Wednesday 5 July 2017
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered road infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I am conscious that many right hon. and hon. Members are in the room; I shall try to give way as much as I can and leave time for other Members to make speeches.
It is somewhat fortuitous that this debate is taking place today. According to the front page of The Times—I am sure it can, as ever, be believed—today is the day when the transport investment strategy for the next decade is to be announced, which will include a £1 billion per year fund to allow local authorities to bid for bypass projects. Can I be the first hon. Member in this House to make an oral application to the Roads Minister—for bypasses for Little Common, off the A259, and for Hurst Green, off the A21? I am sure I will not be the last applicant today.
Both those roads are busy, single-lane A roads that cause congestion and danger through two villages in East Sussex. They have the misfortune to be managed by Highways England. If the Roads Minister came and visited both roads—he would be absolutely welcome—he might be surprised that they are part of the Highways England portfolio. The reason is that they are deemed to be trunk roads, off the A27 and M25 respectively. The villages badly need to be bypassed, but Highways England naturally focuses its resources on the motorway or dual carriageway network within its portfolio.
As my colleagues here today will be aware, there are only 11 km of dual carriageway in the entire county of East Sussex. My ask is that the new fund should be accessible for local authorities to deliver bypasses, even if that bypass would be off a Highways England road. It is a misfortune for the two roads that I mentioned that they are controlled by Highways England—it is illogical—but my concern is that the new, £1 billion fund is available only to local authority-managed roads. That would be an obstacle for those two roads. I ask the Roads Minister that the issue of qualification should be type of road, rather than the entity managing it.
The A21 is a trunk road that runs from the M25 through Kent, then through East Sussex and down to the coastal town of Hastings. Highways England is continuing the dualling from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells in Kent, but it thereafter turns to single file when it enters East Sussex—a bit of discrimination, I would say, that benefits Kent. Some miles further on, the road goes through the heart of the village of Hurst Green in my constituency. In 2014, the A21 was deemed by the Road Safety Foundation as the most dangerous road in the UK—so much so that one section of dual carriageway that we do have in East Sussex has been closed and coned off as a single carriageway due to the dangers of speeding.
A bypass for Hurst Green was in the pipeline and homes were purchased by Highways England, but it was postponed in the 2010 spending review. Now those homes are being resold. Last year, Highways England announced that it would introduce average speed limits on to the A21, from the end of the new works at Tunbridge Wells all the way down to Hastings. Although that would not improve or remove the congestion, or decrease travel times, it would perhaps do something about the appalling safety record.
The villagers and I were therefore dismayed to find out last year that Highways England had decided that that work would not be forthcoming and that better options are available. None of those options has been given to us. I am afraid it just compounds our issue in East Sussex: that Highways England does not appear interested in our road network.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a dual carriageway where one lane is closed off because of speeding. Does he have any views on average speed cameras, which the Scottish Government have installed on some roads in Scotland? They meet a bit of resistance from drivers but have been proven to make roads safer and they control speeding on those roads.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. The project put forward by Highways England was to have average speed cameras all the way down through the village—there is a primary school in the heart of the village. The A21 was modelled on a road in Scotland—it may be the one he referred to—which apparently reduced the traffic accident rate by 80%. We were very excited to copy that fine example from Scotland, so were dismayed when the scheme was cancelled. I very much take the point and I hope Highways England will do so as well.
My second example is the A259. Again, that road is managed by Highways England, unfortunately for us. It runs along the Sussex coast and takes over from the A27, which itself is in bad need of dualling, as championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and others. As the A259 approaches Bexhill at a village called Little Common, it acts as a dangerous bottleneck. Again, the village was due to be bypassed, as part of the Highways England south coast trunk road, which was due to come from Devon all the way to Dover and give us a much better transport system. That was scrapped in 2001.
Fortunately, a new link road was built by East Sussex County Council and our local enterprise partnership, with Government funding, and has opened between Bexhill and Hastings. It opened last year and has delivered not just improved journey times, but 50,000 square feet of land for a business park and 2,000 new homes—it is as much a business road as a transport system.
East Sussex County Council and our local enterprise partnership are now building a second road off that new link road, so we are effectively now two-thirds through bypassing a town of 40,000 residents. The last remaining section is for a bypass around the remainder of Little Common, which would deliver a bypass for the entirety of Bexhill and make it easier for the Sussex coastal towns to join up.
I have asked my local authorities and the local enterprise partnership to consider whether the housing infrastructure fund—the £20 billion fund announced by the Chancellor last year—could be tapped for Hurst Green and Little Common. The issue is that, having delivered the link road with its room for 2,000 houses, the local authorities rightly feel that they have already delivered housing and do not need any further. I will certainly be asking them to apply for the new bypass fund, but we first need clarity from the Roads Minister that they will be allowed to apply, given that the road is managed by Highways England.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On housing, would he agree that particular consideration needs to be given to key arterial routes that link major motorways, such as the A5 in my constituency, which connects the M69, M1 and M42? It is already under huge pressure, and will be even more so due to proposed housing and the development of High Speed 2.
I agree. Perhaps my hon. Friend will agree with me on some of the points that I will come on to talk about with respect to Highways England and some of the problems that many hon. Members may have had in facing that agency.
At the A21 reference group, which I sit on with my right hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), we asked Highways England representatives what we could do to dual the rest of the A21 all the way down to Hastings: how we could commission an economic study and what boxes that study would need to tick in order to meet Highways England’s programme. I am afraid to say that the Highways England reps before us displayed a lack of dynamism and a “no can do” attitude, which is caused, in my view, by the fact that it has no competition on its strategic road network programme for building.
The link road that I described was delivered by a small outfit called Sea Change, in conjunction with the county and our local enterprise partnership. They were able to deliver that road to time and cost. I ask the Roads Minister whether it is possible to let counties, LEPs and their agencies put tenders together to bid for Highways England- managed roads. I put that proposal to the chief executive of Highways England during a sitting of the Transport Committee, on which I sit, and he claimed he is confident that Highways England cannot be beaten on value for money. Let us put that to the test and allow others to tender for the work.
Time does not allow me to speak for much longer, because I want to let others in, but I want to open up the debate by talking about a few more points. This is about not just building more roads, but ensuring that the roads we currently have are moving for traffic. To that end, I would like traffic enforcement provisions to be moved from the police to the local authority for moving traffic offences. I would also like there to be some form of compulsion to ensure that local authorities that still rely on the police to enforce parking on the highways take responsibility for that. There are only 15 remaining, and two of those districts are in my authority. As a result, it is a free-for-all when it comes to parking and blocking up space.
For the visually impaired—I have some sympathy, having undertaken a guide dogs test in a blindfold—we have to ensure that it is an offence to park on the kerb outside London, as it is inside London. We have to change the situation. I would also like new roads and existing roads to encourage cycling. London does a great deal for cyclists, and I would like that practice to be adopted throughout the country. I will finish my speech now to allow others to make their own cases.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I am minded to put a limit of five minutes on speeches. I am not going to do that at this stage; I am just going to ask people to exercise some self-denial, bearing in mind that 13 or 14 Members want to speak. I would be grateful if Members kept standing if they wish to contribute to the debate.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate. We heard about the need for improvements to the A21 and the A259. Given that the road investment strategy is reaching a critical phase, this is a timely discussion.
Improving road infrastructure is a priority for many of our constituents. I was proud to be part of a cross-party campaign to secure the widening of the A453—the main trunk route between Nottingham and the west midlands. The project has improved the lives of thousands of my constituents.
I want to focus on two of the immediate issues confronting the Department for Transport: the delivery of the road investment strategy and the condition of local roads. The investment strategy was launched to significant fanfare. More than £15 billion was promised for investment in motorways and major A roads. Unfortunately, two years on, the progress report is decidedly mixed. Highways England is failing to meet its target for maintaining road conditions, as the Office of Rail and Road warned in February. The pledge to resurface 80% of the strategic road network, which was so widely trumpeted, is also set to be missed. I hope the Minister will update hon. Members on what the actual figure is likely to be.
Most seriously, the delivery of new capital investment schemes worth £11 billion is also in doubt. Many hon. Members might be familiar with Network Rail’s current problems. Major projects were committed to at an early stage in their development when there was a limited understanding of their costs and deliverability. I am concerned that a similar story looks to be playing out on our roads. In the ORR’s February update on capital planning, the regulator warned that there are significant differences between the initial cost forecasts and the latest estimates, and that the investment strategy
“is not fully demonstrated to be affordable”.
There is currently an £800 million gap in Highways England’s capital works budget, on top of the £140 million of extra funding that the Department granted last year. Those overruns are at least partly due to headline-grabbing claims taking precedence over realistic pledges. I therefore suggest that those who are dusting down their bids for a bypass do not start to celebrate just yet.
Internal Highways England minutes that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act blamed the cost increase on a
“lack of focus on affordability in an environment where an emphasis has been placed on the imperative to deliver as quickly as possible”.
Given that 60 projects—more than half the total—are due to begin construction in the final year of the road investment period, there will be an exceptional strain on Highways England and external contractors. The regulator said that there is “limited evidence” that the construction timetable is “deliverable or efficient”. That could have a knock-on effect on investment in the roads investment strategy, too, so we need to look at which projects are priorities within the strategy.
Prioritisation is very important, but, moving away from Highways England, does the hon. Lady agree that local authorities find it difficult to allocate funds to produce feasibility studies and business cases to move projects forward? There has been a problem in my constituency with moving forward the York outer northern ring road, which is regularly congested—many constituents call it a car park. Does the hon. Lady agree that if the bypass fund is properly targeted, it might allow local authorities to move some of those long-term projects forward?
I will come on to the role of local authorities, but there needs to be certainty about costs and affordability.
To return to the national network, there was a clear case for ending spending on removing the hard shoulder from more than 500 motorway lane miles. Those proposals were taken forward despite an inadequate evidence base, safety fears, concerns from the emergency services, and drivers’ unwillingness to use the former hard shoulder lane, as evidenced by Atkins’ recent review, which the Department commissioned.
It was reported last week that the Transport Secretary has ordered changes to the roll-out of the scheme, including the fitting of more refuge areas. Will the Minister confirm that those reports are accurate? If so, will there be a formal statement to the House? What is the expected cost of those changes? The Transport Committee raised that issue and suggested that
“the proposed schemes be replaced by schemes based on the M42 Active Traffic Management design.”
It may be slow, but we know it will be safer.
The priority for many drivers is the fixing of damaged local roads, not the strategic network. Potholes do not just impair the quality of driving, extend journey times and damage vehicles; they are a real safety risk for drivers and cyclists. Everyone is a road user, so tackling the poor condition of our local roads should be a national priority.
It is projected that by 2020 the spending on roads will be £86 per head, whereas the spending on cycling will be reduced to just 72p per head. Does my hon. Friend think that, when we are talking about road infrastructure, we should include cycling, which the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned?
My hon. Friend is a doughty advocate for cyclists. Of course, when planning investment in our roads, we should consider the needs of all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.
According to the Department’s own data, spending on routine maintenance has fallen by 30% in real terms since 2010, and the situation is set to get even worse. We have to consider the amount of funding available, especially in the light of the emerging problems on some of Highways England’s projects. It is time for Ministers to look again at whether we have the right mix of national capital spending and local revenue allowances.
I am conscious of time, so I will just mention a couple of things. This is not just about spending more; it is about being smarter—that relates to the point made by the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). With annualised budgets, councils are forced to adopt a rather limited patch-and-mend approach, with the result that the busiest roads often receive temporary repairs over and over again. In the longer term, that is a highly inefficient approach to maintenance. The Department should look at the case for granting local authorities their highways budget up front for a period of five years, which would enable the entire resurfacing of the worst affected roads. It should not be in the business of writing blank cheques, but that mechanism could allow longer-term planning to take place.
Before I finish, I will say a quick word about suicide prevention, which has perhaps not received widespread attention but which should be prominent on the Department’s agenda. Obviously, every death is a private tragedy, and the recovery stage can be a traumatic process for staff. With about 1,000 suicide attempts on the strategic road network every year, we urgently need a national road suicide prevention strategy. We know from the railways that we can be effective and make a difference, but the best time to incorporate changes into new infrastructure is at the design stage. The Highways England health and safety five-year plan commits the organisation to establishing a suicide prevention group and developing an action plan by March 2018, but that is three years into the investment strategy. That is not good enough and I urge the Minister to prioritise the issue and to instruct Highways England to bring the work forward.
Many challenges confront road infrastructure in this Parliament, and on some important points the Department needs to change course. I appreciate that many hon. Members are waiting to speak, but I hope the Minister will address the points I have raised when he replies to the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on initiating this debate.
I will talk about the A27, which runs through my constituency. It was envisaged as a coastal highway although, as anyone who has travelled along it knows, it is too often a coastal car park. Stretches of dual carriageway give way to very congested spots that cause severe delays. Every single day, 25,000 traffic movements, most of them not local, pass through the historic town of Arundel, with severe delays every morning and afternoon. That exacts a price from the local economy in the relatively deprived areas of West Sussex—there are some, in fact—and places such as Littlehampton need better transport infrastructure. Sussex Enterprise estimates that the cost to the local economy of poor infrastructure links, including a poor rail service, is £2 billion a year, so there is certainly an economic case for upgrading the A27. There is also, however, an environmental case, and that is important.
The consequence of traffic queuing for long periods at Arundel is of course air pollution. Furthermore, people seek to avoid the congestion in Arundel either by rat-running through the historic town itself, which makes for high volumes of traffic there—so often the story up and down the country is that towns and villages suffer as a consequence of delays and of people seeking to avoid those delays—or by making the south downs suffer. In order to get from east to west, people will go above Arundel, driving up through the south downs.
The South Downs national park is therefore affected, and so are its villages and adjacent villages. Storrington, just above the national park, has some of the worst air quality in the whole of south-east England, caused by queuing traffic. It is important to weigh claims that the construction of a much needed bypass at Arundel might damage the environment against the environmental damage caused by queuing traffic and traffic passing through the national park.
On one route, an Arundel bypass would have to pass through a short section of the South Downs national park, but the A27 already passes through extensive parts of the national park, including at Arundel. The part of the park in question, right at the bottom of it, is not chalk downland but replanted woodland. My contention, which I hope will be borne out, is that there will be a net environmental gain from construction of the bypass, even though a small section of the national park would be passed through; that could be mitigated.
The environment could even be enhanced—I have made this case before, although my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I welcome to his place, may not have heard it—if we constructed a beautiful bridge across the river Arun. My hon. Friend is learned and erudite, and I am sure travels through France extensively, so he will know that the French are very good at constructing beautiful infrastructure. The Millau viaduct over the Tarn gorge was controversial when first proposed, but is now a sensation and a sight in its own right. Designed by a British architect, it is considered to enhance the environment and not to despoil it.
The former Roads Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who is still a Minister of State in the Department, has spoken about the importance of beauty in construction. If we ensure that schemes will be attractive, we could deal with much of the public opposition that can sometimes find its way into debates about such projects.
That said, it is important for the Minister to know that there is strong local support for an Arundel bypass—there always has been, since it was first planned more than three decades ago. On the preferred route, which is now the starting point for a consultation that I will come on to, there was near-universal agreement by all the local authorities. Those authorities remain committed to an Arundel bypass, and it is my judgment as the local Member of Parliament, as it is the judgment of local councillors, that there is overwhelming support for the bypass among the local population. Indeed, that support increases the further away from Arundel one is—but even in Arundel, my judgment is that there is strong public support for the bypass.
In December 2014, when the Government announced that they would invest in an Arundel bypass under the roads programme, we were delighted. That came after the previous Labour Government had shelved the scheme. In conclusion, I simply ask: will the Minister confirm that the public consultation that Highways England is due to hold on the Arundel bypass route will go ahead this summer, or later this year?
Highways England states not only that the scheme will still go ahead, that the cost will be between £100 million and £250 million and that the start date will be before the end of March 2020, but that the public consultation remains subject to agreement with the Secretary of State. I noticed that the list of schemes announced last week by the Department for Transport, although not exclusive, made no mention of the Arundel bypass. I therefore seek the Minister’s assurance that the bypass will still go ahead and that the consultation will be announced this year. I am convinced that this road scheme will benefit the local community, the economy and, crucially, the environment.
Thank you, Mrs Gillan, for calling me to speak in such a broad debate on road infrastructure. I will not make it too broad because in my constituency investment in road infrastructure is a matter for the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government. Montgomeryshire, however, has a very long border with England—Shropshire—and I want to speak specifically about the general principle of how we deal with cross-border road schemes, making reference to two schemes in particular.
Several schemes cross the border between England and Wales, but the two in my constituency are hugely important. The first one that I want to speak about is usually known as the Middletown bypass—you will know it well from your previous responsibilities, Mrs Gillan. It is an 8-mile road between Welshpool and the English border, and the gateway to central Wales. However, it is hopelessly inadequate and a real bottleneck.
