Wednesday 24 February 2016
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered biomass as a source of renewable energy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am delighted to have secured this important and timely debate. I am also thrilled that, at this early hour, lots of colleagues from across parties and borders have come to participate.
It has been less than a year since the Conservative party secured a clear mandate from the British people to govern. One of the core commitments that we made in the run-up to the general election, which we repeat regularly, is that it is important to keep energy bills as low as possible for consumers and to promote competition in the energy market. Indeed, those same themes featured in the speech given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to the Institute of Civil Engineers in November. It was referred to as the “reset” speech because it set out the Government’s direction of travel on energy policy over the coming years.
The two themes of affordability and competition are at the core of today’s debate. Like many of us, I am fully committed to ensuring that my constituents have an energy grid that is secure, reliable and affordable. The question, of course, is how we go about achieving that. Last week NERA, an independent economic research consultancy, and Imperial College London published a significant and insightful piece of research that considered the very issues we are discussing. The research was commissioned by Drax, which, as many Members will realise by now—if they do not, they have not been listening very hard for the past six years—operates a power station in my constituency. I grew up looking at the cooling towers. Drax power station generates between 8% and 14% of the UK’s electricity and, perhaps surprisingly, it is the UK’s single largest source of renewable energy thanks to its gradual conversion away from coal to sustainable biomass generation.
The report revealed that around £2 billion-worth of savings could be passed on to the consumer if the Government allowed biomass to compete in future renewable auctions. That £2 billion would equate to an average saving on each and every household bill throughout the land of between £73 and £84. That saving, which I believe any reasonable person—energy expert or otherwise —would argue is significant, stems from the fact that on a whole-system cost basis, biomass is without doubt the cheapest form of renewable energy available to us today. The concept of whole-system cost is important. It has attracted a lot of interest and discussion in recent months and, on that basis, merits further consideration today.
Much of current Government policy is skewed towards assessing the affordability of different technologies based on what is known as the levelised cost, a narrow metric that only captures the cost of an energy project from construction through its lifetime. However, as the NERA report highlights, a number of globalised costs sit outside the umbrella of levelised costs and are not currently captured by Government policy. I think I can fairly describe them as hidden costs. They are associated with more and more intermittent renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, coming on to the grid, and are ultimately passed on to our energy bills. For example, when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining, which it tends to do on these islands, the energy generated by wind and solar drops significantly. That forces the hand of National Grid, the system operator, to pay a back-up generator—usually gas—to switch on and generate power to fill the void. Clearly that action comes with an associated cost.
Because intermittent renewables are unreliable, they require much larger amounts of back-up than traditional coal or nuclear power stations, which have far greater control over how much electricity they generate and when. Again, that comes with an associated cost. The failure to capture those costs when evaluating the price tags of different renewables is doubly disadvantageous. On the one hand, intermittent technologies benefit by looking cheaper on paper than they really are; on the other hand, technologies that are more flexible and reliable and have higher availability are handicapped by not being able to demonstrate the financial benefits and value they bring to the system. That is unquestionably the very definition of a perverse outcome.
If the associated costs, which are great, were added up properly and allocated proportionately to the technologies that generate them, the NERA-Imperial report shows that one renewable technology emerges as considerably more affordable than any other: biomass generation. I should say that I shall focus my comments largely on power generation. I understand that colleagues may wish to discuss the heat side of biomass, which is just as important, but if they will forgive me, I will confine my remarks to the generation side.
The report shows that if a renewable auction was held later this year and the Government allowed biomass to compete with other renewables on a level playing field, it could deliver a strike price that was between £8 and £13 per megawatt-hour cheaper than onshore wind, and £43 per megawatt-hour cheaper than offshore wind. Why is biomass so much cheaper than other technologies when the hidden system costs are taken into consideration? One of the principal reasons is that biomass energy is a flexible source of generation, which can ramp up or down the levels of electricity it produces at short notice in response to the demands of the energy grid. Having that flexibility in place, on the scale that a full power station provides, is hugely important. In fact, the more flexibility we have in the system in the coming decades, the lower will be the costs we incur as more and more intermittent renewables come on to the grid.
The Committee on Climate Change, an independent and well-respected voice on energy issues, stated in its recent report on the future of the UK power sector:
“Flexibility can help to meet the challenges of integrating low-carbon technologies. Flexibility can provide low-carbon sources of system reserve and response to minimise the need for partloaded unabated gas plant, with associated emissions savings. Flexible systems also allow renewables and nuclear output to better match demand by shifting demand…supply…or both”.
In the UK, only one other technology can provide the same level and scale of flexibility as biomass, and that is gas generation. However, as its usage has demonstrated over recent years, biomass has a far lower carbon footprint than gas on a life-cycle basis. Furthermore, as many colleagues will be aware, because of low commodity prices the market conditions are currently sufficiently challenging that the economics of building new gas-fired power stations from scratch does not stack up. There has been a dearth of new plants coming forward.
That brings me to the second reason why biomass is so much cheaper on a whole-system costs basis. Unlike many of the options touted as the solutions to our energy future—such as new nuclear, new gas, new wind and new solar—biomass generation re-uses the infrastructure we already have in place by converting and upgrading power stations to use compressed wood pellets instead of coal. Some colleagues present are old enough to remember the Central Electricity Generating Board building coal power stations, which are scattered all around the country—or rather, at least some of them are left. I vividly remember Drax B being built; in fact, members of my family were involved in its construction. Using such assets, which the taxpayer has already paid for, negates the need to build expensive new transmission lines or spend money to make existing transmission infrastructure more resilient.
All that is particularly pertinent given the fact that we are going through a volatile period when coal power stations are closing across the country. Eggborough in my constituency announced its intention to consult on closure, and Ferrybridge, just across the border, is going. In recent months, Fiddlers Ferry and Rugeley announced their intention to close or, at best, to operate on a very limited basis. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) is here, as she represents Rugeley and is very concerned about the future of that plant and its workforce.
Such closures are terrible news for the communities in those areas and for the UK’s energy security. Since the beginning of this year, 2.5 GW of coal closures have been announced on top of the 4.9 GW announced last year, so a significant amount of power is coming off the grid. Those closures are creating genuine concerns about security of supply, and in recent months have forced National Grid to rely on expensive emergency measures to manage the grid and keep our lights on—the most recent event was in November. I am sure colleagues will be in equal measure surprised and concerned to hear that Drax is the last power station in the UK, and the only station between Yorkshire and Iceland, that can provide a black-start service, which is effectively a kick-start to the grid in the event of a blackout.
If the Government are committed to taking coal off the grid by 2025, as they have indicated, the quickest and most affordable way to do so is to enable more coal power stations to convert to biomass. That is not only the quickest and cheapest way to decarbonise our power sector, but a means of keeping existing stations on the grid, thereby ensuring that the communities that have enjoyed the social and economic benefits from those power stations for many years can continue to do so. There is a clear and compelling case, based on the analysis by NERA and Imperial College, for the Government to look hard at whole-system costs when considering which technologies to back or to allow to bid. I understand that the Department commissioned Frontier Economics to do work on that topic, which is very welcome, and that the Minister committed to publishing the results of that report in the first half of this year. That is unquestionably a step in the right direction and I thank her for it, but will she assure hon. Members that her Department will utilise the body of research on whole-system costs to inform Government policy?
The Secretary of State said clearly in her reset speech in November that,
“we also want intermittent generators to be responsible for the pressures they add to the system when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine. Only when different technologies face their full costs can we achieve a more competitive market”—
hear, hear. Does the Minister agree that this issue can be sensibly addressed through the policy options outlined in the NERA-Imperial report? It states that we should introduce either an administrative solution that handicaps renewable technologies in future contracts for difference auctions based on their systems cost, or a market-based solution that allows renewables to bid into the capacity market and CfD auctions, thereby exposing them to market prices that better reflect their true system costs.
Will the Minister allow biomass to compete in upcoming CfD auctions, either on a level playing field—which seems perfectly reasonable—or on the terms I just described? Alternatively, for the sake of simplicity and expediency, will she work with the existing CfD pot structure that she inherited from the coalition? The CfD auctions are designed around three pots: one for established technologies such as onshore wind, one for less-established, higher-risk technologies such as offshore wind, and one for biomass. Why do the Government not simply transfer a portion of the funding allocated to pot 2 to the dedicated biomass pot in this autumn’s CfD auction? The Department could do that very simply without any significant regulatory or legislative changes. It would complement, rather than undermine, the Government’s strategy for supporting offshore wind by producing the system benefits that I described, which would benefit all generators in the system. That solution would also mean that fewer power stations have to join what one industry analyst recently referred to as
“the Strategic Balancing Reserve dole queue”—
an absurd situation in which renewables are rewarded for forcing coal off the grid, while National Grid has to pay through the nose for an SBR contract to ensure that coal power stations remain available as a contingency option.
As I said earlier, up to £2.2 billion-worth of savings could be passed on to the consumer by allowing just 500 MW of further biomass conversion—effectively one unit. The greater flexibility that biomass provides to the system will make it cheaper to integrate other intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar, into the grid, if that is the Government’s strategy.
My hon. Friend is making a very important speech about biomass and the fact that it is the only dispatchable renewable. Will the Minister address the fact that the Government removed all subsidies from biomass stations unless they are 100% biomass? Fiddlers Ferry on my patch was keen to combine coal and biomass in the same unit, but there is no subsidy for that. Is there not a risk that the Government are making the perfect the enemy of the good?
My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point. Many of the stations that generate from biomass—certainly Drax, two of whose units now generate solely from biomass—have used coal firing as a way of learning about the technology. That is a perfectly sensible thing for a power station to want to do. I, for one, would like to see support in that area, so that is a particularly good point.
Converting stations to biomass is the quickest, most affordable way to get coal off the system and achieve what the Department says it wants to achieve. In less than three years, Drax has become the largest decarbonisation project in Europe; previously, it was called the dirtiest power station in Europe. It generates 12% of our renewable energy. I am delighted that the company has managed to protect the 850 or so jobs that are currently based in the power station, although colleagues may have read a Telegraph article this week that appears to imply that half of the station is under threat. I hope the Minister and her Department noticed that, because such threats are not normally hollow.
The company re-skilled its employees in the use of that exciting new renewable fuel in the place of coal, and invested hundreds of millions of pounds in a supply chain that includes new import facilities, four of our ports and 200 new rail wagons, which I had the pleasure of launching at the National Railway Museum. Those rail wagons, which hon. Members will have seen adorning and adding to the beauty of the north and east Yorkshire countryside, were purchased from Britain’s last independent rail wagon manufacturer, WH Davis. It really does add value to the UK economy. The Chancellor often refers to the northern powerhouse. The UK biomass industry is unquestionably the power behind the northern powerhouse, and it will continue to power it for many years to come.
These issues are at the core of a number of concepts that I hold dear as a Conservative: competition, security and fairness. The clock is ticking, so the Government must take meaningful and decisive action. They have committed to holding three CfD auctions between now and 2020, the first of which is due at the end of the year. For the reasons I have outlined, if the Government allow biomass to compete in those auctions on a level playing field with other technologies, they could save taxpayers billions of pounds and make the UK energy grid more secure in the process. To continue with the status quo would be inconsistent with my party’s oft-repeated commitment to securing the country’s renewable future at the least cost to consumers. I urge the Minister and the Government to think carefully about this issue.
Four Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at around 10.30 am, so if Members can keep their contributions to around 10 minutes, I would much appreciate it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for bringing forward this debate and for his continued work on biomass and renewable energy. I hope we can put cross-party pressure on the Government to do the right thing by the electorate of the United Kingdom.
It will be apparent to everyone present today that unabated climate change presents a major challenge to legislators in the UK and across the world. We must address the environmental health of our planet and the decarbonisation of our energy supply as priorities. Tackling the problem will require an unprecedented level of international co-operation. In some instances, our best course of action is to provide a positive example for other nations to follow, and I am proud of what Scotland has been able to achieve so far.
The Scottish Government are on track to meet their 42% emissions reduction target by 2020, and around half of Scotland’s current energy consumption is supplied by renewable wind power. We have also outperformed the UK on total emission reductions from a 1990 baseline in every year since 2010, and Sweden is the only European Union state to have outperformed Scotland. Professor Jim Skea, a member of the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change, said:
“If you divide where Scotland is now, versus where it was in 1990, it is actually among the world leaders. That is unambiguous.”
The Scottish Government aim to have 100% of our electricity consumption generated from renewable sources by 2020. If we are to meet that ambitious target, biomass must play a key role in that transition. I welcome the Scottish Government’s strong commitment to this energy source.
Thanks in part to that support, over 2,000 jobs in Scotland are now based in the biomass sector, and Scottish Renewables believes that the industry has
“massive potential for growth in the future.”
West Coast Woodfuels, a company located in my constituency of Inverclyde, is one such organisation, and it shows the potential for growth in the biomass sector. Founded by farmer Alastair McIntyre, it produces woodchip that is dried in specialised kilns and stored on site. The raw timber for the operation comes primarily from local and sustainable sources. The rise in demand means that the company is now selling its product to a range of public and private sector customers. The example of West Coast Woodfuels shows that biomass is most efficient as a source of energy when the producer and customer are located close to each other. The environmental benefits of biomass are reduced if stocks of wood are hauled great distances across the country to be turned into woodchip, only to be transported on as a source of fuel. A strong local market for biomass fuel, close to producers, minimises carbon emissions and is a healthier option for our environment.
The economic benefits to our local economies should also be self-evident. Biomass plants create jobs in the construction, operation and maintenance of facilities. Employment opportunities are also created in the supply chain, not only through transportation but in growing and harvesting raw materials. The benefits extend beyond the biomass industry and into the wider renewables sector. A report issued by NERA and Imperial College London concluded that biomass
“is a reliable and flexible power source that provides firm capacity. Including biomass as part of the generation mix is likely to lower the costs associated with adding more wind and solar power to the system. This means that it can enable the integration of other intermittent renewable technologies (by providing back up generation), and help to facilitate the phasing out of old coal-fired power stations, whose closure is putting pressure on security of supply.”
If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of the biomass sector, adequate support must be forthcoming from the UK Government.
I share the concerns of those in the renewables sector that the decline in UK Government support not only prevents the industry from meeting its full potential, but damages investor confidence. Had the UK Government maintained their previous levels of support, the viability of many projects would not be in question. The cuts undermine Scotland’s renewables ambition, they are bad for our environment, and they are hurting businesses and consumers in my constituency.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was widespread disappointment at the Government’s bringing forward of the closure date for the renewable heat incentive? It has caused problems for the poultry sector and major difficulties for many farmers, who will not be able to avail themselves of the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman has either read my mind or read my speech over my shoulder, because I was about to move on to the renewable heat incentive. I was particularly disappointed by the Chancellor’s announcement that spending on the RHI would be some £690 million less than previously forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. The UK Government’s own reports have shown that the RHI has been an important tool in pushing forward the decarbonisation agenda. Data issued by the Department of Energy and Climate Change found that two thirds of users would not have installed renewable heat technology without the RHI. It is therefore difficult to understand why the UK Government feel it necessary to make these changes, which are being imposed against expert industry advice and to the detriment of jobs, investment and the environment.
I regret that we can only scratch the surface of this broad subject in the time available today. I would like to discuss a range of further issues given the opportunity, including how best to incentivise biomass use, address air quality concerns and ensure biomass producers are fairly treated through the tendering and procurement process. Most importantly, I want to see the UK Government abandon their policy of managed decline in support for renewables.
The hon. Gentleman has a list of things that the UK Government need to do to enable Scotland to meet its ambitious renewables targets, but, as of this morning, we have a fiscal framework. Is he aware that the Scottish Government intend to put money into such schemes? Presumably they can now do that.
I have not read the entirety of the fiscal framework at this point in time, but there are some issues that are reserved and will have to be handled through Westminster.
Maybe I am misinformed, but my understanding is that this is a reserved matter, but the Scottish Government will be free to invest in their own choices. If this was one of those choices, they could do so.
The Scottish Government will now have more powers to raise taxes and spend tax revenue as they feel fit for the benefit of the people of Scotland.
My understanding of the devolution framework is that when something is within the competence of the UK Government, the Scottish Government are unable to invest in it. There are specific exemptions in the Scotland Bill for topping up benefits, but there is nothing about energy. We are talking in a purely hypothetical way about something that is impossible.
Order. It is not really in order to intervene on an intervention, unless Mr Cowan allows you to do so. Are you allowing Mr Mowat to intervene, Mr Cowan?
I was simply slow in getting back to my feet; I have absolutely no issue with the hon. Gentleman intervening. It is a topic of conversation, but when Scotland is independent, we will then take care of our own energy resources and will use them in a way that is most efficient for the people of Scotland. Until that time, there are certain issues that will remain reserved to Westminster and we will have limited power over what we can do about it.
Most importantly, I want the UK Government to abandon their policy of managed decline in support for renewables. Scotland is ambitious and we take the responsibility to tackle climate change seriously. It is time for the UK Government to do likewise.
It is an incredible pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on securing the debate and on providing such a compelling argument for the benefits of biomass.
I will talk a little about coal-fired power stations and then about biomass conversion. Rugeley, in my constituency —and where I live—has been generating power since the 1960s; Rugeley A opened in 1961, taking coal from the local Lea Hall colliery, and Rugeley B was commissioned in 1970. Iconic power station cooling towers have therefore dominated our skyline for decades. In fact, I grew up looking at cooling towers, as my hon. Friend did, but along the Trent, and today I look out at them in Rugeley.
Rugeley A was decommissioned and demolished in the 1990s, leaving Rugeley B as the last remaining power station in the town; it continues to be coal-fired. Earlier this month, however, its owners, Engie, announced the probable closure of Rugeley B in the summer. That is incredibly disappointing news and a major blow to Rugeley and our community and, in particular, to the 150 employees, the contractors and the wider supply chain. Our immediate focus must be on support for all those affected at such a difficult time.
That news came only a week after the announcement of the scaling back of the coal-fired power station at Fiddlers Ferry in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat). Furthermore, over the past few months, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned, about five of the small number of coal-fired power stations in the country have announced that they will close or partially close. The Government have already declared their intention to phase out coal-fired generation by 2025, but the closure or part-closure of those power stations demonstrates the real challenges that we face in the short term, let alone the medium term. The potential closure of Rugeley is a function of deteriorating market conditions in recent years, with a combination of a fall in power prices and an increase in carbon costs.
The Rugeley closure will see 150 employees and at least the same number, if not more, of contractors losing their jobs. There will also be a negative impact on the broader supply chain, not only for the Rugeley area in Staffordshire and the midlands, but going wider to include ports and the freight industry. The closure not only puts jobs at risk, but puts further pressure on energy security—simply keeping the lights on—because Rugeley B alone provides electricity for about 0.5 million homes. Consider that in the context of the other possible power station closures in the country.
I appreciate the desire to move towards renewable energy such as wind and solar, but it does not necessarily offer the same reliability or flexibility as other forms of energy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty said earlier, we are reliant on the wind blowing or the sun shining for those forms of renewable energy, but biomass, as a low-carbon renewable energy source, provides both reliability and flexibility. To date, however, the benefits of biomass unfortunately do not appear to have been fully recognised, although, as my hon. Friend outlined, biomass has huge benefits. Biomass, though, is not necessarily playing on a level playing field versus wind and solar, because the whole-system costs are not being considered.
The owners of Rugeley B investigated the conversion from coal to biomass fuel in 2012 but made the decision in 2013 not to pursue the option. Given the closure of coal-fired power stations throughout the country, I believe that there is a real need for the Government to revisit their biomass policy, and quickly. Such power stations provide the infrastructure for potential conversion to biomass, and their workforces have the specialist skills required to operate a power station.
Business rates are incurred up until the point at which a power station is demolished, so there is no incentive to retain the infrastructure—in fact, quite the opposite, because the incentive to demolish quickly is the key issue. Once the power stations are closed and demolished, that’s it, because the infrastructure that could otherwise be used to support alternatives such as biomass is gone. I therefore have a question for the Minister. At a time when market conditions seem to be accelerating the closure of coal-fired power stations, what are the Government doing to fully investigate biomass as a realistic alternative to other renewables, and to create policies to encourage and incentivise the conversion of those last remaining coal-fired power stations before they are gone forever?
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsley (Nigel Adams)—
Will the hon. Gentleman say that again?
He has it three times on the record—that’s important.
Along with the hon. Gentleman, I share a constituency interest in biomass and a general interest in energy. It is important to have the debate at this time, because we need to get a proper energy mix back on the agenda. We need that balanced agenda and I disagreed with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks when he talked about intermittent wind, because we need wind as part of the mix.
We have had this debate before, but we need to have periods when we have to switch some of our generation off. Although I hope for a long, hot summer with no wind, which many of us want for the tourism industry and everything else, one of the best ways to do things is to have wind as an intermittent back-up system, because it is cheaper to switch wind generation off than it is to switch off gas, biomass or nuclear-powered power stations. We need to start talking, and to build a consensus on a balance of energy sources for the country. We had such a consensus in the 1990s and right through until recently.
I worry about that, and the Minister knows my views, because I genuinely want to achieve the Government’s goal of an affordable, secure and low-carbon energy economy. To achieve it we need the broadest suite of energy sources. Biomass has huge potential to be part of that mix, and that is what I will talk about. There has been uncertainty with solar and uncertainty created on onshore wind, which damages not only energy production but the supply chain in the country. We need a forthright debate on the long term, yes, but we still need long-term policies for the renewables sector.
