds and out of our city, contractual issues were being placed above patient safety. The hospital was given five days—including a weekend—to close.

The CQC fulfilled its registration remit, but that meant that the building’s registration was placed above the unsafe environment that sudden closure and relocation would place service users in. That highlights how process was the factor that closed the hospital. Patients were put at risk. There was no scope for review of the decision, no one to assess the balance of risks and transitioning arrangements and no one to agree more time despite the clinicians, patients, families and their MP all highlighting the risks.

Let me mention some of those risks: the closure of the place of safety, section 136 suite, so people in a crisis have to travel at least to Harrogate for an assessment and then on again for a bed for their own safety; the closure of acute beds, with in-patients moved as far away as Middlesbrough, creating a huge risk and insecurity; patients moved away from their support networks and families to strange environments; and the moving of 400 people engaged in out-patients’ services to new locations. I heard how one service user’s condition became so exacerbated on hearing about their move that they became seriously ill, and that is not the only story.

I have heard from a parent how their child totally withdrew—from food and from them—because he was very frightened, and they were fearful for him. I have since supported frightened service users and family members. Out-patients who were suddenly discharged were confused and one senior clinician said it would be a miracle if someone does not die.

The situation continues. We have the place of safety back and we hope that out-patients will also be back in the near future. The acute in-patients’ service will be placed in temporary accommodation from the summer, all being well. However, serious risks resulted from the decision and the deterioration of service users’ mental health occurred. Safety was put after process, with some of the most vulnerable service users placed in an unsafe situation. There was no one in the NHS under the 2012 Act who had the authority to weigh up the balance of risk and decide, when greater risk to the lives of service users could occur with the sudden move, that an alternative call could be made, such as properly planned transition. No intervention was made, not even by the Minister—in other words, no one has overarching responsibility for patient safety in the NHS. That was confirmed by all the bodies. This must change immediately.

The reason I am so vexed is that four months have passed and nothing has been done about the system. Lives remain at risk, were such events to happen elsewhere. My constituents ask me, and I ask myself: is it because we are in the north? Is it because it is mental health? Or is it because the Government are too proud to admit that their Act has created that risk, as before 2012 there was someone who made such decisions?

I know that the circumstances at Bootham Park are exceptional and I trust that this will not happen again, but it could. The lives of my constituents were put at risk, and harm to their health occurred. The system failed them. That is why I and my constituents are focused on the need for a fully independent strategic investigation. Through my work and the health overview and scrutiny committee’s processes and now their operational local review, issues have come to the surface, but an independent review must occur. Lessons must be learnt of the failures in the way that health bodies relate to one another, and the problems that there are with governance. My constituents deserve to have answers.

Serious risks to patients were created in the NHS, and that cannot be ignored. No one died, but do we always have to wait until it is too late for someone before problems are taken seriously and situations are investigated? Agreement to an independent investigation is overdue.

In closing, I want to thank the service users and their families and carers for their continual pressure to get answers as to what happened to their services. They have been extraordinary in these very difficult times and deserve a confirmation that their concerns about the system will be addressed. I again invite the Minister to meet them. I also want to praise the outstanding efforts of all the staff involved in trying to support this unnecessary crisis, and in particular Martin Barkley for providing the leadership as the chief executive of TEWV. After 40 years of working in mental health, Martin is standing down, but I trust that his legacy will be a new, state-of-the-art mental health facility on the Bootham site for York by 2019.

Minister, four months is too long to wait to meet, too long to wait to undertake an independent review of the situation, and too long for my constituents to get the answers they deserve. Lives were put at risk and harm occurred. I trust that we can move the situation forward today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, especially in the circumstances of the powerful case put forward by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), with whom I have been in contact pretty much since this incident started. We spoke on the telephone around the day things happened and I have been in regular contact since. It is true that we have not met in a round table, but that is not a decision of mine. We agreed that when there was a point to meeting all together, we would, but things had to happen and we had to go some way down the line before that. My door has always been open and the hon. Lady has always been able to speak to me.

If she would like to deny that, I will be happy to sit down, but she knows full well that I have spoken to her regularly and I have been available. I will happily see her and her constituents at a time that is entirely appropriate: when there is something to discuss. I do not think that her charge is particularly fair.

I am confused because I have been trying to get a meeting with the Minister—I have got correspondence for three months. I am therefore sorry if his office has let him down, but we have been trying to get a meeting, which senior clinicians also want to hold.

