Wednesday 26 April 2017
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
School Funding: North-east of England
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school funding in the north-east of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I am very pleased to have secured this important debate, albeit on the second last day that Parliament is sitting in this Session. I know the subject of the debate has made many of my constituents very concerned, as well as those of my fellow MPs from across the north-east who, I am pleased to say, are in attendance today in some numbers and those who unfortunately could not be here. They include my fellow Sunderland MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). My right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), who has raised concerns with the Minister following a meeting he had with headteachers in his area, is also concerned about the effect on his constituency. He asked me to convey his apologies, as he really wanted to be here but had to be elsewhere.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who has done a lot of work over recent months to raise awareness of our collective concerns about the Government’s negligent approach to schools in our region. I have to add, Mr Betts, that he will be sorely missed when he steps down from this place next week, both by us, his regional colleagues, and, I know, his constituents. I am thrilled to see him in his place today.
Labour Members are passionate advocates for the education of children and young people. It is safe to say that “Education, education, education” is a mantra that we still believe in, yet sadly we have seen this Government ride roughshod over our education system and our local schools, by putting them in an unprecedented position. The Government have not only failed to support our schools; they have made cuts that are fundamentally detrimental to the very viability of some schools.
In my contribution this morning, I will set out why that approach to education is so damaging and why there must be an urgent rethink by Ministers. To do this, I will look at three areas: the national situation; how it is affecting schools in my constituency and the north-east; and, finally, how that approach to our education system is affecting the very nature of our schools, whose purpose is to educate our children and address societal issues, such as child poverty and social mobility.
Before I even get to the crux of why I called this debate, perhaps I can already predict what the Minister will say in response. He will probably say, as the Prime Minister said just a few weeks ago, that this Government have protected the schools budget. However, he knows as well as I do that that is not actually the case, because the real issue is the failure to recognise that our schools are facing real-terms cuts, not cash cuts. It is deeply disingenuous of the Government to say that they have protected school budgets. I suppose it is like the Government paying public sector workers the same as they paid them seven years ago and then saying that they have protected their salaries. Oh, hang on a minute—they have done that as well.
These real-terms cuts are mainly down to inflation, but also four other things: the increases in the cost of employers’ contribution to national insurance and pensions; the abolition of the education services grant to local authorities and academies, which has reduced funding by £600 million; the cost of annual pay awards to teachers, which is set to increase by 4.4% by 2020; and, finally, the impact that the apprenticeship levy will have on maintained schools that take on apprentices. Much of this would not be a problem if the Government were not overseeing static funding for our schools, whereby these real-terms cuts now range from between 6.5% and 8%.
On top of all this, there are growing concerns about what the new schools funding formula will do to schools’ budgets and to staff retention and the schools estate, which is in dire need of an uplift. We might easily come to the conclusion that what we are seeing is the complete mismanagement and neglect of our education system—a perfect storm, if you like.
Instead of coming to terms with those issues, we have seen this Government shove their heads in the sand and carry on regardless, ignoring what many in society—from MPs across the House to teachers and parents themselves—are calling for, which is support for our education system to ensure that our children succeed in life. As the Public Accounts Committee recently stated in its report on school cuts,
“the Government does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under.”
I completely agree with that, and I feel frustrated that Ministers are continually ignoring the concerns of a wide cross-section of society on this matter.
School leaders, who know their budgets the most, were surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers, with 72% saying that their budgets will be untenable by 2019-20. That is not surprising when the National Audit Office has set out that the Department for Education expects schools to make £3 billion of savings a year by 2019-20. It is safe to say that this £3 billion cut—which is what it is, rather than a saving—as well as the funding pressures that schools face and the lack of action to support them through all these difficulties, is leading to headteachers having to make impossible decisions, some of which will ultimately impact negatively on pupils and their education, and all because of what the Minister is doing, or not doing, as the case may be.
This sorry state of affairs that our schools find themselves in is nothing to do with efficiencies; it is all about impoverishing our schools. Shamefully, this approach will hit children living in the poorest areas the most, such as in parts of my constituency and those of my fellow north-east MPs from across the House. We all have deprived communities in our constituencies. That means that more and more children will be held back in life, when we should be supporting them to achieve social mobility and to achieve their full potential.
As I stated at the beginning of my contribution, I know that this is an issue that many of my constituents and teachers in my constituency are concerned about. That is not surprising, when the total budget cuts by 2019 across the city of Sunderland are expected to be over £16 million, which means an average cut of £470 in per-pupil spend and a loss of 439 teachers across the borough of Sunderland.
In my constituency, the worst hit school is Rickleton Primary School, which will see a budget cut of nearly £150,000. That is well above the average cut for primary schools nationally, which is estimated at around £103,000, which is still a huge cut. The headteacher of Rickleton Primary School, Mr Lofthouse, set out clearly in an email to me, which I have sent on to the Secretary of State for Education, what those funding pressures will mean for his school, from potential staff redundancies to the impact on his pupils’ education, and it is not only Mr Lofthouse. Many other headteachers across Sunderland have expressed similarly grave concerns. Those concerns were reflected in a meeting I held in Sunderland recently with around 30 headteachers and school governors, who all agreed that our schools were at a crisis point. That led me to securing this debate today.
The worries of those headteachers and school governors are genuine and showed just how concerned they were for the education of the next generation. In all my 12 years as an MP, I have never been in such a meeting, with headteachers expressing concerns of such gravity. If the Minister had been at that meeting, he would have had his eyes truly opened to the extent of his actions and the gravity of the situation. One headteacher from Sunderland said that if they did not see any support from the Government for their school, it would mean losing five teachers, which would not be legal under the 30:1 pupil-to-teacher ratio. The true scale of this issue was described extremely well by another headteacher at the meeting, who said that balancing their budget had always been hard under successive Governments—they had always had to deal with cuts—but that these cuts will be impossible to achieve. She ended by saying:
“This can’t be done—no joke, not kidding or exaggerating”.
Following that meeting, a joint letter from headteachers in different parts of our region, some of which are represented by MPs who are here today, appealed to parents to make their voices heard by the Government regarding these plans. I for one am proud to stand with my local headteachers, school governors and parents who are deeply concerned about this issue and urge the Minister to rethink his disastrous plans, which will negatively affect the lives of children and young people not only in my constituency, but across the north-east and in other parts of England.
To help the Minister along, I will read an extract from that letter to parents. It will help him understand what is happening on the ground and the plight facing our schools right now. It is unprecedented for teachers from three boroughs to get together and write to parents in this way. The letter states:
“School leaders in our region have endeavoured to make every conceivable cut to our spending, but are now faced with reducing basic services still further, all to the disadvantage of your child.”
Teachers do not go into this profession to make life harder for children and to make cuts. They do it because they want to help transform the lives of all children, especially those who need extra support the most. What we are currently seeing is the exact opposite, and it is all due to this Government’s shocking failures. As someone who has campaigned during my 12 years as a Member of Parliament to improve the lives of children and young people, especially those living in poverty, I fail to see how the Government’s current actions with our education system will help to alleviate any issues of child poverty and disadvantage in our society.
I thank my hon. Friend for calling this debate and the critical point she is making about education in deprived communities and social mobility. The school I went to, Kenton Comprehensive School, has announced that it will cut 24 staff posts, including three teacher posts. The head says that she is making every effort to ensure that that does not impact on the learning experience, but does my hon. Friend agree that at a time when we need to enhance our skills, when the future of every child depends on the education they receive, and when social mobility and social equality are such an issue, it cannot be acceptable to cut education and staff in this way?
I totally agree. As my hon. Friend knows, education is a critical way of reducing poverty in society, as it equips children and young people with the knowledge and tools to get on in life, but the best schools also inspire them to go on and achieve their dreams. That is crucial in the north-east, where an estimated 132,000 children are living in entrenched generational poverty. That is why the cuts are deeply worrying to those of us representing seats in the north-east. The children we represent do not deserve that.
It is a well known fact that poverty impacts on the attainment of children in our society. That was clearly documented in 2015, when GCSE results were analysed. It showed that 36.7% of disadvantaged pupils received five A* to C grades, compared with 64.7% of all pupils. In this country, there is a strong correlation between parental social background and children’s test scores, particularly when compared with other developed countries, where it is less so. This is compounded by the fact that children in some of England’s most disadvantaged areas are 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than children living in the least deprived areas. That is why it is important that schools are used as a conduit to alleviate some of the issues that children in poverty face and to ensure that they get the best possible start in life.
Poverty is not inevitable. We do not need to see poverty in our society. What poverty tells us is that, due to a lack of political will, innovative thinking and a drive to act, we have failed as a society to address the social and economic issues that cause poverty. We have seen none of those things when it comes to school budget cuts. Instead we are seeing further social separation and division. That is seen quite plainly in the Government’s pet project, where they plan to pump millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into grammar schools and the rolling out of more free schools and academies, instead of supporting what parents and teachers are calling for, which is for their child’s current school to be funded properly. That was brought to light just today with the publication this morning of the Public Account Committee report. It called the Government’s free school policy “incoherent” and wasteful, with the Department for Education spending over the odds for schools and new free school places in areas where they were not needed, because there was not demand. Why can we not take some of this wasteful spending—the Public Accounts Committee is cross-party and it knows what it is talking about—and use it to mitigate the terrible funding cuts that our schools are facing?
In conclusion, for the sake of the children who live in my constituency, but also those of other MPs across the north-east, the Minister must rethink his and his Department’s approach to education without delay. Our education system should be funded fully and fairly, so that it can not only educate our children, but use its power to help improve our society. I hope the Minister will truly listen to this debate and take all our concerns into consideration, especially those of teachers and parents. Investing in education is investing in our children’s and Britain’s future. Those children in the classroom today are our future workforce. They will take our country on to greater things if we only give them the chance. Failing to support them now will be disastrous for our nation’s future and will only store up problems in later years for society as a whole. I hope the Minister understands the scale of what this all means and will go back to his officials following this debate and seriously reconsider his approach to funding our schools. Our children deserve no less.
Order. We have got about 50 minutes before I need to start calling the Front Benchers. We have got six Members wishing to speak in the debate, so I think you can work it out for yourselves. It is about eight minutes each. If Members can keep to that without a formal time limit, that would be helpful.
It is an honour to speak on the last day of Westminster Hall in this Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. She was talking about the challenges of school funding, but it was disappointing not to hear about some of the impressive improvements in educational outputs across the north-east over the past few years. Children are getting the benefit of the improvements, which have come through the education framework and through Ofsted’s encouragement for schools to hone in on what is important in ensuring that children get the very best possible education from those early years and all the way through.
Speaking as the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is right up in the northern reaches of our region, we have a different set of challenges to many colleagues here today. I have very many small schools, where the challenges relate not to pressure on places, but to transport and the ability to sustain a school that, by definition, will have small and erratic numbers of children. The arrival of Ofsted can be good in one year and not so good in another, because cohorts vary so dramatically from year to year.
Some years ago, the Minister visited a high school at the very top of the constituency, in Berwick itself. We were pleased to welcome him there. The challenge is that the school, like every senior school, has a fixed cost with a small sixth form. There is no other school to go to—the next high school is 30 miles away. If a young person is choosing college rather than sixth form, the next provider is 60 or 70 miles away in my Labour colleagues’ constituencies. That is a very long way from Berwick. The challenge is to ensure that we can maintain the full provision of education in that far-flung school right up on the Scottish border.
What I would pitch to the Minister on this last day before we head into the election madness is that, in considering how to use continuing education more effectively, the Department needs to think more fully about how we encourage schools to use modern online learning tools. It would probably need capital investment, but it would help children in schools where the challenge is not so much, “Can we find a place?” but, “How can children access the high-tech learning skills they need to work in the industries that the north-east is growing, which will become, and are in some cases already, world-leading?”
I challenge the Minister to think about how we change the nature of the education that we give our children. The pupil-to-teacher ratio is important in younger years, but as children go up the school age groups, there is an opportunity to draw in excellent education from around the world. My son has recently been teaching himself how to write computer code—I cannot remember which one—because, apparently, that was of interest to him. He used a free Stanford University online tool. All he needed was a computer and decent broadband to sit in his room and learn it. He can now speak in a very strange language, none of which makes any sense to me, but he is now able to do stuff at school. The course was not available to him at school, so he did it off his own bat. Access to those tools are not expensive. They require technical investment, and for schools to think more broadly about how they use the funding that the Government provide to give children a chance to jump to another level in their educational attainment. The schools can be world-leading.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and applaud her recognition of the importance of online learning and the transformative impact of digital technology. Does she therefore agree that the Government’s plans for the universal service obligation for broadband of 10 megabits by 2020 are far too little far too late?
As the hon. Lady knows, I support the USO and campaigned very hard to ensure that we got it into the Digital Economy Bill. I speak as someone for whom 1 megabit is still a very good day in my house. It is still a challenge for many of my constituents whose children need to do their homework online, but we are getting there. We have kicked the system into a more proactive premise, but I agree that getting access across the board is vital. It will be no good for my constituents to see Newcastle with superfast broadband at 100 megabit or 1 gigabit, because we still cannot download a basic file to do homework. We need to ensure that the universal service obligation spreads across the nation to every home.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West raised the issue of the apprenticeship levy, which for small schools in Northumberland is proving to be problematic because councils have been given the freedom to pass the levy fee on. It is an issue for a small school that suddenly got a bill for £10,000 a few weeks ago and will not take up the opportunity of an apprenticeship, and I very much hope the Minister looks at it in more detail.
Schools in my area have contacted me about the apprenticeship levy. The hon. Lady says that the local authorities have the ability to pass the levy fee on to schools. Local authorities in my area have suffered tens of millions of pounds-worth of cuts. Does she expect them to pick up the bill or does she think the Government should offer a concession or do away with it for schools?
The question is how the levy is used. For some of my larger schools the apprenticeship levy is a reasonable fee to pay because they will have the opportunity to benefit from apprentices and will increase their cohort of staff. We need to be a little more flexible and encourage councils to think more constructively in how they deal with the levy.
I know the hon. Lady’s constituency and she speaks well for the schools that will be affected. On the apprenticeship levy, I mentioned Rickleton Primary School and the letter that Mr Lofthouse wrote to me and the Minister about the cuts he will have to make. He has been in touch with my office this morning to say that it has already started. Today he has had to tell Liam, his apprentice, that he will have to let him go because of the apprenticeship levy. That is exactly the point we are making. It is ludicrous that, because he now has to pay however many thousands of pounds in the apprenticeship levy, he cannot keep the apprentice whom he said was excelling in his apprenticeship. Does the hon. Lady agree that that really needs to be looked at?
One challenge that I found as a new MP is that, even if a policy is a good one, getting the delivery right on the ground is another thing. A simple phrasing of words need not negate the opportunity to apply what I would call common-sense thinking. If a school is happy to pay into the levy pot but happens to have an apprentice, it does not mean it should be excluded from the programme. I hope that will be resolved at a local level rather than be considered an impossible, insoluble problem, because that would never have been the intention of the policy.
Speaking as a member of the Public Accounts Committee—the report we published yesterday highlights some of the challenges of how money for free schools is being spent—there is an enormous amount of good work going on. In Berwick-upon-Tweed, we are looking to apply for a free school to create an autism school, because there is an enormous gap across the north-east, particularly in rural areas, in provision for our autistic children. I will revert to mentioning my computer-geek son again, who has Asperger’s and gets mentioned more often than he likes in Hansard. We have been fortunate enough to get by in mainstream schools with the extraordinary support of individual teachers, but the reality is that far too many families across the north-east need access to the different levels of teaching that autistic children across the spectrum require. We hope to be able to create a free school through the free school network. The scheme will allow us to do that. It gives flexibility, freedom and support for parents and teachers who understand special needs provision. We hope to reach out across the region to support families whose children have enormous potential, particularly in the IT and engineering spheres, which are and have always been key skill sets of north-east businesses—they continue to grow. We need to ensure we harness all those talents, including those of a growing number of autistic children.
There is a fascinating statistic. The science is as yet not entirely defined, but the more engineers you put together, the more autistic children you have. There is a spectrum and we create more of these young people—they are mostly young men but there are some young women—for whom a different learning pattern is required. If we get that right, we get extraordinary individuals whose great skills we can use for our economy. I therefore encourage the Minister to continue with the free schools system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) who secured this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who will be leaving our ranks. I am sad to see them go. They are both friends of mine and I know they have been excellent representatives for their constituencies over the years.
“Education, education, education” was the mantra of the previous Labour Government, but we do not hear that now. That mantra is finished and no longer there under the current Government. On funding for schools, we need only look at what Durham County Council said about the effect the cuts will have on schools in the county: the funding formula is likely to lead to redundancies with small schools becoming financially unviable; 50% of primary schools will see cuts and 68% of secondary schools will also lose funding; 111 primary schools will see a reduction in funding of about £10,000 on average; and 21 of 31 secondary schools will see a loss of funding of about £48,000 to £50,000.
The National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have surveyed schools about the funding required from parents, who are being asked to pay for school plays and sports events, and to help fill the funding gaps. One in six parents are being asked to fund their children’s schools; 76% of schools said their funding has been cut; and 93% of schools have said they are pessimistic about future funding. Some parents are paying on average £20 a week to their local school to keep it going.
Parents are being asked to fund sports events, school concerts, arts and design materials, text books, library books, IT and sports equipment. Some 44% of schools are renting out buildings and some are renting out their car parks. That reflects something that happened before. I remember the 1990s when my children were at school under a previous Tory Government, when the schools used to ask for help with funding for text books, pens, pencils and equipment. We have come full circle, but this time it is even worse.
Sedgefield Comprehensive School, which I attended quite a while ago, has been rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future. It is a fantastic facility, with fantastic teaching staff and fantastic children who want to learn and get on, and who aspire to do the best they can in their lives. It was recently named one of the top 50 state schools in the country by The Sunday Times. That is fantastic news. That was established through what the previous Labour Government did. When I compare the school today with what it was like all those years ago, I would say that it has been transformed. The previous Labour Government helped to achieve that. I am proud of our record and of what we have done for that school.
The headteacher, David Davies, has said that
“schools face the prospect of being unable to heat classrooms”
and of being unable to ensure that all the subjects that need to be available can be available. He is the head of one of the top state schools in the country. He has said that it is a “complete and utter myth” that the Government are protecting school budgets:
“In recent years, we have seen pension contributions included as well as moderate pay rises and there has been no increase in the budget”.
Schools NorthEast says that schools in the region would have £42 million to spend on education if they were funded at the national average, and more than £320 million if funded at the London rate. The National Audit Office has said that the cuts will be the equivalent of £3 billion by 2020—£119 million in cuts in real terms for the north-east, which is equivalent to 3,200 teachers. It says that the north-east faces an 8% real-terms reduction in its education funding. Sedgefield comprehensive’s headteacher, Mr Davies, has said:
“This will mean schools having to reduce…services, which could include only heating classrooms for part of the day, reduced investment in school buildings, IT facilities being stretched beyond their usable life and expensive subjects being cut such as music and design technology. It is our responsibility to provide the best possible education, but ultimately parents need to be aware that the future of their son or daughter is at risk with these cuts.”
I am a great believer in aspiration, but it is not achieved with the kind of cuts faced not just in Sedgefield, but around the north-east. When headteachers such as David Davies are coming out and passing those remarks to the local newspaper, we know we have a problem that the Government need to address.
The data for the comprehensives and secondary schools in my constituency show that Ferryhill Business and Enterprise College will have a £253,000 cut through a change in the budget by 2019, which is equivalent to six teachers. Greenfield Community College will have a reduction of more than half a million pounds, which is equivalent to 14 teachers.
It is not semantics. Actual income to schools in Sedgefield goes up under the national funding formula by £300,000, which is a 0.7% rise in income. So that we can have a transparent, honest debate about school funding, is the hon. Gentleman talking about the cost pressures?
The figures have been quoted by headteachers. They know what the budget pressures are and they say that the budgets are being cut. They say that they are under pressure and are losing funds to the equivalent of the number of teachers I mentioned.
Woodham Academy will lose the equivalent of five teachers. Hurworth School, another excellent school in my constituency, will lose the equivalent of nine teachers; Sedgefield comprehensive will lose 11 teachers; and Wellfield Community School will lose nine teachers. The cut in the budget and the pressures that they have to face is equivalent to £2.2 million.
Part of my constituency takes in the rural aspects of Darlington. Every headteacher from primary and secondary schools in the Darlington borough—39 of them—has written to all parents to point out the dangers to the education of their children because of the changes to formulae and the cuts and pressures on budgets between now and 2020.
I will not. The Minister will have plenty of time to make his comments at the end. I want to get through my speech as other people want to make their comments.
There are also cost pressures and budget changes for the primary schools. For Heighington School in Darlington, which is in my patch, that is £125,000. The primary schools in Sedgefield—Sedgefield Primary School and Sedgefield Hardwick Primary School—will see £120,000-odd changes in their budgets. The Minister can shape it any way he wants, but this is affecting schools, teachers and pupils. Headteachers are coming out and saying that, so there is obviously a problem. We can trade figures left, right and centre, but the headteachers are those who know what is happening on the ground.
I want to raise another issue, which is not related to funding but is important to me. It is so important to pupils Christina Davies, Aidan Wong and Melissa Foster from Greenfield School that they came to see me recently. They are concerned about the new GCSEs, where they are treated differently to those in public schools. Only 7% of pupils are in public education—93% are in state schools.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the over-representation of privately and public-school educated people in positions of power on the Government Benches, together with this Government’s obsession with free schools and grammar schools, mean that it is impossible for them to understand the budgeting and funding pressures and what they mean for the experience of our young people?
There is an element of truth in that, and it comes down to the core of my next point, on which I would love to hear the Minister’s comments. In state schools, 40% of coursework used to go towards a final GCSE mark, and there was a chance to sit it in January or June. That cannot be done now. If someone does an IGCSE in a public school, they have the chance to do that, and the result is still recognised by employers.
