Wednesday 12 July 2017
[James Gray in the Chair]
Members will have noticed that there are a large number of people here, and a large number of them have put in to speak. I do not feel inclined to apply a formal time limit yet, but roughly speaking there will be two or three minutes per Back Bencher. It would help if Members kept themselves to that limit; I reserve the option of bringing in a formal time limit later if they do not.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered negotiations on future Euratom membership.
I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nuclear energy. I want to make it clear from the outset that this debate is not a rerun of the EU referendum debate or of the article 50 debate. This debate is about getting it right and ensuring that the UK remains a world leader in civil nuclear and in research and development.
We achieved world leader status by co-operating with others across the world under the umbrella of Euratom—or, to give it its full name, the European Atomic Energy Community. Euratom was established in the 1950s as part of the creation of the European Community. It provides the basis for the regulation of civil nuclear safeguards and control and supply of fissile material, and funds international research. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is one of the leading research centres in the world. The Government have indicated that Euratom and the EU are legally joined. Some say that we have to give the same notice to exit Euratom as we did to exit the EU through article 50. I disagree.
I was a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which held a comprehensive inquiry into how Brexit will affect energy. We looked at the single internal energy market, Euratom and meeting our climate change commitments. We heard evidence from across the board. Euratom was raised by many experts who work in the civil nuclear field and in research and development, as well as by academics. We received hard evidence that there is contradictory legal advice on the matter. In fact, the advice is diametrically opposed. Many believe that just because we are a member of the same institution, we must have the same jurisdiction. That is in dispute, and I put it to the Government that there are ways forward that would mean there did not have to be a cliff edge when the article 50 negotiations are complete. I sought this debate to ensure that we get the best deal possible, that we get some transitional arrangements, and that the industry is happy.
In the light of the new consensual politics that the Prime Minister has announced, will the Minister—I ask him to make a note of this—set up a working group with industry and academics, and consult Parliament, to ensure that we have the appropriate arrangements in place so that the nuclear industry and those involved in research and development can plan for the future?
I understand that this debate will focus largely on the nuclear industry, but I am concerned about the impact on medicine. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the concern of the Royal College of Radiologists that an inability easily to bring isotopes into the country could affect half a million scans and 10,000 cancer treatments? Isotopes cannot be stored, because they have a short half-life, so we need Euratom.
I absolutely agree. I have had a lot of correspondence from experts across the field, including the Royal Marsden Hospital, where cancer research is vital. As the hon. Lady says, it is absolutely essential that we get that right. This is not about the dogma that we must leave an institution; it is about ensuring that medical research continues, that we maintain high standards, and that we have the framework to move isotopes and do the things that she mentions.
I commend the hon. Gentleman not just on obtaining the debate but on his constructive tone, but why should the case for staying in Euratom not apply to every other agency that we will leave when we leave the European Union? As we leave those other agencies and regulatory bodies, we will set up our own, under international standards. Why can that not also be done with Euratom? Who would want to frustrate that?
No one wants to frustrate anything—quite the contrary. I am trying to set the tone by saying that we need a long-term plan. I am worried that there will be a cliff edge, and that we will have to leave an organisation that has served us and the whole global community well for many years just because we leave the European Union. I repeat that experts have said that we can legally decouple Euratom and the EU. I think that doing so would improve our chances of getting a better agreement. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that we would have to deal with every other agency. In a sense, Euratom is pretty unique, and the industry and experts—not politicians, but people who understand the industry—are worried about it.
The honest answer is very few. I do not know the exact figure—I am sure that the Minister, whose civil servants are here, has it at his fingertips—but there have been very few. My point, with which I think the right hon. Gentleman agrees, is that it is not legally essential for us to leave Euratom just because we leave the European Union. I am not a lawyer, and others argue that it is, but when I was on the Select Committee I heard contradictory evidence from the experts. I do not want this uncertainty to continue; I want to create certainty for future investment in civil nuclear and in research and development.
Let us be frank: as I think the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) alluded to, our reason for leaving Euratom is that No. 10 has red lines, one of which is ending the jurisdiction of the ECJ. That is one of the reasons—it is a political reason, not a legal reason, and it was made almost as an excuse—that was given for us leaving the EU and Euratom together. That is the argument that the Select Committee heard in evidence.
Politically, we need to move forward, and we must have frameworks in place for doing so. Three options have been put to us: just remaining in Euratom, extending our period of membership and getting a transitional arrangement; having associate membership; or having third-country membership. If people read the detailed Library note, they will see that those options are very doable. I am trying to base this debate on actual facts that the Committee heard in evidence, rather than emotional arguments about whether we should leave or remain a member of Euratom.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I represent the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority’s Culham establishment. He mentions associate membership, which is considered a valid compromise by the management of Euratom, but there are two models: the Swiss model and the Ukrainian model. Does he have a feeling about which way the decision will go? Will he join me in encouraging the Minister to make a decision pretty quickly?
What is important for future investment is not what I think but what the industry thinks and what the experts have told me. I am looking forward to the Minister’s reply, but I will outline in detail those three options: remaining in Euratom, associate membership, and third-country membership. The hon. Gentleman’s description of the Swiss and Ukrainian models is a bit crude, because different countries are involved. The Swiss enjoy associate membership, but other countries, such as Japan, the United States and Canada, have a different relationship. I want the best relationship for the United Kingdom. If it ain’t broke, why start fixing it? That is where I start from.
Those options do exist. Alternative membership under article 206 of the European treaty allows the UK to leave but to continue co-operation, as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) argued, and establish an association involving reciprocal rights and obligations, common actions and special procedures. However, that will take time, and I do not think that the timeframe set out by triggering article 50 is helpful; it will hinder rather than help, and put at risk many new build projects.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Does he agree that exactly because of the exposure that the French Government have to our new nuclear programme, and indeed to EDF’s business in the UK generally, we have an excellent ally in Paris in trying to ensure that whatever our new arrangement with Euratom is, it comes about quickly, because that is in the French interest as much as in ours?
It is in everybody’s interest because this is a global industry, but we must put the UK interest first and argue from a UK perspective, because we are making the decision to leave and we do not expect everyone else to do our bargaining for us. We need to have a strong position, which is why I am arguing today that we need transitional arrangements in place that suit us. We cannot rely on French investment going forward, but we can create and maintain the high levels of skills that we have in this country, and the high level of investment.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I think he is about to touch on the heart of the issue. If we leave Euratom—and the uncertainty about that in the meantime—that risks high-paid, high-skilled jobs going overseas, which we cannot afford right now. Our membership of Euratom is key for the future of our civil nuclear defence industry.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for us not to have a cliff edge to preserve the benefits of membership. The associate membership he mentions might be one such way, and France might be a supporter of that. Is he aware that Austria has objected specifically to the support that the Government have given to Hinkley Point on state aid grounds and has generally been hostile to powers in the EU with nuclear programmes? Would an associate arrangement require unanimity among the EU 27, or a qualified majority?
Alternative membership under article 206 is important. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about Austria, which is hostile to nuclear per se and will be taking over the presidency of the European Union. That could put other things in jeopardy as well as these arrangements. That is all the more reason to have a long-term plan, rather than exiting in two years and linking ourselves to article 50. I think he strengthened my case in many ways.
I am talking about the alternative arrangements for membership, enjoyed by Switzerland and others, which importantly would allow access to moneys to fund nuclear research to be maintained. However, I want the whole package: I want research and civil nuclear to have certainty going forward. The other option I talked about was third-country membership under article 101 of the Euratom treaty. That is more limiting in scope, with regard to power and jurisdiction, than the alternative memberships. However, it does allow agreements and contracts with international organisations and states. Those with third-country membership include, as I mentioned, Japan, the United States and Canada—big players in the nuclear world. However, we would need bilateral agreements with them, which again will take time to negotiate. Many people have raised with me concern about the timeframe. Of course, third-country membership would not automatically give us the right for international contracts for research under the international thermonuclear experimental reactor project. That is therefore probably more risky than alternative membership. It is an option, but it brings risks with it.
Those options are better than the cliff edge. It is not politicians who are raising that; it is a broad section of the nuclear industry and a broad section of cancer research and development as well as various other issues, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) and mentioned by me. This is not just about new nuclear, existing nuclear and the movement of nuclear materials; it is far more wide-ranging than that.
The three options are: remaining in Euratom, associate membership, and third-country membership. However, whatever the model and the negotiations of the Minister and his team, we need proper transitional arrangements to be in place. That is the crux of my argument, and I feel that the Members who have intervened share my anxiety that we must have a proper framework.
The Minister is new to his job, and I welcome him to it, but he and his Department have yet to allay the fears of industry or of those in research and development. He has a job of work to do, and I am trying to help him to become firmer in saying that he will work in partnership with industry. A working group is the right way forward, because that would allow for consultation with the experts and for the industry to look seriously at the pitfalls and advantages to allow us to have a world-class leading industry going forward.
I am sure that the Minister will grasp this new consensual politics and listen to me and to hon. Members across the House. We want to help him get it right. We are not here just to criticise; we are here to assist. The industry is waiting to assist as well, so that we get a full and comprehensive consultation and timescales that suit the industry in the UK and UK plc. In the nuclear industry we are about all the research and development that has been talked about, but we are also about producing low-carbon energy and high-quality jobs.
Very few industries have jobs for life like the nuclear industry does. Many people go to the industry and are there for life and get that continuity and those high-skilled jobs. We need to maintain that if we are to meet the criteria that the Department set out in its industrial strategy on nuclear and how those link to a broader industrial strategy. We need to improve and upscale jobs. The nuclear industry is one such area, and if we are not careful we could take a step that takes us backwards, not forwards.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—Mr Energy Island—on securing the debate. Will he comment on how many jobs in the nuclear industry are distributed around the periphery of the country and how important those jobs are to areas such as the north of Scotland, the north-west, north Wales and the south-west? There are concerns from across the United Kingdom on this issue.
I agree that many of the existing and potential new nuclear sites are on the periphery, but we also have in Oxfordshire and many other counties of the United Kingdom huge investment that we need to improve and move forward. I also mentioned the Royal Marsden, which has given me a briefing on nuclear’s importance to the city of London. It is the whole United Kingdom. The industrial strategy talks about spreading wealth across the whole United Kingdom, and here is a good example of where that works, so we should continue that and not take risks.
I mentioned nuclear’s importance to low-carbon and to skills, but we are also at the forefront of research and development. We need to maintain that, but I believe that we could hinder that if we were to have a cliff edge or to exit Euratom just because of a timetable and legal reasons.
The hon. Gentleman has been generous, especially in indulging me twice. He mentions our technical edge. Before he sits down, can I encourage him to mention our position as a world leader in fusion power generation? That is the Elysian fields of future low-carbon generation. I know that he will want to remind the Minister of just how successful we have been in leading that research and how important it is that we remain in the vanguard.
I know that other right hon. and hon. Members want to make their pitch, so I will not repeat my opening remarks, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and has made the point for me, and the Minister has heard it.
I have based my speech on evidence that I heard as a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and I pay tribute to its previous Chair. I am making a bid for that position today, so I may as well take advantage of being on my feet for 20 minutes in this debate. The Committee did a serious piece of work on the pros and cons of exiting the European Union, whether for internal markets or supply.
Absolutely. The hon. Lady was also a member of the Committee, and she knows the written and oral evidence we received that highlighted that point. It is important for a Select Committee to hold the Government to account, but it is also important to shape the framework and work with the Government. I urge the Minister to work with Parliament, the industry and all relevant sectors, so that we can go forwards, not backwards, and maintain the status of which we are all proud. The UK is a world leader. Let us put politics to one side and get the transitional arrangements right. Let us work together to ensure that the UK stays at the top.
I commend the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this important debate.
The nuclear industry is important to the north Wales region, as it is to the whole country. However, I take issue with the hon. Gentleman because he said that the decision to leave the Euratom treaty was taken on political rather than legal grounds. He will know from the helpful briefing note supplied by the Nuclear Industry Association that that is disputed. The view I take is that the Government had no option but to leave the treaty.
It is worth analysing the way in which the relevant treaties have moved. The Euratom treaty was extensively amended by the treaty of Lisbon, although it continues to have a separate existence from the EU treaties. Most significantly for the purpose of this debate, article 106a of the Euratom treaty, as amended, now provides that article 50 of the treaty on European Union, which of course provides for the departure of a member state from the EU,
“shall apply to this Treaty.”