I am by choice pro-nuclear, pro-renewables and pro energy efficiency. I see no contradiction in that, because we need the three of them. One of the reasons why Scotland is reaching its low-carbon renewables target was not mentioned by our colleague from Scotland who spoke before me—I did not catch his constituency either, so he might want to intervene to name it—and that is that nuclear back-up and the extension of nuclear are helping to get emissions down.
Nuclear is an important part of the mix. In my constituency we have had 44 years of safe nuclear generation, although it has now come to an end, with high-quality jobs and a helpful contribution to the country’s energy security. With Hitachi and the Horizon project, we are proceeding with a new nuclear build in my constituency. I hope that that, too, will provide decades of quality jobs and of help to the country’s energy security.
I am disappointed that carbon capture and storage is off the agenda, because clean coal and gas could also play their part in the transition to a fully low-carbon economy. However, CCS is not on the agenda. What is on the agenda is the opportunity to have co-firing biomass plants for the future and I very much support that.
My constituency has been dubbed the energy island, a concept that I support, because we had early prototypes of onshore wind—they were much smaller than is proposed now. We have also had safe nuclear generation for 40 years, and we have projects in the pipeline for tidal power as well as the biomass project that I will talk about in my remaining time. It is a £1 billion project for not just a biomass station but an eco-park. Under the proposal we will have 299 MW produced from biomass and linked to that will be aquaculture, with a large fish farm and the opportunity to produce fertiliser at the farm for use in food production. It is a very forward-thinking project, so when we talk about building power stations in our areas, we should build eco-parks and link them into district heating systems in the future, so that there is no waste. Such areas really would be low carbon, with heat retained in them, which limits the effects of climate change.
The food part is important. There will also be research and development at the eco-park and it is important that we do the R and D in this country and do not just import that from other countries. We need to work at the cutting edge of new technologies, and biomass and eco-parks are one way forward.
The 299 MW plant—a very large plant—will be five 60 MW units in a module form that will be gasified on site. I understand that biomass sourcing is controversial. Orthios is working with DECC, which has already given consent for the project, which is under way—I was there at the launch of the site. In his opening remarks the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty talked about using existing infrastructure. The project is on the site of a former large Anglesey aluminium smelter, so it is an industrial site that is linked to a jetty that can bring in the biomass from abroad, but I am told that it will use locally sourced biomass from the UK as well. The biomass to be brought in will be managed waste from forests and other areas, which is less controversial than just cutting down trees and burning them. Biomass must be managed. I understand that the opponents of biomass feel that it causes deforestation, but there are ways of using waste materials that can be converted into biomass.
I realise that there is a time constraint, and that another hon. Member wants to speak, but there is the jobs aspect, which was touched on. New green energy jobs can be created if we go forward with biomass technology, many of which can be for retrained people as well as for apprentices. As I said, they can be in research and development. In the construction phase of the Orthios project in my constituency there will be 1,200 construction jobs and then 550 permanent jobs.
I was at the launch a couple of weeks ago with apprentices who have already been taken on, and with young people from the schools. We must say to the young people that climate change is real—they get it even if many other generations do not—and there is a future for them in producing green, low-carbon energy. The United Kingdom can be world leaders, and Wales and my island of Anglesey in particular can pioneer many of the technologies.
I commend what the Scottish Government have done in wind because that project was not popular, but I would add that the renewables obligation allows the Scottish Government to top up renewables funding. They have done that as a way to entice companies in the first place.
That was allowed under the previous regime, but the power over the renewables obligation was brought back to Westminster and the scheme has been closed prematurely despite an explicit promise. While that was a sensible way of dealing with things that allowed for different development, unfortunately that opportunity is now closed.
I was involved in some of the Government talks when the renewables obligation was set up and it did have that flexibility, so it is a shame if that has been taken away, because the devolved Administrations could pioneer their own sources and technologies. They and the UK could work together to make the UK a world leader in technology. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the flexibility was there. I am glad for the correction.
We need to have low-carbon energy going forward and biomass is a huge part of that. I say to the Minister that the auctions are a complicated process. I sat on an Energy Bill Committee in the previous Parliament in which many of us—including the Ministers, who are no longer Ministers in that Department—found them confusing and complicated. We need to simplify them, because if we do not we could lose out on innovative schemes and that worries me. As the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty said, we need a level playing field for biomass, or indeed a special category for it so that we can develop the technology to play a part in the mix going forward. We need a truly consensual approach to our energy policies, with them not determined by five-year electoral cycles. They need to be in the long-term interest and work towards climate change.
I was at the COP 21, where there was a mixed reaction to Britain. Yes, the Secretary of State was trumpeting the fact that we are closing down our coal stations, but there was also real concern about the cuts to our renewables. What I want to see is real investment in low-carbon energy going forward. I repeat that that should be in new nuclear, in renewables and in energy efficiency measures so that, on climate change, the United Kingdom can hold its head up proudly and say, “We are world leaders.” I want to see biomass as part of that and I hope that when the Minister responds she will give special consideration to biomass, because the project I have outlined in my constituency and what we have heard from other hon. Members is good for Britain and good for climate change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. In contrast to the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), I will focus more on combined heat and power, which he mentioned earlier. I thank him for bringing the debate on this critical issue to the House. I am glad to see it getting the attention that it so richly deserves.
The Scottish National party is highly supportive of the increasing role that biomass heat and combined heat and power schemes are playing in reducing CO2 emissions. Biomass has played a vital part in putting Scotland on track to meet its 42% emissions reduction target by 2020 ahead of schedule, which was touched on eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan). Of course, biomass is the oldest source of renewable energy.
Biomass is the only other naturally occurring, energy-containing carbon resource known that is large enough to be used as a substitute for fossil fuels. Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is renewable, in the sense that only a short period of time is required to replace what is used as an energy resource. Biomass is also held to be carbon neutral, in that the amount of carbon absorbed in growing it is equivalent to the amount produced when burned for energy. The intermittency of solar and wind and the role that biomass can play in our overall energy solution have been well commented on, so I will not take them further than that.
The Scottish Government have shown a strong political commitment to biomass as a renewable energy resource. The UK’s largest biomass combined heat and power plant in Markinch, in the kingdom of Fife, received significant funding from the Scottish Government. The plant not only is an asset to Scotland but will help deliver the target of 11% of non-electrical heat demand by renewable sources by 2020, yet the UK Government’s decisions continue to undermine the UK’s and Scotland’s renewables commitments—more on that later.
The Association for Decentralised Energy has provided information on CHP, CfDs and the RHI, which are issues that have been touched on by speakers today. Combined heat and power can use renewable and non-renewable fuels. No matter the fuel, CHP represents the optimal use of that fuel, reducing fuel use by 10% to 30%. Biomass CHP plants are most commonly used in industrial processes where their energy efficiency helps the user to improve competitiveness and reduce carbon emissions. However, biomass CHP is suffering a significant investment hiatus, because of a lack of policy certainty with respect to both the contract for difference and the renewable heat incentive. Only 20 MWe of the potential 440 MWe in biomass CHP projects have reached financial close. Most others are on hold or cancelled, or have been converted to power-only sites.
Under the contract for difference, new build biomass projects must be CHP, as the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned. However, the industry currently views biomass CHP as largely uninvestable—if that is a word—under the contract for difference, because the CfD scheme’s design is not fit for purpose. The CfD biomass CHP tariff will need to be changed before we can expect the biomass CHP opportunity to be captured. To make the CfD investable for biomass CHP, the Government must allow biomass CHP to receive CfD for its electricity over the full 15 years of the contract, even if its heat customer closes. The Department for Energy and Climate Change has been considering that necessary change for close to two years, and there is now a risk that the regulations that are needed will not be in place before the next CfD allocation round, which is expected late in 2016. We might contrast that with the Hinkley C nuclear strike price of double the current rate, guaranteed for 35 years.
I am not trying to trip up the hon. Gentleman against his party, but does he welcome the extension of nuclear plants? We have safe generation there that will produce low-carbon energy for up to an extra five years.
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we have two ageing nuclear power stations in Scotland, and while they have played their part, we do not see nuclear as what we require to advance in the long-term future in Scotland. In fact, we do not need it. It is a choice that England has made and that it unfortunately seems to be forcing on us.
And Wales—I concede that point.
The debate pack provided by the House of Commons Library states:
“Following its commitment to increase funding for the RHI to £1.15 billion in 2021, the Government published a series of RHI review documents in February 2016, in advance of an expected review of the scheme in 2017. The Government concluded that ‘the RHI had been wholly positive in its influence on the renewable heat technology market’”.
Many, including myself, would disagree with that statement.
While the industry welcomes the decision to extend funding for the renewable heat incentive up to 2020, reforms are needed to increase certainty within the scheme if it is to be successful in delivering large-scale renewable heat projects. Investors do not know the RHI’s value when they plan and then make an investment decision, as happens under other large-scale renewable electricity mechanisms, such as the renewables obligation, which has been much covered in other debates. The Association for Decentralised Energy therefore recommends that DECC should implement a tariff guarantee under the RHI to bring forward lower-cost, large-scale renewable heat such as biomass CHP. With tariff guarantees, the Government would allow a developer to lock in their RHI tariff when the project reached financial close. I agree entirely with the ADE about that.
The House will doubtless note that the only constant with UK Government energy legislation is change—moving the legislative goalposts and destroying investor confidence via uncertainty. I suppose they are at least consistent about moving the goalposts, with more than 18 changes in oil and gas legislation in 15 years, the removal of the renewables obligation removal one year early for onshore wind, withdrawal of the £l billion fund for carbon capture, solar energy subsidy cuts and the scrapping of large-scale solar energy projects, and plans to privatise the green investment bank just as it is flourishing. Those renewables cuts are made because of the UK Government’s focus on the “rash dash for gas”, or fracking, and their prioritisation of nuclear energy, which shows the true direction of their energy policy.
The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty spoke of a black start capability constraint, and that is made all the more pertinent by the closure of Longannet next month. I put the blame for that squarely with the Government, because of their prejudiced transmission charge regime.
The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde touched on the reuse of existing energy infrastructure. The SNP believes that the UK Government should be more flexible about legislation, to make a smoother transition to renewable energy from fossil fuel use possible. I maintain that biomass has a key role to play, and I urge increased use of it, especially given DECC’s own figures for electricity generated by renewables and as a percentage of gross consumption, which show a meagre increase of biofuel as a percentage of overall renewable energy, from around 4.1% in 2009 to 4.7% in 2013. However, in line with the Government’s advice, I would introduce a word of caution, because that industry often competes with other types of land use such as food and raw materials production, and of course with the vagaries of crop prices we should also be careful about the availability and price of sufficient sustainably resourced biomass.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is why waste areas are relevant. Many parts of the world have shrub overgrowth. That can be used and the land can return to agricultural use, helping less developed countries.
That is certainly an option that any sensible leader would consider when thinking about future policy. I agree that it is vital to retain a sensible balance.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned how critical research and development is to the development of the industry. I understand that the Government are doing something about that. Indeed, the UK Government set out policies to support the use of biomass in energy generation in their UK biomass strategy published in 2012, which noted:
“It is widely recognised that bioenergy has an important role to play if the UK is to meet its low carbon objectives by 2050. Excluding biomass from the energy mix would significantly increase the cost of decarbonising our energy system—an increase estimated by recent analysis at £44 billion. As set out in the 2011 UK Renewable Energy Road map, bioenergy is also an important part of the Government’s plans to meet the Renewable Energy Directive objectives in 2020.”
Nevertheless, biomass, like all other proven renewable energy sources, is being neglected for the UK Government’s preferred options of nuclear and unconventional gas, which of course means we will not meet our climate change targets as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the hon. Member for Inverclyde, both made the point that Scotland has outperformed many parts of Europe—everyone except Sweden, I think we heard—with its decarbonisation initiatives, yet we also hear that that is a reserved matter, so such policy is for the UK Government. I am interested to understand how in that case the credit for doing so well is due to the Scottish Government, not the UK Government. I would point out, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) did, that, of all the devolved Administrations and England, Scotland has the highest percentage of electricity generated from nuclear. It is a long road to replace that.
Order. That is a long intervention.
I concede that the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right—energy is more widely reserved. We in Scotland are keen to play our part in the UK as part of an overall national solution for energy. Our choices may be different, and our choices and powers are constrained. In fact, during the debate on the Energy Bill, the Government rejected our calls for CfD devolution, which is the most popular mechanism we would have for making inroads.
As I mentioned, we will not meet our targets under the Climate Change Act 2008, so I urge the Minister to revise legislation to enable biomass to play its part in achieving our renewable energy targets on time.
It is a pleasure to sum up for the SNP in this debate, which has been interesting. It has perhaps been a different debate from the one I anticipated, as the majority of contributions have been on the transfer of existing coal power plants to biomass, but I completely understand why that is. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on securing the debate. It is good to get a hearing on this issue.
I met with Drax quite early on in my role as the SNP’s energy and climate change spokesperson and very much commend what it has done on shifting away from coal to biomass. There are issues around such large-scale production, which have been touched on, but if it is done right and done well—as I think it broadly is by Drax—it has a large role to play.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned research that suggested that converting just 500 MW of coal to biomass could save £2 billion for consumers, when looking at the whole-system cost. That is quite a remarkable piece of research to suggest such a level of savings.
One theme in the debate has been the need for both a level playing field and a long-term plan for biomass technology. I know the Government are very fond of their long-term economic plan. It is perhaps time they got a long-term energy plan—I note that that has the same acronym, so it could be used interchangeably. The two plans are tied together rather neatly: to have a long-term economic plan, we need a long-term energy plan. As we have heard, we very much require that plan to include biomass if we are to meet our decarbonisation targets.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the hidden costs of intermittent technologies; that is fair. His comment was that that is the “definition of a perverse outcome”. My definition of a perverse outcome would be applying the climate change levy to green energy production. I was surprised that that did not feature in his speech, given that when the levy was introduced in the Budget, Drax’s share price fell by 25% overnight.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. If he looks back in Hansard, he will discover that I raised that issue at the time—quite vociferously, in fact. It was the first time that I voted against my own party, to my regret, so it was a deeply held view.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I would gladly check Hansard, but I have no requirement to do that as I will take him at his word. That is a point well made—touché, as they say.
UK energy production faces significant challenges due to the move away from coal. Significant power stations and traditional behemoths of energy production are coming off the market. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) said that ensuring we get the policy structure right before those power plants close is fundamental. She made a valid point about the incentive for the plants to be demolished. Once the power stations are gone, there is no going back.
The reuse and recycling of the existing transmission line infrastructure is a powerful point. We will get one opportunity to do this, and that opportunity is closing by the day as the power plants close. I would impress upon the Minister that if she and her Government think biomass has a role to play, as it is clear a number of hon. Members do, time is pressing to get the framework right to enable that to happen. I repeat: once the power stations and the transmission lines that take the power from them are down, the cost of establishing biomass on that kind of scale will be astronomical in comparison with what it was.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) talked about the positive benefit of biomass at a smaller, more localised level than the large-scale power plants on which other Members focused. He mentioned the 2,000 jobs in biomass in Scotland and the potential for more. The link between proximity of supply and production of energy through biomass is also important. While there will be a role to play for biomass in large-scale production, the use of it in a decentralised manner is very much a part of the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) talked about combined heat and power being a real and credible part of the future of biomass technology. In my own constituency, Aberdeen Heat and Power Company Ltd delivers heat, hot water and electricity through biomass to a number of my constituents and others across the city of Aberdeen. Its programme has resulted in a 56% reduction in emissions and, perhaps more startlingly, a reduction in bills of 50%.
Combined heat and power is used well elsewhere in the world, in particular on the continent. It has always struck me as perplexing that we have never utilised it on the same scale, because it is a pretty simple technology. It stops the wastage of electricity because it is converted into heat. If we can get that level of savings—by and large in deprived communities in Aberdeen—that is a win-win situation. I am pleased to see the Scottish Government looking at how combined heat and power can be ramped up as we look to meet our climate change commitments. We have discussed the different ways that the devolved Administrations and the UK Government can work. A lot can be learned from that example, and we would welcome that.
In my contribution, I mentioned combining food and power. Does the hon. Gentleman have a comment to make on that, as a Front-Bench spokesman for his party? Does he see that as something that could be taken forward in different parts of the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman—I was coming on to his contribution. He made a number of interesting comments, several of which I agreed with. We will come to the nuclear issue, where there is a degree of disagreement. Combining food and power is an interesting way, particularly when looking at the more decentralised model. Agriculture is clearly a huge industry right across these islands, and there are significant waste products that can be used in different ways. I know there is huge potential for using the by-products of our agricultural production to produce energy through both biomass and biofuels. That requires an awful lot more investigation through research and development.
The conflict of land use in biomass was touched on. If, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) suggested, we focus on primarily using waste resources or sub-optimal land—shrub and suchlike—that would allay a number of the fears of those who doubt the viability and compatibility of biomass as a way of achieving carbon reduction. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the requirement for a level playing field, and the fact that we require renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency to do that.
There was some debate about the apparent discrepancy between the SNP’s position on nuclear and our welcoming the extension of nuclear power plants in Scotland. On the face of it, that seems sensible, but one has to remember that there is an astronomical bill for decommissioning nuclear. Putting that out as long as possible, sweating those resources and ensuring we get the greatest return on them before we decommission them is sensible. The significant difference between biomass and nuclear, in terms of the benefit, is that the by-product from biomass will not be radioactive for 100,000 years and require billions of pounds to decommission.
The time is now. As with so many of the issues around energy and climate change, if we are to decarbonise, we need a sensible framework. A number of Members have pointed out where there are gaps in terms of biomass. They need to be closed, but the gaps in our energy policy more widely also need to be closed.
As hon. Members around the Chamber this morning have made clear, biomass has a substantial role to play in the move towards a low-carbon energy economy. Indeed, not only does it have a substantial role to play, but we should encourage the proper fulfilment of that role over the next period—I will come to that in a moment. We should also be clear about where biomass stands in the move towards a low-carbon economy and the extent to which it can play a role. In that respect, we need to be clear that, given the extent to which reasonable levels of feedstock can be provided to biomass over the next period—and, indeed, over the longer period, up to 2050—it can probably achieve penetration in the UK energy market of perhaps 12% or so.
I take that estimate from the Government’s UK bioenergy strategy, which the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) mentioned. We need to be clear that it is not the case that there is no strategy; there is a strategy—at the moment. Whether the present Government consider it to be their strategy now is another question, bearing in mind our discussions on the recent Energy Bill, for example, about the extent to which things that happened under the last Government really were or were not part of the Government’s strategy. Before we end proceedings this morning, I would be interested to know from the Minister whether she feels that her Government wish to continue to pursue that strategy, or whether she is in the process of writing a new bioenergy strategy for the future.
The existing strategy clearly places limits on the extent to which biomass can play a role in the move to a low-carbon economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) emphasised, that underlines the fact that biomass has to play a role as part of a suite of technologies in order to provide the widest possible mix of energy over the next period.
We also ought to be clear that, as a low-carbon energy technology, biomass has to be just that: sustainable. As my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill both mentioned, sustainability is not just about where we get our biomass feedstock from, but about how we use land for biomass production, and the extent to which biomass production may push out other forms of production, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn mentioned, the extent to which it takes place on marginal land. In the UK, Drax, for example, is encouraging the planting of short rotation coppicing production, Miscanthus grass and various other things, which can provide a sustainable source of biomass for those undertakings. It is important that biomass is fully sustainable, and of course that comes into play in ensuring that imports of biomass are fully certified across the board, as far as their origin and how they are produced are concerned.
Having said that, biomass certainly can play a clear and substantial role and can perhaps produce 10% to 12% of the UK’s energy requirements in future. That also emphasises the point that biomass should not be set against other forms of renewable energy. In that context, I was a little concerned about the suggestion from the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that biomass should, as it were, be advantaged against other forms of renewable energy, because of its relationship to system integration costs, as far as the network is concerned.
I apologise if that is how my remarks came across. What I actually want for biomass generation is a level playing field—for the industry to be able to bid on an equal basis, taking into consideration the full system costs of all technologies. That is all I want: an opportunity for the industry to be able to bid on a level playing field, in a fair way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, but perhaps I can also make a little clarification for him. He mentioned the NERA and Imperial College London report about system integration costs. That is an important report, but he should also know that a similar report from NERA and Imperial College London was produced about three months before the report that he mentioned. It so happened that the client for the other report was the Committee on Climate Change, as opposed to Drax. The questions that were asked in the two reports, which had identical authors at almost identical times, were slightly different and therefore produced fairly different results for overall system integration costs. Essentially, one looked at how biomass would relate to the system as it stands; the other looked at how it might relate to system changes.
One thing I am sure the hon. Gentleman would endorse is the extent to which system changes have to take place to ensure that those changes in the mix are integrated into the system as a whole—so, the periods over which energy is sourced, and what happens with transmission charges and how they may be levied in future for a particular location.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he not accept, though, that it is a fact that intermittent forms of energy require back-up and that there is an associated cost that is not reflected in the CfD structure at the moment, which I think is the point that was being made?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. There are system integration cost differentials between different forms of renewable energy. My point is that, depending on which report people read, those are not the same as they might appear to be between renewables. Indeed, what is undertaken in how the system works as a whole can substantially mitigate the different costs, so that, as we evolve the system, we can be in a much better position to ensure that the suite of different renewables—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn mentioned, is so important for future low-carbon deployment—can properly be deployed happily alongside one another, as a suite of measures to ensure that we move towards a decarbonised economy.