The pupils from Greenfield school who came to see me are asking why they cannot have a level playing field. If they cannot have 40% of their coursework counted towards the GCSE, why is it not the same in public schools or vice versa? They just want a level playing field and for everybody to be treated the same. Why is it that, just because someone can afford to pay for their child’s education, they have a better chance in life than those children of the 93% of parents who do not have the chance and opportunity to send their children to public school? I am not saying do it one way or the other, but let us have a level playing field. It affects the aspirations and social mobility of our children and is fundamentally unfair.
I am going to wind up. The Minister can answer all the points as he wants and I am sure he will. We have a fundamentally unfair system and it needs to be addressed. I am sure my hon. Friends can see that Government Members are shaking their heads. Am I surprised? No, I am not, because they do not believe it is unfair.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this really important debate. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who will be very much missed by their colleagues.
As has often been said, the proposed fair funding formula is neither fair, and nor will it properly fund schools. As other Members pointed out, the proposed freeze on per-pupil funding is a cut in real terms. The National Audit Office estimates that inflation and cost increases will lead to a £3 billion funding gap due to reductions in real-terms spending. It is estimated that 99% of schools across the country will have a per-pupil funding cut, and schools in the north-east will be particularly badly hit.
I was appalled to note that the income per pupil of some schools in my constituency is projected to decrease by almost a quarter between the 2013-14 academic year and 2019-20. On average, that equates to a £305 cut per pupil and an average cut of 7% for each school in my constituency. The figures for individual schools paint a much bleaker picture. I was particularly concerned that the School Cuts campaign, backed by the National Union of Teachers, estimated that Durham Johnston Comprehensive School—rated one of the best-performing schools in the country—is set to lose £613 per pupil, equivalent to the loss of 19 teachers, which will have a huge impact on the school. Framwellgate School in the north of my constituency is set to lose £437 per pupil. Belmont Community School will lose £461 and St Leonard’s will lose £300 per pupil. Durham Community Business College, which serves a really disadvantaged community, will face a massive cut of £961 per pupil. That is simply devastating for the school.
Primary schools are affected too. St Oswald’s Church of England Primary School will lose £609 per pupil, and Bearpark School, which is also in a very disadvantaged community, will lose the most—£924 per pupil. That is absolutely outrageous. What can the Minister possibly say to justify such cuts?
That all equates to the potential loss of 670 teachers within the local authority of Durham and a budget deficit of more than £24 million by 2019. The situation is terrible and needs to be addressed by adjusting the funding formula and putting more money into education. Overall, the north-east is estimated to lose £119 million in schools funding in real terms by 2020—equivalent to the loss of more than 3,200 teachers. Parents and teachers across Durham have been in touch with me because they are really concerned about the situation.
In 2015, the Conservatives ran on a manifesto pledge to protect education funding, and they promised a real-terms increase in the schools budget in this Parliament. Not only have they failed to keep that promise, but, as we have said many times, they are bringing about a cut in real terms. The effects are damaging: class sizes have increased severely, subjects have been dropped from the curriculum, pupils with special educational needs have lost support, and teacher and school staff vacancies have been left unfilled. Without additional money, the already severe crisis in schools will get worse, threatening standards in education and, perhaps most critically of all, the life chances of pupils across my constituency, the north-east and the country as a whole.
In March, I met the National Association of Head Teachers in Parliament, which is unanimously deeply concerned about the cuts to school budgets. Some 72% of school leaders say their budgets will be unsustainable by 2019. At a recent meeting, headteachers in my constituency said exactly the same thing: they are having to make impossible decisions. What a difference that is compared with a decade ago. Under the Labour Government, I met headteachers regularly to discuss where the investment we were putting into schools was going to go, what new schools we would have, what new technology we would use and what new skills development we would invest in. Not only are the Government not funding our schools properly; they are wasting money on a free school that failed in my constituency, and there is now a proposal for another one. It is a total and utter waste of money.
Since my schools were chucked off the list of the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—we all remember that—they were due to get money under Building Schools for the Future because they desperately need capital investment. That money has not been forthcoming under the coalition Government or this Government, and the schools in question cannot even get a meeting with the Minister to discuss how to replace buildings that are no longer fit for purpose. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what he and his Treasury colleagues are going to do to put more money into schools and what he is going to do about capital funding.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. I share her sentiments about my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop).
I, too, am immensely proud of the progress made in our schools during the last Labour Government. The money ploughed into nurseries and primary schools in particular reaped benefits. I remember one secondary headteacher telling me that more and more children were arriving at his school better equipped, with higher levels of numeracy and literacy than ever, ready for the secondary school curriculum. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) said, some of that improvement has been sustained, but that is because of the tremendous base that the Labour Government created in schools during their time in office. Funding has not been at the levels needed in recent times, and even parents are worried. The gains made over a generation are in jeopardy.
Ann Harland from Billingham wrote to me about her worries that her child’s school, Prior’s Mill Church of England Controlled Primary School in Billingham, faces an effective budget cut of £86,576 over the next four years. That is the equivalent of a couple of teachers or perhaps a few classroom assistants. That picture is repeated across the Stockton borough.
In 2015-16, the block allocation per pupil for Stockton-on-Tees schools was £4,487, compared with £4,612 nationally. That figure has stayed the same in Stockton since 2010, while nationally it has increased. During a schools funding debate in January, the Schools Minister admitted that schools are facing cost pressures, but stated that funding reforms are not about the overall level of school funding or cost pressures, but about ending the postcode lottery and making funding fairer. I agree that funding should be made fairer, but other factors need to be taken into consideration when considering reform. If the new formula is fairer, why do Stockton children get less than the average?
Of the 13 secondary schools in the borough, six face a cash cut of up to 2.9%, while the others, with one exception, expect an increase of less than 1%—Northfield and Our Lady and St Bede get a whopping 0.1% and 0.2% respectively—but that is not the whole picture. As was said, the proposed national funding formula does not take into account other elements, such as inflation, staff salary increases and the increased cost of other resources that the school may need.
Taking all the pressures into account, the vast majority of schools in England are likely to see real cuts to funding per pupil over the next three years. What will happen? Teachers will get sacked, assistants will suffer likewise, the already increasing class sizes will get even bigger and schools’ ability to deliver a wide and diverse curriculum will be compromised. I expect we will see more of what is happening already, which others have already referred to. There will be increased demands on parents to fund everything from classroom essentials to the extracurricular activities, which until recent years schools have been able to provide.
What is going to happen to schools such as Thornaby in the Stockton South constituency, which borders mine, or the North Shore Academy in my constituency? They serve some of the neediest communities in the country, and they face budget cuts of 2.9% and 2.3% respectively. What are parents of children in those schools going to do when they are asked for cash to help their school get through? They do not have the money.
I am worried about the kids at the bottom of the pile. Allocating funding through this formula will increase the attainment gap, and students from deprived backgrounds may not have the same level of support at home as those from an affluent background. Hon. Members know full well that the Government’s formula is far from fair. It is based only on current pupil numbers and does not take into account increases in those numbers.
The Minister may say that, under the consultation proposals, Stockton will receive an overall funding increase of 0.7%, but that will not even help to maintain staffing, teaching and learning at current levels. The Minister questioned whether we were talking about cuts or cost pressures. It makes no blooming odds whether something is a cut or a cost pressure—it means cuts to teachers, teaching assistants and other services.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently reported that schools spending is projected to fall by 6.5% in real terms between 2015-16 and 2019-20. That means that even the schools that benefit from the new formula will have their gains completely wiped out by other funding pressures. That will undermine the quality of education in classrooms, putting children’s academic progress at risk.
Even Tory colleagues know that their Government are letting our schools down. Doubtless Ministers are working on special arrangements for particular areas—we have seen that already in social care—but if they really want to be fair on funding, to address the attainment gap and to see every child realise their potential, they need to take action now to ensure that no school and, more importantly, no child loses out.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate, which has given rise to many impassioned and honest speeches. I also wish my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) all the very best for the future.
Last month, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), who sends his apologies for being unable to be here today, attended an NAHT meeting of headteachers from across North Tyneside about the effects of Government budget cuts on schools. Both he and I vowed that we would do all we could to support our heads in their campaign to get the Government, if possible, to reverse those severe cuts, which, as they stand, will not only affect our children’s education but cost us important skilled teaching jobs.
I would like to press the Minister on the apprenticeship levy, which is of particular concern to community primary schools in North Tyneside. We heard about the ludicrous situation of a school in Washington and Sunderland West. That case shows that the levy places an unjust burden on all the schools it affects, which mainly have very small budgets. North Tyneside Council, which has had to impose a levy, is really concerned. It has raised its concerns with the Government, but in the face of its budget situation, all it can do is sympathise with those schools.
Headteachers of community primary schools have contacted me to point out the unfairness of the levy. North Tyneside Learning Trust schools and academies are exempt from the levy, which eats up 0.5% of the budgets of schools that are affected by it. I must make it clear that schools are not opposed to the idea of extending the apprenticeship scheme, but they feel strongly that the levy was never intended to impact relatively small employers so heavily.
For example, Holystone Primary School has a wage bill of only £1.3 million per annum. Schools in the North Tyneside Learning Trust, Church schools and smaller academies in North Tyneside are excluded from the levy because, under education and employment law, they are deemed employers in their own right. There appears to be a loophole in the levy’s application. As community school support staff are North Tyneside Council employees, those schools’ wages fall within the local authority’s overall wage bill, which is clearly more than £3 million. For Holystone, the levy amounts to £6,500 per annum. Although that school has managed to make some savings—sadly, by reducing staff hours—it is still sailing close to the wind in balancing its budget.
My hon. Friend anticipates what I want to say in my closing remarks. I ask the Minister to look at the application of the levy, which is clearly unfair and adds to the burden on our community primary schools, which are already stressed and are trying hard to provide our children with the best education possible in the face of unfair cuts. I also ask him to heed the pleas of everyone here and realise how unfair the Government’s cuts are for all our schools and the future of our region.
I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who is an excellent MP, for securing this important debate to highlight the complex issues facing education funding in the north-east. As a parent of three young children, a member of the Education Committee and a local MP who cares very much about the schools in my area, one of the best things about being an MP is getting to visit local schools. I am always blown away by the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the children I talk to and by the hard work and dedication of the education professionals I meet. However, it has become increasingly clear of late from the number of distressing stories I have heard that headteachers are deeply concerned about the real-terms cuts to their school budgets.
I recently visited a primary school in a deprived part of my constituency where the headteacher, who was clearly struggling to hold back tears, told me that budget pressures had forced her to cut the school’s family support counsellor and consider cancelling long-standing extracurricular activities for the children. It is clear that for a primary school that needs to provide all-round support for its children to lose such a counsellor through lack of resource not only has an impact on the school’s academic outcomes but makes it unable to help children and families who may face chaotic home lives or experiences that could lead to mental health issues, meaning that those issues will not be picked up in childhood and may escalate throughout adolescence and into adulthood. That is clearly a false economy, both in educational terms and more broadly. When children are suffering, they are not able to learn, which leads to lower educational attainment and compounds the social mobility challenge.
I have also spoken to headteachers who decided to take early retirement to reduce budget pressures, knowing that the school would save some money if it got in a younger headteacher on a lower wage. It is baffling that the Government are creating a situation where talented, valuable headteachers see no option but to retire for the sake of their schools’ budgets.
Although the Government repeatedly inform us that they are protecting schools funding—the Minister has already attempted to do that today—they know fine well that they are failing to give a full account of real-terms cuts. The introduction of the living wage and rising inflation, which, according to the Government’s own measure, is currently at 2.3%—its highest for more than three years—mean that schools have to make their money go significantly further. The National Audit Office has said that, as a direct result, schools will need to find an extra £3 billion by 2020, which equates to an 8% real-terms cut in funding. For one secondary school in my constituency, that amounts to a reduction of £761 per pupil by 2019 and, worryingly, the potential loss of 30 teaching jobs.
The Prime Minister’s so-called “great meritocracy” clearly does not extend to the north-east. While the children of the north-east continue to be let down, the current Tory Government unveil plans to expand grammar and free schools at a cost of £320 million. The Public Accounts Committee today denounced the Government’s free school programme as
“incoherent and too often poor value for money”.
I am also incredibly frustrated and angered that the Government are steamrolling ahead with their divisive grammar schools policy when there is overwhelming evidence that grammar schools do not increase social mobility. Statistics from the Sutton Trust show that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals; so the answer, for the Government, is to create more of them, rather than to invest in schools that now serve less well-off children. It defies common sense.
In response to the disappointing announcement of only £260 million of extra funding for existing schools in the north-east, Mike Parker, the director of Schools NorthEast, said:
“The Government has to recognise that if it wants a world class education system it has to fund schools appropriately.”
He also said that the funding settlement
“doesn’t fill the operational blackhole in schools across England.”
The question remains: why fund new grammar schools on an ideological whim when, as my hon. Friends have testified this morning, existing schools across the north-east are in desperate need of increased funding?
Headteachers across the north-east are expected to make exceptionally difficult decisions day to day, because of an inadequately funded system. If the Minister had to balance a school’s books, what would he cut—teachers, subject choices, support services or after-school clubs? Equally, he could increase class sizes; but let us remember that 900 pupils in primary schools in the north-east are already in classes of 40 or more. When the Prime Minister was shadow Education Secretary she railed against large class sizes, but they are increasing on her watch. The answer is clear: the Government should not cut school funding at all. It is often said in the north-east that the Tories cannot be trusted with the NHS. I say they cannot be trusted with the education system either.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing the debate, and all my hon. Friends who have spoken. I want particularly to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop). I am sincerely sad that we will never hear from them again in this place—[Hon. Members: “Oh!]—well, for the time being anyway.
I made a terrible omission in my opening remarks, when I mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and all the work that he has done, but failed to thank my fabulous colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, for his time here and say how sorely he will be missed. In my excitement at the start of the debate I had not noticed that he was also in his place, and I did not want him to leave thinking I do not love him as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
As with my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, it was in my excitement at the start of my speech that I said we might never hear from my hon. Friends again; I did not mean that, obviously.
The desperate state of schools in the north-east is clear from the speeches that my hon. Friends have made, but I am afraid schools throughout the country are in similar circumstances. The crisis in schools is a national failure, perpetrated by the Conservative Government, and made worse by news today of the failed free schools policy and by the decision made by the Prime Minister in her short time in office to divert school funding to grammar schools. That is despite all the teaching bodies, the unions and thousands of teachers talking about the crisis in schools. The Government’s response is to deny that the problem exists, trot out the mendacious response that funding in schools has never been higher, and try to introduce an inequitable new funding formula that has been universally condemned and under which every school in England is likely to face funding cuts in the next three years.
I hope that today the Minister will at least accept that there is a crisis in schools, and take the opportunity to explain why the Government are not responding to the consultation on the new funding formula this side of the general election. Surely the public deserve, at the very least, a summary of responses to the consultation, so that they can make a fully informed decision before they go into the polling booth.
Alan Hardie, the principal of the excellent Whitburn Church of England Academy in my constituency was recently forced, as many others have been, to do the Government’s dirty work; he had to send a begging letter to parents, asking for donations of £10 a month to cover basic resources. Alan said:
“We hear the same phrase repeated time and time again by the Department for Education that school funding has never been higher. What they neglect to mention is more and more of this funding returns directly back to central government through the very significant increases in employer’s National Insurance and pension contributions. This is a stealth tax that means that schools have less and less to spend on the pupils in their care”.
The truth is that schools in England are facing their first real-terms funding cuts in 20 years, and must find about £3 billion-worth of savings—on average about 7% of their overall budget; that the secondary schools that will experience the largest cuts will, in real terms, lose an average of £291,000; and that funding to the most deprived secondary schools, where more than 30% of children receive free school meals, will fall, while the highest relative gains will go to pupils in the least deprived areas. It is an all-too-familiar approach from the Government, who, time and again, make those who can least afford it pay for their mistakes.
Since 2010 the Conservatives have offered much in the way of rhetoric on education, but have consistently failed to make that a reality. Instead, they have left in their wake a litany of broken promises. They promised us they would recruit and keep the best teachers. Yet schools face a crisis of both recruitment and retention. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers, and many more are set to follow. The Conservatives promised they would create small schools with smaller class sizes, but the opposite is true. Even analysis by the Department for Education has revealed that more than 500,000 primary school children are now in super-sized classes of more than 30. In secondary schools more than 300,000 pupils are taught in classes of more than 30. The Government promised in their manifesto that money following children into schools would be protected and that funding would rise in line with pupil numbers. Yet the National Audit Office has confirmed that schools are required to make £3 billion of efficiency savings.
Worse still, the Department for Education does not have a clue where it expects schools to make those savings. Perhaps the Minister can use the debate as an opportunity to let us, and schools, know how the savings can be made; or will he confirm what we all know—that the only way to make the savings is by schools continuing to increase pupil-to-teacher ratios, reduce basic services such as cleaning and site and premises work, stop investment in books and IT equipment, cease providing apprenticeships to people such as Liam, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, design curriculum offers that fulfil only basic requirements, not replace staff who leave, outsource support services, and lose more support staff, teaching assistants, lunchtime supervisors, caretakers and—the death knell—teachers?
The National Union of Teachers general secretary, Kevin Courtenay, said that headteachers are cutting back on all spending areas to try to keep teachers in front of classes. That is where the Government have taken us; it is the depth of the crisis in schools. Schools are struggling just to put teachers in classrooms. He has said that the fears about schools operating on a four-day week are real. Four-day weeks—that is the future of children’s education under another Tory Government.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities are another group that the Government promised to prioritise, but it is the hardest hit, as specialist support is no longer available.
The pupil premium, which was designed to help children from poorer backgrounds, is being used by almost a third of schools to cover their budget shortages, with schools with the highest numbers of disadvantaged pupils more likely to report cuts to staff as a result of those shortages. Is it not true that the Government’s priorities do not lie with disadvantaged children or children with special educational needs?
Does my hon. Friend agree that a lot of these cuts have come from fiscal pressures? If the Government really were a defender of state education, they would review those fiscal pressures and the needs of state education above those of private education. At the moment, private schools, due to their charity trustee status, are exempt from taxation, to the detriment of state schools, which now have to pay higher national insurance levels and the apprenticeship levy. Private sector education seems to have special dispensation, unlike its state counterparts. Does she agree that the Minister should look at that fiscal arrangement first before making further cuts to state education?
It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I completely agree with him. This is about priorities, and the Government’s are completely wrong. Some £320 million has been promised for 70,000 new places at grammar schools, while other schools, such as those my hon. Friends have referred to, are having to send out begging letters and get rid of staff.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that the most pernicious aspect of the Government’s education policies is that schools in the most disadvantaged areas face the biggest cuts, yet the Government waste money on grammar schools for the few and not the many?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government’s priority is an obsession with the educational policy of the 1950s and bringing back grammar schools. All of the evidence shows that those schools favour the wealthy. A child from a private prep school is 10 times as likely to get into a grammar school as a child on free school meals.
It is becoming crystal clear that the Government are not interested in the views of the profession, but I wonder whether they are interested in the views of children and parents. After all, it is their lives, hopes and dreams that the Government are playing with. Nathaniel Smithies is a year 9 pupil at Whitburn Academy in my constituency. He wanted me to say to the Minister:
“I feel worried when a school like mine with an Ofsted Outstanding is so worried that it has so little money in the coffers that it has to ask our parents to pay to try and give us the level of education I know my teachers want to give us. I’ve noticed extracurricular and enrichment activities are diminishing, and we have to pay for little extras for art or for materials like Corriflute or balsa wood for graphics lessons or modelling. And we have a set limit on printing—like if you need to print your homework out at school. I didn’t have to do this when I was in year 7.”
Nathaniel’s mam, Lisa, added:
“When I was asked to help fund my child’s education by contributing £10 per month I felt myself torn. As a mother who wants to provide my child with the best chances possible to fully realise his wonderful, as yet unrestricted potential, I will do whatever I can afford to make this happen…But by contributing to my school do I help create a two-tier education, whereby children whose parents can afford to contribute get a better education than those children whose parents are not able to contribute? Does it mean that later on I will be told by the Government that school budgets are adequate because I have helped bridge the funding gap and will now have to continue to do so to maintain the status quo?”
She went on to say:
“I often hear politicians say we need to invest in the future. Surely there is no sounder investment in the future than for a Government to invest in educating children and providing all children the opportunity to be the best they can be, so that all our futures are the best they can be. Somewhere out there among today’s schoolchildren there are future Prime Ministers and the next generation of innovators, artists, writers, athletes, engineers, soldiers, scientists, leaders, doctors, nurses and educators. A good education for all leads to a more tolerant, fairer and integrated society. We should be saying what more is needed—not how little can we spend on our schools before we break them!”
The coming election is a real chance for parents to make a choice for the future of our education system. I know what Labour’s response is to Lisa’s questions. We want an education system that works for all of our children, not just the lucky few, and we will invest to ensure the highest standards in schools, where every single child is cherished and supported. Will the Minister answer Lisa’s questions? I am sure that parents up and down the country want, and are fully entitled to, all of the answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. I, too, will be sorry to lose the hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). I have enjoyed debating and sparring with the hon. Member for Hartlepool over many years, both in his role as a Minister for Education and in his more welcome role as a shadow Minister for Education. He carried out both roles with intelligence, humour and application, and I know that I shall miss those debates in the years ahead.
I trust that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West agrees that we share the ambition to see a country that works for everyone and where all children have access to an excellent education that unlocks talent and creates opportunity, regardless of where they live, their background, ability or need. We are introducing the national funding formula in order to tackle the unfairness in the current funding system, using up-to-date data rather than 10-year-old data. That is why, contrary to what has been said today, under the national funding formula hon. Members will see increases in their funding.
I accept that schools face cost pressures, and I will come to those issues in a moment, but let us get the facts clear. Schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) will see a £1.6 million increase in funding overall as a direct consequence of the national funding formula. That is a 3.6% increase—85% of schools in her constituency will see an increase in funding. Funding to schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) will increase by £0.8 million, which is a 1.4% increase in spending. She mentioned Holystone Primary School. That school’s funding will rise from £1.43 million in 2016-17 to £1.47 million, on the basis of the new national funding formula—a 2.7% rise. That is a direct consequence of the national funding formula.