Article 106a also provides:
“Within the framework of this Treaty, the references to the Union…or to the ‘Treaties’…shall be taken, respectively, as references to the European Atomic Energy Community and to this Treaty”—
that is the Euratom treaty. Thus the Euratom Community and the European Union share a common institutional framework, including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a role for the Commission, and decision-making in the Council.
That common framework is acknowledged not only in the treaties but in domestic British legislation. Section 3(2) of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 provides that any Act that refers to the European Union
“includes... a reference to the European Atomic Energy Community.”
The position, therefore, is that article 50 notice of withdrawal from the European Union would automatically have operated as a notice of withdrawal from the Euratom treaty. That is acknowledged by the British Government, and, just as importantly, it is the position of the European Community.
I must therefore take issue with the hon. Member for Ynys Môn. I acknowledge the importance of the industry, but we need to look at the legalities, which appear, on balance, to have been accepted by the British Government and the European Union. Although I fully agree about the need to avoid the cliff edge, I think that the Government are fully aware of the matter and will address it. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which has been made repeatedly recently, that the decision was political, was ill founded.
The Government’s position has always been that there should be an implementation period, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will acknowledge that and outline what the Government will do. My purpose in speaking in the debate is simply to point out that the suggestion that the prime considerations are political is essentially unfounded.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing the debate.
I shall speak briefly, as you stipulated, Mr Gray, and will focus specifically on the future of Moorside and NuGen. I welcome the Minister to his post. He will no doubt have spent a substantial part of his time so far in the Department trying to save the NuGen deal and find a new investor—almost certainly backed by a foreign Government and foreign capital—to save a development that will create 21,000 jobs in Cumbria and potentially contribute up to 8% of the UK’s energy.
I hope for a frank assessment of how the Minister feels about the cloud of uncertainty over the industry, which has been created by the Government’s until now steadfast refusal to countenance remaining within a treaty that is working well, or to consider something sensible such as associate membership, and a seamless transition to that. What effect does he feel the situation is having on the dash to find a new investor to save the deal? We know the difficulty behind the scenes in trying to get some countries, which I will not name, to consider rescuing the deal. Aside from any damage to UK energy security, the collapse in job prospects would be a calamity for the region. We need the Government to take an approach that gives the best chance of securing the investment at a difficult time. We have a new Minister and the Government apparently want to consider sensible clarifications and improvements to legislation: now is the time to change course.
I commend the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this incredibly important debate, and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on his comments about Moorside, which is of course in my constituency, as is Sellafield, the world’s first nuclear reactor. My constituency is home to some 67 NIA members and I must declare an interest as my husband, father and brother work in three of those businesses, along with 14,000 other people in my constituency. It has been said that 76% of the working people in Copeland borough work directly or indirectly for Sellafield.
Our nuclear expertise is internationally renowned and our safety record is exceptional. Ensuring continued membership of Euratom, or swiftly acting to develop an alternative, to be in place upon leaving the European Union or as part of a planned transition period, is vital. Because of the nature of the Sellafield site, Euratom safeguards are of key importance to its functioning. Every day, Euratom officials monitor activity on site and ensure that fissile nuclear material at Sellafield is in the right place and is being used for its intended purpose. Euratom owns cameras and other equipment and of course has the skills to carry out the work. If we leave, the ownership of that material and the skills will need to be replaced.
The Nuclear Safeguards Bill should provide clear answers, but they would answer only one of many problems that withdrawal from Euratom may cause. Sellafield’s reprocessing facility has reprocessed fuel from several countries across the EU and further afield, including the United States and Japan. The ownership of that material needs to be determined during the negotiation, and new nuclear co-operation agreements to move materials overseas post-Brexit will need to be agreed and ratified.
Whatever the decision taken, and whether we are in or out of Euratom in March 2019, safeguarding has to continue under international law. What cannot happen is a scenario in which new safeguarding measures and new co-operation agreements are not in place. Safeguarding is critical for the nuclear industry, and particularly for Sellafield. Without an approved safeguards regime, as well as new bilateral co-operation agreements, nuclear trade to and from the UK would stop, or at least slow down, which would be economically crushing for my constituency—a community that is home to thousands of nuclear workers and, indeed, the centre of nuclear excellence.
I thank you for allowing me the time to speak in this crucial debate, Mr Gray, and I urge the Minister to give this consideration. I also welcome the excellent suggestion of a working group from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, which I would be very pleased to be a part of.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for securing this important debate. I, too, have to declare an interest: my husband’s brother works at Trawsfynydd power station in my constituency. I add my voice to those warning the Government about what a Euratom exit means for safeguarding. Please bear in mind that livestock movements in my constituency were held back for 26 years following the Chernobyl disaster; we have experience of the effect of nuclear safeguarding issues, if you like.
Since 1957, Euratom has underpinned our nuclear safety and security, and our nuclear industry has benefited from well-established regulations that enable us to be a trusted partner of our European counterparts. Leaving Euratom would mean creating our own safeguarding regime—something the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation has already confirmed as impossible by the nominal EU withdrawal date in 2019. Furthermore, it would mean renegotiating every bilateral agreement Euratom has managed on behalf of the UK. Those are incredibly complex agreements, called NCAs—nuclear co-operation agreements. Each NCA can take three years to agree, and without them, the UK will be isolated from the legitimate international nuclear community.
That takes me to my second point: the economic consequences of withdrawal on the development of Trawsfynydd and the nuclear industry, and low-carbon energy security as a whole. Euratom ensures the safe and unimpaired cross-border movement of nuclear materials, technology and even expertise. As already noted, withdrawing from Euratom would mean lengthy renegotiations to allow that trade to continue. Without Euratom, ventures such as the development of SMRs—small modular reactors—at Trawsfynydd look less attractive, meaning a worse deal for local communities, the UK and its position in the international nuclear community.
My third point is on the cost of withdrawal on our scientific research communities. On Monday, the Prime Minister blithely stated that the UK would be able to access Euratom research and funding as a third-party state. However, she failed to mention that the relationships between Euratom and its third-party states vary widely, and therefore VIP access is not at all guaranteed and would require lengthy negotiations. In the meantime, our existing plans for world-leading projects, such as at Trawsfynydd, would be disrupted.
I therefore join in the cross-party calls for the Government to reconsider withdrawal and the models put forward today, and I welcome the suggestion of a working group that works closely with the industry.
As I mentioned in my intervention, I represent the Culham UKAEA establishment. The urgency to resolve this issue is that Euratom’s work programme runs out in December 2018. The European Commission is pushing hard to negotiate terms for the 2019-20 programme, but the fly in the ointment is Austria’s taking over the EU presidency in June 2019. Of course, as has already been mentioned, Austria is notoriously anti-nuclear, and it is therefore urgent that an agreement should be in place by June 2018.
Ministers have apparently written to the Commission to continue with the JET—Joint European Torus—project, and to commit the UK’s share, which has gone down very well. Everything has been delayed to accommodate Brexit, and willingly so, but there is a need to get a move on with this. Staying a full member of Euratom provides the best continuity to that programme.
I do not believe that the legal issues are as black and white as has been set out. However, associate membership with bespoke terms is a perfectly acceptable compromise. That would mean that there would be a transition period that would leave us as full members of Euratom until 2020. There are two principal models of associate membership: the Swiss model, which includes freedom of movement for nuclear scientists and the use of the European Court of Justice, and the Ukrainian model, in which there is no free movement of nuclear scientists and for which the Ukrainian courts decide disputes. The Government need to make their mind up quickly on that in order to provide the certainty that the industry needs.
There is a lot at stake. UKAEA is targeting £1 billion- worth of work on ITER—the JET project’s replacement in the south of France. That is £1 billion of work against the UK’s £85 million investment. It is important to bear those sort of figures in mind when we come to look at the future of Euratom and the sort of relationship that we have with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who I thought spoke with a great depth of knowledge about this subject. For those of us who are not so close to the industry, I will talk about the scientific and some of the legal issues, some of which have already been raised, but there is an elephant in the room: to many of us, it seems as though the debate is being driven by what many of us see as the Prime Minister’s longstanding antipathy towards the European Court of Justice. It seems to me almost like a fetish in some ways, because there has to be some way to resolve disputes. I often look to football for inspiration; most things can be related to football in my view. It needs a referee; people may sometimes feel hard done by, but when there are disputes, there has to be an arbitrator. The Government seem intent on bringing their own referee to the table, instead of playing by the rules. We have to have some way of resolving these issues.
One issue we have already heard about is the possibility of associate membership of Euratom, and we all want to hear much more from the Minister about that. However, if we are going to talk about associate membership, we also need to hear something about whether the Government can provide the same assurances for other areas of crucial scientific research, such as our relationship with the European Research Council, the European Research Area and the Horizon 2020 programme.
Just last week, the Government made an extraordinary policy announcement in the pages of the Financial Times, in which two Secretaries of State recognised the need for us to stay close to European Union regulatory systems in the life sciences sector—an announcement that some of us feel might have been more appropriately made in Parliament first. It is true to say, however, that a direction of travel is emerging on all of these issues, even if the proper destination has not yet been arrived at.
Very simply, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on introducing the debate, because his attitude was extremely constructive. There are a lot of issues associated with matters of this kind, and it is important for us both to be practical and to stick to the legal position. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr. Jones) about the legal position; in fact, it is endorsed exclusively by the European Commission. After the BEIS Committee report, which was published on 2 May, the Commission published a position paper on 22 June stating:
“On the date of withdrawal, the Treaties, including the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community…cease to apply to the United Kingdom.”
I think that is definitive; the Commission takes that view.
However, the other aspect to this is that we have to find an answer to these questions, and we have to be constructive about it at the same time. The legal position is clear, but the question is where we go from there. We are bound by international conventions to our membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it is my belief that the same applies to the EU. I therefore suspect that there is common ground here, in which all the rules are effectively already converging. If that is the case, as I think it probably is, there is a basis on which we can move forwards to some form of co-operation. I very much take up the view of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn regarding a working group. That is an interesting idea, and I think it would be consistent with working towards something like associate membership.
I would like to say much more, but in a nutshell the question of jurisdiction is cropping up the whole time in respect of citizens’ rights, our trade arrangements and so on. There is a consistent pattern in how we resolve these questions as we move into negotiations. As I have said in the House several times, I believe that there is a means whereby, without prejudicing or rejecting our judicial sovereignty and Westminster sovereignty, we can take a common-sense approach, by adopting a tribunal. The tribunal could have on it, for example, a retired European Court judge, a retired Supreme Court judge and an independent judge. In other words, through such a tribunal we could try to find a constructive answer through some form of international agreement whereby we can all be satisfied, instead of shouting at one another. The law is clear, but we need to look for constructive solutions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I commend the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for securing this very important debate.
I have an interest in this subject because of my constituency. In Abingdon, many of the workers at the Joint European Torus facility are very worried about what is going on and feel they have been forgotten in the last few months. I am delighted that today, they get a chance to be heard.
My former profession was physics teaching, so if I may be indulged, I would like to explain why nuclear fusion is so important. While fission is the splitting up of large isotopes to create smaller ones, releasing energy, fusion is the joining up of smaller ones to create large ones, also creating energy—and what is amazing is that the base material is water. When we are done with it, the end products have barely any decay half-lives. It is an extraordinary technology, and—make no mistake—if we get it right, it is as scientifically significant as sending a man to the moon. It could solve climate change completely, because water is essentially an inexhaustible material. I would like to make the case for that, because I think it has been forgotten. Humanity needs that technology—I do not think I am overstating it—and it is vital we get it going.
It is covered under the treaty, not only because of the work programme, to which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) referred, but also because afterwards we have ITER. If we are going to access that supply chain and not lose the expertise of those scientists, the best thing we can do is give them certainty. I have visited the site several times and been told that there is already movement among the scientists to leave. They need to know now what is going on, because it will soon be the summer holidays, and they are deciding what to do for their families. If their jobs are not secure, they will leave. Compounded with the issues around which EU citizens get to stay here, that means literally hundreds of jobs are on the line.
I would like to ask the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, what he is doing to ensure we do not have any of these cliff edges. Will he assure us that if he cannot negotiate the replacement treaties in time, he will extend our membership of Euratom until such time that we do? Is the plan right now to have associate membership? Surely he can tell us what the Government are looking at. Will he also confirm that the reason we are in this mess is the Prime Minister’s obsession with the European Court of Justice? I applaud the constructive nature of this debate, and the fact is that if we just decided to get over that, we would avoid this mess entirely.