The problem is that the cost-benefit analyses are different. The two Governments have to agree for a scheme to go ahead, and the cost-benefit analysis in each of the two countries is different. In Wales it is hugely important that we have access to the market in England, so the cost-benefit analysis in Wales is high and we are keen for the project to go ahead, but of course in England it is not. When I became a Member of the Assembly, then a Member of Parliament, my main interest was for devolution not to have a negative effect on the way in which Britain operates—but it does. In this specific instance, it certainly does.
Two schemes are good examples of this negative effect. The first is the Middletown bypass. It is 90% in Wales and 10% in England, but it cannot go ahead unless the UK Government commit their 10% to a scheme that any cost-benefit analysis would say was not worth while for England. But of course it is hugely worth while, and the scheme would go ahead if we had that agreement between the two Governments. That is absolutely crucial for the way Britain’s economy operates.
The second scheme is the Pant-Llanymynech bypass, for which 90% of the investment would be in north Shropshire and 10% would be in Wales. The case argued locally is often about the environment of the villages of Llanymynech—it is a village, not a town; I do not want to cause any offence—and Pant, and about traffic danger issues, but the key issue for me and for the economy of Wales has always been that the scheme concerns the A483 Manchester to Swansea road, which is a key piece of infrastructure into Wales. Again, the cost-benefit analysis is different on each side.
I conclude with a general point. When the British Government look at investing in roads in England—roads are devolved to Wales and to Scotland—they must look at the benefit to the United Kingdom as well as the benefit just to England. That is absolutely crucial if we are going to make certain that devolution does not have a negative impact, as it currently does, on the two road schemes that I mentioned and on other road schemes between England and Wales. We must look at how such schemes benefit the United Kingdom overall.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on his incredible timing. How he knew that this debate would take place on the same day as the Government’s announcement, I honestly do not know.
Many people want to speak, so I will get straight to the point. There are two main schemes in my constituency about which we are particularly concerned. One concerns the A12, which is the main A road through East Anglia. We sit on the Essex border. The A12 will soon have three lanes from Chelmsford to Colchester. It then gets to our stretch, which is extremely bendy. Our main concern is safety. Roads from villages join the A12, where the speed limit is 70 mph, at extremely short junctions into bends. Those junctions are lethal. I can only presume that the casualty count is not higher because of the caution that local drivers take approaching the junctions, but there is massive anxiety in surrounding villages, and I will look to pursue that issue.
Since it is bypass day, the main scheme that I want to refer to is the Sudbury bypass. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) talked about public support for a scheme that has been around for decades. The Sudbury bypass has been around for many decades. In fact, there has been an outline of the bypass in the local “A to Z” for a long time.
The essence of the issue will be familiar to many hon. Members. The A road goes right through the heart—right through the historic centre—of Sudbury, our main market town, which is full of heavy goods vehicles and all the pollution and impact that that implies. The historic town centre includes Gainsborough’s house, where Thomas Gainsborough was born—a museum that will shortly receive millions of pounds of lottery funding. We are desperate to regenerate our town, but the sheer pressure of HGVs is a problem.
I am pleased to say that Suffolk County Council has brought forward an initial business case for a Sudbury relief road, which it found could lead to a 60% reduction in HGVs and would have a 3:1 cost-benefit ratio in terms of economic gain, but the most important point is the environmental impact, which others have referred to. Our scheme was previously rejected on environmental grounds because, unfortunately, the only way to avoid the town—I am sure this is true of other rural areas—is to go into the countryside to some degree, but I think there is a trade-off. On the streets that the bypass would avoid, nitrogen oxide levels are very high—they are, in effect, illegal. The safe level is 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air; in Cross Street, the main road that we seek to bypass, the level is 59.4 micrograms. That is dangerous and unsafe. I therefore think the environmental argument is now in favour of the relief road, not least because the road would also protect the historic heritage environment of our town, where there are many fine wool town buildings going back hundreds of years.
Unfortunately, Sudbury’s biggest employer, Delphi Diesel Systems, which is a major exporter, has just announced a consultation on the entire closure of its plant, which would lead to the loss of 520 highly skilled jobs. We are obviously worried about that. While we are doing our best to prevent that from happening, we need to think positively about ways to revive the town. We have a strong industrial base that would benefit very much from a new bypass that would mean lorries could avoid the centre of town.
I hope that the Minister will be able to visit and give our schemes due consideration. I welcome this timely debate and the Government’s timely announcement. We all need greater support and, when it comes to relieving congestion in a historic market town, you can’t beat a good bypass.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this debate on today of all days. Who would have thought it?
I shall not detain hon. Members for too long. No doubt they will show no surprise at all that I will spend three minutes unashamedly banging on about the North Devon link road. In the extraordinarily unlikely circumstance that anyone here does not understand the vital importance of the North Devon link road, let me give Members the 20-second lesson. It is the A361 between Tiverton and Barnstaple and onwards to the beautiful North Devon coastline. It links our part of the world with the M5 and the rest of the country. However, we do not see it as North Devon’s only link to the outside world; we see it as the outside world’s only opportunity to visit us.
We therefore need real investment in the North Devon link road. We must ensure that it is fit for purpose. At the moment, it is not. It is single carriageway for about 85% of the distance between Tiverton and Barnstaple—two towns some 30 miles apart. Where it is not single carriageway, it has short stretches of overtaking lanes that merge quickly into the main carriageway with little warning. That leads to risk taking, speeding, dangerous overtaking and, sadly, a high incidence of accidents in which people are killed or seriously injured. Sadly, two summers ago, three people were killed on the link road just a mile or so from my home in North Devon.
We need to change that, but not just because we need holidaymakers to be able to get to North Devon more quickly in August. We need real investment in the North Devon link road because it currently hampers economic investment in our area, which has so much to offer as far as a growing economy is concerned.
We have made real progress. Devon County Council is doing absolutely fantastic work, and we have secured £1.5 million from the Government to carry out detailed planning work, including putting together a comprehensive business case. We are currently in the third phase of a public consultation, with a series of exhibitions—I was at one in South Molton myself less than a fortnight ago—that show what could be done to improve the road. We have a plan. We are, to use the awful phrase, shovel ready. We now need the money. I am not the first and I am sure I will not be the last to say to this Minister—this excellent Minister, this wise Minister, this almost noble Minister, whom it is a pleasure to see here—“Please look at this scheme, because you will get so much bang for your buck if you invest in it.”
Normally, people would not find a cigarette paper—perhaps these days we should say an e-cigarette paper—between me and my good friend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, but it rather suits our purposes in North Devon that it seems that the new £1 billion roads fund announced today will be targeted at roads that were de-trunked and are purely the responsibility of local authorities. That is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves in North Devon. Why? Because a Labour Government chose to de-trunk the A361. That happened under a Labour Government’s watch and, I have to say, under the watch of a Liberal Democrat MP in North Devon. [Interruption.] Absolutely. That should not have happened, but it did happen, and it hampered investment in this road. I am however pleased to say that, if The Times is to believed—of course it is; it is The Times—we can see the way out of this and, through the new fund being announced today, we can get some real investment in the North Devon link road.
Let me look wider across the south-west, because it is no good people being able to get to North Devon if they cannot get beyond there to the rest of the south-west. Last week, I was delighted to see media reports of a new £6.1 billion programme to open up road access to the south-west. In particular and for so long, many colleagues in the south-west have been asking for a proper dual carriageway linking the M3 with the M5. Too many bits of the A303 and A358 are single carriageway and not fit for purpose. The Government have announced real investment, which will see a major change in that, and I warmly welcome it.
I say to the Roads Minister that we will be knocking on his door. The Government have invested £1.5 million in ensuring that we are shovel ready for this vital scheme to improve the North Devon link road. The message that needs to go out today is, “Come to North Devon. Come and do business in North Devon. Come and spend your tourist pound in North Devon, and come and live in North Devon and contribute to the local economy.” I want to be able to say, “You can do all those things and get there safely, sustainably and efficiently, thanks to investment by this Conservative Government.”
Thank you, Mrs Gillan. This is my first debate in Westminster Hall, and I am delighted to be here. I would be remiss not to mention the A34. Many hon. Members will know about the issues of Lodge Hill junction, and I will be speaking to the most wonderful Minister about that junction. It has been the subject of cross-party campaigning for 25 years and it is reaching the point where, if we do not secure it now, it will impede the unlocking of Abingdon’s future forever.
My point is actually about taking people off roads. Oxford is one of the UK’s great cycling cities, and we should be doing much better. There are many reasons why we should consider taking people off roads completely. We have many active groups in the area who are campaigning for, in particular, a path from Eynsham to Botley. I am delighted to see my fellow Oxfordshire MP, the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) in his place and I hope we will work together on that issue. That community path, which will go along the B4044, has been well documented—there have been lots of warm words—but what we need now is investment to get it going. We also have many groups in Didcot who have lobbied for a cycle path from Oxford to Didcot—that is quite a long way, so it is not something I would do, but those groups are insistent that they would and I would love to be able to deliver it for them.
A parent in Abingdon contacted me within days of the election because her son had been mown down by a car. Luckily, he survived, although sadly in 2009 a child died on a cycle route approved by the school—a route that goes through 14 major junctions. We need to do much more to protect our children.
Finally, I want to talk about air quality. It is a danger to children’s health to be knocked down by a car, but also to breathe in the noxious fumes released by cars. It is estimated that a third of nitrous oxide emissions in the UK come from road use, and 14% of children’s asthma is estimated to be caused by air pollution. That, incidentally, is the same as passive smoking. While it is no longer acceptable to light up in front of children for fear that they will breathe in the fumes, we have yet to make the case for taking children out of dangerous air pollution areas, such as those around North Hinksey and Botley schools, for the sake of their health.
I ask the Minister to apply a lot of creativity to the way we look at local infrastructure. It is not just about roads. Let us also look at different ways we can take people off the roads, because in the end it is better for the environment and better for their safety—but, above all, for their wellbeing, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this debate. I will not go over the preamble of how pleased I am, but I hope that today’s announcement will help the bottlenecks in places such as Bury St Edmunds and alleviate problems in the historic town for the reasons my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), gave earlier.
I want to turn to the A14. I must declare an interest as chair of the “no more A14 delays” campaign. The route is vital for Suffolk, the region and the nation, with 70% of the cargo out of Felixstowe—our biggest container port—travelling down it, and 80% of Suffolk businesses relying on it. In my constituency, I have the headquarters of Greene King, Treatt and Muntons, large businesses and enterprise zones in Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket. The economy of Norfolk and Suffolk is £28 billion-plus, but the A14 holds us back.
To build a vibrant, modern economy we need a functioning A14. The 20-mile stretch in my constituency gives people the chance to enter for business, tourism and leisure, but UK congestion costs us £2 billion per annum. We could generate £362 million in additional gross value added, saving each commuter 13 minutes a day. There is potential for some 45,000 more jobs in the next 10 to 15 years if we get on and do this work to the A14. The accompanying homes and growth in the economy must be worth something in that argument. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said, we need to think strategically about total values across the piece and not always look at what the value is for one singular constituency.
We have congestion around junctions in Bury, but we have dreadful problems around Nacton and Ipswich in freeing up the Felixstowe traffic, and we also have issues going up to Newmarket. We have poor lay-outs, short slip roads and lack of capacity, which causes frequent delays. That does not encourage getting business done, and we need to get on with the job of building the roads quickly.
There is a lack of adequate pull-offs, and there are frequent delays. A constituent told me it had taken her three and a half hours to do 28 miles between Bury and Cambridge. Under RIS 1, the Suffolk map was white: I really look forward to meeting the Minister and ensuring that we have some coloured dots for investment under RIS 2, that the consultation goes ahead in the next few months and that we are listened to. Remedial work is welcome, but that is all we are up for. Please invest in Suffolk.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate. House building, not just in my constituency but in the area surrounding it, has been an issue of huge concern for many years. It has created huge pressure on the local roads, and that pressure is getting greater and greater with the current proposals and with yet more house building coming down the line soon. Junction 7 of the M61—I realise that is not in this narrow remit—should have been built many years ago. The fact that it has not been built means that the roads in Horwich are under far more pressure and strain than they ought to be, and the A roads and other roads suffer because of a lack of motorway investment.
If we look at Westhoughton, a bypass should have been built decades ago. We think about joined-up government. Equally, when we have house building we must also look at the infrastructure needed to support it, whether that is medical, educational or other infrastructure such as sporting facilities. Joined-up government really has not happened on a local level. Symbolically, locally, the boundary between the Wigan borough and Bolton borough highlights that lack of thought-through decision making.
People travel along the Wigan borough on the Atherleigh Way A5225, which is a pretty good road, so they can travel pretty fast, but when they get to the boundary with Bolton they come across huge concrete blocks where the road stops, because Wigan and Bolton did not work together to deliver the most obvious local road. So all the traffic that travels through Wigan gets to the concrete blocks and is diverted through Daisy Hill and Westhoughton, creating huge misery for residents. Bolton Council, or previous Governments, should have delivered on that road many years ago, but they have failed to do so.
One of the worries now is that given the huge amount of house building, without nearly enough useful infrastructure, that is planned for the Greater Manchester spatial framework, it is more than likely that building will begin on the options for the Westhoughton bypass. Houses will occupy the land where we need the bypass to be built; so we urgently need it to be built before Bolton Council builds there and prevents it from ever happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate. I shall take hon. Members through the issues affecting my constituency, travelling through them quickly, as it were—which is more than anyone could do trying to travel on the roads themselves. I assure our excellent and generous Minister that, despite what may be heard from other hon. Members present, there is no project more worthy of investment than the A40 running through West Oxfordshire.
As anyone who has visited West Oxfordshire or spoken to a local MP will realise, the A40 is the pre-eminent issue there. Not only do my constituents spend hours stuck in traffic doing the short journey from Witney to the centre of Oxford, but the economic potential of an enormously successful area is being constricted. One need only look at Carterton, where world-beating industries such as Boeing and Airbus are present on the base, but where the slip road access to the A40 is restricted; or Eynsham, where Siemens, with its word-beating medical engineering, is restricted in relation to travel on the A40. There are many other businesses there, as is shown by the West Oxfordshire business awards, but I cannot mention them all because time is limited. They are restricted in the economic growth that they could deliver, because of the road.
The A40 is the central issue in West Oxfordshire, but not the only one. It has spin-off side effects. Traffic trying to avoid the A40 travels, for example, on the A4095 through Bladon, where I live. It is a world-famous village because it is where Winston Churchill is buried, and we have many coaches per day. Visitors are of course welcome, but through the narrow pinch point and the coach parks further on there is excessive congestion. There is also particular congestion in Burford, with its world-famous hill, with traffic backed up along it.
Hon. Members will realise that that high street is called the gateway to the Cotswolds; nearly every building is listed, and there are HGVs stacked up on it, because there is nowhere to go. A bypass for Burford would also be high on the list for residents in that part of the world. Horsefair in Chipping Norton and Bridge Street in Witney are two areas in West Oxfordshire that have high levels of pollution, and a bypass around Chipping Norton to remove the weight of traffic—figuratively and literally—is absolutely necessary.
There is also a great need for public transport. We have already heard from the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) about cycle paths, and I would like the B4044 cycle path to happen. I cycled from my home in Bladon to Oxford, when I worked there, along the A44. There is an excellent cycle path there, but we need more of them. I have now concluded my quick canter through issues of health and economics, in relation to road infrastructure, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak.
My main aim in this short contribution will be to talk about the condition of the A180, but perhaps I may join other hon. Members in mentioning two quick asks. I feel somewhat guilty in doing so, because last Friday the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), was in my constituency opening the upgrade to the A160, which improves access to the port of Immingham. That was a £100 million project. We were pushing for it during the entire 26 years when I was a councillor in the area, so things do not happen all that quickly; but I am pleased that the coalition Government gave the go-ahead, and that the Minister of State duly attended to open it. If we are to finish the jigsaw of routes that give us access to the south Humber port, the dualling of the A15 and/or the A46 are the next asks, and it would be helpful if I could bring a delegation to meet the Minister to discuss that, as I have done with his many predecessors.
My main aim this morning is to draw attention to the condition of the A180, parts of which, from junction 5 to the Grimsby boundary, have a concrete surface that causes no end of problems, particularly to residents. I have sat in the homes of constituents living as much as a mile from the road, and heard the constant rumble of HGVs over the surface. In 2000 the then Labour Government said in their transport plan that all concrete roads would be removed by 2010, on a priority basis. Surely the clinching factor in the need for the work was a report in the Cleethorpes Chronicle of 25 March 2010 that directors of Grimsby Town football club said prospective footballers were being put off signing, because of the poor state of the A180. If that does not clinch it, nothing will.