As a direct consequence of the new national funding formula, funding to schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) will rise by £0.6 million—a 1.3% increase—and schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) will see an increase in funding of £0.3 million, which is a 0.7% rise. He mentioned Sedgefield Community College, where he went to school. That school’s income will rise from £5.332 million to £5.384 million—a rise of 1%—as a direct consequence of the national funding formula. It is important to distinguish the national funding formula from other cost pressures affecting schools, which I will come to in a moment. Those cost pressures are being absorbed across the public sector.
I am thankful for, and moved by, the Minister’s tributes to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and other colleagues. He talked about funding increases in general terms, which is true, but we are also seeing record pupil numbers. Will he pledge that, as part of the national funding formula, we will see a rise in funding per pupil in the next Parliament? Just to clarify, I am not dead—at least, not yet.
I did not say that there are no issues. I said that there are cost pressures facing schools, but I want to get the factual basis of the issues on the record, so that we know what we are debating. It appears to me that hon. Members in this debate are opposing the national funding formula. The national funding formula is designed to address iniquities in the system and will do so. As a consequence, schools that have been historically underfunded on the basis of their intakes will no longer be so, if and when we implement the national funding formula.
I disagree with the Minister; I do not think we can separate the existing funding pressures from the national funding formula. If he is so confident in the Government’s new national funding formula, why will his Department not publish its response to the consultation before the general election?
It is not convenient, actually.
School funding in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) will rise by £0.4 million—a 0.9% increase—as a direct consequence, again, of introducing the national funding formula. School funding is at its highest level on record, at almost £41 billion this year, and it is set to rise to £42 billion by 2019-20 as pupil numbers rise.
However, the current funding system is preventing us from getting that record sum of money to where it is needed most. Underfunded schools do not have access to the same opportunities to do the best for their children, and it is harder for them to attract the best teachers and afford the right support. That is why we are reforming the funding system by introducing a national funding formula for both mainstream schools and the high-needs support provided for children with special educational needs. It will be the biggest change to school and high-needs funding for well over a decade.
Such change is never easy, but it will mean that, for the first time, we have a clear, simple and transparent system that matches funding to children’s needs and the school they attend. In the current system, similar schools and local areas receive very different levels of funding with little or no justification. Those anomalies will be ended once we have a national funding formula in place, and that is why we are committed to introducing fair funding. Fair funding will mean that the same child with the same needs will attract the same funding regardless of where they happen to live.
We launched the first stage of our consultation on reform in March last year. We set out the principles for reform and proposals for the overall design of the system, and more than 6,000 people responded, with wide support for those principles. Last month we concluded the 14-week second stage consultation, covering the detailed proposals for the design of both the schools and high-needs formulae. Our proposals would target money towards those who face the greatest barriers to their education.
In particular, our proposals would boost the support provided for those who are from deprived backgrounds and those who live in areas of deprivation but who are not eligible for free school meals—those ordinary working families who are too often overlooked. We propose to put more money towards supporting those pupils who have fallen behind, in both primary and secondary school, to ensure that they have the support they need.
I will not give way now, because of lack of time; I apologise.
Overall, 10,700 schools would gain funding under the new national funding formula, and the formula will allow those schools to see gains quickly, with increases of up to 3% in per-pupil funding in 2018-19 and 2.5% in 2019-20. Some 72 local authority areas are proposed to gain more high-needs funding, and they would also do so quickly, with increases of up to 3% in both 2018-19 and 2019-20.
We have listened to those who have highlighted the risks of major budget changes in our first-stage consultation, which is why we have introduced a floor of a 1.5% minimum funding guarantee per year, and no school can lose more than 3% overall per pupil as a consequence of these changes.
Schools in the north-east would, on average, see a 1% increase in funding as a result of our proposals, and 60% of schools in the region would see an increase in funding, compared with 54% nationally. Schools in the north-east are doing well: 68% of pupils in key stage 2 SATS reached the expected standard in reading in 2016, compared with 66% nationally, and 82% of children are passing the phonics test, compared with 81% nationally.
Of course, the picture would not be uniform across the whole of the north-east. I recognise that the proposals would result in budget reductions for schools in the local authority of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and no real overall change in funding to schools in her constituency. However, I believe that the formula we have proposed strikes the right balance between the various competing considerations for funding, such as the balance between the core funding that every child attracts and the extra funding targeted at each of the additional need factors. We propose to use a broad definition of “disadvantage” to target additional funding at schools most likely to use it, comprising pupil and area-level deprivation data.
I want to turn to the issue of costs. We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures, including salary increases, the introduction of the national living wage, increases to employers’ national insurance pension scheme contributions and general inflation. From the start of 2016-17 to the end of 2019-20, we have estimated that those pressures will amount to approximately 8% per pupil, on average. To be clear, that is not an 8% pressure in a single year, nor is it an 8% pressure that is all yet to come. In fact, some of those pressures have already materialised and been absorbed in the past financial year. Over the next three years, per-pupil pressures will, on average, be between 1.5% and 1.6% each year. The current, unfair funding system makes those pressures harder to manage, and introducing a national funding formula will direct funding where it is most needed.
We have published a wide range of tools and support to schools, available in one place on gov.uk. That includes tools to help schools to assess their level of efficiency and to find opportunities for savings; guidance on best practice, including on strategic financial planning and collaborative buying; case studies from schools themselves; and support for schools to acquire greater financial skills. We have launched a school buying strategy to support schools to save more than £1 billion a year by 2019-20 on their non-staff spend. That will help all schools to improve how they buy goods and services.
I am grateful for today’s opportunity to debate school funding. A fair national funding formula for schools and high needs underpins our ambition for social mobility and social justice, and it will mean that every pupil is supported to achieve to the best of their potential, wherever they are in the country.
I am grateful to the Minister for leaving me some time to wind up; not all Ministers do that. This has been an excellent debate. At this late stage, on the penultimate day of this Parliament, it is heartening to see so many colleagues from across the north-east here today. That just goes to show how worried we all are about these funding cuts to our schools. We have all made the case as strongly as possible, as we have all met with our headteachers and are regular attendees at our schools, and we have been told at first hand the consequences of the Government’s actions.
I listened to what the Minister had to say. I really was hopeful that he would listen and commit, even at the final stage of this Parliament, to act or at least promise to look at this again in the next Parliament if he is lucky enough, which I am sure he will be, to be returned at the election and appointed again to his current position in government—if they win.
Yes, it might be the job of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). I am sure she will be putting this all right. That will be a great day indeed, and I look forward to it.
Sadly, the Minister did not make any such commitment. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields will, so I look forward to that day. The Minister instead referred to the fairer funding formula, telling hon. Members that we were wrong. He cited a few examples of schools that may be a little bit better off with regard to the funding formula, and he read out a list to try to make that point, but he is missing the bigger point, which is that the national funding formula is being used as a smokescreen. We all agree with fairer funding for schools across the country, but this is being used to hide the real-terms cuts and pay for the other four pressures on school budgets that I highlighted in my speech, such as the pay rise, the national living wage, the apprenticeship levy and trying to fix the schools that are falling to pieces.
I am sorry that we have not made progress on this issue today. I remind the Minister that the electorate is watching; they are watching all of us, and I am confident that they will make their verdict on this at the ballot box on 8 June. Hopefully it will be my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields who can fix this when we come back to this place in June.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered school funding in the north east of England.
Colne to Skipton Railway
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Colne to Skipton railway.
When I put in for this debate, I did not realise that a general election would be coming up. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister may be unable to make any commitments today, but I know he is a long-standing supporter of reinstating the Colne-Skipton railway line. He reiterated that as recently as the last Transport questions, on 30 March, in reply to my question. However, this debate is timely for a number of other reasons, which I hope to set out in my speech, and the case for reinstating the Colne-Skipton line will continue to be made, regardless of what happens on 8 June. I hope the debate will help to shape the Government’s transport policy over the next five years, not just the next 43 days.
Let me give some background. The rail line between Skipton and Colne—the town in my constituency where I live—was opened in 1848. This 11.5-mile stretch of track formed part of a line that went all the way from Leeds to Liverpool. It survived the Beeching report only to be closed in February 1970. Thankfully, we have moved on from the 1970s and now have a Conservative Government who are investing in our rail infrastructure. An example is the millions of pounds spent in the last Parliament on reopening the Todmorden curve and providing a direct rail link between Burnley and Manchester.
Closing the line obviously affected the area between Colne and Skipton the most, as it took away its rail link entirely. However, it has also had a much wider impact, because a trans-Pennine route was lost. Reinstating the line would be great news for Pendle, but would also boost the entire northern economy, improving connections from Preston through to Leeds and everywhere in between, and to the Settle-Carlisle line, and restoring a missing link between Liverpool in the west and Hull in the east.
The campaign to reinstate the line has never gone away, but it has also never been stronger. I pay tribute to the Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership, a campaign group that has constantly made the case for reinstating the line since 2001. I am a patron of the group and meet with it regularly. Without SELRAP, today’s debate would simply not be possible.
My predecessor, Gordon Prentice, who served as Member of Parliament for Pendle for 18 years, led a debate on the subject back in 2005. Many of the points he made in support of the line apply today. His debate was called on the back of a 2003 report commissioned by the North Yorkshire and Lancashire County Councils on reopening the line. It was broadly supportive but raised some concerns, which the then Transport Minister cited, on passenger flows and whether the funding environment at the time was
“conducive to investment in rail capital projects”.
As the Minister will be well aware, since 2005, the number of passenger journeys on our rail network has risen dramatically, from about 1 billion then to some 1.7 billion today. I hope the Minister agrees that the current Government are much more “conducive” when it comes to investing in our railways.
Earlier this year, the same councils, along with the Lancashire local enterprise partnership, and the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership, commissioned a further report. Entitled “Central Trans-Pennine Corridor East-West Connectivity: An Economic Study”, it was prepared by Cushman & Wakefield and SYSTRA. I know the Minister has read it—he told me he had done so when I asked him about it in Transport questions on 30 March—and I hope he remains familiar with it and enthusiastic about its conclusions.
The comprehensive, 92-page report clearly sets out the opportunities from improving trans-Pennine connectivity, and some of the dangers if action is not taken. Reopening the Colne-Skipton line is not the only way to improve trans-Pennine connections, but the report makes it clear that there needs to be investment. It makes several points that, to my mind, suggest that as the solution. The report makes it clear that, across Lancashire and Yorkshire, huge economic growth potential remains untapped, largely because of the constraints in east-west connectivity. It concludes that there is a
“robust and compelling quantitative and qualitative economic case for enhanced East-West Connectivity across the Central Corridor”,
an area that includes the Colne-Skipton line.
The report considers a mix of road and rail improvements and finds benefits to both. There are certainly strong arguments for improving road connections, for example at the end of the M65. However, the report also finds that there are “diminishing returns” from highways improvements, showing that there is likely to be a limit to what improving trans-Pennine roads would achieve. The report finds that there would be
“‘more bang’ in terms of wider economic impacts”
from even limited improvements to rail travel, due to the
“very poor quality of rail services in East Lancashire at present”.
Simply put, past failures to invest in east Lancashire’s railways mean that massive improvements are possible now, and are just waiting to be tapped into. The report describes the potential benefits from rail investment in general, and from reopening the Colne-Skipton line specifically, as “transformational”.
There are a number of reasons why improvements to road infrastructure, although welcome, will not be enough without complementary investments in rail. Despite lower than average rail usage, east Lancashire also contains areas of low car ownership—a problem that we need to bear in mind if we are serious about tackling pockets of deprivation. The road network also lacks resilience, with unreliable journey times on roads such as the A59. People without cars need predictable transport options, and we need other means of transport to take pressure off the roads at peak times or if there has been an incident. The geography of the area limits road improvements, but the Colne-Skipton track bed is already there. In recognition of the poor state of our railways, Rail North sees potential for a 25% reduction in generalised costs across the northern rail network. I fail to see how that can be achieved if east-west connections such as Colne to Skipton are not restored.
Like the national economy, the local economy of my constituency of Pendle has recovered well under the Conservative Government. Unemployment has fallen substantially, and the businesses I visit report growth, and that they are taking on more staff and investing in apprenticeships. Indeed, Rolls-Royce has just begun a major £50-million investment in its site at Barnoldswick in my constituency.
However, the Lancashire economy could be doing so much better. It is being held back by a failure to make progress on improving local infrastructure. According to Lancashire’s strategic economic plan, it lags behind national average economic performance by about 20%, in terms of gross value added per person, and growth has lagged behind national and regional performance for at least a decade. The LEP must act to rectify that long-term underperformance.
Lancashire is aiming for 50,000 new jobs, 40,000 new homes and £3 billion in additional economic activity by 2025. There is ambition, but there has been a failure to push effectively and secure the resources that the region needs to improve its infrastructure. East Lancashire is expected to deliver 10,000 of the new jobs. I believe we will be able to deliver them, but we cannot reach our full economic potential if the M65 growth corridor remains a transport cul-de-sac. In rail terms, we are literally at the end of the line.
The report identifies mismatches between the supply of and demand for skills, all the more so in those sectors with the most growth potential, and low levels of agglomeration, which undermine productivity and force northern employers to draw workers from a smaller area than the area drawn on in the south of England. That prevents east Lancashire from securing high-wage, high-value employment opportunities and, if it is not addressed, the whole region will miss out on inward investment, which is already comparatively low. In effect, Yorkshire and Lancashire operate as two unconnected labour markets, which restricts opportunities for workers and businesses in both great counties.
I hope the Minister will discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how to open up the north of England for tourism. That is a key issue for the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP. The area has Scarborough, Whitby and two national parks, which Pendle residents cannot at the moment easily reach by train. We in Lancashire also have so much to offer. Just in Pendle itself, we have the Forest of Bowland area of outstanding natural beauty and, of course, the iconic Pendle hill.
The Minister may be pleased to see that the importance of Blackpool’s visitor economy is recognised in the report. Reopening this line could shave an hour off the journey time to Blackpool from Skipton. I am sure he would welcome that.
Let us remember that it is not just Pendle or even east Lancashire that stands to benefit. The area covered by the report has a combined annual GVA of £70 billion, which is 5% of the national total and more than a fifth of the northern powerhouse economy, covering at least 32 parliamentary constituencies. As the report makes clear, improving east-west connectivity can enhance the wider economic prosperity of the north as a whole.
It is not just regional train hubs such as Preston, Leeds or York that will be better connected. Leeds Bradford international airport aims to double its passengers to 7 million per year by 2030, but it needs better connections to realise that aim. The Skipton-Colne line cannot fix the problem on its own, but it can help to open up the airport to more people from the west. Manchester airport would benefit, too. Both airports are vital to the future of the northern economy. We should also note the rapid growth of the Leeds city region—it is the fastest growing city region in the UK. Bradford and Calderdale are so close to east Lancashire, but they are unconnected by rail. Better connections to those areas are seen as key in the west Yorkshire transport strategy.
Even our ports stand to benefit, especially if new rail freight lines can be opened or freed up by passenger journeys moving to new lines. Ports from Heysham to Hull could see a boost from better trans-Pennine transport links. The report cites the example of Drax power station, which imports biomass through Liverpool. Currently, the trains take seven hours to get there when the journey time should be nearer to three hours. There is a huge need to improve connections to northern ports, and the Colne-Skipton line could be part of the answer.
I stress that reopening the Colne-Skipton line would be consistent with and complement much current Government policy, aims and recent achievements. The northern powerhouse is delivering massive investment across the north, closing the economic gap with the south and doing much to enhance connectivity across the region. The north is receiving excellent backing through the local growth fund. In Pendle, the £32 million transformation of Brierfield Mills is going ahead thanks to funding from central Government via the growth deal. In January, I secured a further £4 million for the extension of the Lomeshaye industrial estate in Nelson, creating an additional 1,100 full time jobs. However, the Government’s northern transport strategy identified how the lack of east-west transport capacity constrains the northern economy. The northern powerhouse strategy published in November states, rightly, that
“the government will…continue to consider other routes across the Pennines”.
The electrification of lines between Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and—of course—Blackpool, with better rolling stock, is bringing long-term improvements to the northern rail system. However, those benefits are yet to reach east Lancashire. Our rolling stock remains poor-quality, services are slow and few, and connections are poor. This is undermining the economic productivity of Lancashire as a whole, but especially east Lancashire. Sectors such as advanced manufacturing—especially aerospace—health innovation, digital and the low carbon energy sector are all distinctive prime capabilities of the northern economy. According to the latest research, they all stand to benefit from improved connectivity, as do logistics, food and drink, and other sectors. In particular, advanced manufacturing is a priority growth sector on both sides of the Pennines. Lancashire has the largest concentration of aerospace production in the UK, employing more than 20,000 people, including 1,000 at Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick in my constituency, but the area will have no train link unless the Colne-Skipton line is restored.
Page 91 of the “Central Trans-Pennine Corridor East-West Connectivity” report models the outcome of reopening the line as generating £43.47 million in GDP each year. Every study so far has shown that the economics of the scheme make sense—I would even go so far as to say that it is a no-brainer. Over recent months, I have written to Transport for the North, North Yorkshire County Council, Lancashire County Council and the Lancashire local enterprise partnership urging them to take a lead.
In my maiden speech back in 2010, I backed reopening the line and paid tribute to the work of SELRAP. Seven years on, I repeat what I said, and if I am re-elected on 8 June, I will keep on saying it. All parties, including the local authorities behind the study, now recognise the benefits of reopening the line. However, they all seem reluctant to prioritise it. I hope the Minister will continue to do all he can to help me to move this vital scheme forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) on securing the opportunity to speak on this issue. He is quite right to have done so. Like him, I was first elected in 2010. One of the first emails I received was from SELRAP—I am sure that he received one too—asking me to put down my name in support of the project, and I was happy to do so. I know full well that he has been an immense supporter of SELRAP’s work from day one. Even if no election were in the offing, I would still say that his commitment to and passion for the project have been noticeable. I have followed rail policy as a member of the Transport Committee, as a rail Minister and in between the two roles, and I cannot remember a time when he has not been raising the Skipton-Colne line in the Chamber, in Westminster Hall and with Ministers. He deserves credit for that.
My hon. Friend is right to identify so many of the benefits that will come from the line. As a Blackpool MP, the health of the visitor economy is always at the forefront of my mind. Train links from the Pennine towns to the resorts are always important for ensuring that people can access the coast. I welcome anything that improves those links. Just the other week, I passed through Skipton on the Flying Scotsman, which was reopening the Settle-Carlisle stretch of the railway after Network Rail’s tremendous efforts to revive and restore the line since the landslide that disrupted it. I thank the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway for hosting us. We started at Keighley and went through Skipton to Settle. As I passed through Skipton I thought, “Yes, maybe one day, with all the focus on reopening lines around the country, Skipton-Colne will be a reality and we will be able to get there from Lancashire.” What could be a better round trip than going from Blackpool to Preston, Colne, Skipton, Settle, Carlisle and back to Preston? That is a day trip that we can all dream of doing one day. My hon. Friend is quite right to push for the reopening of the line.
It is worth putting things in a wider context. The era of Dr Beeching’s reductions and the days in the ’70s when we were looking at scaling back the rail network are long gone. The focus is now on looking for lines to reopen to expand the capacity of our network. We need only look at the Borders Railway in Scotland, which shows the opportunities that come from reopening railway lines. Reopening lines has brought much bigger benefits than anyone ever predicted, particularly in terms of passenger numbers. Now, if ever, is the time to ensure that, if lines can be reopened, we properly ensure the practicality, feasibility and cost of doing so.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of the northern powerhouse and of investing in the north of England. I have always shared his view that, when we discuss trans-Pennine connectivity, eyes always drift northward to the links between Cumbria and Newcastle, or southward to the Woodhead pass and the links from Manchester to Sheffield. We almost forget that the M65 ends on the wrong side of the Pennines—or in my case the right side, which is Lancashire, of course. There are far more opportunities for enhancing connectivity in the middle of the county. As he says, getting from Lancashire to North Yorkshire is not always the easiest or most obvious journey to take. Commuting levels are quite low, despite the sizable employment opportunities on either side of the Pennines—opportunities that, because of the work he has been engaged in, will only grow.
It is important that we understand the opportunities for trans-Pennine connectivity. The reopening of the line has to be properly considered by all partners in the region. I am sure my hon. Friend shares my frustration that that is not always the case with all regional stakeholders. LCC, and by extension the local enterprise partnership, seem not to have fully embraced the project to the extent they might have done down the years. It was not as prominent in Lancashire County Council’s transport strategy as I expected it to be, given the interest that so many in the county show. It is not just my hon. Friend’s constituents who want the line reopened. In my constituency, I have had people down the years writing to me, asking me to prioritise the reopening.
One might think, “Why does it matter that local stakeholders are not being as enthusiastic in wanting the Government to get on with it?” It matters because a clear policy of the Government is that we want local organisations and agencies to identify the priorities in their areas that we can support through the growth deal. We want to see the local enterprise partnership identifying projects that will bring the most benefit to the region, as my hon. Friend so eloquently explained. We look to the regional bodies to take the lead. If we are to properly build the northern powerhouse, we have to make the investments in transport connectivity that he talked about, which are east-west as much as north-south.
A lot of attention goes on north-south connectivity. It is not just a matter of HS2, but inter-city services, too. East-west matters just as much in the north of England. That is why we are supporting the idea of northern powerhouse rail and look forward to the recommendations that Transport for the North will come up with. There is also the TransPennine operator for services between Manchester and Leeds. As well as the investment that we would hope to see one day in Skipton and Colne, should we reach a point where we feel it can be reopened, all the railway lines need improvement.
Before turning to that line specifically, it is worth reflecting on many of the investments we have been making in the region. They will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents in Pendle in particular. He has already mentioned some of them, such as investment in the Burnley-Pendle growth corridor. There are the benefits provided by the M65, where I understand work on junction 12 is complete.