If I may, I would like to explain why the radioisotopes issue is such a big one. The Minister and the Government keep saying that it is not covered by the treaty, but I refer them to page 66 of the Euratom treaty. Line 2 clearly states that the very same radioisotopes, technetium-99m and molybdenum-99, are covered by the treaty. We cannot make those in the UK, so if we are to import them—that is the only way we can get them—they are covered by the treaty. Will the Minister agree with the industry that that is at risk and also reassure cancer patients that diagnostics and treatments will not cease?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very pleased indeed that Euratom is now getting the attention it deserves, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this debate.
It is wonderful to see the support that Euratom is getting outside the Chamber—for example, from former Conservative party leader William Hague, writing in The Telegraph yesterday. It has also been on the front page of the Evening Standard; The Times today came out in favour of Euratom; and no less a luminary than Dominic Cummings, the man who ran the leave campaign so effectively, has used quite strong language—he nevertheless makes his point effectively—to argue that we should not leave Euratom. The reason, of course, he shares that view is that Euratom has nothing to do with our leaving the European Union.
This is a debate not about stopping Brexit but saving our membership of Euratom. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), the former Brexit Minister, pointed out, we served our intention to leave Euratom on a technicality. It was quite clear that the Government had received legal advice that put it into their mind that it might be an ineffective serving of the article 50 notice if we did not serve notice that we were also leaving Euratom. The trouble that those of us who support our membership of Euratom have is that none of us has seen that legal advice. It is obviously unprecedented for the Government to publish legal advice, but it would be very useful at the first meeting of the working group, which no doubt the Minister will announce in his remarks, to have some distilled version of the legal advice that the Government received on the link with Euratom.
Without wishing to go over old scores, the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt remember that the Government were also given legal advice that there was absolutely no need whatsoever to have a parliamentary vote on triggering article 50. Does that make him wonder whether the Government’s legal advice on this should be subject to some scrutiny before it is implemented?
That is a very effective point. It is certainly the case that those of us who wish to remain in Euratom will now seek our own legal advice, but it would be nice to know where the Government stand on this. The other point that has emerged is that no assessment has been made of the impact of leaving Euratom or, rather, of the Government’s current position, which is to leave Euratom and then rejoin it. The Government are being offered a time-saving opportunity.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. One Member asked earlier why we are singling out Euratom from other European institutions that we will leave as part of the process of leaving the European Union. The key point is that our membership of Euratom is under a treaty separate from our membership of the European Union.
I just want to reaffirm something. The Commission’s position paper, dated 27 June, is quite unequivocal about the fact that when notice is given, we cease to be members of Euratom and also the EU under article 50. That is quite clearly set out in the Commission’s position paper.
We remain members of Euratom, as we remain members of the European Union. We served our intention to leave, but there is many a slip between cup and lip. I hate to mention this name in august company, in case it sets off an argument, but it was interesting to see Juncker’s chief of staff today pointing out that he has never made a comment about our membership of Euratom. In terms of his general approach to Brexit and our not having our cake and eating it, he specifically said on Twitter today that that does not include Euratom. There are huge opportunities here, and we all stand ready to help the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is quite clear that the legal position is not clear. That stems from the fact that the Euratom treaty is not the same treaty signed in 1957 as the EU treaty. Leaving Euratom would involve separate negotiation of the arrangements for co-operative or associated status alongside any other negotiations in the EU. That is fairly clear.
In that context, I want to raise a concern that I hope the Government have considered, but I suspect they have not, about leaving Euratom under those circumstances and the status of the Hinkley C nuclear power station programme. In autumn 2016, the Secretary of State signed an investment agreement—charmingly known as a SoSIA— concerning Hinkley C with EDF, the French Government and the Chinese Government that contains a number of issues relating to what a qualifying shutdown occurrence would consist of as far as the progress of Hinkley C power station is concerned. That investment agreement defined that a qualifying shutdown occurrence would consist of a Government intervention in the working of Hinckley Point C power station, or its construction, or if the EU were to do that, or if there were a change in treaty arrangements relating to the construction or operation of the power station. If we left Euratom unilaterally, as is proposed, with no alternative position in place, it is likely that that would mean a qualifying shutdown. The effect would be a possibility of the other contracting parties to the arrangement—EDF and others concerned with the power station—walking away from the deal and claiming up to £20 billion compensation for so doing. That seems to be an important consideration that we might think about. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government have considered the risk of that occurrence.
That concern is not just mine; it was raised by the National Audit Office in its June 2017 report on Hinckley C. It indicated that it thought that the Government had not undertaken any risk assessment relating to the Secretary of State’s investment agreement and that perhaps they should do so. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that risk assessment has been undertaken and whether the Minister considers that the Secretary of State’s investment agreement on Hinckley C would be at risk as a result of what has been decided so far about leaving Euratom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this important and valuable debate. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that Euratom brings great benefits to this country.
We should do all that is legally possible to maintain those benefits by whatever means it takes. We should not allow any thoughts of ideological purity to get in the way of achieving that. My judgment is that if we can legally remain within Euratom, we should do so. I understand the points that were well and eloquently made by my right hon. and hon. Friends who have suggested that legal advice goes against that, but it would not be the first time that Government legal advisers have been shown to be wrong and it would not be the first time that the Commission’s legal advice has been proved wrong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is my next point.
Unless the Government seek clarity—there is a dispute among lawyers about the matter—the likelihood is that an interested party may itself seek to litigate and it would be much better if the Government seized the initiative and said that politically they wanted to stay in and would do whatever is necessary legally to achieve that objective. That would be altogether better. If they cannot achieve that, certainly an association agreement would be the next best thing and I suggest it should be the Swiss model because the small amount of jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is a minor price to pay for the benefits. I cannot believe that anyone would object to the very modest movement of skilled nuclear scientists who only benefit this country. Otherwise, we would be cutting off our economic and scientific nose to spite our political face and we should not do such a thing. That would be a good compromise, but we should stay in until such time as that is in place because we cannot have any risks in the interim.
If the Minister is unable today to give the legal certainty of being able to stay in Euratom, which is what my hon. Friend is looking for, does he agree that we need a commitment today from the Minister that the Government will pursue a solution that replicates the benefits of Euratom membership as closely as possible?
We must certainly do that and we must be flexible about the means by which we achieve it. There may be ways forward and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) made a constructive point about a tribunal being one way forward. I take that in the spirit intended. Equally, the jurisprudence of the ECJ on Euratom matters is so discrete and so technical that it should give no offence to anyone, unless they are a complete purist about maintaining that jurisdiction.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about a discrete and specific area. Does he agree that when people voted in the referendum last year, they voted on particular issues? I do not know of one moment on any doorstep when Euratom came up and people said they were voting for Britain to leave. They put their trust in the Government and Parliament to make sure that as we go through the process we do not do anything to jeopardise our interest for the future economy.
I am sure that is the case; it did not come up on the doorstep for me. I spoke to a biochemist in the health service over the weekend who voted to leave, but said he certainly did not think we would go about leaving in such a rigid fashion that we would run into difficulties like this. The Government should change our approach to leaving in this and other matters.
I hope the position is clear. We all want the best possible outcome on this. The Government should seize the political initiative and seek to stay in if possible. If not, it is clear that we must go forward, but there must be no gap. It is more important that the Government deliver on that political objective than worry too much about some of the niceties.
The sentence that I think sums up how we got into this mess came from the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who said that we have to start getting answers to some of these questions. How about getting answers to the questions before we had the referendum, or how about Members asking those questions before they trooped through the Lobby to vote for the shortest and most destructive Act that this Parliament will ever pass, and possibly the only Act of Parliament for which the explanatory notes were half a page longer than the Bill? The fact is that the first full day of debate on the triggering of article 50 lasted almost 11 hours, and Euratom was mentioned once by a Conservative Back Bencher—hats off to the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). His mention of it came nine hours into the debate.
The Government’s entire White Paper on leaving the European Union devoted only eight sentences to Euratom. It is described as an important priority for the Government—so important that it is mentioned on page 44, paragraph 831. Even then, there is no recognition whatsoever of the need for life-saving medical isotopes, which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who is no longer in her place. She has had an illustrious career saving lives in the NHS using radioisotopes. Without the Euratom treaty, the United Kingdom will have no—I repeat “no”—reliable source of those radioisotopes.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that plenty of countries outside Euratom have easy access to medical isotopes and that there is no reason why, if we leave, we will suddenly become an international pariah and be denied those treatments?
I accept that membership is not essential, but this is not the only item on which we need negotiations finalised and ready to implement within a ridiculously short and entirely self-inflicted timetable. If Euratom were the only thing the Government had to negotiate between now and March 2019, there would be no problem. But there are areas that will have an essential long-term impact that the Government will not have time to negotiate properly in order to get the best possible deal. With a bit more candour from the Government about how difficult that process will be, we might all be better off.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government need to be candid about all the costs of the various options being explored—associate membership, third-country membership and remaining in Euratom—and about the difference in costs? We know that during the referendum campaign a lot of inaccurate information was circulated about the cost of remaining and the associated benefits of leaving. We need some frank information about the costs associated with retaining membership of Euratom or leaving.
I fully agree with the hon. Lady. The figure of £357 million comes to mind for some reason —it must be because I got the bus to work this morning. There has not been the necessary degree of openness and detailed debate on any of this. That is why one of the biggest mistakes was to call the referendum and then have the vote in such short order. We were told repeatedly by the Conservatives that we had been talking about this for years, but we have not been talking about the detail in relation to important agencies such as Euratom, the European Medicines Agency and many others.
It is good to see, albeit belatedly, so many Government Back Benchers now demanding that the Government do what some of us were asking them to do beforehand. All I can say to them is this: “The next time you want to demand that the Government do something different, please do so before voting for the Bill that makes it impossible for the Government now to listen to what you are asking for.” I say that because the Government are now claiming that we are in this situation because their Back Benchers, some of whom are here today, voted obediently for the article 50 Bill, without any queries about the implications for Euratom and other important institutions. Members here who are bemoaning the impact of that Act need to go home, look the mirror and ask themselves what responsibility they have.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this important debate. He made a clear case for the importance of remaining either a full or an associate member of Euratom. Many hon. Members spoke about their own constituency interests, and I will mention a couple of those. One of the most telling comments came from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), who said, “If you ask people on the doorstep why they voted leave, would it be because of Euratom?” Of course people are unaware of what Euratom does; they are probably unaware even of its existence. However, it is fundamental to our everyday lives.
Is the hon. Lady really saying that we can develop a list of all the organisations that were not mentioned in great detail during the referendum campaign, and that we must remain part of them just because we have not had that full and open debate? Actually, we voted to leave the European Union; that is what the British people voted for. We have to do that, and if it entails leaving Euratom, so be it, but we will do it on the best possible grounds, with a transitional period.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again; I know that she wants to continue with her comments. It is clear that the British people did vote last year to take back control over our laws and for freedom from the European Court of Justice, the Commission and the Council; and of course the EU and Euratom share an institutional framework through the ECJ, the Commission and the Council. Does she not think that by remaining a member of Euratom we would be going against what the British people voted for?
Absolutely not. In the Scottish National party we do not share the love of nuclear fission that those on the Government Benches seem to have, but it is a fact that we have nuclear facilities in Scotland. Scotland’s future lies in renewables—last year, 59% of our energy needs were met from that source. However, although we are moving towards a target of 100% renewables, we still have nuclear facilities and they still need regulation and materials. Although nuclear safety is a reserved matter, regulation of waste and emissions from nuclear sites is devolved, but it appears that, once again without any consultation with the Scottish Government on the implications for future regulation, we are being dragged out of Euratom as well as the EU.
Absolutely. I do not know about all the European Court judgments, but that certainly is not something that many of us have heard anything about. Euratom has operated very successfully for 60 years, but now we seem to be taking ourselves out of the regulatory framework.
No, I am going to make some progress.
