Tuesday 6 December 2016
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Household Food Insecurity
I beg to move,
That this House has considered household food insecurity measurement in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. Back in 2014, I said in this House:
“People are going hungry, and, with each passing day of this terrible excuse for a Government, more and more are falling into poverty, with little or no chance of escape. There are no second chances in Britain today. Food poverty is a clear consequence of the Government’s ideological assault on the social safety net and the people who rely on it. One hungry person is a complete disgrace, but thousands of hungry people are a national disaster.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 1500.]
That was one of many speeches I have made in this House about hunger and food poverty, and I have to say that I am getting increasingly fed up with the Government’s inaction. It is estimated that 8.4 million people in Britain now live in households affected by food insecurity, which means that millions of people in Britain—one of the wealthiest countries in the world—are hungry and malnourished.
The Government need to measure and to begin to tackle household food insecurity. Such action is long overdue. Food-insecure households lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food, yet there has been no national measurement of household food insecurity in the UK for more than 10 years.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Is she aware that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which she is a former member, is currently conducting an inquiry into food waste? It is concentrating not on household waste but on food waste that is discarded by the producer because it does not fit the requirements of either the retailer or the processor. Does she agree that such food waste could help those who are suffering from food poverty?
I am aware of the EFRA Committee’s inquiry, and it would be good for the Government to back the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy).
Although we have national statistics on how much households have spent on food and on individuals’ dietary intake, those data cannot tell us exactly how many households in the UK are unable to feed themselves adequately.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing such a vital debate. Does she agree that the rate of the problem is not constant throughout the year: there are peaks and troughs? Some families struggle in the run-up to Christmas and during school holidays because their children do not go to breakfast clubs or receive free school meals. If there is no additional support from the Government, the issue of holiday hunger will become more prevalent. Parents have to find the money for an additional 10 meals per week per child to ensure that their children are not malnourished.
My hon. Friend is correct: holiday hunger is a scourge on this country. In a former life, I was a child protection social worker, and families used to say to me that school time was the only time their children could be guaranteed a healthy meal. They dreaded holidays. My colleagues and I often had to do shops for those families to feed them.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She started off by giving the Government a very hard time. I am not a spokesman for the Conservatives but, in 1996—20 years ago—the United Nations decided that it would eradicate food insecurity. What has it done since then?
Unfortunately, I am not here to speak on behalf of the United Nations, but all the statistics show that the situation has got worse in the United Kingdom since 2010. Prior to that, we had the odd soup kitchen, and food banks were unheard of. Now, we can hear people in every street in every constituency talking about food banks and people who are going hungry.
Food insecurity has a terrible impact on households. Parents are unable to afford to feed their children nutritionally balanced meals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) said, which breeds a sense of shame, stress, anxiety and social isolation. Severely food-insecure adults and children go whole days without eating in this day and age, simply because they lack money. People are living on the bread line—in fact, many are living below it. Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that people are going from just being hungry—as if that was not bad enough—to living in destitution. They lack clothing, toiletries and heating, and for many homelessness is becoming a reality.
Recently, a woman called my constituency office in desperate need of help after having problems with her benefits. She had no money for gas or electricity, and no food to feed herself and her four young children, all of whom are under 10 years of age. She was alone and unable to leave her home to get to the nearest food bank, which in any case was closed. Even if she had been able to leave her home, she did not have the necessary funds for public transport. In the end, my staff contacted one of the many food bank volunteers in Shields and managed to get food delivered to her and her children. If they had not been able to pick up and deliver that food, that family would have endured the further pain of starvation.
That is one of the everyday experiences that are being documented in food banks, GP offices, classrooms and charities across the country. I am sure that all my colleagues hear similar stories day in and day out from their constituents. When the all-party group on hunger, of which I am a member, travelled the country in 2014, we found that the overriding reason why people visited food banks was the Government’s punitive welfare regime and incessant use of sanctions. The recent debacle with Concentrix shows that the Government’s response to those who are most in need has not changed: they are simply not bothered about them.
All those personal tragedies point to a permanent scarring of life chances. Demonstrable links can be found between food insecurity and educational performance. Children’s intellectual and physical development is damaged by each episode of food insecurity that they experience. The physical and mental health impacts of food insecurity affect the entire economy. Evidence from Canada suggests that the healthcare costs of people who have experienced episodes of severe food insecurity are 121% higher. For those reasons, there is growing consensus among not only Members of Parliament but academics and civil society organisations that the Government should initiate a programme of regular and robust monitoring of food insecurity prevalence so that we can establish precisely the magnitude of the problem, identify which groups are at the greatest risk and properly target resources at prevention.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. This is a very important issue. She is right to say that the Government have a responsibility to count the numbers so we can have a strategic response. In the meantime, we have to recognise the wonderful work that food banks do—she mentioned her own, and Slough food bank is brilliant—to plug the gap. Civil society is doing its best; it is time for the Government to step up, too.
An extraordinary feature of the debate is that other countries, which we consider allies, already view this as a state responsibility. In the United States, for example, to tackle holiday hunger, there is a federal programme, which has been federally funded—there has been no research—for more than 50 years. That is part of the country’s normal engagement. Feeding one’s citizens is definitely regarded as a Government responsibility. Does my hon. Friend agree that our Government need to open their eyes and look at things in the round, because not only people on benefits, but the working poor are struggling to feed their families?
I agree. The very least that any Government can do is to ensure that people in their country are fed and cared for when other parts of the state have let them down.
Our best estimates suggest that 500,000 different people received food assistance from the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of emergency food aid providers, in 2014-15. However, many, indeed most food-insecure people choose not to access emergency food aid, and not all food banks are Trussell Trust ones. New preliminary data from Gallup World Poll suggest that 8.4 million people—17 times the number accessing Trussell Trust aid—lived in food-insecure households in 2014. Those data were gathered through the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation food insecurity experience scale, which is an internationally validated tool for measurement of household food insecurity. It showed that we ranked in the bottom half of European countries for protecting our population from food insecurity and hunger.
Unfortunately, the survey through which those data were collected had a national sample of only 1,000 households and did not collect detailed information on respondents’ characteristics. We therefore do not know who is worst affected. What is more, the FAO does not intend to fund that survey beyond 2016. Instead, it will encourage states to produce national measures in their own routine national surveys. That includes us. If we did so, we would be able to track our progress on implementing the global sustainable development goals—to which the UK has said it is committed—intended to end hunger and ensure universal access to safe, nutritious food by 2030.
On 29 November, the Office for National Statistics was due to launch a consultation to establish what metrics should be incorporated into national statistics to track our progress on the goals. The consultation has now been delayed indefinitely. We should, however, move forward swiftly and decisively with such vital monitoring. It would put us in step with other nations, such as the USA and Canada, which regularly monitor prevalence rates, with the data collected playing a game-changing role in creating effective prevention strategies.
We heard an extraordinary story about food poverty in the run-up to this year’s Olympics in Brazil, which has made access to food a human right and, therefore, has provided access to food not only for children and the most vulnerable, but for everyone—from the poorest to the wealthiest. It has done so from an economic position that is nowhere near as positive as our own.
Our country is lagging behind. Our response to the crisis is embarrassing, and things have never been more pressing. Only last week we heard that the number of hospital beds in England alone taken up by patients being treated for malnutrition almost trebled over 10 years. Malnutrition is a complex condition, but food insecurity adds a significant risk. The prevalence of both may well increase if left unchecked in the coming years.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. The experience of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Autism Act 2009, for example, is that the core initiative is to ensure an obligation on the state, or parts of the state, to know the numbers and to identify the needs. Essentially, that is what she is calling for in this debate. That has to happen not only at a UK level, but at regional and local level because, in relation to holiday hunger, school holidays vary in length in different parts of the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Later in my speech I will outline to the Minister how easy it is to introduce such a measure and how little it would cost.
The drop in the value of sterling as a result of Brexit uncertainties means that food prices will start to rise—by between 5% and 8% in the coming year, according to the Food and Drink Federation—and that will place even further pressure on households struggling to put food on the table. On average, healthier food costs two and a half times as much as food high in fat, salt and sugar, and people who experience food insecurity often cut back first on healthy, perishable and more expensive fruit and vegetables.
Proposals for measurement have received a considerable amount of support in the UK. In January 2015, my colleagues and I on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that the Government should collect statistically robust data on the scale of household food insecurity. The APPG on hunger has recommended measuring and monitoring food insecurity. The Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are starting work on the development of metrics for each of the devolved nations. A UK-wide picture of the nature of food insecurity, however, could not be formed without applying a standard measurement tool in all four nations.
Securing a commitment to measurement from the Government has, however, proved immensely difficult. That is despite the interventions of the APPG and of the EFRA Committee, debates and questions in the House, and the work of organisations such as the Food Foundation, Sustain and Oxfam, which have consistently brought the data gap to the attention of officials in a variety of Departments.
The data gap could easily be closed through inserting a short list of questions into an existing annual survey instrument, such as the living costs and food survey or the national health surveys. The marginal cost is estimated to be between £50,000 and £75,000 per year. Surely it is worth the Government investing that small sum to address one of the biggest scandals of our time.
The UN food insecurity experience scale, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s household food security module from which it was adapted, have been rigorously designed and tested to measure the inability of households to access food. One of those tools could be inserted seamlessly into a UK research programme. Each of the international scales involves asking respondents a series of questions about their ability to access sufficient quality and quantity of food over the preceding 12 months.
I therefore urge this House to move towards annual measurement of food insecurity using an internationally recognised survey tool, beginning in 2017. The Government cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand when this is one of the biggest scandals of the past six years. They should be ashamed that hunger has grown on their watch and they should be doing all they can to stop such a grotesque blight on our society.
We are at grave risk of accepting food poverty and inequality as a normal part of society. Due to Government inaction and erosion of the welfare state, the safety net that once existed, which used to aid people who fell through it through no fault of their own when they fell on difficult times, has been stripped away. The gap is being filled by a range of charities and faith groups, and it should embarrass and shame the Minister and all his colleagues that they have sat back and allowed others to deal with this heart-breaking disaster of, at times, their very own creation.
Is that not the crux of the matter? In truth, the longer the Government refuse to measure the problem, the longer they do not have to acknowledge the scale of it and the longer they do not have to do anything about it. That is a huge dereliction of duty. They are more than happy to allow charities and the likes of the Trussell Trust to do their job for them, which is to care for children, families and vulnerable individuals who are not able to meet the most basic human requirement to feed themselves. It is telling that, when the Trussell Trust first published its shocking statistics about the scale of the problem, some on the Government Benches denounced those figures as distorted, rather than focusing on the shocking fact that food banks exist on such a scale at all.
As I speak, in my constituency, there will be a mother wondering how she is going to feed herself and her toddler today, schoolchildren struggling to focus because their stomachs are rumbling, parents who yet again skipped breakfast to ensure that their children did not have to, families searching their cupboards for what is left and elderly people who are unable to access fresh food. But that is not just the case in my constituency; it is the situation in constituencies and homes across the UK. It really is time that this Government got a grip on this problem. They must start by collating the data that they need to address it. As I have outlined, implementing measurement is not an insurmountable or costly challenge, and this Government owe it to every man, woman and child who woke up hungry this morning and will go to bed hungry tonight, in one of the richest countries in the world, to do so.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I commend the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for setting the scene so well and giving us so much detail about this issue, which we all have an interest in and wish to speak about. It is always nice to see the shadow Minister in her place. I know that the Minister will touch on the issues that we raise, because he is a man of compassion and understands them only too well.
I was speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) before the debate started, and I cast my mind back to the situation when I was younger—that was not yesterday—and the things that our families had at that time. I was extremely blessed as a child to have parents who worked night and day to put food on the table. We may not have had the choicest cuts of meat, and we may have had lunches that were eggs in a cup and that was it, or dinners of potatoes and veg with no meat, but there was always filling food on the table. Those memories of my early days are particular to me but probably resonate with many others in the Chamber. My biggest insecurity about food was whether my two brothers would steal half a sausage from my plate. That was a fact of life—we challenged one another for what we had. We may not have had much to spare, but we had enough, and that is all anyone needs. We had a lovely upbringing, but we were by no means wealthy.
It breaks my heart to think that there are children in the UK—in my community and in the communities of everyone in the Chamber today—who are living hand to mouth. The hon. Member for South Shields set that scene very well, and it resonates directly with us all. I hate to think of mothers taking less on their plates to ensure that there is enough on their children’s plates. That should surely be the stuff of second world war TV dramas such as “Home Fires” as opposed to what is happening in the UK today, but there are indicators that it is not a thing of the past. Indeed, recent analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann referred to, suggests that 8.4 million people in the UK live in food-insecure households. What does that mean? The UN said that it would eradicate food poverty and insecurity by a certain time, but it did not. Words are hollow if they do not lead to actions that ensure change. Notes from a recent meeting in this place say that to be food insecure means to be
“unable to secure enough food of sufficient quality and quantity to stay healthy and participate fully in society.”
I welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into waste, which the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, who are members of that Committee, referred to and another member of that Committee told me about at a function last night. How do we address food waste in homes, businesses and supermarkets? In Strangford—I believe that this is happening in other constituencies too, but hon. Members will confirm whether that is the case—supermarkets have deals with community groups about food that is coming close to being out of date. For instance, Tesco and Asda in Newtownards phone community groups on a Friday or Saturday and say, “This food is going out of date. Can you make use of it?” Those groups can, and they take it directly to the people who need it.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I hope that the Committee’s inquiry will address labelling, which we also talked about last night. We often have products that are near their sell-by dates, and my wife is very strict about them, but I am perhaps not so strict. I feel that the sell-by date may not necessarily mean that the product is not edible, and I therefore challenge myself to eat it. Whether that is right or wrong, it has not affected me in any way. It is not the reason why my hair fell out, and it is not the reason for many other things.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there needs to be some process whereby when supermarkets reject certain foods, such as vegetables, because they are not the right shape, size or whatever, they are put on the shelves at a reduced price rather than put into anaerobic digesters. I know that some supermarkets are doing that, but more could be done.
The knowledge that my hon. Friend brings to this debate is enormous. He has been in business for many years and he knows the system. Again, those words could be used in the inquiry, which he will be directly involved in as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Supermarket chains are taking steps to enable products that are close to their sell-by dates to be given to community groups and directed to those in need. That is a great idea, which I welcome and I hope is carried out further afield. In the home, we need to be a wee bit more careful about the food we use, how we use it—from freezer to fridge—and its shelf life. Those are all important issues for us to look at. However, there is currently no routine measurement of food insecurity in the United Kingdom, and an absence of regular data collection means that the true magnitude of the problem remains hidden. Perhaps the Minister could give us some idea of how data are gathered, collated and then used to address this issue.
The hon. Member for South Shields referred to food banks. I do a lot of work with my local food bank. When I first began that interaction, I was shocked by the level of need in my constituency and the range of people who were struggling. The first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland was in my constituency, so I have particular knowledge of food banks. I do not see them as necessarily negative; they have positive effects, in that they bring people, churches and Government bodies together with one focus: to help those who need help now. Food banks have a positive role to play in our society. I always think of the Simon slogan, “One in three of us are just one pay cheque away from homelessness.” The issue is real for a great many of us: there but for the grace of God would any of us be too. It is not enough simply to be thankful that we are not in that scenario. It is up to us to ensure that families in the United Kingdom are safe and secure in knowing where their next week’s food will come from.
Just last Saturday morning, I had the privilege of helping out in Tesco with the food bank team, who handed out lists to people to let them know what many people will need over the Christmas period. I was not surprised by the level of giving, as I know the compassion of the people in my constituency is hard to equal—as indeed is that of many others. I was encouraged by the inherent goodness of the women who rushed around with their children tagging along behind them and still took the time to grab handfuls of items for the food bank. They asked what items the team wanted and put them in their trolleys. There were also men who put items in their trolleys and gave financial contributions. I was also most encouraged by the number of young people who did their best to help out. Children said, “Mum, we need to help—what can we do?”
It is wonderful that the community steps in, and I cannot speak highly enough of the food bank, the Trussell Trust and, in my area, the Thriving Life church, which was behind that initiative, and which has a wonderful compassion centre designed to help others out. The churches across the whole of my constituency, and in Ards in particular, came together to stand in the breach in the truest and best ecumenical sense. We in this place as well have an obligation to assess the need and meet it.
Through the food bank, I have had the ability to give vouchers to people I am helping who have had their benefits stopped. We know clearly what the issues are, and I am reliably informed that the advice centre in Newtownards is one of the first stops for a great many people whenever they are looking for vouchers to help them because they have literally no money. With the recent tax credits palaver, I have even had staff members —I am blessed with good staff—put their own money on to electricity cards to see people through the weekend. That is my staff, other staff, churches—good people coming together to do their best. However, that should not have to happen. We have a responsibility to ensure that help is at hand for those whose benefits are called into question instead of them being left with nothing to feed their children with. Our churches and people come together in the very best sense.
In my own area of Newtownards, the food bank provided 2,230 three-day emergency crisis food parcels last year. That was in one town. We have many food bank outreaches in Comber, Kircubbin, Ballynahinch and Saintfield, and churches and individual bodies are stepping outside what they normally do to help directly. I see a community full of compassion that is moved to help those who are less well off. That has got to be great news.
Especially at this time of year, as we approach Christmas, many families will again be on the breadline. Some of the major companies in my area will make contributions—I have a local butcher who gives turkeys. We do our best to come together through the Trussell Trust food bank and the Thriving Life church in Newtownards. In 2015-16, the Trussell Trust food bank network provided—these are incredible figures—1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies and support to UK people in crisis. Those enormous figures give us an idea of the magnitude of what it does. Of those, more than 400,000 went to children. Again, I underline the clear need of children in poverty. We are here today to make a plea for those people.
There is food insecurity in the UK—that much is clear. What we are doing to address it is not so clear. I look to the Minister, who I am confident will give us the answers we need, to outline the steps that will be urgently taken to ensure that we fulfil our obligations and responsibilities not only to our constituents but to all constituents across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) particularly on her perseverance in securing the debate, which she has sought for more than six months. It is unfortunate that she is not too well today, but no one can say that she has not made an excellent case. We need to thank her for all the work she has done herself and as part of the APPG on hunger, which has also done a lot of work. If the Government had accepted some of the recommendations of the APPG’s detailed report, “Feeding Britain”, produced under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), there may have been a little less need for the debate. There were 72 recommendations in that report and now, two years on, it is perhaps an indictment of the Government that none of those recommendations has been heeded.
In raising this issue today, my hon. Friend has made the case for the Government to start measuring food insecurity across the whole of the UK. Her request was eloquently illustrated and reinforced in interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and in the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who pointed out how, in the face of adversity, communities have come together and worked with groups such as the Trussell Trust to help people, showing that, when the worst things happen to fellow human beings across the UK, it brings out the best in others.
I am glad to hear that the EFRA Committee is looking at food waste. Only last night, we had FareShare in Westminster. It is making a huge contribution by using 10,000 tonnes of the 270,000 tonnes a year of food waste and producing 65 million meals. That is wonderful, but, again, so much more could be done.
We need look only at Hansard to see that hunger and food insecurity have been raised time and again with various Departments. We also know that, in response to questions, Ministers have, time and again, found an excuse not to introduce any kind of measurement. The fact remains, as has already been said, that food insecurity has not been measured in this country since 2003. It is totally unacceptable that, in the UK—I will say this again; it has been said twice before—more than 8 million people lived in households reporting having insufficient food. That was back in 2014, and we know that that number must now be far larger. The statistics are nothing but shocking, and it is totally unacceptable that here, in the sixth largest economy in the world, in the 21st century, so many people are going hungry and, perhaps we should say, are starving.