I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend wishes some projects had planted a “Finished” flag in the ground a few weeks earlier. Junction 13 will be finished shortly, perhaps. We have announced the third growth deal with Lancashire LEP, which will provide further funding on the M65 corridor for junctions 4 to 6, and the north-west Burnley growth corridor. Both of those will bring further benefit to east Lancashire.
We have funded improvements to the Blackburn to Bolton rail corridor, which will enable a more frequent service between Blackburn and Manchester Victoria. Work is now complete and additional services should begin at the next timetable change next spring. That, of course, is not the only improvement we have delivered on the east Lancashire rail network. Thanks to our regional growth fund and my hon. Friend’s lobbying at the time, we reinstated the Todmorden curve after years of waiting. We have had faster connections to Manchester Victoria via Rose Grove since May 2015. I am sure it was on my hon. Friend’s election leaflets at the time, and he can now say he has achieved that.
We are delivering improvements across the region and undoubtedly there are more to come. Over the next few years, we will see major improvements to the Northern rail network, creating better journeys for passengers, supporting trade, supporting investment and creating a stronger economy. Through the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, we are investing in modern trains, delivering more comfortable, more frequent, faster and more direct journeys. All the Pacers will be gone, replaced by a mix of brand new trains and refurbished trains upgraded to an as-new standard. Passengers will notice that transformative investment. We have already seen the impact the new trains have had on services between Manchester and Liverpool through electrification. It is a transformative new deal for the franchise.
Investment in the network will include improvements to the Calder Valley line and to the central trans-Pennine corridor, including line speed improvements, improved signalling, improved resilience, more capacity and better journey times. Once the full complement of infrastructure and new trains is delivered, Bradford will have an increased train frequency to Manchester and new direct connections to Manchester airport, via the Ordsall chord and Liverpool. The Ordsall chord matters not just for Manchester, but because of what it enables across the north-west. Many of those new service patterns and the new innovations we want across Lancashire’s rail network are enabled by improving the through-flow in Manchester city centre. Anyone who is passing through the city needs to go and look at what is occurring at Ordsall, with the new bridges and the engineering work. It is one of the most complex pieces of civil engineering we have undertaken in over 100 years, but it will transform rail services in the north, and it cannot come soon enough in my view.
My hon. Friend focused on Skipton to Colne rather than everything else. The line was closed, as he rightly points out, in 1970. It took until 2001, surprisingly, for SELRAP to establish itself, but it has been diligent ever since in putting its name at the forefront of local campaigning. It has been an excellent example to many other campaigns around the country. SELRAP wants to protect the former railway track bed from development so that it can feasibly be reinstated as a main railway line. I join my hon. Friend in paying to tribute to its work over the last 16 years to raise the profile of reinstating this 12-mile link between east Lancashire and Yorkshire.
As we have consistently explained to both the partnership and local representatives, local bodies have to determine whether a rail reopening is the best way of addressing local and regional economic development needs, and to secure appropriate funding, including that which we make available through the growth fund and devolution deals. I understand the frustration and the bemusement that this project has not come to the forefront of all the growth deals we have been negotiating with Lancashire. I urge my hon. Friend to consider whether the next round is the chance to do just that.
My hon. Friend made valid points about the role that cars can and cannot play in local economic development. I notice that the level of car ownership is not high in parts of my constituency, rather like in his seat. People need public transport alternatives that are accessible to them. In Blackpool, that could be the tram. In his patch, the Skipton to Colne railway might be part of that. That is why we are funding far more local community rail partnerships, to try to reconnect people with their railways. Too many people do not realise the opportunities that rail can bring for accessing employment. I know what good work they are doing in east Lancashire with the community rail partnership, and the support that Northern, in particular, is giving to community rail partnerships is to be praised.
We have also been looking carefully at the reports that have been produced, not least the economic study that my hon. Friend cited into the trans-Pennine links. Once again, it is full of important, helpful and sensible information and assessments of the potential benefits. We have been negotiating with Lancashire County Council to undertake a study of key improvements in passenger connectivity between towns and cities and strategic freight capability. Much of that work is also being carried out by Rail North and Transport for the North, looking at the strategic overlay.
Part of northern powerhouse rail is trying to assess what benefits we want to achieve for passengers. If we understand what changes we want to make, it is far easier to identify which inputs, in terms of infrastructure investment, will bring us to what passengers want, which is faster and more reliable journeys and a greater range of destinations that they can access from their local stations. I am confident that we will get some good news on that front when we hear the final views of Transport for the North in the near future. We also need to keep working with all the regional bodies and actors identified to improve east-west connectivity across the Pennines. I do not want to prejudge what the outcome of that might be—whether it is road, rail or whatever—but my hon. Friend made a powerful case as to why rail has to be part of that mix.
The report that my hon. Friend identified does not necessarily seek to make the case for particular investment in either road or rail, nor does it assess the potential costs of any of these interventions. The key point is that we need to be much more certain about what the costs of reopening Skipton to Colne would be. I recognise that it is almost a Catch-22, because to get a robust cost estimate costs money in itself. That is the next big hurdle that SELRAP will have to overcome.
No one could say that my hon. Friend has not made a powerful case today, just as he did in his maiden speech. I very much hope that, in his next speech in the Chamber after 8 June as the newly re-elected MP for Pendle, he will make a powerful case for the opening of Skipton to Colne. Perhaps I will still be the Minister and be able to deliver that. Who is to say? We have many weeks of uncertainty ahead, but one thing is certain: that track bed is not going away. It will still be there, ready to be reopened, whatever the public decide on 8 June. I hope we can one day travel on it together.
Question put and agreed to.
Whirlpool: Product Safety System
[Ms Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Whirlpool and the product safety system.
Thank you, Ms Ryan, for the opportunity to open this debate today in Westminster Hall on a subject that I have become heavily involved with and extremely concerned about during the last year. May I also say what a pleasure it is to experience your chairing of a debate for the first time? I am sure it will not be the last.
This issue affects many people across the UK and I am very pleased that hon. Members from throughout the country are here today. Members will probably recall that I led an Adjournment debate last September on tumble dryers, as a direct result of a tragic incident in my constituency. On 19 August 2016, Debbie Defreitas, a constituent of mine, was in the kitchen of her home on the seventh floor of Shepherds Court, an 18-storey block of flats overlooking Shepherd’s Bush Green, when she became aware of a burning smell. Her Indesit tumble dryer, which is a make owned by Whirlpool, was running and had caught fire mid-cycle. The fire subsequently tore through the block and 120 firefighters had to attend the scene to put out the blaze.
The incident resulted in 100 families being evacuated from the block and 26 were found temporary accommodation in hotels that night. Luckily, there were only minor injuries, but London Fire Brigade has said that if the fire had happened late at night the outcome would have been far worse. It is clear from other fires caused by white goods that such incidents can lead, and indeed have led, to tragic loss of life. It is a great relief that that was avoided at Shepherds Court.
Today, five of the flats affected remain out of action and the tenants from those properties are still in temporary housing provided by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Although those tenants are being adequately housed, they experienced substantial trauma and upheaval as a result of this incident, as I am sure people appreciate. I visited the block last weekend. Most residents are now back in and the local authority has redecorated the floors, but the legacy of the fire will last for many years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the shocking thing about this situation is that Indesit knew for 14 months that there was a problem, and it took action from Trading Standards, which issued enforcement notices, the Local Government Association and a pressure group to get notices sent out to the small number of people that Indesit knew had these machines, telling them they should unplug them and not use them again until they had been repaired?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am also grateful to the large number of Members attending this debate, which shows the degree of interest in the subject. I will go through what happened—hopefully not at great length, but with some precision—to show just how culpable Whirlpool has been and to outline the specific tasks that we want the Government to ensure are carried out, so that there is no repetition of last year’s fire and this particularly serious issue is resolved.
The key point is that my constituent had followed Whirlpool’s safety advice to the letter, which at the time of the fire was:
“You may continue to use your tumble dryer whilst waiting for the modification, however we require that you do not leave your dryer unattended during operation”.
Ms Defreitas was supervising her tumble dryer when the fire broke out, as she had been advised to do. However, in reality many people would not do so and why should they? In the 21st century, manufacturers should make products without fault that do not pose a risk to life and property. Although it is perhaps inevitable that products are occasionally faulty, in such instances a manufacturer must take immediate action to inform consumers of the fault, and it must also issue an immediate and full recall. Anything less is hugely irresponsible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate on an issue that has had an impact on the lives of many people throughout Britain and also in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that Trading Standards must be forced to do a lot more in relation to this issue, and that currently there is a serious gap between faults that manufacturers and suppliers of electrical goods know about, and what consumers are aware of?
I absolutely agree and I know that a number of Members from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, some of whom are here today, have been putting a lot of pressure on. I hope that pressure will continue, because clearly the current Trading Standards regime does not work. That is why we need the Government to intervene and not simply say that this is a matter that can be resolved at local authority level.
Given that the Shepherds Court fire was more than eight months ago, I am disappointed that I have had to come back to the House today to raise the matter again, as I had hoped that by now both the Government and Whirlpool would have taken action to remedy this situation. Unfortunately, however, there has been little progress: Whirlpool has not properly rectified the problem; and the Minister and the Government have not acted decisively. As a consequence, I believe lives are still at risk.
In particular, Whirlpool’s complete lack of accountability and responsibility for those consumers whose daily lives have been—and indeed are still being—put at risk, is simply unacceptable. The company’s behaviour throughout this whole process prompts the question of why anyone would want to buy a Whirlpool tumble dryer, or indeed any other product made by the company, in future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this debate. I have a constituent who has a very similar story to the one he has just outlined. She asked me not to reveal her name, but she was using her tumble dryer and it actually exploded. Flames went up and hit the roof. We talk about the consequences of such fires for people’s lives. She lost pretty much everything and unfortunately she was not insured. This happened some time ago and she is still living with the consequences. All that time, as the hon. Gentleman said, Whirlpool seems to have been completely ambivalent about the consequences of these incidents for people’s lives.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I believe that Whirlpool is cynically trying to delay everything from legal actions on liability through to inquests, to resist what in the end will undoubtedly be very substantial payments that it will have to make. However, the consequences of these incidents, particularly for poorer people who may not have insurance and who—as is the case with some of my constituents—have lost all their belongings as well as their homes, are absolutely devastating.
Since the fire in Shepherds Bush, Whirlpool has failed to answer the most basic questions in my correspondence with the company, and its letters in response are often written not by the company itself but by its PR agency, Ketchum.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, particularly given the experience of one of his constituents. Of course, the hon. Gentleman and I have been in correspondence on this matter over a number of months. When I first raised this issue, I did not just raise it on behalf of constituents; I myself happen to be the owner of one of the tumble dryers in question.
I never revealed to Whirlpool that I am an MP. Why should I? I should be treated just like any other member of the public. When I first contacted Whirlpool about this issue as an MP, it did not have the courtesy to respond to me. When I first received a letter from Maurizio Pettorino, the managing director of Whirlpool UK, in September 2016, in which he profusely apologised for not having responded to me in the first place but only after I had raised the matter in the House of Commons, he said to me that in my South Leicestershire constituency there were 5,000 customers affected by this situation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; since his own personal experience of this matter, he has been assiduous in pursuing it. In response to his question, frankly I do not think it would have made much difference if he had originally said he was an MP, because when MPs have attempted to get Whirlpool representatives to come to this House to speak to Committees and all-party groups, they have refused to attend. His story does not surprise me, and the different figures that he cites are a sign either of Whirlpool’s incompetence or that they simply do not care what they say.
I am incredibly frustrated by Whirlpool’s lack of engagement with MPs and its refusal to co-operate with them. That is despite the fact that we continue to hear in the press of tumble dryer fires across the UK almost daily. London Fire Brigade sent me details of a fire that it attended last weekend. The occupants of a flat with a faulty tumble dryer—it was a Hotpoint tumble dryer— managed to escape, but a 96-year-old woman in the flat above had to be rescued and taken to hospital by firefighters.
There is a real risk to life and limb here. The Local Government Association has reported that firefighters are now attending three fires a day caused by tumble dryers. Figures I received from the London Fire Brigade ahead of this debate show that there have been 1,520 fires caused by tumble dryers and washing machines since 2009 in the London fire authority area alone. Overall, in London—I refer to London not because this is not a problem across the country, but because the London Fire Brigade is one of the few to have retained a research department following cuts to fire services, so it is able to collate and act on information—tumble dryer fires increased by 24% between 2015 and 2016.
On the wider issue of product safety, each year between 250 and 300 house fires in London are caused by white goods. We know from organisations such as Electrical Safety First, which is a charity that campaigns for our constituents to use electricity safely in the home, that electricity is the cause of many house fires and that fires caused by electricity are increasing. The Minister must therefore look closely not only at the issue with Whirlpool and tumble dryers, but the wider context of fires caused by all white goods and electrical goods, such as mobile phone chargers and refrigerators. Just this week, we had an inquest into the death of someone who sadly died escaping from a fire caused by a fridge-freezer.
It is clear from the statistics that the Government must get to grips with this escalating problem. There are far too many unsafe electrical appliances in our constituents’ homes. Has the Minister spoken to the Home Office about the rising number of fires caused by electrical goods and the effect faulty tumble dryers are having on the figures? What does she intend to do to reduce the number of fires and protect consumers from these faulty goods?
I am not the only one who has raised these issues in the House, as is clear from the number of Members here today. We just heard from the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). He spoke in my previous debate of his total frustration with Whirlpool as one of their customers. He called then for the resignation of the managing director, and I doubt he has changed his mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety, has raised the issue several times with the Minister and has been excellent in raising awareness among MPs.
I am sad to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) is stepping down as an MP, but as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee he has tried to engage with Whirlpool with limited success. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who sadly cannot be here, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is here, have also been instrumental in supporting the campaign and in coming with me to meet the Minister. Many Members have tried to engage with Whirlpool and the Government, but they have been ignored and have received answers that are simply unacceptable.
I think my hon. Friend is personally responsible for protecting and saving the lives of many people who have these risky appliances. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Our hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has also been raising this issue, but I wrote to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy asking about the final report on the recall system, which the working group on product recalls and safety was commissioned to do. I was told that the report had been received and would be published in due course. Given the impending general election, we cannot wait for another two months and let this drift. Is it not right that the Minister should give us the decision today on what the Government will do to protect lives?
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments and for raising that issue. I will conclude my speech by putting that matter to the Minister. If, when the new Parliament is elected, we still do not have satisfactory answers, I hope that whoever then chairs the BEIS Committee will pursue the matter with the Government and Whirlpool.
Having mentioned many Members, I want briefly to pay tribute to the campaign organisations, without which we simply would not have got this far. It is invidious, because some always get left out, but they include Which?, Electrical Safety First, the London Fire Brigade, the LGA and the Chief Fire Officers Association. They have all been extremely helpful in keeping the issue on our agenda and ensuring we are properly briefed. In particular, Which? has led a campaign specifically on Whirlpool’s unwillingness to undertake a recall. That resulted in a change in Whirlpool’s safety advice in February. Last December, Which? sought a judicial review into what it regarded as failures by the trading standards team overseeing the case in Peterborough. As Members may be aware, Peterborough trading standards has been acting as Whirlpool’s advisers, and the review would have looked into whether Peterborough trading standards acted lawfully in this capacity. Which? said at the time:
“We believe that the way Whirlpool has handled the tumble dryer safety issue is absolutely appalling and to add insult to injury Peterborough Trading Standards has failed to do its duty to protect consumers. We have decided to step in and take legal action because we want Peterborough Trading Standards to properly protect Whirlpool customers and carry out its role as an enforcer of product safety laws.”
Absolutely. Trading standards and Whirlpool had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Peterborough trading standards said Which?’s action was premature, which is extraordinary given what happened in my constituency. In February, Peterborough changed its mind and finally issued an enforcement notice. After resistance and presumably after it took legal advice, Whirlpool changed its advice to consumers, at last telling them to stop using the faulty machines. The London Fire Brigade and many others had been advising that all along. It is clear that if it was not for Which?, the previous advice would still be given to consumers, putting them and their families at risk. While that change of advice was a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough. The organisations I have mentioned, along with my hon. Friends and I, want to see a full recall of these faulty machines, and we will not rest until that has been implemented.
Finally, in terms of acknowledging who is on the side of virtue, I would like to say—Members do not always do this—that we have had huge support for a full product recall not only from the public, but from the media. I must mention Alice Beer of ITV, as she is here and has done fantastic campaigning work, as has Lynn Faulds Wood. The Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Guardian, the BBC and ITV have all taken the time to provide ample coverage of this issue, and the petition I set up calling for a full product recall has now reached the magic 100,000 signature mark. If the matter is not resolved by the time the new Parliament comes in, I hope it will be considered for a fuller debate on the Floor of the House.
It is clear that the issue is not going away, and the public are incredibly dissatisfied with the response they have had. The Minister said in my previous debate that she was satisfied with Peterborough’s actions at that time, so will she please explain what discussions the Government have had privately with Trading Standards and Whirlpool since that debate? What is her assessment of Peterborough trading standards’ actions now? Does she recognise that Peterborough trading standards was wrong last year when it failed to take effective action against Whirlpool? Does she believe that it is now right to have done so, albeit only when threatened with legal action? Does she accept that the Government played no part in that and can take no credit, but that they have an opportunity to act now?
The Minister’s brief includes consumer protection, but for her to be able to claim that she really does protect consumer rights, we need substantive action. At the moment, we are leaving many people with dangerous tumble dryers in their homes. What discussions has she had with Whirlpool recently? When will she acknowledge the daily problems that people are having with their tumble dryers, which they are now told not to use because of the risks to life and property? How many more lives need to be lost before firm action is finally taken? Is this not just the tip of the iceberg of a wider problem with white goods and recalls that needs to be urgently addressed?
That brings me to the BEIS working group. We have already had one review—I mentioned Lynn Faulds Wood —which made very sensible recommendations, such as creating a single register for all product recalls, which the fire brigade has long been calling for. However, that was ignored by the Government and another review was set up. In the previous debate, the Minister said that the working group was
“primarily focusing on three work strands: establishing a centre of excellence, or official website…considering how to ensure that we have more reliable, detailed guidance on product recalls, which would, I hope, improve the rate of recall from its current one in four success rate; and establishing a mapping process whereby all organisations involved in product recalls can have access to better data and information sharing.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 875.]
She also mentioned that that work would take two years, and that was a year after Lynn Faulds Woods had reported. We were told to expect an interim report at Christmas. Four months later, there is no sign of that report. Where is it? Has it now been buried as a result of the general election, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) suggested? When will the Government take action to protect consumers? Will they include any of Lynn Faulds Wood’s recommendations, such as the creation of a single register for product recalls?
Brexit also raises a number of issues for the Minister’s Department about important EU electrical safety regulations and consumer regulations that we need to ensure are maintained in UK law. Will the Minister confirm where the report is and whether it will include considerations on Brexit? What is her Department doing to ensure that we maintain important EU consumer laws when we leave the European Union? My concern is that her Government will seek to deregulate consumer protection, rather than increase it, as they are seeking to do with environmental regulations.
Returning to the faulty dryers, do the Government know how many unregistered machines are still out there posing a risk? We know that millions of affected Whirlpool machines are missing from any registration scheme. What are the Government telling Whirlpool to do to ensure that consumers do not use those machines in the meantime? We were told that there was press advertising; I cannot say that I saw it, and it was certainly not sustained over a period of time. Do the Government have any faith in Whirlpool’s modification programme, particularly given that some consumers have reported that their dryers continue to catch fire after modification?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way a second time. I witnessed my own tumble dryer being fixed. Whirlpool claims that the modifications have been tested by independent experts. Which? informs me that it has not been forwarded any of the details associated with those tests. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the interests of transparency and consumer protection, that information should be shared? If it has been shared with the Government, I urge the Minister to share it as soon as possible, so that we can identify whether the modified tumble dryers, let alone those that still await modification, are safe.
I am grateful for that point, because one of the features of this issue is how secretive Whirlpool has been, to the extent that it still does not publish a full list of the models affected. It appears to put what is left of its public reputation before the safety of its customers.
I ask the Minister to make these inquiries, as Whirlpool is not responding to individual Members. How does it intend to compensate customers for the losses they have suffered through fires that have already occurred? When is it completing its rectification programme? Is that rectification or replacement programme itself safe? Importantly, how will it raise public awareness? London Fire Brigade estimates that there could be as many as 3 million machines still out there unmodified, with owners who simply do not know, unless they have been lucky enough to see a news programme or are perhaps members of Which?.
This has gone on for far too long; delays are costing lives and destroying people’s homes, as we saw in my constituency. Whirlpool is a brand seriously damaged by its own incompetence and a series of own goals—a lack of engagement and an ignorant and arrogant attitude to its customers and Members of this House. It is a textbook case in how not to do it.
The Labour party will introduce measures to improve the product safety and recall system if we are elected on 8 June. I appreciate that the Minister might today be responding for the last time in her post. I know that she has taken an interest in the issue and I hope she can answer some of the questions. Will the BEIS working group’s report be published before the election or has it become less of a priority? Why have we not heard anything about it? Why has Whirlpool failed to engage with MPs and the Government? Will the Government push Peterborough trading standards to implement a full product recall, as they should have done months ago, before any more lives are lost?
The Whirlpool tragedy should be a watershed. Perhaps a million machines have been modified. Perhaps, as Whirlpool estimates—it is only an estimate—another million have gone out of service because they are redundant, given that the problem dates back to 2004. However, there are potentially up to 3 million machines still out there. Can we have an assurance from the Minister today, finally, that this will act as a catalyst for a proper registration scheme and a proper recall system?