Let me be clear. I spoke to the hon. Lady at an early stage and first I advised that a debate would not be a bad idea to bring issues out. I was concerned that there might be delays with the trust in terms of what may happen with the new premises, but at the time of the incident there was no point in having a meeting about what would happen next. Since then I have genuinely not been aware of a request for a meeting. I am very happy to have such a meeting, but at the time it seemed sensible that we would wait until there was a point in having a meeting. We have met and passed each other pretty regularly in the meantime and, had there been a delay that had caused grave concern, it would have taken a matter of a second to say, “How about that letter —are we going to meet?” but I have not had that conversation.

May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for his interest? We have spoken on this subject from time to time.

Those issues, however, are incidental. The hon. Lady’s interest has been sincere and consistent, and she highlights a pretty unhappy story in which there are circumstances that cause me genuine concern. I will first say a little about what we know about the circumstances and then what we can do next.

Bootham Park hospital could provide care to about 25 to 30 in-patients and about 400 out-patients. The Vale of York CCG had previously announced its intention to commission a new, state-of-the-art facility and is working with NHS Property Services Ltd and NHS England to press for funding. I understand that the intention is to provide a new hospital in York to replace Bootham Park by 2019. At this stage, I have heard no suggestion that that will not be the case.

On that point, will the Minister highlight what discussions he has had with the new trust, TEWV, about the new hospital, and whether the timelines are still on track?

I have not had those discussions at this stage, because my understanding is that the timelines are on track. I suggested to the hon. Member for York Central that if there were concerns about foot-dragging, I was very willing to have that conversation with other colleagues in the room, to ensure that the original stated timetable was stuck to. I was interested in whether there was any opportunity to bring that forward, but my understanding is that that is not the case. I will come to what happens next in a moment.

Until recently, as the hon. Lady said, the hospital was operated by Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. In October 2015, the Vale of York clinical commissioning group ended the relationship with that trust and asked Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust—TEWV—to take over the provision of services.

Bootham Park is a very old building, at 200 years old, and is probably one of the oldest buildings in use for patients in the NHS. It is also a grade I listed property, which has not necessarily made things any easier over time. The hon. Lady said in her maiden speech:

“Bootham is not fit for purpose and the CQC concurs.”—[Official Report, 2 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 512.]

She was entirely right. As such an old building, Bootham Park had a number of problems that modern buildings designed for healthcare services normally avoid, one of which was ligature points—in other words, fixtures or fittings that someone could use to hang themselves from. As the hon. Lady knows, that was sadly not a theoretical problem at Bootham Park, since a lady was found hanging in her room at the hospital in March 2014.

The inquest heard that in December 2013, CQC inspectors had already identified the ligature point that that lady later used, along with a number of others, and asked that it be removed. The CQC’s report, published in 2014, clearly said that there were a significant number of ligature risks on the ward, but that work was unfortunately not done by the trust. The coroner noted at the inquest that he would have expected management to see that the work was done.

The Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust fully accepted that it should have done the necessary work. However, when the CQC returned to inspect the hospital in January 2015, it again identified risks to patients from the building infrastructure and a continuing need to improve the patient environment. Refurbishment had been taking place both before and after the January 2015 inspection. Work carried out since February 2014, at a total cost of £1.76 million, included a number of improvements. Among those was an attempt to remove all the ligature points, as well as an overhaul of the water hygiene system and other repairs.

The CQC inspected the hospital again in early September 2015. At that point, it once more recorded a number of familiar problems, although it acknowledged the effort the trust had made to deal with them. The CQC found insufficient staffing numbers; areas with potential ligature points that could have been remedied without major works; poor hygiene and infection control; poor risk assessments, care plans and record-keeping; an unsafe environment due to ineffective maintenance; areas deemed unsafe or found unlocked; and poor lines of sight on ward 6. Furthermore, part of the ceiling had collapsed in the main corridor of the hospital. The debris was cleared away but the area was not cordoned off, which meant people were still at risk of harm.

The building’s listed status meant that it was not possible to remove all potential ligature points. The quadrangle-shaped wards meant there could never be a constant line of sight for nurses to observe patients. Despite the money already spent, the systems for sanitation and heating were outdated. The CQC felt that despite repeated identification of problems at inspections, not enough had been done—the hon. Lady was quite right to point that out—or perhaps could be done to provide services safely at the hospital. Patients remained at risk. The CQC therefore took the decision, as the regulator, to close the hospital with effect from October 2015. The CQC and the Vale of York CCG both agreed, as the hon. Lady said, that the current estate was not fit for purpose.