I congratulate all the organisations that have been mentioned that are working hard to combat the effects of food insecurity. I agree with the Food Foundation that the Government must conduct research to find out more about why certain groups are affected and how food insecurity affects food choices and people’s health so that they can put in place policies that can start to tackle the problem laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. As we have heard, the devolved Administrations are taking steps individually to measure food inequality, but each is using a different method. What is really needed is a standard measure for food insecurity across the whole of our nation.
It is nearly two years since the EFRA Committee, in its report, recommended that the Government
“collect objective and statistically robust data on the scale of household food insecurity”.
The coalition Government responded by saying that the issue was complex, and they did not agree that the living costs and food survey was suitable for collecting data on food insecurity.
As has been said, we know the use of food banks has ballooned to more than 1 million in the past year, but we cannot use the figures collected by the Trussell Trust on the use of food banks because they are not regarded as an appropriate measure. Recent data from Gallup World Poll indicated that, in 2014, 17 times more people lived in food insecure households than used a food bank.
The Government are signed up to the United Nations sustainable development goals, the second of which is:
“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.
Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Government to be proactive, and not only to contribute to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation but to listen to the advice of the University of Oxford, the Food Foundation and Sustain, which all suggest, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has said, that standard questions on food insecurity, as used in the UN FAO food insecurity experience scale, should be added to existing UK surveys such as the one suggested by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee two years ago?
It has already been pointed out that the cost of adding those pertinent questions, which so far have been tried out only in a survey of 1,000 people, would be £50,000 to £75,000 a year. They would provide accurate nationwide data about how severe the problem of food insecurity is. The scale is used in other countries and has proved successful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has said, if Brazil can do it, so can we. The consultation by the ONS on how to track the sustainable development goals, which was due to be launched at the end of November, has been put back indefinitely. What can the Minister do to bring it forward and to ensure that the consultation begins?
With the reduction in sterling since the referendum on the EU, the prices of products that we import from Europe such as fresh fruit, which is a basic and important ingredient of a healthy diet, will increase. I must reiterate that supermarket prices will increase by at least 5%. Can something be done to stop more pressure being put on the food purchasing power of those who are deemed to be just about managing, and those who are deemed not to be managing adequately, so that food insecurity will be made less, not more, likely for them?
We have already noted that people in food insecurity have poor health, and the NHS is at breaking point, unable to take the added strain that is put on it when people’s health is at risk simply because they are malnourished. How can we allow the blighting of the future of young people who go to school hungry and, because they are not fed, cannot learn properly? The only answer to those questions is that the Government must commit to the adoption of a routine method of measuring food insecurity in the UK, so that policy and resources can be targeted and we can reach the point at which no one in this country goes hungry.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing the debate. I know that as she outlined in her speech, she has been engaged with the issue for several years. Although I disagree with some of her analysis, we can all agree that the food banks in all our constituencies do fantastic work. I want to pay tribute in particular to the one in my constituency of Camborne and Redruth, which is run by a wonderful volunteer called Don Gardner and supported by many local churches. I have visited it regularly over the past few years. When I visited a few weeks ago it had support from National Citizen Service volunteers, who were giving some of their time as part of their project. Last year, because the charity is so valued, it was nominated by students at the local Camborne Science and International Academy as their charity of the year. I shall visit again in a few weeks as part of the preparations for Christmas, and I am sure that many hon. Members will be doing the same in their constituencies.
The food bank movement has grown in recent years, there is no doubt about that. However, we must recognise that there has always been charitable support and food aid on offer in this country, whether from the Salvation Army or other projects. Food banks were developed first in the United States, and the concept caught on in countries such as France and Germany. More recently, predominantly with the leadership of church groups, they have grown in the UK as well. We should recognise their value and contribution to civil society. Many food banks, including the one in my constituency, are beginning to move on from offering just crisis aid and food support to helping people with other problems—with housing, getting a job, or other problems and issues in their lives that contribute to their need to rely on food banks. Indeed, in my constituency other agencies are brought on board, to come to the food bank. My constituency caseworker will go to the Camborne food bank this afternoon. We have an agreement that our caseworker will attend once a month, or more often if there is a need, to help people to resolve other issues in their life, such as housing and benefits. The Government have also made it clear that job coaches from local jobcentres can go to food banks to help to support people in getting a job.
I want to talk about aspects of the analysis that the hon. Member for South Shields gave with which I disagree slightly, beginning with food prices, which I think are the nub of the debate. Food prices, and commodity prices generally, are predominantly governed by changes in weather events, energy prices and exchange rates. The truth is that the biggest spike in food prices in recent times took place in 2008, during the financial crisis. Prices continued to rise gradually until the beginning of 2014, but they have been falling ever since, for almost three years now. In fact, food prices are now down by more than 7% since that peak at the beginning of 2014. I accept that with sterling depreciating against the euro and other currencies recently, and because currencies and exchange rates are a major driver of food prices, that may change, but it is important to acknowledge how things have changed in the past three years, with food prices going down substantially.
The long-standing measure of household food security that we have is the annual living costs and food survey. We look in particular at the percentage of household income spent on food by the poorest 20% of families. The reality of that consistent measure of household food security and affordability, which we have had for many years, is that it has been remarkably stable in the past decade at about 16% to 16.5%. Indeed, at one point last year I think the percentage spent by that lowest-income 20% of households was lower than it was in 2008-09. So there is clear evidence that there is some stability, if we look specifically at household spending.
Given that food prices go up and down but household expenditure on food seems to remain remarkably consistent, it suggests, as the hon. Lady points out, that people change their choices and preferences. The hon. Member for South Shields made the point that people abandon fruit and veg because they regard it as too expensive. In my view, veg is actually relatively cheap at a supermarket or any other market. It tends to be other things—ready meals and meats, in particular—that are more expensive and add to the cost of food. Fruit and veg, which are the healthiest option of all, are still relatively cheap.
I buy fresh fruit and veg, as I am sure do many other Members. Somebody made a point earlier about sell-by dates. The truth is that veg will actually last quite a long time if it is refrigerated, in my view. Of course, there is also frozen fruit and veg, which is also relatively cheap.
The Minister is being most generous to all of us in giving way. I am sure he recognises the importance of home economics classes for children at every level of school, including primary and, particularly, secondary schools. Those classes are and should be very much part of pupils’ lives. They give them the opportunity to produce a meal at a reasonable price, and it is good for a child or young person to do that and take that meal home. Does the Minister value home economics education in schools and how it teaches people to prepare meals in later life, as I do?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that the Department for Education launched the school food plan two or three years ago. Hardwired into that, as well as giving schools quite specific criteria about the type of healthy and nutritious food they should have as part of their school meals, was the idea that all schoolchildren should visit a farm, so that they can see how their food is produced and understand the connection with that food production. There was also the idea that primary school children should be taught to prepare a basic food dish, so that they get used to managing and handling food. That means that they know where their food comes from and how to handle it. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is an important point.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently consulted on all of its statistical surveys. For each Office for National Statistics survey, including the living costs and food survey, there is a steering group that also includes representation from the devolved Administrations.
As we all know, the best route out of poverty is to have a job or to find employment. It is important to note that employment is now at a record high, at more than 74.5%, and that the number of people in work has actually gone up by 461,000 this year, to record levels. I recognise that in many constituencies, including my own, the issue is not so much worklessness as low pay. That is why the Government are increasing the national living wage to £7.50 from April 2017—and we have made clear that we intend to increase it further. We need to tackle low income, and we have outlined our plans to do so.
It is not a DEFRA role to enforce that particular area, but I am sure that the Low Pay Commission and other parts of Government will look seriously at the points the hon. Lady raises. Payment of the national living wage is a legal requirement, and it is enforced.
It is generous of the Minister to give way. Does he accept that under-25s are not entitled to the higher rate of the minimum wage and are not going to get any kind of discount when they go to the shops for their messages? The Government should make sure that the living wage is a real living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, and is accessible to people of all ages. Everyone needs access to food that they can afford.
The hon. Lady is right that it is not that at the same rate as the national living wage, but we have made great progress in recent years in tackling youth unemployment and helping people to get their first job in life. I actually think there is a distinction between those over the age of 25, who have been in work for some time, and those who may be trying their first job.
Not everybody is in work, and it is often said that late benefit payments or sanctions are a contributing factor in increased food bank use. It is worth noting that even the Trussell Trust’s report suggested that, based on its assessments, sanctions accounted for about 5% to 10% of the increased use of food banks. They do not account for all of it on their own.
When it comes to late payments, 90% of jobseeker’s allowance claims are now paid on time and within the 10-day limit, while nearly 89% of employment and support allowance claims are also paid within that timeframe, which is considerably better than in 2009-10. Indeed, the timeliness of payments has improved by about 23%. The Government have also responded to concerns over occasions when people have their payments delayed by introducing short-term benefit advances. Those are now being quite actively publicised in jobcentres, and they can be paid to people the very next day.
It is important to note that the use of sanctions has fallen sharply. Indeed, they are down by half for both JSA and ESA claimants in the year to March 2016. The Government have introduced the concept of mandatory considerations on sanctions so that we can deal with disputes more quickly. The truth is that we need some kind of sanctions in the benefit system for it to be fair and equitable. Staff at my local jobcentre are clear that they use sanctions as only a last resort. Even when they believe sanctions are justified, they have to be cleared by somebody up the line completely unconnected to the case in question. Often, the recommendation that there should be a sanction is not upheld. Huge progress has been made on sanctions. We have responded to some of the points that people have made, and, as I said, their use has halved in recent years.
I have not seen that particular report, but I make the point to the hon. Lady that the number of sanctions halving in one year is, I believe, a dramatic change to what has gone previously. As I said, I believe that having some sort of sanctions is crucial if we are to have a fair benefits system. We cannot have a fair system if there is no kind of penalty or sanctions for those who do not abide by their obligation to seek work.
A number of hon. Members mentioned food waste, which is an important issue. There is always going to be some surplus food in any food chain. We have the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the Courtauld commitments, which aim to reduce food waste. WRAP’s research from 2015 showed that 47,000 tonnes of food—the equivalent of 90 million meals—was redistributed to help feed people. In the hierarchy of recycling, making sure that food does not go to waste in the first place, and is used to feed people, is our key aim. I commend and applaud the great work that organisations such as FareShare and FoodCycle do to help unwanted food from places such as supermarkets go towards helping local communities.
We have had an interesting debate, and again I commend the food banks in our constituencies for all their good work. We have a lot of statistical measures of poverty, and when it comes to the affordability of food, the long-standing metric of household expenditure on food is the most reliable and consistent indicator we have. I am therefore not persuaded at the moment that we need an additional set of questions along the lines that hon. Members have outlined. I take issue with those who say that we have ignored some of these issues. Indeed, huge progress has been made on sanctions, getting people into work, raising wage levels and ensuring that good food is recycled to those who need it.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is always good to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who spoke from the Front Bench today.
It is no surprise that the Minister disagrees with my analysis, but would it not have made a nice, refreshing change if he and his Government had held their hands up and admitted that their experiment with the welfare state has left an enduring and growing scar on this country? Food banks moving on to helping people with housing and all the other issues that have been referred to is yet another example of agencies and charities filling a gap left by his Government. They should not be doing that work—those are the basic tenets of government.
The nub of the debate is not food prices, as the Minister said. It is the fact that his Government’s policies have led to hunger and poverty on a massive scale and that they are refusing to measure it, despite there having been no national measurement for 10 years. He referred briefly to benefit sanctions and said he was not aware of the NAO report I mentioned. To be clear, 400,000 sanctions were imposed last year, despite there being limited evidence of their being justified, leading to “hardship, hunger and depression”. I suggest he goes and reads that report carefully.
The figures I am quoting are from November this year, when the report came out, so perhaps we should share notes.
It is a real shame that the Minister is out of step with everybody else on this. He is out of step with the cross-party APPG, the cross-party Select Committee, the Food Foundation, Sustain and Oxfam, which have all worked tirelessly on this issue. It is a real shame that he has not got the guts to press his Government to introduce a national measurement of household food insecurity. It would cost only up to £75,000 a year. That is considerably less than his annual salary and a little less than the salaries of most people in this House. I will not detain the House any longer, because I am getting angry, and I am upset.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered household food insecurity measurement in the UK.
Smart Meter Roll-out
I beg to move,
That this House has considered smart meter rollout across the UK.
It is a pleasure to have secured this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I think—or at least I hope—that the subject of the debate this morning would not be described as a matter of political controversy; it is a matter on which there is broad agreement. Essentially, I approach the debate on the basis that the Government are doing a good thing in the smart meter roll-out and, as a parliamentarian, I think it is our duty to explore whether they are doing it as well as might be possible. In the early days, we estimated that the smart meter roll-out could save the UK economy as a whole something between £17 billion and £40 billion between now and 2050. Obviously, there are a tremendous number of variables in an estimate of that range and over that period of time; I am one of those people who thinks that the upper end of that estimate could be conservative.
Before the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change was dissolved, I had the pleasure of serving on it. Our last report on the energy revolution looked at what is being done in other parts of the world and, in particular, on the west coast of America in California and Seattle. It is apparent that many technologies that will assist consumers in the demand-side management of their energy use are not that far over the horizon. The foundations that we could lay through the smart meter roll-out could be built on in a significant way, both from the point of view of consumer flexibility and choice and in contributing to some of the wider issues about fuel poverty and climate change.
The Government have a target of 100% smart meter roll-out by 2020. What I want to explore this morning is whether that target is likely to be met, and whether it may be sensible at this point to reappraise the desirability of meeting that target. Given the history of the project to date, sticking to that 2020 deadline may bring some unexpected consequences. Energy UK has told me that so far its members have installed in excess of 3 million smart meters. That is significant progress, but when it is measured against the fact that we have in the region of 27 million households, and there may be in the region of 53 million energy meters to be installed, we see the scale of the challenge that the Government now face.
My first question for the Minister, when he addresses this issue, is: what is the likelihood that we are going to get to the 100% target by 2020? At this stage, are the Government looking at the possibility of reviewing it? What conversations are they having with Ofgem and what dialogue do they have with the suppliers in the industry? From the various energy companies and consumer groups that I speak to, such as Citizens Advice and Which?, there is growing consensus that the target will not be met but that, with a determined adherence to it, we could bring a range of unintended consequences.
This is a good time to look at these things again, when there is not a great deal of political heat surrounding the subject—no pun intended. However, if we get to the point where we have to review the target in two or three years’ time, at that point, politics will come into it. I am no better than anybody else; I will be there in two or three years’ time with the Hansard of today’s debate saying, “You were told at the time that you needed to do something. Why didn’t you?”
In many areas of the country, the key to the roll-out comes down to connectivity, which has indeed been problematic for the project and the concept as a whole. This ties into other areas of Government policy encouraging connectivity, especially for the more remote and rural areas. We know the commitments that the mobile phone operators have made in terms of expanding their coverage and getting 3G and 4G coverage across the whole country. They are now looking at the Airwave infrastructure that has been put in place for the emergency services, seeing the competitive edge that has been given to EE, which is the company rolling that out, and saying, “Surely we should be allowed to use these masts as well.” This is an area where public money is being put into infrastructure for one purpose, when it could have a benefit for another purpose. Surely, given that it is all the taxpayers’ pound, someone within Government should be joining up the dots to ensure that that does happen.
The issue is the limitations of what is available through the connectivity available to our constituents. It does not meet the expectation and the promises. The danger is that something that is a thoroughly desirable proposal in concept, could be undermined by poor consumer experience.
I suspect that, if we drew a Venn diagram of areas with poor connectivity and areas where we have a high number of households living in fuel poverty, we would find a substantial overlap. That is particularly acute in my own constituency. In the Northern Isles we have poor housing stock; long, dark, cold winters, because of our geography; and an ageing demographic. The Scottish Government’s most recent figures put levels of fuel poverty at 63% of households in Orkney and 53% of households in Shetland—the Western Isles were also up there at 62%—measured against a Scottish average of 35%. In pensioner households, in Orkney the figure is 85%, for the Western Isles it is 75% and in Shetland it is 44%.
Smart metering is obviously not going to be the panacea that cures fuel poverty, but it is important as part of the suite of options available to us. It is ironic that those who stand to benefit most and have the greatest need are, again, being left behind in the roll-out process. A bit of political direction, understanding that this is not going to succeed if it is just left in the major conurbations and urban areas, and that when we say 100% across the whole of the UK, it needs to mean exactly that, would be of enormous assistance. What is being done by the Minister and his Department to ensure that those of us in what would be termed as hard-to-reach areas are not left behind?
One of the major recent challenges, which is related to the connectivity issue, has been the performance of the Data Communications Company. That is the central resource needed to support smart meters. Just before the last election, the then Secretary of State signed off a replan of the DCC timetable. That left us with an aim to deliver the first operational services from 2016, with a central planning assumption of August 2016 as opposed to the original one of December 2015. The DCC, which is managed by Capita, has since drawn down all its available contingency and will have delivered all its final releases beyond the “maximum” agreed contingency, but we still have no confirmed date for the final release. Inevitably, given that we are now in December 2016, there will be slippage into 2017. Even if we take the optimistic view that we may have operational roll-out of DCC-enabled services by April 2017, that still leaves us with, at best, three years and eight months to deliver the remainder of the target. That is how tight things are.
The delays in the DCC have other consequences. The meters that have been rolled out are, for the most part, the first version of the smart metering equipment technical specifications—SMETS1, as the jargon has it—and a range of problems comes with that. SMETS1 has been rolled out because that is the only thing available at present, but SMETS1 was only ever intended to be a low-volume learning experience. The lessons have been learned and the limitations have been seen.
Suppliers know the issues that come from SMETS1 meters and want to go on to SMETS2 meters. It is frustrating for them not to be able to. Again, we risk damaging the concept by continuing to roll out something that we know to be suboptimal. SMETS1 meters do not have the flexibility of SMETS2 technology and, in particular, do not allow the switching of suppliers, which consumers regularly hear messages about from Government. Because of that technical issue, something in the region of 130,000 of the 3 million-plus smart meters that have been rolled out are currently operating dumb as a consequence of changing suppliers.
There have also been issues about pre-payment customers—people have lost credit and payment card functionality has been lost—and we know that there will be other technical issues. There is still no industry-wide solution for what they call multi-dwelling units—what to you and I, Mr Gapes, would be a block of flats. There is a lack of dual-band communication hubs, which use a frequency of 868 MHz and which are important for thick-walled properties and for reaching over long distances.
The challenges of the DCC timetable have led suppliers to whom I have talked to conclude that they are unlikely to meet the technical challenges until probably mid-2018. With pressure, they may be able to pull that forward but, again, it all takes us closer to the 2020 deadline and makes it all the more difficult to meet that. The insistence on the 2020 deadline will bring a range of other issues for suppliers, such as equipment and training of installers. Something that can take up to 26 weeks and cost the supplier in the region of £21,000 will become an even greater pressure on them if they are working to bring in a greater number of installers to meet that somewhat artificially imposed deadline.
Essentially, as I said at the start, the roll-out is a good thing, which the Government should be doing. We should not, however, pursue a timetable that will be counter-productive to achieving what we all know and agree is a good thing. To take a step back, I suspect that, since May 2015, there has been a lot of churn in Government energy policy, with a lot of changes, particularly in relation to subsidies for renewables and other areas. A lot of high-level political decisions have had to be taken, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change has been folded into its current home. The programme looks as though it might have slipped through the cracks of Government. It needs somebody to take it up, to give it direction and to ensure that, at the end of the day, we have something that merits and is deserving of the original vision we had when we embarked on the programme. It needs a political hero, and I can think of no finer a political hero than the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I will not speak for long, so that the Minister will be able to reply to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), with whom I had the pleasure of serving on the Energy and Climate Change Committee for 18 months. I rise to endorse all that he has said. He identified a lot of issues with the smart meter roll-out, and it would be good to know that the Government are aware of them. From all my conversations with Ministers, I am confident that they see the problems and are seeking to tackle them, but the timeline that was set, which the previous Secretary of State and the previous Minister of State in DECC both told our Committee they were fully confident of achieving, does not seem quite as achievable as the Committee was told it might be.