One of the most shocking aspects for me, other Members and constituents is that we believed that there was an effective system of product safety in this country. The Whirlpool tragedy has exposed that there simply is not—but it is possible, because it happens in the US and in other countries. If the Minister is to have a legacy in this job, it could be to commit this or a future Government to saying they will go forward with a proper system of registration and recall, as well as ensuring that the disaster that is the Whirlpool scheme is finally put to rest.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for bringing forward this issue, on which he has been a champion in debates in the House, including in a shorter Adjournment debate, when he fully put forward the issue and was supported by many of us here today and those from further afield. I thank him for bringing it forward today and am fully supportive of his purpose. He gave much detail on what has happened, and I will try to give my speech without repeating it.
I have had constituents in my office who are anxious and concerned about being told, “Just stay in the house,” when the machine is in use. Let me set the scene with an example of one constituent. My constituent and her husband work full-time jobs and also work some additional shifts to pay the mortgage. She leaves the house with her two-year-old and her one-year-old baby at 8.30 am. She returns at 6.30 pm, gives the children their dinner and bath and has them in bed for 8 pm, at which stage her 18-year-old babysitter takes over, to allow her to go to her evening meetings. She does not have the time to sit for the washing and drying cycle to complete, and cannot leave an 18-year-old in charge of a fire hazard with sleeping babies upstairs—that is unrealistic.
Her option is to sit and watch the washer-dryer cycle throughout the night. That is certainly ridiculous, but it is the reality of what the firm wants people to do, as the hon. Gentleman set out in his introduction. Is it a joke? No, it is not, and that is why in Westminster Hall today, with the Minister in her place—she has a very wide-ranging portfolio, given what she was here responding to yesterday and what she is doing today—we believe that legislation needs to be put in place that makes firms accountable and protects consumers, which it quite clearly does not at this moment in time.
I read the very succinct briefing provided by Which?—I am sure we have all had sight of that. Where a product could cause a risk to life or serious injury, Which? expects it to be promptly recalled by the manufacturers. What could be clearer or simpler than that? Yet we have firms who clearly disregard that and have a blasé attitude in how they respond. I ask again: how can we make those firms act with the urgency that we really need? All right-thinking people expect that, but we must make what is expected from manufacturers crystal clear.
As we know, Whirlpool acquired the Indesit Company, including its brands Hotpoint, Indesit, Swan, Proline and Creda, in 2014. In August 2015, Whirlpool informed Peterborough trading standards, as its primary authority partner, that up to 5.3 million dryers in the UK were affected by a fault discovered in more than 120 models. The magnitude of that number! The 5.3 million dryers in more than 120 models is nearly everything it has. Why has it not been coerced, persuaded or made to act more quickly? Those driers were also at risk of catching fire and required urgent modification to address the problem.
In August 2015, the company admitted what had to be done and notified trading standards, but the number of driers and models is very large. By 2016, about 750 fires had been reportedly linked to Hotpoint, Indesit, Proline, Swan and Creda tumble driers. Of course, since then there have been even more. A fire in a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush—I am sure the hon. Member for Hammersmith or other hon. Members will talk about it—left 50 people unable to return to their homes. The London Fire Brigade found that it had been caused by an Indesit tumble drier. We could see the horror that it caused on TV: it did not affect just one person, but all the other residents of the tower block. There are other examples—the fire brigade gave us one. Does Indesit not realise the danger? We do as elected representatives, and the people who own the driers and those whose homes have been damaged certainly do as well.
Which? found that those affected have been forced to wait far too long for a repair or replacement, and that customer service staff have given incorrect and potentially dangerous advice.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that some of the machines have been sold on? When houses go up for sale, electrical goods go with them, and perhaps the second owners do not appreciate that the machine they inherit with their new home is dangerous, so they will not be looking to see whether it should be repaired.
I thank the hon. Lady for that very wise intervention. I had not given much thought to that. Sometimes the machines are sold on, but where is the follow-on? How does the company find out about those people? The people who have got them know about the problem from the adverts on TV, the stories in the papers and so on, but in many cases they do not know that they have something dangerous sitting in their home. The hon. Lady is right. We are trying to be positive in our questions to the Minister, but perhaps she will give some thought to that issue.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith spoke about home fires, and the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) spoke about some personal examples. There is a record of damage, and the company admits that there is a problem, so surely it should be held to account and should award compensation to people who have had massive fires in their flats and properties. Let us be honest: it is only for the grace of God that people have not been injured or died as a result of this issue.
Whirlpool has not acted in the best interests of consumers. It resisted a recall of the affected models and failed to repair and replace affected machines in a timely way. The affected consumers were told not to use their tumble driers. When someone is told not to use their tumble drier, they expect the company to come and repair it or replace it with something that works correctly.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that regulation is an issue? A series of recent product safety issues have brought into sharp focus the need for proper regulation and enforcement. Does he agree that the Government should focus their attention on that issue, too?
I thank the hon. Lady for those comments.
Clearly, the issue for us all is safety. As I said, it is only by the grace of God that nobody has been injured or killed. It is unrealistic to expect consumers not to use their tumble dryer for months on end, so it is possible that further fire and safety incidents will occur as a result of continued usage. Whirlpool should issue a full recall of all affected models immediately. If there are 5.3 million dryers, we will get them all back. If there are 120 models, we will work on that and get it done.
Which? reported that one in five—22%—of the affected customers surveyed in April 2016 were still waiting for their machine to be repaired or replaced. Does the company have no sense of urgency or safety? Are these issues lost on it? The Minister must be able to feel our frustration and anger. Other Members who speak after me will reiterate that. We need to be on the ball to ensure action is taken.
A third of customers who had their dryer repaired or replaced said they were dissatisfied with how the manufacturer handled the situation. I’ll tell you what, if I had been waiting since 2016, I would be very dissatisfied. I would be wondering what the company was doing and whether it had got the notification of the repairs to be done in a tray in a locked room where nobody ever goes. Six in 10, or 62%—it is rising all the time—of those who were surveyed for the first time in November 2016 and had decided to wait for a repair were concerned about using their tumble dryer, so the vast majority of those who own those dryers are concerned. One quarter—26%—of affected customers were told that they would have to wait longer than six months for their tumble dryer to be repaired. If only it did take six months to have it repaired, at least we would have a date. One in five—22%—were told that the wait would be between three and six months. Where is the company’s understanding of the inherent danger that those delays compound?
I will conclude with this comment because others wish to speak. We must ensure that consumer protection legislation is in place to deal with this issue. Current legislation allows that to take place. I believe the power is with the Minister: she can do this. I respectfully ask her, in the short time she has, to ensure that action can be taken after the election. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that this does not happen again. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith and all those who have come to Westminster Hall to support the safety not only of my constituents but of people throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who rely on legislation to force manufacturers to do the right thing. The fact is that we have to force them. I believe we must deal with this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. We have this pleasure very infrequently, but I am very pleased that you are presiding over business today. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) not only on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech, which comprehensively detailed all the issues he has been working on, but on leading the campaign to hold Whirlpool to account and to ensure that this matter is not forgotten in Parliament. He has done a sterling job and we all owe him a debt. He led a group of us to meet the Minister last year shortly after the fire. I have to say that the meeting was very reassuring. The Minister was very positive and made all the right noises and promises. It is therefore a trifle disappointing to say the least that, although we expected a report at the end of last year, we are still waiting for her conclusions. I hope that she will offer us some more assurances today. She clearly got it—she knew that there are deficiencies in the system, and she clearly wanted to do something about the issue—so I look forward to her comments.
I want to thank three organisations that sent us briefings: London Fire Brigade—not because I am a former employee, but because it provides a great research service on such issues, as my hon. Friend outlined—Which? and Electrical Safety First. Their briefings are essentially consistent on the major issues, but they emphasise different points. For example, they agree on the need for a single register for all UK product recalls, they are all unhappy with the present system, and they all criticise Whirlpool’s performance. The London Fire Brigade also states that organisations such as insurers should be under an obligation to have evidence that a fire has been caused by a faulty appliance to inform Trading Standards. Notwithstanding the weakness of Peterborough trading standards, many trading standards offices are excellent. At least if the information is in the public domain, matters can be taken forward.
The London Fire Brigade also requires that all appliances should be marked with the model and serial number, so that they can be identified in the case of a fire and matters can be taken forward as a result of working out what caused the blaze. The cause can be tracked down, traced and dealt with.
Electrical Safety First makes various key points—the gap between faults known to manufacturers and suppliers and the awareness of consumers is too great; there should be transparency and shared information. ESF says there should be a more efficient recall system, similar to the one in the United States. It requires a Government website—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—so that consumers can check whether their goods are at risk.
There should also be increased product registration—a matter we discussed with the Minister—but the evidence is clear that people do not fill out product registration forms when they buy goods because they are frightened they will be bombarded with sales literature and marketing information about future products from the companies from which they procured the goods. We are all sensitive to that. We do not like cold calls and trashy leaflets coming through our doors. People should be able to register at the point of sale and therefore be advised of recall. According to ESF, the recall success rate is 20% or below. It is very worrying that people do not understand that they own products that could jeopardise them, their families and their homes.
I will conclude shortly, because I know that a lot of colleagues want to speak and time is limited, but I want to mention two paragraphs that Which? has drawn attention to. Which? stated:
“Where a product could cause a risk to life or serious injury we expect it to be promptly recalled by the manufacturers. We do not believe this is happening in the case of Whirlpool’s fire risk tumble dryers given the known risks. Which? believes Whirlpool’s handling of the tumble dryer safety issue is unacceptable and exemplifies the weaknesses of the product safety system and the need for the system to be reformed. Which? wants Whirlpool to issue a full recall of their affected dryers and Government to reform the product safety system”—
a point that was so well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith. Which? also states—this was the matter that I intervened on him about—that Peterborough trading standards was forced into taking action because of the legal action that was taken in the judicial review. In that instance, that is a very unsatisfactory situation. My last point, and the most worrying one, is that it should not need a judicial review or the threat of legal action to force a trading standards organisation to force an international, respected manufacturer to protect its customers against the risk of fire and the risk to life, limb and home.
I look forward to the three Front-Bench responses to this debate, particularly the Minister’s, because she has shown a clear interest in this matter. She gets all the issues and is the only one in the room who has the power to take this matter forward. I hope she can give us more reassurance today.
I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing this important debate and for the work that he has done on the topic so far. I am relieved that this debate has finally been granted and pleased that I have the opportunity to take part. For some time I have been deeply troubled by the dangers posed by Whirlpool-owned tumble dryers and Whirlpool’s lack of response. I hope that today’s debate will be a wake-up call for both Whirlpool and the Government. They must act now.
Whirlpool initially refused to admit fault with any of its machines. Its advice then changed to the astonishing recommendation of watching the machine while it was on. Frankly, I think people have much better things to do with their time than watch a tumble dryer. People are now advised to unplug the affected appliances and refrain from using them. That is a clear admission of fault. If Whirlpool has recognised that its machines pose a fire hazard, why are they still in homes up and down the country?
Although Whirlpool has carried out maintenance on some machines, there are hundreds of thousands still to be looked at, and an estimated 3 million more that have yet to be identified. On top of that, it is not even certain that the maintenance carried out is an effective solution. Whirlpool’s response to the issue has been too little, too late. To check whether a machine is one of the models affected, people have to search through various pages on the Whirlpool website where the information has been buried under promotions and advertisements.
The consumer group, Which?, has found that those lucky enough to be made aware of the fault are being forced to wait for months to have their machines repaired. More than a quarter of people were told they would have to wait, as we have heard, up to six months. People’s lives are at risk and the response has been totally unacceptable.
In my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock I have seen the damage that such inaction has caused. I was contacted last year by a local family whose home had been completely destroyed by a fire caused by a Whirlpool tumble dryer. The family, already struggling to make ends meet in austerity Britain, were left homeless with only the clothes on their backs. Having lost everything, Whirlpool offered them £175 in compensation. That is an absolute disgrace. I strongly urge the Government to show some humanity for once and ensure that all those affected by fires are properly compensated.
The No. 1 job of a Government is to protect the population. Despite repeated calls for action, the Government continue to sit on their hands, offering small snippets of advice to Whirlpool, while millions of homes across the UK live with potentially life-threatening appliances. There is no time to waste.
Last year the Government rejected two petitions relating to faulty tumble dryers: one on the basis that it was unclear what was being requested from the Government, and the other because it was not something the Government were responsible for. Well, the Government can no longer shirk their responsibility. Whirlpool and Trading Standards have the power to recall faulty products, but so do the Government. A new petition, which has now been signed by more than 100,000 people, is crystal clear. The Government must urge Whirlpool UK to recall all faulty tumble dryers immediately, or step in themselves.
The Whirlpool issue also raises broader questions about the future of consumer protection in the country. As was mentioned earlier, EU legislation currently requires that all appliances meet specific standards relating to product safety, environmental impact, and consumer protection. As is the general theme of Brexit, we have absolutely no idea what the Government plan to replace it with. I think even the Government do not know.
The Government have a duty to ensure that consumers are not put at risk following Brexit and that legislation is more robust than it has been under EU rules. The Whirlpool issue is just one example of the UK’s inadequate product safety and recall system. I therefore urge the Government to use Brexit to introduce a new national regime that puts the safety and rights of the public, not the profits and interests of companies, at its heart.
Although I understand that the Government’s energy is now focused elsewhere, the Whirlpool issue cannot go on any longer. With up to 5.5 million faulty tumble dryers sitting in homes across the UK as we speak, the stakes could not be higher. I therefore urge the Minister to take immediate action in agreeing a full recall of all affected appliances and to ensure that families, such as the one in my constituency, whose lives have been torn apart by this matter are fully compensated. It is the Government’s duty and it is the right thing to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am pleased to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing it.
Along with other hon. Members here, I am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, so I declare that interest. I have come to the debate because of the historical links that my constituency has with electrical appliance manufacturing over many years. I will therefore focus my remarks on issues to do with product safety and how faulty electrical products are damaging consumer confidence in the UK.
In Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney we have a proud history of the manufacture of washing machines. We led the way for many years, making the post-war kitchen appliances modern and convenient. The Hoover factory opened in Pentrebach in my constituency in 1948 as part of the Labour Government’s work to ensure manufacturing advances in the UK after the war. Hoover soon became a market leader in the UK because the products were made to a high standard and were not imported, unlike many of the products manufactured today. By 1973, Hoover’s 25th anniversary in the town, 5,000 people were employed making washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers. Manufacturing in the UK had reached its peak. Unfortunately and tragically, it has been allowed to drift and we now rely on cheaper imports.
In March 2009, manufacturing came to an end in Merthyr Tydfil. The surrounding area, including my constituency, is still proud of the legacy of appliances being built locally, giving jobs to the local economy, and benefiting people’s lives.
I do not want to focus just on Hoover’s 2009 decision, devastating as that blow was. Many other manufacturers have also decided to send production overseas, and now import electrical goods into the UK. How can we be sure of the credibility of the component supply chain to large companies, and how do we ensure proper quality of the finished product and that it is built to last? Perhaps our departure from the European Union will offer an opportunity for us once again to galvanise the great range of talent that remains in the UK manufacturing sector and to encourage our trusted British brands to return manufacturing to the UK. Perhaps the Minister will give her view on that. The car industry has been supported, but what about UK white goods manufacturers?
As we have already heard today there is a serious ongoing issue with Whirlpool tumble dryers, which is still having a huge impact on many of our constituents. Given the often wet weather in Wales—
Well, it certainly is in parts of Wales; so many of my constituents rely on tumble dryers, and many of those are made by Whirlpool, which owns the Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda brands. Figures from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service show that over the past two years seven fires have been caused by tumble dryers in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Across south Wales there have been 43 fires, with more than 55% of those attributed to the Hotpoint, Indesit or Creda machines sold by Whirlpool. Those cases highlight the serious failure in product safety across the country. It seems that a well-known, trusted manufacturer has been allowed to place on the market potentially dangerous machines that have the ability to cause serious damage, injury and worse. What will the Minister do to ensure that the products that are manufactured overseas and sold in the UK are safe?
Through our membership of the European Union we have benefited from a range of legislation, cross-border working and co-operation on product safety, market surveillance and consumer protection to ensure that only products that meet strict minimum safety standards can enter the marketplace; additional safeguards have been created for our constituents and they have been provided with rights to redress when things go wrong. What work is the Minister doing with colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union to ensure that that can continue after Brexit?
I understand from research undertaken by the charity Electrical Safety First that there has been an increase in the number of second-hand goods sold online via social media, including a large number of white goods. Vulnerable people, including those in my constituency, who now have less disposable income owing to Tory austerity, may now buy a second-hand product rather than a new one. The item may be unsafe or previously have been recalled by the manufacturer—something that neither the seller nor the buyer may be aware of. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, such things may be acquired through moving home. Will the Minister look at the number of previously recalled second-hand goods that have been sold, to find out the impact on product safety and on the safety of our constituents in their homes?
What will the Minster do to reassure us and our constituents that the Government are taking the issue seriously? What are the Government doing to ensure that product safety legislation is fit for purpose? I understand that Whirlpool is struggling to contact a large number of people who may have one of the faulty machines in their home. What work is the Minister undertaking with Whirlpool to ensure that those machines are found and that our constituents are kept safe? One of the Minister’s roles is to ensure consumer safety. Will she now demonstrate that it is possible for our constituents to be confident that manufacturers will take responsibility for their products, and that they will act to prevent more of the incidents with tumble dryers that have happened recently, the consequences of which have been so devastating? I hope that the Minister can provide answers to my questions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing the debate. Mine will be a speedy speech, as I have crossed out three quarters of it already. I want to say a big thank you to Electrical Safety First, which has been the secretariat for the all-party group on home electrical safety, of which I am proud to be the chair. I am grateful for all it has done.
The continuing problem with tumble dryers is becoming increasingly serious, and we are now at a crossroads; the Government must intervene. The issue is not just about the fact that machines are faulty; I can tell the House of a case in Wales where there was loss of life. Last weekend the Welsh media reported on the deaths in 2014 of two young men, in a tumble dryer fire caused by a Hotpoint machine. Time is running out for Whirlpool to rectify the wrong.
I appear to be the only person in the debate who has had a face-to-face conversation with Whirlpool. It happened last year, and was with not the managing director but, if I recall correctly, a communications officer, or perhaps the head of communications. I have refreshed my memory of the meeting from my notes, so that I can share it with the House today. The representative provided me with a short background to the situation, stating that, while the number of machines affected was 5.3 million, because of the period of time that has passed, the number likely to be still in use is 3.5 million. The individual was keen to highlight that the company had proactively approached Trading Standards about the matter, rather than waiting, and that all the actions taken had been approved by Trading Standards. That was of course with reference to Peterborough, although we had no further discussion about Peterborough at the time.
The representative stated that Whirlpool had sent out 3.5 million letters to those for whom it was possible to get contact details, and the company at that time expected to complete 640,000 modifications. It had given itself until March 2017 to complete the modifications—a deadline that I am confident has not been met. The representative informed me that to undertake the task Whirlpool had recruited the services of 1,500 engineers—so many that, in the company’s words, there were now no more qualified engineers available for it to recruit. I was advised that the company had increased the options for those affected, who could receive a replacement machine for either £50 or £20, depending on whether it was being delivered, and the old machine collected, or whether they were to pick it up from a recognised retailer.
Throughout the meeting, I persisted in arguing that the matter should have resulted in a full recall. In response Whirlpool highlighted the fact that the tumble dryer market in the UK is about 1 million units a year, and that it is responsible for more than 50% of that—something that makes the situation all the more terrifying. When I asked about its advice that machines could be used, I was told that they could be used but not left unattended; but the company gave that advice with regard to all electrical appliances, anyway. It seems a little strange to me.
Another thing that was highlighted was that the company believes there is a customer blame issue, to do with consumers not following the advice given in product instructions about caring for the product—emptying the fluff collector, in this case. Apparently people in other countries are much better at that. Whirlpool did not want to blame consumers publicly, but the company believes that more should be done to raise awareness of the need to care for products.
Since the meeting, my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and I have been in regular correspondence with the company, seeking clarification of specific issues and requesting meetings. As yet, nothing has happened. I wrote as the chair of the all-party group, requesting someone from Whirlpool to attend a meeting, but my office had to chase up the correspondence for two months. It transpired that communication between Whirlpool and its public relations company had been lost. Why is a PR company answering letters from MPs on behalf of a company? Why does not the managing director’s office deal with us directly? I find that attitude to the House contemptible.
I am going to leave out much of the rest of what I was going to say in my speech—apart from telling the House about an interesting tweet that I had at the weekend, from someone who is not a constituent. He sent me a photograph of his tumble dryer being repaired, 18 months after he brought it to Whirlpool’s attention. He was delighted that it was being repaired, but he told me that he has an acutely autistic little boy, who has spent the past 18 months believing that the tumble dryer is a very dangerous piece of equipment. He cannot now convince his child that the machine is safe. Anyone with experience of working with people with severe autism or similar health issues will know that the anxiety that that little lad is now experiencing, having had one of the defective machines in the house, is causing trouble not just for him but his family.
I thank the Minister for her positive responses to my correspondence and the little notes on the bottom. I appreciate that she has taken everything that I have hounded her about very seriously. I am surprised by the Department’s reluctance to publish the working party report, which I understand the Minister has had sight of since Christmas. I can only hope that the sensible measures that Lynn Faulds Wood outlined will be in that report.
We must not allow any further delays in either the publication of the report or action against Whirlpool. The Government must step in to ensure that protection and guidance for consumers is paramount. Whirlpool must take responsibility, and it must be made accountable, by facing us MPs or being answerable to Ministers, or in the law courts. It must be accountable now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate. He made some valid points, one of which was about loss of belongings in fires, which we do not take into account in a big way but which causes great distress. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) mentioned that the petition has now reached 100,000 signatures. I hope we will be able to debate it in the Chamber after the general election.
I say not only as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety but as an MP with constituents who have real concerns about the safety of electrical products in their homes that this debate is important. I also speak out on behalf of constituents who may be unaware of potentially dangerous appliances in their homes and trust the systems that should protect them. We should do all we can to reduce the number of house fires caused by faults in electrical equipment and appliances. Statistics supplied to me by Electrical Safety First show that, of the accidental house fires caused by electricity in my home council area, South Lanarkshire, in 2015-16, 12%—24 house fires that could have been avoided—resulted from an electrical fault.