Any future negotiations on whatever membership of Euratom we might have—I hope that it is full membership, but there could be associate membership—must include the Scottish Government, as they are dealing with the regulation of nuclear facilities in Scotland. Some people have talked about putting our own regulatory framework in place. Of course, we could get our own regulations in place, but the problem is that the clock is ticking, we do not have a lot of time and producing these frameworks takes many years, not 20 months. That is a real issue.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned medical isotopes. The Euratom Supply Agency ensures the security of supply of medical isotopes for all members of Euratom. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) gave us some statistics. She said that 500,000 diagnostic scans and 10,000 cancer treatments are carried out annually as a result of those isotopes. However, we cannot produce our own medical isotopes and must therefore import them. Medical isotopes have very short half-lives, which means they need to be transported quickly, and there are only a few facilities in the world that produce them. A number of the reactors that produce medical isotopes are coming to the end of their useful lifespan, which means that in future there could be real problems with their supply worldwide anyway. This is not the time to take ourselves out of the agency that ensures that we have a supply.
As a fellow physics teacher, the hon. Lady will know that something such as technetium-99, which is used in medical diagnostics, has a half-life of six hours, which means that after 24 hours it is pretty much useless, or its activity has dropped to a level that makes it inert. These isotopes must be transported and used very quickly after they are produced.
The hon. Lady has already given us a physics lesson on fusion, so I will not do that, but fusion is a field in which we are world leaders in the UK. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about JET in his constituency. It is one of the world’s most important facilities and one of Euratom’s main facilities, so we need to ensure that funding continues. JET currently receives about £48 million annually. The contract runs to the end of 2018, so we must ensure that pulling out of Euratom does not affect future funding.
We must ensure that transitional arrangements for nuclear safeguarding, trade and funding are in place until the EU-UK negotiations are complete, and that should be done with the full consultation of the nuclear industry and community. We need to retain our membership of the European observatory on the supply of medical radioisotopes and continue to work with Euratom and global partners to mitigate any shortages of medical isotopes. We need to ensure that Euratom funding for our nuclear research projects continues. Finally, the UK Government must involve the Scottish Government at every stage of the negotiation process, to ensure that the deal reached works for Scotland’s nuclear industry as well.
Thank you, Mr Gray, for your rigorous chairing of this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing the debate and on the knowledge of and commitment to this vital sector that he demonstrated in his opening remarks. Those have been reflected by many of the Members who have spoken, from both sides of the House. They demonstrated the strength of concern that exists about this issue across party lines. The Prime Minister has called for some level of cross-party co-operation on Brexit, and in many ways today’s debate has taken her up on that. Her response will show whether she is serious.
Many Members have spoken knowledgably about Euratom’s importance to the UK, and the worrying implications of a cliff-edge departure. Euratom has enabled the UK to become a world leader in nuclear research and development. The fact that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has decided to continue funding the JET facility in Culham demonstrates that he recognises that too. That point was made very forcefully by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran).
I was not given the chance to speak on this issue, so I want to ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware of the need for certainty about Culham’s status to be provided within the year, given the need to avoid the Austrian presidency. We need answers very quickly on its continuation. Further, is he aware of the enormous expense that will be incurred if the Culham centre has to be decommissioned, rather than allowed to develop the practical technology of which it was, of course, a global pioneer?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which demonstrates her commitment to the Culham facility not only in her current role but in her previous job. She is right on both points. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon made this point forcefully: we need certainty now—not at some stage in the future, but now—because otherwise the facility is at risk.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that actually the biggest threat to fusion research in Europe generally is the stance of the European Union itself? Given that Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power, the hostility of the Austrians and the fact that the anti-science Greens now pepper the European Parliament and parliaments across the EU, the likelihood of Horizon 2020 funding continuing to go into nuclear research at the same level is very low, and likely to reduce.
Those thoughts are contradicted by the enormous investment that the European Union has put into the Culham facility and is committing to.
Moving back to the benefits of Euratom, it oversees the transport of nuclear fuel across the EU and enables vital co-operation on information, infrastructure and the funding of nuclear energy. It provides safeguarding inspections for all civilian nuclear facilities in the UK—a point made well by the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who was right to say that if we get this wrong, it will have an economically crushing impact on the UK. Euratom is the legal owner of all nuclear material, and is the legal purchaser, certifier and guarantor of nuclear materials and technologies that the UK purchases. That includes our nuclear trade with the United States.
As has been highlighted this week and by other Members, including the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), Euratom also plays an important role in our NHS. A Conservative Member questioned that point, but I take the judgment of the Royal College of Radiologists, which has expressed genuine concern that cancer patients will face delays in treatments if supply is threatened. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) highlighted the National Audit Office report on the risks to Hinkley Point. In all areas, our membership of Euratom is vital.
Indeed, the Government stated that they want to replicate the arrangements we have with Euratom. They have talked about probably the exact same benefits, in the way that they have about the trade deal they want in place of single market membership and customs union membership. It is an ambition that they have yet to demonstrate how they will achieve.
Outside Euratom, the Government would have to negotiate individual nuclear co-operation agreements with every single country outside the EU with which we currently co-operate on these matters. Those would be complex, lengthy negotiations within a 20-month framework. I am interested to hear from the Minister how far they have progressed on those. The Nuclear Industry Association has been clear that if we left without them in place, it would be a disaster—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who is a strong champion of these issues.
All this prompts the question: why add this whole other burden to run alongside the negotiations for our withdrawal from the European Union? The bigger issue at play here was summed up very well—I loved the football analogy—by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner): the Prime Minister’s obsession with the European Court of Justice. In that context, it is deeply unfortunate that Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union have dodged today’s debate. It is becoming something of a habit. We have had three debates in this and the main Chamber on exiting the European Union since the election. DExEU Ministers have dodged every one. That is an unfortunate habit, because both sides of this House demand a level of accountability that they are not demonstrating they are up for.
Back in February, I challenged the then Minister of State at DExEU, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), about allegations that it was the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice that had led the Government to issue a notice to withdraw from Euratom alongside the notice to withdraw from the EU. In response he told the House, along much the same lines that he has repeated this morning, that this was not the case. He said:
“it would not be possible for the UK to leave the EU and continue its current membership of Euratom.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 523.]
The right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) have expressed the view, which many of us share, that legal opinions are never that straightforward. The hon. Member for Henley made that very explicit.
I think that there are probably enough lawyers in this place to know that legal advice can go in many ways. It may well be that that advice was received by the Department, but other Conservative Members have made it clear that if the political will exists, a solution can be found.
I do not mean to doubt the assertion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) that that was the advice his Department received, but it would of course help the hon. Gentleman to agree with him if the Department published the advice that my right hon. Friend saw when he was a Minister.
This is not just a question of legal opinion; it is actually stated in the treaty itself. Article 106a of the Euratom treaty, as amended by the Lisbon treaty, unequivocally says that article 50 of the treaty on European Union—the article that sets out the procedure for EU withdrawal—
“shall apply to this Treaty.”
It is there in black and white. It is not a matter of legal opinion—it is just there.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On the issue of cross-party consensus, I have to say that I was interested in his earlier contribution about looking for some sort of associate membership of Euratom, which might well involve the jurisdiction of the ECJ. We are making some progress, aren’t we?
Let me come to those in the Government who have contradicted the comments by the right hon. Member for Clwyd West in February. Comments by James Chapman, the former chief of staff to the Brexit Secretary, contradict that statement, and his comments were confirmed by the former Chancellor. They suggest that the nuclear industry, jobs and cancer treatments are being put at risk by the Prime Minister’s reckless and irresponsible decision to make the future of the ECJ a red line in all matters to do with Brexit.
No, because I am conscious of time.
All this goes well beyond the issue of Euratom. As the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is no longer in his place, pointed out, it will affect our future in other agencies that we would also wish to be members of, such as the European Medicines Agency. We should start with the presumption that if these agencies are in our interests as a country, we would want to continue to maintain that membership.
We have already seen the obsession with the ECJ undermining discussions on the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and therefore those of UK citizens in the EU27. That obsession will also affect our ability to secure the objective that the Government have set themselves: the “exact same benefits”—I quote the Brexit Secretary—that we currently enjoy in the single market and the customs union.
I hope the Minister will agree to take back to his Secretary of State the clear consensus in this Chamber, and I hope the Secretary of State takes it to the Prime Minister. As James Chapman said, if the Prime Minister does not shift her position on Euratom,
“parliament will shift it for her.”
My apprehension before this debate was not about the content of it, which has been first class and very constructive, but about having to pronounce in front of you, Mr Gray, the constituency of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who introduced it. I thank him and other right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House for their constructive comments.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wants constructive comments and debate, he wants certainty and he wants world-class arrangements for the future of the nuclear industry in the UK and our relationship with other countries. I absolutely agree. His suggestion for a working group was very interesting. My door is certainly always open to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, either collectively or individually. I have taken that approach in every job I have had and I will be pleased to continue with it—particularly in this case, since you have had to curtail Members’ contributions today because of time, Mr Gray. You did it very well, but I will not have as much time to answer them as I would have liked.
I have never refused a meeting with anybody on any subject that I have ever been involved in, and I certainly have no intention of doing so to the hon. Lady. I really must make progress, but I am happy to arrange that meeting as soon as I possibly can.
The Government are determined that the nuclear industry in this country should continue to flourish in trade, regulation and innovative nuclear research. We are determined to have a constructive, collaborative relationship with Euratom. The UK is a great supporter of it and will continue to be so. There have recently been some alarmist stories in the press about what leaving Euratom might mean for safety and for health, but I must make it clear that we remain committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety and support for the industry. We will continue to apply international standards on nuclear safeguards.
We do not believe that leaving Euratom will have any adverse effect on the supply of medical radioisotopes. Contrary to what has been in the press, they are not classed as special fissile material and are not subject to nuclear safeguards, so they are not part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is the driver of our nuclear safeguards regime. They are covered by the Euratom treaty, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said, but Euratom places no restriction on the export of medical isotopes outside the EU. After leaving Euratom, our ability to access medical isotopes produced in Europe will not be affected.
Since time is pressing, I will say just a little more about safeguards, a subject that hon. Members are rightly concerned about. It is clear that we need continuity; we must avoid any break in our safeguards regime. We currently meet our safeguards standards through our membership of Euratom. The Government’s aim is clear: we want to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with Euratom. We can do so while establishing our own nuclear safeguards regime, using the body that already regulates nuclear security and safety: the Office for Nuclear Regulation. In order to do so, we need legislation, which is why the Queen’s Speech on 21 June outlined our intention to take powers to set up a domestic nuclear safeguards regime in partnership with the ONR to enable us to meet international standards and nuclear non-proliferation obligations. Regardless of where hon. Members stand on the question of membership, associate membership, transition or departure from Euratom, I hope we can all agree that it is sensible and prudent to take such powers. I do not think anyone could disagree with that.
I really cannot, but only because of time; I normally would. Instead, let me say a little about what my Department has been doing to advance the UK’s interests.
We are pleased that engagement with the EU is about to begin in earnest. EU directives note that a suitable agreement will need to be reached in relation to the ownership of special fissile materials and safeguards equipment in the UK that are currently Euratom’s property—I note the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on that issue. The outcome of such an agreement, like the rest of the UK’s future relationship with Euratom, will be subject to negotiations with the EU and Euratom, throughout which our primary aim will be to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with Euratom and the rest of the world. I reiterate that we are strong supporters of Euratom, and that is not going to change. The first phase of negotiations will commence next week, on 17 July, following the publication of the European Commission’s position paper on Euratom. Our own position paper will be published imminently.
Imminently means imminently. [Interruption.]
That was quite a good line, actually.
We are ready and confident that we can find common ground as officials enter the first phase of negotiations, because there is a clear mutual interest in maintaining close and effective co-operation.
We are also keen to ensure minimal disruption to civil nuclear trade and co-operation with non-European partners. To that end, we are negotiating with the US, Canada, Australia and Japan so that we have the appropriate co-operation agreements in place. I reinforce that point because hon. Members may have read or heard that everything has to be done in a painfully long sequence that takes years and years. I can tell them not only that it is possible to do these things in parallel, but that we are doing so.
We will avoid the cliff edge feared by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn. We are preparing the domestic Nuclear Safeguards Bill, we are opening negotiations with the EU, we are talking to third countries about bilateral agreements, and we are talking to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nobody doubts the UK’s credentials as a responsible nuclear state, and everyone in the UK and elsewhere is keen to see that continue. The UK has been in the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation for 60 years. I have no doubt that we can bring these discussions to a satisfactory conclusion.