I recognise that we have limited time this morning, so I want to turn briefly to the point the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty made about the level playing field that is necessary for biomass. It is undoubtedly the case, given the measures that are in place at the moment for the enhancement of renewable energy, that there is not a level playing field. There is an overall problem with that suite of measures because of the levy control framework and the extent to which hardly anybody is likely to get a contract for difference for their project over the next period. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that some biomass plants got contracts under the early investment decisions, prior to the new form of CfDs coming into being. However, when it comes to the efficiency of biomass, allying that with CHP schemes to ensure that biomass can get 15-year contracts under the CfD arrangements, even if the heat source is not there for 15 years, is an important change that would need to be made to CfD arrangements for the future.
As for the renewable heat incentive, the fact that there are no guarantees for tariffs between commencement and completion of a project if a biomass plant is trying to go for RHI seems to be an omission for the future that should be rectified as far as their admission to those arrangements—
Order. Dr Whitehead, if we are not careful, we will not hear the Minister, and I really want to hear her.
I appreciate that, Mr Crausby. I will bring my remarks to a close immediately.
My view is that it will be necessary to ensure a level playing field in the future arrangements for low-carbon energy; indeed, whether biomass should be accessible to the capacity market as part of those arrangements might be a consideration the Minister is thinking about. I will be interested to hear from her what arrangements may be made for CfDs and RHI for that level playing field to ensure that biomass plays the role that all of us here this morning want it to play in the future of renewables.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) on securing this debate and, in particular on being such a champion of Drax. He and I have had many conversations about it. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) here supporting Rugeley, which is absolutely right. I have enormous sympathy for the people affected by yesterday’s incident at Didcot, which was a long-standing and good source of energy for the UK. It was a great tragedy.
Every hon. Member here will know that our priorities are to move to decarbonisation at the lowest cost while ensuring that lights stay on. This debate has shown that there are many ways of achieving that. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for pointing out that a balanced energy policy is needed—the shadow Minister also made that point. It cannot be all or nothing.
The installed biomass capacity of all biomass technologies at the end of 2014 was 5.4 GW, which is no small capacity. Of that, biomass combustion was about 3 GW, landfill gas was 1 GW and energy from waste was coming up to 1 GW. That is impressive and the technology certainly plays its part, from potentially low-carbon dispatchable energy to uses in heat and transport biofuel applications and from extracting energy from waste products to injection of low-carbon gas into our gas grid.
It has been pointed out that we cannot go ahead without careful consideration of the effects, both positive and negative, that biomass can have on the wider environment. Unlike other renewable technologies, biomass cannot rely on an inexhaustible fuel like the wind, tides or sunshine. The fuels on which biomass is dependent need to be sourced responsibly and sustainably, and in a manner that realises the carbon and greenhouse gas savings that biomass is capable of delivering. Our renewable energy policy seeks to balance those considerations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty asked about CfD auctions. He will know that, in November 2015, the Secretary of State announced that if, and only if, the Government’s conditions on cost reductions are met, we will make funding available for three contracts for difference allocation rounds in this Parliament. The first, for less established technologies, is expected to take place by the end of 2016, and the technologies included will be offshore wind, wave, tidal stream, advanced conversion technologies, anaerobic digestion, dedicated biomass with combined heat and power, and geothermal. That is where we are right now. We will set out our further thoughts on that as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend asked whether I agree with the proposals in the NERA report regarding whole-system costs. I am often asked, and I understand why, whether Department of Energy and Climate Change is familiar with the full-life costs of biomass compared with other technologies. I assure him that we are very aware of the costs of balancing the grid from intermittent technologies that are not incurred from electricity generated from biomass. It is dispatchable, can be base load, is controllable and is very valuable. I confirm that my Department is looking carefully at whole-system costs, but the reports that he and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) mentioned consist of a subset of technologies and we must look carefully at whole-system costs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) asked whether subsidies can be available for co-firing. I assure him that subsidies are still available through the renewables obligation. Fiddlers Ferry in his constituency has previously co-fired under the renewables obligation and can take advantage of that scheme until 2027.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase asked how the correct mix should look going forward. I assure her that we recognise there are implications when looking at proposals to end coal generation. It is important to have clear consultation on that, which we will announce shortly. In particular, we will look at how that might impact on coal-fired power stations that are currently co-firing.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) raised his proud point that Scotland is doing so well on renewables, but I remind him that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty pointed out, over 20% of the support under the renewables obligation as a whole goes to Scotland with far less of Great Britain’s population. Scotland received 24% of RO payments in 2014-15 and will receive significantly more than its per capita share, so it would be fair if the hon. Gentleman credited the UK Government and Great Britain’s bill payers with the Scottish Government’s achievements in renewable energy.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, I will not give way.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde asked why the Government are cutting RHI support. The RHI budget to cover renewable heat schemes has been confirmed to March 2021, rising each year to a total of £1.15 billion. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) referred to biomass CHP. We are considering our proposals for that for the forthcoming RHI consultation. We will refine our current policy so that it delivers improved value for money to taxpayers and targets biomass in line with the Government’s long-term approach to heat decarbonisation, focusing on large biomass and biomass for process and district heating, and to encourage deployment that is sustainable without subsidy in future.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test asked about the bioenergy strategy published by the previous Government in 2012. It set out a direction for biomass and recommended supporting sustainably produced biomass to deliver real greenhouse gas savings cost-effectively and taking account the wider impact across the economy. A great deal has happened in the industry since it was written, but those recommendations remain compatible with our current intentions.
Finally, as many hon. Members have pointed out, bioenergy contributes to the UK economy, creates jobs in the fuel supply chain in harvesting, processing and transport, and creates opportunities for foresters, farmers and UK ports and railways. It remains and will continue to remain important, bringing many benefits to the UK in decarbonisation, security of supply and economic benefit. I remain of the view that, when sourced responsibly, biomass can provide a cost-effective, low-carbon and controllable source of renewable energy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered biomass as a source of renewable energy.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed sale of Kneller Hall, Whitton by the Ministry of Defence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. This is about the sale of Kneller Hall, but it is about more than that; it is about Whitton, and Whitton’s history. The proposed sale of Kneller Hall was announced by the Ministry of Defence in a statement just a few weeks ago. Listed in that statement were about a dozen Ministry of Defence sites. Kneller Hall is the exceptional one in that list, because this is not about a building, but about a community.
It is no ordinary building and no ordinary site. Kneller Hall in effect is Whitton, and Whitton is Kneller Hall, which brings me to my first request of my hon. Friend the Minister. I am grateful that he is here to listen to some of the concerns of residents and, I hope, to agree to my requests and to reconsider the sale of Kneller Hall. My first request is that the Minister will get Ministry of Defence personnel to come to Whitton, preferably to Kneller Hall and preferably with the commandant, Colonel Barry Jenkins, who I notice is in the Public Gallery, because the Ministry of Defence needs to tell the community of Whitton face to face the reasons for the sale of Kneller Hall, and the Ministry of Defence needs to hear Whitton’s reasons why it is not a good idea.
It is tragic and extraordinary that in peacetime the Ministry of Defence has managed to create such hostility in a peace-loving community—the community of Whitton. The Ministry of Defence may have estate agents, but it needs historians and psychologists. If the Ministry of Defence had good historians, it would know that Kneller Hall has been in Whitton for nearly 150 years. It would know that Kneller Hall was created because a cousin of Queen Victoria, George, Duke of Cambridge, realised that top-quality musicians, well rehearsed, are essential to inspiring the military. That is our heritage and legacy, which began nearly 150 years ago, in Whitton.
I understand that new military recruits are taken round the museum at Kneller Hall, and in that museum are musical instruments going back to the Crimean war. There is even a musical instrument that was played by a boy soldier at the battle of Waterloo. In the museum, on all the walls, are pictures of all the people who have passed through Kneller Hall—all the top-class musicians—so new recruits know that they are part of an important legacy and an important heritage. Just as every recruit goes through the museum at Kneller Hall to know how much they belong there—they belong for life—every resident of Whitton feels that belonging and that link to Kneller Hall. This is not about a building, but about a community.
The Ministry of Defence notice talks about releasing sites for housing. In London, yes, we need housing, but housing needs to be part of a community. Kneller Hall is the identity of Whitton; it is the heart and soul of Whitton. We cannot rip out the heart and soul of a community and all its identity and replace it with housing that has no identity. That is not what I believe we want as a Government when we say that we want more housing in London. This is a unique site, in a unique place. Whitton is not a suburb. Whitton is not a dormitory town. Whitton is a unique community, and that uniqueness comes from Kneller Hall.
The Minister may well know, and perhaps some historians in the Ministry of Defence know, that over the years there have been proposals to sell Kneller Hall. My predecessor but one, Toby Jessel, fought the sale of Kneller Hall in the 1980s and in the 1990s. I hope the Minister will join the late Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine and Jeremy Hanley, who realised the importance of Kneller Hall and saved it then.
I would like to quote what Toby Jessel said when he was MP for Twickenham. In the 1990s, in a debate in the House of Commons, he said that there were eight reasons why we should keep Kneller Hall. Those eight reasons are still relevant today. He said that Kneller Hall is a world-famous institution. As the Minister will know from the press, people such as Howard Goodall have been saying how important and internationally famous Kneller Hall is today.
Toby Jessel said that a large sum had been spent on Kneller Hall. My freedom of information requests, answered just last week, have shown that more than £1 million has been spent over the last few years—since I became an MP and just before—on Kneller Hall, so that reason is still relevant today.
Toby said it is the largest of the three schools of music. Importantly, he noted—Toby is a musician himself—that it is half an hour from London, so specialist teachers can travel easily to Kneller Hall. We need that for Kneller Hall’s excellence. If the military move away from this school of music, it will not have access to those specialist teachers in the same way. Toby Jessel said in the 1990s that it has a good bandstand, and it is still there today.
Kneller Hall draws large audiences. Again, it is the heart and soul of Whitton. The Proms at Kneller Hall are far better than the Proms at the Albert hall, because it is a community event; it is about the identity of the community. Toby said that Kneller Hall has the capacity to take in the training of the Royal Marines and Royal Air Force bands. That is still possible. And Toby said that it could not be sold for much. Interestingly, I think that this is where the Ministry of Defence estate agents have got it wrong. The Kneller Hall site is metropolitan open land. The Ministry of Defence estate agents did not realise that there are tree preservation orders on most of the trees on the site. We cannot break the heart of a community and replace it with soulless housing. I am sure that that is not the intention of the Minister.
Like Toby Jessel, I have presented a petition to the House of Commons. Even though we have known about the proposed sale for only a few weeks, more than 1,000 people over a weekend signed the petition in Whitton. That demonstrates the feeling in Whitton. Of course, unlike in the 1990s, we now also have online petitions, and a local resident, Nikki Bradshaw, has started one. It has nearly 5,000 signatures already. That is how much Kneller Hall means to people in Whitton and to people who respect the international status of the place.
On the Facebook page—I hope the Ministry of Defence has seen it—thousands of people are writing comments. I pick a handful of comments on the online petition to show the character of these important points. We need a public meeting because these people need to be heard. Some have written that Kneller Hall is “part of our community” and a Whitton “institution”. Others say, “Stop selling our heritage.” Typical comments include things like “My grandfather was there as a boy soldier”, “My uncle used to teach there” or, “My daughter trained there.” Some say that there is no other school of music like it in the world and that it is short-sighted to allow the loss of such a revered establishment.
Importantly, somebody—not me—wrote on the Facebook page, “Kneller Hall is part of the big society that Mr Cameron values.” Others commented that, “Selling off the family jewels springs to mind”, and said that we should not destroy what is good about the UK. Nikki, who set up the online petition wrote, “Where was the public and local opinion in all of this?”
I would like the Minister to reconsider the sale of Kneller Hall, and to arrange for a public meeting, which I will host, preferably at Kneller Hall. Now—Queen Elizabeth’s 90th year—is not the time to sell Kneller Hall. Neither is it the time to sell Kneller Hall when one of the musicians, Dave Barnes, is in a national television musical competition. I do not want him playing the “Last Post” at the finals of that competition and I do not want Whitton to have its own “Brassed Off” drama. This is not the time.
I am privileged to be speaking to the Minister because he is a courageous man. He has served in the Army—I have seen his medals. However, it is not courageous to lead the retreat from Kneller Hall. He will not get a medal for that, but I will personally pin a medal to his chest if he saves Kneller Hall.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I start by reminding the House of my interest as a member of the Army Reserves.
I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) for obtaining this debate on the future of Kneller Hall, a Ministry of Defence site in her constituency. Her drive to stand up for the interests of her community is commendable—an example that should be followed by all. I want to acknowledge from the outset that the Department is ever-mindful of the emotive nature of estate rationalisation, and that the concerns and feelings of the local community have been, and will continue to be, considered as part of this decision-making process.
I announced to the House on 18 January 2016 that, as part of the Government’s prosperity agenda, the MOD is committed to releasing land to contribute towards 55,000 new housing units this Parliament. Kneller Hall is one of the first 12 sites to be announced for release. Alone, those sites are expected to generate some £500 million in land receipts—a significant and valuable reinvestment for Defence—and approximately 15,400 housing units across the 12 sites. However, our work goes far beyond that important goal. Our footprint strategy is about chairing a path to a more effective, affordable estate that better enables military capability. In that context, it is fair to say that the vast majority of the Defence footprint is currently under review, as the Department gains momentum in the complex planning work necessary to provide the brave men and women of our armed forces with a more effective, fit-for-purpose estate.
The residents of Twickenham and its surrounding boroughs are not alone in their strength of feeling and, indeed, in their drive to want to retain a local Defence presence. However, the simple fact is that these plans are not directed at individual communities, regiments or bases. This is about ensuring that Government funding is in the right place to ensure the continued defence and security of the United Kingdom.
The Minister said that Twickenham is not alone, but does he agree that the petition presented to the Commons and the online petition are unique among the 12 sites mentioned in the January notice?
It is certainly the only petition of which I am aware among the 12 sites. I do, however, imagine that by the end of the process there will be other petitions on many other sites across the UK, because it is absolutely understandable that individual local communities feel strongly about their relationships with Defence. This is an ever-evolving issue so I sense that there will be more petitions to come, which is something I regret, but that is the nature of the job I have to do as I seek to rationalise the Defence estate in the best possible way to deliver Defence outputs.
Kneller Hall is the home of the Corps of Army Music and the Royal Military School of Music, two organisations that are of great significance to the United Kingdom. Despite that sentiment, the facilities in which they are currently homed are ageing, inefficient and not fit for purpose. How can it be that an organisation that contributes so much at home and overseas is expected to train and operate out of an old and failing site? The school and the headquarters have a very small footprint. There are 43 military and 30 civilian staff permanently employed at the site. Regardless, it is unfair that those 73 people have to endure ageing single living accommodation and sub-optimal facilities that do not meet appropriate training standards. The fact is that the site just is not designed for its current use. It is a stately home, not a school, and it is definitely not a military training facility. To bring the site up to standard for its current use would cost at least £30 million.
So what can we do with the site? Do we invest over £30 million of taxpayers’ money in an ageing site that houses fewer than 75 staff? Should Defence invest in a site where maintenance costs will continue to rise over the years? Is that really in the best interests of Defence and military capability, and the best use of taxpayers’ money? I have looked at this case and concluded that that would not be the right decision for Defence. Disposal would offer better value for money and, crucially, better military capability. Every additional pound we spend here is a pound that cannot be spent on the frontline.
The Minister says that £30 million is needed because of the decay. Will he tell me—this is important to the community—whether that information has been in the public domain? Have the community and previous Members of Parliament been informed of that? Over how long a period has £30 million been required?
I cannot give an exact answer now, but I am happy to come back to my hon. Friend. I believe that the £30 million dates back to 2009, so I would imagine that, in today’s prices, it is even greater.
The MOD is reviewing a number of options regarding the future of the capability currently provided at Kneller Hall. For instance, the parent headquarters, the Royal School of Military Engineering, has barracks at both Chatham and Minley with vastly improved technical and domestic accommodation. It also has the necessary vacant space required to house the personnel currently employed at Kneller Hall, irrespective of whether they are military or civilian. The commandant of the Royal Military School of Music has confirmed that either site, with suitable reprovision, would provide far better and greatly improved training facilities for his people.
The Department has considered the prospect of relocating other Army units to the Kneller Hall site. The problem is that there just is not the space and the facilities are not in a good enough condition. Kneller Hall just is not suitable. Both Chatham and Minley are still within reasonable travelling distance of London and the south-west, the main locations of the customers of the British Army’s 41 bands. There are generous practice and teaching rooms in place at both sites, since they are modern technical colleges and already host military bands. As well as that, the accommodation is of a more than suitable standard to home the junior soldiers that make up the future of Army music—those who are at the very beginning of their career.
I recognise that our announcements to close sites are unsettling for units, for their families and for our civilian staff. We will do all we can to provide them with the necessary certainty of their future locations as soon as practicable. As an independent site, Kneller Hall requires its own guard force of 18 servicemen and women. It needs its own independent integrated logistical section and its own administrative personnel. If the sites were collocated, these highly skilled service personnel could be employed in more operationally vital posts. Furthermore, the freeing of the site could make way for the provision of up to 192 new homes, which are required to meet the UK’s ever-growing housing demand.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns on the nature of the community, which is precisely why this is very much a two-stage process. The first stage is establishing that there is not a military use for the site, but the second stage—the future—is for the local community to decide. The MOD will engage with the local community and the local planning authority to decide the best future for the site.
Again, I appreciate the Minister’s giving way. He talks about 192 homes, but has the Ministry of Defence already been in communication with Richmond borough’s planning department? If so, the community is unaware of it.
Yes, I can confirm that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation has been in touch with Richmond’s planning department, so that process has started. Again, I make it clear that the disposal of this site is based on military capability need, which alone will generate the disposal of this site. The second process—the potential building of new homes—is a secondary issue; it is all about delivering military capability.
Where do we go from here? Much work is still required to ensure timely and efficient closure of the unit and the relocation of the occupants. There are also a number of third-party users of the site that we would wish to give the opportunity to find alternative locations. Important engagement will continue to take place with the local council and planning authorities. We have negotiated a number of compromises on the site’s future use and occupation, including ensuring that the area of metropolitan open land that sits within the unit’s boundaries remains untouched, and that the trees on the site continue to be protected and preserved. I confirm that I am happy for specialists from my Department to attend a public meeting on the process for disposing of the site, should my hon. Friend wish to arrange one.
The MOD follows a set process for disposing of any site, as do all Government Departments. Once declared surplus to defence requirements, a site is placed on a register of surplus public sector land, a database managed by the Cabinet Office, which provides an opportunity for other public bodies to express interest in acquiring sites before they are placed on the open market. As already mentioned, however, the MOD will continue to proceed with the plan for housing, liaising with the local council and planning authorities to ensure the best possible future use for the site. That will present an opportunity for the local community to engage with the MOD on the future use of the site, which will not be disposed of before 2018.
I acknowledge and recognise the emotive nature of closing sites, especially ones such as Kneller Hall that have been at the centre of a community for many years. I am delighted to say that I understand the Army will continue to play proms to the public in the park in the summer. I appreciate wholeheartedly the concerns of my hon. Friend and her constituency, and I assure her that great consideration is given to all military establishments, along with their historical and national significance, but as I have already mentioned, this is not about individual communities, bases, regiments or units; it is about ensuring that the MOD has an updated, efficient and rationalised estate that is fit for purpose and fit for it to operate now and into the future. This is about ensuring that the right resources are in the right place to keep Britain safe.
Question put and agreed to.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Office: Sheffield
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills office in Sheffield.
I suppose I ought to say at the outset that I would like the Government to reconsider the closure of the BIS office in Sheffield. The announcement came on Thursday 28 January of plans to start the process to close the BIS office at St Paul’s Place in Sheffield by 2018. It was announced by the permanent secretary for BIS on that day, and it was a complete unknown as far as the workforce were concerned. The closure could result in job losses among the 247 staff in the office. On Tuesday 2 February, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the decision had been taken to save money for the taxpayer. As was said later, that really smacks of hypocrisy when the Government hope to build a northern powerhouse.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said following the urgent question that was taken in the House on Friday 29 January, the day after:
“It speaks to this Government’s London-centric focus and contempt for the north of England that they think a consolidated ‘combined central HQ and policy centre’ has to be, by rights, in London rather than in Sheffield where the operating costs are cheaper and the perspective on UK investment is much broader.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 558.]
I am sorry to say I was not there on the day and, having read Hansard, I deeply regret that, because in all my 30-odd years in this place, I do not think I have seen the word “Interruption” used so much in Hansard, particularly against the Government Front Bench—the Minister seemed to be “on one”, for want of a better expression. It is a great pity that I missed that day; I know that I can now see it on iPlayer, and I may do so at some stage.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I recently attended a round-table of the Confederation of British Industry North West on the powerhouse. The people there did not know, or could not name, the Minister who is responsible for the powerhouse. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that says it all?
I watched with interest, after the urgent question, the question my hon. Friend asked about individuals in the northern powerhouse and what they felt about this situation, but I will leave that aside at this stage.
We have to look at this against the backdrop of what was reported in the Financial Times. It said that 20% of civil service jobs had been lost in the regions since 2010, as opposed to only 9% in London. That is an extraordinary figure and seems to go against the main thread that we have had—or should have had—in Government circles, not for the last five or six years, but for about the last five decades. I remember very well the advanced manufacturing park near Sheffield, which was a glowing example of what Governments can do if they have an intention to do it. When I represented part of it, I was lobbied on several occasions when some massive offices were going to be built on the advanced manufacturing park—which is actually in Rotherham, but on the edge of Sheffield—on the basis that thousands of civil service jobs were supposed to be going there. Of course, that never happened, unfortunately.
We can also put this into perspective by considering infrastructure expenditure in the north, which stands at £539 per head, as opposed to £3,386 per head in London. When we are presented with such statistics, it is no wonder that people say that this concept of the northern powerhouse is little more than words.