I hope that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will embrace the importance of digitising the energy system and the role of smart meters within that. Digitising the energy system is key to delivering a decentralised generation system and to being able to load-shift, and therefore being able to flatten supply and demand curves and achieve greater energy security through less demand. It is also key to achieving greater efficiency in how we use energy, which, of course, will lead to lower prices. Smart meters in homes and businesses are the linchpin of achieving that.
However, I also absolutely agree that there has to be a user experience. A mysterious grey box of tricks that gets put in underneath somebody’s stairs, and if it does not have the connectivity that it should, so that it does not work, the perception is immediately that it does not do anything and is a bit useless. We need to ensure that smart meters work from the get-go. They also need to be accessible. The in-home displays are great, but there is an odd thing whereby people can only start with a certain screen. Many consumers have said that it would be better if the default screen showed the financial usage, so changing that would be helpful.
We need to make sure that the energy market is set up to allow smart meters to deliver real savings through half-hourly settlement. At the moment, all that people can really do is go round their house like the Ghostbusters, with their in-hand displays, seeking the thing that is using energy at any one time. The savings are not insignificant, but they are a fraction of the savings that could be unlocked if we properly digitised people’s home and business energy by putting smart meters in and ensuring that they worked and that the market was set up to take advantage of that digitisation.
The arrival of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is actually a huge opportunity within the smart meter roll-out, because under one roof there is now responsibility for not only energy policy and the energy market but consumers, tech and innovation. Seeing all those things as part of the roll-out is helpful, instead of the Department of Energy and Climate Change potentially seeing it as an energy policy issue and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as a consumer issue.
My final plea is that the Department seizes the opportunity to make sure that smart meters are future-proofed, so that the internet of things can be operated through and around them and the home experience really works. My sense is that people will see the benefits of having a smart meter in an IoT-enabled home not purely from an energy perspective, but in terms of the wider consumer experience, and that they will be very grateful for the energy savings that come with it.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing a debate on an issue that will touch and affect every home in the UK. It has drawn quite a crowd of visitors, whom we should welcome. I also welcome the new hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) to her place. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for the constructive way in which he framed the debate, which is exactly what I would expect given his record in the House. I acknowledge the valuable contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), who, as I have said on Twitter, is one of the more thoughtful Members of Parliament on the subject of energy. He is always interesting on the topic.
As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, the roll-out is a good thing and a long overdue upgrade of an outdated system. I am talking about not just meters—the technology for which is basically 100 years old—but how smart meters fit into a broader and more ambitious strategy to upgrade our energy system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells alluded to. Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State in the coalition Government, in which both the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and I served, wrestled with the trilemma of security, affordability and increasingly clean sources of energy. We are also dealing with the matter of how to make the system smarter and more flexible so that it delivers a better experience for our constituents—perhaps by doing away with the nonsense of estimated bills now that we are in 2016, and with calls to call centres. We desire to give our constituents a greater sense of control and, of course, the opportunity to save money.
The roll-out is not the silver bullet for fuel poverty—that is entirely right—but the data suggest that the people with the first wave of smart meters are saving about 3%, according to British Gas surveys. Those are not insignificant sums of money. For our constituents on prepayment schemes, smart meters are a better system for the ability to top up and to read balances quickly. We see smart meters as the foundation of the smart, flexible energy system that we are working towards and to which we are committed. The Secretary of State recently launched the consultation with Ofgem. That is the direction of travel, and we are extremely committed to it because there will be significant benefits to the country—not just to our constituents, but to the people we rely on to supply energy.
There is a smarter future ahead, and that is what we are working towards. The roll-out is unequivocally a good thing, but the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was right to identify some big challenges, none bigger than meeting the roll-out target. However, I associate him with being someone of optimism and ambition—he is a Liberal Democrat, after all—so I say to him that we should not give up on our ambition at this stage. There is no basis on which to do so. It is a challenging target but, as he will know as an experienced politician, if we take our foot off the accelerator, people will read the wrong signals. We want to send a strong signal of our commitment to ensuring that every household and small business is offered a smart meter by the end of 2020. We will follow the evidence and see what it tells us about the feasibility of the target in a few years’ time. The right hon. Gentleman may be in a position to say, “I told you so”—he has teed that up nicely—but I hope not. Now is the wrong time to send a signal of slipped ambition.
There are other challenges, including making the early smart meters interoperable. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right about that. We should not want our constituents to trade off the opportunity to get a better tariff against the opportunity to retain smart functionality. I assure him that the DCC has begun a project to enrol the early SMETSI 1 smart meters from 2018 in order to make them usable by all energy suppliers, rather than just the one that initially installed them. It is an issue, but one that will go away.
Another challenge that the right hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted is reaching all consumers, including those at risk of being left behind. That requires both a wide area network and a home area network. The DCC is contracted to provide wide area coverage to 99.25% of meter points in Great Britain from 2020, which is, incidentally, greater than for current television and mobile services. There are big challenges, but it is wrong to slip back on our ambition, not least because we can point to good progress being made.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of about 3 million smart and advanced meters being in operation. Actually, as of June 2016—these are slightly out-of-date data—the official number is that there are more than 4.2 million smart and advanced meters operating under the programme. Again, we now have some data from the quite large British Gas survey, which show what cost savings the roll-out is delivering for our constituents. The current run rate is about 3%, which is slightly higher than expected. We now have a sense of how popular the smart meters are, with eight out of 10 people recommending them and high levels of customer satisfaction. We have also updated the latest cost-benefit analysis.
I completely accept what the Minister says about the signals that can be sent by taking the foot off the gas, to use his analogy, but there are technical issues coming down the tracks. The suppliers are all telling us that the roll-out could take them into the middle of 2018. What is the Minister doing to engage with the suppliers to bring that date forward?
We are not naive about this. We have set a demanding challenge, so the ongoing conversation with suppliers to talk through some of the practical differences is an essential, fundamental part of the Government’s responsibilities and Ofgem’s responsibilities. I am keen to mention that we have recently published the latest cost-benefit analysis of this ambitious programme, which suggests that we are looking at a significant net benefit of about £5.7 billion for the roll-out—including through supplier cost savings, system benefits and energy efficiency for our consumers. That all leads me to reassert the fundamental point that we remain committed to the programme. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that ambition might have slipped a bit and that the scheme might have been a ball dropped by a busy new Department. That is absolutely not the case. The fact that the Secretary of State recently announced an ambitious consultation about the direction of travel towards a smarter, more flexible system places the roll-out in that context. It is a top priority for the Department.
I want to give the right hon. Gentleman some reassurance about his constituency. He spoke powerfully about the levels of fuel poverty there, and the data are striking. He was candid about the fact that this agenda is not the whole solution to that challenge, but his desire to ensure that no communities are left behind in the process is laudable, and is an aim that is absolutely shared by the Government.
In response to the questions on whether remote rural areas of Scotland be excluded from the roll-out and what the planned communications coverage will be, I would like to place on the record that Arqiva is contracted to provide network coverage to at least 99.5% of Great Britain’s premises in the north region, which covers Scotland, by the end of 2020. That level of coverage compares favourably with other technologies such as mobile and broadband networks. Arqiva is on track to deliver its contractual coverage commitments, having already achieved coverage of more than 80% of premises in the region. Building the smart metering wide area network in Scotland has led to considerable progress and, subject to detailed planning, the DCC is confident that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency will have a high level of premises coverage. There is a licence obligation on the DCC to strive—best efforts—for 100% coverage.
I hope that I have given the right hon. Gentleman some reassurance regarding his constituency and the fact that, despite some slippage in timetable—a matter of a few months, which, in the scheme of things and against the backdrop to which he alluded, is not the end of the world—the Government and the new Department attach the right level of priority and importance to the roll-out, which we sincerely believe will deliver a much better experience for our constituents in interacting with the energy systems on which they depend. The roll-out is the foundation for a much smarter energy system as we move to upgrade the energy infrastructure of the country after so many years of dithering and delay. It is absolutely at the core of that strategy.
Question put and agreed to.
Tidal Lagoons and UK Energy Strategy
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tidal lagoons and UK energy strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. This is a timely moment for the House to return to the subject of tidal lagoons as a future energy source, and specifically the projects of Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd, starting in Swansea bay, for which it has already received a development consent order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), my constituency neighbour, led the previous Westminster Hall debate on Swansea tidal lagoon on 8 March 2016, which underlines the keen interest in this project from people in west Wales. It is encouraging to see colleagues here from across the United Kingdom, which demonstrates that what we are discussing is of strategic importance to the whole UK’s energy policy, economic policy and industrial policy.
The previous debate was essentially held under a different Government, when energy and climate change belonged in a stand-alone Department under a different team of Ministers led overall by a different Prime Minister. I welcome the new ministerial team at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The team is experienced and well equipped to take on the challenges before us. I also welcome what the new Business Secretary said to the Institute of Directors on 27 September in his speech on industrial strategy:
“Many of the policies and decisions that form our industrial strategy will not be about particular industries or sectors, but will be cross-cutting.”
I welcome the departmental integration of industry with energy to make that happen, and tidal lagoons are a good example of the kind of opportunity that such integration is intended to foster.
The last general election feels like ancient history, but it is worth reminding ourselves that Conservative colleagues stood on a manifesto that:
“All parts of the UK will soon be helping to deliver secure, affordable and low-carbon energy, from the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, to offshore wind turbine manufacturing at the new Green Port in Hull, the next generation of pipelines West of Shetland and the Swansea tidal lagoon.”
I am proud of that manifesto commitment, and I would like to see it delivered.
Ten months ago the Government announced an independent review of the feasibility and practicality of tidal lagoon energy in the UK, recognising that tidal lagoons have the potential to provide the country with clean and secure energy but saying that more work needs to be done to determine whether it provides value for money. The Government therefore commissioned a review of the technology to improve our understanding of how tidal lagoons could contribute to the UK’s future energy mix in the most cost-effective way. The purpose of the review, led by the widely respected former Energy Minister Charles Hendry, was to help to establish an evidence base to ensure that all decisions on tidal lagoon energy are in the UK’s best interest, to better understand whether tidal lagoons can be cost-effective and to consider the impact on consumer bills both today and in the longer term.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree—perhaps the Minister will reflect on this too—that, given that 75% of identified fossil fuels cannot be exploited if we are to fulfil our Paris and COP 22 climate change obligations, the spot price of oil, which is often deflated by Saudi excess production to attack frackers, should not be the point at which we identify value for money? We should get sustainable green power at the lowest cost possible, even if the cost of oil is down.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. The purpose of the Hendry review is to help to provide clarity so that the Government can determine the role that tidal lagoons could have as part of a long-term strategy to provide secure, clean and affordable energy for families and businesses across the country. The review is now complete and will be presented to the Government this afternoon. I, and I suspect the Minister, have no idea what the review says and what it concludes, but given the strength of support for a tidal lagoon industry across such a wide spread of business and political opinion, I imagine that Mr Hendry has heard some powerful and compelling arguments that cannot be dismissed lightly.
It would be absurd to ask the Minister to address his remarks this afternoon to the contents of the review—he will rightly need time to digest and assess it—but my one request is that he commits today that a decision will be made, along with a full response to the review, in as short a timeframe as possible. Even as I say “as short a timeframe as possible,” I sense the scope that that allows for foot dragging, so I seek assurance that the Government will respond in a timely and purposeful way, with no foot dragging. This cannot become another third runway decision, where industry makes repeated calls for a Government decision only for it to be kicked further down the road. There is too much at stake.
I commend my right hon. Friend for securing this important and timely debate in the light of the Hendry review. Does he share my hope that the Minister will outline when he will share the Hendry review with Parliament? The review will provide great context for our future debates.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I look forward to the Minister addressing that point later this afternoon.
A key feature of UK energy policy, whatever else might be said, it that it is not neutral. It does not rely solely on market choices to drive new investment. To that extent, we have an activist energy policy that demands big, difficult and timely choices from Ministers. A core objective of recent UK energy strategy, as the last Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), said last year, is to ensure
“enough electricity generation to power the nation.”
As ageing and dirty power plants are retired from use, delivering on that objective becomes more challenging. National Grid now projects that, without emergency measures, the UK’s winter electricity margin stands at just 0.1%.
The vision we are discussing today speaks directly to that energy challenge. How do we harness the phenomenal tidal range that surrounds our country to replace many of the ageing power plants that are being decommissioned?
It is encouraging that the right hon. Gentleman is a former Secretary of State for Wales and for Work and Pensions, and he has support from the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams), a Treasury Parliamentary Private Secretary, which gives me hope that perhaps there is something in the wind to suggest that we might get the early decision for which he is calling—we would support such a decision. Will he support me in asking the Minister to give us a decision before the end of this year?
It would be fabulous to have a sense of the timeframe in which the Minister will be making his decision, but it might be unfair to ask him to provide one today, given that he probably has not yet seen the contents of the review. I do not even know the length of the report, and it might take a bit of time to digest. The key point raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is essential: we need a timely decision in the shortest possible timeframe.
The vision of harnessing tidal energy is exactly why Tidal Lagoon Power was started five years ago with the aim of providing home-grown, secure power from a fleet of tidal lagoons around the British coast that could provide low-cost, zero-carbon power for the next five generations, thereby building a new British industry of turbines, generators and turbine housing, with all the manufacturing and engineering jobs, skills and investment that comes with it. That is a compelling and exciting vision of energy and industrial policy coming together in the national interest.
Does my right hon. Friend, and hopefully the Minister, agree that the key point about this and other projects is that they represent long-term investment? The strike price that this project will achieve underlines that this is a cost-effective way of producing energy.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will address that point later. It is with a long-term view and an appropriate framework of support for the right projects that the prospect of a new UK tidal energy industry is within reach, and with it a source capable of providing 10% or more of the UK’s total electricity requirements.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fine speech. The strike price over 90 years is £96.50, which compares with the Hinkley Point strike price of £92.50 over 30 years, both at 2012 prices. Of course, it is often forgotten that nuclear has had 60 years of support, and 44% of the budget of the former Department of Energy and Climate Change was spent on addressing the legacy of old nuclear. Putting all that together, Swansea bay and other tidal lagoons represent very good value for money.
The point about comparability is well made. Although the purpose of this debate is not to do down any other energy source, I recognise that drawing such comparisons is right and proper in this context.
A tidal lagoon industry would mean multi-billion-pound infrastructure investments in two areas of the United Kingdom with ideal conditions for tidal lagoon infrastructure: the Severn estuary and the Liverpool bay and Irish sea area. I understand that about a dozen viable sites have been flagged to Charles Hendry as part of his investigations, and that Tidal Lagoon Power is working on specific projects for five of those sites, starting with a pathfinder project in Swansea bay and moving shortly afterward to the first full-scale lagoon in Cardiff.
New manufacturing facilities to serve the various lagoon sites across England and Wales will be served by a UK-wide supply chain. Original manufacturing will be spread throughout the UK; particularly important components will come from a number of regional centres of excellence, mirroring the UK’s historic manufacturing heartlands, including South Yorkshire, south and west Wales, the west midlands, western Scotland, Tyneside and Teesside.
A UK tidal lagoon industry would represent a world first. The wide body of bespoke maintenance and engineering expertise it would build up could lead to the export of skills, knowledge and human resource to projects in the first phase of international tidal lagoon deployment, potentially securing up to 80% of global market value in that space. That is absolutely what UK industrial strategy should be all about: renewing and enlarging world-class manufacturing and engineering skills right across the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. Friend have any views, or evidence of any views, about how the cost per unit, or per bay created, might drop as the industry gets under way? I am thinking of the solar photovoltaic industry, where the cost per unit has decreased dramatically over many years. It is important that we have some sense of how much cheaper tidal lagoon energy might become, because the costs will ultimately be borne by consumers through their energy bills. Many people are struggling for cash these days, and we are trying to drive up the productivity of the UK economy, so lower long-term cost to the consumer if we can make it work will be an important prize to gain.
That question goes absolutely to the heart of the matter, and I will address it in a bit more detail later. The figures that I have seen from Tidal Lagoon Power demonstrate that as we move from the pathfinder project in Swansea to the larger full-scale fleet of lagoons starting in Cardiff, the costs of energy generation decrease markedly. That does not even assume any of what economists call project learnings, which help to drive efficiencies in future projects.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way a second time. The key point here is that one project will help to start the next project, and therefore another and another. That is the central reason why this project as a whole is important: it will create more opportunities still.
Again, my hon. Friend demonstrates his knowledge of the potential industry that we are discussing. His point is well made.
It is envisaged that the machining and pre-assembly of the turbines will take place at a new purpose-built facility in the Swansea bay city region. Heavy fabrication of steel components will take place at a new purpose-built facility, also in the region. Final full assembly of the turbines will take place on site in the turbine housing itself. The turbines’ control systems and generators, which connect to the turbines and generate renewable electricity, will be manufactured in Rugby, also from a majority of British-made parts. Meanwhile, a Stafford facility will provide high-voltage switch gear and control and protection systems, all of which demonstrates the UK-wide potential for the supply chain to serve a new tidal lagoon industry.
Quite simply, the development of a fleet of tidal lagoons, starting with Swansea, would provide an enormous boost to UK civil and electrical engineering, our manufacturing sector and our domestic steel industry. According to Graham Honeyman, chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters:
“Being part of the Tidal Lagoon project would be an important win for this business. The prospect of working on a new power generation concept is an exciting one and is inspiring to our team. The possibilities for this concept, which could play a huge part in addressing the global power deficit, are vast. For such a project to be delivered through British designs and implementation would also be a great boost to the UK economy.”
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is making a fine speech. What he and other Government Members have been talking about is first mover advantage. We could make a strong case for first mover advantage. I hope that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is listening to that point. It should not be seen in any way as a cost to consumers. The previous Department was obsessed with snapshots of the cost to consumers in the present, whereas we should be looking towards long-term savings to consumers that will eventually be achieved through this work and the first mover advantage.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. If we are serious about rebalancing the economy, revitalising our industrial sector and creating new high-quality manufacturing jobs and apprenticeships, we need real and substantial projects to enable that to happen. The proposals for a tidal lagoon industry comprising five or more lagoon projects around the UK represent exactly the kind of new thinking that we need for our industrial strategy.
Tidal lagoons would mean new jobs, requiring new skills for a new industry. To give one example, there is currently no UK facility of sufficient size to serve the tidal lagoon sector with caissons, the large watertight chambers in which construction work may be carried out underwater. Tidal Lagoon Power and its partners have identified a number of potential sites for such a purpose-built facility around the Welsh and Scottish coastlines. The construction of such a facility would further enhance the UK’s civil engineering capability and upskill our industrial workforce.
In a report to Tidal Lagoon Power extending its earlier work for the Welsh Government, Miller Research and SEMTA found that the development of four tidal lagoons in Welsh waters would support 22,000 jobs in manufacturing and assembling the main component parts of the turbines, generators and sluices, which equates to 15% of the total number of people working in manufacturing in Wales in 2014.
The right hon. Gentleman and I agree on the importance of low-carbon technology, particularly to port communities in west Wales such as the ones that he and I represent. They have natural deep water and the facilities and skills from previous industries. Rather than reinventing the purposes of those ports, we should continue their excellent record of serving the energy sector.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point that is well understood in Government. The Government recognise the particular importance of ports as linchpins in their local economies.
If Ministers choose to harness our abundant natural resources and, in doing so, launch a new industry here in Britain, just as the Danes did with wind, we will secure a considerable competitive advantage over new market entrants from day one. Britain’s first post-Brexit industry will not only underwrite a strong domestic order book but help to put us at the front of the queue in future technology export markets. If we seize the moment now, wherever a new tidal power project is commissioned in future—from Garorim bay in South Korea to the Gulf of Kutch in India—there is every chance that the people, the parts and the components that build it will contain the words “Made in Britain”.