Reform of the product safety system is not a panacea—there is much work to be done to tackle the trade in counterfeit electrical goods, for instance—but it would play an important role in reducing risk for people and families across the UK. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke about second-hand goods being bought online due to financial constraints. We need to help ensure that people are kept safe in their own homes.
The Whirlpool debacle exemplifies why it is crucial that we get this right. We have heard that, following its 2014 acquisition of Indesit, including the brands Hotpoint, Swan, Proline and Creda, Whirlpool identified that up to 5.3 million or 5.5 million tumble dryers in the UK were affected by a serious fault, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. That fault in more than 120 models meant that those appliances were at serious risk of catching fire. Which? reports that by 2016, around 750 fires had been linked to those tumble dryers. As we heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith, a significant fire in a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush, which we all heard about due to media reports, was found by London Fire Brigade to have been caused by an Indesit tumble dryer. As he said, the legacy of that fire will last for years.
Troubling though that is, the handling of this debacle since it first came to light is even more worrying. We heard from the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) about his personal experience with a tumble dryer. It was only when he revealed that he was an MP that he actually got a proper response, which is ridiculous, but he has shown great perseverance. It shocked me that Hotpoint revealed to him that there could be 16,900 affected customers in his constituency. That is a shockingly high number.
Mystery shopping investigations by Which? looked into Whirlpool’s handling of the modification programme for faulty tumble dryers and found that affected people are being forced to wait far too long for repair or replacement. Alarmingly, Which? also discovered that incorrect and potentially dangerous advice was being given by customer service staff. Which? deserves recognition for its efforts to keep Whirlpool customers safe, and particularly for securing action against Whirlpool by Trading Standards in February, which resulted in the company being required to update its safety advice warning to consumers to instruct them to stop using their machines immediately and unplug them until they are repaired. I am sure we all agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) that Trading Standards must do more.
No one would disagree that it has been far too long. People are still using these appliances and could be at serious risk, so I take the hon. Lady’s point.
Since becoming aware of the issue, Electrical Safety First has argued that the product safety notice issued by Whirlpool was inefficient and has called for a full recall so that at-risk machines are repaired or removed from homes. When there is such a risk to consumer safety, there is no excuse whatever for Whirlpool not to act in the best interests of consumers, yet it cannot claim to have done so, since it has resisted recalling affected models and failed to repair or replace affected machines quickly. Regrettably, corporate operations seem to have got in the way of consumer wellbeing, as we heard from several Members.
The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group, mentioned that a PR company, not Whirlpool itself, seems to be answering MPs’ letters. That is absolutely shocking, but it is therefore unsurprising to learn of the Which? findings. A third of customers who had since had their dryer repaired or replaced said that they were dissatisfied with how the manufacturer had handled the situation. As we heard, a quarter of affected customers have been told that they will have to wait longer than six months, which is shocking. That is not an acceptable way to treat consumers, and it certainly is not a responsible way for the company to handle the situation.
There is also a serious gap between faults that manufacturers and suppliers of electrical goods know about and what consumers are aware of. The product recall system in the UK is complicated and, unfortunately, self-regulated. There is clearly the potential for unsafe products to be left in people’s homes, and that is exactly what is happening. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) made the good point that many of these tumble dryers may be passed on in house sales and their new owners may not be aware of the major issues with them.
All that has led to the current situation with Whirlpool tumble dryers, of which there are millions in people’s homes. Companies such as Whirlpool do not even know where faulty products are or who owns them. That is shocking. We evidently need a much more efficient product recall system, and it is incumbent on us all to ensure that that happens. We need to put in place a proper system in which manufacturers and retailers co-operate to encourage consumers to register their products at the point of purchase.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) mentioned that consumers are put off registering electrical products because they see it for what it often is: a marketing exercise for companies. Product registration must be primarily for safety purposes, and that should be made clear to consumers when they buy a product. Statistics show that 61% of consumers would be more likely to register a product if they knew that they would be contacted only for the purposes of safety. Electrical Safety First advocates the creation of a dedicated Government website similar to that in America, which centralises all information on product recalls, and where consumers can report concerns and obtain advice. The Whirlpool debacle, and the Shepherd’s Bush tower block fire in particular, should serve as the impetus to move on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock shared a shocking story about a family being made homeless after their home was completely destroyed and being offered £175 in compensation—fellow hon. Members gasped at that story. I hope the Minister takes all of this on board. We cannot wait for another serious incident to occur. I have today put on the record these concerns and potential solutions, and hope that the Minister responsible following the general election, whoever that is, will see fit to take them forward. We all want that commitment from the Government today. Failure to act will undoubtedly lead to loss of life in the future. We must do all we can to avoid that eventuality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate and on his actions in leading this campaign. I also thank hon. Members present for their thoughtful, eloquent and constructive contributions. We agree that being faced with a fire in one’s own home is a terrifying thought. We have heard some terrible stories—particularly of the deaths of two young men that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) detailed so eloquently.
Overall, I am very disappointed that we are in this situation at all. Whirlpool’s actions have been wholly inadequate—that is the best way I can put it—and the Government have not done nearly enough to remedy the situation. That such a serious failing of consumer protection has happened calls into question the whole product safety regime. That is all the more disappointing because, as other hon. Members outlined, the Government commissioned an independent consumer product recall review by Lynn Faulds Wood in 2015, which was published on 18 February 2016. The Government’s response to that review was sadly limited. Where is the interim report that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned? I hope the Minister can explain.
We have very little certainty over what will happen to consumer protection standards throughout the Brexit process. We have certainly been given little comfort in that regard—it seems at this point that consumers will not be championed during that process. Other hon. Members spoke of the horrendous danger and extremely serious consequences of fires in tumble dryers and other white goods and electricals. That Whirlpool has not issued a full recall at this point in time is staggering. It must fully recall the affected tumble dryer models now, before Parliament dissolves, because lives are still in danger. Peterborough trading standards and the Government should intervene and urge Whirlpool to issue that recall.
We must also see a serious reform of the consumer protection regime. I hope the Minister will outline the steps she will take in that regard because, when people’s homes are destroyed by fire and their possessions turned to ashes, when people have died due to white goods and electrical fires, and with the state that the product recall and product safety regime is in, it is unconscionable that we should continue as we are. What assessment has the Minister made of an independent national system to monitor and enforce consumer protection?
Organisations such as Which? have done a vast amount of good work in investigating and bringing attention to this issue. The Government would no doubt prefer that work to be done by external organisations, but they have a duty that they are not fulfilling. Statistics from Electrical Safety First show that the success rate of an electrical product recall in the UK is typically below 20%. Will the Minister explain what steps her Department has taken to improve that abysmal recall rate?
The product recall system is not working. Customers do not register because they rightly suspect that they are asked to so that they can be spammed by companies about future products. If consumers had confidence that product registration was only for recalls and safety concerns, we might see some change. Electrical Safety First has argued for a centralised website for product registration similar to that in America. Perhaps a similar approach could work here. Many hon. Members asked the same question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith described the extent to which Whirlpool has avoided engagement, dialogue and responsibility. Again, it has been left to consumer organisations such as Which? to pursue legal action. While Peterborough trading standards should have enforced the appropriate actions by Whirlpool when the faults became apparent, instead Which? had to take it to court to get it to act. Only then did Whirlpool take the straightforward step of updating its product guidance. Does the Minister find that the actions taken so far by Peterborough trading standards to be sufficient and appropriate?
We need a robust product safety system that is fit for purpose. Anything less will continue to endanger people’s lives. Be assured that a Labour Government, if elected on 8 June, would prioritise reform of the product safety framework to protect consumers, and to make companies such as Whirlpool take proper responsibility for their products. The people of Britain deserve better, and we should make no apologies for preventing further incidents and fatalities. Please deal with Whirlpool robustly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate and echo the remarks of hon. Members about his spearheading of the whole campaign.
We have made considerable progress since I last had the opportunity to engage in a debate on product safety. However, I see from hon. Members’ remarks, to which I have listened carefully, that that has perhaps not been communicated as effectively as it should. Allow me to put that right. I reiterate that the Government take consumer product safety extremely seriously. On the safety issue identified in Whirlpool tumble dryers, I and my officials have been in regular contact with Whirlpool and its management. I must say that I have been shocked to hear the extent to which Whirlpool has not engaged with other hon. Members; I think that it might come to regret that. I hope that, in the new Parliament, it will manage to put that communications issue right.
I met the chief executive of Whirlpool and emphasised the need to resolve the situation quickly and pushed the company hard on meeting its obligations. I have repeatedly pressed it in further correspondence on the need to ensure that consumer safety remains paramount and that consumers have accessible routes to resolve their issues with the company’s products quickly and effectively. I am concerned about the number of unregistered machines still on the market; as hon. Members have mentioned, second-hand machines and people moving into homes with an existing machine and not realising the safety issues make it a complex situation. I will come back to that when talking about the working group that we have set up.
I am concerned to hear of the experiences of some consumers who have registered their machines with Whirlpool and who have faced unacceptable delays in having their machines modified.
The advice given to one of my constituents was to unplug her tumble dryer, to plug it back in only when she was going to use it and to then watch it. I do not know if the Minister has ever tried to move a tumble dryer or washer dryer when the plug is at the back, but it is not something that can be done. The manufacturers have to take far greater responsibility for keeping our families safe than they do at the moment.
I agree with the hon. Lady; that is not practical advice.
Whirlpool has, however, been taking action to address the concerns that we have debated this afternoon. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is the only one among us, apart from myself, who has met Whirlpool. What Whirlpool said to her is largely right, in terms of what it has lived up to following the proposals that its representatives made when they met her some time ago.
Whirlpool has increased its engineer workforce by 50%, allowing it to resolve approximately 100,000 cases per month. It has now exceeded the number of cases that it anticipated resolving when it met the hon. Lady. It has modified more than 1.5 million machines—almost 90% of the total number registered with the company—but, of course, that leaves 10% unresolved, to say nothing of all the other machines out there that nobody knows of. Whirlpool now employs the UK’s largest technician workforce, at 1,700-strong, which is almost three times the size of the next largest one in the country.
In response to demands for a full recall, I understand the attraction of that proposition, but the key must be to take whatever action is most likely to achieve the outcome we are all aiming for, which is to ensure that consumers are protected from unsafe products. That may be statutory recall in some instances, but other forms of corrective action, including making modifications to products in a consumer’s home, may be more proportionate, appropriate and effective in other cases. It is often better and more effective to encourage a company to accept its responsibilities and take action proactively.
I had important constituency business to attend to. The Minister is correct in saying that modifications at home might be the correct course of action. Indeed, I witnessed a modification to my tumble dryer. However, the issue I have is that Whirlpool is not disclosing to Which? or to any of us the independent expert analysis stating that such modification makes the tumble dryer safe.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend has not had satisfaction from Whirlpool on that. Whirlpool wrote to me on 4 November outlining its engineer training programme and auditing programme of the machines that it has modified. I am happy to share that correspondence with him and other hon. Members.
We hear from industry and other experts that recall programmes typically have a success rate of resolving between 10% and 20% of affected products. In this case, Whirlpool’s resolution rate is over 40%, which is well above the industry norm. We can therefore posit that the action taken by Whirlpool in co-ordination with Peterborough trading standards has achieved more in terms of resolving cases than recalls typically achieve, meaning a greater number of consumers have been protected from potential harm.
I can only reiterate what I have already said. Of those machines, 1.5 million have already been modified, and only 10% of cases registered with Whirlpool are outstanding. Whirlpool is modifying machines at roughly the rate of 100,000 per month.
The role of Peterborough trading standards has been discussed. That team has ensured that Whirlpool has taken responsibility for resolving the issue and agreed actions deemed proportionate to the level of risk. The initial risk assessment was peer-reviewed and agreed by two other trading standards departments, at Norfolk County Council and Hertfordshire County Council. As a responsible regulator, it has kept the issue and the evidence under continuous review and made decisions accordingly. It issued enforcement action to ensure that Whirlpool gave clear advice to consumers not to use the product before it had been repaired, and it has been in close contact with Whirlpool to agree and oversee the corrective action programme.
I note hon. Members’ comments about Whirlpool’s motivations and the extent to which it was moved by the threat of judicial review. It is impossible for me to comment on that speculation, but I would point out that Whirlpool had already resolved the majority of those 1.5 million cases prior to the threat of judicial review, which was later removed. As a result of Peterborough’s actions, Whirlpool did not, as Members implied, sit on its hands; it commenced a programme of corrective action back in November 2015. I have covered issues about Whirlpool’s customer service, so I will move on.
I want to acknowledge the remarks of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) about the manufacturing of white goods. I was sorry to hear of the manufacturing losses in his constituency, but I am pleased to report that Whirlpool tumble dryers and some of its other white goods are manufactured not abroad but in Bristol.
I will turn to the working group on product recalls and safety. I take to heart the suggestion by the hon. Member for Hammersmith that the Government should look at the safety of all electrical goods and not just tumble dryers. That brief has been given to the working group. An online hub of information on product recalls, known as “Recall Central”, has been developed on gov.uk. That follows up one of Lynn Faulds Wood’s recommendations, cited by the hon. Gentleman.
When I took on the product safety brief, I reviewed the remit of what was then called the recall review steering group. Like the hon. Gentleman, I considered two years far too long to wait for discernible improvements in the system. In October, I rebooted the group and established the working group on product recalls and safety to develop credible options for improving product safety and the recalls system, setting a more challenging timetable of six months. I asked the working group to focus in particular on identifying the causes of fire in white goods and the action needed to reduce that threat.
The group is better resourced than its predecessor. Officials in my Department are supporting the group and are in regular contact with the Home Office about fire prevention. The group consists of experts in the fire services, trading standards, consumer groups and industry, including Electrical Safety First. The chair, Neil Gibbins, has extensive experience of fire safety, as former deputy chief fire officer for Somerset and Devon, and a background in enforcement.
I am grateful to Neil Gibbins and members of the working group for their work. They submitted their initial recommendations in December, which were published on gov.uk. Each meeting has had its notes published on gov.uk, and hon. Members can visit that site. The group submitted its full report to me earlier this month, which might explain why I have not yet published it, in less than the six months given to it. If it had not been for the Easter recess and the calling of the general election, I would now be planning the publication of the report. The group has already commissioned the British Standards Institution to develop a code of practice on corrective actions and recalls to improve consistency and transparency.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) raised the issue of consumer behaviour and attitude, which is very important. The working group has commissioned consumer behavioural insights research, which I gather has almost concluded, to help ensure that the code of practice, and indeed the whole process of encouraging and motivating consumers to register their appliances, is taken forward in the optimum way.
I must leave time for the hon. Member for Hammersmith to wind up the debate, so I will conclude. In terms of Brexit, I would like to reassure Members that the Government have absolutely no intention of watering down consumer protection and consumer safety. The opposite may well be the case. I would also like to reassure the House generally that the Government take these issues very seriously indeed, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s concluding remarks.
There is only time, in half a minute, to say a profound thank you to all the Members who have taken part in this debate. I really do appreciate their support and the work they have done. I also want to say to the Minister that the issues of liability, compensation, whether the replacements and repairs are sufficient, what will happen to the unregistered machines and, above all, a robust system of registration and recall, will not go away. I hope she will continue to pursue them. I place that on record so that, whether it is her or someone else responsible, we can pursue those issues in the next Parliament. It is vital that we do so.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Learning outside the Classroom
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered learning outside the classroom.
We are considering the subject of out-of-school learning, or learning outside the classroom, as it is known on the Order Paper. I do not want to get your title wrong, Mr Paisley; are you Dr Paisley or Mr Paisley? I want to get it right.
I am being barracked: the comment “Not that educated” is coming from behind me.
I have been involved in the issue of out-of-school learning for a very long time. I had a very good run as Chair of the variously named Education Committee—it had a number of names, including the Children, Schools and Families Committee. Indeed, the Minister who will answer this short debate was a brilliant member of the Select Committee. We had great fun working together on a lively Committee.
I became somewhat obsessed with out-of-school learning, for two reasons. When one is Chair of a Select Committee of that kind, it is one’s job to visit as many schools as possible, in all parts of the country and at every level. In those days, we covered topics ranging from pre-school learning and nurseries right through to further education, apprenticeships and higher education, so it was a wide-ranging brief. However, when I got to schools, particularly in the primary and secondary sectors, I found that those schools that had the ability to take children outside the classroom transformed young people’s lives. All the research that has now been done on the issue shows that. A report that we did goes back 10 years. We did not have so much research evidence, but since that report came out 10 years ago from the Education Committee, we have been able to conduct research to show just how much young people are stimulated by getting outside the classroom and particularly into the countryside, and I became passionate about getting children out of the classroom and giving them an experience.
One of the wonderful things about getting a class of 30 kids out of the classroom is that we can do wonderful things for them and with them. Let me describe what all the research showed when we did our first inquiry. We have a treasury in London and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales because we have free museums—what a wonderful treasury, what a wonderful learning experience. But tragically, when we delved into who among our children goes to those museums, we found the following. We found that more middle-class children went to them with their parents regularly. Going to them is a wonderful experience. Now, in London and Leeds, there are all-night stays in museums. That is an incredibly innovative and fun thing to do—sleep-ins at the museum, sleeping with dinosaurs. What a wonderful experience. However, all the research showed that more ordinary kids, from more ordinary, less affluent homes, did not go to the free museums—not even the free museums.
If the people from a less privileged background did go to the free museums, they went with their school. All the research showed what we needed to do if we wanted to reach out to all the children in this country, not just the more privileged—and I do not mean 5% or 10%, but something more like 60%. A very high percentage of kids living in this country, in our towns and cities and in the countryside, do not visit those wonderful museums unless their school takes them out of school to do that. They do not do it, or certainly they do it in lesser numbers and on fewer occasions, so I became dedicated to the view that it should happen.
Then I mixed up one passion with another. I do not know whether I should be indiscreet, when we are getting close to the general election, about falling in love with someone—it might get in the popular press—but I fell in love with John Clare, the English poet. He has been dead a long time: he lived from 1793 to 1864. When I went to school, I had the privilege of having a wonderful teacher who loved John Clare and imparted some of that enthusiasm to me, and I became dedicated to John Clare and giving him a wider audience.
When John Clare was alive, he had only 100 poems in print. The special thing about John Clare is that he was not a posh vicar or a Member of the House of Lords, as many poets were. He was an ordinary working man; he was called the Northamptonshire peasant poet. He was a day labourer, a farm labourer, and his father was a farm labourer; they threshed together in the village of Helpston. However, John Clare went to a dame school and learned to read and write, and after he left school at 12, he never stopped reading and writing. He briefly became popular in the Victorian period, when rustic poetry was popular, and 100 of his poems were in print when he died.
Then, in the 1960s, a treasury of wonderful poetry by John Clare was found. We think that his mental challenge was that he was bipolar. He could have been treated easily these days, but he was bipolar. The well-wishing people who looked after him put him in the Northampton general asylum. He was there for many years—he lived until his early 70s—and we discovered in the 1960s that he had been writing and writing and writing, even better poetry than the poetry that he had already published. One thousand of his poems are now in print, and more are being published.
Then I had the strange fortune of my eldest daughter marrying an academic who happened to be a John Clare scholar, from Cambridge University. He is now senior tutor at Fitzwilliam College and he has written a book about John Clare. I do not know how this happened, but I became the chairman of the John Clare Trust; I bought John Clare’s house; and we raised £3 million to turn John Clare’s cottage into a centre for children to visit. It is for everyone to visit, but we have a particular campaign called Every Child’s Right to the Countryside. I have seen the work that we and other people in the same field have done transform the lives of children; their lives are transformed by going to the countryside. One does not have to love poetry, art, music or what I often called—all my daughters studied English at famous universities—arty-farty people. They do not like that, but you know what I mean, Mr Paisley. I am a social scientist, trained at the London School of Economics in economics, so I can sometimes be disparaging about some of the more literary pursuits.
However, I know that if we take a child into the countryside and use technology, innovation, science or any subject under the sun, we can transform the experience of that child in that environment. Of course, John Clare writes about the woods and hedgerows and the plants and animals of our country, many of which are now very challenged in terms of their very existence. What we found in our work, which we did in partnership with others, was that if we want our country to have a countryside and our people to love it, they must visit it. Our secret—but not very secret—mission is to get people in this country, especially new generations of young people, to come to the countryside to learn and to really find their spark. I come across so many people in this country, even my own constituents in Huddersfield, who would benefit from that. I am sure that other hon. Members feel the same.
It is always nice to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley—I think this may be the second or third time.
The hon. Gentleman raised those who wish young people to see and be involved with the countryside. I am very aware that in Northern Ireland we have under-achievement by Protestant males because they are not academically inclined, but their disposition might be towards the countryside. One organisation that has enabled those people at least to achieve something from a physical point of view is the Prince’s Trust. Has he had any opportunity to work with the Prince’s Trust to enable people who are not academically inclined to look towards the countryside, because they might find a job and perhaps a realisation of what they could do there?
The hon. Gentleman reminds me that we are not talking about an exclusive society of brethren. There are a lot of us, including the Scouts, the Prince’s Trust and lots of other wonderful organisations. The wonderful chief executive of the National Trust came to visit John Clare’s cottage in Helpston only a month ago. We need to work with the National Trust and all the organisations that can offer wonderful destinations to more and more schools. I would be wrong not to mention the Institute for Outdoor Learning, whose chief executive Andy Robinson was very helpful as soon as he heard that I had secured this debate. There are a lot of organisations out there.
All the research shows that it is good for children to come to the countryside. It shows the real improvement in academic subjects, as well as in achievement across the board, from getting children out for a day in the countryside, a museum or somewhere they can get a different perspective on their learning.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I absolutely share his passion for outside learning. My most vivid memories from primary school are of visits to museums and nature walks in the countryside, but I never got to visit a mosque, a synagogue or a Hindu temple. My own children are now at school. What better way to illustrate a religious education lesson about Judaism than with a visit to a synagogue? Does he encourage schools and other organisations to do that for our young people as well?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I was going to come on to historical places. He is also right about mosques, synagogues and the diversity in our country of religious buildings in which young people can learn and can better understand the lives of other people who live not far from them.