This move is all about, I believe, accommodating large reductions in headcount and nothing to do with the Department’s core function of boosting business. I have been contacted by several constituents regarding the closure. One of them says:
“I’ve worked in the civil service for”—
I am going to say that this person is now in their third decade in the civil service—
“ten years in London and the rest in Sheffield. For the majority of that time, I have worked in teams that have been split site between Sheffield and London. To my knowledge, there has never been any issues regarding the quality of work or negative impact on policy decisions/policy work due to operating split site teams.
Aside from the obvious impact on me personally with respect to having to find another job, I am concerned about the effect this decision will have on the City of Sheffield and surrounding areas. I am still trying to understand why the Department for Business would take such a step.”
This announcement comes alongside the recent announcements by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about job cuts, and the fact that funding has been withdrawn entirely from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and which is part of the BIS 2020 initiative. Words fail me. What should have been happening for decades in this country now seems to be in reverse. These announcements clearly send out completely the wrong type of message to large businesses that might be looking to invest in Yorkshire or other northern cities and towns.
Is not the answer to the question that my right hon. Friend’s constituent put—“Why?”—that this is about crude number-cutting of budgets, jobs and offices? At a time when knowledge of economies outside London and support for the creation of jobs and businesses outside London is needed more than ever, surely this is a short-term decision that will also prove to be counterproductive.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend’s analysis. The decision is completely at odds with this concept—it is not much more than a concept—and promise of money of the northern powerhouse. Under the circumstances, these are the worst signals in the world that central Government could send to the north.
Not only will the closure be devastating for South Yorkshire; it will lead to a huge loss of expertise for the Department—for example, the person I have just quoted, who has been in their job for decades. The idea that they can uplift and come down to work in London, even if they could afford to buy a property in London, is a very difficult thing to imagine.
Nick Hillman, who was formerly a special adviser to David Willetts during his time as universities and science Minister, has described this closure as
“a genuine tragedy for good public policymaking.”
He says that the Sheffield civil servants
“hold BIS’ institutional memory on HE and often know more than the policymakers who are nominally closer to the centre of power.”
The staff in Sheffield work closely with external organisations, such as employers and education providers, visiting them to explain policies about funding, deregulation, further and higher education, and Government strategy on rail, as well as listening to their issues so as to better inform policy. Having purely London-based staff will mean additional costs, particularly as a result of pay differentials and a less prompt service for organisations based in the midlands and the north. Gone will be the knowledge and understanding of localities, sectors and industries that can make a difference to effective policy making and allocation of funding.
I have spent more than 30 years in this Parliament now, and for most of that time I have heard many people who believe—people from all parts of the House; Ministers of all political colours, as if they do not recognise it—that north of Watford is a strange land. Bringing more people down from the north to work in London will just bolster that attitude and, I have to say to the Minister, that is fundamentally wrong.
Sheffield staff are also responsible for applying ministerial strategy and policies on the ground. For example, BIS sites such as the Sheffield site ought to be in the vanguard of helping the Government to rebalance the economy and supporting such rebalancing in the sectors that are most prevalent in their respective regions. It seems particularly strange that BIS, with its supposed ambition to create more geographically balanced growth, should take this decision, when other Departments, such as the Department for Education, plan to remain in Sheffield. Can the Minister explain that to us—not just to the Members from Sheffield who are here today, but to other Members from the region as well?
Another constituent drew my attention to the fact that BIS Sheffield has recently advertised for a level 3 apprenticeship in the very office that the Department is planning to close in 18 months. In fact, the closing date for the apprenticeship applications is today—I have the advert with me, and the closing date is 24 February. The post is fixed-term for 18 months from April 2016. There is no mention at all of the office closing in 18 months, so any hope of a permanent job at the end will be non-existent. Indeed, to be honest, who would really want to work in that atmosphere of despondency and anger? I find it hard to understand the mentality or the morality of carrying out such an exercise in the current climate—and, of course, it costs public money as well. Under the circumstances, it seems wrong.
The comments made by the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) in response to the urgent question on 29 January stick a little in my throat. She said:
“As I say, in difficult times when we have to make sure that we continue with our long-term economic plan, difficult decisions have to be made, but we take the view that this is the best way to spend public money more efficiently and more effectively.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 562.]
If that is the case, it is simple. My understanding is that a report was written about the “BIS 2020” initiative. It was about the closure—not just of Sheffield, but potentially of some other regional offices as well—but it has never seen the light of day. I say this to the Minister, and to the Government: I do not blame the Minister. That report was created by public money and we have the right to see the business case for the change. And I will tell you who has the right to see it more than anyone else: the 247 people who have this cloud hanging over them. I urge the Government to publish the facts, so that we can properly review the decision.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) for securing this debate on the closure of the office. The office is in my constituency, but the closure has a far wider impact, and that is reflected by the Members here from across the region. It is a blow not just for Sheffield, but for a region that has been trying to engage positively with the Government on the northern powerhouse. I hope that the Minister will engage positively with us on the concerns that are being expressed.
I have some sympathy with the Minister; the decision seems to have been driven by senior managers—I am delighted to see the permanent secretary here—but it is falling apart under scrutiny. Ministers have been put in a difficult position. They have been briefed, and when my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) asked her urgent question, Members were told that the decision has been taken to save money. Meanwhile, staff in the office in Sheffield have been told that there has been no cost-benefit analysis. Under questioning at the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on 10 February, the permanent secretary as much as admitted that there was no business case for the decision. It is not too late, however. The Minister is a thoughtful man, and I hope that he will approach the issue in the same way as he has his Green Paper on higher education—we have discussed it on many occasions—listening to concerns, sharing them with his colleagues and agreeing to an open discussion of the options.
The House of Commons Library’s briefing for the debate described the Sheffield office as one of a number of regional offices and somehow mixed it up with the network of 80 offices. I have raised that issue with the Library, but for the record, we must be clear that the Sheffield office has a head office function that happens to be taking place in Sheffield, and for good reason. I have spoken to a number of the staff in the office, and they are shocked not simply that their jobs are being taken away, but that those jobs are going without a single good argument being advanced in defence of the decision. They are senior policy staff, and they help make Government decisions. They are used to looking at evidence, evaluating it carefully and advising Ministers, and they are shocked that the rules about effective and responsible decision making have not been applied to them.
The staff have many questions, and I will start with four that I would like the Minister to answer. First, why does the 90-day consultation period not include consultation on the rationale to close the Sheffield office? Secondly, why does it not give those affected the chance to examine the business case and discuss alternatives? Thirdly, why does it not invite alternative proposals for other models that would work well for Government and provide best value for taxpayers? I have some more questions later, but the final one for this cluster is: why does the documentation state that the 90-day consultation closes on 2 May 2016 when it also states that a final decision on the closure of the Sheffield site is planned by the end of March? That is five weeks before the consultation closes.
People in the office and more widely in the region are genuinely bewildered. This Government talk about the northern powerhouse, are supposedly committed to a diverse civil service and regularly talk about value for money, but in the case of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, apparently they want all their policy jobs to be based in the most expensive city in the country because—this may not be the case, and the Minister can clarify things, but it is what staff have been told by senior managers—Ministers cannot be supported by people based elsewhere. Frankly, it just does not add up.
On the business case, I recognise that the Minister is in a difficult position, because the permanent secretary was unable to share any facts on which the decision was based. The first line of the restructuring proposal form, which was sent to all staff on 17 February, makes the case for the decision. It states:
“BIS is required to make significant savings by 2020.”
I have a simple question for the Minister—I hope he can succeed where the permanent secretary failed at the Select Committee— which is this: how much money will the proposal to move all policy jobs to London save? If he wishes, he can intervene on me now.
I will come back later.
I look forward to the answer. The civil servants whose jobs are on the line as a result of the decision are familiar with the concept of making savings for the public purse. They are engaged in that very pursuit in delivering the Government’s agenda on apprenticeships and further and higher education. They work within strict financial constraints, but were they to make a proposal without any evidence of the budgetary implications, the Minister would agree that they were not doing their jobs properly. Why are the Government, elected on the back of a promise to supposedly balance the books, so reluctant to publish the business case for the decision? I fear, from my exchange with the permanent secretary during his appearance before the Select Committee, that it is because there is no such document and no such business case. Will the Minister clarify the basis on which the decision was made, if not to save money?
In the documents that have been published, the proposed “combined regional footprint” that will remain—this is mentioned in the restructuring proposal form—
“the FE funding centre (location yet to be decided)”,
the HE funding centre and
“possibly a regulation centre in Birmingham”
are all part of the new vision. How much will all those things cost? We do not know. We do not know because the Department does not know, but how on earth can they be less expensive?
The Government’s own estate strategy, which was published in 2014, points out that the cost of space in Whitehall is expensive. It cites the Ministry of Defence main building at a cost of £35,000 a year a person, compared with the Home Office buildings in Croydon at £3,000 a person. That is less than a tenth of the cost, and Sheffield is less expensive still, and that is before we take account of central London weighting and the extra staffing costs involved. The decision, which has huge consequences for my constituents, the city and the region, has been made on the basis of so little fact and evidence.
There is a wider issue, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley alluded to, about the way that this country is run. There is real value in locating policy making in the regions and nations of Britain. That is why successive Governments have moved Departments out of London. I remember when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher moved the Manpower Services Commission to Sheffield in 1981, and such moves continued under Labour. That policy stalled under the coalition and is now thrown into reverse. Before the Minister wheels out the line that more BIS jobs are based outside London, let me remind him that the focus of this debate is on the highly skilled policy jobs that are at the centre of the decision.
Too many decisions in this country are made through the prism of the personal experience of people who live, work and bring their families up in London. The rest of the country is different. We need more people who live their lives, like most of the population, outside London bringing their experience into policy making. The Department for Education carried out its own review of its estate. The review stated:
“We benefit from maintaining sites around the country—we get alternative perspectives on our policy issues, we can draw from a wider recruitment pool, and employing people in sites outside London helps to keep costs down.”
If that is important for the DFE, why does it not apply to BIS? The Minister risks his own goals if he loses some of his most experienced staff just as he embarks on an ambitious programme in higher education. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley cited the special adviser of the Minister’s predecessor, David Willetts. His special adviser, respected by all parties in Parliament, described the move as
“a genuine tragedy for good public policymaking.”
Is the Minister not concerned about the loss of talent? I hope he will come back on that point. What assessment has he made of the loss of jobs on the successful delivery of the policy agenda for higher education, further education and apprenticeships?
There is another issue about creating a diverse civil service. Earlier this month, Cabinet Office Ministers launched the Bridge report to achieve the Government’s stated aim of creating,
“a public sector that reflects the diverse nature of the UK”.
They launched it with a fanfare, and the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, said:
“The Bridge Group report offers potential nuggets of gold, not just for the civil service but for the UK...The problem is that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.”
One of the plans arising from that report to address inequality in the public sector states that we need
“new terms in place which make it easier for civil servants to live outside London.”
How on earth can the Government square that circle? Where is the joined-up thinking?
The Bridge report also found that the number of people in the civil service from poorer backgrounds is shockingly low, with only 4.4% of successful applicants coming from working-class backgrounds. Does the Minister think this move will increase that figure? What equality impact assessment has been made of the decision? It cannot be right that we restrict opportunities to those who can afford to live and work in London, and who have the option to do so without commitments elsewhere. The Government could massively reduce the talent pool from which they recruit with this move, so why are they narrowing their options?
Staff in Sheffield have been told by BIS board members that the reason for the move is because Ministers want them close by. I do not believe that. I think Ministers are more open-minded and more innovative than that. It runs counter to the Government’s own estate strategy, published in October 2014, which stated:
“Civil servants should be able to work flexibly across locations at times that are convenient to them and their managers”.
It went on:
“Some parts of the civil service and the private sector still have an inflexible, command-and-control model where people are managed more by their presence than by achievement.”
The decision seems to confirm that that is how BIS wants to continue to run itself.
The killer blow to the rationale for this decision is at the bottom of page 11 of that document:
“With modern IT, officials no longer necessarily need to be physically present, for example to brief ministers.”
I am sure the Minister will concur with that point. Has this decision been taken behind closed doors because somebody had the bright idea that it might be easier for Ministers if they sit on the floor above their policy people rather than pick up the phone, use the video link or plan meetings in advance? No assessment has been made of the expertise and experience lost; of the impact on access to and diversity in the civil service; or of the way in which decisions are made in this country, never mind the cost to the public purse.
Finally, let me reflect on the thoughts of the Department’s most senior civil servant, the permanent secretary Martin Donnelly. It is good to see him here. Almost a year ago to the day, he published a blog post on his experience after the Department had undergone huge change back in 2011. The title of the piece is, “Leadership Statement: Talk less, listen more”. I have a copy that the Minister might want to share afterwards. Mr Donnelly writes that,
“people felt that the process has been done to them not by them.”
He was right. It was a problem then, and it is a problem the Department is on the brink of repeating now. But it is not too late. I urge Mr Donnelly and the Minister to listen to the hugely talented civil servants based in Sheffield. I urge them to listen to the head of the civil service, whose statement, made less than a month ago, I make no apology for repeating:
“Talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.”
I hope that the Minister will confirm today that the Government will publish the papers that have informed this decision and I hope he will commit to reviewing it. Is that really too much to ask?
Order. To accommodate everyone who has indicated that they want to speak, I am imposing a seven-minute time limit on speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I apologise to you, to the Chamber and to the Minister because I will have to leave before the end of the debate owing to constituency business.
The decision to close the Business, Innovation and Skills office in Sheffield feels like the latest example of Tory scorn for the north. Yet again, we are faced with major job losses in the north as a direct result of the actions of a Government seemingly unable to look beyond the confines of London and the south. We have 247 staff now facing redundancy, having been informed that their jobs would be moving to London. The Government have described this as a transfer, yet they offer no guarantee that those affected will be allowed to transfer if they so wish, only that they “may be able to”. For those facing such uncertain futures, that is small comfort.
In her letter to me, Baroness Neville-Rolfe acknowledged that the Department is
“very likely to take the opportunity to make some of the significant headcount reductions”
that the budget requires. The Department has said that staff will receive comprehensive support, but we do not yet know what the support will involve. We do know that it will most likely not include any financial support for either travel or relocation costs. In effect, the Government’s commitment to staff amounts to a promise that they might be able to keep their jobs but, if they do, it will be at their own expense, and very likely a significant expense.
The Government’s statements are contradictory. They continue to talk of a transfer. I found Baroness Neville-Rolfe’s words to me to be very telling. She said she would “take the opportunity” to cut jobs. Do the Government really see a huge job loss in the north as an opportunity? Yet again, they label this as a transfer. To do so is deeply disingenuous. This is a job loss, plain and simple. The irony that the Department responsible for the delivery of the northern powerhouse should choose to divert jobs from one of the great northern cities to London is inescapable and sends entirely the wrong message.
Repeated reviews, most recently the Lyons review in 2004 and the Smith review in 2010, have recommended that the Government should decentralise the civil service, as my colleagues have been saying, both to provide better value for money and to enhance career progression outside of London. Yet the proportion of civil servants based in London has increased from 16% in 2010 to 18% in 2015, a move in entirely the wrong direction. The proposed reduction in BIS staff equates to almost 5% of the total civil servants in the city of Sheffield. This is on top of the previously announced closure of Sheffield’s HMRC building, with the loss of 500 jobs.
The St Paul’s building is currently shared by BIS and the Department for Education, with a number of other Departments basing small numbers of staff in the premises. The closure of the BIS office represents a loss of approximately a third of the current workforce. That will inevitably affect the feasibility of the remaining departmental offices, risking yet more job losses. BIS’s other regional offices face an uncertain future, with the risk of more redundancies in the Department’s northern offices. The Government are choosing increasingly to withdraw from the north while simultaneously offering platitudes of support for the northern economy. That has serious consequences not only for the staff who are directly affected but for the wider community and economy.
Each time a decision such as this one is announced, the Government resort to the same old tune. They talk of efficiency savings and the need to provide better value for money, but let us be clear about what is proposed: the Government are moving jobs from the north to London, one of the most expensive cities in the world. To justify the decision on their own terms, it would be reasonable to expect that a detailed business case had been conducted and all possibilities fully explored before we reached this point.
My hon. friend is making a very powerful point. Does she agree that this decision lacks vision, guts and gravitas? That is particularly true when it is compared with the decision to move parts of the BBC to Salford, which in terms of transferring jobs from London to the north has been one of the greatest success stories. We remember the problems and the noises off in the press at the time about how bad that decision apparently was, but nobody looks back on it now as a bad decision, just as they do not dismiss the resulting efficiency savings and service improvement. The same can be done with the decision on the BIS office.
This decision shows a complete lack of common-sense, along with everything else. The Government have still not released a detailed study. Indeed, as the permanent secretary suggested under questioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), such a report may not even exist. It beggars belief that the jobs of 247 dedicated staff should be threatened when no business case whatever has been made. I echo the call made by others today for the Government to publish the evidence that underpinned this decision without further delay.
The north has borne the brunt of the Government’s ideologically driven agenda, as it did the last time the Tories were in power. Time and again, we see the Government taking actions that hit the north disproportionately hard. Most recently, they announced a £300 million transitional fund to help local authorities that are struggling to implement Tory cuts. It speaks volumes that the five least deprived local authority areas will collectively receive £5.3 million, while the five most deprived will receive nothing. Each of the five areas most in need are in the north.
Sheffield City Council’s central Government funding has fallen by almost 50% since 2010. From the ever-deeper cuts to local authority budgets to the abject failure to support the steel industry, the Government have shown disdain for the north. A long line of examples show up the empty rhetoric of the northern powerhouse. The Government are delegating cuts to the north and calling it devolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) on securing the debate.
It is good to see the Minister in his place. This is the second time that a Minister has had to be dragged before Labour MPs to account for the decision on the Sheffield BIS office after the shoddy, shocking way in which the announcement was made. There was no consultation or wider strategy; just the permanent secretary turning up on a Thursday morning and a low-key press release on the Government website later that day. So far, we have heard a good deal of rhetoric from Ministers but not a lot of genuine debate.
I hope that today will change things, that the Minister will reflect on this decision, and that we can have a thoughtful conversation, because the workers at risk of being laid off, who I know will be watching closely today, see a plan that, I am sorry to say, seems to be based on assumptions and tired thinking not fit for a Department that is supposed to be preparing us for a century of innovation and change. They see a decision that, as we have heard, is not backed up by a business case that looks at the decision to close the Sheffield BIS office alone and what the office brings. After all, it differs significantly from local offices throughout the country—something Ministers do not seem to have grasped entirely when they signed off the BIS 2020 plan.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) asked for during the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee hearing, after his request for a comprehensive document was rebuffed, any scrap of paper will do—any shred of evidence or jottings on the back of a fag packet. It is clear that nothing has been forthcoming, because we have received nothing at all. As my hon. Friend asked: how much money will this decision save? It is hard to see it saving a single penny of taxpayers’ money, not least because the lease for the office will still be held by the Department for Education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said.
This is a serious problem. If the Government are to demonstrate any genuine commitment at all to the northern powerhouse, they will have to move away from the lazy assumptions that underlie the justifications for keeping policy making in London Departments, move away from the belief that London water-cooler conversations matter because they take place in close proximity to Ministers, and move away from the belief that the intangible benefits far outweigh historic knowledge of an area and a different perspective on investment in a northern hub.
The Government have shown wanton disrespect for the workforce at the Sheffield office, giving flimsy justifications. First, they were told that the decision was based on saving money, which, as we have heard, will be next to impossible. Then, it was about policy. At a later meeting, it was because the phones and computers did not work properly—this at the Department responsible for innovation, in the 21st century.
The decision reveals tired thinking from senior Whitehall officials who, when asked what they wanted the Department to look like in 2020, came back with the same old Whitehall answer: a centralised command and control HQ, based in London, where all employees are within eyesight and earshot and fresh perspective is discouraged. When devolution of power and resources is supposed to top the agenda, the Department cannot seriously take a Kremlinesque approach to policy and decision making.
How can we expect a centralised HQ issuing orders from London to have the same insight and perspective on regional investment as we currently enjoy in Sheffield? That perspective has been built over years of working and living in the community and comes with an historic understanding of what works and why our northern regions are so very different from London. It betrays the Government’s thinking. When push comes to shove, they have instinctively retreated into their comfort zone, insulating themselves in a London bubble. It says a lot about where the northern powerhouse comes on their agenda that they would prefer civil servants to be close to Ministers rather than providing a distinct perspective on investment in Sheffield.
The water-cooler conversations at BIS must be pretty good, because this decision is so at odds with the supposed direction of travel across Government. The estates report mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central not only found that the cost of space per individual is in Croydon a tenth of what it is in Whitehall, but that the cost of each individual is about 27% higher in London than in other areas of the country, and that the previous Labour Government saved around £2 billion by moving 20,000 civil servants out of London.
Six years after the Smith report said that ministerial behaviour was crucial in overcoming what it termed the “London magnet” and relocating Whitehall, we now have a BIS Secretary doing the exact opposite. The report, which was published just before Labour left power, had at its heart a direction of travel that would move civil servants out of Whitehall to bring the Government closer to the people and stimulate economic vibrancy.
Senior officials categorically admitted to Sheffield employees that they did not even think about the effect on the local economy when they were making their decision, an oversight that flies in the face of years of Government policy, in which the move to cities and regions outside London was supposed to be a standard-bearer for businesses to follow. If the Minister thinks that the author of that report, Ian Smith, was not talking about types of policy roles such as those in Sheffield when he spoke about “ending the London magnet”, he is wrong. In fact, Mr Smith argued that
“power and career opportunities will only truly move out of London when significant parts of the core policy departments are moved.”