The timing of the closure was unfortunate. Mental health and learning disability services in the Vale of York were due to transfer from the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to TEWV on 1 October 2015. That meant the new provider was taking over as the facility was being closed down for safety reasons. However, when the CQC, as the responsible regulator, comes to the conclusion that a building is so unsafe for patient services that they cannot continue and that it cannot be made safe, the local NHS has no choice in the matter.

The hon. Lady spoke about the number of different organisations involved. I understand her frustration, and I am interested in looking at how that has happened. Different bodies have different responsibilities. Bodies’ not having separate responsibilities for regulation, supply, commissioning and so on runs other risks. She is quite right, however, that having such separation and so many different parties involved means we run risks. If people are ducking and diving to evade responsibility—I will come to that in a second—that is a risk too. There is no easy way to do this, but I am quite clear that bodies have specific responsibilities that they should live up to; I do not think that that is necessarily wrong, provided they all know what they are doing. This situation was particularly difficult.

Nearly two years had passed since the CQC identified serious safety issues at the hospital, which seems more than adequate notice of the problems. The CQC said that it could not allow the service to continue indefinitely or allow a new application to open services at the hospital until the risks to patient safety had been addressed. Ensuring continuity of services for patients immediately became a priority. By midnight on 30 September, eight patients had been transferred to facilities in Middlesbrough, two went to another facility in York and 15 were discharged home. Arrangements were made for some 400 out-patients to continue to receive services at other locations in York. That was a considerable undertaking for the local NHS and achieved under great pressure. It was, of course, not what patients needed or wanted. The change and speculation about what would happen was inherently unsettling.

The NHS had to get matters back to an even keel as soon as possible, and that is what has been happening since. As the hon. Lady said, there has been a recovery of the section 136 services at the hospital. The NHS now has an interim solution in the adaptation of Peppermill Court. The in-patient service for older men with dementia, formerly provided at Peppermill Court, will now be provided at Selby. TEWV started work this week on the development of Peppermill Court as an adult in-patient unit and intends the refurbished 24-bed in-patient unit to be completed by the summer. Out-patient clinics continue to be held at a number of locations in York, and TEWV hopes to move all out-patient appointments back to Bootham Park hospital later this month.

That is where we are, with one further caveat: the business of trying to find out what has happened and why. My understanding is that an external review has been taking place, involving a number of different bodies that have had responsibility and are now looking at this. It seems almost impossible for the review to be concluded without its findings being made public, which would be a good opportunity for people to examine exactly what has been done. I want to see that review’s findings. I want to see the questions that the hon. Lady has raised today answered, and I want a good, clear line of sight as to what has happened, how it happened and, as far as lessons learned are concerned, how to ensure that this could not happen again in the rest of the system, as she says.

Based on what the review says, I will have further thoughts about the questions the hon. Lady has asked. Until we see the review’s findings, we will not know how complete it is or the answers to all the questions. Let us see the review’s findings first. If it is plain that the review is inadequate and leaves things unsatisfactorily handled and dealt with, with questions still arising, we will need to have a conversation at that stage. It might be appropriate, after the review has concluded, to have a round table and use it as an opportunity to have that conversation. However, until I have seen the review’s findings, I cannot decide whether there is anything further to be done at this stage. I want to ensure that the questions are answered, and that there are ramifications across the system. We also want to make progress with the new hospital. Let us see what comes out of the review, and then we will meet again.

On the hon. Lady’s request for a meeting, I have just been handed a note—we had an email from her office on 15 January. We are now going through the invitation process but have not responded.

If there has been correspondence that has not been answered, I apologise, but as the hon. Lady knows from my previous contact with her, she can come and see me, and we will sort that out as soon as we can.

Order. I thank Members for a very important debate, but I am afraid time has beaten us, and we must now move on.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Cycling: Government Investment

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government investment in cycling.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. As you may be aware, the debate was preambled by an online digital debate, supported by parliamentary outreach. Between us, we managed to reach more than 2.1 million Twitter accounts, the highest number ever for a digital debate. I wish to put on record my thanks to everyone who took part. It created a forum a lot of interesting and important questions about how we can deliver the Government’s ambition to support and promote cycling.