I secured this debate because not only does all the research show that it is good for children to go out into the countryside, but it highlights a problem that still exists. More privileged children, from homes that are better off and have more money, get the chance to go to the countryside regularly, but a very substantial number of young people in this country never get that chance. Many children in our urban centres and in not so urban centres never go off their estate. That is a shame, but the research shows that it is true. There are children in Huddersfield who do not often go even into the centre of Huddersfield, let alone into the lovely, medieval Bradley wood or to the perfect hunting lodges of Henry VIII that are still around. What a wonderful habitat for them to visit if they had the opportunity!
What is the secret? I have a very good proposal for the Minister. I want him, or somebody, to give me a little bit of money—do you know, Mr Paisley, that there is a magic sum of money if you go to a school? In the old days, when we did our first inquiry—the Minister will remember this—people used to say, “No, we don’t want to go.” One of the big teaching unions said things like, “No, we’re not going to co-operate any longer”, “It’s a bit stressful for teachers”, “It’s more than our jobs are worth”, “What about health and safety?”, and all that. Our report put the lid on that. Health and safety has become not such a big issue; the forms to fill in have been made much easier and the guidance is much better.
The real secret of a school that opens itself to adventure and takes children out is having staff who want to do that and who see its value. When schools do it well, it is nearly always because they have trained one or two members of staff to be the experts who know about the subject or the organisation, who are inspired and who have the passion. That gives comfort to the school and gives focus to the challenge, so that children end up going to the right place at the right time in a safe and rewarding way. We need teachers who are trained and up to speed.
The other thing that we need to do, which is most important, is go to schools with £500 in our back pocket. We have found that that is the magic sum for getting a school much more interested in travel. The organisation goes to the school and says, “This won’t cost you anything. We’ll take 30 of your children into the countryside to have wonderful learning experiences of various types, beautifully mediated by trained teachers or mediators. We’ll take care of the travel and look after the children for the day.”
I have a wonderful challenge for the Minister and any Member who is listening to the debate. I hope that we can go back to it in the new Parliament—I hope that you, the Minister and I will all be re-elected on 8 June, Mr Paisley. I want to continue my programme of challenging every Member of Parliament to raise £5,000, which would cover 10 schools in their constituency—as long as I can persuade them to include schools that do not usually visits.
I am selling some wares in this debate, because we need children in this country to learn better. We need to find and liberate that spark, that talent and that potential in them. If we can do it through the medium of getting them out of school, we will have learned a lesson from good research and good experience. It works here and it works for other countries like ours, so we can draw conclusions from that.
My message is simple. I want more children to come to the countryside and fall in love with it. I want more children to go to museums, mosques and synagogues and learn outside the classroom. There is nothing wrong with a classroom, as long as the teachers in it are good, inspired, well qualified, well motivated and well paid. I will not go into political territory today, but we all know that it is much easier to get kids to go outside the classroom in Maidenhead than in Huddersfield. I am sure that it is very comfortable in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, but I do not represent a constituency in it. Like you, Mr Paisley, I represent a much more diverse constituency, where I look at the schools and want the children in them to have all the same advantages as children who live in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.
Mr Speaker—sorry, Mr Paisley—I want several things. I want every school to dedicate itself to being open to more out-of-school visits. I want every Member of Parliament to be energised to find 10 schools right across their constituency to go into the countryside and learn. I will not be parochial. They do not necessarily have to go to the John Clare cottage, although we always like to see people in Helpston, which is a lovely place just between Peterborough and Stanford, and halfway to Huddersfield. They could come to Huddersfield to see some of our attractions; it has more listed buildings than Bath or York, as I am sure you knew, Mr Paisley.
If children want a day out, they can go to Huddersfield, to the John Clare cottage or to the Minister’s constituency. Let us inspire them. Let us get them thinking in a totally different way about the countryside, about their lives and about their potential. That is the message of my speech and my reason for trying to secure this debate for some time: it is vital that we get children out of the classroom to learn.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate. I very much enjoyed his passionate contribution. I know how long he has championed learning outside the classroom, all the way back to his chairmanship of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. When I was still a fledgling Member of Parliament, he showed me the ropes in the ways of Parliament and I am indebted to him for giving me an insight into how to make things happen in this place. Obviously I now have to do it through a different route as a Government Minister. Nevertheless, he gave me a sense that this place can make a difference, on this issue and on many others.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, because of the timing of this debate—it is the penultimate Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament—I am unable to set out anything more than the current Government policy on learning outside the classroom or to commit to any further funding or policy. Be that as it may, it is clear that learning outside the classroom has a key role to play in children’s education. His most successful route to championing it during the next six weeks may be to influence his party’s manifesto and to see whether his proposal can be taken forward. We are all beavering away trying to ensure we get our own ideas into the literature of our respective parties.
When outside activities are structured and organised effectively, they can provide young people with stimulating experiences that build on the knowledge and understanding they gain through the formal lessons with which most of us are familiar. It is up to individual schools and teachers to use their professional judgment to decide how learning outside the classroom meets the needs of their pupils, and to plan lessons and use their budgets accordingly. There are plenty of excellent examples of schools doing just that, which I will say a little more about later.
The national curriculum includes specific requirements for schools in relation to learning outside the classroom in certain subjects. For instance, the national curriculum programme of study for PE includes specific requirements for outdoor and adventurous activities through key stages 2 and 4. Geography is another such area, with outdoor learning through simple fieldwork and observation of key human and physical features in the surrounding environment. There are opportunities through the national curriculum for children to get outside and envelop themselves in what the environment has to offer. Under the new geography GCSEs and A-levels being taught in schools, GCSE pupils need to carry out at least two pieces of fieldwork outside the classroom—that requirement was not there before—and fieldwork is required in both A-level and AS-level content for geography.
Traditionally, science has been seen as one of the ways into learning outside the classroom. The national curriculum provides guidance that schools should use their local environment throughout the year—we are a country that has four seasons—to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat, as well as to provide opportunities to support the aspect of working scientifically in the science curriculum. The guidance specifies the understanding of the nature processes and methods of science for each year group that should be embedded with the content of biology, chemistry and physics. We all remember going outside with a quadrilateral, triangle or square to try to come up with some leaf litter that was interesting. Those types of memories when people recall what they learned as a child at school are very powerful.
Does the Minister agree that, in order to learn outside the classroom, pupils do not need to go miles and miles away? West Byfleet Junior School in my constituency has a tiny patch of woodland in the corner of its site. It has turned it into the Willows forest school—children follow a forest school curriculum during the course of a year. It is like going into another world. The school itself is only 50 or 100 yards away, but it is a magical place where younger children can explore nature, animals, bugs and science.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is so much opportunity out there for children if they are given the permission to experience it. Someone who lives in the countryside and is surrounded by fields of cows might learn where milk comes from, but there are also city farms—there is one just down the road in Vauxhall—as well as forest schools. When I was training for the marathon in Delamere forest near where I live, I passed a forest school for early years—two to five-year-olds—run by the Forestry Commission. There are lots of ways into the subject, but we need to give children the chance, rather than making them feel that they have to stick with the classroom for all of their learning experience.
As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, seeing original paintings, sculptures and historical artefacts in art galleries and museums is a very different experience from seeing printed images. Attending a live concert can enhance pupils’ understanding and enjoyment of music. Seeing a live performance of a Shakespeare play or—dare I say?—a recital of a John Clare poem, which the hon. Gentleman is clearly taken with, can provide pupils with different insights from studying a play or a poem on paper. We have recently updated the subject content for GCSE drama and A-level theatre studies to try to reflect that, and to ensure that students study those subjects with an entitlement to experience live theatre. I am not sure whether the House of Commons would qualify in that regard, but it is an important step forward.
A key element the hon. Gentleman raised was how disadvantaged children can get that equal opportunity of experience outside the classroom. I think back to one of the first children my family fostered. He was four or five years old and we took him on a holiday to north Wales. As we came over the brow of a hill and he saw the Irish sea for the first time, he looked at it and said, “Is that a big puddle?” He had never seen the sea before and did not know what it was. That is the challenge. Yes, we have free museums and we make sure that teachers feel equipped and confident to use learning outside as an important life-skill approach to enhancing learning, but the challenge is to ensure that no child gets left behind when we provide that opportunity.
That is why we support a museums and schools programme to deliver high-quality opportunities for all school pupils to visit museums that are linked to the national curriculum and support classroom learning. Last year, 72,870 pupils from 1,215 schools took part in that programme, including at the Barnsley Museum, the Great Yarmouth museum, SS Great Britain and many others. The £6 million for the programme since 2012 will be supplemented by a further £1.2 million over the next financial year. We are expanding the National Citizen Service for 16 and 17-year-olds.
I hope the Minister is going to mention the critical point that I was trying to put over about having someone in the school who is trained. He and I have put up for too long with a variety of jobs—even careers—that were never done well. It was Buggins’s turn simply because someone had a light timetable and could fill in and do it. We need trained people who know about the potential of out-of-school learning to lead it with passion.
I agree that it is crucial to embed that into the school, and that there should be strong leadership, not just from the headteacher but from governors, who are in a more powerful position than they have ever been to influence what makes a school outstanding.
The John Jamieson School and Technology College in Leeds, just up the road from Huddersfield, is for children aged three to 19 with a range of complex learning difficulties. Every child in that school is given access to a wide range of school activities, and provision is highly differentiated so that no child is excluded. Within that, there will be children who are on free school meals or who have more challenging backgrounds. It is those children whom we need to capture. They need to have that experience and widen their horizons so that I am not in the position I was in when I visited a school in the north side of Manchester a few years ago. When I asked one child whether he went into the town centre much, he said he had never been. He was 10 years old and the town centre is less than a mile down the road. That is still the reality and, although we are making progress, there is clearly still some work to do.
Question put and agreed to.
Upper Catchment Management
I beg to move,
That this House has considered upper catchment management.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what will be the last Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament. Upland catchment management is an important subject to focus on. Many Members in the Chamber today will have experienced flooding in their constituency, as I did in York Central on Boxing day 2015. We know the devastation that came from that. In York, 453 residential homes were flooded and 174 businesses experienced flooding. There are families who are still not back in their homes and businesses that are yet to reopen, such as the Blue Bicycle restaurant on Fossgate, which is still waiting for repairs to begin. Although we celebrate places such as Jorvik, which reopened over the Easter recess with a new exhibition—I encourage all Members to visit and to send their constituents there, as well as to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, which has also been restored—there is still so much to do. The insurance systems still are not working, and resilience is still an aspiration, not a reality. We need far tighter flood governance to support people when planning, during flooding and afterwards too.
To make a real difference, we have to look upstream at how we prevent flooding downstream. I am sure all Members present would agree that to address flooding in our country properly, the resource and focus need to switch upstream. With climate change, we know that flooding is a reality in this country, so we have to get on top of the agenda. I have been saddened that the Government have not prioritised climate change in the past couple of years in the way we would want. I know for sure that Labour will ensure we tackle the causes of flooding, as well as flooding itself. That phrase may resonate with people as a commitment, and they will see the actions that we will put behind that.
I know that instigating methods of prevention is always better than having to mop up after a disaster. That was why I was so disappointed by the Government’s “National Flood Resilience Review”. It talked about spending money on defences and moveable defences—it is only a little bit of money, mind, that is being put into that—without getting resource where it is needed upstream. The review also said that would not happen until the next comprehensive spending review. I am pleased to say that after the election, Labour’s comprehensive spending review will address this very issue to ensure we address flooding at source.
I fully understand what the hon. Lady says, but we only have to look a few miles to the west of York, to my constituency of Calder Valley, to see what the Government have done. They have done a tremendous job in developing a full catchment plan that looks at how agencies work together, tree planting, leaky dams, grip blocking and the management of reservoirs. Does she not agree that the Government’s focus, particularly since the Boxing day floods, has moved away from the bog standard, “Let’s build a wall”, to having an upper catchment plan, which is exactly what we have in the Calder Valley?
I am sure we will talk about different schemes that have been put in place. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who represents my not-quite-neighbouring constituency, is here, and we will consider what has happened at Pickering. We need to ensure that all such schemes slow the flow, because that is really important in addressing these issues.
I am sure all hon. Members agree that it is important that we build evidence—the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton is nodding—about what produces the best solutions for addressing upland management, which is why it is deeply disappointing that the Government have cut the research budget. I want to talk about a specific piece of research that I am going to ask the Minister to review. The University of York has carried out research into moorland management. This extensive piece of work, which is the most comprehensive of its kind, has run for five years at a cost of £1 million to the Government. The university is asking for a further five years of research funding—£660,000—to complete that innovative research, which covers 500 different patches across a whole catchment to look at how best to manage the moorlands. The groundwork has been done, so it is nonsensical not to see it through to completion. Doing so would enable us to see the impact over 10 years, which in turn would have a real impact on constituencies such as mine.
I believe it is best for Government to look for opportunities to save spending money. If that research runs for a further five years, it will address issues such as complete management rotation and the impact of the regrowth of vegetation. We will see the impact across the whole catchment, as well as the impact of time, and what 10 years produces, as opposed to just five.
I said that £660,000 is the upper limit for that piece of research, and that £1 million was spent on the first phase. So far, the university has been able to secure £353,000 from other sources, so it needs only £307,000. The Stockholm Environment Institute will put 20% towards the research, so that figure comes down to only £246,000. I am sure the Minister will agree that spending £246,000 over five years—£49,000 a year—is better than spending £2.3 billion to mop up the disaster from floods and putting barriers in places where they will perhaps not be needed if the research is complete. This is about investment and saving money for the Treasury, which I am sure the Minister would welcome.
My shameless plea is for us to apply some common sense and to extend that unique piece of research, which will improve our climate, reduce flood risk and reduce the prospect of spending so much money downstream. I am all for trying to reduce Government spend if we can invest it in the right places. As a keen walker, I am out and about across the moors and the dales, and I have seen the way the uplands are managed. This research, which is entitled “Restoration of blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water regulation”, speaks to the need to use evidence to ensure we have better management.
There is more that will come from the research. It has excited academics beyond our shores, and has encouraged them to look at what we are doing. They want it to be completed, which is why we have got interest from Sweden. The Moorlands Association also said it is vital, which is why it is willing to put resource into it. Members of the public—it is their taxes and their money—do not want to see future floods. Therefore, they want their money to be spent prudently. At £49,000 a year, we could not get a better investment in something that will be so significant.
The research has concluded that how the uplands are managed has an impact on the amount of water that comes downstream. We had a debate on grouse moor shooting and how to manage the moors in that context. If we look at burning versus mowing the heather, it brings a 10% to 20% reduction in the amount of water coming downstream, which is significant. In a place such as my city of York, we are talking about 40 cm of water, which would have greatly reduced the damage caused on Boxing day 2015. That is significant.
The hon. Lady is making a good point about burning versus mowing, but does she understand that some locations on the grouse moor cannot be mowed because the terrain is not suitable for mowing? The people who manage the moors mow when they can, but other areas need burning rather than mowing.
The hon. Gentleman has a point, but the research also looks at other management of the moorlands. Some sites, for instance, are left fallow to see what the impact is and there can be absorption. The research looks not only at heathers but at the wider biodiversity that comes from the upland management. That is why a 10-year research programme is so much more significant. Measures arising from the research already conducted would bring flooding down in York by 40 cm. Looking at the regeneration of certain species over 10 years could reduce that level further. If we consider York and the 40 cm, many of the barriers now being discussed, and how high they are raised, might not need to be in place and could therefore save even more money. If we then reinvest that money into planting trees and, as in Pickering, having leaky dams upstream and other forms of water catchment, we could be talking about significantly more water not coming downstream: perhaps 45 cm or 50 cm, and each centimetre is significant. That proves the research is crucial to drive forward a programme that really addresses the issues.
I want to challenge the 40 cm figure. If my memory serves me correctly about the research that the hon. Lady quotes, there is a line that clearly says the flow is unimpeded. As we know, in the uplands we do not have unimpeded flow, so that is an incredibly worst-case scenario if we had flat moors and the flows came straight down the hill. The evidence quoted is not evidence because it uses unimpeded flow.
I dispute the hon. Gentleman’s point because I sat down with the research scientists and looked through the evidence they produced. They say it is 40 cm, but that could increase beyond that for certain scenarios. They want to carry out a 10-year research project to make sure that the data have even more rigour than the five-year research project carried out to date. Although there are differences in the way in which the water flows, and we want other measures such as filling in the grips and so on, the evidence clearly suggests that a different form of moorland management will make a difference in the amount of water that comes downstream.
We do not get the benefit from only the water flow. There are many other by-products. For instance, different management of the moorlands will produce greater soil resilience, which means that there would be less summer drought in the moorlands, thereby sustaining the bio-habitat over the summer and for a longer period, which is a real benefit, and we would increase the quality of the soil. We know from the debate we had on soil quality how important that is. Improving absorption is also important. On a climate issue, burning puts carbon into the atmosphere, leaving charcoal behind as a by-product as opposed to holding that in the soil.
It is also important to see this matter as part of a wider environmental strategy. I am sure the Minister will remind us that all of that will be discussed in the 25-year environment plan. To her embarrassment, I am sure, the plan was going to be produced before summer 2016, and then we were told we would get the framework before Christmas—so we cannot even use the Brexit argument now—but we are still waiting on that 25-year plan. It is a 25-year plan to write, I am convinced.
The Environmental Audit Committee has also recognised the need for more joined-up thinking about the benefits of such a framework. Bringing in issues such as how we improve planting and planting in the right place is vital in catchment management.
There is recognition that where heather is burned, we get greater germination of the seeds, which then bring heather. However, it has been shown that mowing means we get more shoots coming off the heather. For those who go out grouse shooting and support it, which I do not, mowing is better for that sport—if we can call it a sport; I probably would not. Mowing is also less labour-intensive, so it is good for those managing the moorlands.
Air quality, water quality, soil quality and biodiversity all come together here, and a 10-year study of the impact on all of them is significant. Anyone who is keen on the environment and on seeing environmental measures advanced will want to support that research, which I remind the Minister would cost only £49,000 a year. That study is required. It is long term, and it will improve our environment.
I say to the Minister, on behalf of my constituents who face the devastation, that this is about their money and their future. They have experienced real difficulties during the flooding and still are. Building evidence-based policy, which is surely what the Government want to do, by investing in a little piece of research will make a significant change. I trust that she will commit today to review that piece of research and its second phase and agree to fund the small price that it costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this very important debate.
As the hon. Lady said, one of the beautiful market towns in my constituency is Pickering. It is not only a beautiful town but a gateway to one of the finest landscapes in this nation—the North York Moors, with its Wimbledon colours of green and purple. On a sunny day, we can enjoy the delights of the North York Moors railway, chugging gently through that wonderful landscape and enjoying the beautiful “Heartbeat” country of places like Goathland.
Beautifully concealed within that landscape is the Pickering “Slowing the Flow” project. It is a pioneering project involving bunds, which are dams—some of them deliberately leaky, and some more substantial; heavy tree planting on riversides, farmland and floodplains; and small-scale ponds and swales. All those things are to slow the flow. There is also some more conventional concrete flood storage, but in my constituency it is almost like modern art; it is beautifully executed.
Pickering has a long history of flood issues, with four significant floods since 2005. One in 2007 flooded 85 homes and businesses in Pickering, causing £7 million-worth of damage. Pickering had a one-in-four chance of flooding. The deep channels of Pickering beck, which are deeper over time, meant that the water could not get away before the “Slowing the Flow” project. Other conventional schemes were considered. In 2004 a concrete scheme was brought forward that I think would have blighted the beautiful town. However, it was seen as too expensive. It would have cost £7 million in 2004, which is probably more like £15 million in today’s money, with inflation and the cost of contracts these days.
The scheme was run by the local community, in partnership with Forest Research, which is part of the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency, the North York Moors national park, academics from Durham University and Natural England. It was funded by DEFRA—prior to our excellent Minister’s tenure but very important funding nevertheless; perhaps the hon. Lady might recognise that some moneys have been committed to these kinds of projects—but also local authorities, landowners including the Duchy of Lancaster and the community itself. The project was chaired by Jeremy Walker, who has great knowledge of these issues, and it was delivered for £4 million, rather than the £10 million or £15 million it would be in today’s money. It was a completely new, pioneer scheme; I know the Minister is very keen to see these pioneer areas and pioneer schemes.
One simple question is whether it worked. The jury is still out; the scheme was completed only in 2014-15, but we saw significant rainfall in 2015. It was analysed by the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency and the partnership to see if it actually worked. They looked at not just the rainfall but its intensity and how wet or dry the land was before the rain came. The hon. Lady pointed to the fact that many houses downstream in York were flooded on Boxing day 2015. That also happened in my constituency—in Malton particularly, but also in some smaller villages. However, Pickering did not flood, despite there being similar conditions to previous floods in 2008 and 2009. The research showed that the intensity—the peak flows—were reduced by about 15% to 20% because of those attenuation measures. The researchers are clever academics.
These are very complex schemes; they are not simple schemes to design and implement. The staging of the water flow is critical to making them work. With a high degree of certainty, it was established that that scheme worked; in fact, the comment was “better than expected.” Beck Isle, which is a small area of Pickering and one of those areas that floods every time there is a flood, saw no flooding of any properties, although the flooding came very close to homes. The dams I talked about earlier impeded the flows, which then pushed back into the backwaters behind and forced the waters out of the banks and into those riverside areas where trees had been planted. Of course, the trees then take up the water and make it less likely to push downstream.