Senior BIS officials must have great hopes for the benefits of these water-cooler conversations if they are to override the clear direction of travel of Government; if they outweigh the huge costs, not only per individual employee but of the loss of historic knowledge and perspective in Sheffield; and if they outweigh the terrible message that this sends about concentrating power in London to businesses hoping to locate to a region that BIS is supposed to be helping to grow.
I imagine that even the Minister agrees that the business justification for the Sheffield closure is flimsy, so I want now to turn to why it is so important that we do not lose these jobs in Sheffield. In the near six weeks since the decision was announced there has been no acceptance of the unique position of this northern policy centre. The Sheffield BIS office is unique. It is part of the headquarters—the only office outside London carrying out the high-level policy functions that civil servants in Whitehall also carry-out, such as analysis of evidence, project management and stakeholder engagement.
In trying to justify the decision, the BIS Secretary was adamant that his plan will continue the existing arrangement where more of his civil servants will be outside of London than inside. I am sorry to say that he either does not get it or is being disingenuous. The description of his Department in an internal advert tells the truth. It says:
“the vast majority of the 2,300 directly employed staff at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills are based in London”.
That was written before the Sheffield closure was announced. The vast majority—96.7%, as I discovered in a recent parliamentary question—of the Department’s senior civil servants are based in London, as are almost all of the core BIS office staff. If you think I am leaping to—
Order. I call Deirdre Brock.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Please excuse my voice. I hope hon. Members can hear what I am saying.
I have to admit that I was surprised when it was revealed at the end of last month that Sheffield is too far north to be part of the northern powerhouse. It struck me that Private Eye might know something about it being grim up north London—about the hardship, the economic disadvantage that sometimes seem overwhelming and the deprivation, compared with the easy street life in Yorkshire. What Government could stand idly by and see such inequality last? There was apparently no choice but to move jobs to compensate, so the northern powerhouse is powering south, like so much else in the UK, and being sucked into the black hole that is London and its surrounds.
This decision, we are told, is part of a move to streamline services, centralise staff at BIS and ensure that Ministers have easy access to the knowledge and skills of staff. Is there some difficulty with the internet reaching Sheffield, I wonder? Ministers cannot be uniquely unable to use email and other electronic communication. I bet there are enough people already in London who would be willing to give them the benefit of their personal wisdom.
If this is about cost-cutting, I really cannot understand why staff are being moved somewhere where they have to be paid the London weighting and where office space is ridiculously overpriced. Surely the sensible thing to do would be to close the expensive offices in London and centralise the staff in Sheffield, Doncaster, Leeds, York or indeed anywhere outside the south-east of England—especially, for goodness’ sake, when they are working on the northern powerhouse. That might make sense.
While we are on the subject of north and south, I hope I will be excused a little detour to point out that the northern powerhouse is not very northern. It is quite a bit south of my constituency, a heck of a distance south of Caithness and Sutherland, and nowhere near Shetland. In fact, Sheffield is three times further away from Inverness than it is from London. It is 140 miles to the capital of the south-east and 409 miles to the capital of the highlands—and that is if there are no diversions. We will keep in mind that it is the northern England powerhouse and forgive the oversight.
The suction that continues to take jobs south needs to be addressed urgently. About one fifth of all civil servants are based in London, according to the Library’s “Civil Service statistics” briefing paper, and another 10% are in the south-east of England. Even Scotland, which runs a whole lot of parallel systems to the UK civil service, has only 10% of the overall headcount. Scotland, of course, is very efficient, but it is clear that there is no great spread of civil service employment. Despite the rhetoric about moving civil service jobs out of London from the Government and, to be fair, their predecessors, the jobs have stayed in London—even those that should be elsewhere—and some are actually moving back to London.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills might be too costly to run, too complicated, inefficient and possibly even unfit for purpose, but centralising it in London cannot be the answer. If the Mayor of London is correct and London is a thriving, innovative city, bursting at the seams with businesses hungry for skilful people to work in them, surely it would simply be better for BIS to get out of the way and let them get on with it. If he is wrong and London is struggling to attract businesses, Government Departments should get out of the way to reduce pressure on office rental prices. Either way, Sheffield is surely a better call than London for a Government office.
Of course, this is what the Mayor of London actually thinks:
“the success of this city cannot be taken for granted: the jam from London must not be spread too thinly over the dry Ryvita of the regions.”
That kind of whiff-whaff helps no one. The truth is that sucking public spending into London while the rest of the UK bites down hard on austerity is damaging for every community on these islands. Superheating the London economy does not help ordinary Londoners, who are being pushed out of their own city by living costs and who see their communities destroyed to provide for affluent incomers. Pulling civil service jobs into the south-east of England does not help young professionals who are trying to get ahead and make something of their lives. There is no policy imperative or cost consideration that requires them to be sent to London, and no public good that would be fulfilled. There is no real reason at all for their being in London.
There is time and space for the decision to be reconsidered and for those staff to be located somewhere far more suited to the job they will be doing, as many Members said. Ministers have a chance to do something sensible for a change. There is time to change tack and to do something useful. Instead of running Sheffield down, build it up. Increase the staff there, give the office a boost, give Sheffield a boost with it and give London a break.
I am grateful for the opportunity to voice my dismay at this decision. I thank the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) for securing this debate.
As the Minister knows very well, I am the last person to object automatically to decisions relating to savings in public spending. In fact, I spent half a decade defending decisions for which many hon. Members developed a political cottage industry of blaming me personally—[Interruption.] They nod as sanctimoniously now as they condemned me then. That’s history, as we say, but that gives me a certain credibility when I claim that I look at this decision with a degree of objectivity. The political subjectivity, of course, comes from the fact that a number of my constituents in south-west Sheffield have been directly affected by it.
All of this stems from the BIS departmental settlement with the Treasury in the spending review in late November 2015. That is the origin of the decision. I want to dwell on why the decision was made in the way that it was, why the Treasury delivered cuts to BIS on such a scale, and why they cascaded down to have such a disastrous effect on Sheffield and the many dozens of BIS employees in the Sheffield office.
I thought to myself, “Perhaps it is because the new Government decided to protect more non-BIS Departments in Whitehall.” In other words, perhaps the knock-on effect—the budgetary pressure—on BIS is more remorseless than it was during the five years in which I was Deputy Prime Minister. During that time, we fought to defend a number of BIS programmes, notwithstanding a number of very controversial BIS financial savings. Actually, on closer scrutiny, I found that, far from there being additional protections, some of the protections have been relaxed. For instance, under the coalition Government, and at my personal insistence, schools spending was protected in real terms. It is now not protected in real terms under this Government. There is no wider Whitehall reason why the knock-on effect on the BIS budget should be so much greater than it was in the past.
Then I thought to myself, “Perhaps, to be very fair, this difficult decision can be justified if savings are made”—although I very much tend to agree with what was said earlier. I find it difficult to see any significant material savings from this decision, but let us give the Government the benefit of the doubt. If there are savings, perhaps they are being channelled elsewhere to protect some of the other important BIS initiatives and projects. But no, I discovered that it is part of a much wider cull. In the wider context of the other things that have been scrapped—the Business Growth Service, the Manufacturing Advice Service and the growth accelerator programme—it is more, rather than less, inexplicable. In other words, the savings in that area of the BIS budget are not being recycled to protect other areas.
I looked at the figures, which are, as ever—now that I no longer have the excellent help of legions of civil servants—quite difficult to get hold of. The figures that I was able to get hold of from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the House of Commons Library show something very revealing indeed. Under the Government of 2010 to 2015, the reductions in the BIS budget, when compared with other Whitehall Departments, put it about mid-table. Some Departments had more generous settlements and roughly the same number had more reductions. The reduction, which was very significant and led, for instance, to some of those agonising decisions on higher education spending, was just over 18%, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In cash terms it was well below a £4 billion saving.
In the latest league table showing where, in the Whitehall jungle, money has been saved in the greatest amounts following the Chancellor’s announcement in late November, BIS leaps from mid-table to the position of having the second-largest cut. The cut of 18% under the previous Government has shot up to 26%, well over £4 billion. My central assertion is that that is a choice—not an inescapable guillotine. Perhaps I may say gently but firmly to the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who has done a great job of highlighting the injustice of the decision, that he was very unfair to point the finger at the permanent secretary. The decision was a political choice by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who was keen to be top of the class in the Chancellor’s Whitehall fan club by delivering the earliest and biggest savings—in my view, excessive savings—to the Treasury when, as I found out over five years, Whitehall Departments are asked, as in a game of pass-the-parcel, to make savings.
That is why I ask the Minister to confirm that the genesis of what is happening was a political decision—not by him but by the Secretary of State—to do more than his duty to the Chancellor, and to deliver such big cuts from BIS that it shot from the middle to second from top of the Whitehall table. The decision was unnecessary and did great damage to a number of other important BIS programmes. It is now doing considerable damage to the livelihoods, families and fortunes of hundreds of people in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) on obtaining the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who did an excellent and thorough job of taking on the paucity of the Government’s thinking on and explanation of the decision, and their business case. In passing I would point out to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) that the key point my hon. Friend was making was that we have not had an explanation showing any savings. We do not know that that is what has driven the decision, and it would be helpful if the Minister would explain. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for obtaining an urgent question straight after the announcement. That was excellent, although from what I understand we do not seem to have made much progress since then.
The decision is about real people, who have lost their jobs. Darren Shepherd and his colleague Alison came to my surgery on Saturday because they are going to lose their jobs, and they are worried. They are frightened for their families’ future. They said to me, “Why is this happening, Mr Betts? Can you tell us why?” I said, “Well, I’m sorry, I can’t, because nobody has told me why.” That is not an adequate position to put people in when they work hard for the Government and the country, doing a variety of jobs. They do not know why and no one can explain it to them. That is the fundamental question that we are asking today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, it is of benefit to the civil service to have a wider pool from which to draw talent—and it is beneficial to the Government, the people doing the jobs, and the city of Sheffield. The Government will have to work hard to convince us on any of those counts that it was the correct decision to take those jobs from Sheffield and move them to London.
I do not want to say more about the particulars of the staff and their situation, or about the diminishing of the wider pool of talent, although I look forward to the Minister’s reply on those points. I want to make a few points about the Government’s commitment to devolution. I am the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, which has just produced a report on devolution. We unanimously said:
“We strongly support the principle of devolution. We welcome the fact that, at the start of this new Parliament, it occupies such a prominent position on the Government’s agenda.”
I agree with that. It is not a party political issue but a commitment to devolution. I welcome the Government’s move in that direction. We also said:
“The Devolution Bill is just one part of enabling devolution. There also needs to be an enthusiasm for it across all Government Departments and a commitment to it as the ‘default position’”
and that we
“would like to see a culture of devolution embedded in all Government Departments”,
an annual report about what Departments do, and an opportunity for local authorities to report back on the Government’s commitment to devolution and rate their experience of different Departments. I do not think BIS will get many stars from Sheffield City Council in the devolution report.
If we are to have devolution in what is the most centralised country in western Europe, it cannot be left to the Department for Communities and Local Government to do very good deals with councils, including those in the Sheffield city region; the whole of Government must be signed up for it. Therefore, what we are talking about is not just a matter of substance in relation to BIS and its operation, and people’s jobs, important though those are—and I will fight hard for my constituents involved in the process—it is also symbolic of the whole Government and their attitude towards devolution. Is devolution a matter of a few deals with local government, or is it a matter of Government policy to which the whole Government, including BIS, is signed up? If it is about a balance and a few pounds of cost difference here or there, or the slightly greater inconvenience for Ministers of getting on the phone or using a video link, the balance must come down in favour of the jobs in Sheffield, as a fundamental indication that the Government are committed to devolution, to pushing powers out to the regions, and at least to keeping the jobs that already exist there.
The term “northern powerhouse” is bandied around. It started with the Chancellor, but many Ministers and MPs now use it. The fundamental question is whether it is just a catchphrase or real policy—empty words or substance. I look forward to the Minister convincing me in due course.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the Front-Bench speakers, I ask them to bear in mind that I hope there will be time at the end for the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) to conclude the debate.
I am grateful to be speaking under your chairmanship today, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) on making the debate possible, and commend him for defending his constituents’ right to be heard on a matter that I know is important for the great steel city’s community. I do not know whether the Minister or even the permanent secretary recognise this thing called an iPad. FaceTime works. I use it every day in my constituency work, and I am sure that senior civil servants and Ministers could do the same.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here. I read the urgent statement that was demanded by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh)—I congratulate her on that—and thought that if it was not so serious it would be a good laugh. It was extraordinary, and I commend the hon. Lady for making sure the statement happened.
I have a long family connection to Sheffield, and over many decades I have seen the rise and fall of British Government policy in the city, as Governments have sought to deal with the aftermath of deindustrialisation while maintaining the quintessentially British Government policy that I would title “South, south, south.” Not long ago in the Chamber the Government extolled the virtues of devolution and decentralisation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they fail to recognise, or perchance they ignore, the elephant in their English garden—the culture of London centralisation. Yet in “UK Cities Monitor 2008” the north’s cities, including Sheffield, were among the top 10 for locating a business, and in third and fourth places for office location. The same report placed Sheffield third for “greenest reputation” and second for availability of financial incentives. I might move there myself. What is not to like? London, the capital of oligarchs and Russian tycoons, offers nothing but the London weighting, which could not buy someone a rabbit hutch, and the prospect of a mute commute more akin to “1984”. There is the opportunity to base a civil service Department in one of the UK’s friendliest cities and to obtain all the social and economic benefits that that would bring to the entire islands.
I have no doubt about the personal commitment of the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), to her political ideology or, for that matter, about her knowledge of Sheffield itself, given her local connections—it is a pity she is not here today—but I do question the political ideology that is driving this process. While cities such as Sheffield offer new, innovative approaches to growth outside the hothouse of London, offering civil servants the opportunity to move to London or, even worse, to commute from Sheffield is both unproductive in the long term and a socially and economically bankrupt approach. If a civil servant decides to up sticks, either as a single person or with a spouse, partner or family, the policy will generate a burden on London’s already overcrowded public services as well as shrinking the affordable housing market.
Having read the response to the urgent question on 29 January, I am mindful of the point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), which I will quickly quote:
“It is also a huge worry…to the 12 other BIS regional offices, six of which are in the north,”—
I take that to mean the north of England—
“that they are at risk from this so-called restructuring.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 559-60.]
I call that restructuring policy the London dividend. Like the hon. Member for Blackpool South, I call upon the Minister to set out unambiguously and openly the Government’s approach to that restructuring. Will the Minister here today commit to a restructuring programme that does not drive civil service jobs from the great cultural counties of northern England to the bursting metropolis of London? If that is the policy, then, like those that were once thrown at Scotland, it will undermine community cohesion, erode civic pride and limit both opportunity and resources for cities such as Sheffield. Such cities continue to be undermined by the reality that, according to the Institute for Government, the proportion of civil service jobs in London increased from 16% in 2010 to 18% by March 2015, when there were already 80,000 such jobs in the capital.
It is critical that the Government use their powers to bring about the inclusive growth that the Scottish Government, even with its limited economic powers, have achieved. Scotland has developed a more egalitarian model, which was praised by Professor Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, when he said:
“Tackling inequality is the foremost challenge that many governments face. Scotland’s Economic Strategy leads the way in identifying the challenges and provides a strong vision for change.”
Data from 2012-13 show that income inequality is lower in Scotland, and the gender gap in employment in Scotland has also narrowed, but this will not help the northern powerhouse, or even the city of Sheffield, to deal with so many of those matters. The British Government’s approach to growth, as seen in this debate, is short-sighted, limited and exclusionary. It fails to see the tangible assets of its great historic northern counties or the communities who choose to live there.
In finishing, I commend those communities, who, through it all, are resolute and determined to be heard in this place. I would encourage their elected representatives, who I also commend today, not to look south to London for policy answers. I say to them: I challenge you, in meeting the needs of your communities, to turn and look even further north, and consider that inclusive model which I would consider could assist you in seeing off this Government’s ideological drive to limit your cities’ and counties’ ability to be that northern powerhouse; and I challenge you to ensure that the civil service, with all due respect, is representative of the communities that it seeks to serve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) on securing this important debate and pay tribute to all my hon. Friends from across the region, who have worked so hard on their constituents’ behalf to hold the Government to account for their perverse decision.
The announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 28 January 2016 to close its largest office outside London and transfer staff to London was understandably greeted with shock. My hon. Friends have highlighted the effect it has had on people and their jobs. The announcement came out of the blue. It is confused and short-sighted at best and destructive at worst. Put simply, it makes no sense, economically or otherwise, and the Opposition are calling for the Government to review it. It is bad news for the people of Sheffield and for the civil service, because of the loss of experienced staff and their valuable institutional knowledge. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), it is also bad for the diversity of the civil service. Indeed, Sir Jeremy Heywood’s comment is germane here:
“talent is everywhere but opportunity is not”.
The move is also bad for the economy of the region. It will divert money from the local economy, further damaging jobs and incomes in Yorkshire. What does that tell us about the Chancellor’s rhetoric about the need to create a northern powerhouse and the importance of regional growth to rebalance the economy? It tells us that it is just rhetoric. This is really about the greater centralisation of power in London, which will create an even bigger gulf between the regions. As a proud northerner, born and bred, I can tell the Minister that that gulf exists. I feel no particular affinity towards London, but I do towards Sheffield, Rotherham and Edinburgh—the cities of the north—because they are where common-sense decisions are often made. If the Government are serious about the northern economy, they should stop moving civil service jobs to London and start providing proper support instead of empty promises. London is overheating and house prices are becoming increasingly unaffordable to ordinary people. The north needs jobs and has the talent to fill them.
The BIS permanent secretary said that the plan to create a combined central headquarters and policy centre in London is about modernising how the Department works, making it more flexible and reducing operating costs. He also claimed that the closure was part of a programme to reduce the Department’s operating costs and staff size by 2020. He said:
“Our operating model needs to be designed in a way that works for this smaller workforce with more streamlined structures.”
I will not even mention the quote about the telephone system and computers not working in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; I think that was effectively debunked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh).
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), agreed with the permanent secretary, saying that the closure of the Sheffield office is part of the plan to deliver efficiency savings and contribute to the Government’s deficit reduction target—another blow for the north. However, there appears to be no evidence for any cost saving, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central. How can transferring the work of the office to London, a significantly more expensive location than Sheffield, lead to a reduction in operating costs?
I want to pay tribute at this point to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central, in whose constituency the office is located and who has been at the forefront of the campaign to find any convincing rationale for the move. As he pointed out, nothing approaching a business case been made for the move. The permanent secretary admitted that when he was questioned by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. On being probed about whether there had been any cost-benefit analysis of the move from Sheffield, he replied:
“We did not do disaggregated business cases for each of the 80 offices we now have.”
He went on to say that there was not even a copy of the board paper that initially proposed the move.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is it not also shocking that the trade unions were not advised prior to the announcement? What does that say about the Government’s approach to industrial relations? What does it say to the people of Sheffield, who are also seeing other proposed office closures, such as at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
It is symptomatic of the Government’s approach to trade union relations that they feel that the unions are so irrelevant they can be ignored and their power reduced. Many other offices throughout the country are indeed closing, such as the HMRC offices in Merseyside, with a loss of jobs and talent.
In addition, the permanent secretary said:
“I don’t think I can point you to one specific document which covers specifically the Sheffield issue”.
So, 249 people losing their jobs was not covered even by one specific document. That is appalling. Those are weasel words: there is no business case for Sheffield to be closed. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central has tabled written questions to the Secretary of State and written to the Prime Minister asking for the business case to be published. It is still not in the public domain.
I suspect that the real reason for the move is not to save money, but simply a desire to have officials closer to Ministers in London. The phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, “water-cooler conversations”, is appropriate here—as she said, they must be pretty good conversations to cost that amount of money. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) believes this is a political decision that has come from the top; other people believe it is a decision of the civil servants. We have no documents; we do not know.
The civil service has become increasingly centralised since 2010. As we have heard, the proportion of civil service jobs based in London has increased from 16% in 2010 to 18% in 2015, when 80,000 civil servants were based in the capital. The decision to close the Sheffield office is completely unacceptable. It has not been properly thought through and it has not been explained to the people most affected—those losing their jobs—or the people who represent them, their Members of Parliament. The decision seems to be based purely on a whim, and I certainly cannot believe that it will save money. In my view, the Government have to come clean on why they are moving these 247 jobs. It is complete nonsense to move jobs to London, where salaries and office rents are higher. Nobody can see how it makes any sense at all. Public money paid for the 2020 report and we have a right to see it.
Too many decisions are made by people living, working and bringing up children in London, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley. Too many decisions are made by people who have never been outside the capital and they do not draw on the varied experiences of other people from around the regions, who have a totally different experience of life. Policy needs to be developed by people with differing experiences, and the majority of people do not live in London. Will the Minister commit today to reviewing the decision in the light of what he has heard, or will the Government forge ahead and close the Sheffield office, delivering yet another blow to one of the great cities in the north?
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Howarth.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) on securing this important debate, the second on the subject in recent weeks. I commend all right hon. and hon. Members for being present in strength and for speaking on behalf of their constituents.
As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is committed to delivering efficiency savings and to contributing to the Government’s overall deficit reduction target to clear the deficit by 2019-20. To achieve that, we developed the “BIS 2020” programme to modernise how the Department works.
I apologise if I am intervening prematurely—the Minister might be about to tell us this—but will he explain for the first time how much money will be saved by moving 247 jobs from Sheffield to London? It is a simple question.
I will come to savings shortly, so if the hon. Gentleman bears with me for a few seconds, I will get to his question.