It is important to point out that the benefits of cycling reach across many different areas. There is a strong business and economic case for both local and national Government to invest in cycling. Sustrans has calculated that investment in cycling returns the equivalent of £9.76 for every £1 spent. Cycling also alleviates congestion and will help us cope with the forecast pressure on our roads due to population growth, particularly in northern cities—current estimates suggest a 55% increase in road congestion by 2040. Cyclescheme estimates that the national health service could save £2.5 billion if 10% of car journeys were made by bicycle instead, and that inactivity costs the United Kingdom economy £20 billion every year.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the many private sector companies that are encouraging cycling? For example, Evans Cycles, which is headquartered in my constituency, has done a fantastic job locally and nationally to ensure that we all get on our bikes and live a healthier lifestyle.

I agree entirely that the work of Evans and other organisations in the private sector is absolutely key to making sure that we have a healthy society. The contribution of responsible employers is vital to that.

For the reasons that I have highlighted and for many others, it is vital to have investment in cycling and to include it as part of an effective transport policy. I will touch on the benefits in my speech later. I wish to allow plenty of opportunity for other Members to make contributions as well, because I know that this is a really popular debate.

During the past five years, the Government have invested more in cycling than any of their predecessors, through cycling ambition grants and the local sustainable transport fund to name but two measures. I hope to see investment in cycling increase and continue on that trajectory. Despite the increase, more can always be done to improve the situation further. During the last Session, the Select Committee on Transport reported that although investment had increased, the splitting of funding between initiatives can make it difficult to be clear about the total budget for cycling. It was initially estimated at £2 per head, but with further investment it is now £4 per head of the population, compared with an estimated £75 per head for motorised transport.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, particularly as I invested in my fourth road bicycle this weekend, much to my wife’s chagrin—[Interruption.] Only my fourth. Will he reflect on the health benefits of cycling for a moment, considering that the British Heart Foundation has found that cyclists live an average of three years longer than those who take no exercise whatsoever? Admittedly, those extra three years are spent clad in skin-tight Lycra.

I am not sure that I want to comment on Lycra yet, but the health benefits of having an active lifestyle are well recognised.

I am now a member of the all-party cycling group. Its report called for the budget to be increased from its current very low level to a minimum of £10 per head, with the spending then increasing further to £20 per head of the population.

Having been a member of the all-party group, which produced the report on how we “Get Britain Cycling”, I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees with me, with the report’s findings and with the Select Committee on Health that the benefit of cycling is that active travel is the type of physical activity that people are most likely to sustain throughout their whole lives. We should really focus on that if we really are going to get Britain moving as well as cycling.

I absolutely agree, and this debate is a great opportunity to reinforce that message to the Minister.

The members of the all-party group are not the only ones who want investment at £20 per head; a Sustrans survey suggests that the public want to see investment of £26 per head on an annual basis. More important than pinpointing an exact figure for investment is ensuring that current investment provides good value for money and is adequately utilised by the main practitioner of the funds, which is local authorities. Making cycling ambitions a reality requires collaboration at all levels of government.

The Department for Transport is giving local authorities significant amounts of funding to improve their road infrastructure and to support cycling at a local level. That funding is not ring-fenced and allows local authorities to decide on and implement solutions that best suit their needs. I am pleased that the Government are encouraging all local authorities to have a cycling champion—an official to take cycling development forward in their area and to champion cycling in their area.

My hon. Friend is making an important argument. With regard to the cycling champions and cycling in the north, does he agree that one of the biggest boosts to cycling in the north came from the Tour de France being held in Yorkshire? That boost has now continued with the Tour de Yorkshire being set up. Does he agree that that is pressing the need for cycling and giving a boost to tourism locally?

Fantastic events such as the Tour de France do a wonderful job in promoting cycling. I will mention the different aspects of cycling that we perhaps need to focus on a little bit more.

Following the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), I want to report that the route for the women’s cycling tour in June, which was announced today, includes a stage through my constituency. It is the first time that has taken place in Warwickshire. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) think it is a good idea for such events to be spread throughout the country, as it provides an opportunity to promote the benefits of cycling across the UK?

I absolutely agree. It is vital that we have those events across the country. Seeing the beautiful Yorkshire countryside was wonderful, and I am sure that we will be inspired by the countryside in Warwickshire as well.