About 50% of the reduction in peak flows was down to natural flood management measures and about 50% was due to flood storage, so the measures have been a real success. One could say, “Okay, that’s great, thank you very much. Let’s move on to Cumbria or Calder Valley or some other part of the country”, but I want the Minister to think of something other than that. There are additional measures that would make perfect sense at this point in time, such as gathering data, which the hon. Lady mentioned. That is one of the key things that we could do now to reinforce and multiply the effects of these measures.
The Yorkshire Derwent Partnership has been formed and, again, is chaired by the excellent Jeremy Walker, who has great knowledge of these areas. It is a catchment-wide project—2,000 sq km across that catchment. The Minister can straight away use that knowledge and experience. It has ready-to-go projects and three key things that it would like to do. It would like to gather data to see the effects of the projects, particularly when they are brought together across a catchment; the multiplier effect could be profound. There are also more measures for other communities.
Some of the beautiful places in my constituency, including Helmsley, Sinnington and Thornton Dale, which are stunning, chocolate-box villages, also suffer from these issues. Another project could be done on Thornton beck that would help Thornton Dale and across that whole catchment area. As the hon. Lady mentioned, such approaches have wider benefits. They do not just prevent flooding but create new habitats, benefit wildlife and improve water quality and management, and they still allow the public to access these beautiful areas.
The Department has allocated £15 million for slow the flow schemes in pioneer areas. I argue on behalf of the Yorkshire Derwent Partnership that the Derwent catchment is unique. It already has two sub-catchment areas with natural flood management projects that are working now. We could multiply those to see how they work, create more data and inform the debate so that such projects can be rolled out across the country where there are similar conditions.
All this can be done for only £175,000. A lot of money has been allocated, but I understand that there is about £1 million still to be allocated. The Environment Agency has the details of the Yorkshire Derwent Partnership’s proposal. Of course, lots of other proposals certainly deserve consideration. I would be neglecting my duties if I did not say that we also need more conventional flood attenuation measures such as dredging—our farmers really want me to say that word—but £175,000 would make a phenomenal difference to my area and the whole catchment area, and I believe that the work would be of national significance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for securing this debate on a topic in which I think most of us are interested. I heard on Radio 4 this morning that climate change is only going to get worse. I do not know how far north other hon. Members go, but my north is certainly a wee bit further than theirs. I look forward to addressing a topic that is dear to everyone’s hearts.
The hon. Lady made a particularly interesting comment about the £49,000 a year that is required to fund research to help resolve a problem. By anybody’s standards, that is a pitiful amount to find. If that research would help to resolve a problem, the Government should, without any doubt whatever, be able to find that money.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. She is a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention, which I chair, and I am always impressed by her knowledge of and passion for her area and the wider field. I commend her for everything she does. As chair of the APPG, I had plans to visit some areas, but unfortunately a general election has come along in the middle of those plans. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) painted a picture of Pickering as a place of modern art, so if we are both re-elected, I will take the opportunity to visit that area, too.
Flooding is the UK’s predominant natural hazard, and a significant increase in properties at risk is projected in the years to come. As we all know, flooding is rarely good business. For small and medium-sized enterprises, it is sometimes a matter of survival. I learned that all too well as a councillor in Falkirk. When the River Carron is in spate, it is the second fastest flowing river in Scotland and, I assume, in the UK. During that time, I found myself helping people and businesses affected by flash flooding and saw first hand the disruption that was caused to traffic and the community.
Getting involved in finding a solution opened my eyes to the value of preventive measures. There is no doubt that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Mitigation measures such as weirs, widening and increasing the height of bridges, and some hard defences are all needed, and mostly they are planned under the area’s flood risk management strategy. We also introduced fish ladders and a mini-hydro project, which are starting to bring additional benefits to the community. To emphasise what the hon. Member for York Central said, once one person is brought in, that seems to attract another. Groups follow, and are motivated by other people’s initiatives, including the one I am describing.
As chair of the all-party group on flood prevention and a member of the EAC, I took it upon myself recently to visit various areas—Tadcaster, Leeds, Ballater, Newton Stewart and Hoy—and began to put together, to present to the Minister, the evidence about small and medium-sized enterprises and how they are affected. I understand that a lot of good work has been done in Calder Valley. The community is extremely resilient, but there is still a continuing problem for small and medium-sized enterprises. I believe that insurance brokers there formed their own insurance funding, to help to cover such enterprises that could no longer afford to insure their businesses and properties, or, indeed, the excess amounts given to them.
I have heard people identify the need for better catchment level co-ordination between the bodies responsible for flood management in England and I have had an insight, from seeing and hearing things at first hand, into the willingness of communities to take part in flood risk management; but I have also heard their frustration, and I have heard about the reluctance of the Environment Agency, local authorities and other agencies to work with those local groups.
A water body’s catchment is the entire geographical area drained by that water body and its tributaries. Since the system is all connected, flood risk in a given part of the catchment area will be heavily influenced by what is happening above it in the catchment. Traditional flood management has focused on building hard defences and of course, as I have said, they are needed; but upper catchment management treats the catchment area as a single system, and it is vital to use natural flood management measures to slow the flow of water towards vulnerable areas. The approaches complement each other. Slowing the flow of water decreases pressures on hard defences and, most importantly, reduces the maintenance costs and the risk of failure of those already established flood defences.
Natural flood management has already been a lifeline for communities such as Pickering in Yorkshire that are too small for hard defences to be cost-effective. Such measures can have additional benefits, as has been said—trapping sediment and agricultural pollution and providing human amenities such as parklands and habitats for wildlife, including game.
The use of natural flood management at catchment scale is still in its infancy, and measuring the effects of a given flood management measure across something as hydrologically complex as a large catchment is difficult. I am certain that that fact is realised by those employed in the industry. There are risks as well as opportunities. As far as I know there is no conclusive evidence that natural flood management can be used at a catchment scale to reduce flood risk.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point; does he agree that while hard flood defences are important we must remember that that is only moving the problem further downstream? A number of villages in my constituency, such as Acaster Malbis and Naburn, south of York, support the flood defences in York; but ultimately those only move the water downstream and move the problem elsewhere. That is why upper catchment is so important, and it is why we must look at the whole. That has been well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake).
I could not agree more. It is a great example of how water does not know anything; it just goes where it has to go and there is no doubt that we need to think about how to manage the problem.
As I have said, there is no conclusive evidence that natural flood management can be used at catchment scale to reduce flood risk; if water storage capacity is added in the wrong place it, too, can increase rather than decrease the risk of flooding, so it must be considered very carefully. That is all the more reason for proper research and funding. There is a pressing need for research and projects—I know that there are projects under way around the country—but we must be careful that that is not used as an excuse for inaction. Natural flood management options have already been shown to be cost-effective management tools for managing localised flood risk in pilot projects such as the one carried out in Pickering, but even in the absence of catchment-scale flood risk reductions, it would make sense to identify areas where there is an opportunity to use NFM on a smaller scale, or where it might itself increase flood risk.
Catchment-level maps of natural flood management opportunities and risks are maintained in Scotland as part of the indicative flood maps provided by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. As far as I am aware, in England, opportunities for natural flood management have been mapped only for a few catchment areas in Yorkshire and Cumbria. The Environment Agency has produced detailed maps of England showing where there is potential to restore different types of wetland, but not where that might impact on flood risk, which is an important point to remember.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the mapping that the Environment Agency has carried out. It is incredibly frustrated that it cannot get on with putting the schemes in place and with getting the research to show the best mechanisms for slowing the flow. Does that not make a further point about another agency that would benefit from the research by the University of York?
Once again, I agree with the hon. Lady. At the last APPG meeting, we could hear that there is an urgency for all people to work together. One of the points emerging, every time we go to a place, is that no one seems able to take a lead. Everyone is waiting on someone else to do it. It is not a lot of money in the scale of things, and it will cost an awful lot more not to do it than to do it—so I absolutely, totally agree.
We also hear the argument that NFM might not provide protection against the most extreme rainfall events. Those arguments do not seem to take it into account that by taking pressure off hard defences downstream, NFM could decrease the risk that those defences might fail, and reduce their maintenance costs.
The cost of installing and maintaining the measures is very low compared with traditional flood defences. Most use natural materials obtained on site and are easily implemented by landowners or volunteers. If anyone takes some time to look at work that has been carried out, they would be impressed by how little it takes to make these things happen.
For example, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, the local authority designed and implemented a NFM scheme that was credited with sparing the town from flooding in March 2016. The total cost so far has been circa £215,000. Previous flooding in 2007 affected 200 properties. A reservoir built in 2011 to enhance the protection of 350 properties in Gloucester cost £1.5 million. I think that makes the point clearly.
The Government announced in the autumn statement that they will invest £15 million in natural flood management in England, yet they are evasive about its allocation. Thanks to investigations undertaken by Friends of the Earth, we know that before the announcement was made, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was commissioned by the EA to draw up plans for £20 million worth of NFM projects. When pressed about its allocation, the then Secretary of State would only say that the money would be used to test the methods. Given that large studies into the effectiveness of NFM are already under way, it seems to me that the Government need to give communities in flood-prone areas assurance that the money will be spent on implementing NFM, rather than on projects for consultants.
We have probably all heard of the Chinese saying that the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago, and the second best time is today. Flood Re will run for roughly another 23 years. Either we implement a programme of action, or many of the 350,000 properties eligible for Flood Re will become uninsurable. Given the time that trees and wetlands need to become established, the implementation of upper catchment management has to be made a priority if it is to play a role in meeting that need. I urge the Minister to act urgently.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who is also an extremely able former shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She has done well in securing such an important debate. Both she and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) have shown a great talent for making a pitch, which any salesman would be rightly proud of.
My hon. Friend has highlighted how the lives of families and business people in the beautiful and historical city of York have still not returned to normal after Boxing day 2015, and she made an in-depth case for the Government to support the research by the University of York to improve moorland management.
I do not want to repeat all that my hon. Friend has said, as she spoke with her usual eloquence and passion, and laid out the evidence to back up her argument very clearly; I would say the same of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. Surely, therefore, the Minister can see that the case presented by my hon. Friend makes sense, especially as the Government have already invested £l million to fund the first phase of the research. I am confident that the Minister can make a case to her Department and the Treasury, particularly because there are so many benefits to be had from the study, perhaps most importantly and immediately for the people of York and the businesses based in that great city.
Following their national flood resilience review, the Government said their 25-year environmental plan would introduce catchment measures to minimise flooding. That was seven months ago. Similarly, in response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report, “Future flood prevention”, which was published last November, the Government said they supported a catchment approach, alongside engineered defences, and that such an approach would be at the heart of their 25-year plan. The Government also agreed that is important to build up more evidence to support the catchment-based approach.
Unfortunately, here we are at the end of this Parliament and we are still waiting to see the 25-year plan, which is of little comfort to those who live in areas prone to flooding and who have to face flooding on a regular basis. I personally have never had to face flooding, but I know people whose homes have been flooded, so I know how important it is to get work done in the right way at the right time to alleviate flooding and mitigate its impact. It is of great importance.
Can the Minister say what progress has been made on the Cumbria Pioneer project, which the Government believe will be an important step in understanding the value of catchment management in larger catchment areas, as well as influencing the development of good practice and innovative solutions? Will those solutions include taking local knowledge into account, which would prove invaluable as well as helping to build the confidence of communities, who often feel that the value of their experience of flooding is not taken fully into account?
At the end of this Parliament, I hope that the Minister can give Members and the public more reassurance than has been the case hitherto, especially as the Government have failed to take forward any key recommendations from the EFRA Committee’s report.
In an earlier debate, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who unfortunately cannot be here today to respond to this debate on behalf of Labour, said that
“we need to look at the whole river catchment.”
She also said that we need some quick fixes to reassure “nervous” communities, as well as investing in long-term solutions. In addition, she said:
“we need to stop talking about flood prevention. We cannot prevent flooding, but we can manage it and make our communities properly resilient.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2017; Vol. 622, c. 71.]
No one could fail to agree with that and as this is the last Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament, perhaps a good parting gesture from this Government would be for the Minister to agree to the request from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central. I am sure that the Minister will answer my suggestion favourably and I now await her response with eager anticipation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, in what will be the last debate in Westminster Hall in this Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this debate on upper catchment management, and I thank those Members who have joined us today in what is a busy week individually and for Parliament.
I am aware of the impact that flooding can have on a community, as it has happened in my constituency of Suffolk Coastal. I am absolutely committed to reducing the threat of flooding, as well as ensuring that we continue to improve our environment as a whole. The Government have played a key role in improving protection for those at flood risk. By committing to invest £2.5 billion by 2021, we will better protect the country from flooding. That money will go to more than 1,500 flood defence schemes to protect more than 300,000 homes. We will also increase maintenance spending in real terms to more than £1 billion.
The key change from which local communities have benefited is that we set out a six-year funded plan that will help the Environment Agency to efficiently and properly draw up schemes, rather than having the hand-to-mouth existence caused by annual budgets, which lend themselves to a stop-start approach. York, like many other places, suffered greatly in the 2015-16 floods, which as we all know were somewhat caused by record rainfall that winter. The hon. Lady will be aware that 627 properties were flooded in York alone. The Government made an additional £175 million available to support the worst-affected areas.
York itself received £45 million of that, which will better protect 2,000 properties with ongoing schemes. A further £35 million each is going to Leeds and the Calder valley. Cumbria received £33 million. The York five-year plan, which was published last December, sets out how the investment will build new defences and investigate new ways to reduce flooding in the city and surrounding area, giving priority to areas of the city that currently do not benefit from formal defences. The hon. Lady will be aware of the further £19.4 million being invested to upgrade the Foss barrier. By December 2017, construction will be complete and the barrier will be able to pump flood flows in excess of the record level experienced on Boxing day, thus protecting the heart of York.
Beyond the current plan for the city, and understandably after the general election, the Environment Agency will consult with stakeholders on the first stage of the York long-term plan, which will identify catchment measures to reduce flood risk in the city. Integrated catchment management is integral to our ambitions for the future of our environment, and we remain committed to holistic planning for our water to maximise benefits to people, wildlife and the economy. There is a consensus around the importance of conserving upland moorland habitats for all the benefits they bring, which include: the filtering of an estimated 70% of our drinking water, storing significant amounts of carbon and providing an excellent habitat for grouse and other wildlife.
The hon. Lady referred to the York University study. She will be aware that DEFRA has invested nearly £1 million in that research already, but following a rigorous prioritisation process, the Department will not be funding a second stage of the project. She will be aware that the learnings of the report will be out later this year, and there may be an opportunity to take lessons from that, but nevertheless, peatland restoration continues to be a priority. As announced earlier this month, DEFRA will be investing £10 million into peatland restoration projects over the next five years, recognising their importance.
I have sat down with the academics on this research. Given that the Government have already invested £1 million in the first part of the research and that to complete this groundbreaking research comes at a very small cost of £49,000 a year—as compared with the huge figure of £2.5 billion that the Minister has talked about—surely that investment is worth making. I ask her to go and look at that decision again, for the sake of having a really solid evidence base for policy making.
As it stands today, I will not be looking at the matter again. I can assure the hon. Lady that the decision went through a rigorous process within the Department, and the decision was made by appropriately qualified officials. She will recognise that we will continue to invest in peatlands and continue to work on moor owners and stakeholders to further improve practices and conditions.
Catchment management is not restricted to the uplands. Enabling whole catchment management requires bringing together local government, internal drainage boards, landowners, third-sector organisations and communities to identify the issues and solutions that provide the maximum opportunities to manage and mitigate water in that catchment to the benefit of residents, businesses and wildlife. We are proactive in supporting local decision makers in catchments to ensure a co-ordinated approach in a catchment, including for water quality, supply and flood management. We intend to strengthen focus on integrated catchment level planning as we prepare for the next cycles of river basin and flood risk management planning. There are already very good examples of partners coming together to consider whole catchment management, some of which we have heard about today, including the work of the flood action groups and the catchment partnerships around the country, which encourage all those who use and depend on water to share in its stewardship.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) asked about catchment partnerships. Last month, we announced a £6.3 million investment this year to continue to facilitate and build capacity in catchment partnerships and to fund projects focused on meeting local priorities, building partnership working and securing multiple benefits, consistent with integrated water management.
Actions under the Cumbria and Calderdale flood action plans, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) referred—I visited him in Mytholmroyd to see some of the progress on them—and which were published last year, include an integrated approach to managing catchment areas. Both areas are now considering how those flood plans can be incorporated into a wider catchment-based approach that considers not just flooding, but water quality, supply and environmental improvements. Of course, we must recognise that each catchment is different, so the solutions will be tailored to each area. We need to encourage more areas to take similar approaches. The Pioneer project we have started in Cumbria will explore that approach, and its learnings will be shared with others, but it is still too early to share any of those learnings.
Natural flood management can play an important role in the management of our catchments, and can have multiple benefits in encouraging biodiversity, habitat creation and improvements to water quality. In York and Yorkshire, the Environment Agency has already worked with consultants to model what and where NFM measures could be introduced into the Foss catchment upstream of York, and in Cumbria the Environment Agency has worked with the Rivers Trust and JBA to model potential natural flood management schemes across four catchments.
Between 2009 and 2015, we invested £4.1 million at Pickering in North Yorkshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has already referred to that. We also invested money in Holnicote in Somerset and Upper Derwent in Derbyshire. Those projects found that the measures could be effective in helping to manage flood risk when carefully incorporated into a wider suite of catchment measures.
The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) asked about the natural flood management projects. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced £15 million of funding for projects across England, £1 million of which has been ring-fenced as a competitive fund for local organisations to bid for. I ensured we set out that £1 million, as it was requested by some members of the National Flood Forum, who wanted the opportunity to have a much wider range of smaller-scale projects. I have also agreed that business cases should be developed for a number of projects across the country, including in Yorkshire and Cumbria, but I cannot give further details of the locations due to purdah. I note the pitch of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for a Yorkshire and Derwent partnership. I am sure that will be carefully considered, as there is a small amount of money—I am not sure there is £175,000 left, but we will see.
I established the principles and chose the business cases we wanted to progress because I felt that we need schemes of different sizes that can be achieved at a good pace, so that we can gather evidence and take forward the learnings about the benefits of natural flood management in different catchment landscapes. I specifically ruled out some projects that would not be able to start for a few years’ time. We want natural flood management solutions to be fairly assessed and supported where they offer a viable way of reducing the damaging impact of flooding. However, we cannot expect that such measures alone will offer protection in areas of the greatest risk or in the face of the most significant flood events, so good integrated catchment management will consider those, along with more traditional flood protection schemes, as the Environment Agency already does in its capital programme.
The need to gather more data and evidence has been mentioned. The Oxford Martin School recently published a restatement of evidence, which looked at previous research and reviewed findings. It reached the conclusion that NFM can provide support in up to 100 sq km of smaller floods, but more research is needed into the impact on larger floods. The Natural Environment Research Council has provided £4 million of further research for natural flood management, and the Environment Agency and DEFRA are developing a directory of evidence and maps to support future projects.
The hon. Member for York Central invited me to visit York. I am certain that I will take her up on that offer in the next six weeks or will certainly be in Yorkshire. This is an important issue, and I am proud that it is our Government who have invested those funds, which will better protect more than 2,000 properties. I will be making clear which particular Government provided that.
When the Minister visits Yorkshire, will she also take the opportunity to come to the jewel in the crown of North Yorkshire—the North York Moors and Pickering—to look at the scheme there and what further measures we might put in place to finish the job?
My hon. Friend tempts me. I know that his part of Yorkshire is one of the most beautiful parts of our wonderful British Isles. However, I am sure he recognises that I will have to prioritise my time in the next few weeks. If I am lucky enough to be re-elected to this House and reappointed to this role, I am sure that at some point I will be able to do that. I thought he had already grabbed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to visit at some point; he cannot be too greedy.
This has been a very useful opportunity to discuss the benefits of upper catchment management. I am confident that the House agrees that by working closely together across catchments we can make significant improvements. The Government have said that we want to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Strong local integrated catchment management can be a way to help to achieve that ambition.
It is a shame that that ambition will not be met, by the early calling of the general election. Clearly we want to ensure that there is a strong evidence base. The Minister talks about eye-watering sums. To say that we should not go ahead and build a strong evidence base to ensure that money is spent wisely is something I find deeply concerning, especially as she did not state the criteria she was looking at.
The world outside is saying that this research is so groundbreaking that they want to see it continue. That is why we have even seen organisations such as the Moorland Association committing £100,000 to the research. The cost of the research has been reduced. In the light of that reduced cost to the Minister’s Department, I want to know whether she would reconsider the opportunity to build a sound evidence base through a unique piece of research on catchment management, including biodiversity and soil, water and air quality. It could make such a significant difference for such a small spend.
I cannot comprehend not doing so, and nor will my constituents. I have to say that I did not invite the Minister to my constituency. I do not believe she would be very welcome there, because she is not putting funding into an issue that has turned out to be catastrophic for them. I know from meeting my constituents that they really want this research to go ahead.
Rather than being so stubborn, why does the Minister not go back and look at the research? She did not talk about the detail of the research, so I am not even convinced that she has read it. [Interruption.] Well, it does not seem, from her gestures, that she has looked at the detail of the research, which is negligent on her part. The research is powerful and says how important it is that we carry out this work. Given what flooding has cost my constituents personally, let alone financially, doing a bit of research to build an evidence base for policy making will make a difference.
When we are talking about looking to the future and building a sound evidence base, this academic research—[Interruption.] I am trying to concentrate on what I am saying, but the Minister seems to want to mutter her way through my concluding remarks. The reality is that we need to ensure investment is put into building a strong evidence base.
The Minister says that the Government have invested, but the academics—who, with respect, know their field—are saying that this research is absolutely crucial. They are world leaders in their work. It is crucial that we listen to the experts and ensure that we see this research through to a conclusion.
Public money to the tune of £1 million has been spent on the first phase of the research. To not see it through to the final phases is, some could say, a waste of public money. I ask the Minister once more to take back to her Department the request to look again at funding this research at a reduced sum, due to the generous contributions of other institutions, including the Stockholm Environment Institute, which see how crucial the research is for addressing flooding in our nation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered upper catchment management.