The Hendry report is good news for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, after five years spent raising £48 million. The right hon. Gentleman is making a valid point about the jobs that it would create, but it would also create apprenticeships, which we in Wales need at the moment. What are his views on that?
Perhaps we need another occasion to talk more fully about the role that apprenticeships play in rebalancing the economy, but the hon. Lady makes a vital point. If we are to have a new tidal lagoon industry, there is a lot of training to be done. A lot of new skills need to be brought into the workforce, so one can readily see that apprenticeships will play a key role.
I will draw my remarks to a close by drawing attention to the elephant in the room, which a number of hon. Members have already mentioned: money and affordability. I was discussing the Swansea tidal lagoon project with one Minister recently who described it to me as “eye-wateringly expensive”. When I pressed him on that, it became embarrassingly clear that he did not understand the project at all and was merely repeating what he had heard someone else say about it. A myth of unaffordability has grown up around the vision of tidal lagoons as it has developed over the last five years.
Let us be clear: the projected investment costs should not deter us. We know that investors are ready to support the Swansea bay project, whose overall project cost is about £1 billion to achieve construction and connection to the national grid. Tidal Lagoon Power has already spent around £50 million on the development work, and another tranche of money is ready to be used to bring the project to financial close, as long as the Government give the green light. Of the total capital investment of around £1.3 billion, we know that around 84p of every £1 will be spent here in the UK, and at least 50% of that will be spent in Wales. For the Welsh economy, a project of that scale would certainly help to move the dial in terms of gross value added.
We have still have not addressed the crucial point on which this whole thing hangs: value for money. I am interested to see what the Hendry review says about it, but after seeing the figures that crossed my desk when I was a Minister, and again more recently, I have been greatly encouraged that the project does represent value for money. By taking a long-term view of the asset—for that is what it is: a long-term source of power generation—and using established modelling that will be familiar to Treasury officials, the current net value of subsidy for Swansea could amount to a contract for difference equivalent of £89.90 per megawatt-hour. We would be talking about a 90-year contract with a diminishing subsidy each year for 35 years—because it is de-linked from inflation—which then starts to pay money back to the Government for the rest of the life of the contract. That compares favourably with Hinkley C, which locks in an escalating strike price with a contract for difference of £92.50 per megawatt-hour.
The point is that it is affordable: Swansea bay tidal lagoon would put an additional 18p on to household bills, and would require only 0.41% of the 2020-21 levy control framework budget in its first year. By its 35th year, Swansea bay would require just 0.15%—effectively a rounding error—of the levy control framework budget. To put that into context, Hinkley C will add around £12 to household bills.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that because the value of the pound plummeted by something like 20% after the news of Brexit—I think it is now down by around 14%—the lagoon will be much greater value for money, because it obviously costs more to import oil and energy if sterling has a low value?
I genuinely do not know about that. We are discussing the long-term view. I do not know what oil and gas prices, or the value of sterling, will be in six months, let alone in 35 years.
The Swansea bay project does have strong credentials as a stand-alone project, but think about a Cardiff tidal lagoon as the first full-scale project. That would see the cost of electricity drop markedly, with a potential contract that could, I am told, take around £5 off the average household electricity bill. That is why it is so important to talk about a tidal lagoon industry, not just about doing Swansea as a one-off. It is the fleet of full-scale lagoons that will unlock the full energy opportunity for the UK. If we get it right, the country will win with low-cost, reliable and clean power and the emergence of a new globally significant industry here in the UK. Tidal power is reliable, as well as clean, and it is not subject to the vagaries of the weather. It is predictable—we know exactly when every high tide will be for years ahead—and tidal lagoon systems will be built to last for at least 120 years, making them all the more worthy of investment.
We have a unique and historic industrial opportunity before us, and we absolutely should seize it. We have the natural resource on our coastline, and we need new sources of low-carbon power. We have a rich industrial heritage that has bequeathed us the skills, the capabilities and the ambition to take on the challenge. After five years and expenditure of more than £50 million, the pathfinder project at Swansea bay is almost ready to start construction. The project has planning consent, strong funders, strong industrial partners, political and public support, and a delivery team and supply chain ready to kick into action. It has also proved to the international marketplace that the successful commercial development of tidal lagoon infrastructure can be achieved.
I urge the Minister not to delay in his consideration of the Hendry review. I urge him to seize the moment, to give the go-ahead to Swansea bay, and to launch this affordable, sustainable, first new post-Brexit British industry, which will serve our energy needs into the 22nd century.
Order. Because of the extensive interest in this subject, I have a list of at least nine Back Benchers to call to speak, so I am going to impose a four-minute limit on speeches. The Minister and shadow Minister have indicated that they have a considerable amount to say. With that in mind, we will move straightaway to Liz Saville Roberts.
Diolch yn fawr, Gadeirydd. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this debate, which I hope we can use to build the cross-party consensus that we need to get moving on tidal lagoons, as well as many other much needed Welsh infrastructure projects. The Government seem to be rather caught in the headlights of Brexit.
I shall make my case for increased investment and urgency in the development of tidal lagoons in three parts. First, and most appropriately, I will outline the benefits of tidal lagoons for meeting current and future energy capacity requirements. I will then briefly touch on how they can contribute to our environmental targets, before finally outlining the economic benefits. Those Members who are familiar with energy policy will recognise my speech as an expanded response to what is known as the energy trilemma. I will conclude by highlighting the deficiencies in the Wales Bill and how it continues to hamper Wales’s ability to make use of its natural resources.
Eighteen major power stations, totalling 17,767 MW of capacity, have closed since 2012. By 2020, the amount of lost power is expected to rise to over 38,000 MW, representing more than a third of our current capacity. According to Tidal Lagoon Power, that means that, having put everything else into the mix, we will end up with a 32 GW deficit.
The 350 MW Swansea bay tidal lagoon will pave the way for projects between Cardiff and Newport, which are planned at equal capacity to Hinkley Point C. The projects will generate the lowest-cost electricity of all new power stations, and can be online in the mid-2020s. A 3,000-plus MW lagoon on the north Wales coast is planned for completion shortly afterwards, with two other projects in the pipeline for development slightly further down the line. As a fleet, the five scoped projects can generate secure, clean energy for 30% of UK homes for 120 years.
We face a clear and present risk when it comes to our long-term energy security. The highly predictable and secure energy created by tidal lagoons means that they face few of the uncertainties or dangers of other carbon-neutral technologies. A home-grown industry, producing power on our shores—what is more secure than that? What is there to like more than that?
I turn briefly to the role of tidal lagoons in meeting environmental targets, which is the second aspect of the energy trilemma. Whatever the impact of Brexit on the UK’s energy and environmental policy, under the Climate Change Act 2008, we are committed to reducing carbon emissions by 57% by 2030, on 1990 levels. As recognised by the Committee on Climate Change, it is likely that new technologies, including tidal lagoons, need to be implemented to meet that target.
In Wales, our abundant resources, particularly tidal energy, give us huge potential to become a world leader in carbon-neutral energy generation. However, Westminster is the dog in the manger when it comes to Wales’s abundant natural resources. For centuries we have been reined back from cultivating and benefiting from our own resources because of arbitrary restrictions from Westminster.
The third aspect of the trilemma is often referred to as energy equity—that is, the affordability of energy for consumers—but I shall also touch on the broader economic implications of tidal lagoons. As the first of its kind, Swansea bay tidal lagoon is undoubtedly more expensive than some of the rival technologies. However, as the project is small, its impact on household electricity bills will be small as well. For consumers, Swansea bay’s real benefits lie in its ability to act as a catalyst for an industry of cost-effective renewable energy in the form of future tidal lagoons.
That said, at a local level, during construction, Swansea alone will employ 2,323 workers, and 181 during operation. It will add around £316 million of gross value added throughout construction, and £76 million annually thereafter. We must also remember the possibilities for exporting the technology. At a time when exports are crucial to the future of the economy, why are the Government dragging their heels on the issue of getting shovels into the ground at Swansea? We can demonstrate to the world that we can lead the way on innovative technological solutions to our energy needs.
I conclude by highlighting the vicissitudes that Wales endures from Westminster. Despite Wales having a natural treasure trove of renewable resources, particularly tidal energy, Westminster refuses to let Welsh people benefit from their own environment.
Unlike under any other devolution settlement, under the current Wales Bill, there will be an arbitrary 350 MW cap on what our National Assembly can develop. That means that the lagoon in Swansea, which has already received planning permission, would have been a project decided on by Cardiff Bay, but any of the other larger projects would remain the preserve of Westminster.
My final plea to the Minister is this: allow the people of Wales to control their own natural resources, so they can make the best use—
I am very grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) has painted the golden uplands of tidal power, but while it is of strategic importance the cost is eye-watering. Although 50% of the benefit may go to Wales, it is the poorest consumers who will end up paying the subsidy on this project. I therefore urge the Minister to exercise caution in relation to the project. There are undoubted benefits, should the predictions come true about Swansea bay tidal lagoon power, but there is no guarantee that subsequent projects will be delivered, or that they will secure licensing consents from Natural Resources Wales. Past experience of energy projects at Milford Haven docks shows that there can be substantial delays in obtaining consents from NRW.
It is clear that the pricing for the tidal lagoon is far more expensive than Hinkley Point. It runs over a 90-year contract, whereas the Hinkley Point contract runs only for 35 years. The difference in the contract for difference is that decommissioning costs are included in the Hinkley Point contract. That makes tidal power—or this particular project—look very expensive. When one considers that the initial bid was £168 per megawatt-hour, one can see why a degree of caution needs to be exercised and why there has been movement away from the project. Would unique intellectual property be generated in the UK that would benefit the UK? Clearly, there would be skills advantages. I accept my right hon. Friend’s arguments about the skills benefits that could be gained and the engineering benefits that could come to the UK. However, those are not unique skills. They are very transferable. They can be taken anywhere and there would be no guarantee of their subsequently returning. We would be the first adopter, but there is no guarantee that we would retain the benefits, because of the lack of IP that would accrue to what amounted, in effect, to more than £2 billion-worth of subsidy from the British taxpayer.
I therefore urge the Minister to be cautious. I look forward to reading the Hendry review and seeing the evidence base, which I know has been looked into in great detail. The project has potential, but not at the strike price that is proposed.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this important debate. I am here this afternoon to put on record my support for the proposed tidal lagoon developments, particularly the one in west Cumbria, which would be situated on the Solway firth at Maryport in my constituency.
Hon. Members may know that, in west Cumbria, we market ourselves under the name of “Britain’s Energy Coast”. We started with Calder Hall, which is now part of Sellafield. We were home to the world’s first commercial nuclear power station and we now have the proposed nuclear new build at Moorside, which we hope will be given the go-ahead soon, following the welcome announcement about Hinkley Point C.
It has been reported that the west Cumbria tidal lagoon, with its 90 turbines set in the breakwater, could have a generating capacity of 2 GW. If that capacity is added to the 3.4 GW of capacity that would be produced by Moorside, west Cumbria alone would produce around 10% of the UK’s electricity needs.
The Tidal Lagoon Power group states on its website:
“In addition to helping the UK transition to a low carbon future—providing secure and affordable low carbon energy—we believe that a West Cumbrian lagoon could be uniquely positioned to deliver a range of economic, social and environmental benefits which are strongly aligned with local priorities for economic growth, tourism and leisure, flood risk management”—
flood risk management is very important for my constituency—
“coastal erosion, infrastructure improvement and social inclusion.”
Maryport is a beautiful coastal town, but it badly needs a boost and a west Cumbrian tidal lagoon could bring huge economic benefits—thousands of jobs during the construction period, as well as regeneration and investment in the local community. It has also been suggested that there could be a factory to build the turbines near the port of Workington, which would give that area, and the port, a big boost.
The lagoon company has been consulting local people closely, but it is important that it listens to the local fishermen, who have expressed concerns to me. Their livelihood comes from the waters of the Solway. I am glad that the Tidal Lagoon Power group has said that it is setting up a fisheries peer review group to advise on the effects on fish. The group must do everything in its power not to disadvantage the fishermen.
I have been really impressed by Tidal Lagoon Power’s comprehensive strategy for the wider community in Swansea bay. As the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said, it is seeking to invest in recreation, tourism, sport and the arts, which is exactly what we need in west Cumbria. The Solway firth is beautiful; it is a hidden gem. More people need to know about it, to visit our attractions and to taste our local food, particularly the seafood, so that they know that there is so much more to Cumbria than just the Lake district. If hon. Members have a few moments this afternoon, we are having a Cumbria day in the Attlee suite. I urge them to come along and taste some of the delicacies on offer.
In conclusion, I absolutely support the pathfinder tidal lagoon project in Swansea bay. I am pleased to hear that Charles Hendry’s report appears to be imminent and I urge the Minister to let us know when it will be published, so that we can all take a look at it. If we can get this first project off the ground, areas such as the one I represent will be able to benefit greatly from this huge investment in our future, which will also help to bridge the national energy gap and ensure that we meet our international climate change commitments.
Thank you very much, Mr Paisley, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing the debate.
My constituency of Aberavon, along with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), a neighbouring constituency, would be the home of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project, which would be the first such project in the world. Tidal lagoon power is an idea whose time has come. The Swansea bay tidal lagoon would produce enough energy to power 150,000 Welsh homes for 120 years, meeting 11% of Welsh energy needs with clean, green, reliable and sustainable energy, saving almost a quarter of a million tonnes of carbon during each year of operations. It would directly sustain over 2,000 construction and manufacturing jobs in Wales, and support as many as 311 UK industrial and manufacturing businesses along the supply chain. Crucially for my Aberavon constituency, the project will require more than 100,000 tonnes of steel, much of which will come through the Port Talbot steelworks. Tidal Lagoon Power has committed to procuring as much steel as possible from UK suppliers and it should be commended for making that pledge and held to it.
As the project will be the first of its kind in the world, it is estimated that, in its first year, 200,000 people will visit the lagoon to see the national boating centre and other facilities. That will mean £8 million in tourism revenue, including £2 million from the oyster-shaped visitor centre, £500,000 from the national boating centre and almost £1 million from the elite performance sports centre. The project has the support of almost 90% of local stakeholders and it was included in the manifesto upon which every major party stood at the last general election. In sum, the Government are fast running out of excuses for delaying a positive decision.
A final decision will, of course, be made following consideration of the Hendry review. That was supposed to have been received before the autumn statement, but we understand that the Government asked for the report to be delayed, in the light of the possible ramifications of other announcements. Can the Minister please inform us what impact, if any, the autumn statement has had on the review?
We now understand that the review is expected to be submitted to the Secretary of State this afternoon. Can the Minister please inform the House whether the review has already been submitted? If not, when will it be submitted? Will he commit to his Department publishing the Hendry review publicly?
Members of this House, our constituents and local businesses should see the review and the case presented by Hendry either for or against tidal lagoon power. There are live investment decisions that need to be made or at least planned imminently. For the decisions to go forward, investors need at the very least a clear sense of the decision-making and implementation process. Will the Minister please make clear what the formal decision-making process will be and when we can expect a public decision? Will we have to wait until the Budget? Will the Secretary of State make a statement in the coming months either as a separate stand alone statement or as part of his national industrial strategy statement? Will the Government also make it clear what the timescale and process will be for implementation of any decision following the Hendry review? Investors, business and our communities need an end to the uncertainty. All major parties made clear manifesto commitments to tidal lagoons and in particular to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. It is about time we fulfilled those commitments and delivered jobs, energy and opportunity to the Swansea bay region.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Paisley. It is good to have a colleague in the Chair. I also thank the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for presenting such a good case.
Strangford lough in my constituency is one of the most beautiful loughs in the whole world. I defy any Member of this House to come and have a coffee and a delicious scone in Harrisons of Greyabbey, sit on the veranda looking over the lough and argue that the view could be beaten. I would argue that the view could never, ever be beaten. Not only is Strangford lough the most beautiful, but it has the potential for so much energy production. Indeed, we were proud to trial the world’s first tidal current energy turbine, the SeaGen. Tidal power is an important part of any renewable energy plan as it is a guaranteed source of power and, unlike wind power, can be relied on every day. Generating electricity from two massive underwater propellers, the SeaGen was lowered into place in 2008 and bolted to the seabed in one of the world’s fastest tidal currents.
Strangford lough is one of Europe’s most protected areas, providing unique habitats for marine and bird life. It is a Ramsar area and also an area of special scientific interest. The location was chosen for the turbine project because it offered sheltered waters close to shore, but still exposed the generating device to the full rigours of the tides. The pull of the waters of the Narrows in Portaferry and Strangford is significant and in the early stages some of the blades were damaged. SeaGen generated 1.2 MW: enough power for around 1,500 homes.
There were of course environmental aspects and questions. A study of the environmental impact of SeaGen will, I hope, open the door for other such projects. There had been fears that large marine mammals such as seals would be hit by the propellers. We have a good colony of seals in Strangford lough. The environmental monitoring report that gave the all-clear stated:
“There have been no changes in abundance of either seals or porpoises detected which can be attributed to SeaGen; seals and porpoises are continuing to swim past SeaGen, demonstrating a lack of any concern or hindrance.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, it is essential that we get the energy strategy correct across the whole of the United Kingdom, so that we can offer companies a competitive spirit for business?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As a businessman, he focuses on the issues that we want the debate to focus on. The Minister will, I hope, respond to that.
The SeaGen project ended and was dismantled in January this year. The years of operation have opened the door for other such tests. There has been consideration of similar projects on a larger scale in other coastal areas, so the SeaGen project in Strangford lough has given the necessary information to the Department to use for further projects. Perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of how the SeaGen project can be used for the furtherment of other projects.
My opinion is clear: the less dependent we are on crude oil and its supply from other countries, and the more we can get from our own renewable resources, the better. I support such projects for that reason.
The levy control framework, established by the former Department of Energy and Climate Change and Her Majesty’s Treasury, set a cap for the forecast costs of certain policies funded through levies on energy companies and ultimately to be paid for by consumers. Since November 2012, the framework has covered three schemes to support investment in low-carbon energy generation: the renewables obligation, feed-in tariffs and contracts for difference. It sets annual caps on costs for each year to 2020-21, with a cap of £7.6 billion in 2020-21, in 2011-12 prices. According to the latest forecast, the schemes are expected to exceed the cap and will cost £8.7 billion by 2020-21. That is equivalent to £110—around 11%—on the typical household fuel energy bill in 2020. That is £17 more than if the schemes stayed within the cap.
I will conclude shortly. I understand other Members want to speak, so I will not take extra time. We need to do more, and projects such as SeaGen at Strangford lough are possibly the way to go as they also seek to address the environmental impact duty that we must stick by. The environmental reasons for renewable energy are clear and compelling. Although I am not someone who would ban the use of fossil fuel or nuclear reactors as needed, I do feel we should make the most of the great resources that we have in our tidal energy provision. I am anxious to see how we can develop that in Strangford lough and throughout the Province—indeed, across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—so that we rely less on fossil fuels and other energy sources that are not on our doorstep.
It is great to have you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I have been a supporter of tidal lagoons since I was elected in 2010. At that time, I asked searching questions about flood mismanagement, possible contamination and suchlike. Those have been looked at and, essentially, this project is good for jobs, for the environment and for the economy, so we should go forward. The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) shakes her heard. I should mention what she said about nuclear power.
Nuclear power is good, but if we look at global uranium supplies, at the current rate of consumption, which is 2.5% of global consumption, we will run out in 50 years. If that goes up to 12.5%, we will run out within 10 years. So we need a diverse portfolio that does not exclusively rely on nuclear.