I feel greatly honoured not only to be able to participate in this debate, but to sit next to the former Sports Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who was there when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire and who did so much to help promote cycling. Importantly, she also paved the way towards making sure that outdoor recreation, of which recreational cycling is a very important part, was fully integrated into our new sport strategy, which focuses on outcomes, including physical activity. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) agree that the new sport strategy in its integrated form will be a major boost in helping to achieve many of the things that he seeks to achieve?

I absolutely agree. It is so important that we integrate the strategies with other policies and the work that various Departments are doing. It is absolutely vital to have that integration, because things can be so much more effective in that way.

Well done to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, and I declare my interest as a long-term cyclist. I have withdrawn my name from the speakers list to allow others to speak.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to commend civil society as well? That includes the Rhondda Tunnel Society, which is aiming for a huge project to establish the longest tunnel for pedestrians and cyclists in the whole of Europe, connecting the Rhondda and Afan valleys as part of the massive network for cycling that we have in the south Wales valleys. It is a tremendous initiative, just like the one in the lower Llynfi, which is trying to connect up urban settlements along strip valleys. Will he commend all those who put their petitions and their weight behind those campaigns?

I absolutely agree. It sounds like a wonderful idea—imagine going through a tunnel and having a beautiful environment ahead of you. It is such a wonderful thing to see happening.

I was talking about cycling champions, and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister just how many cycling champions are now in place. I dare say that many people do not recognise their own cycling champion; perhaps local authorities have not always implemented the idea.

As we move towards further devolution with the establishment of mayors—as a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament, I particularly appreciate that—we would all do well to follow London’s example of investing in infrastructure to make the roads safer for cyclists. In conjunction with that, we must ensure that our planning system makes cycling and walking an early consideration in any new street design, housing development or business park, and encourages local authorities to design road improvements with cyclists in mind. Although that is contained in the national planning policy framework as a mechanism for sustainable development, the existence of cycle lanes alone is not enough. The quality of cycle lanes in new developments can and should be improved.

A key factor in getting more people into cycling is the condition of roads and the availability of cycle lanes. Badly designed cycle lanes force cyclists to use the road. Too often, they are just half a path, and many cyclists choose to use the road because it is dangerous to weave in and out of pedestrians. Such paths also tend to stop at every junction, but cyclists want to maintain their momentum and not stop and start all the time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He talks about cycle lanes on roads. Does he agree that what we need includes investment in cycle trails, such as those around Cannock Chase? They are an excellent facility to encourage leisure cyclists and families.

Absolutely. We need a whole range. Emphasis on the roads is important, because people use them to go to the shops and so on, so there is a lot of functional utility to them, but we also need to encourage families to spend time together on their bicycles. It is a great way of having a sustainable cycling environment and culture.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He gave the excellent example of cycle routes on main roads. Does he agree that in many areas, particularly residential ones, rather than dedicated cycle routes, what works well is quietening back streets to reduce through traffic? My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) explains how her local authority has done that. That makes the environment safe for cyclists and pedestrians without the need for dedicated cycle routes.

I appreciate that. It sounds like a great use of local initiative. We must be very careful about prescribing too much and telling local authorities, “This is what you must deliver and how you must deliver it.” They must reflect local circumstances and ideas for the local community, because they can make a huge difference.

Many cyclists see how much priority councils sometimes give to maintaining cycle lanes—if a cycle lane is unusable, is it really a cycle lane? We often see overhanging branches, impassable potholes, large puddles, parked cars and poor-quality surfaces, which are especially noticeable for those on racers. I have a racer, and I cannot use some cycle lanes. I have to go on the road, simply because of the nature of the bike. I wish I had four bicycles so that I could choose one appropriate to the road surface. All cycle lanes should conform to the Department’s design guidance, but too often it seems the bare minimum is done rather that what most cyclists want. The design should be centred on cyclists’ needs. It would be better if more people cycled—if those who made decisions about cycle tracks were cyclists, they would understand better what should be implemented. It is particularly important to have good cycle tracks for disabled people who are able to cycle and use a bike as a mobility aid, but find that the infrastructure is working against them.

As a cyclist, I am acutely aware of the lack of good-quality bicycle racks, which, by their presence alone, promote cycling. If we create the right environment, the cyclists will come. Our local authorities have a duty to provide an environment suitable to support and promote cycling.

Does my hon. Friend agree that good-quality cycle racks, in quantity, are important at railway stations so that people can interact with another form of transport that might take them to London or another city?