As we know, the Minister is a rising star, and he would not want to be compared unfavourably with one of his predecessors. In a 4 pm debate in Westminster Hall on 17 December 2003 a certain Mr McNulty, who was then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, said at column 320 that residents near the A180 needed a rest, and promised that he would ensure they got one. Improvements followed, and the Minister would not want to be overtaken or beaten by his illustrious predecessor. My plea is for him to arrange for Highways England to make a proper assessment of the costs and alternatives. If he wants to join me and residents to listen to the constant rumble, he will be very welcome.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to something that I hope is already front and centre of his desk: the well progressed application for a Middlewich eastern bypass. It has been a 30-year wait, and the support in Middlewich and beyond is strong. It would open up employment land for 2,000 jobs, which would help to transform the local and wider economy. It would reduce congestion, and not only through Middlewich. That congestion is chronic, and not only at peak times. The bypass would improve transport efficiency from the M6 across that part of Cheshire to the west. Middlewich is a severe bottleneck, which is holding back economic development in the area.
I am grateful that the Government granted business case funding last year under the fast-track scheme of the large local major transport schemes programme. The business case was produced this spring. As time prohibits my speaking about it in detail now, I hope that the Minister will allow me to hand him an executive summary of the business case after the debate. It was produced by Cheshire East Council with the support of the local enterprise partnership, and it was the only one proposed by that large unitary authority.
The council leader and I were due to discuss the matter in a meeting with the Minister’s predecessor—now the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones)—before the election intervened. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the idea of putting such an appointment in his diary soon.
Middlewich is a fine historic town with an aspiration to grow, including by taking in new housing, which the scheme would also support. That is not something that every town in Cheshire wants. The road would also bring benefits by facilitating HS2 construction and operation for the nearby link with Crewe, and the reopening, we hope, of Middlewich railway station for passengers.
I want finally to make a brief mention of Congleton. The Congleton Sports Trust’s vision for the future, following the successful Tour of Britain through Congleton, is a project spearheaded by the deputy mayor, Councillor Suzie Akers Smith, to improve circumnavigation of the town. Obtaining funding for that is proving challenging. The project would facilitate the improvement of infrastructure across the town, and make safe cycling possible—including for children going to school. My key message to the Minister is that for rural and semi-rural areas it is proving challenging to find cycling funding. Will Ministers look at that again?
Thank you for calling me, Mrs Gillan. I will briefly talk about the ideas brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).
Something I have found in my constituency is a lack of joined-up thinking between the local enterprise partnership, the county council and Highways England. For example, Highways England and the county council would like to work together to create an air quality management site on Hamble Lane near junction 8 of the M27, but that has not happened; there are air quality management sites around the Eastleigh Borough Council offices and through Botley village in my constituency. Indeed, the bypass around Botley has been waiting to be built for 20 or 30 years, and we are progressing, but this kind of fund is exactly what we need to get it over the line.
The other road we have been waiting three decades for in Eastleigh is the Chickenhall link road. Not having that affects Tower Lane and the village of Bishopstoke, traffic coming from Southampton and up towards Winchester and, indeed, air quality. It also means that some people in my constituency do 12-mile journeys each day that can take up to an hour and a half. Several Roads Ministers have said, “I’ve been to lots of congested places; I am sure Eastleigh is nothing different”, and all of them have found it quite surprising. In fact, one was so delayed that he missed an appointment.
HGVs running through villages such as Botley really do affect the quality of people’s lives, including our children’s. As a Conservative majority Government, we can do better. During the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, my constituency got nowhere. I would like to prove that this Conservative majority Government can actually do things that affect people’s lives, because that is what politics does. It can deliver what really matters to people: getting home at night to see their children and making sure that they have a good, productive day at work—if they can get there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan; I congratulate you on managing to fit in 12 additional speakers after the opening speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing the debate, and further congratulate him because the debate was originally due to be about Southern Rail; it was changed following the debate in the main Chamber yesterday. That saves me from having to speak in another debate on Southern Rail. We have seen how popular the hon. Gentleman’s debate is.
Given the comments from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), I had to keep checking the title of the debate in case it was called the “Bypass Bid” debate; it certainly felt like that is what it was. It shows just how passionate and understanding of the needs of their communities hon. Members are, and how much demand there is on the road infrastructure network. I look forward to the Minister’s replies to each individual bid as we go forward.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle highlighted a good mix of local issues and the strategic thinking that needs to accompany their resolution. He was correctly angry about having the UK’s most dangerous road in his constituency, and I wish him luck in his ambition for improving its safety with the speed camera solution and through other bypasses that were mentioned. That brought back memories for me: I remember doing a school project way back in 1988 about local bypasses. I had actually been able to access plans from 1947, when the bypasses were first planned, and we are still waiting on them. That story has come out time and again today.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle about strategic issues around traffic enforcement moving from the police to local authorities. I think that has benefits, although it can also put pressure on local authorities. I also fully support the comments about pavement parking. I also did a blindfold tour of my local town centre, which certainly illustrated to me that vehicles on pavements are a further obstruction that does not need to be there.
We certainly had quite a run through of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) focused on strategy, delivery and issues including further funding pressures. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that. I liked the good, interesting comments from the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about beautiful infrastructure; I am actually a civil engineer by trade, so I appreciate infrastructure. Clearly, the issues of congestion, air pollution and national parks need to be addressed.
The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for South Suffolk also bid for bypasses, while the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) talked of a North Devon link road to allow holidaymakers quicker access to Devon during August. Perhaps if the road gets the upgrade he is looking for, more Scottish holidaymakers will be able to access it before August, because our holiday period starts at the end of June. That might extend his area’s holiday season.
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) highlighted issues about major junctions, while the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) highlighted issues with the A14. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) highlighted that house building can cause issues, which again shows the need for strategic thinking. For me, that is also an issue for strategic local planning, in terms of the council looking ahead at where it will build houses and what infrastructure is needed to accompany that.
The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) highlighted the A40. Listening to some hon. Members’ contributions, including his, took me back to listening to maiden speeches, which can give us a tour through constituencies and a reminder of the beautiful villages that exist. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) again highlighted a bypass, while the final contribution, from the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), again highlighted the lack of joined-up thinking between Highways England and local councils, which needs to be resolved.
I genuinely wish hon. Members all the best with their bids for funding. It seems to me that the £1 billion fund announced today will not go far enough, so I ask the Minister to look down the back of his couch to see if he can find more money. Certainly, investment in infrastructure leads to job creation, an economic return and, as we have heard, can increase safety and improve air quality. Any additional investment in roads in England and Wales will hopefully have Barnett consequentials and would lead to further investment in Scotland.
I remind the hon. Member for Eastleigh that this is not a majority Conservative Government but a minority one. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who put in the first bid, may have seen how successful the Democratic Unionist party was in securing money from the UK Government. Maybe Conservative Back Benchers need to get together and do a wee bit of backroom bidding with their Government colleagues.
Some people are for investment in road infrastructure and some are against, but nobody here today spoke out against. Earlier, I touched on my being a civil engineer by background; I also now have the role of spokesperson for transport and infrastructure for the Scottish National party, so I am certainly all in favour of strategic road upgrading. However, it needs to be strategic, and it also needs to link in with other transport upgrades. We have heard about safe cycling, which is important, and we also need to invest in rail and public transport so that we have better connectivity; that all goes hand in hand.
On Scottish Government investment and looking at trunk road maintenance, the Scottish Government look for three strategic outcomes: improved journey times, reduced emissions to tackle climate change, improved air quality and health, and improved accessibility and affordability. Those have to be the Government’s key objectives when they look at their £1 billion investment fund. All hon. Members here certainly have local issues, but the Government have to look a bit more strategically.
Under the previous UK settlement, Scotland suffered from a lack of investment in roads. It took devolution and the Scottish Parliament’s coming into being to actually increase road investment. The SNP Government have taken that to a new level, with the M74 and M80 motorways and the recently completed M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh; it is actually incredible that it has taken until 2017 to have a continuous motorway link between the two biggest cities in Scotland.
We have heard about single carriageway roads in the debate, but rural Scotland actually has single-lane roads, which only allow cars to travel in one direction, with pull-off passing bays. Again, that shows the lack of investment over the years. Also, the “Road to the Isles”, the A830, was the last single-lane trunk road in the UK and was only upgraded in 2009 with the aid of European funding.
That is another concern going forward: what will happen to that European funding? Will the UK Government backfill that lack of money? Scotland secured £1.3 billion of investment from EU structural funds, which has allowed those important road upgrades. I would appreciate it if the Minister could answer that. I wish the Minister luck in answering all the bids for bypasses. I certainly support any additional expenditure on infrastructure and would like to see further Barnett consequentials and expenditure in Scotland.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate on a matter that has broad implications for all our constituents.
This debate is particularly timely, because by chance, the Government made an announcement overnight that they will be shifting £1 billion of vehicle excise duty away from investment in main roads and towards a bypass fund. I suspect that the announcement was made not just to give the Minister something positive to say in this debate, but as a result of constant pressure from the Opposition. On that point, I put on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for the work she did as shadow Secretary of State for Transport to push these important issues.
While Labour welcomes the news that local roads will be receiving some much-needed investment, we note that the money will not be seen by local authorities until 2020, as the Government conduct their consultation. The announcement therefore does not deal with the immediate backlog of billions of pounds’-worth of work to fix potholes—a backlog that will only increase over the next three years. Moreover, the announcement does not increase the overall spending on roads. In fact, it could be seen as the Government slashing £1 billion from investment in main roads.
Our road network needs proper investment across both main and local roads. In recent years, our road infrastructure has been severely neglected. The Asphalt Industry Alliance says that roads need to be resurfaced every 10 to 20 years. Only London comes close to that, with the capital’s roads repaired every 23 years on average. Across the rest of England, roads are resurfaced every 55 years on average. That is clearly not sustainable.
A report published by the Office of Rail and Road in February highlighted that Highways England—the company responsible for the management of motorways and main A roads in England—will have a funding shortfall of approximately £0.8 billion. It seems that the Government want to add a further £1 billion to that figure with their announcement this morning. Highways England has committed to delivering the Government’s road investment strategy, which includes investing more than £11 billion between April 2015 and March 2020, maintaining and renewing the network, delivering 112 major improvement schemes and carrying out targeted improvements through dedicated funds. In doing so, the company is also required to deliver £1.2 billion of efficiency improvements.
However, the Office of Rail and Road report showed that despite efficiency savings made by Highways England’s improvement plan that have reduced the funding shortfall from £1.7 billion to £0.8 billion, the company has plans to propose a range of changes to the road investment strategy, with schemes likely to be reduced in scope, delayed or even removed entirely. Labour has warned consistently that the Government have been over-promising and under-delivering on investment in England’s roads, and the report lays bare their entire failure on this. The road investment strategy is beginning to look like a wish list, and even more so with the decision today to take away £1 billion of funding.
The Office of Rail and Road report was published only months after Highways England reported a drop in its network condition key performance indicator that reports road surface condition, which fell to 92.3%—significantly below the road investment strategy target of 95%. We were promised the biggest upgrade to roads in a generation, but Highways England is now having to come up with plans to address a budget shortfall of nearly £1 billion, as well as to guarantee driver safety after allowing the condition of our roads to fall short of targets. Labour is very concerned about the fundamental mismatch between the Government’s expectations and the effectiveness and efficiency of Highways England, the Secretary of State having refused to rule out cancelling or delaying promised schemes. Will the Minister explain today which projects will be delayed and which will be cancelled, or if projects will be neither delayed nor cancelled, where the additional funds are coming from, especially now that the Government have announced a £1 billion cut to investment in main roads?
The situation is no better for local roads, which make up 97% of the UK transport network. As I said earlier, there is an estimated £12 billion backlog of road repairs. The funding that the Government have so far committed is a drop in the ocean, even with the extra £1 billion of funding, which will not be seen for three years. Local authorities are finding it impossible to catch up. The permanent pothole fund announced last year set aside additional funding of £250 million over the next five years to tackle potholes, on top of nearly £5 billion of funding for road maintenance announced previously. However, the additional £50 million a year until the funding announced today comes into effect, if spread over the same 148 highways authorities as last year, is clearly not enough to address the £12 billion backlog.
The recently published annual local authority road maintenance survey, produced by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, found that almost a fifth of roads were in poor condition, while local authorities have said that one in six roads across England and Wales are in such a bad state that they must be repaired within the next five years. The ALARM survey showed that last year, more than 16,000 potholes were filled per non-London local authority, costing £111 million, and more than 4,000 potholes were filled per London local authority, costing £11.4 million. In 2012, around 12,000 potholes were filled on average per non-London local authority, costing £80.6 million.
In England, excluding London, the average local authority budget for highway maintenance saw a decrease of 16% from £23.4 million last year to £19.8 million this year. That was unexpected, given the Government’s commitment to £6 billion of funding for local road maintenance over six years, which began this financial year but appears not to have yet been seen by local authority highways teams.
Every journey begins and ends on a local road, so the ALARM report’s warning that Britain’s roads are in “terminal decline” is deeply concerning. It is time the Government acted to give this vital part of our road network the attention and investment that it deserves. These findings lay bare the Government’s failure to maintain Britain’s local roads, which are blighted by potholes, causing real danger to road users. Indeed, three quarters of claims received by authorities for compensation for damage to persons or vehicles as a result of poor road condition relate specifically to pothole incidents. The Office of Rail and Road report on Highways England stated:
“While there is not a direct correlation between the road condition indicator and safety, a reduction may indicate an increase in safety risk which Highways England must manage. The company has given us assurances that the safety of the network is not compromised. We have required the company to evidence the actions it has taken to mitigate any safety risk and how it will improve road condition to meet the target.”
Will the Minister tell us today what action has been taken to mitigate the increased safety risks brought about as a consequence of the mishandling of the road investment strategy?
A total of 24,620 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads in the year ending June 2016, and hon. Members have talked about road deaths in their constituencies. Over the past two decades, the UK has earned a reputation for having among the safest roads in the world, but in the past seven years progress has stalled and begun to reverse. The Tories have scrapped road safety targets and caused a decline in the number of dedicated road traffic police officers in England and Wales. In contrast, Labour’s manifesto stated clearly that we would reset the UK’s road safety vision and ambitiously strive for a transport network with zero deaths, reintroducing road safety targets. In conclusion, will the Minister set out exactly where the £1 billion will be spent?
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mrs Gillan, and a privilege to be able to speak on these very important issues in the presence of so many hon. Members, and particularly Government Members, who have taken a great interest in them over the years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this debate about road infrastructure. He is a kind of prognosticator of prognosticators; I do not know what goats were opened or other auguries consulted that allowed him to ensure that this debate coincided with the announcements this morning, but I congratulate him on his Delphic powers of prophecy. I also think he has done no little good in advertising his own claim to potential membership of the Select Committee on Transport. I place that on the record without, of course, expressing a view on any candidate for such a position.
Following the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill on Monday and a debate in this Chamber on road safety for horses and riders yesterday, this is my third debate in three days. I can only salute the courage and indefatigability of some of my colleagues, who may have sat through all three debates—and the strength of their stomachs. I hope colleagues feel that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from this exercise.
I had originally planned to go through in some detail some of the many schemes that will be covered under the Government’s present plans, but such has been the level of interest in and importance of the debate that after some opening remarks, I would like to engage specifically with the points raised by colleagues throughout the Chamber.
In many ways, as has been rammed home many times today, our road network is the backbone of Britain.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned that; it is entirely appropriate for her, not having spoken in the debate so far, to do so. I am aware that there has been some very inaccurate reporting locally about the status of that road. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has told me that he is looking forward very much to setting the record straight himself. I would say that there is very strong recognition of the importance of that scheme in its relation to the new nuclear programme—I say that as a former Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—so my hon. Friend’s point has been well recognised.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will crack on, because I have taken three minutes already and I have a lot to get through.
As I was saying, the road network is the backbone of Britain. Roads are vital lifelines for our economy. They matter whether people drive or cycle, or travel by bus or coach. They matter when people travel to work or to buy goods, and 95% of people use our road network every day. That is why the Government are in the midst of a £23 billion programme of investment in England’s roads; £15 billion of that is going on England’s motorways and major A roads—the long-distance roads that link regions together, connect us to our ports and airports and enable economic growth. That funding underpins the “Road Investment Strategy”, a five-year plan, launched by the previous Government in December 2014, that sets out the schemes and funding levels for the period 2015 to 2020. That covers more than 100 major schemes up and down the country. At the same time, there was the creation of Highways England and of a watchdog, the Office of Rail and Road, to ensure that motorists get what they are promised.
The investment plan is well under way. Since 2015, 16 major schemes have opened for traffic and 15 more have started construction. They include major investments such as the £1.5 billion A14 improvements between Cambridge and Huntingdon, and the £191 million upgrade of the M1, M6 and A14 Catthorpe junction near Rugby. However, that is only the start, and the pace is picking up.