The BIS programme will reduce operating costs by 30% to 40% and deliver a simpler, smaller Department that is more flexible in delivery and more responsive to stakeholders. As part of those plans, as right hon. and hon. Members know, the Department has announced its intention to close the BIS office at St Paul’s Place in Sheffield by January 2018. Such decisions are never taken lightly, and providing the right support for and communications with staff has been a priority for the permanent secretary and the entire senior team of the Department. All staff and departmental trade unions were informed of the decision on 28 January and the statutory 90-day consultation process began shortly afterwards. All staff affected by the decision have been fully briefed.
The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who is no longer in her place, asked what support had been made available to affected staff. I will give the House some detail on that important matter. We are providing comprehensive support to all those facing a potential change or loss of job, including: professional, external careers advice; professional outplacement support; a jobs fair in partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions; time out of the office for job-search activities; and financial advice workshops. In addition, we are exploring all routes to avoid compulsory redundancies, including voluntary exit schemes. There will be no compulsory redundancies before May 2017 as a result of the proposed closure of the Sheffield site.
Many staff will be listening to the debate or watching it on television. The BIS senior leadership wants to ensure that the package of support is comprehensive. If there are things that the Department could be doing, or ways in which we could enhance the support I have outlined, we want to know about it. We want the staff affected to let us know what more the Department can do to support them at this time. We have set up a dedicated email address for them to use, and they have already used the system to make valuable suggestions about ways in which we can enhance the support available. We have been asked by the staff to ensure that updates are regular and frequent. We will be ensuring that that happens. We have already established a dedicated section on the Department’s intranet which includes a comprehensive overview of all “BIS 2020”-related matters. We have set out exactly when our Department’s senior leadership team will be in Sheffield, so that affected staff may discuss their concerns directly.
The Minister has talked about consultation with staff. Will he tell us, first, how many meetings there have been with the trade unions affected? Secondly, will he outline how a responsive Department can be responsive when it closes offices, leading to a lack of local knowledge and no understanding of local areas?
I will happily touch on part of that question. We are now in the 90-day consultation period. The consultation is on a range of issues, including the future of the staff in Sheffield, so—in response to an earlier question from Opposition Members—the future of staff in the city is only one of the issues being consulted upon. Legally, we may confirm the decision on closure before the end of the consultation, but I am happy to confirm that we will wait until the end of the full 90-day period before making a final decision. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, we have had regular meetings with trade union officials.
To continue, the Department needed to be restructured in line with its new business model under the “BIS 2020” framework. In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), that will deliver savings of £350 million by 2020, of which approximately £100 million will fall in the administration budgets.
With the greatest respect, the Minister did not answer my question. I presume that the matter has been looked at in considerable detail, because I am sure that no such decision would be made in any less responsible way. My question was: how much money is saved specifically by moving 247 policy jobs from Sheffield to London?
I would fall back on the response that the permanent secretary gave to the Select Committee on that point: it is difficult to disaggregate a specific item in an overall programme change. The overall “BIS 2020” programme is an holistic system change of working for the Department that will deliver savings of 30% to 40%, worth £350 million overall.
May I ask the question a different way around? If the Department pursued its restructuring and the “BIS 2020” programme, but left the jobs in Sheffield, how much more would that cost the Department?
Again, I am unable to provide a disaggregated breakdown of that figure because we are talking about a system change. We must bear in mind that the Department’s current locations are legacy locations, which are the result of legacy decisions and ad hoc organisational changes over a long period of time. We are moving to a more system-based way of looking at all the various ways in which the Department works. In future, our structures need to be, and will be, designed in a more streamlined and efficient way.
To support that effort, we will be bringing down the number of locations from which we operate from about 80 to approximately seven centres of excellence, supported by a regional footprint for work at a local level. Each centre will focus on a key business activity and bring together expertise and help to build up capability. That does not mean a London-centric Department, as has been suggested by Members. Even with the movement of policy roles to London, our overall London footprint will decrease by 2020. We have, and will continue to have, many more people based outside than inside London.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being generous. The point we were making was exactly that the Sheffield BIS office is not like other local and regional offices throughout the country; they are the only headquarters outside London where policy decision making is done. Does he not accept that this closure is a serious blow to the Government’s northern powerhouse and to devolution, which exposes that all as empty rhetoric?
Clearly I disagree with that. We will not be losing the capabilities. We will be moving a number of the jobs, and some jobs will become available in London, so the policy expertise that resides in Sheffield at present will not be lost.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central asked about equality. BIS is recognised across Whitehall as a leader in its support and determination to embed diversity across the Department’s workforce, and that will continue to be the case in the years ahead, notwithstanding these changes. The Department employs about 18,000 staff outside of London and just over 2,000 are based in the No. 1 Victoria Street headquarters in London.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I will make a bit of progress, if I may.
We are certain that that footprint, and our BIS local capability in particular, will ensure that BIS will maintain a nationwide perspective on policy issues. The hon. Gentleman who just tried to intervene—I am responding to his earlier intervention—was concerned about our ability to maintain policy capability in the light of the expertise that resides in Sheffield. As I said, there will be opportunities for people from Sheffield to move to London and other places, and we are confident that we will be able to maintain the high quality of work in the higher education and other policy directorates.
As the Minister for Universities and Science, since last May I have been working closely with higher education officials in Sheffield, and I am very happy with the work that they have done. They have consistently provided excellent support, and I want to thank them very much for their work. I reiterate that the Department’s decision was not taken lightly, but I am confident that our higher education policy making capability will remain as strong as ever.
In response to the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on the northern powerhouse, the Government are completely committed to Sheffield and its surrounding area as part of the northern powerhouse. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, has been working closely with the local council and the local enterprise partnership to produce an enhanced, landmark devolution deal, which will see a Sheffield city region mayor elected for the first time next year by voters across South Yorkshire. The mayor will have transport budgets, franchised bus services and strategic planning, plus additional devolved powers for the area’s combined authority. The mayor will also get control of an investment fund worth £30 million a year for 30 years.
I have a really friendly suggestion for how the Minister can honour the stirring rhetoric about the Government’s commitment to the northern powerhouse and to the long-term vibrancy of the Sheffield economy in particular. Will he undertake to all of us here now that he will personally make representations to the Secretary of State for Transport, the Chancellor and, if necessary, the Prime Minister to locate the high-speed railway station due to be located in South Yorkshire in—
—no, not in Meadowhall, but in Sheffield city centre? The northern powerhouse is built around the vibrancy of city centres. Ignore the cacophony of different voices from the Labour party in South Yorkshire and locate the station there and, not all, but quite a lot will be forgiven.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising an important point about the new transport connections that will improve the competitiveness of businesses in the north of England and the northern powerhouse area. That highlights the important point that, first of all, the northern powerhouse is about stimulating private sector growth, jobs and economic activity. It is not about preserving in aspic exactly the way things are across the whole of the state and the public sector—that is not what the northern powerhouse is about as an idea. It is about building better transport links, for instance through the creation of the Transport for the North body, and investing in things such as our science base, which we are now able to do thanks to the great science settlement we got in the spending review, which will help great institutions such as the Sir Henry Royce Institute, the Institute for Ageing in Newcastle and the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, which have all been able to come into existence in the north and help to drive productivity up in the area.
The northern powerhouse is about private investment, and that is important, but so is the symbol that the Government give about their commitment. We cannot get precise figures about the savings for the Department in moving these staff, but does the Minister agree that his permanent secretary could scope out an alternative model of how the Government would operate—with all the changes and the policy streams, but with staff remaining in Sheffield—to see what the difference is, and would he publish that, so that we can have an open and transparent consultation?
Order. There is great strength of feeling here. I hope the Minister will leave time for the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron).
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I want lastly to address this false picture—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”]—that is being presented of jobs being sucked into the economy in the south. The north of England is one of the fastest-growing regions of the country in terms of jobs growth and employment. The north-east and north-west are seeing very strong employment growth. We are confident that our long-term economic plan will continue to deliver jobs and opportunities for all the people in the area.
This has obviously been a very difficult decision for the Department. We are listening closely to staff to see how we can improve the support available to them and we will be listening closely to them in the weeks and months ahead. I will leave time for the right hon. Member for Rother Valley to conclude.
First of all, may I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate? It has been fascinating. I will quickly nip through one or two things that have been said. I did not know about the problems we have with phones in Sheffield—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said that the workforce had been told that. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) again: we do have the internet in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, and it does tend to work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, modern IT is a way to brief Ministers as well. Let me relate a little to that: iPads do work, as well as the Scottish National party. I did an interview live on Radio Sheffield at twenty past eight this morning, sat in my lounge, in a house in West Yorkshire, using a landline. I said to the interviewer at the time, “Twenty years ago I would have had to have got on the bus, gone into the studio and sat in Millbank to have the interview,” because they could not have coped with what are now everyday things. The idea that we are concerned about phone lines and everything else is just a little too much.
I was interested by the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). This is a political decision in the end and we have to accept that. I was here yesterday afternoon when we were talking about pharmacies. The Government decided to cut £170 million from pharmacies as part of the national health service’s £22 billion of efficiency savings, and today they tell us that they will put £10 billion back. If someone took £22 from me and gave me £10 back, I would think I had lost and I would not be happy with that.
I recognise that we do not have much time, but may I say this to the Minister? He says that the decision has not been taken lightly, but from the interaction we have had here, I can say that it has been taken without much knowledge of what the Department wants to do, and if I were a member of the workforce, I would not be very happy to have that fait accompli put in front of me. I still think there is time to reconsider the decision and I hope that the Government will do so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the closure of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills office in Sheffield.
Disabilities, Poverty and Inequalities
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered disabilities, poverty and inequalities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and an honour to have secured this debate, which is on an issue that is vital to people in all parts of the country. I also thank my colleagues for coming along to consider the association between disabilities and poverty, as well as organisations such as Inclusion Scotland and Disability Rights UK, which have been so kind in assisting me in my preparation for this debate. It is my real hope that this debate will contribute to putting this issue more firmly on the Government’s agenda and that the Minister will commit today to doing more to address it.
Ours is a disabling society. Some are born impaired. Some acquire impairments, some of which are visible and others invisible. All of us at some time will feel the invisible agency of a society that is organised for the convenience of able bodies. It is a society that adds to disabilities. Poverty and inequality affect a hugely diverse range of people in every constituency represented in this Parliament, but those living with disabilities especially and disproportionately face economic hardship, which for too long successive Governments have failed to tackle effectively.
While headline poverty rates suggest that disabled people are around 10% more likely to be in poverty than the population at large, it is generally thought that those figures significantly underestimate the scale of the problem. As is so often the case, the statistics fail to take into account the acutely increased costs and pressures that disabled people can face. Indeed, we know that the link between inequality and disability is reciprocal.
On the one hand, the high costs associated with living with a disability can push disabled people and their families into poverty, as many struggle with the greater costs of care, accommodation and transport. Recent research from the disability charity Scope has shown that disabled people spend an average of £550 per month on disability-related expenses—things such as taxis, increased heating and electricity consumption and the cost of maintaining equipment. As a result, those with disabilities are twice as likely to have unsecured debt totalling over half of their income, and they have on average £108,000 fewer savings and assets than non-disabled people.
On the other hand, the health and social inequalities that are so acutely felt in more deprived areas can contribute to a higher rate of disability in the most disadvantaged communities of the country. We need to recognise that being born into and growing up in poverty can have profound impacts on a child’s health, wellbeing and fitness at birth and in later life.
Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions demonstrate the extent of the disparities between more and less advantaged communities in the UK. It may be an imperfect measure of the total incidence of disability, but the DWP’s own figures on personal independence payments show that people in more affluent areas are less likely to require disability-related support. In the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney, 405 people received PIP in October 2015. In Chingford and Woodford Green, represented by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 495 claimants were paid PIP, while 680 constituents of the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People received that support. Take as a contrast my constituency of Glasgow East, where in October 2015 1,806 people received personal independence payments. It is astonishing that my constituents are a staggering four and a half times more likely than the Prime Minister’s to be in receipt of crucial disability-related support.
Too often at my surgeries and around my constituency, I meet people whose experience of poverty has contributed to or exacerbated their disability and whose financial security is threatened every month by disability-related costs. Despite plenty of evidence that this is a deep-rooted structural issue, we have so far failed to assert the sharp focus that is so desperately required to build sustained progress for disabled people and remove the links between disability and poverty. Our collective failure to do so is harming families across the country.
Today in the UK, a third of people in poverty live in a household with at least one disabled person. One in three children in Scotland who live with a disabled adult live in poverty, compared with one in five children living in poverty who do not live with a disabled adult. Disabled people can face increased cost pressures, and families with a disabled member face disproportionately a serious social gradient.
Research for the organisation Parenting across Scotland has found that families living with disability find it even more difficult to make ends meet, with 54% of parents in Scotland with a disability finding it more difficult to pay the bills than a year ago, compared with 29% of non-disabled parents. Some 25% of disabled parents in Scotland report problems getting affordable credit, compared with 8% of non-disabled parents. Meanwhile, 26% of disabled parents were being paid less than the real living wage, compared with 10% of non-disabled parents. It is clear that families living with disability are disproportionately and unacceptably bearing the brunt of the economic inequality that increasingly defines our society.
Wealthy families in Britain are a third less likely to have a disabled child—a statistic that reveals an alarming social gradient, because those families are pushed further into poverty by the pressures of caring for those children. People with disabilities and impairments are some of the poorest and most marginalised in the country. Academics at the University of Warwick’s School of Health and Social Studies published a paper in BMC Pediatrics showing that families bringing up a disabled child are at least £50 a week worse off than those without.
A family bringing up a child with a disability will face 18% higher costs in their family budget. That is because, for example, a disabled baby needs more nappies. A family’s ability to work and find affordable childcare is a real burden. Households with disabled children will depend more on social security benefits and face the additional financial costs associated with caring for a disabled child. Fuel costs for specially adapted cars are often higher than average, and the fact that those with the most severe disabilities have to attend hospitals and clinics weekly or even daily for therapies and treatments can have an enormous impact on family budgets.
Extra energy costs are also incurred because homes often have to be kept warmer in order to protect people with disabilities from colds and bugs, to which they are especially vulnerable. Disabled children living in poverty are often housebound due to the nature of their condition, and for those with the most severe disabilities, a warm home can truly mean the difference between life and death.
If we are ever to break the poverty-disability link, we need a long-term plan to tackle deprivation, lift communities out of poverty and ensure a decent standard of living for every single person in our country. While the UK Government’s policies are sadly taking us in the wrong direction in that respect, I know there are Members on all sides of the House who agree we need to do more to ensure a better quality of life for disabled people across the UK.
Of course, this issue affects a great many people not only in this country but in every corner of the world, and there is an important international dimension to the debate. Globally, one in seven people have a disability, and 80% of disabled people around the world live in poverty. In the developing world, we see the same reciprocal relationship between poverty and disability, only with even more striking effects. In a great many countries, people living in poverty simply do not have adequate access to the healthcare, clean water and sanitation that we in the UK take for granted. As a result, they are even more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. They are also more likely to live and work in dangerous or disaster-prone areas, all of which means that poor people in the developing world are more likely to acquire an impairment that leads to disability.
Disabled people in the developing world, as is the case here, can also too often find themselves excluded from healthcare, education, employment and opportunities to participate in their communities, meaning that those living with disabilities often constitute the poorest people in the poorest countries on earth. The Government’s international development agenda has recognised the specific need to assist disabled people, but non-governmental organisations and charities, such as CBM UK, are telling us that more needs to be done by the Department for International Development.
Thank you, Sir Roger, for chairing this debate. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in the light of the sustainable development goals, which are accepted and have been adopted by 170 nations in the world—Britain is a signatory—the Minister should agree to provide support to those families and particularly disabled people so that they can have a better standard of living?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for succinctly making that point, and I completely agree with him.
As we know, people with disabilities are most at risk in conflict situations, meaning that our diplomatic and humanitarian response is vital in supporting disabled people. One in five refugees in Jordan and Lebanon is affected by physical, sensory or intellectual impairment—a chilling illustration of the cost of the warfare raging in Syria today.
Internationally, the UK must champion diplomatic solutions that will help to end conflict, alleviate poverty and support disabled people in some of the most desperate places on earth. At the world humanitarian summit in May in Istanbul, DFID’s representatives must highlight the importance of the inclusion of disabled people as a core element of an effective humanitarian response.
However, there is so much more to do here in the UK to break the poverty-disability link as well, and although the lives of disabled people in conflict zones and the developing world can only be transformed through international co-operation on development and humanitarian assistance, here in the UK, we in this place have the primary responsibility to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. As a starting point at least, we need to make sure that people and families living with disability have the financial support that they need to get by without the fear of a life lived in poverty. We have a serious responsibility to invest more in a system of social protection that meets disabled people’s needs and tackles the pernicious inequalities that they face.
Of course, that is not in keeping with the current direction of political travel in this place. It is hard to escape the fact that the UK Government’s austerity agenda is immeasurably harming the finances of disabled people in the UK, pushing many more into poverty and making difficult lives even harder. The introduction of universal credit is hitting families with disability particularly hard, as those previously claiming the middle or higher rate of the care component of disability living allowance will no longer receive the severe disability premium.
In Scotland, 80% of households hit by the bedroom tax include at least one disabled person. Changes to incapacity benefit have cost householders on average £3,480 a year and changes to disability living allowance have cost people £3,000 a year. In England, according to estimates from the Centre for Welfare Reform, cuts to welfare, social care and other services mean that disabled people are facing an average cumulative cut of £4,600 a year.
It is simply not acceptable that disabled people are being treated as fair game for the Government’s austerity agenda and yet, further cuts to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group went through Parliament yesterday. That will further disincentivise work for people with disabilities and push thousands more people with long-term illnesses and disabilities into financial hardship.
One of my constituents who experiences disability is unable to read some of the information that is required to make her personal independence payment application and, as a result, relies on the citizens advice bureau to support her. Does the Minister accept that some people require additional support to make their applications, and acknowledge that, rather than penalising people such as my constituent, they need assistance to live independently and make their way in the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that hugely important point. In my constituency, I have also seen the lack of access to readable documents and support, particularly for people with mental health issues as well as literacy issues, and that has caused them adverse harm.
Employment and support allowance was envisaged as a way of supporting people with limited capacity for work as a result of sickness and disability. It sought to recognise the barriers that disabled people face in seeking work—the disabling attitudes, the disabling environments and the additional costs that disabled people bear, day to day, just leading their lives. ESA extended a small measure of recognition for the inequality that our society generates, and now even that small gesture is to be torn away.
Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, is reported as saying:
“People being supported by ESA receive a higher rate than those on JSA because they face additional barriers as a result of their illness or disability, and typically take longer to move into work. Almost 60 per cent of people on JSA move off the benefit within 6 months, while almost 60 per cent of people in the WRAG need this support for at least two years.”
What assessment have the Government made of the impact of this measure on disabled people?
According to a survey conducted by the Disability Benefits Consortium, almost a third of people on ESA who were surveyed said that they cannot afford to eat on the levels of ESA that they receive now. Inclusion Scotland has said that the proposals are
“a direct attack on the living standards of disabled people, their families, carers and children and will result in hundreds of thousands more being plunged into poverty and destitution”.
I hope that today the Minister can justify the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people and explain how cuts to social protection funding will take disabled people out of poverty. Unfortunately, I fear that the newest cuts will continue to do what this Government’s austerity project has already done and cause additional financial difficulties for people living with disabilities.
Poverty and disability should not have to be so closely intertwined, and with a concerted effort to reform our social security system and ensure that disabled people have an adequate income and decent, appropriate employment opportunities, we can address the severe inequalities that disabled people experience.
We know that poverty and disability can be mutually reinforcing and that disabled people have too often been let down by decisions made in this place, which in recent years has tended to make their situation worse. However, this Government’s record has too often been to deny or explain away the statistics when confronted with them, and to deny the impact that their policies are having on real people in real communities across the UK. I somewhat suspect—though I hope not—that that will continue today. I very much hope that the Minister takes this opportunity to prove me wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Roger. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and congratulating her not only on securing this debate, but on her incredibly thoughtful and instructive contribution. She highlighted a number of issues, and I think it is probably fair to say that we completely agree on 95% of those, such as her assessment of the barriers that people with disabilities face; the recognition that their circumstances are difficult, and therefore that we have, quite rightly, social security protections in place for them; and that there is always more that we can do. There was also her reflection on past Governments’ approaches and the failures of systems to provide the right kind of support—adequate support—for people who have been stuck in poverty and have faced barriers and inequalities. The real difficulties, hardships and challenges associated with disabilities were also absolutely recognised by her, and I pay tribute to her on that basis.
I also want to comment on the hon. Lady’s reflection on disability, inequality and poverty at an international level. She was right in this debate to highlight the significance of the challenges that communities and individuals face around the world. For many millions of people internationally—we should put this in some kind of context—particularly in the underdeveloped world and in developing economies and countries, the barriers that they face are enormous for a wide range of reasons. It is not just about access to healthcare or support; it is the fact that the development of their economies and their societies is taking a very different trajectory from ours and they do not have the type of provisions we have in place for people who are experiencing poverty, disabilities or barriers.
If I may speak in the UK context and bring this back to home, the Department for Work and Pensions and the present Government have consistently focused—as, to be fair, did the previous Government—on the fact that when it comes to tackling poverty and inequality, the aim of our welfare reforms has been to secure employment opportunities, putting into practice the principle that work is the best route out of poverty. Evidence shows that nearly three quarters of workless families who have found full employment have escaped poverty.