Absolutely. It is important that cycling is part of a daily routine, perhaps as part of a journey if not the whole journey. I was thinking earlier about Bolton station, a major station serving many of my constituents, who have to travel all the way through the station to one of the platforms to drop their bike off at the cycle rack. Then on the return trip, instead of just being able to just pick it up at the entrance and off they go, they must make an awkward journey through rush-hour passenger traffic. It is important to have the right facilities at railway stations.

Naturally, interest in cycling naturally peaks with the Olympics and the Tour de France, which generate a great deal of interest in cycling as a sport, but we need to ensure that people feel that they can cycle as part of their daily routine. Good governance is essential in improving investment in cycling and the execution of that investment in local government and communities. Many hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s cycle to work scheme, which operates as a salary sacrifice employee benefit. Employers buy or lease cycling equipment from suppliers and hire it to their employees. Employees who participate in the scheme can save up to about 40% on the cost of a bicycle and cycling safety equipment. More than 600,000 employees have participated in the scheme to date. I have heard anecdotally that councils have a slightly lower take-up rate than the private sector, which is not only a concern for the health of council workers but is perhaps suggestive of councils’ enthusiasm for cycling.

The cycle to work scheme provides a mechanism to change the perception of cycling and sustainable travel and behaviour towards it. The Cycle to Work Alliance’s recent survey showed that 62% of participants were non-cyclists, novice cyclists or occasional cyclists before joining the scheme. Having joined, 79% of respondents described themselves as enthusiastic cyclists.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In Pendle, a huge number of firms have taken advantage of the Government’s scheme. One is Carradice cycle bags in Nelson, in my constituency. It has seen a huge increase in the number of employees cycling to work thanks to the Government’s initiative, so it is important to continue it in the years to come.

It is fantastic to hear about the impact of the Government’s scheme in the private sector, and about bosses encouraging people to live healthy lives on daily basis, which will make a difference to people. There will be all kinds of other benefits.

In setting out the process and timescales for the first cycling and walking investment strategy, the Government are seeking to ensure that local government and business partners design places and routes for people travelling by bicycle or on foot at a local level across the country. Members will be aware that funding for the strategy, which has not been done before, is to be allocated on the same basis as that for rail, motorways and main A roads, with £300 million dedicated to cycling and walking over the next five years.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Although a lot more people are cycling, which is good, does he agree that more effort needs to be made to ensure that people from black and minority ethnic communities and deprived communities also have that opportunity?

Absolutely. There is a perception that cycling is for young to middle-aged white men. Those who cycle in competitions and on the sporting side are representative of those who cycle in society as a whole, and we need to encourage people throughout society to cycle. That is why it is so important that London and our cities develop cycle routes.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I share his passion. In Otley, we are proud to have the women’s road cycling world champion, the wonderful Lizzie Armitstead, who was nominated for sports personality of the year. We welcome the fact that we have the first women’s Tour de Yorkshire starting in Otley this year. We must use that to get more women and girls cycling both recreationally and for sport.

That sounds like a fantastic opportunity to promote women’s cycling. So much more can be and is, I am pleased to hear, being done to promote role models to show that more people from all kinds of backgrounds can and should participate in cycling, both on the recreational side and for its utility in daily life.

I emphasise that the strategy is about a desire for walking and cycling to become the norm for short journeys or as part of longer journeys. Cycling does not need to be reserved exclusively for exercise—in other words, people pursue it as a sport and have to spend a huge amount of money on a bicycle and wear Lycra. In fact, it is the non-Lycra side of cycling that we need increasingly to promote. Cycling should be seen not as an expensive sport, but as a normal activity that people can undertake while wearing normal clothes and on an affordable bicycle.

Through the promotion of cycling, the Government are creating a catalyst for attitudinal change towards modes of transport and an active lifestyle. Integrating cycling into routines for small journeys, whether that involves popping to the local shop for groceries or cycling to work each day, can have a profound effect on health.

Sport England has reported that 27.7% of adults in England do less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. It is now feared that, for the first time, children’s life expectancy will be lower than that of their parents because of physical inactivity. Shockingly, one in six deaths is now linked to physical inactivity, which is on a par with smoking as a cause of death. Only yesterday, in the Select Committee on Science and Technology, we heard Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, giving evidence and describing us as living in an “obesogenic environment”—that does not sound very positive.