As announced last Friday, over the coming six months, the Government will take the next steps on 55 road improvements across the country—opening eight schemes, consulting on 10 more and publishing final plans for another 29. In the course of that, we will be seeking to hear from local people, organisations and businesses to help to shape our plans and ensure that they benefit local communities.
This has been an extraordinarily interesting debate. I can only congratulate colleagues on the many schemes that they have brought not only to my attention, but that of officials and Highways England. I look forward to the debate’s being closely scrutinised in my Department and by Highways England for those points.
Several key themes have emerged from the debate. The first is the necessity of increased investment. The welcome nature of today’s news was, I think, recognised on both sides of the Chamber. The second theme is the importance of bypasses—the environmental case for them, and their heritage effects and economic effects. The third theme is the integrated nature of the road network. In other words, one does not want to beggar Peter to pay Paul; there has to be parallel investment in motorways and in A roads. Finally, there are the themes of the importance of safety and of cross-border funding and the like, on which I think all colleagues would agree.
Before I respond to some specific comments, let me turn briefly to the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). I was surprised that, judging by their comments, there is so little recognition by Labour of what has actually happened. The new investment should be absolutely welcomed. I can tell the House that the investment by the last Labour Government, in the period 2005-06 to 2009-10, was a little over £6 billion, and the amount currently being planned is £11.4 billion. I think that is a difference—
The fact of the matter is that this is twice as much money as the last Labour Government put in, and that should be recognised. To fail to do so is, frankly, to insult our motorists—to insult the people who use these roads.
If one looks down the list, it is perfectly true that the National Audit Office has talked about a degree of over-programming. It has also praised the significant improvement in the road investment strategy, and I think rightly so. The NAO report should indeed acknowledge what is well known in transport circles, which is that there is always a bit of over-programming in these things; not all these schemes arise, in terms of public investment, at the same time. An over-programming of 7%, which is what it amounts to, is not substantial. Where there are bottlenecks, undoubtedly we as a Department will be looking at them.
Let me turn now to some of the specific points. I absolutely welcome the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I can confirm that construction will begin this year, as he has requested, on the A27.
Sorry, consultation; I cannot read my own handwriting. Consultation will begin on the schemes that my right hon. Friend mentions. He rightly highlights the importance of beautiful bridges and infrastructure—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. His points have also been raised—
I will not. The points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs were also raised elsewhere by my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I welcome those comments.
In the few seconds that I have left before handing back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, let me say that the point about cycling was well made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran)—I am a very keen cyclist myself. The Government are investing £1.2 billion to support cycling schemes, and rightly so. The point about constraints on economic growth from lack of investment in roads was very well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). I am running out of time and I want to be sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle has the chance to close the debate if he wishes, so let me end here and thank colleagues on both sides of the Chamber very much indeed for their comments.
I thank you, Mrs Gillan, and all colleagues for making this such a fascinating debate. I also, as I should have done earlier, welcome the Minister responsible for roads to his place. If I continue as a member of the Transport Committee, I shall look forward to spending more time with him.
If I may, I will mention my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who did not have an opportunity to speak. She is my constituency neighbour and has worked tirelessly to get the A27 upgraded. She has fantastic ideas, which we were not able to hear today, but we are, and will continue to be, led by her to get the A27 upgraded, and it will be to her credit, on this particular side of the geography, if that occurs.
I absolutely welcome the extra investment from the Government announced today. I perhaps should have welcomed that a bit more strongly when I opened the debate. It is interesting that so many Government Members are in the Chamber today. That suggests that they are working hard on behalf of their constituents. There are fewer Opposition Members, which suggests either that all the money was spent in their constituencies or perhaps that they are not as interested in this issue as we are. However, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I look forward to more bypasses being built across the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered road infrastructure.
Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the support for the Srebrenica genocide commemoration.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to hold this short debate today, one week before the official anniversary commemoration of the terrible massacre that took place in July 1995 in Srebrenica. I begin by drawing the House’s attention to my interest in this matter. In October last year I visited Bosnia as the guest of the UK charity Remembering Srebrenica, and I am now a member of the charity’s north-west regional board. I know that other colleagues have also visited Bosnia with Remembering Srebrenica, and every single one of us who has done so has been profoundly affected by what we saw and heard there.
The House is familiar with the history of this terrible atrocity. In July 1995 Bosnian Serb forces overran and captured Srebrenica, a town that in 1993 had been declared a UN safe area. In the days after the fall of Srebrenica more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were separated from their families, systematically massacred and buried in mass graves—some after desperately trekking for days to seek safety. Many of those graves were then dug open again and the remains removed and scattered across new graves in a bid to hide the evidence of what had happened, leaving families with the agony of not knowing where their loved ones have been buried. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, while throughout Bosnia between 20,000 and 50,000 women and girls suffered rape and sexual violence. The appalling events that took place at Srebrenica have rightly been characterised by international courts as genocide.
Serbian aggression and a determined process of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia lie at the root of this atrocity, but the international community also has charges to answer. UN troops responsible for protecting the safe area status of Srebrenica turned away thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had travelled there to seek their protection, in some cases delivering them directly into the hands of the Serb army. Then they ran away themselves. It is not surprising that the sense of having been let down by the international community is palpable in Bosnia, and not just in Srebrenica. Again and again, during my visit last year, Bosnians told me of their anger and bafflement at the US decision, in the autumn of 1995, to end NATO bombings of Serb positions in Sarajevo following the desperate siege that the city had endured since 1992, just as the Serbs were within days of being defeated.
The anger and hurt continues today because 22 years on families are still living with not only the horror of what they saw and experienced but the agony of losing their loved ones—still, in many cases, waiting desperately in the hope that their remains will be found and identified. I pay tribute to the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which continues its painstaking efforts to identify the victims.
May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate? In Northern Ireland we have a particular understanding of those who are missing and have never been found; therefore, this resonates clearly with us as elected representatives from Northern Ireland. Does she agree that the poignancy of last year’s memorial, where the bones of a further 127 victims were identified and then buried 21 years on, must live in our memories? Does she agree that this House and the Government must look to ensure that this never happens again, whether in Northern Ireland, Srebrenica or anywhere else in the world?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman and his fellow Northern Ireland compatriots have a particular understanding of the horror that occurs when violence and murder take place. He is right that we repeatedly fail to learn the lessons, and yet even in our own lifetimes we have examples close to home, in the Balkans and in Rwanda—around the world—that remind us of the lessons that we should take on board.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. May I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I have also been on one of Remembering Srebrenica’s visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she is right that it is a profoundly moving experience. I am glad that she mentions the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which has been absolutely vital in helping about 70% of families to know what happened to the remains of their loved ones who were missing as a result of the conflict.
There is still a huge amount of work to be done—around 8,000 victims of the war are still unidentified and missing —so the work of the commission is really important, including its groundbreaking work on data matching and DNA matching. That work is useful and crucial not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but in natural disasters, and I fear it will be increasingly important in tracking down missing persons from conflicts such as the current one in Syria. Does my hon. Friend agree that while Britain and other donors have been quite generous in supporting the international commission, it often lives too much from hand to mouth and we really need much more predictable, long-term funding for its work? Even though it should not have to exist, it does have to; it is vital and sadly will remain so for a long time to come.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Anyone who has seen for themselves the exceptional work carried out by the ICMP will understand how protracted, detailed and painstaking it has had to be and that its applicability both to natural disasters and to—should they occur, God forbid—other conflicts could be of importance for many years to come. I hope that in responding to the debate the Minister will say something about continued funding for it, because during my visit last year there were certainly concerns that that could no longer be assured.
It is not just the memory of what happened 22 years ago that causes such concern, consternation and dismay in Bosnia today. Still today Bosnian Muslims experience discrimination and injustice. In 2015, in an aggressively muscular display of power, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik held an illegal referendum attempting to mark 9 January as an official holiday. It was deemed unconstitutional by the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina for not drawing on the values shared by all three of the constituent nations.
During my visit I was told of continuing levels of unemployment and poverty, and of young people leaving Bosnia because there is no hope for their futures. I was told that Serbs refuse to allow the history of the genocide to be taught in schools, while the Dayton agreement, which ended the conflict, has baked in territorial and political arrangements that reflect and embed the ethnic cleansing that took place and leave non-Serbs shut out of public office.
It is right to recognise the positive actions of the international community and the convictions secured at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The UK has been at the forefront of steps to address Bosnians’ continuing sense of injustice, leading the way in drafting a UN Security Council resolution to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide and calling for 11 July to be established as a memorial day for its victims—a resolution that, shamefully, was condemned by Serbia and vetoed by Russia. But discrimination against Bosnian Muslims continues to this day. The wider threat to peace continues, as do efforts—in particular by Russia—to disrupt the legitimate use of power in the region. I hope the Minister will update the House on UK and international efforts to address that.
In the second part of my remarks, I shall turn to action here in the UK to recognise and honour the victims of the genocide and learn lessons from it. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the aims and work of Remembering Srebrenica, teaching current and future generations about the consequences of hate and intolerance. Let me give some examples from my own city. In May this year, one of my fellow travellers to Bosnia, Dr Robina Shah—deputy lieutenant of Greater Manchester, working with Greater Manchester police—and Paul Giannasi of the International Network for Hate Studies, organised a hate crime conference in Manchester to raise awareness of how low-level prejudice can escalate to full-scale murder. On 16 July, local community champions in my region will walk 23 miles from Blackburn cathedral to Manchester city centre to commemorate the atrocity and show community cohesion. On 13 July I shall be proud to join predominantly female contributors in Manchester cathedral as part of Remembering Srebrenica’s annual remembrance service.
I know that the Government, too, are working to remind young people and communities of the terrible genocide and encourage them to learn lessons from it. The Department for Communities and Local Government funds activity to raise awareness of the massacre, but it is not clear how well that work is integrated into wider Government strategies to address hate crime and extremism, including work with the Department for Education and with schools. Will the Minister update the House on cross-Government action to ensure that the anniversary and the lessons we must learn from it are never forgotten?
Tragically, extremism and hate are still everywhere around us today, as we have been so painfully reminded by the return of terror to the streets of Manchester and London in recent weeks. We are trying once again to make sense of the hatred and intolerance that give rise to such extremist violence, which is all too often followed by reprisals and, for example, by a rise in Islamophobic hate crime. The lesson from Srebrenica and other genocides is that such violence and hatred creep up on us in stages. They begin with differentiation and discrimination, fostering and fostered by a sense of grievance or perceived grievance. Genocide results when they proceed through stages of organised persecution and execution, followed by denial of what took place. Yet at every stage, as we watch hate unfold, we have the opportunity to break into that journey and halt it.
The Government have promised to bring forward counter-extremism proposals in this Parliament. I suggest that in doing so they could learn from an understanding of the steps that lead to genocide. In particular, I hope Ministers take note of how low-level prejudice can escalate to crime, violence and murder. In our strategy for tackling extremism and extremist hate, we must actively promote tolerance in and between our communities; work with them and encourage them to educate and share with one another; support individuals bravely speaking out against hate speech; recognise and act on inequality and injustice; and intervene at the earliest possible stage.
I am glad that we have the opportunity in Parliament today to commemorate the atrocity suffered by the people of Srebrenica. But commemoration must be accompanied by action, so I urge on Ministers a determination to learn the lessons of how intolerance takes root, to be alert to the markers that identify its growth, and to be resolute in working with our diverse communities to tackle it early and comprehensively. That would be a fine memorial to those who died in Srebrenica 22 years ago.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on her heartfelt and powerful contribution to this timely debate. It was also interesting to hear interventions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), and I will try to address some of the points they raised.
As has rightly been pointed out, the genocide committed in and around Srebrenica some 22 years ago undoubtedly represents one of the darkest chapters in the post-war history of our continent. Because of my family background, I had more reason than many, perhaps, to have hoped that genocide had been consigned to the history books. My late mother was from Silesia in Germany; she was born in November 1939 and was forcibly removed—a phrase that later became “ethnically cleansed”—in the early part of 1945, towards the end of the war, as the red army advanced. Unspeakable atrocities took place, as many hon. Members will know; perhaps there was less sympathy for the civilian population of Germany at that time, but none the less those episodes were something that I was brought up with and told about as a young boy.
I was 30 when the terrible events in Srebrenica took place. There was a sense that we were seeing them with our very own eyes; in many ways, they seemed more horrific because there were live TV broadcasts. Many of us will remember how the Dutch UN peacekeeping force was pushed to one side by Mladić. The bellicose rhetoric of Milošević and others in that part of the world, in the years before and immediately afterwards, was close in our minds.
I want to address a number of issues that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised. I am proud, as she is, that the United Kingdom takes the matter seriously; I hope we will continue to do so, and to fund it accordingly, in the years to come. It is difficult to talk about lessons being learned. The evil that man does, has done since time immemorial and will probably do in future, in a whole range of different ways, is a terrible thing. Clearly we need to try to educate young people about the precise aspects of what has gone on, whether in the holocaust in the 1940s or in this important genocide in our backyard in the western Balkans. However, I am always a little concerned about that easy phrase that politicians use—“lessons will be learned”. That is not to say that we should not address these issues fundamentally, in historic terms, but ultimately I fear that there will always be people with evil in their heart and evil in their mind.
When one looks at the collapse of Yugoslavia, it is very easy to blame it on forces that go back many hundreds of years or on the actions of particular politicians in the early 1990s. There were a number of decidedly evil people who held their sway because of the power that they had, military and politically, in that region at that time.
I very much appreciate the tone that the Minister is taking in responding to the debate and I absolutely understand that the history of humanity is littered with evil and genocide; as I said, there has not been just one genocide even in our own living memory. However, one of the interesting things that Remembering Srebrenica and other campaigners have drawn attention to is the staged process that begins with low-level prejudice and can ultimately lead to the type of terrible atrocity that we saw in 1995. Does the Minister agree that that staged process at least offers some sort of structure for trying to prevent such evil from completing its journey and, if so, can he say whether it is informing the Government’s thinking in relation to counter-extremism strategies?
I very much hope that it is; the hon. Lady made her point very powerfully. Of course, trying to break the process down so that some concerted strategy can apply across the board does not necessarily bear with the facts, but the hon. Lady has certainly referred to one of the most important strands of the broader counter-terrorism strategy.
The hon. Lady is right that this anniversary is a moment not only to remember those who died but to reaffirm our own determination to prevent genocide in the future. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which was mentioned earlier. It has identified over 70% of those who were missing at the end of the Bosnian conflict, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield made clear. That work includes identifying the remains of some 7,000 of those who were killed at Srebrenica. In a way, that is a remarkable achievement, but I accept that for many hundreds, even thousands, of relatives there is still a lot of work to be done. I take very much on board the suggestion that we remember those who are still missing and stand in solidarity with their families.
In March, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office welcomed some of those who are still searching for their loved ones, including people such as Nura Begovic, whose brother is of course still missing. We had a meeting at that time that was jointly organised with the ICMP. The hon. Lady rightly talked about the ICMP’s work. This Government—like, I hope, all UK Governments of whatever colour in the future—will continue to provide resources for that work. We have provided some £3 million overall since 2000, a period that obviously extends across the political divide. I am delighted that my FCO colleague, the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), remains a commissioner for the ICMP.
The Government have been a strong supporter of the Srebrenica commemorations, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the UK. On the 20th anniversary in 2015, Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal represented the UK at the Potočari memorial site. Representatives of the British embassy in Sarajevo attend commemoration events every year and in their doing so I hope that we are playing our part in demonstrating that the United Kingdom stands together with Bosnians in expressing our horror at the crimes committed in Srebrenica. Those representatives show our continued support for justice and reconciliation.
As has been pointed out, we also rightly commemorate Srebrenica here in the United Kingdom. Last year, the erstwhile Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor, hosted a memorial event in the FCO. Her Majesty’s Government support this year’s commemoration at the Guildhall here in London; we will, of course, be represented at it.
We are also giving some £1.2 million to the Remembering Srebrenica project, which works to ensure that this appalling episode in European history is properly commemorated. The project itself aims to bring together people from all walks of life, from all cultures and from all faiths to highlight the destructive nationalism and hatred that lay at the heart of the Srebrenica massacre. In my view, one way of doing that is through raising awareness of genocide by taking people out to Bosnia. I appreciate that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield have already been a part of that process.
I know that the hon. Lady has been there and I hope that many other MPs will go out to the western Balkans, not only to commemorate Srebrenica but to see some of the positivity in other parts of that region. Croatia, which is next door, is a member of the European Union, while other nations in that region seek to join the European family. We are rightly very proud in this country of our role in this valuable project.
The United Kingdom also strives for Srebrenica to be remembered around the world. In 2015, we drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution marking the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica; as was rightly pointed out, it was disappointing, but perhaps not entirely surprising, that both Serbia and Russia objected to it and ultimately Russia, which has the power of veto, vetoed it. I hope that we will continue to make similar efforts for similar anniversaries in the future and hopefully we will eventually have a unity of purpose within the UN.