I am sure hon. Members will be quick to remind me that I have not yet mentioned nuclear research and development. I will have to cover this quickly, but I want them to know that it is another strand of work that we are taking seriously and acting on swiftly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 27 June that we would underwrite the UK’s share of the EU joint European torus fusion project. We are totally committed to R and D collaboration, in particular to Oxfordshire’s world-leading Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned. The Secretary of State described JET in his announcement as a “prized facility”. I assure all hon. Members that this is a top priority for us.
There is no question of lack of support for Euratom. There has been discussion today of whether we need to leave it at all. There was clear advice at the time about the unique nature of the legal relationship between the separate treaties and about their inseparability. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was asked by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee whether it would be possible to leave the EU but remain in Euratom. He said:
“Essentially, the interleaving of various aspects of the treaties in practice could have meant that it was defective. The article 50 notification would have been defective had we not served it for Euratom as well. Therefore, we served it, but at the outset we said that we want to have continuity of co-operation and collaboration, and that is what we intend to achieve.”
Thank you for chairing the debate in such a splendid fashion, Mr Gray. I thank each of the 15 Members who participated.
I set out in this debate to create consensus so that we can get the best deal for Britain. The Minister has been slightly helpful, but only slightly. He would have done better to have said that before the recess we would have a debate on the Floor of the House on how we can move this matter forward. We need to hold the Government to account—not with a statement just before recess, but with a proper and open debate like this one, so that we can be constructive and move forward together as one. That is what I set out to do today, and that is what we have done.
The Government’s rhetoric needs to turn into action. Demanding that has been the responsibility of Back Benchers in this debate, and it will be the responsibility of the Opposition and the Government, working together, to get the best deal for the United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered negotiations on future Euratom membership.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for Nottingham schools.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Today’s motion is very deliberate; I want to talk about the support that Nottingham schools need, not just the funding they receive. Too often Ministers have talked our city down. We must be frank about the challenges we face in raising educational attainment, especially at key stage 4, but we must also recognise progress, innovation and success. Failing to do so is demoralising and counterproductive.
I hope the Minister will welcome the fact that 83% of children in Nottingham are now taught in good and outstanding schools, up from 61% just three years ago. Some 22% of our schools are now rated outstanding—that is the second highest local authority level in the east midlands, and above the national average. I hope he will also welcome the improvement in key stage 2 results. The progress made by children in Nottingham’s primary schools last year matched the national average in reading and outstripped national averages in writing and maths. Children come to those primaries with low levels of school readiness and low speech and communication levels. Many require additional language support and pupil mobility is very high.
Nottingham is rightly proud of its “Maths Mastery” programme, developed in collaboration with the two regional maths hubs. Drawing on learning from Singapore and other leading international practice, Nottingham is developing a maths teaching culture that is already delivering enhanced outcomes, with the approach now being rolled out from the early years through to KS4.
The city’s five special schools are all rated good or outstanding, and Oak Field School is recognised internationally as a model of excellence in working with children and young people with profound and multiple disabilities. We also have an outstanding hospital school at the Queen’s Medical Centre.
More than 8,000 Nottingham children are learning a musical instrument in school, up an incredible 1,652% in the past 12 years. In 78% of Nottingham primary schools, every child is learning an instrument, compared with a figure of 58% nationally. Some 48% of pupils continue with instrumental teaching after the first year, compared with 27% nationally. There has been a 385% increase in the numbers of pupils gaining a nationally recognised music qualification in the past three years alone.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. She will know my constituent, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who last year won the BBC young musician of the year contest, as he went to Trinity School, a secondary school in her constituency. He is a great example of the sort of specialism and expertise that young people in our city can achieve. My concern more broadly is that all those specialisms may be sacrificed if the speculated cuts to the funding formula and the changes hit Nottingham schools particularly hard. Can my hon. Friend say a word about why some of those specialist skills among the teaching staff and beyond are so important in our city?
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is indeed an acclaimed cellist, and Trinity School and all of us are rightly very proud of him. I will say more about the importance of music and other enrichment activities and why they are under threat.
Students from across the city not only enjoy playing or singing in an ensemble, but are equipping themselves with perseverance, self-belief and a lifelong love of music. It is particularly pleasing to note that Nottingham is in the top quintile for those on pupil premium learning a musical instrument. However, while the Nottingham Music Hub is always exploring new ways to generate income, I am concerned that the local authority and individual schools may find it more difficult to fund the service in the future.
Schools provide other opportunities. The number of children able to swim 25 metres at the end of key stage 2 has more than doubled to 45% in the past four years. Some 6,000 primary and 5,300 secondary students are involved in competitive school games and sports.
I began the debate by saying that I wanted the Minister to recognise that there is much to be proud of in Nottingham schools, but I would be failing my constituents if I did not also acknowledge that we need to do much better in ensuring that every child leaves school with the skills and knowledge they need to lead successful adult lives. Formal qualifications are an important measure, but they are not the only one. I hope the Minister will recognise that good schools also ensure that students are resilient, kind, reflective, motivated, confident, and have respect for themselves and others. Character development is vital and should be valued.
Many Nottingham families live in poverty and some have low aspirations. Too many live in inadequate or overcrowded housing and have very low incomes and poor health, both mental and physical. Some children face additional challenges because English is not their first language, and we know that white working-class children, especially boys, are often the hardest to reach. Even where children are making good progress at primary school and are achieving at the end of year 6, that is too often not maintained to GCSE level. We clearly need to improve the transition from primary to secondary education, but there is concern that the Government’s emphasis on a limited range of academic subjects up to age 16 is off-putting to those pupils, including the academically able, who would be enthused by a more vocational route. That view is expressed not only by teachers and heads, but by the former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker, who has championed high-quality technical education for more than two decades.
Nottingham is working hard to provide sufficient primary school places by expanding existing good schools. We know that the bulge in pupil numbers will mean a shortfall in secondary school places if action is not taken now. A reliance on the emergence of new free schools is not enough. Nottingham needs extra capital resources to expand existing schools or to open new ones. The high level of in-year admissions is a further challenge, particularly for our maintained schools. The current system is not transparent and there is concern that some academies are reluctant to admit pupils with additional needs, placing some of the most vulnerable children at risk of missing time in school. The White Paper, “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, called for local authorities to have a co-ordinating role in dealing with such admissions. Will the Minister say whether he will be returning to that proposal?
A further concern is the high level of permanent exclusions at key stages 3 and 4. Last year, 108 city children were permanently excluded, and this year the number is set to be even higher. It is deeply concerning that a high proportion of those students have special educational needs. The pupil referral unit now has more than 300 students on its books, and those young people are placed with a number of alternative providers across the city, but the cost is very high and outcomes are poor. Funding for such provision falls on the local authority and diverts resources away from other high-needs children. What action will the Government take to incentivise schools to tackle poor behaviour, rather than using exclusion too widely to shift responsibility?
As the Minister is well aware, school funding—already a hot topic—rightly became the focus of debate during the general election. I have listened carefully to the Minister’s responses since then, and I do not believe he has adequately addressed my voters’ concerns. He says that the schools budget has been protected in real terms since 2010, but he knows that pupil numbers are rising. The cake may be bigger, but it has to be shared between more people. Will he come clean and admit that the increase in the budget has not been sufficient to protect per pupil funding in real terms? He knows that all schools face higher national insurance contributions, pension contributions, unfunded national pay rises and now the apprenticeship levy.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that spending per pupil would fall in real terms by 8% and the National Audit Office confirmed that,
“funding per pupil will, on average, rise only from £5,447 in 2015-16 to £5,519 in 2019-20, a real-terms reduction once inflation is taken into account.”
The Minister says he will support schools to offset these pressures, but I can find little evidence of such support in delivering the savings required. One head at a primary academy told me:
“We have already renegotiated every single contract both as one school and as part of a Multi-Academy Trust. We have lost and not replaced three teaching assistants, a sports coach, a music teacher and an art teacher. Our pupils walk to their Swimming lessons for 12 sessions rather than travelling by bus for 36. If a teacher is ill, we don’t use qualified teachers to stand in front of classes until day four of their absence because insurance for teacher absence that starts after the third day is considerably cheaper than insurance that starts on the first day.”
It really is that bleak. Schools in Nottingham are making cuts that have a direct and damaging impact on the quality of education.
The head of an outstanding primary school told me that they had cut the number of teaching assistants, teachers and learning mentors, increasing pressure on remaining staff and providing less support for children with additional needs. As he said:
“All of this is also taking place within the context of an increase in the numbers of families who need extra support, due to benefit changes, higher levels of domestic violence, more families being evicted...and the rise of the number of families seeking support from food banks.”
Secondary schools paint a similar picture: fewer teachers, larger classes, less subject choice, and cuts to after-school activities.
I note that the Minister has sometimes resorted to blaming his Government’s choices on the budget deficit in 2010. That is simply not good enough. His party has been in power for seven years. They promised that as a result of their austerity plans, the deficit would be eliminated by 2015. Any shred of economic credibility is long gone and their decision to spend £1 billion on buying a parliamentary majority underlines that point.
A head told me what inadequate funding means to his school: “Am I able to replace the 18 failing interactive whiteboards in our classrooms? No. Am I able to purchase library books to inspire a love for reading in the next generation? No. Can the disabled child’s carer have overtime to accompany her for a full day’s educational visit? Of course, yes. As a result of that carer’s overtime, can the five-year-olds have another set of glue sticks for the summer term? No.” He said:
“As the Headteacher I am not bemoaning the lack of capacity for investing in education at a level that will make a significant difference to the life chances of my pupils; I am genuinely struggling to see how I can squeeze basic school provisions out of the funding available.”
On top of the existing level of real terms cuts we also face the prospect of a new national funding formula that will take money away from every single school in my constituency. I welcome the Minister’s promise that,
“there will be no cut in per pupil funding as a consequence of moving to the national fair funding formula”,
but, as he knows, protecting a budget in cash terms is no protection at all. With rising inflation and increasing demands—for example, the introduction of much needed mental health support—school leaders simply feel unable to deliver what is asked of them. I could fill hours with the testimony of dedicated school staff who feel that the Government are not giving them the support they need. Adequate funding, especially for schools serving areas of high deprivation, is essential. Schools cannot keep doing more with less. They are at breaking point.
I hope the Minister will not simply dismiss my concerns and those of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who will speak shortly. I want the Minister to commit to, at the very least, maintaining school funding in real terms for Nottingham schools. If he cannot, I will not stop asking. I also want him to come and see why I am asking.
Last Friday I visited the city schools exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. The gallery’s head of learning told me,
“what we are hearing from teachers again and again is that coming to a gallery, working with artists, really helps their children think differently, think creatively, question, be critical and reflective...particularly it builds confidence in those children who are told too often they are wrong, to keep quiet and not question. The gallery offers those children a place to thrive.”
While I was there, students from Southwold Primary enjoyed telling me about their work. Southwold is a good school, but it serves one of the most disadvantaged parts of my constituency: 46.1% of pupils have English as an additional language and 47.6% are eligible for free school meals. I have seen for myself the creative ways in which the school works to give their children a great start in life.
The head said,
“we are giving our city children the experiences that more affluent counterparts can afford. Our pupils find it hard to make connections due to limited experiences and we need to provide these experiences so they can better access the curriculum and understand contexts for learning.”
She explained that in last year’s SATs reading test, one text was about a safari park; some children did not know what a safari park was, let alone visited one. As she says:
“All this needs funding and at the moment we are trying to do it on a shoestring.”
Nottingham’s schools need our support. They need the resources to do their vital job of investing in the next generation. I hope the Minister will come and see our schools for himself and commit to supporting them, enabling every Nottingham child to thrive.
I will start by declaring an interest as chair of governors at Rosslyn Park Primary School. I shall not impose on the Minister’s time for more than four or five minutes; I am enormously grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate. She, like me, made school cuts the focus of her terrific re-election campaign, and she and I vowed to use all the devices of this place to raise the issue loudly and assertively. We have both spent a lot of time meeting parents at school gates; it is impossible to overstate the strength of feeling on this topic.
Getting a good start in life in order to thrive should be something we aspire to for every child. Regrettably, in my constituency too often that is not the case. That is both the cause of and caused by cyclical poverty in my community. That was the theme of my maiden speech, and it will be the golden thread running through all my work in this place. It is critical that our schools are sufficiently supported to make sure we can close the gap, or too many of our children will start behind and simply never catch up. That is a shame. It is not a fact of life and people rightly look to this place and to the Government in the expectation that there will be action to tackle it. It explains the dismay at the idea that schools in Nottingham might receive real terms budget cuts. Left wing or right wing, whatever their politics, people do not see that as a sensible idea. It is a false economy for the state and will lead to greater dependence in the future. None of us will win. I can understand that there may be historic inequities that need to be ironed out, but I urge Ministers to think creatively and to level up, or they will take from those with the least in order to give it often to those with the least need. I defy anybody to join me at the school gates in Bilborough and explain that to parents.