As I mentioned earlier, 75% of fossil fuels cannot be exploited, so we need to look carefully at the tidal lagoon project. There is no excuse for further delay. The previous Chancellor came to Swansea with the former Prime Minister and in the autumn statement of 2013 mentioned the Swansea bay lagoon, but we are still waiting. We now have the Hendry review, which has found that the project is technically sound, is value for money and will deliver economies of scale and falling marginal costs as the portfolio is spread around. So, as hon. Members have said, let us get on with it and let us have a target date. Let us say by June next year. I do not think by Christmas is realistic, but let us have a target date and let us get on with it.
The only thing that has dragged on is the issue of cost. As I have mentioned already, the oil cost is not a proper indicator, because we cannot exploit all the oil and, also, we cannot really go down the road of fracking. People may have read the recent Council of Europe report on hydraulic fracturing. It concluded that, given that methane is 86 times worse for global warming than carbon dioxide and fracking has fugitive emissions of 5%, fracking is twice as bad as coal for global warming, so we need to have very tight controls on fracking. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that. Will he undertake to ensure that fugitive emissions are below 1% for the whole process and below 0.1% at the well head? If we can get that out of the way, it opens the door for Swansea bay lagoon and other lagoons like it as pathfinders. We should not mess around when we know that strategically other options are not open to us.
It looks as though we will be heading towards the disaster called “Brexit”. Let us assume for a moment that the Government do not delay triggering article 50 beyond the French and German elections and do not give the people a final say on the deal, in which case they would reject it. Let us assume we go for Brexit. Obviously, fuel prices will be much higher because sterling will be devalued owing to a lack of confidence in the economy outside the European market, with tariffs. That makes the Swansea bay lagoon better value for money. In the short term, of course, some of the component parts to build it will increase in price. However, overall, it is a great project. We have been waiting long enough. Let us get on with it. In the interests of the environment, of the economy and of Britain, let us do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. The lagoon is located in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). Since I was elected the people of Swansea East have made it abundantly clear that the tidal lagoon is one of the issues that matters most to them. It matters for jobs, for investment, for business and for industry.
The hon. Lady is talking about investment in jobs, and there will be an impact in my constituency, where GE will build the 16 generators, involving £18 million of investment in the plant at Rugby and the creation of 100 additional skilled design, installation, service and maintenance roles. Is not that a compelling reason to proceed?
That was very clever of the hon. Gentleman, and yes, it is a compelling reason.
Most of all, the project matters for the sake of hope, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will now have. It was, and remains, a beacon of hope for a region in transition. Swansea knows a thing or two about making the most of its natural assets, but our once great industries are now in decline and our city has suffered as a result. When the lagoon plan emerged—a modern plan for a new low-carbon era that would once again place Swansea’s natural resources at its core and redeploy a skilled and committed workforce built up over decades—we questioned, probed and challenged. When we were satisfied with the answers we received, we backed it to the hilt. Let me make it abundantly clear: Swansea supports the tidal lagoon, but more importantly, it needs it. It is the foundation stone for our city deal. It is important for the regeneration of our waterfront; for our plans to get people back into work; for retaining the next generation of talent; and for showcasing to the UK and the world a city that I am proud to call home.
I was sceptical about the need for an independent review, but I am delighted to report that those of us who saw the review in action were impressed by its engagement and endeavour. However, it is now finished, and I hope that the Minister will explain what we can expect next. We have heard this afternoon that the review may be lodged today, so we need to know what the next steps are. We have seen the views of the 40-strong all-party group and the more than 100 Back-Bench MPs from across the House who signed a letter to the Government to support the project. Now is the time for the Government to put their money where their mouth is. Now the deed is done, and we need to know where we go from here. We need to know that Swansea will get the tidal lagoon it deserves.
I too congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on obtaining this timely debate. He mentioned that the Hendry review is with the Government this afternoon, and I share the desire to hear about it from Ministers as soon as possible. The debate is a demonstration of how much cross-party support there is in this place, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, for the development of tidal lagoons. That support is pretty unique, and indeed there is also cross-party support in the Welsh Assembly and elsewhere. I should also mention that my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who are upstairs in a Bill Committee, want their support for the project to be stated.
We all hope that the Minister will have something to say this afternoon about when he will share the Hendry report with the House, as it was not mentioned in the autumn statement. The delay is frustrating, because we want the Swansea bay tidal lagoon to go ahead—and, as others have said, not just as a one-off or a stand-alone project, but as a pathfinder for yet more tidal lagoons across Wales and beyond, including in Newport, as set out in Tidal Lagoon Power’s plans. A couple of streets away from my home there are the most beautiful views of the expanse of the Severn estuary. From my constituency office on the banks of the Usk we can watch the dramatic rise and fall of the second highest tidal range in the world every day. It is an amazing natural resource on our doorstep, and we are just not using it. At a time when we desperately need clean, secure energy, year-round, entirely predictable energy, tidal lagoon technology is the key to delivering a low-carbon energy future in Wales. We have to grasp that opportunity.
The benefits for Wales and elsewhere have been clearly spelled out in this debate. They include the chance for Wales to be a global leader in the technology, starting in Swansea. More than 2,000 direct jobs would be created in the manufacturing and construction process, and many more would be created in tourism and the supply chain. There would be a huge boost to the Welsh economy. There would also be the potential for long-term cost reduction as more lagoon technology was built, and, importantly, for exporting the technology. A Newport lagoon further down the line would bring construction jobs and the chance to use Welsh steel, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) mentioned—it has been an incredibly difficult time for that industry. The Liberty House Group in my constituency supports the project; a lagoon in Newport would be less than a mile from its steel plant, which I visited recently.
The project is not only a matter of renewable energy generation and playing our part in meeting climate change targets. There is also a chance for coastal regeneration and a boost to recreation and tourism. The leader of Newport City Council, Debbie Wilcox, has given it her backing and said it is a “marvellous opportunity for Newport”. There is huge added value in the project—not least from up to 33,000 jobs at the four lagoons in Wales, were they to go ahead. It is an amazing opportunity that we should grasp for Swansea, yes—but also for Newport. I urge the Government to make a timely decision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It has been a good debate and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing it and on the manner in which he made his case. It is notable that with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) everyone who has spoken so far in the debate has been in favour of the project; there were speakers from all the nations and several regions of the UK, and all bar one were in support. Debates such as this bring me out in a bit of a cold sweat, because I may have to brutalise some constituency names that I do not know how to pronounce. I thank all those who mentioned the constituency of the right hon. Gentleman and saved me from pronouncing it as if it might normally follow the word “Elvis”—that is how I would have read it. Such debates are an educational process for many of us, and this one has certainly been educational for me with respect to learning to pronounce the names of parts of the beautiful country of Wales.
The speech of the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire touched many key points, and these were replicated by many Members who spoke. The project is potentially a key part of the Government’s industrial strategy, and the cross-party support that it enjoys is balanced by its cross-cutting benefits. It is not just an energy project; we have heard that it will boost tourism and support the steel industry. It also ticks a number of the boxes on which the Government are trying to deliver with their nascent industrial strategy. It links business with energy; it provides a low-carbon technology; it has the potential to spread the economic benefit and boost economic growth outwith London and the south-east of England; and it has the potential to develop a sizeable and exportable technology. Those are all things that, I think, we would like.
There may be issues as to the cost, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury said. However, as I often do when we discuss technology of this kind, I remind the House that we must ask not only the cost of doing something, but the cost of not doing it. It may be difficult to account for that, and it will be interesting to see whether the Hendry review touches on it. However, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said that we should aim to emulate the Danes in their development of onshore wind. They have developed an industry and have world-leading technology and exports coming from that. I sought to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman, but my attempt was somewhat lost in the debate. As well as emulating the Danes, we need to make sure we do not emulate ourselves as to what we did in relation to onshore wind technology. The original leaders in that technology were here, and the lead was ceded to the Danes who picked it up and ran with it, and are now in an enviable position. Let us not repeat our mistake over onshore wind with tidal technologies.
Tidal lagoons and technologies are an important aspect of the matter, but not the only one. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the potential of the tidal scheme—SeaGen—in Strangford lough; and in the Pentland firth between Scotland and the Isles of Orkney there have been world firsts in the deployment of tidal turbines in an area renowned for its tides. That has potential, and I would like to question the Minister about the contracts for difference that were announced last month. We know that they have excluded technologies that are cheaper than offshore wind—onshore wind and solar will not be allowed to bid in—but technologies that are more expensive have also, effectively, been excluded. Essentially, we will have a competitive option process that only one technology will be able to win. That does not seem like fair competition to me—it would mean a broken promise to the tidal industry—and I hope that the Minister can address the matter. That promise of a de minimis amount of electricity through the contract for difference process has seen the development of several stages of proposals that would look to bid in—in particular, MeyGen in the Pentland firth. That could be part of a compelling story of a UK tidal industry, with the tidal lagoons and turbines as compatible—sister—technologies in which we could be a world leader. I wholeheartedly support the deployment of offshore wind, but not its being the only show in town. Because of the Government’s decision—their fixation, it would seem, on that technology—we risk losing one aspect of that story. I really hope that the Government will reconsider their decision and engage with those looking to pursue the schemes to see what can be done to develop them.
I will not take up my full amount of time, but I want to return to tidal lagoons. The scheme ticks many boxes and its development has support across the Chamber and, I think, Parliament as a whole. The lagoon will be a pathfinder in Swansea, the first of its kind. We have a history of developing energy technologies in which numerous firsts of a kind have turned into ones of a kind. I hope that Swansea goes ahead but, if it does, it must be a pathfinder. It must be a scheme that leads to the development of a technology. There is no point in our paying a large amount of money to do this once, then not learning from it, not reaping benefits for future development and, most importantly, not having the technology to export. I fully support the scheme, as does my party.
We have had an excellent debate, with contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber indicating almost unanimous support for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. That outcome—the clash of ideas in the white-hot heat of full agreement—should be impressed on the Minister. Even though there was what might be regarded as one dissenting view from the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), I think that she supports the idea. She made some important points about value of money and about how careful one needs to be to get that right.
We can, I think, say that there is agreement, more or less, about the principle of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon and full agreement, at least by the Opposition, about the practice. Indeed, Opposition turnout and the first-rate contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), Swansea West (Geraint Davies), Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), Newport East (Jessica Morden) and Workington (Sue Hayman), and by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig), indicate just how full the support is on this side of the House, not just from south Wales Members but across the country. I think that is because we need to make it clear that support for Swansea needs to be based, as Members have emphasised, not just on whether we build that tidal lagoon but on what it means for tidal lagoon technology for the UK’s future and what it means also for the series of lagoons that can come about as a result of the Swansea proving lagoon.
That series of tidal lagoons is not a concept based on thin air; it is not about harnessing an as yet untried technology that might come from the middle of nowhere and save us as far as low-carbon power is concerned. Essentially, it works on a simple principle of proven, well-known technology, of water entering the lagoon subject to its flow through a turbine, both when it is coming in and on its release when the lagoon is full, that allows for the generation of some 14 hours of utterly predictable power. We know that the principle works well because, as the Rance barrage in France has shown, the technology is reliable over many years and, as has been mentioned, it is a power source with a lifetime far in excess of those estimated for wind, gas and even nuclear. It is likely also that the outage time over a long period will be relatively low.
Swansea is not a large lagoon in terms of what is possible. It will have an installed capacity of 350 MW, which is approximately a tenth of the most worked-up second lagoon, in Cardiff bay, which comes in at a capacity close to that of Hinkley Point C power station. However, it is the possibility of Swansea being the proving ground for a number of tidal lagoons that will not only be cheaper to construct and operate than Swansea but will open up the prospect of a large contribution—perhaps 10%—of our electrical power needs that ought to be a condition for supporting it. What we should be investing in as a country is not Swansea, but Swansea and the prospect of all the others as a major component of our future energy make-up.
As Members have mentioned, as far as our country’s overall energy make-up is concerned, power plant is going offline at an alarming rate, with 23 GW of conventional thermal plant being closed or mothballed since 2010, and a further 24 GW—mostly of coal and nuclear—to be closed by 2025. It is unlikely that nuclear will even begin to make up that gap. Hinkley is delayed by longer than seven years and will probably not be on line until 2026-27 and, according to the latest consultation, coal is due to come offline by 2025.
We need replacements for the lost capacity, and a lot of that will come from the aggregation of renewables, but at present the only plan appears to be that gas-fired power stations will be built out at some pace between now and the late 2020s. We know that gas power stations are not, at present, getting built and, indeed, the Government are pursuing expensive capacity market operations—with an auction today or thereabouts possibly costing us £2.5 billion—for capacity over the next period. That is the last chance saloon, one might say, for gas plant procurement under the present arrangements. Swansea, and other lagoons, would certainly serve as a substantial alternative to some of that build, which, if procured, would cost substantial amounts—something that needs to be taken into account where value for money is concerned. All energy, at the moment, is expensive to build. All energy, at the moment, is being subsidised in its build. It is not about considering just what Swansea might cost but about what the alternatives might cost as well. Under those circumstances, Swansea performs, in the long term, very well.
Within a few years, perhaps, a number of those replacement power stations will need replacing anyway. Meanwhile, Swansea and other lagoons would have sailed through the period, producing reliable ultra-low-carbon electricity. By the way, in terms of a larger lagoon strategy, they will be able to supply reliable and known amounts of power pretty much round the clock, for the simple reason that the time of high tide varies considerably along the UK coast. I always like to try to introduce a not very well known fact into my contributions and today it is that, right this minute—this very minute—it is high tide in Morecambe bay. That means that if there were to be a lagoon in Morecambe bay it would produce power for seven hours either side of its high tide.
It is not high tide in Swansea. High tide was at 10.20 am. Power could be produced seven hours either side of that high tide, which would overlap almost exactly with the power produced in Morecambe bay on its high tide. With a series of lagoons, there would be round-the-clock, reliable, known, predictable power that was just as predictable and round-the-clock as any nuclear power station or gas-fired power station that we might care to build in this country.
The benefits of developing Swansea and subsequent lagoons are manifest from a low-carbon energy point of view. As Members have alluded to, there would be considerable other benefits, too. Jobs and supply chains would be created, mostly in the UK. It is estimated that 65% of the pathfinder project spend will go on UK content, which is close to the figure achieved by the North sea oil and gas industry. There would be 200 jobs in Swansea and perhaps 11,000 jobs in Cardiff during construction, and several thousand jobs during operation. Developing Swansea is important for what UK plc should be doing to secure the exportable potential of those technologies in which we are world leaders. We certainly are leading in tidal, tidal stream and wave.
As the hon. Member for Aberdeen South said, we only have to look back a little to see how close we came to securing exportable UK industry in wind before we lost our lead and most of our manufacturing and expertise to others, most notably Denmark, because we did not back the development of our world lead through industrial strategy. Yes, I have mentioned the words “industrial strategy”. It appears in the title of the new Department—the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—but there is still an absence of anything that looks like an actual industrial strategy from the Government. We were promised a Green Paper on industrial strategy would appear shortly. With lagoons, we have an industrial strategy in the round already, with jobs, a supply chain and exportability. It is running up to us, metaphorically asking us to bite its hand off, and at the moment we are not responding in a positive way.
In all of this, we have to consider the question of value for money, which the hon. Member for Eddisbury mentioned. Comparatively, lagoons provide value for money. Undoubtedly even Swansea will come in as better value for money for electricity-generating purposes than the deal we have concluded with Hinckley C. Comparatively it is in the same league as offshore wind. A series of lagoons would certainly be much better value overall, although we need to cast our minds towards the longer term in thinking about value. Swansea is asking for a CfD for 60 years. That is half the operating life of the lagoon, with payments reducing substantially over that period. Swansea is not asking for a block CfD degressing through future projects; it is asking for a CfD degressing within the project’s lifetime.
I know the Government have not been idle in all this, although on the surface not much has happened since general support for the idea of the Swansea bay lagoon was included in the Conservative party’s 2015 election manifesto. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said, it was also in the manifestos of all the other major parties. I hoped we would hear something positive about Swansea in the autumn statement, but nothing was announced. We will have to wait until the Hendry review has been examined. That review is headed by an estimable former Energy Minister, the right hon. Charles Hendry. I am confident he will have a positive look at value for money and the bigger picture I have described of the lagoon, but we do not know where that review is. We think it is on its way to Government as we speak, but we have not yet had any confirmation that it has been received, or whether there is a timetable for looking at that review or for action after it has been considered. I join my hon. Friends in calling for early publication of the review so that we can all have sight of what it is about. We also call for an early Government response to that review, even if a final decision about proceeding with the Swansea tidal lagoon has not been made.
I conclude by emphasising that timing is important. We have a worked-up, permitted, committed plan that cannot stand in suspended animation while people spend so long making up their mind. Swansea bay, in case anyone needs reminding, is not an interesting concept that we can cogitate on at our leisure, but a real project that needs to be developed within a reasonable timescale. Otherwise all the money invested in it—£50 million—will start to go stale and the project may fail, possibly never to be revived. We need to get on with it, not just for Swansea’s sake, but for the sake of a real solution that could be producing power by the very early 2020s if it is given the go-ahead now. It would be a solution for our mounting energy gap in the early part of the next decade.
Thank you very much, Mr Paisley. Members have already widely noted the honour it is to serve under your chairmanship, and I add my support to that sentiment. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this important debate. It is testimony to him and the importance of the issue that he has generated such cross-party support and so many interesting speeches. The sentiment in the room has been so evident.
My right hon. Friend has long been a proponent of the economic benefits that tidal lagoons could bring to his constituency and to south Wales as a whole. Naturally, he and other Members here today are keen to understand better how the development of a tidal lagoon at Swansea specifically and a fleet of tidal lagoons around the UK coastline—were they to go ahead—would benefit their local economies. However, as he acknowledged, this is a difficult and complex question. The technology is new and untried, and the development warrants due care and consideration before decisions are taken. That is why in May the Government commissioned Charles Hendry to undertake an independent review of the strategic value of tidal lagoons in the UK. Among other things, the review was intended to consider whether and in what circumstances tidal lagoons could play a cost-effective role as part of the UK energy mix, to examine the potential scale of the opportunity, including in the supply chain, and to consider different sizes of projects as the first of a kind.
Contrary to what some Members have said, building a tidal lagoon in Swansea is not a manifesto commitment of the Conservative party, but it is mentioned in the manifesto. There is a commitment to explore the lagoon as a source of affordable energy, and that is exactly what Charles Hendry is being asked to do in his review. We are expecting him to deliver his report to Government very shortly. Colleagues may know better than me how shortly, but whenever that is, this debate is a timely opportunity to discuss the issues. Apparently, drafts have been sent to or discussed with officials—certainly in one case—but it is important to note that the review is not about Swansea as such. Rather, it is a general review of the costs and benefits of tidal energy. As it has not reported, it is irrelevant that the autumn statement has occurred, contrary to what some colleagues have tried to insist. It would be wrong for Government to announce anything while a review we had commissioned was under way. We look forward to receiving it and reading it with great interest.
The question has been raised as to whether, as my right hon. Friend said, there will be a timely and purposeful decision. Members asked when the Hendry review would be published and whether there would be a decision before the end of the year. Colleagues will understand that any decision before the end of the year would be unrealistic at this late stage, and my right hon. Friend acknowledged that. We will give this matter thorough and careful consideration. There will be no dragging of heels.
The fairest thing to do is to see what the report says before we come to a view about an appropriate timetable. It would be quite wrong to prejudge the report and its conclusions.
For all the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for tidal lagoons, I note that he has taken a measured approach, respecting the complex issues that are being raised, for which I thank him. As he said to the House when he was Secretary of State for Wales,
“The Swansea tidal lagoon proposition is very exciting and commands wide support across the business community in Wales, but we also need to recognise that the project is asking for a very significant level of public subsidy and intervention. It is absolutely right that”
“should conduct very robust due diligence in making sure that such projects will deliver value for the taxpayer.”—[Official Report, 13 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 842.]
That is precisely what we will do. We will take the time necessary to look at the review’s findings in relation to tidal lagoons, particularly in the context of a wider assessment of the nature of the UK’s future energy mix and our plans to reduce carbon emissions.