Of course, we wanted at that juncture in 2015 to remember all the victims of the Bosnian conflict, to show solidarity with survivors and to reflect on the UN’s failure to stand up and be counted on that very dark day in Srebrenica in 1995. Of course, that failure is recognised as one of the organisation’s darkest moments. As I have said, sadly Russia vetoed our resolution in 2015, but we remain committed to working through the international organisations to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The theme of the Srebrenica commemorations this year is “Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide”. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, it is important to remember that while those killed in Srebrenica were almost exclusively men and boys—they were very deliberately chosen to be killed—many, many thousands of women and girls suffered appalling sexual violence and of course were left behind after the Bosnian conflict came to an end.
The FCO has been at the forefront of international work to tackle this issue since we launched our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in 2012. Our current focus is on ending the stigma associated with sexual violence. Last Thursday, the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a declaration against that stigma. The UK had a hand in that declaration, because the text was brokered by the United Nations Population Fund as part of a UK-funded project. It is just one example of our work to end such stigma, which obviously applies well beyond the issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it really applies across the world, with elements of sexual violence in areas where there has been a major stigma associated with it. We fully support the decision by Remembering Srebrenica to highlight the issue of stigma in this year’s commemoration.
As the hon. Member for Strangford will know from his part of the world, it is also important that we look to and build for the future. It is vital that, in looking back, we remember the victims and try to do our best to prevent anything like Srebrenica from ever happening again. However, we also need to look forward, to build for the future and to ensure that Srebrenica is not forever defined by the terrible episodes in 1995 or indeed by the past in general.
As has rightly been pointed out, reconciliation is a vital step on that road, which is why tackling stigma is so important. It is also why the UK has funded projects to help displaced people returning to the Srebrenica area; those projects have helped to create some 90 new jobs for young people in the region.
I conclude by saying that we must never forget the terrible events in Srebrenica 22 years ago. Remembering is important, not only to honour the dead but to remind ourselves that even in these modern times—civilised times, as we like to think of them—such horrors definitely remain possible and we must try to prevent them from ever happening again.
The UK can be proud of what we have done to ensure that the victims of Srebrenica are never forgotten and I very much hope that we continue that work in a similar vein. We can also be very proud of the work we are continuing to do to help the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to look forward to the future and hopefully to build a more prosperous, harmonious and stable nation for the future. However, I fear that such work will come to nought unless, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear during his own visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina as recently as April, the present-day leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina deliver much-needed reforms. It really is time for the politics of hope to prevail over those of division.
Question put and agreed to.
State Pension Age for Women
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the state pension age for women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for the first time in this Session. I thank everyone who has contacted me prior to this debate and all those raising awareness of the issue. I also thank Members for their support for early-day motion 63, which is in my name.
It is a testament to the importance of the issue that though I have been a Member of Parliament for seven years, I have never seen so many MPs in Westminster Hall. Nor have I seen so many people in the Public Gallery. Many others cannot get in. I will be disciplined in my remarks, as you have requested, Sir Edward.
I have been told by Government Members that the proposal in my early-day motion is unrealistic and that no Government would agree with its aims.
I can remember this issue being raised when I was shadow Pensions Minister at the start of the previous Parliament. The situation has been going on for so long, and the Government are doing nothing. Does my hon. Friend agree that they are simply slamming the door in the face of the 1950s women?
Absolutely. I am grateful for that intervention. If I may develop my argument, there clearly is an opportunity, particularly given the new parliamentary arithmetic, for the Government to do something and put right a wrong and a glaring injustice. Judging by the fact that early-day motion 63 has been signed by Members of every party, there is cross-party support for such a solution.
Most people would agree that it is about time the matter was resolved. In the previous Parliament, before the general election, we had a lot of debates about it. I asked the Minister then responsible to meet a delegation to discuss it, and they refused. Does my hon. Friend not think that that is a disgrace?
My hon. Friend is right that there is an opportunity to put this injustice right. The Conservative manifesto said:
“We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”
The Government have an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is so far as the 1950s women are concerned.
It is really good to see my hon. Friend back in good health; I think everyone here would agree. Does he agree that if the Government can find £1 billion to prop themselves up, they can find the money for these women who have contributed to their families, our communities and our economy over so many years? If they can find £1 billion simply to save themselves through a pact with the Democratic Unionist party, they can find the money for these women.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, there is an opportunity, given the apparent support for such a solution from a substantial number of DUP Members and Conservative Members who were members of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women.
I thank my comrade for giving way. There is this mystical letter that so many women are supposed to have received about their retirement age, but I have not met one constituent who received it. The Government say that they do not have enough of a timeframe, but does he agree that many women in this country did not have enough time to prepare for this issue?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I was just about to come on to that point. These are not just my opinions; the former Pensions Minister Steve Webb said the same things. He said:
“I accept that some women did not know about it, and not everybody heard about it at the time.”
In fairness to him, he said that
“it was all over the papers at the time”.—[Official Report, 13 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 54WH.]
However, I do not think that is good enough. The Government have failed to contact anyone affected by the pension increase.
Order. Mr Morris, you can see how many people are trying to get in. You have been very generous taking interventions, but the more interventions we have, the longer your speech and the fewer people who will be able to get in. It is entirely up to you, but you may not want to be too generous with interventions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Would it not be reasonable for women facing a change in pension age of up to five or six years to expect a direct letter? The responses are, “You could have asked”, and, “We had a leaflet”, but why would women ask when they thought they knew what the retirement age was?
I am very grateful, and I am aware of the Chair’s advice. I have to declare an interest, in that my wife is one of the women who have been affected. She feels incandescent with rage. She had no correspondence whatever, exactly as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said.
My second point is that, as I am sure many of the ladies have found out, the website of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is incoherent. I was on it on Sunday morning, and the information that people get is contradictory. I hope the Minister will do something about it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I hope that the Minister is taking due note of it. When a large delegation of women adversely affected by the changes came to see me, I checked the HMRC website, and a lot of the information is out of date, even on the number of people affected. I think that 2.4 million was the number originally quoted, but it is now generally accepted that the number is 3.5 million.
My hon. Friend is very generous. Just to place the numbers in context, is he aware that more than 4,000 women in the Jarrow constituency alone have been robbed of their thoughts of a happy retirement? That has been stolen from them by a Tory Government, who are more willing to give a £1 billion bung to the DUP to save their necks in government than they are to look after people who have worked for a lifetime just to be happy in retirement.
Absolutely. There is a moral argument and a factual argument. I hope the Minister and his advisers will go away and reflect on the debates that have taken place—not just this debate in Westminster Hall, but the number of debates in the previous Parliament where the arguments were soundly put.
I find it difficult to understand how in any other circumstances the House would not consider this issue of inadequate notice—or, indeed, no notice—to be a case of maladministration. Various Members have raised that issue. Had any other public body failed in such a way, whether that was a Government agency or local government, there would rightly be demands for support and compensation for those affected. Those are legitimate demands, and I understand that they have been made collectively on behalf of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign in a joint letter to the Department. I hope the Minister will comment on that.
The decision to accelerate the increases in the state pension further compounded the failings, with an impact on the same cohort that had already been failed by the 1995 Act. Age UK research found that some of the people affected, who had not been aware of the 1995 legislation, now face waits of up to six years more than they had been expecting before they can access their pension.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. To take up his point, it is the human cost that matters here. Some of my constituents have told me that they have taken up, or plan to take up, caring responsibilities and are facing real financial difficulty—and once someone is over 60 it is difficult for them to get a decent job as well. Those are real issues and the Government need to take those points on board. It is about time that the Government listened and found a way forward, rather than burying their head in the sand.
I am grateful for that intervention; indeed, every constituency is affected. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) said that 4,000 women are affected in his constituency; almost 5,000 are affected in my constituency of Easington. The women deserve both recognition of the injustice that they have suffered and some kind of financial help to alleviate the poverty that many of them are now suffering. I know that we are short of time, but I have heard some harrowing stories from women who have worked all their lives and now, through change of circumstance, have found themselves in the dire situation of having to sell their homes. They are facing enormous financial pressures because of changes in legislation that they were not aware of. That really needs to be put right.
The Labour party intends to extend our commitment to pension credit to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable women. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) will go into a little more detail about exploring the options for further transitional protections to ensure that all the women have security and dignity in old age.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I accept that I am to be brief, Sir Edward. I want to clarify the hon. Gentleman’s position. I looked at his blog from June 2016, which maintained that the Pensions Act 1995
“timescales were such that they gave sufficient time for people to plan”.
The impression from that blog is that the hon. Gentleman had no criticism of the Act. Is that still the case?
I do not think that is necessarily a fair reflection. The changes were accelerated in 2011 and, for the record, I do not think that women were given adequate time. In fact, they were not given individual notification that the legislation had changed, and I think that Parliament and Government had a duty to notify all those affected at the earliest opportunity.
On the point about the abuse of procedure inherent in the non-notification of those affected, is my hon. Friend aware that the WASPI women are now seeking legal advice from Bindmans as to whether the non-notification was improper and indeed an abuse of procedure? Would the money not be much better used by the Government to settle this case, over which they have procrastinated disgracefully?
I am grateful for that very pertinent intervention; it gives the Minister an opportunity to find a solution. I am not sure what the cost of a collective action would be: HMRC suggested £2.4 million; the real figure is probably £3.5 million. If all those cases of maladministration were found against the Government, we could be looking at a huge settlement. Given that the Prime Minister seems to have discovered the magic money tree, perhaps a few leaves could be brought down to mitigate the effects for those who are worst affected.
In this new Parliament, it is my intention to work with all Members, irrespective of party, to secure justice for the WASPI campaigners. As I mentioned before, the arithmetic has changed. It would have been difficult to secure meaningful changes to help the women affected without the support of the Government in the last Parliament. However, we now have that opportunity.
I have received the names of those Members who signed the WASPI pledge and there are 20 Conservative and Democratic Unionist party Members in that number. That is a significant number, for people following the maths—I see the Government Whips here. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North will outline the Opposition’s position and the support Labour would offer to the women affected by the changes. However, in this Parliament, the extent and scope of any changes, transitional arrangements, bridging pensions or compensation depend upon those 20 Members from the Conservative party and the DUP. I would say to those 20 right hon. and hon. Members that they hold the balance of power on this issue.
I urge the Government to take a pragmatic approach. I am concerned that, to date, the Department for Work and Pensions has failed to provide an adequate and substantive response to the letter from Bindmans, the legal representatives of the WASPI campaign, which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) raised. That has highlighted the maladministration by the Government—
I urge the Government to acknowledge their error, provide all those affected with some level of compensation, and provide those worst affected—those who are waiting six years longer than they had planned before they receive their pension—with some support to bridge the gap between 60 and 66.
I end with a quote from the DUP manifesto. I must confess that in all my days I never thought I would quote from the DUP manifesto; this may be my one and only opportunity to do so. It says that they would
“support an end to the unfair treatment of women pensioners.”
Alongside the Conservative MPs who have signed the WASPI pledge, we have the numbers to change this policy. I ask the Minister to take this opportunity, secure the change that is needed and provide dignity in retirement for all the women penalised by the changes.
I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. I have 4,000 women in my constituency who are affected by this issue, and I have met many; I am sure other honourable colleagues have done the same. I will have to rattle through my speech. I am sorry not to be as eloquent as I would like on their behalf.
It is a complex picture. Not only do my constituents feel that they were not given adequate information about how to plan their future, but they feel cast on the heap, so to speak, now that they are having to look for jobs. Their experience in the jobcentre has been abysmal. People who have been in senior positions are being given advice on how to dress and present themselves at interview and update their CV. There is nearly 0% unemployment in my constituency, so their chances of getting a job are pretty remote and they are finding it incredibly dispiriting to have to take part in that process.
I would like to mention Daphne—I will not give her second name—who has been instrumental in bringing the issue to my attention in St Albans. What she says reflects the position of many women, and I am actually a WASPI woman as well. She says that generations ago, people did things differently. Daphne started work very young and was only informed of the pension age change in October 2012, two and a half years before she was due to retire. She is married to a man five years older. She says that this was not how she planned to spend her retirement—scraping around trying to get a job, being advised by people at the jobcentre who have absolutely no idea how to get her a job, and feeling a sense of injustice that she was given so little time to plan.
That is the nub of it for the WASPI women. They accept that there should be equalisation in pension age, but what they do not accept is being given a matter of months to turn their lives around—to turn around their future plans with their spouse or partner. They do not accept not having some comfort in their retirement, so that they can live the life they thought they had planned for and had made all the preparation for.
The fact that those letters did not arrive, desperately needs to be looked into by the Minister, and something should be done to redress the imbalance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to join other hon. Members in speaking up for these women, who have worked hard all their life, working to a presumed retirement date, only to see the Government move the goalposts at the last minute, giving them little or no notice and, as we have heard, causing real financial hardship.
This is the first such debate in this Parliament, but it is just the latest in a long line of debates, questions and lobbies calling on the Government to right this wrong. It is necessary now because, up until now, there have been no positive messages from the Government, no mention in the Tory manifesto and no mention in the Queen’s Speech.
The WASPI women I have spoken to made their voices heard clearly in the general election by lobbying candidates, and voting for candidates who listened and committed to fight this huge injustice. The Government should not and cannot take these women for granted any more. Their voice will be heard and needs to be heeded. They are women who have sacrificed their careers for caring; who were unable to take up suitable workplace pensions, often due to unequal pay in the past. Many, because of ill health, are not able to work the extra years the Government now expect of them. That is illustrated by a constituent who asked me to raise her case and sadly died recently. At the age of 62, she had to give up work after 45 years after a long battle with cancer. She had a demanding job, and she just could not continue. The change meant that she was denied more than £38,000. She was unable to enjoy her retirement and was very worried about the financial hardship that that meant. That shows the real human impact of this Government policy. That is just one voice, but I ask the Minister to listen to the many thousands like her and work to find a solution to end this hardship and right this wrong.
Here we are again: it is déjà vu all over again. I am delighted to see so many people supporting this debate, as they did for so many of the debates we had in the previous Parliament. I welcome back some of the longstanding supporters of the campaign, and I particularly welcome new conscripts to the campaign and longstanding Members newly converted to the campaign—partly, I am sure, by the fantastic campaigning efforts of the various WASPI campaigners during the general election, who got people to sign the pledge. I pay tribute to them again.
It is essential that we all keep united on this important campaign. I speak as a co-chair of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women. I and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who co-chairs it with me, pledge that we will be re-forming the group shortly, to ensure that the WASPI women’s voices are heard loud and clear in this place until we get justice for them.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the state pension system is founded on a contributory principle. It is not a state benefit, for which no prior commitment is involved. Yet that group of women, who have been paying national insurance contributions over many years in good faith and have fulfilled their end of the deal, face being short-changed retrospectively. That is the nub of this injustice.
There is an unfair, disproportionate burden on women born in the 1950s. We have heard so much about the poor communication—they were not made aware of what they were going to face—and the promise of transitional arrangements that have still not materialised, despite various Ministers saying they would. In my view, that represents a breach of trust for those hundreds of thousands—indeed, millions—of women who worked hard, did the right thing and did their bit all their life. The problem is more widespread than we were ever led to believe. It threatens real hardship for many of our constituents now—not at some stage in the future, but absolutely now.
This problem is not going to go away. I hope that, with a new Minister and a new Secretary of State, we can have a new start and a clean break, and that we can recognise this injustice and do something about it at long last.
The 1950s women have faced challenges and disadvantage throughout their working lives. Those women—I include myself among them—started work before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force, and they predated the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. They regularly experienced harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and they frequently had to resolve to accept low-paid, part-time jobs because flexible working was not then available to them. They are the group of women who, because of a lack of childcare provision and paternity leave, gave up work to raise children, which not only affected their personal occupational pension, if they were lucky enough to have one, but their future earning capacity.
The Government’s decision to accelerate state pension age equalisation is the most recent affront to that group of women, who, despite facing such adversity, have contributed all their working lives and deserve a decent retirement, built on solid foundations of stability and certainty. Unfortunately, the gross unfairness of the Government’s decision, combined with their inability to communicate properly the changes they introduced, has robbed that group of women of the capacity to plan their retirement with certainty and to make informed decisions. They have not been given the time needed to adjust to their new circumstances.
The Government must now act to address that intrinsic unfairness by introducing transitional arrangements for those women. Everyone agrees that the retirement age for the state pension should be the same for men and women. That is not the question. It is not equalisation that is so unfair; it is the pace of the changes and the way the Government are bringing them in, along with the indifference shown towards those affected. That needs to be resolved without delay.