School improvement is an imprecise art. As I declared, I am the chair of governors at one of Nottingham’s biggest primary schools. We have been on a journey with Ofsted and have got to the point where we are very excited and cannot wait for Ofsted to come and see how well we are doing. Our results last week put us virtually at the national average for attainment and above that for progress. In future years I have no doubt we will go even further. That is all built on current levels of investment and on having outstanding leadership that works outside the classroom, meaning that each leader can make half a dozen or more staff better, leading to better teaching on a daily basis in each class. It means never needing supply and always delivering quality, but that is at risk from real-terms school cuts—nearly £2 million-worth across the constituency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South mentioned, there are only so many physical budgets that the cuts can come from. In the end, they will come from staff. The public will watch us discuss cuts and talk about real terms and cash terms. That is a political argument for now, but it will mean naught in future. When P45s go out to teachers and teaching assistants, that is what parents will understand and they will not see that as a good thing. It is not helpful for Nottingham and we ask Ministers to revisit those plans and come up with something that works.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate, and I congratulate her and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on their contributions to it. I acknowledge the successes in school improvement in Nottingham that the hon. Lady highlighted. If we look at the data, we see that there have clearly been improvements in phonics results, EBacc results and in key stage 2 results.
The Government want to ensure that every pupil receives a world-class education, regardless of their background or where they live. We have made significant progress. England outperformed the rest of the United Kingdom in the OECD’s most recent PISA science assessments. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers has shrunk by 7% at key stage 4 and by 9.3% at key stage 2 since 2011. There are now 1.8 million more children in schools that are rated good or outstanding than there were in 2010. In Nottingham, that translates into nearly 8,000 more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.
However, the pace of improvement in some parts of the country, including Nottingham, is still not good enough. Only 80% of schools in Nottingham are rated as good or outstanding, compared with the national position of 89%. There is still underperformance in some schools in Nottingham compared with the rest of the country.
For example, in 2016, 75% of Nottingham’s pupils reached the expected standard in phonics, compared with 81% nationally and 87% in Newham—one of the most deprived parts of the country—but I am pleased that the phonics results in Nottingham have increased year on year, with 48% passing that check in 2012. In Nottingham, 50% of primary school children in key stage 2 achieved the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics, compared with 53% nationally and 62% in Newham. At key stage 4, 16.8% of secondary school pupils in Nottingham achieved the EBacc combination of GCSEs, compared with 24.7% nationally and 31% in Newham.
I remain as concerned about school standards in Nottingham as I was when I met the directors of education for Nottingham City Council and the regional schools commissioner in November 2015 to discuss how they intended to raise standards. Our ambition is for a school system that prevents underperformance, helps all schools to improve and extends the reach of high-performing schools and headteachers. That is the key to delivering more high-quality school places across the country and accelerating the pace of improvements throughout the country, including in Nottingham.
To succeed in that, we have targeted investment in the school system to support those schools most in need, and to support the development of teachers and school leaders, particularly in the most challenging parts of the country. For example, we have established a new fund, the strategic school improvement fund, which provides £280 million over two years to target resources at those schools most in need of support. That will help those schools that are struggling to improve to drive up standards and improve pupil attainment. Working at a local level, key partners will bring together local intelligence to help inform applications and ensure that funds are directed at identified improvement priorities that meet local needs.
Working with schools at a local level is also an important part of our strategy to deliver more good and outstanding school places. Our eight regional schools commissioners are pivotal to driving up standards locally, brokering schools into strong multi-academy trusts, and challenging and supporting those trusts to raise standards where they are not performing effectively.
Multi-academy trusts play a key role in harnessing the support of our system leaders and are helping to turn around some of the more challenging schools right across the country. Bluecoat Beechdale Academy, which serves a deprived community in the Bilborough part of Nottingham, was judged good by Ofsted in February this year. Ofsted noted that pupil progress is now improving rapidly. Djanogly Strelley Academy in Nottingham was also judged good by Ofsted in February this year, which is a significant turnaround from 2013, when its predecessor school was judged inadequate.
When we are not satisfied that the progress an academy is making is good enough, we will take decisive action, including re-brokering it to a new sponsor.
One of the things that causes me great concern is the time that it can take to re-broker a school and the difficulties that then creates when a new academy comes into place. That was certainly the experience at Victoria Primary School. It has now been re-brokered, and I am very supportive of the headteacher and the multi-academy trust, but the truth is that for a long time—I discussed this with the previous regional schools commissioner—that school was left without good leadership. That is not good enough. I know that in some cases there is a struggle to find academy chains to take on schools in order for them to make that sort of progress.
I share the hon. Lady’s impatience. We need to find more good school sponsors to take on underperforming schools. It is an iterative process; we are seeing more and more academy chains being formed and more stand-alone academies taking on underperforming schools and helping them to improve. For example, Riverside Primary School in Nottingham was not performing well. In 2016, it was transferred to the NOVA academy trust, which is a strong sponsor operating in the city. We need more strong sponsors in Nottingham and throughout the country to drive up standards. We are seeing that the system of using leaders in the education system—a school-led system—is driving up standards. It has resulted in 1.8 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools than there were seven years ago.
The local examples I have cited demonstrate that the combined effects of targeted funding to the system to drive school improvement and action taken at a local level are continuing to deliver more good and outstanding places for children. However, underpinning all the support we are putting in to the system to help drive school improvement is the need to ensure that we have fair distribution of funding to schools, which properly reflects need.
I listened to the contributions from the hon. Members for Nottingham South and for Nottingham North, as well as the intervention from the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), on school funding. I have spent a lot of time in the past few months, during the election and during the extensive consultation, meeting schoolteachers, parents and governors from across the country. From those conversations, I have never been more convinced that our current funding system is broken.
The data that we use to allocate funding to local authorities are more than a decade out of date. For example, over that period the free school meals rate has almost halved in Southwark and more than doubled in Dorset, but the funding each local authority receives has not responded to that change. It is not right that local authorities with similar needs and characteristics receive very different levels of funding from central Government. That unfairness is exacerbated at individual school level, because local authorities make very different decisions in designing their local formulae. For example, a school in Barnsley would have 50% more funding if there were no other change to its circumstances but that it was situated in Hackney instead. The system by which we distribute money to schools is unfair and anachronistic.
That is why the Government have gone further than previous Governments in reforming school funding. Our manifesto committed to making funding fairer and we will do that by introducing a single national funding formula, so that all schools in England are funded on a consistent and transparent basis that properly reflects needs. In March 2016 we launched our first stage of consultation on the formula. We asked for views on the principles that should underpin it and its overall design. The principles included using robust data to ensure that funding is matched to pupil characteristics, such as deprivation, and the importance of transparency in the formula. More than 6,000 people responded and there was widespread support for our proposals.
In December last year we launched the second stage of our consultation on the detailed design of the formula. As part of that consultation, and to ensure maximum transparency, we published detailed illustrative impact data for all schools and local authorities, which enabled us to hold a truly national debate for more than three months. The Government response will address all the issues and concerns raised throughout the consultation and by hon. Members in debates such as this—we have had several over the past few weeks and months. We will respond to the consultation in due course.
Not only do we want the system for distribution to be fair; we also want to ensure that every school has the resources it needs to deliver a world-class education for every child. In order to achieve that, we have protected the schools budget in real terms since 2010, and the Government have committed to increase the school budget further, as well as to continue to protect the pupil premium to support those who need it. The Queen’s Speech was clear that the Government are determined to introduce a fairer distribution of funding for schools. We will set out our plans shortly and, as outlined in our manifesto,
“we will make sure that no school has its budget cut as a result of the new formula.”
We know that how schools use their money is also important in delivering the best outcomes for pupils, so we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding cost-effectively. The Government have produced tools, information and guidance to support improved financial health and efficiency in schools, which is available in one collection on the gov.uk website.
Will the Minister confirm whether he is saying that no school will lose, in real terms, per-pupil funding? That is a really important point. Protection of cash is not a protection given the current level of inflation and the cost pressures. Will he protect per-pupil funding for schools in Nottingham?
What I have said is that no school will lose per-pupil funding under that new national funding formula. The issue is that once the money has been allocated to the local authority, what the local formula can do—as advised by the school forum—is to redistribute that money in a different way. What I can say is that the commitment in our manifesto was that no school will lose money as a consequence of moving to a national funding formula.
I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Nottingham South on securing this important debate. Accelerating the pace of school improvement across the country is a shared priority and we are committed to ensuring that, regardless of where they live, all young people have equal access to a high-quality education. Targeted support at a local level, as I have outlined, will help us to deliver that, and a national funding formula also underpins it. For the first time we would have a clear, simple and transparent system that matches funding to children’s needs and the schools they attend. It will enable all schools to provide a high-quality, knowledge-rich education for their pupils.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered challenges facing new towns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bailey, and to see so many colleagues from across the House here to discuss this incredibly important issue. At a time when the Government are embarking on an ambitious house building programme, it is particularly important that we consider the experiences of new towns—the successes and, in some cases, the challenges and the things that have gone less well in their history. New towns are an experiment that should inform housing policy in this country. There is much that we can learn from our different experiences in our constituencies. Although there are many issues that we share concerns about, we also have common successes that we can bring to the House.
This is a wonderful opportunity to get colleagues to think about working together collaboratively on this issue. We often hear about our coastal town colleagues, who band together successfully, our rural colleagues, who also band together successfully to lobby for some of the things they want, and our urban colleagues, but there is something very distinctive about a new town. Very often we are by nature isolated within a rural environment. New towns were created outside cities as part of a vision for fresh, clean air and to tackle overcrowding. That isolation means that we are not always welcomed by the rural communities that surround us.
Connectivity and transport issues sometimes create urban isolation both within the new town and in connection with the rest of the country. We certainly have that issue in Telford: we are isolated in many ways. People sometimes say, “Where is your constituency? Is it somewhere on the way to Wales?” No, it is not. It is a vibrant, thriving new town set in the heart of rural Shropshire, not too far from Birmingham and now easily connectible to London. I want people to think about the ways our new towns interact with the hubs across the country.
Many new towns are marking their anniversaries. Harlow celebrated 70 years this year, and Milton Keynes has had its 50th anniversary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. This year Crawley celebrates the 70th anniversary of its designation as a new town, and it has certainly been a very successful community. One of its problems, which she touched on and no doubt will expound further, is that it was designed for about half its current population, so we must address issues such as access to health services, parking and housing as we go forward for the next 70 years.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful intervention. He is absolutely right that our respective constituencies share many features.
One of the other reasons for calling this debate is that I want new towns to be recognised as distinctive areas with specific needs.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I represent about two thirds of Cwmbran new town, in the southern part of my constituency. Unfortunately, the Government are proposing to relocate jobs away from the Cwmbran pension centre and out of the new town. Although we can certainly have policies in favour of new towns, I suggest that the Government need a coherent approach and should not be withdrawing jobs from new towns at the same time.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. I completely agree that a successful new town must have inward investment and jobs. It is about not just housing, but the whole community. We must look at new towns from that perspective.
Some years ago the Communities and Local Government Committee did some excellent work on new towns. It first looked at them in 2002, and it revisited them in the 2007-08 Session, but the Government of the day were reluctant to take on board its recommendations. The Committee visited Harlow, Corby and Telford, and did a significant amount of research. Disappointingly, there was the sense that new towns should be normalised and treated just like any other town. There was no recognition of their distinctive and specific needs, which is partly why I wanted to hold this debate.
Fortunately, the Town and Country Planning Association revisited those reports and produced some excellent work on how to use the experiences of the past to inform what we do for the future. It set up the new towns network to work with local authorities in new towns across the country and try to bring together some of these common themes. I only discovered that wonderful organisation while researching for this debate, which was fortunate, because had I come to this place without that knowledge, I would probably have been reinventing the wheel. I am grateful to it for its excellent publications, which I will happily send to any hon. Members who would like to see them. They contain a thorough analysis of the challenges. I am delighted to see that the Minister has a copy of one of them with him, and I hope that he has read it.