I hope that in this short time I have highlighted the considerable benefits of investment in cycling for the national economy, local government and community wellbeing and the considerable health benefits that people of any age, gender, fitness level, income or background can get from cycling. It is encouraging to know that, as a country, we are improving on our investment in and promotion of cycling. However, we must keep pressing the issue to avoid complacency and build on the achievements thus far. There is no quick fix or easy solution to create a change in cycling. We need strong leadership from central Government and commitment from local government. There is a great deal more that we can do to get Britain cycling.

I ask the Minister to respond by giving us an update on the Government’s cycling policy and by explaining his intentions and ambitions for the cycling and walking investment strategy, which will be published this summer, and what more the Government can do to ensure that the aim of a “cycling revolution” is achieved.

Nine hon. Members have put in to speak, and we will try to get through as many as possible. I am therefore happy to impose a three-minute limit on speeches. The House is likely to divide at 5 pm, in which case the sitting will be suspended for 15 minutes if there is one vote, but if we can get back here earlier, we will start earlier.

I shall be brief to allow as many colleagues to speak as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on securing the debate and on the very salient points that he made. This is the umpteenth debate that we have had in the House since I was elected in 1997, and I want my remarks to focus on the financial commitment to this agenda.

The report by the all-party group in the last Parliament was an important report that all the Back-Bench members signed up to. The Prime Minister declared that he wanted to see a cycling revolution in this country. The Minister is a man who, thankfully, has been in the job for some time, so he knows about it. I believe that he is sincerely committed to this agenda.

We made it clear that the essential components of a successful cycling strategy were political leadership and a sustained funding commitment. The hon. Member for Bolton West was partly right when he talked about the level of funding that the Government have now committed, but the figure that he referred to included London, and London massively skews the overall figures. The overall amount that we are currently being offered in terms of cycling investment is still little more than £1 per head per year, in contrast to the £10 per head per year that the all-party group report said was a starting point, leading to £20, which is equivalent to what most other European countries spend.

We will not deliver the cycling revolution that the Prime Minister spoke about without significant extra resources for cycling. My one request of the Minister is that he explain something that he and predecessors have not really been able to explain to me. We are talking about such a tiny amount of money—a fraction of his roads budget, for example, and a fraction of his overall strategic transport budget. All he would need to do is reallocate a very small amount of money that is already committed to other things—we are not asking for more money from the Treasury—to cycling, and he would deliver the cycling revolution that the Prime Minister says he wants, so my simple question for when the Minister responds is: why can they not do that?

When the House divides, could I see the Minister, the shadow Minister and the Scottish National party spokesman here?

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I declare an interest: I am a cyclist and I am a co-chair of the all-party cycling group. But as has already been intimated, the problem is that I am far too typical. The reality of cycling in the UK is that it is disproportionately the preserve of young to middle-aged males. We will be sure that we have done a half-decent job on cycling only when we have as many women as men cycling in our country, and we will know that we have done an excellent job only if the sight of women cycling with their children becomes far more routine than it is now.

The case for cycling is not some ill thought out, muddle-headed notion; it is hard-headed, practical and robust. As we have heard, the economic case is clear, particularly when it comes to utility cycling—by that I mean the daily commute or short journeys. A healthier population places a smaller burden on the NHS and, as has been said, people who cycle regularly in middle age typically enjoy a level of fitness equivalent to that of someone 10 years younger. That makes my hon. Friend about 25, I think—close.

There are so many advantages to cycling, but I cannot go through them all now. However, when we are calling for more funding, it is in reality a call for investment that over time will yield a good return for our society, for the taxpayer and for the planet. I believe that the Government are committed to increasing cycling participation. We have had very useful and constructive meetings. However, I gently suggest that funding sources for cycling are not as clear as they might be, because they are divided across various pots: the Highways England cycling fund, the Bikeability pot, the cycle city ambition grants, the access fund and the local growth fund. I invite the Government to clarify the available funding, so that we can be absolutely clear on what funding exists for cycling and what scope exists for improving it in our country.

The key ask, the bottom line, is that we will get a step change in cycling participation only if we invest in segregated highways on our urban arterial routes. Cyclists need that physical separation to feel truly safe. There is no way I would take my children out in a cycle trailer without one, and that is a shame. We need to look at segregation and at 20-mph speed limits in residential areas if possible.

I am very grateful for the work the Government have done so far. I urge them to go further and, in particular, to clarify the funding streams, because the prize for our society, for taxpayers and for the planet is great indeed.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on initiating it and thank him as well.