We have had this debate many times previously, and it is unlikely that much that is said today will be new. In the previous Parliament, the Work and Pensions Committee report highlighted some of the issues that the WASPI campaigners themselves raised. Among them is the key problem of communication and the lessons that can be learned from that—in particular, that all those who will be affected by future state pension age changes should be given much longer notice of them, and that there needs to be a much better communication programme to ensure no one has reason to say that they did not know when their state pension would arrive.
There are the real issues of equality and European law, which some people have overlooked—in particular, to do with the Pensions Act 1995. There are also real issues, sometimes under-emphasised by some of my colleagues, about the costs to the DWP, which are estimated to be about £30 billion, with a further cost to the Exchequer of about £8 billion from reduced tax and national insurance contributions. That is a completely different sum of money from, for example, the additional funding given to help mental health in Northern Ireland.
Earlier, the hon. Gentleman referred to communications. How can it possibly be right that when I wrote to women in my constituency whom I identified might be affected, many wrote back and said that was the first time they had ever been told by anybody? That is the injustice of the situation. [Applause.]
I understand the point the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is making. That was covered in considerable detail in the report of the Work and Pensions Committee, which was chaired by his colleague, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). There are claims both ways on that. I suspect that there were definitely people who did not know, but perhaps not quite as many as has been suggested.
Let me come on to the Opposition parties’ proposals. In the first debate in this very Chamber some time ago, which, as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) should know, was as well-attended as this one is, I warned the WASPI campaigners that they were in real danger of being led up the garden path by Labour and the Scottish National party. I note that, in 2016, the Labour party said it would commit £860 million to extend pension credits. That was reduced in its manifesto to £300 million, alongside a line that said:
“Labour is exploring options for further transitional protections.”
After two and a half years, I would have thought that it would have come up with some result from its explorations, but there is none so far. The Scottish National party, which simply said in its manifesto:
“We will also continue to support the WASPI campaign”,
now has the devolved powers in Scotland to give additional discretionary sums of money to those affected.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not take any further interventions. There are many people who want to speak.
My strong recommendation to the Minister is this. He is a new, capable Minister, and I know he has looked at this issue. He should focus on what extra support he and the Government can give to those women who are still in work longer than they otherwise expected to be. In particular, he should spell out more about what the Government’s strategy for “fuller working lives” involves. Meanwhile, he has in his in-tray two important issues to look at, which affect other pensioners: the fact that there are real issues for people who are getting net pay and not benefiting from their employer’s contributions, and those people with too little to get over the hurdle to get the pension at all—
Let me correct the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). If he reads section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, he will see that the Scottish Government are prohibited from doing anything about pensions or relating to age.
The key issue is communication. The Work and Pensions Committee said that people should have 15 years. The Government said, “Well, you did. It changed in 1995”. But they wasted 14 of those years by not informing women. They only started to write to women in 2009, one year before the first batch of women found that their pension age had changed. Many only discovered in 2011, when they were informed of the second change, that they were being hit by a double whammy.
The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is one of communication—an article in the Financial Times is not an acceptable way to inform women such as me, born in the 1950s, that our pension age is changing. HMRC and the DWP can certainly find us when they want to, so I would have thought they could send a personal letter. The idea that we should have to ask for our pension age is ridiculous when we have known what it was for our whole lives. The Government owe those women a duty of care; those women who have suffered the gender pay gap, raised children and cared for the sick—
Those women have also faced discrimination while they were working. As a Member said earlier, they have been in poorly paid jobs—part-time or flexible work was not available. Women still occupy the bulk of low-paid jobs; women have faced and suffered 86% of all the austerity cuts since 2010. Those women have paid and paid and paid, and some of them are losing almost £50,000 of pension in the move from 60 to 66. That is utterly unjust. The Government could correct it. They should sit down on a cross-party basis to work it out, to deliver some justice, fairness and dignity for the WASPI women.
This is a simple question of justice, of fairness and of righting a wrong that has been done to women of the 1950s generation. I was born in the 1950s—many in the Chamber will not remember them—and women did not work. We were told that we would have to rely on our husband’s pension.
Later, when we went into work, given the opportunity, we were told, “You’re working part-time; you cannot enter a private pension agreement.” We did not work not because we did not want to, but because there were no employment opportunities for working women. Some women could not be in teaching if they were married in the early 1950s; they had to give up work.
Now, those same 1950s women are called—I find this quite offensive—the “sandwich generation”: we are the ones looking after grandchildren and our elderly parents. At the same time, we are having to give up work because our pension is not there. Too many women are now living in poverty. Too many women, when they can get work, are having to accept zero-hours contracts, temporary jobs and low pay, no matter what their qualifications or skills base.
It is wrong that a generation of women have been treated in this way, ignored by Government and not even communicated with—the contempt that that generation of women have had to cope with all their working lives has been exacerbated by this Government. It is time for justice for the WASPI women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing forward this debate at a convenient and appropriate time.
Last October, I presented a petition signed by 2,249 Waveney residents in support of the WASPI campaign. At the same time, Waveney District Council unanimously endorsed that campaign on a cross-party basis. The general election campaign, when I was knocking on doors, confirmed for me that this a very real problem for many women who face serious hardship. It will not go away.
The all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, which will be re-formed shortly, will I am sure play its role in finding a solution. I ask the Minister, whom I know well, to consult and consider with his ministerial colleagues and to come forward with proposals to start a process to find a solution that is fair, fully considered and affordable.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this debate.
Five thousand women in North Tyneside are affected by the changes to the state pension age and many of them have contacted me about the acceleration of their state pension age. Women in this age group went straight into work after leaving school, so by the time they reach their state pension age they have already worked more than the 35 years expected for a full state pension. They have at least 39 to 44 qualifying years and have paid more than their fair share of contributions, but are losing at least three to four years of pension entitlement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those women who did not contract out of the state scheme but remained in it are disadvantaged against those who did contract out, in that a pension can often be drawn early if it is a private pension that someone contracted out to, but a state pension cannot be drawn out early?
Quite right—I have nothing to add to that.
My point is that the Treasury is making quite a saving. One of my constituents, who worked until she was in her late 50s and gave up her job to look after her father—who had dementia—thought she could manage because she thought that she would get her pension at 60, but she found she was unable to claim her pension. She then had poor health herself and was forced to claim employment and support allowance with the support of her GP. That claim was denied and, despite ill health, she now has to work two cleaning jobs to support herself—that is a disgrace.
I feel both sorry for and angry on behalf of the 5,000 women in North Tyneside and the other millions of women who have been cheated of their pension entitlement by the coalition Government and this Tory Government. I hope that the Minister will disagree with his predecessor, who claimed that going further than the Government have already gone could not be justified.
Our welfare state began on 5 July 1948. On 5 July 2017, I say to the Minister that a commitment by him to further transitional arrangements for those women would be a fitting birthday tribute to that great institution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I had a very long speech—but that will now become a very short speech.
I want to make one particular point. I was a personal finance journalist, writing about pensions, for about 15 years; also, my mother is one of those affected by the changes. She was informed about them, but she found out relatively late, and I have many constituents in the same position.
I accept and genuinely believe that over the past 13 years—remember, the Labour Government saw through the majority of this—Governments have fallen down on the job of informing people directly, as they should have done. There was some discussion in the personal finance press—I know that because I used to write about it—but now Labour are coming along and saying, “Everything is terrible under the Conservatives”, or whatever. They were in charge for 13 years during the period in question.
I will not give way, I am afraid, as I am short of time.
My other point is that the current state pension arrangements will have to rise as well. When we meet those issues in the future, we have to get them right because this country is heading for an enormous black hole. The figures are frightening—absolutely frightening. People talk about £30 billion here, £30 billion there, but the reality is that if the Opposition parties want to form a Government in the future, they will have to accept that the pension system in this country needs continued radical reform. If they do not do so, and continue grandstanding, taking on policies and ignoring their own past errors, that is not going to do any good whatever.
In 2003, the Turner commission report—
I am sorry, I cannot—I did not give way to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) either.
In 2003, the Turner commission report was born out of cross-party consensus on pensions. That has broken down. Going forward, we need a bit more co-operative work so that it does not happen again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on once again securing a debate on this important matter. He has already stated the reasons why the policy is so unfair: the lack of adequate notice given to the 3.5 million WASPI women and the lack of opportunity to make contingent plans for the future in the face of such injustice. More than 4,000 women are affected in Haslingden and Hyndburn.
Catherine Vernon is one of more than 4,000 constituents in Weaver Vale affected by this issue. The only garden path the WASPI campaign led me up was to election victory and the removal of the Conservative Member for Weaver Vale. Do the maths: the majority of the former MP was 806; I had 4,400 very powerful WASPI women. I want to thank them for their campaign and I hope they continue to shake this place up until they get justice.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Many people want to raise concerns. This debate has been thrashed alive. I will turn to some of the comments that my constituents have made to me.
Jennifer Smith, aged 63, works as a nurse on night shifts and does not see why she should run around an extremely busy ward while her pension has been moved back. Kath Talbot, also in her 60s, has described the change as a six-year sentence and says it is heartbreaking to watch her plans go up in smoke because she has to use savings to get by. Elaine Walker, aged 62, has worked all her life, but is now disabled. On top of the changes to pensions, the Government have also cut her benefits. Joanie Fraser, aged 62, worries about an uncertain future for her and her friends, who simply cannot cope with further demoralisation after more than 45 years of hard work.
Sylvia Cottam, aged 63, wrote that she is undergoing chemotherapy and worries whether she will receive her pension if she stops work for good. Helen Grace wrote that she has had to take medication because of the stress of this change. She works in early years but said she would not have chosen that career if she had known about the pension equalisation. She and Julie Sanderson both want to emphasise the problems of means testing and the so-called transitional arrangements of 18 months. Helen Brewin says the very least that the Government could do is to look at the effect it is having on people in their 50s. Thousands of women are suffering. Finally—time is short, and I want to allow other people to speak—Wendy Critchley wrote to point out that the 1950s women were brought up in an age when working hard was encouraged. How have we ended up with such injustice?
The Government need to step up now and implement clear transitional arrangements for the women that remedy the situation they face. Their financial situation is insecure and the Government need to recognise that.
As other Members have observed, we have had many debates on this subject so it is fair to say that the WASPI campaign has been a success in raising its profile. However, the only measure of success that hon. Members and campaigners will judge things by is a change in Government policy.
Is it not the case that because of the arithmetic of this Parliament, the Government will have to come forward with a proposal? That is absolutely clear. The only question is whether it is a derisory one. The Minister needs to understand that point before he comes up with his inevitable offer in the near future.
My hon. Friend is right that there is an arithmetical inevitability about this matter. That is a tribute to the WASPI campaign and the way in which campaigners focused on people who stood for Parliament and gained their support. Given the timescales and the people we are talking about, the sooner something comes forward, the better, because the women cannot afford to wait another five years until the end of this Parliament. I urge the Minister, as my hon. Friend has suggested, to come up with proposals sooner rather than later.
As we have seen following the election, Ministers have changed their minds on a range of matters, so why should the WASPI campaign be any different? Anyone who has spoken to campaigners cannot help but be moved by the compelling case that they make. I have met many of them and they have told me about how they have been affected. Many have received little or no notice at all about changes to their pension age, forcing them to reconsider retirement plans or, worse still, rejoin the jobs market some time after they thought that they would not need to work again.
I have heard from constituents who volunteered to take redundancy to save the jobs of younger colleagues on the false assumption they would receive their pension at an earlier date. They deserve better. It is no longer acceptable when we hear the Government say that change is unaffordable. As we have heard from various Members already today, we need only to look at what has happened in Northern Ireland in the past week to know that where there is a political imperative, money can be found.
I will not give way any more.
What about the cost in unintended consequences? Constituents have told me that the position they find themselves in now has had a detrimental impact on their mental health. That has a cost to the public purse as well. If the moral and financial arguments are not persuasive, perhaps the Minister will reflect on the message that this sends out not only to the WASPI women, but to everyone.
The state pension is part of the social contract that the Government have with the people of this country. It is an important part of the state’s guarantee to people that if they pay their taxes they will be looked after in their old age or when they fall ill or otherwise face misfortune. If people do not trust the Government to deliver on that promise, we are heading down a road that we will come to regret.
First, I want to make clear the commitment in our manifesto; the proposer might find more enlightenment and balance in our manifesto than he does in his own. Our manifesto has committed us to continue this campaign and to continue giving the support that we afforded in the previous Parliament.
The issue is one of fairness. People have already said that the main problem is not that the pension age should be changed, but that when it is changed people ought to know that their circumstances have changed. The issue does not concern only one Government, but a range of parties. Perhaps it does not do any good to point fingers here today, but the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Labour party have all been in power during the time when information should have been given, but was not. As a result, many people have found that their pension age has been substantially changed and they are left without any provision for their immediate needs.
We are not wedded to any particular outcome. First, we have to recognise that there are some fiscal restraints. Having said that, some suggestions have been put forward, all of which would help to address the problems faced by those who first face an immediate loss of income and secondly have no provision made for filling the gap that has been caused. During this Parliament we will work with the Government and use whatever influence, however minimal or maximal, to try to get a solution. It will inevitably have to be cross-party, but the solution must help to address the problems faced by people who bear no responsibility for their problems, but had them foisted on them.
The WASPI campaign has been hugely effective and I congratulate the campaigners. They have been especially effective in my constituency and in my party, and we are steadfast in our support for them. As we have heard, millions of women have worked hard but have had their lives totally disrupted. They are angry and they are not going away. Often they face unemployment with little hope of getting a job that is well paid, especially in a constituency like mine, which is a low-pay area. That is a poor reward for long years of work.
We do not oppose equalisation of the state pension age. Everyone says it is the way that it has been done that shows such disregard and indeed contempt. The Minister knows that it has long been the case and that it is argued on all sides that such profound changes require at least 10 years’ notice. For example, the House might be interested to know that most recently the Cridland review published in March this year recommends raising the age to 68 over a two-year period between 2037 and 2039, 20 years hence.
It is not just in Wales that that happens, but in other deprived areas of the UK—the north-east and south-west.
The Government claim to be making the changes in response to increases in life expectancy, but life expectancy varies significantly from region to region. Wales will be particularly hit. In some parts of England newborn babies might now expect to live to the age of 87, but in parts of Wales they might expect to live to just 76. Payments in might be equal, but payments out vary enormously. I urge the Government to phase in transitional state pension arrangements for all WASPI women. That requires a bridging pension and compensation for those affected, to cover the period between the age of 60 and the new pension age.
The voices of the women who have been so badly treated must be heard and heeded. Otherwise it might seem that the Minister believes that accepting unfairness and keeping quiet is just a girl’s job.
Today’s attendance is testimony to the depth of feeling on the issue, and the Minister will know how passionate I and my colleagues are about such a grave injustice. I am sure that his predecessor left him a health warning about my personal passion on the issue. I need say nothing more about it, because my colleagues have been saying it for me. However, I feel compelled to say that the Government have betrayed the women. They have stolen their security and shattered their dreams. Without the time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements, many women born in the 1950s have been left in financial despair. They do not ask for special treatment—merely for respect and fair play.
In the recent general election all my Labour candidate colleagues, most of those in the current Opposition parties and, indeed, some Conservative candidates signed the WASPI pledge. I believe I saw that on many Twitter accounts, including that of the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who showed support for the west WASPI campaign. I applaud those who made that brave move. Now is the time for the Government to respect their colleagues, if not the WASPI women, and to do the right thing. The women have suffered for too long. The injustice must stop now. It cannot be allowed to continue.
The WASPI women are angry and the Government are mistaken if they think, as I suspect they have thought up to this point, that if they hold firm the women will get bored—that they will be broken or beaten in the face of intransigence and give up. They will not give up. Even if they wanted to, they cannot. It is not a matter of pin money, but money to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. It is about being paid the pension to which they are entitled, so that they can have some kind of dignity in their retirement. They are not asking for a handout. They are not even asking for a hand up. They are asking for what is rightfully theirs—for what they should be able to expect.
The women have every right to be angry. Any fair-minded person who knows anything about the issue must surely be angry on their behalf. The delay to their pensions effectively deprives them of, potentially, tens of thousands of pounds. It is a travesty and must be addressed. Let us not forget that an attack on their pensions is ultimately an attack on the pensions of us all. The contract between the governed and the governing lies in tatters.
If the Minister feels that the Government have painted themselves into a corner and that retreat is difficult, I say this: there is courage and strength in admitting being wrong, in doing the right thing and in giving the women their due, not because the parliamentary arithmetic demands it but because it is right. I urge the Minister today to make the right choice and right a terrible wrong—to pay the women what they are owed, so that we can start to have a serious, mature and grown-up discussion about the future of state pensions. No one is opposed to the equalisation of state pensions. That is the way forward and I urge the Minister to start walking that path today.