I have the great honour and privilege of representing the fastest growing new town in the country. Telford is a unique town. It has a specific identity and a proud industrial heritage as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It is a collection of former mining villages on the east Shropshire coalfield. It has an enviable rural-urban mix and a fantastic quality of life, which we should seek to emulate in the house building drive that the Government are committed to. Despite the many hurdles that Telford has experienced along the way, and rural Shropshire’s considerable resistance to its development—for example, there was resistance to the building of the M54, the main link road to Birmingham, and it took many years of persistence to get that connection—it is now a dynamic, thriving centre of gravity for the entire surrounding area. Some of that was brought about by welcome Government investment in Telford. We should not ignore the part that the Government have played in their commitment to Telford, for which I am very grateful. I very much hope that, as the MP for Telford, I will be able to continue to secure such investment.
Telford is now a huge population centre and a huge business centre. It has inward investment, commerce and advanced manufacturing, and all sorts of high-tech and new economy businesses are coming to Telford, but it has never had it easy. Its success is all about its innovation and willingness to embrace change. All new towns have had to have exactly that spirit: they have had to have determination, optimism and hope to make the towns what they are today. The new town movement was conceived with the vision of hope, opportunity for all, clean air, green spaces and better living conditions, but in some cases that vision did not come to full fruition.
Telford has overcome those obstacles and is a shining example of what a successful new town can be. That is why I wanted to share its example today. It is now where all the houses are planned and all the jobs are going, so it needs to be where the schools and hospitals are built and where the infrastructure is located. I say that because we still have many battles with the surrounding rural Shropshire about what investment should come to Telford.
As I said, all new towns were based on a premise of optimism and a vision for a better future. The lessons we can learn from the past will play a fundamental part in tackling this country’s housing shortage.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is generous in giving way to me again. I entirely agree about the vision for new towns. When they were conceived by the post-war Labour Government in the late 1940s, it was not only with a vision of hope and optimism, but with the idea that things could be planned in advance, rather than only as a response to past problems. The new towns were settlements where we could plan for the future. That could be used again as a strategy for future new towns.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. The long-term stewardship of the assets of new towns is fundamental to their future success. It is all too easy to say, “We have a local authority that is thinking only about the needs of today and is neglecting to look at the long-term vision.” We want the stewardship concept.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her generosity and forbearance in giving way to me a second time. Yes, it was under a Labour Government that new towns were created, but it was also under a Labour Government that, sadly, Crawley lost its hospital’s maternity and accident and emergency services in 2001 and 2005. It is therefore pertinent that we concentrate on the importance of long-term, sustainable planning.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on the importance of health services in future plans for any new town. In Redditch we have seen the unfortunate removal of A&E and children’s A&E services from the Alexandra Hospital—a temporary closure has now become permanent—and they have moved to Worcester. I will not go into the details, but they highlight the need to plan holistically for health services, and that is in addition to all the other issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) is discussing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. In Telford we, too, have had some debate about the future of our health services. I am delighted to report that we will not lose the A&E or the women and children’s unit, as was widely touted during the election campaign. One reason is that Telford has a rapidly growing population, so the need is self-evident. However, she makes an important point.
I have talked about some of the positives and good lessons that we can learn from new towns, but this debate is about the challenges, so I will move on quickly. Colleagues will face many of the same challenges in their constituencies, such as the new build challenges. New build brings its own huge range of different complications and problems experienced by residents, including pressure on infrastructure, school places, doctors’ waiting lists and little things such as postcodes or polling stations, which we do not have in new build areas, as well as street names and bus stops. Those are some of the things that are so important to quality of life.
People move to a new town because they are buying the dream—they are buying their own home, their future and their children’s future—but some of them will end up living in part-finished estates, paying exorbitant fees to management companies that do not discharge their obligations—that is probably a matter for another day, as we cannot address it in detail in this debate, but I wish to revisit it on another occasion.
Another common challenge we face is transport connectivity. Infrastructure investment often lags behind population growth. In addition, many new towns are designed around the car, but in Telford we have low car ownership and poor public transport, because of the low density of population. Low density is a good thing and part of what new towns are all about, but there are knock-on consequences for everyday life. As for digital connectivity, I will not talk much about it because only yesterday in the main Chamber we had a very full discussion about digital shortcomings with regard to broadband. People spoke at great length about new build and deficiencies in broadband.
Low-density population also makes bus routes unprofitable, which is a difficult problem to address. Road layouts even make walking difficult and—perhaps other Members share this view—we have many roundabouts bristling with traffic lights, which hold up traffic flow completely unnecessarily. That will definitely be the subject of another debate, such is the volume of constituency letters I receive on the subject, and the frustration it causes many people in Telford.
Some hon. Members present will share some of those concerns, but all new towns share the major challenge of a maturing new town, which is renewal and regeneration. As our new towns come of age, whether they are 50 or 70, we have to look at how we deal with fading infrastructure and faded housing estates that are sometimes not fit for occupation. As has already been mentioned, the failure to plan for the long term has caused some of those difficulties.
We all have decaying housing estates in our constituencies, built 50 years ago with poor design and poor materials. Whole estates are now in need of renewal, because they have been left behind. Every time I go to one of those estates, I ask where they will be in 10 years’ time, never mind 50 years’ time, and where the plan is to make the homes fit for the next generation. Such homes are often part of the private rented sector, so I feel that no one is looking after them—the council will often wash its hands of the responsibility. Yes, selective licensing might be introduced to try to make the landlords responsible, but the issue is much bigger than that, because often whole estates are in need of renewal and regeneration.
Infrastructure, too, from local centres to bridges that have outlived their intended lifespan, affects the perception of what was once an ambitious and modern project, but which is now looking faded and tired. That can affect the whole ambience of a town. An essential part of the success of a new town is not only to keep replacing the old, but the need for a vision and that concept of long-term stewardship, as we have discussed.
I am delighted that last week the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund as part of the Government’s commitment to their ambitious house building programme. It is very welcome. Telford has 17,000 new homes planned for the next 14 years, and I very much hope that it will be able to take advantage of the infrastructure fund. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he give us some steer as to whether new towns will be able to make bids to that fund in order to solve some of the problems of renewal and regeneration?
Will the Minister also recognise the fact that new towns are special? They have specific qualities and challenges. A cross-departmental approach is needed to support them. We are talking about housing, transport, business and the digital economy, so I would like to see Departments across Government focusing on the issue as a whole. We want to see the investment that we have had in Telford replicated in other new towns, which have not always benefited to the extent that we have done. Some challenges are specific to new towns, but previously Governments have wanted to normalise new towns, as if they were just like any other town. That was a mistake, so I reiterate how distinctive and special they are. Colleagues in all parts of the Chamber will agree with that.
In such a short debate we can barely scratch the surface of these issues. I would very much like to set up an all-party parliamentary group to take forward this initiative—I will definitely be knocking on the doors of those Members who are present. There are 32 new towns throughout the UK, and I will talk to the representatives of all of them to ask whether they wish to be part of an APPG.
We need to challenge the stereotype of new towns. Too often they are seen as substandard, but they are not; they are fantastically inspiring places to live, work and raise families. I could not recommend Telford more highly to anyone who wants to live the dream. Yes, there are problems and things that need to be ironed out, but Telford is definitely the place to do that. In fact, we have been very lucky; the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been to Telford on many occasions, and I think he fully understands the issues I have raised today. I am grateful to him for his support.
Telford is special. In 2018 we will mark our 50th anniversary. Although there may be lots of events and celebrations, we must not lose sight of the need for a vision for the next 50 years. The Government may be able to help local authorities with that. The nature of the election cycle means that local authorities are not always preoccupied in the way they ought to be with long-term thinking about infrastructure needs. I want to hear from the Minister that there is cross-departmental recognition of the specific needs of new towns, that new towns can access the housing infrastructure fund, and that they will receive help to plan ahead for future challenges.
I make a final plea. We have had a housing White Paper and there is a New Towns Act, but that was passed in 1981, so there may be scope to modernise it and make it fit for purpose for the present day. The key point that I would like everyone to take away is the need for long-term stewardship to secure the future of our fantastic towns, which we are all privileged to represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing the debate. Building new towns was a good idea—it was a necessity of the time, in both economic and population terms—but they failed to deliver their promise, which leaves my constituents in despair even today. We need to find a way to deliver that promise in a manner that befits the 21st century.
The new town of Skelmersdale was designated in 1961, with a target population of 80,000. Some 60 years on, it has a population of almost half that and little or no local facilities, amenities, transport links or adequate housing. It is a town built around the car, where people are driven underground and forced to use underpasses. The roads mostly have no pavements, but cars move about freely. It is a town famous for its roundabouts, like that mentioned by the hon. Lady.
Skelmersdale residents are proud of their town and work hard to put the best of themselves in the shop window. Only last year, local football coach Carl Eaton was nominated for a BBC sports personality award for his work with Skem Men-Aces, a football team that he founded for people with learning disabilities. The club has won countless trophies, and some of its players represent us at international level. There are many such impressive stories, and they are all the more impressive given that the town is deprived of an adequate town centre, a railway station, sports facilities, education opportunities and so much more. We have a shopping centre that pretends to be the town centre, but it is just a building. When the local council attempted to build a genuine town centre and a modern high street, the owners of the Concourse took out High Court injunctions and made appeals to block it. Skelmersdale is a town failed by narrow commercial interests. People are forced to spend their money elsewhere.
Although Skelmersdale became a designated new town in 1961 and a bright new future was projected, its tracks were pulled up and its train line was shut two years later. It is a town failed by a lack of foresight and that is desperately fighting to get a railway station. It is a town that has low car ownership—I concur with the hon. Lady on that point—but promises are still being broken. The Secretary of State for Transport visited during the general election campaign and told my constituents that bringing back the Burscough curves would be a quick win. I am still waiting for that announcement. Skelmersdale is so poorly served by bus services that, were it not for a planned rescue by the county council, an area of Ashurst would be without any bus service whatsoever.
All those things absolutely impact on the town’s economic prospects. It is a town where, rather than fixing the roof of a local sports centre, which was well used and generated an income, the council shut it down and it eventually burned down. It is a town failed by the council. The promised local hospital never materialised, and even education did not fare well—one high school was forced to close and its students had to relocate elsewhere in the borough. The recently built college withdrew its offer of A-level studies, forcing any student with an aspiration to progress at that level or further to study outside the town. That is an obvious difficulty considering what I said about rail connectivity and the lack of buses. It is a town failed by the education authorities. What can I say about housing? After 60 years, thousands of people still live in what was referred to as “temporary” housing. The planned development of 20,000 houses still has not happened. It is a town failed by planning authorities and developers.
I have fought really hard for Skelmersdale, which I have represented for the past 12 years, and I share local residents’ frustration. We still have not seen improvements and investments that were promised more than half a century ago. All the infrastructure has decayed at the same time and needs massive investment, of which we see little or nothing.
Before we move forward and build new towns and villages, we must ensure that we leave no one behind and we must invest in the towns that we have. We must keep our promises—promises that were made a long time ago—to people, update these towns and make them fit for the 21st century. We must help people like my constituents, who moved to our older new towns based on promises that they were given that even today we have not fulfilled. Yes, we need more new build housing, but as we look forward, we must ensure that we do not leave people like my constituents behind. If there is no future for them, what future can we tell other people that they will have in their new towns?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I add my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. She hit many nails on the head, particularly about the need for the Government to work on a cross-departmental basis and have a long-term strategy for new towns over the next few decades.
I should put the record straight: Milton Keynes is actually a new city, not a new town. As my hon. Friend correctly said, we celebrated our 50th birthday earlier this year. I should also say for the record that Milton Keynes has more than 900 roundabouts, which I think is more than anywhere else in the country.
We have a mixture. Most do not have traffic lights, but a few in the centre do.
As it turns 50, Milton Keynes is at a crossroads for future development. We have reached the size envisaged when Milton Keynes was designated as a new city in the 1960s in terms of both our physical footprint and our planned population of around a quarter of a million. The issue is not whether Milton Keynes should grow at all—there is consensus that it will continue to grow—but in what way, in what direction and over what timescale it will do so.
In 2013, the council passed a core strategy that provided for more than 20,000 new homes over the following decade and a half, and we are currently meeting our five-year land and housing supply target. The difficulty is that while that core strategy bought us time—it more than meets our need for the next period—it did not set a long-term vision for the future of Milton Keynes.