Specifically—I will come to some of the points that the hon. Member for Glasgow East raised—we are very much focused, in the policy changes that we our making, on helping people with health conditions and disabilities to overcome some of the clear and stark barriers that they have faced in obtaining employment, so that they can rightly benefit from having access to employment opportunities and being in work. At the same time, we are also focused on protecting people through social security. For those who are vulnerable in society, particularly disabled people—it is worth highlighting that spending on the main disability benefits went up by over £2 billion in real terms over the course of the previous Parliament—it is right that we have the right kind of financial protection in place.
Universal credit was mentioned. We have brought in new exemptions for households entitled to carer’s allowance and the UC carer element, as well as for households receiving guardian allowance, which will be brought forward at the end of the year.
This is a much wider debate on how Government policy can help to transform people’s lives by tackling the root causes of poverty, supporting people into work and helping them progress. It is not just about yo-yoing or cycling in and out of the benefits system. I refer specifically to universal credit, which will support people, whatever their circumstances, to put the right frameworks in place to help them into work. At the same time, our focus has been on supporting more disabled people into work. We have made good progress, and 3.2 million disabled people are currently in employment. That is an increase of more than 150,000 over the past year.
My colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, is focusing on a huge agenda for employment, to halve the employment disability gap and—there was a debate in the House yesterday on our wider welfare reforms—by means of the Disability Confident campaign, to bring together more employers to work with us to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities, to challenge attitudes to disabilities, to help remove potential employment barriers and, importantly, to ensure that people who have barriers and disabilities have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
It is important to highlight that many parliamentary colleagues across all parties are doing a great deal of work in their constituencies to promote and support the concept of Disability Confident and working with employers in their constituencies. I am happy to work with the hon. Lady and her colleagues to look at some practical things we can do, not just in her constituency, but in others throughout Scotland. We are working with employers to do a lot more to bridge the employment disability gap. At the same time, a lot of good work is taking place in our jobcentres to change attitudes and to work with employers and bring more together.
I thank the Minister for the tone of her response so far. I congratulate the Government on their target of halving the disability employment gap, but in the Department for Work and Pensions the number of advisers for disabled people is disproportionately low, which is a real barrier to helping people into work.
The hon. Lady touched on the employment and support allowance, which was also part of the debate in the House yesterday. Some clear reforms are taking place and we are committed to publishing a White Paper in the spring which will focus on how we can provide the right kind of support and not just financial support. We are great believers in practical support. We are making sure that advisers and the right kind of support are in place to help people with barriers and disabilities and to give them the right guidance and the support that they need. At the same time, we are investing a lot more.
In our summer Budget there was provision of at least £115 million for a joint work and health unit to improve the work and health outcomes for people with health conditions and disabilities. The unit has started work. We are also working with disability charities to look at the right way—we will have pilots around the country—to provide practical support and schemes to support people with barriers and health conditions. Mental health is a classic example. The Government are committed to a lot of funding for mental health provision. In particular, we are seeking through this unit to join up the provision and to make sure the signposting and the right sort of provision can take place.
Last week, I met employees at the jobcentre in my local area who spoke extensively about their work to support people back into employment. They raised the point that a large percentage of those who present at the jobcentre suffer from mental ill health. Does the Minister accept that these people require a longer period of support to sustain long-term employment? That may cost the Government more in the long run, but it will benefit their lives.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that. We know that the challenges and barriers facing people with mental health problems are enormous. One purpose of universal credit is to support them while they try out work and undertake employment that may stretch them in the long run, and support them in work as well. At the same time, we must do more to work with employers. The Government do not have all the answers. Employers and their organisers have great health and occupational health support, and we must look at how we can leverage that to support individuals in employment.
If nothing else, this debate has highlighted that, yes, more needs to be done and we cannot stand still. Through our White Paper and the joint work between DWP and the Department of Health, the Government are looking at how to bring resources together in the right sort of structured way to ensure that we can deliver the services that in the long run can transform lives. These people are furthest away from the labour market. Their lives have been challenging for many reasons and they need the right sort of support to provide them with motivation and encouragement to get out of the cycle of inequality, deprivation, poverty and the combined factors that have stopped them from working in the past.
I am conscious of the time, Sir Roger, so in conclusion I want to emphasise that through the reforms and our current work—a White Paper will be published—the Government are committed to enabling not just disabled people, but those with health conditions and barriers, to fulfil their full potential while protecting the most vulnerable. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Glasgow East and some of her colleagues when the White Paper is published and hearing their views on how we can do more to support people with these conditions back into work.
Question put and agreed to.
Crohn’s and Colitis Treatment: England
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the treatment of people with Crohn’s and colitis in England.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am aware that there are different treatments in Scotland and Wales, but I want to focus on Crohn’s disease and colitis in England.
I am pleased to be leading this very important debate on Crohn’s and colitis, which affect more than 250,000 people in England and 300,000 in the UK. I have been working with the charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK, some of whose members are here today. They would be delighted to meet any hon. Members participating in the debate because they would like to get some publicity for that particularly wonderful charity, which is based in my constituency in St Albans. It does a tremendous amount of work for those who live with these challenging conditions.
I am also pleased to say that I have been reading the feedback from the digital debate on Facebook. That is a new concept, and I am very pleased that the House is offering it. I wish to express my thanks to Crohn’s and Colitis UK and the Westminster Hall digital debate team for arranging the online forum. We received 1,068 comments on the forum, and the posts were shared 258 times and liked 734 times, so it has been highly informative to this debate.
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two main forms of inflammatory bowel disease. Both are chronic lifelong conditions that cause inflammation of the digestive system. Ulcerative colitis affects only the large intestine, whereas Crohn’s disease affects the whole digestive system. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, it is estimated that in the UK 115,000 people have Crohn’s disease and 146,000 have ulcerative colitis. That is an estimated 460 people per constituency. I keep using the word “estimated” because there is no national database. At my last meeting with the charity, it stressed that it would very much like there to be a national database and better record keeping on those people who are presenting with the disease.
The most common symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease include diarrhoea, cramping pains in the abdomen, tiredness and fatigue, and loss of appetite and loss of weight. The exact causes of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are unclear, but there is evidence that IBD can cluster in families, and having an affected family member is a risk factor. IBD is a lifelong condition, but people can get it at any age. It most commonly first presents in the teenage years and early twenties—the mean age of diagnosis is 29.5 years. About 18,000 new cases of IBD are diagnosed each year, and that number is increasing. This is not a trivial complaint. IBD can be painful, disrupt normal activities and reduce quality of life, particularly during periods of active disease. These conditions can affect the individual’s ability to work, learn, socialise and form and maintain relationships.
We British are famous for our lavatorial sense of humour, and just saying the word “bottom” or “bum” is usually enough to bring on a fit of the giggles, so it is no surprise that we, the British public, are not good at discussing bowel problems or even seeking help for them—no wonder IBD has been described as a hidden disease. That reluctance can lead to sufferers feeling isolated and stigmatised.
According to Crohn’s and Colitis UK, the causes of IBD are a combination of factors. Those include the genes that a person has inherited, together with an abnormal reaction of the immune system to certain bacteria in the intestines, probably triggered by something in the environment. Viruses, bacteria, diet, smoking and stress have all been suggested as environmental triggers, but there is no definitive evidence that any one of those is the cause of IBD. That is why, as I know the charity would also say, we need more research and more evidence. We need IBD to have a higher profile, as it affects so many of our constituents.
There is currently no cure for Crohn’s or colitis. The main aim of treating IBDs is either to heal the inflammation and so reduce symptoms during a flare-up or to prevent flare-ups from happening. NICE has recommended a number of different medicines for IBD, which can be taken in different ways by patients, but if individuals do not respond to medication, surgery is considered as an option—20% of people with ulcerative colitis and about 60% to 70% of people with Crohn’s disease go on to have surgery. A large number of our constituents will be forced to have surgery as a result of the disease. The lifetime medical costs for IBD are comparable to those for other major diseases such as diabetes and cancer. It is estimated to cost £900 million per annum, UK-wide. Crohn’s and Colitis UK currently funds about £500,000-worth of research every year into the causes of IBD, and treatments and care for people with IBD. Although that sounds like a large amount of money, in terms of the number of sufferers it is not a large amount.
There is a new research study under way from the National Institute for Health Research, called the IBD BioResource. The aim is to accelerate research into Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and build on recent major advances in the understanding of the genetic basis of these conditions. The IBD BioResource is being launched for roll-out nationwide through 2016. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister how much support the Government are giving to the IBD BioResource study.
Crohn’s and Colitis UK says that there is a low level of awareness of IBD among the public, policy makers and even clinicians. It says:
“Public awareness of IBD is lower than for Parkinson’s and MS”—
“respectively, despite more people being affected by IBD than both diseases combined.”
Most of us will be very familiar with those two diseases.
At this point, I want to include some of the comments from the digital debate on Facebook. One contributor said:
“I’ve had Crohn’s for 18 years. For me it’s pain, fatigue and always having to explain to people what’s wrong with me and why I can’t come to work or do things.”
Another referred to:
“The Stigma of having a bowel disease. People not believing you and belittling how you feel because they can’t see it.”
Another said that we need:
“To raise more awareness of the illness! Make people more aware of what we go through on a day to day basis!”
Another talked about:
“Having to try, and try, and TRY to make people realise that it’s a disability and that just because you ‘don’t look ill’ (in a wheelchair) you still have issues that they will never understand.”
Many made the point that the illness controls and disrupts their lives to such an extent that they are in fact disabled by it. It is a hidden disability, and many call for it to be recognised as a disability. Therefore my question for the Minister is this: what are the Government doing to increase awareness of inflammatory bowel disease, and what are they doing to measure accurately the number of people living with IBD in England?
The charity tells me that early diagnosis of Crohn’s and colitis can prevent emergency hospital admissions, which have a cost to the NHS, and can help to avoid clinical complications. Unfortunately, in a substantial number of cases that is simply not happening. Studies have shown that 35% of people with Crohn’s and 16% of people with colitis had three or more emergency admissions before they received their diagnosis.
In the digital debate on Facebook, a sufferer said:
“I was treated for 6 months by my GP for food poisoning and/or anorexia before eventually ending up hospitalised as an emergency. The hospital did biopsies that day and confirmed Crohn’s. My Crohn’s turned out to be particularly aggressive and unresponsive to treatment and numerous surgeries.”
“GPs need to be more up to date with IBD and stop saying it’s just a virus or IBS”—
irritable bowel syndrome. They continued:
“It took quite a few years of pain and complaining before I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis.”
There is clear guidance from NICE on referral. The NICE quality standard for IBD states that people who have been experiencing abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating or a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhoea, with or without rectal bleeding, for at least six weeks should be suspected of having IBD. However, the feedback is clear that for many that is currently not happening and the guidance is not being followed.
NICE recommended faecal calprotectin testing as an option to help doctors to distinguish between inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s and colitis, and non-inflammatory bowel diseases, such as IBS. That testing should enable quicker identification of suspected IBD and referral to a specialist, and reduce the number of unnecessary endoscopies carried out. Therefore more effective use of faecal calprotectin testing in primary care should enable quicker and more economical diagnosis of IBD patients, ensuring better and more efficient care in England.
What steps will the Minister take to improve the identification of suspected IBD? What are the Government doing to increase awareness of IBD in general practice among GPs? What steps will she take to improve the rate of referral of people with suspected IBD from primary care to the experts in secondary care? Will the Department undertake an evaluation of the uptake of faecal calprotectin testing by clinical commissioning groups, which NICE recommends, and the time taken by labs to process the results?
The IBD standards have been widely recognised throughout the IBD community, and later rounds of the IBD audit have benchmarked IBD services directly against them, but there is still a lot to do. Some 14% of services are still unable to provide people with Crohn’s or colitis with access to an IBD specialist nurse. Many of us would think of having access to a Parkinson’s specialist nurse, but IBD specialist nurses are few and far between, and many that have them struggle to maintain that vital service. Nearly one in four—23%—of all services have no access to specialist nutritional support despite the high level of malnutrition experienced by people suffering with IBD. Only 12% of services have a clear process to enable people with IBD to see a psychologist or a counsellor with a particular knowledge of IBD, and IBD has been described on many occasions as being a traumatising disease that leaves many people feeling isolated and unable to discuss with anyone—sometimes even their partners and closest friends—the reasons why they are often ill.
Sufferers complained online of a postcode lottery with IBD nurses. The lack of nurses was cited by many, who also said that GPs needed more training to identify people with Crohn’s and to assist in providing faster referrals or appointments when treatments need adjusting. Some sufferers found that their GP even seemed reluctant to make those referrals. Many sufferers said that employers need to have a greater awareness of the impact of IBD on their employees, especially given that flare-ups can occur at any time.
What is the Department doing to ensure the implementation of the IBD standards in England, and can the Minister give assurances to those living with IBD that they will not be forgotten on a strategic level by the NHS? What action is the Department taking to ensure that the NICE quality standard for IBD disease is being implemented across England? For those living with IBD, debilitating symptoms such as diarrhoea can occur instantly and unpredictably. Crohn’s and Colitis UK has been championing quick access to suitable toilet facilities. I hope the Minister will encourage all local authorities to evaluate the public toilet provision in their locality.
Increasing access to toilets away from home is of benefit to all groups in society but it is especially crucial for those living with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, who have concerns about not reaching a toilet in time. Does the hon. Lady believe that other nations in the UK can learn from Welsh Labour’s Public Health (Wales) Bill, which treats access to toilets as a public health issue?
It certainly is a public health issue. In the first Parliament I was in, from 2005 to 2010, I was on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government and we looked into the issue of toilet access. I do not think that much has improved since then and that was under a Labour Government. I am sorry to say that we have not made a lot of progress. At the time, ordinary businesses were showing and displaying signs reading, “We welcome people using our public facilities.” The evidence that came out of that Communities and Local Government Committee report was that toilet provision was not just needed for people with things such as Crohn’s and colitis—there was a vast spectrum of other conditions for which people would welcome toilet provision, but that is for another debate.
It is very obvious that more focus on the cure and cause of IBD is urgently needed. I hope the Minister will give sufferers of this debilitating disease a cause for hope and a better future. I look forward to her answers—I hope she can give them today—to a large number of the questions that I have raised on behalf of those who have responded to the online debate and on behalf of the charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK, which is doing such a lot of good work. Look for the purple badge.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I think four Members wish to speak. I will not put a formal time limit on speeches but request that Members confine their remarks to about six minutes. If we are sensible, everybody should get a chance to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate. It is most welcome, especially to those people who are suffering and feel that they have a forgotten illness. It is important to discuss this immune system-related condition and to remind those in the Government that IBD is not IBS. I previously submitted a written question to the Minister about some of the data on Crohn’s and colitis gastroenterology appointments and asked whether they were being cancelled or postponed by the provider. No data are collected on that and it seems that quite a lot of data are not collected on the illness. I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments on centralising data on sufferers. As a sufferer myself, I think it would be a particularly good idea.
The appointments issue was recognised by my local trust. First appointments after a referral by a GP were timely but subsequent appointments to consultants were frequently being rescheduled at short notice and people would not be able to see their consultant for a further six months. For IBD sufferers, the gaps between assessments and, for consultants, the gaps between monitoring, are increasingly problematic. Consultants cannot get the data they need to monitor sufferers properly.
Specialist IBD nurses are absolutely essential as a resource for between-appointment reassurance and advice for sufferers. The nurses cover not only IBD. Those at my local hospital, including Kay Foster, who has been particularly helpful to me, cover IBS and a whole range of bowel conditions. Her caseload is enormous but if someone rings her, she will always call back. If that service were available more widely, it would be greatly appreciated.
Funnily enough, I had an email from a constituent, who said that she has recently come out of hospital after being admitted with suspected inflammatory bowel disease after having a camera investigation. She was discharged from hospital after becoming very ill and having to be put on a drip because she was dehydrated and collapsed. She is now on a waiting list of about six weeks for a CT scan. At the moment, she is constantly having flare-ups as soon as she eats anything. She is losing a lot of weight and is not digesting anything. Her big concern is that she is malnourished, dehydrated, weak, exhausted, in pain and constantly having to use the toilet.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My constituent is suffering with daily anxiety attacks. She has three young children, and she feels as if she cannot be a proper parent because she is so poorly. She has already signed off sick and is unable to work. She asked me to intervene to try to move her appointment forward. Of course, I recognise that numerous people will, unfortunately, be in that situation.
In my previous role as an organiser for Unison, I met a carer for older people in a nursing home. She had two young children, too, and she was struck down by the illness particularly severely. Within a short period of time, she was taken down the route of capability by her employer. Fortunately, we were able to intervene because, as a long-term condition, it falls under the Equality Act 2010. We were able to assist, but all employers should be aware and make reasonable adjustments, as they are required, including to work patterns, which can assist in supporting people.
At the moment, treatment seems to be limited to preventive measures, but that is very much about people’s physical health. It is also about mental health, because stress can form part of the illness. Continued use of steroids is not a healthy way to live and can have negative long-term effects. Many people are desperate to get control of this disease, and investment in research to try to combat the illness cannot come soon enough.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this important debate. Helping to increase the understanding and awareness of Crohn’s and colitis is of huge importance to the 300,000 people across the UK who suffer from one of those complex, lifelong and potentially life-threatening diseases. It is thought that as many as 26,000 people in Scotland have Crohn’s or colitis, a higher incidence rate than anywhere else in the UK.
Living with IBD can have a huge impact on every aspect of a person’s life. It has serious physical and mental health implications, as I found out when I met local representatives of Crohn’s and Colitis UK soon after I was elected. I was surprised to find out that there were hundreds of people living in my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock who suffer from these hidden, often misunderstood and dreadful conditions. It is vital that we try and reach out to these people, who may feel isolated or be coping badly with their health.
Living with IBD can be a daily struggle. Some symptoms of the disease can be embarrassing, which can lead to people suffering, without receiving adequate support, or feeling isolated. As we have heard, among the most distressing symptoms of IBD are diarrhoea and a constant urge to have a bowel movement. This means that people with IBD need constant access to a toilet, due to the frequency and urgency of their bowel movements. That is why the availability of clean public toilets is so crucial for those with IBD.
Understandably, these symptoms are often accompanied by a continuous anxiety about the sudden need to go to the toilet but having little time to find one. Who here can imagine the nightmare of being constantly under threat of being incontinent in public? For many individuals, that anxiety can have a devastating impact on their ability to engage in activities outside the home, such as working, shopping or socialising.
I am trying to help my constituents by working with the local Crohn’s and Colitis UK group on a scheme that encourages shops, restaurants and other businesses to have an open-door policy for people with Crohn’s or colitis who carry the “Can’t Wait” card. Something as simple as a sticker in a premise’s windows will allow people with these conditions to know that they can use a toilet that in other circumstances may not be open to the public. We also need to challenge the public’s attitude about disability, which is probably down to the logos that are used, and show that those with disabilities are not always in wheelchairs.
One of the things that people in my constituency who have IBD do not have to worry about is paying for their prescriptions. One of the main reasons the Scottish Government scrapped prescription charges was the benefit to people with life-long conditions such as IBD. Research shows that as a result of an unfair, outdated and arbitrary system of exemptions, many people with long-term conditions in England are severely compromising their health because they are unable to afford prescription charges. Since such charging was scrapped in Scotland, those with conditions such as IBD who need medication on an ongoing basis throughout their lives to keep them well no longer have to face making an impossible decision between paying for essential medication or feeding their family, or paying their rent or heating their home. Effectively taxing someone for having IBD or any other long-term condition is unfair and fundamentally against the founding principles of the NHS. I am proud that in Scotland we took the decision to improve access to prescriptions for all.
Although much needs to be done to improve the treatment of people with Crohn’s and colitis, I ask the Government to recognise the benefits of scrapping prescription charges for people with long-term conditions, and I ask all Members of the House to work with their local Crohn’s and Colitis UK group to help to foster the kind of environment where people suffering from these incurable and relapsing chronic conditions can feel confident to leave their homes and take part in the everyday activities that most of us take for granted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Roger.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on her outstanding speech and on bringing this important topic to the fore. I am delighted that we have had so many contributors today. I remember that when I held a debate in 2012 on employment opportunities for those with Crohn’s and colitis, I was the only speaker who was responded to by the Minister. I am glad that this issue has moved up the agenda somewhat since then.
Those with Crohn’s and colitis are often mixed up with those with irritable bowel syndrome—in fact, I admit that when I first heard of Crohn’s and colitis, I thought they were the same thing. I did not realise how debilitating and disabling they were, and how many people suffered in silence, and I really believed that it was time to shine a light on those things.
A recent Crohn’s and Colitis UK survey of pre-employed young people with inflammatory bowel disease showed that the prospect of gaining their first job was regarded as a daunting challenge. Employability emerged as their overriding concern, and when they found themselves in work, they found that they were often too embarrassed or scared to tell their employers about their needs. When I secured that debate—four years ago, nearly—I said that all we were calling for from employers was some understanding and some respect. However, with the welfare reform changes that lay ahead, I was deeply concerned that that was not going to be the case. That is why I am disappointed that the report found that 69% of the young people interviewed felt that their IBD had prevented them not only from reaching their full educational potential, but from having any chance of employment, with over half ruling out some sort of career option.
Back in January 2014, I took on an intern for three months who has Crohn’s disease. She completed her internship and I was very impressed by her work. There was an opening in my office and I offered her a job as my parliamentary research assistant, and she has been with me ever since—although I will say that in some parts of this speech she has written “irritable bowel disease” rather than “inflammatory bowel disease”, even though she herself suffers from the condition, but I will forgive her that. I was keen to take part in the internship programme, as I valued the idea of giving a younger member of the public an incredible career experience, while also teaching politicians such as myself about inflammatory bowel disease—she has written “irritable bowel disease” again, Sir Roger.