Cycling has been a somewhat surprising and unsung hero of the emerging leisure industry in Northern Ireland. When I come to this Chamber to speak on anything, I always try to give a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that this is a devolved matter, but we are aware of the importance of cycling. We have come from the dark days to host the start of the famous Giro d’Italia, which went through my constituency, which attracted many people for the charity ride—those who perhaps were not ardent cyclists, but wanted to participate in the charity part—and which attracted many people to watch it as well. There is a plethora of outstandingly beautiful routes, including the Comber Greenway in my constituency. We have one route from Comber through to Dundonald. It was organised by and paid for by Sustrans. The great thing about it was that it gave people on bikes as well as pedestrians a chance to follow their sport in a safe fashion.

We have the Mourne coastal route and a whole host of coastal roads across the area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency of Strangford. North Down Cycling Club regularly has its races up and down the Ards peninsula. Cycling provides a boost not only to the leisure industry, but to tourism. We are part of the fight against obesity.

Just this week, my party colleague Michelle McIlveen, an MLA and Minister for Regional Development, has launched what has been hailed by local cycle campaigners as a “cycling revolution.” It is always good in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, in Ireland—to say we are having a revolution that involves not guns, but cycling. We have spent some £800,000 on the trial scheme, which includes three cycling routes through Belfast. One route links the east to the west, which is important because it unites Unionists and nationalists. It brings the communities together. Cycling has not just been a leisure activity; it has united the communities of both sides of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Greenways campaigner, Jonathan Hobbs, hailed the plans as a “radical” shift in the right direction, commenting:

“These plans were produced by a dedicated Cycling Unit which is now working across government with a growing budget”.

Belfast Bikes recently received its 150,000th journey, so there is an impending cycle revolution. Cycling lanes in Belfast are clearly used, and cycling is a popular pastime for enjoyment and recreation.

All those things provide the momentum that has led to cycling taking off in Northern Ireland. As well as all the positive developments, the Stormont Assembly has an all-party group on cycling. Only by investing in safe cycle routes, as many of my party colleagues have done in Belfast, can we begin to promote cycling not only as a recreational activity, but as a viable alternative form of transport. I wholly support this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West on securing it. I look forward to hearing other thoughts from people across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where we are better together.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) for securing this debate.

As a cyclist myself, although I do not wear Lycra, I am fortunate to live in Portsmouth, a compact, flat city in a beautiful setting, with the sea, two harbours and the Hampshire downs behind it. Portsmouth should be a paradise for cyclists, but in fact its casualty rate for cyclists is one of the highest in the country; indeed, it was second only to London in 2014. During a five-year period, 157 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on our streets, and quite rightly local cyclists are lobbying strongly for improvements to our roads, and for cultural change to bring that terrible figure down.

We have some great national groups fighting for cyclists, such as the CTC, but the figure I have just quoted comes from our excellent local cyclists group, the Portsmouth Cycle Forum. It has produced a strategy document called “A City to Share”. The vision of that document, and mine, is to make Portsmouth the cycling capital of the UK, and given what I said a moment ago about the city’s geography, people will see why that makes sense. The strategy document identifies five goals: a safer city; improved health outcomes; a stronger local economy; a better environment; and a more liveable city for everyone, not just cyclists.

Another source of inspiration for everyone is the Tour de France, which Portsmouth City Council hopes to bring back to our streets. We were lucky to be visited by the Tour over 20 years ago, and I know that the cyclists and organisers had a fantastic time touring our historic streets in Portsmouth and the beautiful Hampshire countryside. Since then, Portsmouth has seen a huge amount of renewal and the city would like to have le Grand Départ in 2019, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings. Any help the Minister can give to ensure that that event comes to Portsmouth would be helpful, not least to tourism. Any help—financial or otherwise—would be great.

I hope that, through the access fund, it will be possible to get support for a thorough survey in Portsmouth, so that we can match up the vision set out in “A City to Share” with the city council’s road strategy. We need to do that because the roads in Portsmouth are under growing pressure.

Finally, while we are debating cycling here in the context of what the UK Government can do, I want to remind everyone that there are all sorts of cycling schemes operating across the EU. Having recently pointed Portsmouth City Council in the direction of one such scheme, called FLOW, I want to make sure that everyone is getting the best out of the various programmes in Europe. We can learn a lot from best practice on the continent but, as with many other areas of policy, I am not sure that we are yet very good at ensuring that we tap into all the resources that are available through the European Union.