Last month, the Secretary of State set out his vision for how the energy sector should develop, in the context of our new UK industrial strategy. He recognises that the Government’s role must be to create the right framework for growth, harnessing both existing and new technologies, to deliver more secure, cleaner energy at a lower cost. That is our goal: a reliable, clean and inexpensive energy system.
Of course, new technologies such as tidal lagoons may have a role to play, but not at any cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) rightly raised several issues, and we look to the energy review and other discussions to resolve them. She raised not merely the issue of cost, but her concerns about the lack of intellectual property, planning uncertainty and delays. The Government should properly consider those issues as part of a wider decision-making process.
As colleagues know, the contract for difference allocation round, which we announced last month, is under way. Overall, our energy policies and priorities have not changed. It is worth saying, in relation to the remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig), that it is not true that CfDs do not include tidal stream technologies, although it is true that there is no ring-fenced allocation for them within the auction. That is because our responsibility is to bill payers. Tidal stream, which is not a technology that we are specifically discussing in the context of tidal lagoons—it is a different technology—has a strike price about three times higher than that of offshore wind. Until those prices fall, it may be difficult for it to compete. When they do, it will come within the policy horizon.
In fairness to myself, I do not believe that I said it was excluded; I said it is effectively excluded, which the Minister may have touched upon himself. Ignoring the potential first mover advantage for tidal stream technology, how does he expect its price to come down if it does not have the support to deploy and develop a downward price trajectory?
That is a perfectly reasonable question. Historically, the expectation has always been that technologies have to demonstrate that they are capable of benefiting from support. Given that the distance in the range of cost is so high, a judgment has been made that that technology has not done so at the moment, but other technologies have succeeded in doing so.
Other colleagues raised issues such as the rate at which costs might fall with other lagoons, the degree to which different projects could inspire different learning, and the first mover advantages, all of which should be resolved and discussed in the context of the Hendry review.
In my contribution, I mentioned the SeaGen project in Strangford lough in Northern Ireland—a pilot scheme sponsored by the Government to get results in relation to the environment. Perhaps the Minister is going to tell us what the results of that pilot scheme are so that we have some idea of what we are doing now.
I am sorry to have given up time for that intervention, because I was coming to that point. SeaGen, as the hon. Gentleman recognises, was a research test bed, and it is being decommissioned now. It received a £10 million grant from the Department, and those conclusions are being carefully assessed. It is a project in which there has already been public investment. [Official Report, 14 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 6MC.]
It is clear that we cannot allocate subsidies to every technology that asks for them. We have said that our focus will be on key technologies that have the potential to scale and deliver long-term cost savings, in which the UK has a comparative advantage and whose costs to consumers are acceptable.
I am very short of time. I am so sorry. I have taken an awful lot of interventions, and I want to make progress.
I note the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for the proposed Swansea bay project, but it is the Government’s job to consider the advantages and disadvantages and to scrutinise the evidence to ensure that decisions are taken in the longer-term interests of the UK and consumers. It is worth focusing on the significant uncertainties associated with the project—in particular, the use of a new and untried technology in a marine environment, the length of time over which the commitment would be made, and the planning issues, which have already been mentioned.
Since the debate on the economic impact of tidal lagoons in March, the Department has continued to have discussions with the developer of the Swansea bay lagoon. I cannot comment on those discussions, given their commercial nature, but the most recent proposal put forward by the developer would be a very significant deviation from current Government policy. It would not be impossible, but it would require careful consideration. We have always been clear that we will consider the findings of the independent review of tidal lagoons and all other relevant factors in deciding whether to proceed with negotiating a CfD on this project. The developer is aware of that.
The issue of value for money quite properly remains at the forefront. I mentioned the concerns about consents and leases, decommissioning and the supply chain. I note that the China Harbour Engineering Company is no longer working with the developer. There is also an issue of state aid approval. The point is that, even under ideal circumstances, it will take some time to resolve those issues, and the Government will need to take our time to consider the review and make a judgment in a proper and effective way.
As this important debate draws to a close, let me say that I expect a copy of the review’s report to be on my desk and those of colleagues very soon, and we will give it careful consideration. I assure hon. Members that the Government will strike the right balance between responding in a swift and timely way and taking the time required to consider this complex issue in the detail it deserves.
I will do that. First, thank you for your excellent chairmanship, Mr Paisley, which has facilitated this very good debate about not just the Swansea project—it was never about just the Swansea project—but the potential for a tidal lagoon industry for the whole of the United Kingdom. The sheer number of colleagues who participated from all parts of United Kingdom and all parties demonstrates the overwhelming support for the Government to take forward a new tidal lagoon industry. I am reassured by the fact that the Minister said there will be no dragging of heels. He said that the Government will not support this project at any cost, but nobody was asking for them to support it at any cost. We have discussed some very reasonable figures and comparisons between different energy types.
This debate will carry on in other forums over the coming months. I hope we get a full, positive response and a decision from the Government, if not by the end of the year—perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect that—then certainly by the spring or summer.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tidal lagoons and UK energy strategy.
Flood Re Insurance Scheme
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Flood Re insurance scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to have the opportunity to move the motion.
Back in 2005, Carlisle was badly affected by floods, following which substantial investment was made in flood defences. By December 2015, the view was that Carlisle was probably safe from further floods and would not be affected. Exactly one year ago today, however, Storm Desmond struck the United Kingdom and in particular Cumbria. It was an extraordinary weather event, and the floods had a profound effect on our city.
For the record, the emergency services were absolutely brilliant. We must also recognise the contribution of individuals—friends, families, strangers—and communities. They all did a terrific job. I acknowledge, too, the contribution of Government. Central Government and local government rose equally to the challenge of the times, giving great support, manpower and assistance to the community.
To give one small example, the week after the floods I asked the then Chancellor at Prime Minister’s questions if he would support the Cumbria Community Foundation. He indicated that he would match any funding raised. The foundation subsequently raised £5 million, which meant that, with the matched funding from central Government, £10 million was available, helping people enormously throughout Cumbria to recover from the floods. Work by the Environment Agency and the Cumbria Community Foundation is still going on, and people are gradually getting back into their homes. For the future, the Government have also committed a further £25 million to flood defences, which I am sure the EA will invest in and around Carlisle over the next few years.
What of the impact of Storm Desmond? From a Carlisle perspective—not even Cumbria, just Carlisle—more than 2,000 individual homes were directly affected. The knock-on impact on families, friends and the wider city was considerable. Furthermore, hundreds of businesses were affected, ranging from small, one or two-employee businesses to large factories such as McVitie’s, which has more than 800 staff—I am delighted that it is back up in production now.
Nor should we forget the side effects of the floods on sporting facilities. Carlisle lost its tennis, rugby, squash, football, cricket, bowls and athletics facilities. The impact of that on the wider community is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, many people do not appreciate that three secondary schools were also affected. One of them has closed at its original site and is looking to move to a different location. The impact on Carlisle, its community, individuals, families, businesses, schools and social clubs, can therefore be appreciated. The effect was dramatic and is still ongoing.
It is important to set the scene for the Minister and explain what happened in Carlisle as a result of the floods then and subsequently. However, the purpose of today’s debate is to address one particular aspect of flooding, namely Flood Re, which I will talk about from my perspective. A number of my colleagues are present today, and they will have their own views and issues to do with their own local communities, including the impact that Flood Re may or may not have had on individual households and the wider community.
For the record, Flood Re was an excellent bit of thinking by the Government and the insurance industry. Overall, it has been a great success. It took a number of years to get there; nevertheless, it was an inspired bit of thinking by the industry and Government, which reached a sensible compromise that has been hugely beneficial to many people up and down the country. The statistics are starting to tell the story about the number of people who managed to get insurance under the Flood Re regime.
An important thing from the Carlisle perspective was that the 2015 floods came, in many respects, unexpectedly—given what had happened in 2005 and the subsequent work on flood defences. At the time the community was badly affected and morale was low, but the one thing that gave people a little confidence was that through the Flood Re scheme they knew they could get insurance. That was vital for individuals and householders. I congratulate the Government and the insurance industry on Flood Re, because it is a job well done.
Therefore I am not here to be negative; I am here to be constructive. As with any new idea or piece of legislation passed by the House, however, sometimes issues can be overlooked, particular circumstances not taken into consideration, or judgment calls by the Government or the industry might need some adjustment or further thought. Perhaps the Government need to review the Flood Re regime and make some adjustment to it for the future.
I will concentrate on the specific issue of long leaseholders, although I accept that there are other issues with regards to leaseholds and so on. For example, there is what I call the accidental landlord—someone who for whatever reason, perhaps a job, might have to move to a different part of the country. Such people might not be able to sell their house, or they do not want to because they intend to move back to the area, so they lease the property out while purchasing or living elsewhere. That is clearly an issue, because they would not be able to get Flood Re insurance for the house they have vacated. That is a side issue for me, today in particular, but it is worth the Government looking at it.
I will concentrate on the long leaseholder. The purpose of Flood Re, as I understand it, is to help owner-occupiers—those who own their own principal private residence—not commercial owners. I fully understand the thinking about commercial owners, and in many respects I accept that.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He is always a great champion of Carlisle and the north-west. May I make a point about non-commercial, community assets? On Boxing Day in my constituency, the village of Croston was badly flooded by Storm Eva, but Croston community centre is not eligible for assistance under the Flood Re scheme and it has been quoted excess of £35,000. The future of the centre, which of course was a hub of activity in the floods, is now unviable. I know my hon. Friend is concentrating on long leaseholders, but does he have anything to say about that?
My constituency, including several thousand homes and several thousand businesses, was also badly hit. Last weekend I met some residents of a block of 10 leasehold flats, next door to seven bungalows. The bungalows are eligible for Flood Re, but the 10 leasehold flats are not—one resident had bought a flat because they could not afford a bungalow. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £50,000 excess that each flat individually is being charged for flood insurance is excessive? Does he agree that Flood Re should be relooked at for that area of private residents?
My hon. Friend is in many respects raising the very issue that I am about to deal with, so I obviously have a great deal of sympathy. Again, it will be interesting to hear what the Minister says about that point.
The real issue concerns long leaseholders who live in a property that is in effect their principal private residence—it is where they live, have their family and community, and so on. To all intents and purposes they are homeowners, but for a variety of legal and technical reasons they do not own the freehold—they are long leaseholders, but they do not own the freehold.
A group of long leaseholders will have a lessor, which is usually a management company. The management company owns the freehold and individuals take a lease on the property. Often the management company is in fact owned by the leaseholders. Leases may be for 999 years, and the freeholder is the management company, which would control it from there. They would be responsible for the communal areas, which could include grass cutting and roads, and may be responsible for parts of the fabric of the property, depending on the nature of the leasehold interests—whether it is a tenement flat going upwards or a group of properties next to each other. There will be variations, depending on the structure of the agreement at the outset. Interestingly enough, the landlord will be invariably responsible for ensuring that covenants between leaseholders are enforced to ensure that they comply with certain requirements under the terms of the leases.
It is interesting that the Flood Re legislation already allows for that set-up to a certain extent. It is allowed for properties of three flats, and three only. We could therefore have a situation where a landlord occupied one of the three properties—admittedly, they would have to live in one of them—and had another two on leasehold that are covered by Flood Re.
I will read from a letter from someone in the circumstances that I have raised. The freehold area is known as Willowbank, and he says:
“Willowbank is owned by a company, but that company is owned by the 29 leaseholders. The company has no income and no reserves. It makes no profit and pays no dividend. The two directors are paid neither a salary nor expenses.”
In many respects, Flood Re was there to help people like that. They are principal private occupiers who own their properties that are effectively freehold, but for whatever technical reason they are called leasehold and not covered by the legislation.
The legislation is meant to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, which includes Scotland, and in Scotland they have tenement blocks. As I understand it, the set-up under Scottish legislation is similar, but the tenement blocks, which are similar to the scenario I have set out, are covered by Flood Re legislation. I genuinely believe that it was not the intention of the legislation or of Parliament to exclude those I have described from Flood Re. I think the goal was to help secure the insurance requirements for people in those circumstances.
I want to come in on the positive aspects of Flood Re. Having grown up in Carlisle, I would also like to say that it was horrific and heartbreaking to see so much of the city knee deep or worse in water. I hope that most people have fully recovered.
More positively, Flood Re has made a real difference to many in my constituency, who have seen reduced premiums, reduced excesses and insurance made available when it was not before. Notwithstanding my hon. Friend’s reservations, will he commend the Government on taking such positive action and remind them that many businesses are still worried and in need of help?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Flood Re has been a success. I have seen that in my constituency, where people now have confidence that their house will be insured. What I am trying to get at is a small group of people. In the setting I mentioned earlier, 29 houses were involved and in another scheme in Carlisle there are, I think, 68, but there will not be many other than those. I suspect that there will not be too many in such circumstances in the flood areas up and down the country, so most people will be able to get the appropriate cover, which, as she rightly says, is a positive.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. I, too, congratulate him on this important debate, which will be welcomed by his constituents and by everybody who has been seriously affected by flooding. Has he examined the proposal recently launched by the British Insurance Brokers Association that is intended for commercial properties and which I understand will also cover long lets? Is there not a danger, though, that because premiums are calculated on specifically targeted risk, they might end up as unaffordable for people in long-lease properties?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I am aware of the proposal with regards to commercial properties, which may be a way forward for them. I have concentrated on a narrow point with regards to the circumstances surrounding Flood Re.
To conclude, will the Minister bring forward a constructive review of Flood Re? Will she consult Flood Re and the insurance industry? Will she listen to the concerns of homeowners in my constituency who genuinely feel that they are being let down by the legislation and are unable to get that security and insurance for flood? It is an ongoing concern for them that if we get another Storm Desmond, they will not necessarily have the money to refurbish their properties. I do not think that is the intention of the legislation. I hope the Minister will take on board the arguments that I have set out about the legislation and will acknowledge that there was an oversight, or that something was missed when it was considered, and that it would be appropriate to bring forward primary or secondary legislation to expand Flood Re to cover that small group. That would assist a small group of people in my constituency, but it would be hugely beneficial and give them confidence for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for raising the issue of access to affordable flood insurance and the Flood Re scheme. For those at high flood risk, whether households or businesses, or indeed community leaders and their surrounding communities, this matter is a central one.
I would also like to thank other hon. Members for their interventions. I hope to address them all during my response. The anniversary of Storm Desmond—we had Storm Angus last week—is a timely reminder that the potential for flooding, and the devastating impact it can have, is never far away. It is worth reflecting on the purpose and value of Flood Re, which replaced the statement of principles—a series of agreements made by the Government and the insurance industry since the 1960s on the provision of insurance to those at flood risk.
However, the statement of principles had limitations. Under the statement, members of the Association of British Insurers agreed to make insurance available to domestic and small business properties in areas that were not at a significant risk of flooding. For properties in significant flood risk areas, the statement of principles provided an offer of cover only to existing customers, provided that plans were in place to reduce the risk within five years. There was no availability of cover for those most at risk if they had not historically had flood insurance or the risk was not being reduced. Importantly, the statement of principles did not provide for the affordability of flood insurance.
I would like to make some progress and then I will happily hear from my hon. Friend.
In the insurance industry, traditionally there has been an informal cross-subsidisation of the costs of flood risk, which is a common approach to managing risk in the insurance sector. However, commercial pressures and the availability of more sophisticated flood risk models have given rise to a trend towards insurers increasingly assessing local flood risk and imposing risk-reflective terms. Without Flood Re and with an immediate transition to fully risk-reflective prices in a free market, many households at high flood risk in the UK would probably experience a significant increase in their insurance premiums in the coming years. I therefore welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) elucidated, the Flood Re scheme has gone some way towards supporting communities, individuals and housing that is vulnerable to flood risk, but it is clear from the original legislation that it does not work in isolation. It works alongside flood defences not simply as a repair product but as part of a structure to build confidence in housing and industry in flood-affected areas. Will the Minister say a little about the flood protection the Government are introducing and how that will defend communities, particularly in areas such as the Medway?
I certainly hope to come on to that. To return to the genesis of Flood Re, the Government, working with the insurance industry, established the scheme to help householders at the highest flood risk who were blighted by not being able to access affordable insurance. It is expected to help about 350,000 households. Flood Re not only limits the price of flood insurance according to council tax band but limits the excess to £250. It ensures that all home insurers in the UK are part of the solution. It is a complex scheme, but it is a world-first and it is the fifth biggest reinsurance scheme globally and the second largest in Europe. There is much international interest in what we are doing.
Flood Re is providing relief for thousands of householders at flood risk and brings real practical and emotional comfort to many, as has been said. Fifty insurance companies, representing more than 90% of the market, now offer access and in its first six months of operation 53,000 households have benefited. This portfolio will build as the market matures, with Flood Re policies expected to grow in number over the next three years. I encourage hon. Members to advertise that to their constituents. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasising that a number of factors beyond flood risk determine any insurance quotation and it remains important for householders to shop around for the best deal.
I agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) that the Flood Re scheme is a good one and has been successful, but does the Minister accept that there is more to do for businesses, particularly small businesses, in flooded areas such as York and Carlisle? When flooding hits, it has a huge impact on small businesses. Will she consider extending the scheme to cover businesses?
I intend to address that issue towards the end of my contribution. If I do not manage to do so in sufficient detail for my hon. Friend, I will be happy to have further discussions.
I stress that Floor Re is a transitional measure. It was designed with a 25-year lifetime to help householders at high flood risk to adapt to risk-reflective pricing. That sets the challenge of how collectively as a country we can bring down the risk and impact of flooding over the next 23 years. The Government are spending record amounts on flood defences, with a £2.5 billion six-year capital floods programme, which will provide better protection for at least 300,000 homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) will be aware of some of the protections, and I know that he is pressing for more for his constituents.
There is a growing understanding that, regardless of our significant investment in flood defences, a residual risk of flooding remains. Flood defences are not always appropriate, and where they are we have seen that they can be overtopped in extreme events, as happened a year ago. We need to work across the whole catchment area to slow the flow of water through natural flood management and to prepare for any flooding that does occur. As well as ensuring we have a first-class emergency response to flood events, there is much we can do to adapt our homes and businesses to become more resilient.
Only last week, I visited Warrington and saw at first hand a new flood defence scheme at Victoria park where work is still in progress. Back in 2013 and within two weeks of the first phase being built, the scheme prevented 200 properties from being flooded. That was fantastic for the residents, but reminds me of the need to help people to understand the residual flood risk that inevitably remains. It is important to take measures to try to stop water entering a property and to speed recovery. Returning home is increasingly important and relatively simple steps can make a big difference—for example, flood resistant air-bricks; raising sockets; and using tiles instead of carpet. Property-level resilience can play a significant role in making people and their property less vulnerable to the physical and mental impacts of flooding.
A few months ago, we published the Bonfield property flood resilience action plan in collaboration with the commercial sector. It explores how collectively business and Government can best enable and encourage better uptake of such measures for properties, including businesses, at high flood risk.
Turning to leaseholds, particularly long leaseholds, I have commissioned my officials to look at the nature and extent of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle described, as we need to look at them in more detail. He will be aware of the wider issue of small leasehold property, to which he referred. The insurance industry regularly informs us that for, the most part, affordable commercial insurance and contents insurance for individual leaseholders is available through Flood Re, but there are examples of individuals and leasehold properties with more than three residential units struggling to access affordable business insurance. Likewise, there are examples of residential buy-to-let properties not being covered and owners finding it difficult to obtain insurance.
Evidence is building and the challenge is not easy. Much consideration was given during the creation of Flood Re to whether to include leasehold properties. From a practical perspective, insurers determine whether an individual property is at high flood risk on a household-by-household basis and can allocate the cost using a simple domestic insurance model. For leasehold properties, buildings insurance will often cover numerous dwellings, which may well have different levels of flood risk. It would be difficult to establish a consistently fair approach to how lessees should cover that risk.