In January 2015, I hosted the parliamentary launch of the Work Foundation’s report on IBD and employment, alongside Crohn’s and Colitis UK—I am delighted they are here today, as the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned. In the UK, at least 300,000 people, or one in 210 people, have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, which are both known as inflammatory bowel disease. That equates to roughly around 460 people in each parliamentary constituency across the UK. These are incurable and relapsing chronic long-term conditions. The symptoms can be present at any age, but most commonly in the teens and twenties.
People with IBD are high users of health services, with 50% of patients with Crohn’s disease requiring surgery during their lifetime. I know this first hand, as my parliamentary researcher, who has Crohn’s disease, as I have mentioned, has had four operations in the two years she has been working in my office. In saying that, I pay tribute to Laura for her bravery, because, for something as private and embarrassing as some of the symptoms she has suffered from, she has not been afraid to bring that to the fore. We need more people like her, not only in politics but throughout working life.
Medical treatment will often include corticosteroids and immunosuppressants, including the biological therapies that are the latest treatments offered for inflammatory bowel disease. These conditions can have a devastating and life-stopping impact on a person’s life, due to the unpredictable nature of flare-ups, together with sleep deprivation, pain and fatigue, and they can severely affect an individual’s self-esteem.
There appears to be a low level of awareness of inflammatory bowel disease among the public, policy makers and clinicians. Public awareness of IBD is lower than it is for Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, as the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned, despite more people being affected by IBD than by both these conditions combined. The lack of public awareness is exacerbated by the stigma attached to the symptoms of IBD and the fact that it is a hidden illness.
Four years ago, I called for some understanding from employers. With debates such as this and events we have had in Parliament, I hope that understanding can come to the fore. If there is a message that should emerge from today’s debate from sufferers of IBD such as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and my parliamentary researcher, it is that there is no point in hiding IBD away. If someone is suffering, they should ask their employer for help. Most people I meet—I was a trade union official—are understanding. I have tried to be an understanding employer myself. Once people overcome that barrier, they will find that they can have a working life that is fruitful and that can lead to some great opportunities.
I had wanted to say more, Sir Roger, but I understand that there is a time limit. However, I will say this to anybody who suffers from Crohn’s or colitis: please do not hide away. If you are suffering, then speak to your employer. Speak to your teacher. Tell them what you are suffering from and they will be understanding. I genuinely believe that Crohn’s and colitis is as much of a problem for this country as dementia, whereas it is not mentioned because it is embarrassing—it is not something that we talk about. Crohn’s should be pushed up the political agenda, and I hope that with today’s debate we will do that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.
I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for securing this debate, because, as we have heard in some of the contributions, there is a lack of awareness of the difference between irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Having been a doctor myself for more than 30 years, and a general surgeon for 20 of those before specialising purely in breast cancer, I know well what the outcome can be for people with IBD.
As the hon. Lady said, the rate of surgery is such that between 50% and 70% of Crohn’s patients and almost a third of those with ulcerative colitis will end up having an operation. The conditions are not trivial or embarrassing; they are life-threatening. It is therefore absolutely important that we try to get the research funding so that we can understand the cause, because that then gives us a chance of finding the cure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) mentioned, for some reason Scotland has a very high incidence of such conditions. Is that genetic, or is it environmental? Looking at what is going on in different parts of the UK may help us get a handle on what is going on. Those are the things that we need to look for in the long term.
Normally when we are in the Chamber talking about a disease, we are talking about access to medicines in the major sense of not being allowed a new drug that would make a difference. Unusually, that is not the case here. The anti-tumour necrosis factor drugs can make a huge difference and have been passed by all the nations of the UK, but there is an issue with patients getting all the medicines that they require. If patients are on biologics, they will not pay prescription charges, but most of them are on a panoply of drugs, and for those they do have to pay. England needs to consider that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have got rid of prescription charges. That move was led by Wales in 2007.
Plenty of research shows that, in general, less than 10% of the population pays for prescriptions, with half as pre-payment and half as pay-as-you-go. However, whenever surveys are done of people with chronic diseases, we find that some 75% to 85% are paying. That is because many of those diseases do not hit people once they have conveniently retired and qualify for free prescriptions. We have talked about how Crohn’s may hit people in their teens and how ulcerative colitis may hit people in their 20s and 30s, and they will have those conditions for life. They will be on different medications: methotrexate, steroids, enemas—the whole works—and they will be paying £8 an item. We talk about pre-payment, but many of these people will be in poorer jobs, because there will be times when they are not so well and when they are in and out of work as they have a waxing and waning condition. Because of that, they have to try to work out whether it will benefit them to pay £100-odd to have a pre-payment certificate. Perhaps they have a good year, perhaps they do not.
What has been shown in all the research is that approximately 35% of people report having not picked up a prescription because of charges, and approximately 30% have done that repeatedly. With all conditions we know that if someone is not taking their medication, they will get worse, but that is particularly the case with Crohn’s and colitis, which have such complications as strictures and toxic megacolon.
Working in breast cancer, we talk about “the big C”, but when I was doing general and emergency surgery I used to think of Crohn’s as “the wee C”, because it affects virtually all of someone’s life. It is debilitating and will affect everything that they do. These people are in and out of hospital, developing strictures, perforations and ischemic bowels and undergoing ileostomies, reversals and so on. It goes on and on. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned his member of staff, and I suggest he proofreads his speeches. She may write them, but it is his job to check them. People with Crohn’s often end up in hospital having expensive and incredibly difficult surgery. To go back into the abdomen of someone who has Crohn’s is a surgical nightmare. I have been there with the sweat pouring off me, trying to do those operations. Using the anti-TNF drugs earlier and ensuring that patients take all the medication required will make a difference in reducing surgery and, in the end, that is more cost-effective.
The other thing is access to care and trying to make it easier for people to get on with normal life. Along with Crohn’s and Colitis UK, the Scottish Government funded a two-year pilot that was looking at allowing patients to be much more linked to the clinician using e-health technology. That was carried out in the highlands to look at people living in rural areas, and in Greater Glasgow and Clyde to look at people living in a large city. The pilot developed information and support for patients and redesigned the services around the patients. Using the technology, the patient has an app that gives them information. They can have a two-way conversation with a clinician and they can register their symptoms. The clinician has a dashboard on their patients, and they can see whether someone is getting worse. That allows them to say, “Increase that”, or “Decrease this.” It means that patients do not always have to go and sit in the hospital if they are trying to hold down a job. If someone lives in the highlands and has to travel four hours to get to Inverness, that is a major pain when they are trying to maintain a normal life.
A new strategy is being launched in Scotland in June, and its aim is to meet the UK national Crohn’s and colitis standards. It will be the first comprehensive integrated strategy in the United Kingdom. It will create a patient portal where people can access their clinic letters and blood results so that they learn that they can manage their own disease. When we talk about the five year forward vision, or the 2020 vision in Scotland, the aim is to enable and empower patients to manage their chronic diseases as far as possible.
The last thing that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Islwyn was changing attitudes in society. Not everyone with a condition is on crutches or in a wheelchair, and we need to get past the embarrassment of talking about bottoms or going to the toilet. We need to realise that these are serious conditions that are debilitating. We simply need to make access to toilets available for everyone, whether they are elderly, incontinent or have inflammatory bowel disease. It is about trying to get past that access just being for certain people, because it is important for a lot of people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, commend the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) not only on securing the debate and the eloquent way in which she opened it, but on the work she is doing to help raise awareness of Crohn’s and colitis. Although the debate is about the situation in England, we have had a valuable set of contributions from Members from Wales and Scotland. While it is right that the public health Minister is responsible for this policy area in England, there is a lot of experience and research that we should be sharing. We should also be sharing a lot more understanding of what each part of the NHS in each respective part of the United Kingdom is achieving in the work to try to tackle some of the issues.
I put on record my thanks to Crohn’s and Colitis UK for all its hard work in briefing Members of Parliament for this debate, and for all the work it has done since its inception in 1979. I will let you into a secret, Sir Roger. I am fairly new to the shadow public health role, although I have been on the shadow Health team for some time now. I must confess to not being entirely abreast of the issues facing IBD sufferers before looking at them for this debate. Frankly, what I found stunned me. More than 300,000 people in the UK suffer from Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, and that equates to some 460 people in my constituency alone.
While that is a lot of people, IBD is not as prevalent as some of the more common long-term conditions. That means that research funding, as we have heard over the course of this debate, is thin on the ground, and there is not the same level of awareness in the general public at large. Put simply, it is not a glamorous cause. There are few outward signs of having the condition, but the effect on lifestyle is massive for the people concerned. Many of the problems that we discuss regularly in terms of cancer are just as pronounced when it comes to IBD, and not only include pain, fatigue, sleep deprivation and disruption to life in general, but also relate to awareness, diagnosis and psychological impact, and I want to touch on those things.
First, I want to address the problems of diagnosis. GPs need to be more aware of IBD. Every medical practitioner knows of instances of general abdominal pain and irregular bowel function being written off as IBS. As I have already said, I was not fully aware of the problem of misdiagnosis until I heard from Crohn’s and Colitis UK, so the matter does come down to awareness both among the general public and, importantly, among the medical community. Because the most pronounced symptoms of IBD are often the most embarrassing to discuss, the issue often gets swept under the carpet, even in the GP’s surgery.
Studies have shown that 35% of people with Crohn’s had three or more emergency admissions before they received a diagnosis. Frankly, that just is not good enough. I accept that some delays to diagnosis are inevitable, considering the nature of the disease, and clinical judgment should receive an appropriate degree of latitude, but we can and we must do much more.
There are some welcome signs. In 2013, NICE recommended faecal calprotectin testing as one option for doctors to help distinguish between IBS and IBD, which is welcome. There can be more effective use of that at primary care level, which would save not only money but would ensure better and more efficient care for patients: an undeniable win-win situation for all involved. How will the public health Minister improve the efficiency of the identification of suspected IBD? We also need to reduce the unnecessary use of endoscopies where less intrusive tests would do just fine.
I want to spend some time talking about the psychological impact, which Members have touched on today. Last year, the Opposition established the post of shadow Mental Health Minister, a job in which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) is making a significant impact. Mental health is of paramount importance to the Labour party, and it is often the unseen damage that is most destructive. IBD symptoms, diagnostics and treatment can have a disastrous impact on a sufferer’s mental health. The uncertainty and sense of lost potential must be absolutely awful, and I cannot help but imagine how I would feel were one of my children told that they had IBD.
An audit in 2014 found that only 12% of services have a clear process to enable people suffering from IBD to see a psychologist or professional with knowledge of IBD. That figure may have improved—we might see that when the next audit is carried out—but however we look at it, it is not good enough. About 41% of IBD sufferers experience high levels of anxiety, and so of course we must do more, because many people living with IBD feel that simply having easier access to psychiatric services at critical points would help immensely. With the Government’s laudable commitment to ensuring parity of esteem, which we are fully behind, what is the Minister’s Department doing to make sure that people with IBD across England have the appropriate level of access to tailored psychological support with professionals who are familiar with the very specific issues they face?
I am pleased that hon. Members have mentioned the access to toilets strategy formed by my Labour colleagues in Wales. Obviously, an episode of incontinence in public is extremely embarrassing, and with incredibly poor access to public toilets being endemic across England, a person with IBD can feel anxious even being in an unfamiliar place. Many people with IBD have seen a devastating impact on their capacity to lead normal lives when they are away from home. I am therefore pleased that the Welsh Government have led by treating access to public toilets as a public health issue.
The Welsh Assembly is now considering the Public Health (Wales) Bill, which is close to the final stages of the legislative process. Some fairly simple steps can have a big impact on the ability of Crohn’s and colitis sufferers to lead normal lives when out and about. Councils, for example, could make better use of the toilets that are already in the community, whether in public buildings or private businesses. The Bill will place a duty on every council to publish a local toilet strategy. The Welsh Government are leading the way, and I hope the UK Government will follow suit. I appreciate that it might require intervention by the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to halt some of the public toilet closures that we have seen in recent years, but will the Minister offer to discuss this not only with her colleagues in DCLG, but with my Welsh Labour colleague, Mark Drakeford? I think there is plenty of potential here.
My thanks go to all hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon. Some incredibly astute points have been made, and I hope the Minister goes away better informed, as I know I will, as a result of this debate. We owe it to those 300,000 people in the UK suffering from Crohn’s disease or colitis to come up with some better ideas in the coming months and years. This debate has given us a good starting point, such as the need for better public toilet access, and the need for more widespread use of less invasive diagnostic techniques. About 18,000 new cases of IBD are diagnosed every year, so this is not some fringe problem, but an issue facing people in every single community across the country. I look forward to hearing the public health Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. We have had a good debate with many first-class contributions. I hope it demonstrates to those watching and those who participated in such great numbers in the Facebook debate that Parliament is taking this issue seriously, as we have filled the time available to us with various contributions. I hope to be able to respond to most of the points made. If not, as ever, I will try to respond post debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate. It is always interesting for a Member of Parliament with a great charity in the constituency; the MP ends up becoming quite expert, and my hon. Friend has done an excellent charity proud this afternoon in raising the issues. Crohn’s and Colitis UK is the national charity campaigning on these issues. I pay tribute to its work as it campaigns tirelessly to raise the profile of Crohn’s and colitis and to provide support and advice to all those affected. My hon. Friend is a keen supporter of its work.
I will not spend time describing the diseases themselves or the number of people affected, because others have eloquently done so. Instead, I will talk about some of the ways in which we are responding. A great many of our fellow citizens are affected, so it is right that we have this debate today.
Some hon. Members raised the issue of GPs, diagnosis and training. Digestive health features both as part of the undergraduate medical curriculum and GP specialty training. For GPs the required competencies include: understanding the epidemiology of digestive problems as they present in primary care; how to interpret common symptoms in general practice; and how to demonstrate a systematic approach to investigating digestive symptoms such as IBD. IBD also features in the content guide for the Royal College of General Practitioners applied knowledge test, a key part of the assessment of trainee GPs, which must be passed in order to qualify.
As others have said, diagnosing the symptoms of IBD can be challenging for a GP. Even though the numbers are quite large, as we have heard, if we divide the numbers by GP practice across the country, it might be the case that some GPs are not seeing people very often. The variety of symptoms and the range of their severity differ from patient to patient. Problems may also arise owing to the fact that the symptoms of IBD, such as abdominal pain and weight loss, are shared with other more common, less serious conditions, such as IBS, which is estimated to affect 12 million people in the UK, as opposed to IBD, which affects around 300,000. However, as others have said, a misdiagnosis or a delayed diagnosis can lead to a range of further complications for IBD suffers, so it is important that clinicians have the tools and resources to help them to identify symptoms when a patient presents.
In addition to their clinical training and experience, a number of tools and resources are now available to clinicians to help them to diagnose and manage IBD. The “Map of Medicine” is an excellent free online evidence-based guide and clinical decision support tool, which is available to GPs and other healthcare professionals working in the NHS. It has published diagnosis and treatment maps for patients with IBD. The map supports GPs on issues such as differential diagnosis and helps them to identify “red flag” IBD symptoms and provide advice on appropriate diagnostics and referrals. NICE has produced a clinical guideline specifically to support clinicians in using faecal calprotectin testing to help doctors to distinguish between IBD and less serious conditions as it highlights inflammation specifically.
NICE’s role in setting standards in the diagnosis and management of a range of diseases is well known, and IBD is no exception in that regard. NICE published best practice clinical guidelines on the management of Crohn’s and colitis in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Once diagnosed, a number of treatment options are available for patients. The Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), outlined some of the related challenges and some of the treatments in which she has participated. When treating IBD, the aim is either to heal the inflammation and so reduce the symptoms during a flare-up, which is known as inducing remission, or to prevent flare-ups from happening in future, which is known as maintaining remission.
The routine monitoring and follow-up of patients is a key feature of the guidance on the management of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It ensures that patients can access specialist care when flare-ups or relapses occur. Protocols for monitoring should be agreed locally. Various drugs are recommended by NICE and funded by the NHS, and they can help with both of those aims. Although there is currently no cure for IBD, we know that some treatments can ease symptoms and improve quality of life—we heard Members talk about a particular member of staff and bring quality-of-life issues to the fore in their speeches. Management options include drug therapy, dietary and lifestyle advice and, in severe or chronic active disease, surgery.
I turn briefly to prescriptions. In addition to medical exemption, there are extensive exemption arrangements in England, based on age and income, via various means- tested benefits. For people who need multiple prescriptions and have to pay NHS prescription charges, such as those with long-term conditions, prescription prepayment certificates are also available, and it is worth highlighting that. I take the point about the challenge of prescriptions, but not everyone is aware of PPCs. This is the fifth year that the cost of an annual certificate has been frozen, and the third year that the cost of a three-month certificate has been frozen. Next year, both certificates will remain at £104 and £29.10 respectively. There is no limit to the number of items that can be obtained through a PPC. The annual certificate benefits anyone needing more than 12 items a year and the three-month certificate benefits anyone needing more than three items in that three-month period.
The IBD quality standard was mentioned. In general, quality standards are important in order to set out to patients, the public, commissioners and providers what a high-quality service should look like. NICE issues them, and they enable services to benchmark themselves against one another. The quality standard for IBD was published in February 2015 and contained priority statements covering important areas such as specialist assessment, drug monitoring and surgery, all of which is designed to drive improvements in IBD care. Although providers and commissioners must have regard to the quality standards in planning and delivering services, the standards themselves do not provide a comprehensive service specification and are not mandatory.
The six inflammatory bowel disease standards were published in 2013 by the IBD standards group, an independent organisation made up of a number of professional clinical organisations and the charity itself. The standards were designed to support clinicians and commissioning organisations in the development of local IBD services. If appropriate, they may be considered alongside sources of guidance such as the NICE guidelines.
A number of important issues have been raised in the debate that are very much matters for NHS England to look into. I am sure it will be really interested to hear about the challenges that have been raised in the debate, as well as about the Scottish strategy. As the shadow Minister said, the consideration of best practice throughout the United Kingdom is often common, as are many research outcomes, not only throughout the United Kingdom, but internationally.
Some Members mentioned the importance of nurse specialists. It was lovely to hear the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) pay tribute to the specialists with whom she has dealt and the standard of care and support she has experienced. Obviously the recruitment of staff is ultimately a local matter but, again, the NICE guidance states that local services should ensure that patients with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis have support from an IBD multidisciplinary team, which should comprise a range of experts, including dieticians, who were mentioned, and clinical nurse specialists with particular expertise and specialist interest. That MDT care is a key feature of the quality standard, which sets out what great-quality care looks like.
The shadow Minister mentioned mental health support. It is worth noting for the record that we invested more than £400 million over the previous spending review period in improving access to psychological therapies—the IAPT programme—to ensure access to talking therapies for those who need them. That includes people with long- term conditions who are suffering from anxiety and depression. Recent positive announcements include the Prime Minister announcing £1 billion to start a revolution in mental health, which is a shared interest right across the House. No one has done enough on mental health in the past, and the matter is now much more front and centre in our thoughts. As part of that announcement, £247 million has been allocated to ensure that every emergency department has mental health support. That money reaffirms the Government’s commitment to parity of esteem between mental and physical health.
Several Members quite rightly asked about toilets. As others have said, it is essentially a matter for my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I will of course draw their attention to this debate. Local authorities in England are forecast to spend just over £60 million on such services in 2015-16. It is also worth noting that more than 400 local authorities and thousands of businesses have joined the national RADAR key scheme, meaning that some 9,000 toilets in shopping centres, pubs, cafés, department stores, bus and train stations and many other locations are now listed as being accessible through the scheme. I am sure that we have all seen them in our local areas. Official RADAR keys cost about £5 and can be bought from participating local authorities or Disability Rights UK shops. While noting that initiative, we must recognise that there is always more to do in that regard.
Members quite rightly drew the House’s attention to research and the need to know more. Dealing with a disease that currently has no cure is a big challenge, and research is key. The Department of Health currently spends more than £1 billion a year on research. As for IBD, the Department’s National Institute for Health Research awarded a £1.5 million research professorship for five years from 2013 to 2018 at the University of Oxford to examine the use of molecular techniques to re-stratify Crohn’s disease, aiming to get into the detail of identifying patients amenable to new treatment approaches and to develop new therapies. The NIHR is also investing just under £1 million in a study comparing the accuracy of MRI imaging and small bowel ultrasound in assessing the extent and activity of newly diagnosed and relapsed Crohn’s disease. The final report from the study is expected to be published in September 2017, and I am sure that there will be interest in that among Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans also mentioned the IBD BioResource. It is a really exciting project that brings together the Medical Research Council and the NIHR, supporting groundbreaking studies looking at the genetics of and new treatments for IBD that have the potential to make a real difference to patients’ lives. It will undertake a major new genetic analysis based on genome sequencing, and it will keep a database of 25,000 patients with IBD.
I have tried to cover most of the points raised in the debate. I hope that I have given hon. Members a sense of the Government’s ambition to make progress on research. I again pay tribute to the charity for contributing to the research. Partnerships between Government bodies, medical research bodies and specialist charities are an important part of making progress, not least because recruiting people to studies is important, and we cannot do that without the work of the charities.
I will write to Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of NHS England, to outline the concerns that hon. Members raised today and to ensure that he is aware of Parliament’s interest in this issue and of the challenge to the NHS that has been outlined today. I urge Crohn’s and Colitis UK, as I do all relevant stakeholders, to continue to engage with NHS England to build valuable long-term relationships. I will write to the Royal College of General Practitioners, as a number of the issues that were raised relate to it. I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans for securing today’s debate and for making such a meaningful contribution to raising awareness of this very important issue.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).