I have yet to meet anyone who does not agree that the WASPI women are in a terrible position, and that the failings are the Government’s, not theirs. It is hard to dispute the idea that not enough energy or resources were put into informing the women of the changes early enough for them to prepare psychologically and comprehend what the rest of their working life and their retirement plans would be.
Approximately 5,000 of the affected women live in North West Durham, and I have not met many who have been able to save. They now live in hardship. What an indignity that is, after they have served their communities through their labour for so many years—to end their lives in poverty. I do not think that it is disputed that adequate notification was not given. The DWP’s own research said that six out of 10 women expected to reach state pension age earlier than they will do.
My hon. Friend is right on that point. There are 4,000 WASPI women in Leigh and they have had to set up their own group to support other women who are affected by the changes. From the time they found out what they had not initially been made aware of, the issues have been ongoing.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that when the state fails people will organise.
I have witnessed what is happening at first hand. My mam only found out about her pension changes because of the WASPI campaign and I saw her disappointment, worry and anger that after working from the age of 13 she had to work more and more, and was robbed of nearly £40,000. For those women, who have not had enough time to prepare, who have had inadequate correspondence from the DWP and who through no fault of their own have ended up in poverty, the right thing to do is to compensate those who have already reached state pension age and provide a bridging pension for those who have not, in humble recognition that, as other hon. Members have said, it is not a benefit—it is rightfully theirs.
As other hon. Members have recognised, in the past couple of weeks we have seen that, when the political will is there, money can be found quickly to remedy a problem. I urge the Government to apply the same urgency to the present situation. There are many lessons to be learned from what is happening, but there is no justification for not putting it right. I want pension justice for those women now.
What a difference a few months can make in politics. At the start of June the Prime Minister told us that there is no magic money tree. At the start of July the UK Government could magically find £1 billion to save her career—at least for the short term. Of course, if things do not go to plan it is helpful to have a safety net to fall back on. That is a luxury that many women have not been given, since the UK Government unfairly and unexpectedly changed their pension rights. Those women are often forced to accept low-paid and insecure work because some employers are unwilling to take on workers who are close to retirement age. The resulting financial hardship has forced some to sell their homes. Others have developed health problems, or have had aggravations of existing long-term health conditions, because of the stress and anxiety of their situation. Too many still face an uncertain future.
It is estimated that around 3,900 women have been affected in my constituency. Local campaigners such as Elizabeth McQuarrie have done a tremendous job of making sure that the issue is not brushed aside by the Government. If it were not for our local WASPI campaign many more women would be caught out by the pension changes, some of whom stand to lose £35,000 over five years. If the UK Government can find £1 billion to help save the Prime Minister, why have they not devoted a single penny to helping the 2.6 million women affected by unfair pension changes?
Affordable solutions are available. An independent report commissioned by the Scottish National party outlined five options that the UK Government could take to mitigate the impact of the changes. The research found that for £8 billion over five years we could return to the original timetable set out in the Pensions Act 1995. It concluded that the money could come from the national insurance fund, which is predicted to have a surplus of £30 billion by the end of 2017-18.
The women of the WASPI campaign have fulfilled their part of the bargain by being productive citizens, some of them having worked since they were 15 years old. Now it is time for the UK Government to honour their side of the contract.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for bringing another debate on this important issue. In the short time available to me I want to make a couple of points. First, the Government have set a dangerous precedent by breaking a contract with the people of this country. What does that say about what will happen in the future?
Those women have been cheated. I resent—and I am sure they do too—the implication that the Government cannot afford what they seek, and that the women are asking for Government spending. There is a contract, which the women entered into with the Government, in good faith. They worked hard, they paid in and they reasonably expected that, at 60, they would be able to collect their pensions. As many Members have said, there was no desire to fight equalisation, but there is a right of fair notice. Many of my constituents found out—some of them on their own initiative—only six weeks before their 60th birthdays that they would not be able to retire at 60 as they had expected. This is not about them fancying putting their feet up but having to work a bit longer; many women are having to continue working in physically demanding jobs when they clearly are not fit to do so.
Julie, a nurse in my constituency, relies on her income to support herself. She has worked in the NHS for 47 years. She recently experienced ill health. She thought she could just stagger on in what is a very physical role, but she now has to work for another three years. She got no notice whatever.
Absolutely. Women cannot pay the price of the financial deficit in this country. Those women, who have worked hard, deserve to get what they are entitled to.
I spoke to another woman in my constituency who works in a foundry doing heavy physical work. She said she drags herself to the bus station at the end of the day and she is in bed at 7.30 pm so that she can get to work the next day. She thought she could stagger on for another 18 months until she was 60. Now, she finds she has to work extra years. Not working is not an option for her; she cannot choose not to work. She is not qualified to do anything else. She is 61; who is going to employ her to do anything now? This is unacceptable. Those women were not notified. The very least the Government could do is make transitional arrangements so there is at least a semblance of fairness and those women are allowed some sort of dignity in retirement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I was going to congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing this subject to the House again, but I actually find myself wishing that he had not, because I cannot believe that we are still debating it. I am absolutely scunnered with banging on about the injustice to this group of women. The fact that we have to have another debate is an absolute disgrace and says a lot about the Government and their priorities.
We are at the stage where these debates are almost scripted for me. I know exactly what is going to come back from the Government Benches and, like most people here, I know what I am going to say. We have heard the Government argue, “Well, the 1995 Act gave 15 years’ notice. That is exactly what the Turner commission recommended, so what is the problem?” Let me say it as clearly as possible: the problem is that nobody knew about these changes. The first letters were not sent out until 2009—14 years after the changes. To put that in context, I have been alive only eight years longer than that. That is 14 years in which consecutive Governments sat on their backside and did nothing, and the Government are now complaining that women are—quite rightly—angry that they never knew about the changes.
The thing is that the Government did not tell us about this issue with their hands in the air and say, “Aye, you’re right, sorry. We got that a wee bit wrong.” The information came from the hard-working women behind me in the Gallery through freedom of information requests and constant letters to the Government. The Government have been nothing but obstructive and downright stubborn the whole way through this campaign and since the issue was raised—so much so that the SNP actually went away and re-did its own work. We used our own money to commission our own report, which shows that this issue could plausibly be sorted and the legislation could at least be amended a wee bit.
All it would take is £8 billion spread across five years. That is a substantial amount, but as was said by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Work and Pensions Committee—the idea that the Government will genuinely stand in front of everyone here and say, “We can’t afford it,” is quite frankly laughable. It has been pointed out many times that they found £1 billion for a deal to cling on to power, but they say they cannot find the money to give women the pensions they are due.
My hon. Friend is a very reasonable person; let us see whether we can help the Government. We know that the national insurance fund has a surplus of £30 billion. Let us lay to rest the myth that there is a black hole. The Government Actuary’s Department’s own figures suggest that that fund will remain in surplus until at least the mid-2030s. May I suggest to the Government that they use that surplus? Women have paid in to the fund; let us make sure they get their pension, and let us do it today.
Not surprisingly, I agree with that statement. I heard some muttering from the Government Benches about how that is a lot of rubbish. Let me just say this: if that is a lot of rubbish in their heads, they should bring their plans forward. They do not get to criticise other parties’ plans when they have not even bothered to come up with their own.
Like I say, the debate is almost scripted, because I know that the Minister will say at some point, “We did look at this in 2011 and we did make the concessions at the time.” I guarantee that the Minister will say that. Let my reply be this: that is not how the world works. That is not how society works. If citizens come to them with a time-sensitive problem and say, “This still isn’t working,” it is the Government’s job to listen. It is not the job of the Government to look back and go, “We talked about that a couple of years ago, so I’m afraid there’s no movement there whatsoever.” If that is the case, I am looking forward to the next time the Army needs new funds, the next time this Parliament needs doing up, and so on. The idea that we cannot afford it is ridiculous.
Fundamentally, the worst part of this whole issue is that these women are targeted. The Government like to sit back and act as though these women are just unfortunate casualties of austerity and say, “Our hands are tied; we can’t do anything.” That is not the case; they are targeted. These are women who have suffered pay inequality and social inequality all their lives. We even heard earlier that women were told to use their husbands’ pensions. Society has changed a lot since then. What are we doing for these women now? And what about lesbian couples—women who are in equal marriages with other women? Are they just expected to bear the brunt? [Interruption.] It is not even a double whammy; it is a quadruple whammy at this point.
I am amazed that I feel the need to point this out. These women are blameless. They are guilty of nothing. They have done nothing wrong other than, for instance, not reading the back pages of the Financial Times in 1995. The only other two things they are guilty of are being born in the ’50s and being women. The Government do not get to plead that this is all in the name of equality; when only women are suffering under their definition of equality, it is time for them to reassess that definition.
Fundamentally, Governments should look after their people. When their people are coming to them and saying there is problem, it is their job to fix it. Let me put a little reality into this. I got an email today from a WASPI woman. I cannot remember where she is from—it is somewhere in England. She told me that her friend committed suicide after seeing the general election result because she could not face what would happen to her. Citizens are committing suicide over an issue that could be solved just like that—an issue that the Government could do a U-turn on at any given moment.
The Government managed to fork out a magical £1 billion to cling on to power; they must really want the job of having to fix these things. When they can find £1 billion for self-interest, they do not get to claim that money is the reason they cannot help.
The Government quite rightly dropped their manifesto pension plans—two of them in total, I think—because they saw how damaging, unworkable and unpopular they would be. That was wise. In actual fact, I have a bit of respect for them for being able to go, “Aye, we got that wrong, guys, so we’re pulling back. We’re listening to you.” I say, I hope for the last time: just drop one more plan. Realise that this issue is cross-party and affects people from different backgrounds and different areas. These are people’s mothers, aunties, sisters and cousins. Please do the right thing. Do the job of the Government—fix the problem and start looking after people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend and north-east England colleague the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing the debate, and I thank everybody who has contributed this afternoon. Speaking of north-east colleagues, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on his promotion to Pensions Minister—it appears his jockeying for position in the political world has finally paid off. I was pleased to have a good—even friendly—working relationship with his predecessor, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), and hope for the same with him.
We can start that right here with a friendly offer from the Opposition to work together across the House to deliver much fairer transitional arrangements for the much-wronged 1950s-born women, who saw their pension age accelerated by several years with little or no notice. The Minister is in a strong position to deliver change. All of us on the Opposition side, including the Government’s allies in the DUP, back the ’50s-born women’s cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington spoke of the 20 Conservative and DUP Members who have signed the WASPI pledge, but it gets even better. There are 37 MPs on the Government Benches who have supported the WASPI campaign either through membership of the all-party parliamentary group or through election pledges; others have done so today. That is enough to provide a majority in the House of those who want to see action taken to alleviate the difficulty faced by the most vulnerable women, now in their 60s. I am sure that each and every one of those Members will want to report back to their constituents that they have fulfilled their promises. It is quite a list, and I would love to share it with the Minister if he wants it.
I have spoken for the official Opposition on ’50s-born women more than half a dozen times since I accepted my role nine months ago, with other parties throwing their weight behind some form of support for the women who have been affected by these changes. Still—perhaps just until today—the Government have stuck their collective head in the sand. Yes, we now have a new Secretary of State and a new Pensions Minister—and, as has already been said, even a new Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who is a declared WASPI supporter, having signed one of WASPI’s pledges to
“do all he can to work for a solution if elected”.
He could not be better placed to influence change for the better. Perhaps now the Government will take positive action and introduce new measures to reduce the strain on the most vulnerable women and men who have been affected by these increases in the state pension age.
I have heard from numerous women affected by the changes, and heard stories of their desperation and fear about how they will cope now that they have to wait even longer for their state pension. Does the new Minister understand how difficult it is for a woman in her 60s to retrain and gain employment? The job market and skills needed in today’s workplace are a different world from that of 40 years ago. What we have is a system that does not help older people retrain and get back into meaningful employment, a welfare system being torn to pieces, disabled people being humiliated through repetitive assessments, and now a state pension that is becoming increasingly difficult to access. Once again it is Labour, and others, who are standing up for the vulnerable. It is Labour calling out the injustice that ordinary people face, and Labour is the loudest voice demanding action. I know what the Conservatives are doing: they are trying to ignore the issue in the hope that the years will pass, the number of women affected by this measure will drop, and they will get away with leaving older people to struggle for many years to come.
We heard during the election that there is not a magic money tree—others have referred to that—but whenever the Government need funds to support their aims, they find it. There is no magic money tree, but they found that £1 billion to which others have referred to secure that deal with the DUP, to keep Theresa May in No. 10. That is just the up-front cost. The DUP will be back for more and Northern Ireland will get the priority investment that areas in the rest of the country also desperately need. I would never recommend selling out to the Tories, as the Lib Dems did in 2010, but I can understand our 10 DUP colleagues, striving to do the best for their communities with their £1 billion deal. I am sure many other MPs have wondered what they could do to help their constituency if they had their own £100 million magic money tree. It should not be about one versus the other. We must make investment where it is needed and protect the most vulnerable. Just as communities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere need a lifeline, so do ’50s-born women, many of whom are destitute.
The Labour party laid out its approach to reducing the strain on vulnerable and struggling women, which is to extend pension credit to those who were due to retire before the pension increase. That would alleviate the toughest circumstances and restore the faith and dignity that many feel they have lost. Extending pension credit would provide support worth up to £155 a week to half a million of the most vulnerable women who have been affected by the increase in the state pension age. We are continuing to look at other ways to ensure that those who need support receive it, but we need the Government to get on board and work with us. If the Minister would like a conversation about how we can deliver a cross-party approach to secure fair transitional arrangements to the most vulnerable ’50s-born women, I will be pleased to meet him. The general election result delivered a verdict that the Conservatives no longer have the full confidence of the country to govern. That strengthens the case for a joint approach in this case.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Has he had any discussions with the new Secretary of State about the plight of ’50s-born women? Do they accept that many women had little if any notice of the change in their pension age, and that those women ought to be recompensed in some way? Will he and the Secretary of State agree at least to a review and then change their policy, offering at least the most vulnerable women something to get by on? That is what it is about—getting by.
Previous DWP Ministers wanted to help these women, but they had the Treasury doors slammed shut in their faces. In these very different days of unstable Government, I hope the Minister will now be able to assure the House—including those 37 Members of his party—that he takes this matter seriously and that he will work with us and others to deliver a fair and meaningful solution to this problem and, above all, win some friends and make himself the Government champion for these very wronged women.
We are from different sides of the political fence, but the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and I are united by one key thing: we have both beaten cancer. I would like to start by saying how pleased I am to see my fellow tumour survivor back in his place. I wish him well with his future treatment. He can imagine my joy when, on day three of my new job as Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, I was told that he had secured a debate on women’s state pensions—the first debate I would have to answer here in this House.
Not yet, no—I am not going to. All of us here, as constituency MPs, have met women who have been affected by the state pension age rises. I have met them ever since my election as Member of Parliament for Hexham in 2010, and during the passage of the 2011 Act. Whether they are affiliated to the WASPI campaign or not, I have seen them in and out of my surgeries, like all colleagues have done. Like many, I have answered correspondence on the issue. I make it clear that I will be delighted to meet the all-party parliamentary group when it is re-formed, as I am sure it will be, and will be in a position to sit down with them to discuss their ongoing situations.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said that she expected me to speak only about the 1995 Act, the 2011 Act, all the transitional arrangements and so on. I accept, and she will understand, that I have to make the case on those matters, not least because of what has been said, but I want this debate to be done in a different way. I want to say two things at the outset.
If individual Members of Parliament have specific cases where they feel their individual constituents are affected by state pension age changes and find themselves in financial hardship, whether they are people who have to reduce their hours because of sickness, disability or caring responsibility, I and the London DWP team will look into those individual cases. As Members pass them on to us, we will do what we can to provide assistance, whether that is understanding of the availability of carer’s allowance, housing benefit, tax credits, income support, employment and support allowance or other benefits. However, the essence of what I want to address the House on is this.
No, I will not. It is not the Government’s position that we will make further concessions by the 1995 or 2011 Acts. The fundamental point—at this point I really wish to address the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South—is that the Government have done a massive amount on a progressive basis to get people back into employment or retraining in their pre-pension years.
First, we created, and we have now extended, a network of older claimant champions in all 34 Jobcentre Plus districts in the country. The champions work with Jobcentre work coaches to provide advice and best practice on skills provision, digital and social support and job-search support, which leads into the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy issued by the Government on a cross-Government basis in February this year.
Secondly, we have committed massively to lifelong learning. The reality is that more than 200,000 people aged over 60 have entered further education since 2014-15. [Interruption.]
I am going to set out these matters; please bear with me. In the 2017 Budget, the Chancellor allocated £5 million to increase the number of returnship schemes. We are working with employers across the public and private sectors to understand how returners can be supported back into permanent employment, building on successful examples run by companies such as Centrica.