There are also considerations of principle. With Flood Re, when the insurer has a direct relationship with the homeowner, the competitive market gives us confidence that the benefits provided by the scheme will reach the households for which it is intended. It is not clear that a similar scheme for leasehold properties would achieve this.
I have been saying for some time that there is good news. I am very pleased that yesterday the British Insurance Brokers Association announced the launch of a new commercial product designed to help small businesses at high flood risk to access affordable insurance. The scheme will also be open to leasehold properties. It will no doubt help some, and I hope it will help the vast majority of those who are struggling. On tenement housing in Scotland I was not aware of the difference in application, and I will certainly ask my officials to add to that. Should there prove to be a need for additional action, I remain open to exploring what can and should be done.
I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) said and I am happy to explore it further. There is a similar challenge, in that that is not quite as straightforward as individuals’ domestic dwellings, but let us look at it and see.
Flood Re is not a panacea. There is no evidence of a systemic problem, but I recognise that there is a real problem for the individuals, businesses and communities involved. I am particularly concerned about smaller businesses that cannot easily move premises. I hope that using granular postcode data and recognising the benefit of property level resilience measures, the new products from insurers—as of next week, I believe—will enable more small businesses to obtain affordable insurance.
In parallel, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working to understand the nature and extent of the problem. I thank the hon. Members who have shared examples with me and encourage businesses to work with us to help the Government to have a more comprehensive picture of the challenges that they face. Where there is a clear need for further action, the solutions are varied. Extending Flood Re to cover businesses is not possible, because the scheme is predicated on a domestic rather than commercial insurance model. Equally significant is the question of who pays to subsidise profit-making businesses, which are often more able to move premises than households.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle asked about Flood Re and the ongoing concern. Flood Re will be reviewed every five years. It needs to be given time to work, but there are separate policy questions that we need to look at with regard to scope. Flood Re will continue to interpret legislation and I assure hon. Members that we are in regular contact on it.
People should be aware that Flood Re does not extend to properties built during or after 2009. Planning law means that properties built in a high flood-risk area should already be resilient to flooding. Extending Flood Re to cover these properties would only incentivise unsuitable development. That is why we have not done that.
Will the Minister, as part of her ongoing review, review the level of premiums that are charged under the British Insurance Brokers Association scheme in relation both to leasehold properties and to those of small businesses? The danger of a finely targeted, granular approach is that some may find the risk premium unaffordable.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the principle of using taxation to support citizens is well established. The principle of forcing businesses to subsidise one another is not established and would be a significant difference.
The product is coming out formally next week and we need to see how it works. There are other models that will be encouraged and this might help the community centre to which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred to think about adding extra insurance against the excess, if that excess is deemed to be too high to manage without additional protection.
I urge hon. Members to make sure that their constituents are aware of the Flood Re scheme and the benefits it can bring. I encourage hon. Members to make sure their constituents are flood aware and prepared for flood events. That could be signing up to the flood alert service and making properties more resilient. Touch wood, Mr Hollobone, I hope that we do not have an incident similar to Storm Desmond last year. However, we are not relying just on touching wood. I praise the Environment Agency for all its work in the last year, working alongside councils to make sure we are better prepared for this winter. I assure the House that this Government are committed to continuing to protect hundreds of thousands more homes in the coming years.
Question put and agreed to.
Road Traffic Accident Prevention
I beg to move,
That this House has considered road traffic accident prevention.
It is a pleasure to introduce my debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We are long-term colleagues and often compete for Mr Speaker’s eye, but always on a very good and familiar basis, so I am looking forward to this debate.
Some hon. Members will know that road traffic accident prevention is a long-term interest of mine. As a very young man, a very long time ago, I came into the House after having seen the deaths of two young people who were thrown from their car and who died by the side of the road. That image never left me or my imagination—it haunted me—and when I got into the House, we had tried 13 times to introduce compulsory seatbelts, and 13 times that had been defeated. On an all-party basis, a number of us organised and formed a group to campaign. As you might know, Mr Hollobone, the 14th time, the night before a royal wedding, we kept our troops here on an amendment tabled by Lord Nugent of Guildford, a Conservative peer. It bounced back to the House of Commons. We kept our troops here and the others did not. Remember that in those days Mrs Thatcher, Michael Foot and both Chief Whips were against seatbelts. We held our nerve, kept our troops here and, by a majority of 72, seatbelt legislation was introduced. How many lives have we saved since then? It was a really good fight and victory.
These days, we could all be in a nice cosy bubble, thinking, “Isn’t it wonderful? The UK, the British, are leading on road safety. We are an exemplar to the rest of the world. We sometimes vie a little bit with Sweden, but we are pretty darn good.” Well, I have to tell you, Mr Hollobone, that 1,730 people died on British roads last year. For 1,730 families, there was a knock on the door to tell them that their loved one was dead. And these are preventable accidents. This is not like a disease; it is not like getting something ghastly and wasting away. This is something that happens for all sorts of reasons, but it means that those families are devastated. If I may say a little on the financial side, it of course costs the country a great deal. Every road death costs an enormous amount of money, and that is in addition to the human tragedy.
When we organised the seatbelt legislation, a group of MPs set up something called the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Today, most people call it PACTS, and it has become one of the most influential transport safety groups in the world. We are an exemplar to many Parliaments throughout the world, and we spend a lot of time persuading other Parliaments to follow our path.
Also, after 10 years, we got together with a group of the Dutch, Germans, Belgians and Swedes to form the European Transport Safety Council, which has become the most influential group across Europe. We are very proud of that. Sometime afterwards, I had the honour of being asked to form, with the backing of the World Bank, the Global Road Safety Partnership, which operated and still operates right across the world, trying to save—this is a desperate number—the 1.3 million people in the world who die every year on the roads. Yes, some countries have much less regulation than we do. In India and China particularly, the situation is tragic, as it is in South Africa. There are dreadful accidents, deaths and serious injuries in other countries, but today I want to concentrate on the UK.
As I have said, 1,730 people died on our roads last year. I think that we are becoming a little cosy and complacent about that number of deaths. I am not saying that we are becoming too complacent. I am looking at the Minister, who is a good friend of mine. He is a very good Minister, but I will nudge him today in a kindly way. Five people are killed every day in our country. That is five families destroyed. Ahead of today’s debate, I was inundated with emails and tweets, many of which were from bereaved families who had been torn apart by the actions of drunk, drugged or distracted drivers. That is the truth of the matter: the deaths are preventable.
All the time in this Parliament we are trying to get more Members engaged in reducing the casualties on their patch, bringing the figures down home. Every year, PACTS issues to every Member of Parliament—I hope that everyone can pick this up online or through PACTS—a dashboard showing what happens in their constituency, but it does not only show that: it shows how many deaths and how many serious accidents there have been, and we rate the constituency against other similar constituencies. That is a very useful tool. Someone cannot say, “I happen to live in a very dense urban area and the roads are terrible,” or “I live near a motorway.” All that is accounted for, so if someone’s constituency is well above the norm in this regard, they as the Member of Parliament should be out there campaigning with a coalition or partnership.
On the subject of the dashboard and distracted drivers, has PACTS come to a view on the modern phenomenon of new cars having significant IT and entertainment systems—something a bit like an iPad—incorporated in the dashboard and what effect that innovation has had on the number of accidents?
That is a brilliant intervention, because it is in the later part of my speech! It is true that the very sophisticated dashboard that some models of car now have, showing drivers not only how to park—self-parking—but all the hazards and all the different information that they can log into, is becoming an area of great concern, but the reason I have kept to a good, true and relatively sane path in transport safety is that I was converted by some of the best scientists in our universities and in the Transport Research Laboratory and other places to always remember: do not go for hearts and flowers; go for good science, good evidence, and what works in countries such as ours. I have always stuck to that, and it has guided me and my colleagues very well.
Understandably, there is an uprising of feeling when something dreadful happens, and recently we have seen some dreadful things—families being killed, mothers with children being killed, by distracted drivers. We know about that, but we have to bear it in mind that, overall, good science, good evidence, should be the watchword. I look at my friend the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry)—he is a friend on these matters particularly—and I say, “Let’s do the science. Let’s do the evaluation of the level of distraction caused by every innovation, including the new design of car interiors.” I think that that should be ongoing. I have not seen the results of research on that, but I know that it is a worrying area.
In Europe, 26,300 people died last year, and there was a slightly rising curve in our own country. I want now to mention the Twitter involvement in this debate. May I commend it, Mr Hollobone? What a wonderful innovation it is that now, when there is to be a Westminster Hall debate, we can involve the broader public by asking what they think about the debate we are to have on the following day. We had one for an hour yesterday. There was a lot of involvement and there were excellent ideas.
One of the top concerns for people was driver education. There is no doubt that young people are very vulnerable in the early years after they first learn to drive, when there are many accidents. There is evidence of young people not driving in the proper way and of that leading to pretty horrific casualties—the deaths and serious injuries of young people in their teens and early twenties.
My wife knows me extremely well—we have been married a very long time and have four children and 10 grandchildren; I do not know if that is a record among those in the Chamber, but I would not mind putting a bet on it—and always thought I had something of the Italian in my driving style, but I once amazed her by passing the test for the advanced driving certificate. I took the advanced drivers’ course possibly because I thought I was not a very good driver. A lot of evidence shows that good driving behaviour comes from good learning and good education early in a young person’s career. I talked to a chief constable in one of the coastal towns in which we used to have party conferences three or four years ago, and he said, “I am not so worried these days about young people having accidents; I am worried about elderly people who share with younger children a diminishing ability to judge distance and speed, and who drive very badly as they get older. There is no one in the family with the guts to say, ‘Mum, Dad—it’s time you stopped driving.” We therefore need good training at the early age and at the later age, and to ensure that the Government do all that they can so that young people and older people are well educated on this life-and-death issue.
More than 200 tweets yesterday wanted distractions to be given a top priority. One of the largest distractions that people are talking about these days is mobile phones, and I absolutely agree that there should be that level of public interest. Yesterday there was the interest in the issue of drink and drugs, and we have had steady improvement. The Minister knows that I am concerned that there is still not an effective roadside test for alcohol, so that people do not have to take up so much police time by going to the police station for testing, and so on. We have roadside testing for drugs but not for alcohol at the moment. However, there is no doubt that the real priority for the public is the distraction caused by mobile phones.
We see high-profile cases in which people who are distracted by their mobile phones cause dreadful accidents. I do not want to go into all the recent tragic cases, but many in this Chamber will know of the family killed by the lorry driver who was scrolling through songs on his phone. That was a terrible thing to have happened, and I can see why anyone who loses their lovely family, or members of their family, wants the strongest possible sentence available for that sort of behaviour. I have a lot of respect for that view, although it does sometimes lead people to look for a silver-bullet solution for the problems that we face. There is no silver bullet, but there is the evaluation of all accidents backed up by good evidence. Although I have sympathy with the idea of having stiff penalties for people who use their mobile phones or who drink or take drugs and drive, it will not save all those lives. It is more complicated than that.
There is also less public knowledge about the risk of drivers with poor eyesight. Road crashes due to poor driver vision are estimated to cause 2,900 casualties in the UK every year. I am not advertising Vision Express—my glasses are not from Vision Express, by the way—but its interesting survey found that 94% of people are unaware that vision can deteriorate by up to 40% before the driver starts to notice. Leaving drivers to self-report poor eyesight seems to Vision Express—I share this view—not to be a good idea. I certainly noticed as I got older that my vision, especially at dusk and when driving at night, was not as good as it should be. I recommend that we have tighter control on tests of good vision for drivers, certainly as they get older.
I want to intervene before the hon. Gentleman gives my entire speech. Does he agree that too few people really understand about the loss of eyesight and the fact that they lose their eyesight in the way that they do? We need to do more as a nation to publicise it and get people to recognise it.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will not detain the Chamber for long with the rest of my speech, but I add that the UK is one of only five EU countries that does not legally require drivers to be tested by a medical or optical professional as part of their driving test, so she is absolutely right.
Another issue that is becomingly increasingly evident—with this I will upset the Minister—is the lack of police officers making sure that our roads are safe. The number of road traffic officers is down 23% from 2010. I raised this issue on Monday in Home Office questions, which you were there for, Mr Hollobone. The night before, I was coming back from Cambridge, with my wife driving, and on the M11 an enormous rescue van—a lorry—with another lorry on top was proceeding at over 65 mph where there was a 50 mph limit. The size and weight of that in an accident would have killed a lot of people. Road traffic technology is able to detect such drivers. There are those who drive—I said “like maniacs”, but perhaps that was a bit harsh—in a very dangerous fashion with no fear that there will be a flashing blue light and that they will be pulled over, and I have to say there is a relationship between proper policing on the roads and good detection. I go to many conferences on transport safety and have spoken at a number of big conferences this summer. I see wonderful technology there, but that will not replace the police—in cars and on motorbikes—on our roads. That point will probably upset the Minister most; he and I usually get on quite well.
The Government have said that they are serious about making our roads safer, but I will ask the Minister about another thing that will upset him—that is, targets. For some reason, both the coalition and the present Governments believed that targets are not the sort of thing that they should have. They do not like them, and there is a kind of ideological resistance to them. However, all the research across the world—he knows I believe in research—shows that if we do not have targets for road casualty reduction, we do not get the reduction. We have to have a road casualty reduction programme. That is a very important point. I do not know of any leading expert, in or out of the Government, who honestly disagrees with that view. We need targets in order to get a reduction.
I was taken by the people who got involved with us on Twitter yesterday and said that we need to have that wonderful, but perhaps unrealistic, target of zero casualties and zero deaths on our roads. That is visionary and optimistic, but we know that targets work. We all know that we do not get casualty reduction in any country, or any part of a country, without a partnership and a team that have passion and leadership and care about this useless waste of life.
Mr Hollobone, you know that I am passionate about this issue. I know that not enough of our colleagues in the House of Commons are still interested enough in transport safety. It is a bit unfashionable and not sexy enough for some, but it is vital to the people that we represent.
I thought that my hon. Friend might be perorating towards a conclusion. [Interruption.] No, there is much more to come. I commend him for his passion and all his work over the years on this important subject. Will he say something about cyclists’ safety in particular? I am sure that a number of the tweets he mentioned would have referred to that. Does he agree that we all have an obligation, whether as cyclists or as motorists, to promote cycling safety? He referred to the Netherlands: do we not have a lot to learn from the success of its dedicated provision for cyclists in the interests of safety?
My right hon. Friend makes a very fair point. I made a decision that I would not cover everything in this discussion but, yes, increasingly there are vulnerable road users including cyclists and pedestrians, both children and adults. There is also an increasing concern—I am sure the Minister is listening—about the number of really horrid, terrible, tragic accidents involving heavy goods vehicles. All the conferences and presentations I saw this summer mentioned the increasing relationship between horrible accidents in places such as London and HGVs. But, to be honest, I have to say—I am not a London MP, but a Yorkshire one—there has actually been more improvement in road safety standards and casualty reduction in London than in many places outside. We can get carried away by the passion and enthusiasm, but my message is that these are avoidable deaths, and we should use good science, good evidence and practical work done in other places to learn and improve.
The debate finishes at no later than 5.30 pm. The guideline speech limits for the three Front Benchers are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. That means that I need to call the Front Benchers no later than seven minutes past 5. It is now nine minutes to 5, which means that we basically have 15 minutes, and there are four people who want to speak. If hon. Members limit themselves voluntarily to four minutes, I will not have to impose a time limit. If you go over four minutes, somebody is not going to be able to speak. Rebecca Harris will show us how she can make all the points she wants to within four minutes.
Thank you very much for calling me in this important debate, Mr Hollobone. As the Minister is well aware, I have been campaigning for a long time to raise awareness of the issue of drivers being medically fit to drive, particularly focusing on drivers having regular eye tests to prevent unnecessary casualties on our roads. I have been doing so ever since I met one of my constituents, Rev. Brenda Gutberlet, who told me the tragic story of her niece, Natalie, who, at the age of 28 and using a pedestrian crossing properly, was knocked down by a driver who knew he was unfit to drive because his eyes were too poor. He killed Natalie and she died on Valentine’s day 2006. Her death was entirely preventable and the family have been campaigning tirelessly ever since to try to make improvements.
There have been improvements—in particular, the introduction in 2013 of Cassie’s law, giving the police the power immediately to ban from driving anyone who fails a roadside test. The law was particularly welcome and I have seen it in action myself. I went out with my road safety reduction partnership in Essex, led by the superb Adam Pipe. I was in a car with a road safety traffic officer who pulled over a gentleman driving at 20 mph on a dual carriageway. When tested at the roadside, he failed the number plate test at five metres. He was a very nice elderly gentleman who did not realise how bad his eyesight was and reported to us that he had not has his eyes tested since he was in the Army. We were able to take his licence off him, get him home and refer him to get a prescription.
The nub of the matter is that there are people out there who do not appreciate how much their eyesight has deteriorated because the brain adjusts and they get used to it. They start saying, “Well, it’s a bit blurry, but I can kind of see and I am only doing local journeys.” We really need to get the message across to people who knowingly drive with poor eyesight and to those who, frankly, do not realise that they are driving with insufficient eyesight to be safely behind the wheel of a car.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) mentioned the statistics in recent research by Vision Express. It thinks that about 3,000 casualties a year are caused by poor eyesight, but it is hard to know because they are not all recorded and it is not always obvious that they were due to poor eyesight, so there could be many more. We need statistics, but we also need to ensure that drivers understand their responsibility, particularly when they get to about 40 and their sight problems start to fall off the edge of a cliff. An awful lot of people simply have not had their eyes tested since they took their driving test, which was, on average, 15 or so years ago, and for many a great deal longer.
To be honest, I am not calling for compulsory sight testing. I do not think we necessarily need to legislate, but we could do things such as using electronic motorway displays to remind people of the need to take tests, as Brake and Vision Express have been calling for. They would like to see gantry signs saying, “Eye tests save lives.” Perhaps we could also do something like asking people, when they renew their licence, not just, “Are you fit to drive?”—that is easy to tick and say yes to—but, “Have you had an eye test within the last couple of years?” It is much harder for someone to prove that they have had an eye test.
We take our cars for an MOT every year to ensure they are roadworthy. Why should we not do the same thing for our eyes, which are equally important when it comes to driving? Many opticians offer free tests and many groups are eligible for them. Even if people are not eligible for a free test, the cost of an eye test is considerably less than the cost of a full tank of petrol. The cost of even the most expensive prescription is a fraction of what it costs for the privilege of staying on the road. I call for more awareness of the need for eye testing. I would very much like to ensure that it is a necessity for people’s sight to be sufficient for them to be fit to be behind the wheel, and for driving with poor eyesight to be as socially unacceptable as drink and drug-driving is today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on introducing this important subject and speaking so passionately about it more than 35 years down the road, for want of a pun.
It is amazing that the number of road accident fatalities today is roughly a quarter of the number in the 1920s and 1930s when there were far fewer cars on the road. That is testament to the improvements in vehicle design, road engineering and driver behaviour, including attitudes towards drink-driving and wearing seatbelts. I commend the hon. Member for Huddersfield for outlining the passionate campaign and the hard work that went into making seatbelts compulsory. It is amazing to think that that was resisted so much within Parliament as it is accepted as normal behaviour now.
It is welcome that the UK has the third lowest accident fatality rate among OECD member states, and there has been a recent decrease in the number of fatalities compared with 2014 but, as we have heard, 1,730 deaths still mean 1,730 families getting a tap at the door. To that end, I was happy to serve today on a Delegated Legislation Committee that agreed to double the penalty points for the use of mobile phones when driving, but I was a bit disappointed by the response from the Minister when I challenged him on the drink-driving limits over which the UK Government preside. He reverted to the standard Tory argument of not targeting those who have a glass of wine on a Sunday. For me, as I have said, that is nonsense.