I realise it is not going down well, but the point I am trying to make is that the Government are actually doing a significant amount to address the individual difficulties for those persons attempting to enter the labour market. Last year, the Government appointed Andy Briggs, CEO of Aviva, as the dedicated business champion for older workers, to spearhead work with employers on a business-to-business basis. I met Mr Briggs two days ago. He is clearly passionate about his mission to persuade employers to increase the number of older workers they employ by 12% by 2022. [Interruption.]
In May 2017, Mr Briggs launched the “Commit and Publish” campaign, challenging employers to monitor the age of their workforce and publish figures by the end of 2017. A significant number of companies have already bought into that, including Aviva, Barclays and the Co-op. I assure colleagues that I will be assisting Mr Briggs in pursuing that campaign with all the rigour that I brought to my campaign for the introduction of the living wage.
In February 2017, the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy was launched on a cross-Government basis. I urge colleagues to read it, because if we are frank, an assertion has been made in the debate that the Government are doing nothing to try and encourage persons who are prior to pensionable age into employment. There are a number of different matters, which I have set out, and those are particularly set out in the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy.
I will not, because I have a lot of points to make. The strategy aims to increase the retention, retraining and recruitment of older workers, and bring about a change in employers’ perceptions and attitudes—surely something that we would all endorse and wish for. We know that many people approaching the state pension age want to continue working or would like to be in work, and we have changed the law to abolish the default retirement age. I do urge colleagues to read the strategy.
After extensive debate, the 1995 Act changed the 55-year-old status quo by equalising pension ages for men and women at 65, with that change taking place between 2010 and 2020, depending on age. That statute was debated at length, and the changes were then the subject of widespread advertising, debate, leaflets, letters and 16 million state pension forecasts.
I am not here to criticise the 1995 to 1997 Conservative Government, nor the 1997 to 2010 Labour Government; I suggest that they made real efforts to communicate the change passed by Parliament in 1995. I rely in support of that on what the hon. Member for Easington said when he wrote of the 1995 Act in his blog in June 2016:
“The timescales were such that they gave sufficient time for people to plan for their new circumstances, and legislation was already in place that would have seen the equalised State Pension Age rise…in gradual stages”.
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, the whole thrust of what he said in June 2016 was that there was no objection to the 1995 Act, due to the passage of time. He has now changed that position. I am only pointing out that the 1995 Act had a 15-year time limit. He knows full well that that is the case, and that that was his position at the time.
Sixteen years later, the coalition Government changed the approach in the Pensions Act 2011. The change was in a context where the impact of the post-war baby boom years is clearly still being felt. The number of pensioners is going up dramatically; notwithstanding any of the changes made by the 1995 and 2011 Acts, there will be around 25% more pensioners in 2050 than today. That is an extra 4.5 million pensioners compared with now.
Life expectancy has increased massively. In 1940, Government policy making indicated a retirement age at 60, and our forebears looked at a life expectancy of three score years and 10. Those days are long gone. A girl born today has an average life expectancy of 93. Those changes in life expectancies are significant, and the reality cannot be ignored. It is not ignored, and is set out in greater detail in the Cridland report, which looks at the future situation in relation to long-term pension age changes.
I have a minute and a half to finish, so I will culminate on this point. In 2011, there was extensive debate on those changes in the House of Commons. The matter was debated on a number of occasions between February and November 2011 in both the Commons and the Lords. Subsequently, the Department for Work and Pensions and the coalition Government made efforts to notify those affected, with 5 million letters sent out and a range of information provided, to make individuals aware of their state pension age.
I will make three final points. In relation to the transitional provisions, it is the case that the position was different in the original 2011 Act. Following extensive parliamentary debate in both the Commons and the Lords, that Act was changed such that no woman affected by the 2011 Act would have to wait more than 18 months from the date that they might have been expecting their pension. For some, the time will be much less. I also make the point that the new state pension introduced in 2016 is better and much more generous for many women than that which existed under the old system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington on securing the debate. It is not the Government’s proposal to repeal or ameliorate the 1995 or 2011 Acts, but I accept that we must do all we can to assist everyone affected into retraining and employment, and to provide support if that is not possible. The commitment to provide support is clear, unequivocal and ongoing.
I thank all Members from all parties and on both sides who have attended the debate and spoken with such passion on behalf of WASPI women. In defence of the Minister, who is a good and honourable man, I hope he will have a chance to reflect on the arguments that have been made and the passions that are running high, and apply the principles of natural justice to the women affected by these changes. As a nation, we owe a debt of honour to the WASPI women, many of whom are now in ill health, who have paid their contributions and who are not looking for apprenticeships at age 64 but for some recognition of their contribution—sometimes over 44 or 45 years or more. I ask the Minister to discharge his responsibilities; otherwise, the people may discharge this Government.
Question put and negatived.
Working Conditions in the Private Hire Industry
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the regulation of working conditions in the private hire industry.
I am immensely pleased to introduce the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I hope that the Minister can be more accommodating on this issue than his colleague was in the previous debate. Indeed, I shall begin by buttering him up, if I may, although I realise that there is a limit to what buttering up will do in the House of Commons, particularly of this Minister. During our parliamentary lives, we have often debated, and debated well, across the Chamber, and I know perfectly well that if he is able to make or clarify the Government’s position before the Taylor review is published, he will do so. However, I also know that he is a loyalist and will probably be the last Minister standing who believes in collective responsibility, so the buttering up must be accompanied by a sense of reality about how far Ministers can go in helping to clarify Government policy.
My aim in this debate, as I hope the Minister knows, is not to have a preview of the Taylor report—although if he wished to give one, that would be wonderful—but to ascertain whether he can help the transport executives to clarify the powers that they have to give licences to companies such as Uber. I shall dwell in a moment on where I see Uber both contributing positively and being a destructive force for many people’s living standards.
I begin the debate with a reference to a report on Hermes, “Wild West Workplace”. That and two subsequent reports have my name on them, but also that of Andrew Forsey, who works with me. The truth, as MPs know, is that it is often the other name on the report who has actually done the work, and I pay tribute to Andrew for the extraordinary way in which, among all his other activities as chief of staff in my office—including steering me away from elephant traps and helping me to make as positive a contribution as I can to the House of Commons—he can take on work of this nature.
The second report, “Sweated Labour”, was on Uber, and the third one, which will be published tomorrow, is “A new contract for the gig economy”. I want to record in this debate that when Andrew and I—it was very much Andrew—completed the first report, “Wild West Workplace”, we wrote to the Prime Minister, and we said that the circumstances that we had described had shocked me and my guess was that they would shock her. They were certainly at variance with her statement when she became Prime Minister about the sort of society that she wished to create and the protections that she wished to extend to those who were weakest.
If we look at any of the three reports—if people would like copies of “A new contract for the gig economy”, which is published tomorrow, they can by all means have them—we see that four forces are pushing down wages in this area. Let me explain what I am not saying, and I hope the Minister will accept this. Nothing I have ever said or published does not admit that Uber-type conditions certainly serve a large part of consumers’ wishes for quick and cheap transport, or that perhaps many Uber workers are very content with their lot, as shovelled out by Uber under what I think is a bogus self-employed contract. I am talking about people who regularly write to Andrew and me, giving more examples of how bogus the self-employed contract that they are forced to work under is, and of the appalling conditions that those employers get away with. As we know, they not only get away with paying incredibly low wages to some workers; they do not pay their fair share of taxes, so I would hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be on the Minister’s side. If we are interested in VAT, national insurance and income tax returns, we should be rather keen on what the Minister says today and what the Taylor review will come up with, I hope, next week—perhaps the Minister will be able to give us a date for its publication.
Wages have been pushed down for those who suffer worst in this gig economy in four ways. The first is the very low fares, which have been cut in recent years, which some people think is great fun because they can get home cheaply. Second are the high rates of commission demanded by the company, which now vary clearly between newer workers trying to make a decent living out of being a driver, and older drivers, who—thank God—are more protected, although now that I have made that statement, perhaps that image will be challenged by people who contact us after the debate. Third is the cost of renting a vehicle that meets Uber’s very strict requirements, and fourth is the cost of refuelling and maintaining those vehicles. Those are the downward forces in the economy that make it very difficult for people to make a decent living and, indeed, as I shall argue, to make a living in which they are covered by the statutory minimum wage.
I welcomed it when George Osborne initiated the minimum wage strategy in the previous Parliament. It is very important to try to cover and protect people at the bottom of our society. I saw the then Chancellor of the Exchequer’s move as a very welcome one, but we know that it is failing by the way Uber and other companies get round regulations on how people earn, what they earn, the hours that they undertake, and their employment status.
The Government responded to Andrew’s report by establishing the Taylor review, which is to report soon. We hope that it will accept the main recommendation on which Andrew and I have been campaigning, which is that the definition of hours of work is immensely important in this area and that, on the basis of a satisfactory definition of hours worked—satisfactory to the workers rather than to Uber—the minimum wage should be applied on an hourly basis.
That brings me to the real kernel of the debate—the part to which I would love the Minister to respond. Uber and similar companies are registering in London, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow, getting the necessary licences from those areas’ transport executives. Is it because the legislation is uncertain or difficult to interpret that these transport executives are not saying, “These are the minimum conditions that you, the company, must meet if you wish us to grant you a licence to operate in our area”? I would like to hear the Minister’s view, but I think the position is quite clear.
It would take just one transport authority to say, “This is the interpretation.” We have not heard any of them say that, although, thankfully, here in London Sadiq Khan has said that he is unsure about Uber and is giving it a very short licence to continue to carry out its business while this essential issue is debated. Is the Minister in a position to give us a clearer ruling on the encouragement that he might give to transport authorities to recognise that they do have powers, and to such companies to behave within the culture that the Prime Minister spoke of when, perhaps unexpectedly, she became Prime Minister?
Before I conclude, I shall be more than happy to let any hon. Member make an intervention.
My right hon. Friend has touched on some troubling issues in the current employment market, particularly in relation to private hire vehicles. The Law Commission looked at some of those issues in its 2014 report, but new factors have since emerged, including Uber’s increased share of the market and the Deregulation Act 2015. Does he agree that there is a clear case for looking again at the regulation of the taxi and private hire sector more generally, even as we await publication of the Taylor review?
Yes, I do. I am grateful that I gave way, because my hon. Friend has put it better than I could have and has raised another question for the Minister.
Let me conclude. There have been two great movements in our recent history as a country. One was the movement of people from the countryside into towns. When that happened, decent people sought to find out what was happening to their fellow citizens, because they were horrified by the exploitation that they suffered. There were local statistical societies in all our towns, and the theme was taken up by the House of Commons in Select Committee reports, by the House of Lords, by royal commissions, and by the Government, who set up a national statistical service.
The second big movement, which has occurred in our lifetimes—one is sometimes unaware of just how big it is—has been the falling away of the bottom of the labour market. We are now in a situation that I would have thought inconceivable when I first came into the House in 1979. People are scrambling around for jobs. When I was growing up, there was the idea—almost a law of nature—that our economy would produce jobs that gave people wages that allowed them to marry and begin their families securely. For an increasing number of our fellow citizens, that world has long since passed.
I will not be controversial, as the previous debate was, but what has been happening at the bottom has been much affected by what the Government call welfare reform, but I prefer to call welfare cuts. However, in the spirit of the Minister—who I know is one of those Tory Members who has a sense of what the human spirit is about and why we are here—I ask him to help us in just one small area: the protective role that transport authorities could play.
I also hope that the Minister will reply in the spirit of the Prime Minister’s pledge to throw a new form of protection over the bottom end—the vulnerable tummy—of English society, which has lost out so greatly from the changes documented to us by our constituents. If we cannot be moved only by a wish to extend human dignity or to make a further commitment to the Prime Minister’s pledge, I hope the old money—the till—will play some part for the Chancellor. The way in which these companies are constructed means that they are fiddling: they do not pay their dues in VAT, national insurance or income tax, which means the rest of us have to pay for them. They are now registering returns on their very limited capital that are out of this world and should be tamed. In the west, with our democratic traditions, we usually look to government as one of the instruments for taming the wildness of wild capitalism. I happily turn over to the Minister.
What a delight to respond to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field)! He knows that I admire him almost as much as I admire Lord Birkenhead, F. E. Smith, whom we have discussed from time to time and who said that
“to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords.”
The right hon. Gentleman has both those qualities, as he has illustrated once again by bringing these important matters to our attention.
I had a long speech prepared for me by my civil servants, whom I hold in very high regard, but I am never inclined to deliver speeches written for me by anyone else, and I am certainly inclined to try to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points. It seems to me that Westminster Hall debates have to fulfil a greater purpose than simply parroting what the Government have already thought or said. They have to move policy on, do they not? At least, that is how they should operate. We will try to make sure that that happens today.
In a way, the right hon. Gentleman has already set the scene for me, but perhaps it is worth affirming some of what he said. I am aware of concerns about the changing character of the landscape for taxis and private hire vehicles. He is right that technology has played a big part in that, and technology has a consequent effect on consumer expectations and demands. Supply changes to meet those demands but it stimulates changing demands, too, and that is precisely what has happened in this area.
Taxis play an important part in the life of London. I use taxis a lot, as do my family. My son, who is in the Public Gallery today, is a devotee of London cabs, like many others before him and, I hope, after him. London taxis are iconic. One thinks of London—indeed, the whole kingdom—in terms of certain totems and emblems. One of those emblems is the London black cab. The right hon. Gentleman described my concern for the human spirit, but I also have a profound concern for aesthetics, inasmuch as they are part of how we perceive the world: how we come to terms with our own consciousness of reality. London cabs are a part of that.
London cabs provide a vital service, not just to tourists but to Londoners. It is true that the tourist looks to the London cab for the reasons that I have given—they see them as iconic. If a tourist comes to London, they want to ride in a black cab just as, if they went to New York, they might want to ride in a yellow one, but cabs also provide valuable utility.
The history of London cabs is that people know what they are going to pay, they can be confident of the driver’s ability to get them where they want to go as quickly as possible and London cabs have a good record on safety and security, which of course are important matters when one gets into a vehicle with a driver one has not previously known and perhaps not even met. Those things are of profound and lasting importance.
None the less, requesting a vehicle via an app, whether a taxi or a private hire vehicle, is increasingly popular with the public—and unsurprisingly so. The desirability of being able to call up a vehicle as required is obvious, and that is having a quite significant effect on the market, as the right hon. Gentleman described. The difference, as I am sure those in the Chamber know, is that in addition to dealing with pre-booked journeys, a taxi can ply for hire in the area in which it is licensed. That cannot be done by a private hire vehicle.
These things lead to different models of ownership and employment, as the right hon. Gentleman said. The emergence of a different set of protocols, if I can put it in those terms, in that area is also significant. He mentioned the various reports—I have read them all, by the way, including “Sweated Labour” and the Select Committee report. The Committee did a great service in looking at these matters closely, in respect of not just taxis and private hire vehicles but more widely.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of all those reports, as I am, and of the ongoing legal case regarding the employment status of drivers in the private hire vehicle sector. He made it clear at the outset that his expectations of me were set very low—I do not know if you noticed that, Mrs Moon; I thought a bit too low, given what I will say later—and made it clear, in his usual spirit of fairness and reasonableness, that there is a limit to what I can say. I certainly cannot say anything that might prejudice that legal case, which is ongoing.
What I can say is that the emergence of so-called disruptive businesses—I use the term in its strict sense; I hope it will not be misinterpreted—through the application of new technologies enables new ways of working and creates new products and services. As I said, it is a different relationship between supply and demand. That has an appeal to certain consumers and provides a service that perhaps has not been provided before. However, those benefits must be balanced against the impact on those who work in these new ways. Greater flexibility in working arrangements can increase employment opportunities for those who have other commitments or aspirations, but we must equally be aware of the negatives. Nor must we regard the traditional private hire vehicle driver and operator relationship through rose-tinted spectacles and perceive it as some sort of ideal where operators work solely in the interests of drivers.
I am aware of the concerns raised by the right hon. Gentleman and others about the risks in respect of employment. Let me lay my cards on the table: I take a very strong view about the rights of workers. I am proud to be a member of a trade union. My father was a shop steward. I have enjoyed very close relationships with the trade unions throughout my time in each of the six Departments in which I have been a Minister, and continue to do so in the Department for Transport.
One problem with this sector is that because of the character and nature of employment in it, significant numbers of people may well be under-represented or not represented at all by any body that can make a case on their behalf. That puts people at a considerable disadvantage. They may not even have reasonable expectations of what their entitlements ought to be. They may not know that they are being underpaid if they do not have the opportunity to express through the kind of collective arrangement that a trade union brings their entitlements—I hesitate to use the word “rights” for philosophical reasons that I will not go further on about today, because we do not have time.
Lawful entitlements to fair treatment are at the heart of what good employer-employee relationships are all about, and that is what the right hon. Gentleman has once again implicitly advocated by bringing the matter before us today.