In the Scottish Parliament, Tory MSPs were particularly vexed about a wee granny having a gin and tonic, but it is a simple fact that alcohol impairs judgment and reaction time, and the UK Government are out of step with the rest of Europe. In Scotland, a lower drink-driving level has been introduced—50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood—and there has been an 8% decrease in the number of people with drink-driving convictions. That is proof that it is further changing driver behaviour. Given that incremental changes make a difference to the number of road deaths, may I suggest that is one way we can go forward?
It will come as no surprise to Members that, as a Scottish MP, I think Scotland is leading the way on the reduction in deaths. If we look at the PACTS map and statistics, to which the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred, almost all constituencies in Scotland have low or very low indices. My constituency ranks 611 out of 650, which is very welcome—well within the top 10%. I was a local councillor before I became an MP, so I know full well the local investment by the council in junction redesigns, the roll-out of 20 mph zones and speed bumps. Another welcome change in behaviour that I have noticed is that people now actually request speed bumps, whereas there seemed to be a bit of resistance when they were first introduced.
The SNP has also invested massively in motorway upgrades and other infrastructure that helps to take people off the road, which is another way of reducing the risk of road accidents. The SNP Government have invested in rail infrastructure with the new borders railway and, as was touched on in an intervention, are investing heavily in segregation lanes for cyclists, which is to be welcomed. The SNP Government are spending £1 billion on public and sustainable transport, which is reflected in the record number of people who went to work by public or active transport in 2015. So much is being done, which is welcome. The UK Government have been undertaking similar schemes, but I urge the Minister to think again on drink-driving limits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for his passionate speech and for all his work over the years, which is good to see.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate as a follow-up to national road safety week a couple of weeks ago. The debate is also timely, with the announcement of a consultation on sentencing for those who cause death or serious injury. Those are issues of vital concern to my constituents, because there is a worrying number of injuries each year in Portsmouth. The trend is downwards, but for one group in particular—cyclists—we have one of the worst records in the country. Portsmouth is a compact, flat city, and it should be a cyclist’s dream, but our congested roads, poor driving and, it must be said, bad cycling habits make it a much more dangerous place to ride in than it should be. The latest reported figures show that Portsmouth has by far the worst cyclist casualty rate outside London at almost 90 per 100,000 of population. The rate for the south-east region is just 36 per 100,000 of population.
I hope the Government’s progress on the cycling and walking strategy will continue, but it must be backed up by investment if my constituents are to feel safe on the streets. I am concerned that there may be some drift on the strategy as financial pressures change, and I look forward to hearing confirmation that cycling safety is still a Government priority.
I welcome the consultation on sentencing for dangerous and careless driving, because one of the biggest causes of public concern is that drivers can kill, wrecking the lives of victims and their families, but end up with sentences that feel like neither a punishment nor a deterrent. Although the number of deaths in accidents has fallen dramatically, we should recognise that that is largely down to the improved safety features built into modern vehicles and that driver behaviour has not necessarily improved at quite the same rate.
Far too often, we hear of people being killed or seriously injured by drivers distracted by mobile devices. Our always-online society can tempt drivers to fiddle with gadgets while they drive but, as we have seen recently, the consequences can be lethal. Although we have not recently had a fatality in Portsmouth because of such distractions, the risk is apparent to anyone standing on a busy road. It is not good enough for drivers to argue that they are stationary in a jam or in slow-moving traffic in a city centre. If they are not concentrating on what is happening around them, they are a danger to everyone.
The action that has been taken legally and socially against drink-driving has gradually driven down the incidence of such offences. In 1979, 1,600 people were killed in drink-driving accidents; by 2014, the figure had been reduced to 240. That is still 240 too many, but it is a good example of what can be done with determined enforcement and social pressure. We need to make it just as socially unacceptable to use a mobile phone while driving as it is to drink and drive.
In the long term, I would like us all to move to more sustainable modes of transport, because that is the best way to improve road safety. In modern cities, the use of diesel and petrol vehicles to get around is becoming unsustainable because of the hazards it imposes, the threat of pollution, the difficulty of parking and the gridlock caused by the sheer weight of traffic. Those are all particular threats in Portsmouth, a densely populated area with poor road access and public transport that is in serious need of investment—I am not shy about lobbying Ministers on that. In an urban environment, a change in travelling behaviour will get people from A to B quicker than sitting in a car.
Road safety is everyone’s business and, as we have seen in our efforts to address the drink-drive menace, it is important that social pressure against bad habits is constant and backed up by Government action.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this hugely important debate.
There are 2.7 million horse riders in this country—I am occasionally one of them—and 1.3 million ride regularly on our roads. Back in 2010, the British Horse Society launched a website so that horse riders who regularly use the roads can record accidents. Since the website was launched just six years ago, there have been 2,374 reported incidents involving horses coming into contact with cars on the road. Thirty-eight riders have been killed, and well over 200 horses have been killed by vehicles or euthanised at the roadside.
Riders coming into contact with other road users, particularly those driving cars, is an issue because there is no proper education system to teach learner drivers how to pass horses. The British Horse Society launched its “dead slow” campaign earlier this year, and it is about educating drivers so they know not to pass a horse, either with a rider or drawing a vehicle, at more than 15 miles an hour and to give at least one car’s width. In this debate on preventing road traffic accidents, I hope the Government will consider what they can do to educate learner drivers and other road users on the dangers of passing a horse.
Horses are flight animals, so when they panic, such as when a vehicle passes too close, their first reaction is to run away. They then often come into contact with such vehicles, doing a lot of damage to the vehicle, to the horse rider and to the horse. As we have heard, 200 horses and 38 riders have been lost. This issue was brought to my attention by a constituent, Joanne Heys, who fell off her horse in November 2015 and suffered severe injuries—the horse suffered injuries, too—on a stretch of road between Bolton and Blackburn. The road is a bit of a hotspot for horse riders because it links two of our main bridle paths. We have run a campaign in Tockholes to ensure that local road users in east Lancashire are aware of our huge network of bridleways, many of which intersect with main roads. Horse riders do not want to go on the roads—they want to be on bridleways—but they often come into contact with lorries, heavy goods vehicles and other road users. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity in his summation to say a bit more about what the Government can do to consider further protections and education for horse riders.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield said that this debate is no longer sexy. Well, those of us who remember that wonderful film “Notting Hill” will remember that the sexy Hugh Grant claimed to work for Horse & Hound as he interviewed the beautiful actress with whom he was trying to start a relationship, so I thought I would quote my own appearance in Horse & Hound, which may be regarded as sexy, but not as sexy as Hugh Grant. This is from 18 November, and I am sure copies are available in the Library:
“I want people to have horse safety in their mind when they get in their car in East Lancashire.”
And, for that matter, in every other part of our country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important debate. My only regret is that we do not have more time to discuss these issues today—obviously that is no fault of anyone here. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the human tragedy and the fact that we must work towards no lives being lost—a zero target. No one would disagree with his comprehensive review of what needs to be undertaken.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) mentioned the importance of eye tests. When people go for an eye test, they get a subsequent reminder. Everyone should get involved so that they can keep their eyesight up to scratch for driving. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) spoke about how horses can go into flight and the additional damage that this can cause. These are all important issues, and we all agree that road safety should concern us all, regardless of party colour or of where we live, work and do our business.
The Scottish Government are committed to addressing the public health issue of road traffic accidents, and they go further than the UK Government on measures to curb drink-driving and to promote safe cycling and active transport. The SNP Scottish Government have taken a wide range of actions to reduce traffic accidents in Scotland, including cutting the blood alcohol limit. We welcome figures showing a decrease in road accident injuries in 2015 in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned that in December 2014 the Scottish Government cut the limit from 80 mg per 100 ml to 50 mg per 100 ml, which is lower than the rest of the UK. There has been a reduction in drink-driving compared with the previous year. England, Wales and Northern Ireland still have the 80 mg limit, which is the joint highest in Europe. We are disappointed that the UK Government are not following suit. I look forward to hearing how the Minister will proceed.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) mentioned mobile phone use at the wheel. The SNP has backed the UK Government in doubling fines for drivers who use mobiles while driving, and we call on the UK Government to take further action to prevent accidents. We welcome figures in Scotland showing a decrease in road accident injuries in 2015. More than £250 million is spent annually in Scotland on the maintenance and safe operation of the trunk road network. In 2014, road death figures were 31% lower than the 2004 to 2008 baseline, but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, we know that one fatality is too many. We are pleased that casualties in Scotland have fallen to their lowest number since records began. Car casualties fell by 1.1%, pedestrian casualties by 3.4%, motorcycle casualties by 11.4% and cyclist casualties by 11.1%.
We are investing in public and sustainable transport, because we know that it can be effective in reducing road traffic accidents. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South mentioned, it is an important subject. On 2 November 2016, the Scottish Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, announced plans for a cycling taskforce whose main aim will be to drive forward ambitious cycling infrastructure, such as segregated cycle paths and Community Links Plus. By the end of this financial year, the Scottish Government will have spent more than £8.2 billion to improve safety on Scotland’s motorway and trunk road network, including the £3 billion upgrade of the notorious A9 in my constituency to dual carriageway status. Safety cameras, which have been deployed for the past couple of years, have reduced deaths and serious accidents dramatically from previous figures. There are lessons to be learned, and I hope that the Minister will take that into account.
Finally, on safety, many people are unaware that they are committing an offence by driving with expired MOT certificates. There is currently no automatic reminder for MOTs like the one for tax discs, for example. As a result, people drive vehicles that they may be unaware are unsafe, and they may also be committing a road traffic offence. The onus should always be on them, but I am pleased to see that an idea I put to the motor insurance industry has been picked up by Aviva insurance, which I am told will issue reminders about MOT expiry dates to its customers as of next year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the several decades that he has committed to the campaign. While he was doing so in this place, I was on the outside looking after the families of those who had been bereaved and injured. We share that passion. This debate is particularly apposite given that we have just had road safety week.
As we have heard, the UK has a proud record of some of the safest roads in the world—I pay tribute to the work of RoadPeace, Brake and other charities committed to the cause—but of late, we have hit a standstill. Sadly, over the past three years, the number of deaths on our roads has increased; the Department for Transport estimates that there were 710,000 road casualties last year alone. The Government say that road safety is a top priority, but so far their legacy has been one of disappointment and frustration. In the last Parliament, they scrapped the road targets introduced by Labour, which successfully reduced by one third the number of those killed or seriously injured. Some argue that targets do not achieve anything, but I disagree; they focus minds and attention and hold the Government accountable.
Sadly, the Government are also failing on enforcement. A majority of police forces have recorded year-on-year falls in full-time road policing officers. There were 1,437 fewer designated officers outside London in 2015 than there were in 2010. I am sure that the Minister will take heed of this year’s road safety week campaign, which centred on the important six-point pledge that everyone here will have signed, as I did. The pledge committed both drivers and other road users to the importance of slower, sober, secure, silent, sharp and sustainable driving. We need the Government to act in all those areas.
Serious questions remain about drink and drug driving. Since 2010, progress has ground to a halt, with no reduction in the number of road traffic collisions involving drink-driving. Each year, it causes around 240 deaths. Over half of those are not the drunk drivers but passengers or other road users in the wrong place at the wrong time. We welcome the Christmas advertising campaign, but what else is being done? What discussions has the Minister had with police and crime commissioners about existing limits and enforcement?
We take seriously the success in Scotland, and we want that evidence base to inform us. That is exactly the right direction to be going in, but let us see the evidence rolled out. I am sure that the Minister will wish to comment on that as well. Sadly, the Government seem oblivious to the impact of their substantial cuts to road police numbers. It is worrying that a majority of forces have recorded year-on-year falls in the number of full-time road policing officers.
Many of us will have seen the consequences of mobile phone use by drivers, such as the terrible crash that killed Tracy Houghton and her children. Department for Transport figures show that in 2015, drivers impaired or distracted by their phones were a contributory factor in 440 road accidents in Britain. Although we welcome this morning’s statutory instrument increasing the number of points on a driving licence for mobile phone use, once again it is not possible to police the issue if there are no police present to enforce the law. We cannot leave that work to tabloid newspaper photographers whose campaigning we have seen in recent weeks. The Government must take the initiative and invest in roadside policing, not cut it, so that accidents can be prevented and lives saved.
When accidents do occur on our roads, it is crucial that the vehicles involved have been designed to be as safe as possible. Given that 90% of road accidents are caused by human error, the introduction of autonomous vehicles on our roads in the not-too-distant future could be an opportunity to transform road safety.
In closing, I note that the Government stated in their manifesto that they would reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed on our roads every year. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the genuine concerns about police numbers, enforcement, penalties and awareness. Without action, it is projected that a third of a million people will be killed or seriously injured on the roads in Britain over the two decades ending in 2030.
I will have to go at quite some pace to respond to all the points made. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), whose long and distinguished record of campaigning on this issue speaks for itself. It is impressive. This issue is a priority for all of us here; it is certainly a priority for me and the Government. We have a good record by international standards, but that does not mean that we should not work harder to go further. He mentioned the devastation that a knock on the door can bring to a family, as it was brought to 1,770 families last year. I never forget that behind each statistic is a shattered family. It spurs me on, as I am sure it spurs on all of us.
To make improvements, we need to draw on the best evidence and analysis available so that our efforts can be targeted where we can make the biggest impact in reducing road deaths and injuries. I welcome and strongly support the excellent work being done by Highways England, which is leading the way in adopting and championing a safe systems approach. It is absolutely essential that our strategic road network is as safe as possible, given that it carries such an astonishing amount of traffic. Equally important is improving safety standards for the rest of our road network. In the last few days we have published an assessment of local authorities’ most improved roads, and I congratulate all those who have made the biggest improvements.
Since I took responsibility for the road safety brief last May, one statistic has struck me vividly: 60% of road deaths take place on country roads. That proportion rises to 80% for young drivers, so it is crucial that we do more to improve the safety of our country roads. In October, we relaunched the THINK! country roads campaign, which is aimed at getting motorists, particularly younger males, to slow down, be more vigilant and brake before reaching bends rather than at them. Last year’s campaign was successful in changing behaviour and raising awareness of the unexpected hazards that can be found in rural areas.
I am pleased to be supporting the Road Safety Foundation and the Royal Automobile Club Foundation in their forthcoming work with local authorities to identify safety problems through the star rating approach, and to identify cost-effective solutions for the most high-risk roads. I hope that work can provide a model for wider adoption by local authorities.
I want to go further in investigating what more my Department can do to offer tangible support to those areas with the most dangerous roads. In the autumn statement on 23 November, more investment in roads was announced, including £1.3 billion to help to support infrastructure projects, with £1.1 billion for the local road network and £220 million for the strategic road network. Of that £1.1 billion for the local network, £175 million will be spent on upgrading the 50 highest-risk local roads. That targeted intervention will go on the engineering side. We know that there is human error, but if we can use the engineering of a road network to ensure that an accident or crash is less significant, that will be a great bit of progress.
We published our road safety statement in December last year, and I would like to update the House on the hard work we are doing to carry out its priorities. Drug-driving has been a growing problem. We have provided £1 million to police forces in England and Wales to support drug-driving enforcement. As a result, nearly 5,000 drug-drivers were convicted in the first eight months of this year, compared with just 879 in the whole of 2014. In March, we launched a THINK! campaign to educate people on the dangers of drug-driving and to send a clear message that it is unacceptable and that the consequences of doing it are very serious. Figures show that a fifth of convicted drug-drivers have previously been banned for drink-driving, so just last month I announced the launch of a new pilot impairment course, with drug-driving education being added to the existing drink-drive offenders courses in England and Wales. Around 1,000 drink-drive offenders will participate in the pilot courses and we will consult on the results next year.
Lots of colleagues mentioned mobile phones. We have consulted on increasing the penalties for those who drive while using a handheld mobile phone. In line with the view of the majority of the more than 4,000 people who responded to the consultation, we are going further than the original proposals. Only this morning an order was approved for higher penalties for people using their mobile phones while driving, whether they are texting, calling or using an app. In future, motorists will receive a fixed penalty notice of six penalty points plus a £200 fine. That is a significant change that will make a difference. Once Parliament has approved the order—it has to go to the upper House next—we expect the new regime to take effect on 1 March next year.
Handheld mobile phone use was a contributory factor in 22 fatal crashes in 2015, each one of which was a needless tragedy. We must bring that number down. One of the most challenging parts of my role is meeting some of the devastated families whose loved one has been killed by someone using a mobile phone while driving. Such families are obviously incredibly upset and angry—there is a sense of frustration, which leads to anger that they have lost a loved one because of something that could have been prevented so easily. Drivers of large goods vehicles and passenger service vehicles who commit the offence will continue to face the traffic commissioners, who regulate their conduct and have the power to review and suspend their vocational licence entitlement to drive such vehicles. Given the damage that can be done, that is proportionate; we are all aware of cases that have made the news.
When the law changes, we will be supporting it with a THINK! campaign to leave people in no doubt at all of the seriousness of the issue. It is appropriate to view this as going in the same social direction as we have managed to go in with drink-driving. We want it to be as socially unacceptable to use a mobile phone while driving as it is to drink and drive.
Several colleagues have mentioned some of the things we can do to ensure that new drivers can take the freedoms of the road equipped with the skills and knowledge to be safe. We are piloting a new driving test to reflect today’s driving conditions. It will include longer periods of independent driving, more realistic manoeuvres and a requirement for the driver to follow directions from a sat-nav. It is basically about improving the driver’s road awareness when they get the freedom ticket that a driving licence can provide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) asked whether cycling safety was still a priority. Yes, it is. The Bikeability scheme is secure, and we will be training 1 million children through it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) asked about horse awareness. We have supported the British Horse Society’s campaign and look forward to working with it more in future because I do recognise the problem. I held a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) and her constituent on the issue she raised, as a result of which the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency amended the licence renewal form to encourage older drivers to get their eyesight checked.
There are currently no plans to change the drink-drive limit. The key priority for us is to target those who are causing drink-driving problems, and they are not in the 50 mg to 80 mg per 100 ml category; they are in the 140 mg to 150 mg category, because that is the average blood alcohol content of people arrested for drink-driving. It is no good targeting a small group but missing the elephant in the room, which is what would happen if the legislation was changed. We have no reason to introduce targets; I do not need a target to tell me that this issue is a priority and to feel spurred on to take more action.
We want to make our roads as safe as we can. We are building on the good work of campaigners throughout the country over many years and on the work delivered by Governments of all colours. We have a good record and plans to improve on that further. It is through targeted interventions in the most difficult areas that we will make the progress we need.
Thank you so much, Mr Hollobone, for letting me sum up the debate. I shall say only a few things. I have the greatest respect for the Minister and will continue to nudge him on targets, because the Scots have it right on alcohol. There is a worrying upward trend in women drink-drivers that we should all be aware of.
I want to finish with a bit more passion. The research into transport safety has declined over the years. Internationally, university research is not as strong as it used to be, so we have to be careful about the quality of research available worldwide. Local councils also now have much less money for road safety matters. There are some really great individuals, such as Michael Woodford, who are very interested in road safety, as is the UN now. There is increasing interest in the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association helping us to educate other parliamentarians about what can be achieved in places like China and India. We should be making the CPA and IPU into something useful. They should not be about just going there and shaking hands and smiling at people—I have been on those trips. Let us make them more positive. We should be corresponding with those parliamentarians and saying, “This is what we’ve done in the UK. Can we help you to do something similar?”
The fact is that if someone does not have a passion for this rather unusual subject, they should not be in Parliament, because it is about our constituents and families. Let us get more people involved in pacts and in the campaign, and let us make sure that Britain is a safer place to ride on horses, on bicycles, on motorcycles and in cars. Most of all, let us make sure it is safer for families enjoying themselves and for those getting to work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered road traffic accident prevention.