After the 2015 election, I successfully argued that Milton Keynes should have that long-term future strategy. I was delighted when Milton Keynes Council took up the idea and set up a futures group, ably chaired by Sir Peter Gregson, the vice-chancellor of Cranfield University. That painted a positive, dynamic vision for the next few decades of what Milton Keynes should be, looking at having, for example, not just a standard university but one focused on the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—that our economy needs, loosely based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology model in the States. The plan was originally called MKIT, but it has morphed into Milton Keynes University. That would help not just to generate economic needs but to provide the social community buzz that a place needs to thrive.
We are looking at growth not just in ourselves but as part of the wider Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor that the National Infrastructure Commission is developing. We had the interim report a few months ago and should have the final report by the time of the autumn Budget. That is critical in looking at not just the area’s housing needs but the whole economic construct, from hard infrastructure such as the east-west railway line and the Oxford to Cambridge expressway to 5G broadband provision and all the critical infrastructure needed to support growth.
My concern is that Milton Keynes Council is now pushing ahead with what is called “Plan:MK”, its vision for the next stage of Milton Keynes’s future development. That is not in itself a problem, but my real worry is the timing. The consultation document recently put out explicitly rejected that the council could have waited until the infrastructure commission reported and until the futures commission projects were more developed. The council thinks that would result in an unacceptable delay, but I fundamentally disagree. We have the time now to pause—not to pause house building, because the core strategy provides for our needs at the immediate time—and to look ahead at the smart cities technology and all the other developments that could usefully shape vibrant new communities that are not just urban sprawl.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, neighbouring counties are fearful of ever-expansion. However, they have their needs too, and by doing this in the right way, planning small villages that are smartly connected, we could create new communities that people want, not the urban sprawl that people fear. My plea to central Government is to help give us the space to develop that long-term strategy, which will be one of the major providers of the housing supply and economic growth that the country desperately needs. We have a homeless problem in Milton Keynes and we want to build new houses, but let us do that in a properly planned way. We also need to think about the delivery mechanism. A metro-style devolution arrangement will not work in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor, but perhaps we should look at reconvening the old Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which could be jointly owned by the authorities along that route, as an effective delivery mechanism.
Our city motto is:
“By knowledge, design and understanding.”
We could get a vibrant, new expansion for Milton Keynes and the surrounding areas. That is my plea and my hope. I support my hon. Friend’s plan to create an all-party group to help look at our shared interest and I very much look forward to being part of that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, am grateful to the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing the debate, which provides a genuinely interesting opportunity to think not only about our own new towns, but about the problems faced by new towns holistically. Like her, I hope that this is the start of the conversation rather than the end.
Aside from the cult film “Gregory’s Girl”, the new town I represent was probably most famous for a simple but effective advertising slogan from the 1980s. If I were to ask, “What’s it called?”—
Exactly—it is Cumbernauld. I even had a student activist at one point suggest “Who’s he called? Stuart McDonald” as a possible campaign slogan, but thankfully that was ruled out of hand. That was testament at least to the fact that that slogan had imprinted itself into public consciousness so much that someone born after it was created was still very much aware of it.
The new towns were an incredible achievement in planning and building, born of an urgent need for housing after war and a baby boom, and Cumbernauld is no exception to that. Though it was designed as part of Robert Matthew’s Clyde valley regional plan to move population out of Glasgow, it has a slightly different history, being the only one of the mark 1 new towns designated during the period of the Conservative Government of the 1950s. One consequence of that is that it has a slightly different design plan. Unlike other new towns, it does not share the concept of different neighbourhoods but aimed instead for a higher density design with a single town centre accessible by foot from all other parts of the town.
In many ways, Cumbernauld remains a great place to live. It has the same sense of civic pride that other hon. Members have described as present in their new towns. It is also an extraordinarily green town, with an amazing percentage of the town’s area comprising woods and parks. It enjoys a wonderful range of local organisations and community groups, with many taking a great interest in preserving that green space and maintaining it for all to enjoy.
However, as others have said, new towns face significant challenges as well. I could mention transport and one or two others, but in the time left I will focus on two or three at most. As has already been said, all new towns will face a huge challenge because a massive part of their housing stock and infrastructure will be exactly the same age, therefore requiring significant sums of investment in renewal over a short period of time. Some of those problems of regeneration and renewal are made even more challenging by the way in which stock was transferred first from development corporation to council, and then from council to private owners. Therefore, in some parts of Cumbernauld, it is almost impossible to get agreement between all the different owners of flats in order to take action to regenerate, which is required by the title deeds.
Another challenge is jobs. I will not go on about that for too long, but one of the key challenges we face is the possible loss of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in Cumbernauld—I think my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) will have something to say about that as well—which we will return to in the months ahead.
If I were to survey my constituents, I think the No. 1 new town issue they would highlight would be the town centre. It is built over the dual carriageway that goes through the town and, because the bus station is also located in the structure, for many that will be their one and only recollection of Cumbernauld. It was envisaged as a solitary megastructure designed to accommodate all the retail, municipal and leisure needs of the whole population of 50,000. Originally, it also included penthouse executive apartments. At first, it was remarkable. On completion, I think it was Britain’s first indoor shopping mall, but I do not think my constituents would disagree when I say it has not stood the test of time well; in fact, it has dated badly. The building’s concrete structure makes its exterior appear unattractive, and it has been a challenge to attract major retailers, with giant superstores locating instead on nearby sites.
There are plenty of ideas on how to improve the situation. The local council has a strategy in place after public consultation. My MSP colleague Jamie Hepburn and I also did a public consultation and arranged a roundtable of local organisations and community groups in autumn last year. There is enthusiasm for improving the town centre and making it a better fit for the town in which it is based. One key challenge is the co-ordination and co-operation required to make that happen. As well as the practical challenge of dealing with a giant monolithic structure, there are problems with the fact that bits of the town centre are owned by different private companies. Even the streets and public spaces are owned by private companies. In the past year we have been trying to kick-start some action in one part of the town centre that has changed ownership, so we almost have to start again.
What should we take from all this? The new towns were a bold and necessary experiment. When I was preparing for this debate I was interested to read that some of them ended up as a revenue-generating experiment for the Treasury. However, when they were built, there was no planning for the challenges that almost certainly lay ahead. No sinking fund was put aside for a time when renewal and regeneration would become urgent. Instead, development corporations have handed over more liabilities than assets.
Perhaps in the era of city deals we should campaign for new town deals in recognition of their unique challenges and opportunities. Perhaps we need to look at a role for a more modern and accountable version of the old development corporations that existed previously. In Cumbernauld there is a sort of successor organisation, but I am not convinced it is in the right form or has the resources and powers that it needs. Perhaps that is one thing to look at. I do not know the answer to these problems. There might be completely new solutions.
The hon. Member for Telford mentioned an APPG in her opening speech. That has to be the start of the conversation. I am absolutely up for joining an APPG and I hope we can take forward our discussions and our ideas to overcome the challenges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I give my huge congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who initiated this debate. She is a real champion for Telford and has done much to help to improve her town since she was elected.
As has been said, Harlow is 70 this year. Our town was built as a place of aspiration, opportunity and achievement for people, mainly from east London, who lived in poor accommodation. They moved to Harlow for the chance to make their lives better. We are now a sculpture town. Harlow is the birthplace of fibre optic communications. Hon. Members may be pleased to learn we even invented the formula for Bailey’s Irish Cream in Harlow.
We have a bright future ahead of us: £400 million is being invested by the Government in Public Health England. We have an enterprise zone. We have one of the best colleges in England, which has led the way in apprenticeships and in helping to deal with the problems of youth unemployment.
I think this is common among new towns, but certainly in Harlow: although we have lower levels of economic capital, we are not as prosperous as we would like to be, and there is significant deprivation, we have incredibly high levels of social capital and community spirit. We have organisations of people looking after one another, including faith groups; charities; neighbourhood associations; residents’ groups; housing groups; and many clubs and societies. There is an extraordinary level of social capital that brings people together and makes our town more prosperous.
However, we face three challenges, and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford touched on one of them. The first is reputation. She rightly said that there is a stereotype of new towns. Whenever we have a tragedy or something terrible happens, stereotypical journalism paints Harlow and new towns in a certain way. Journalists go to the worst part of the town and say, “This is what it’s like: a place full of anti-social behaviour.” They do not go to see the art, the sculptures, or the beautiful new housing estates and the regeneration that is going on. It is incredibly frustrating because it is very damaging. Such reports are damaging because they stop aspirational people coming into new towns. Much of it, of course, involves a huge amount of snobbery.
The second problem, which has been touched on by all hon. Members who have spoken thus far, relates to infrastructure. We were built all at once and we are breaking all at the same time. A lot of money is being invested in our roads, but we do not have enough housing. We are lucky to have huge amounts of green space. Harlow is a beautiful green town, but we do not have enough housing. I am glad new council houses have been built, partly thanks to the new homes bonus from the Government, but housing remains a significant problem. It comes up again and again in my constituency. People are not able to get a house or they live in overcrowded accommodation.
Although we have a lot of investment in infrastructure and roads, there are problems. When the town was built it was imagined that everyone would have one small car with one small garage, so we do not have enough spaces for parking. People now have two cars and there is simply no room to park them, so people park on the grass verges. I hope the Government will use some of the £23 billion infrastructure fund to help new towns. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said there should be a new towns fund, and he is right. If we have a northern powerhouse, we should have a new towns powerhouse.
Many good things are happening in Harlow. We are becoming a scientific, technological and vocational education powerhouse of the east of England. We are becoming a cultural powerhouse, too, with our sculptures and our beautiful Gibberd Gallery, but there has to be a focus on the problems that all the new towns have in common. The regeneration issue is important. Although part of our town centre is beautiful—the water gardens particularly—the other part badly needs regeneration and new builds. However, the money cannot come unless we have more housing. By the time we get more housing, it will have been a long time coming. The Government must look at where town centres badly need funding and support.
Our hospital was built a while ago and we desperately need a new one. The Health Secretary has visited Princess Alexandra Hospital three times. Its brilliant staff provide a wonderful service, even though we have had difficulties. The hospital is literally not fit for purpose—sewage gets into the operating theatres—so I urge the Minister to lobby the Health Secretary for a new hospital. He has said that if capital funding is available, Harlow will be considered as a top priority for a new hospital.
I will conclude because I know other Members wish to speak. As I have said, Harlow is very much an apprenticeship and vocational town. The Government’s investment in skills and apprenticeships is important. Anglia Ruskin University is introducing degree apprenticeships for our residents. Our schools are greatly improving, but we need to do more to make sure our children are educated even better and to ensure schools improve across the board.
I said that Harlow is a place of aspiration, opportunity and achievement. If we get continued investment from the Government, if there is a focus on new towns, and if we can use part of that £23 billion infrastructure fund to focus on the desperate needs that new towns have and to deal with the deprivation and infrastructure problems that we have, not only can we celebrate our 70th birthday, but we will easily be fit for another 70 years.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this excellent and timely debate and on speaking so comprehensively about the importance of new towns. I welcome the debate and our focus on the challenges that new towns face. I want first to examine how we got here and why wonderful new towns such as East Kilbride in my constituency came into existence.
Housing conditions in Scotland were a major concern after the second world war. There were overcrowded tenement dwellings in Scotland’s cities. Between the two world wars there had been some tenement clearance and new building programmes, but in many cases what was built was just as inadequate as the housing it had replaced. Decentralisation would be achieved by expanding existing towns in the region, encouraging industrial growth in other parts of Scotland and building new towns. In response to the plan, the new town of East Kilbride was designated just one year later, in 1947.
As many hon. Members will be aware, I grew up in the Westwood area of East Kilbride. Aztec Camera went “from Westwood to Hollywood”; I have managed only to go from Westwood to Westminster, but it is certainly a first for my family. It is an honour to represent my new town—a town that filled my family, moving from Glasgow, with hope and provided job opportunities, new green living spaces and somewhere to bring up a family where there were education, health and other resources that we could only have dreamed of. It is amazing to think that we are now celebrating East Kilbride’s 70th anniversary. I pay tribute to all those involved in the anniversary celebrations and in making sure the new town continues to thrive.
The emphasis on foreign direct investment and trade was part of the work associated with East Kilbride Development Corporation decades ago. That, alongside housing, was very successful. It was a programme of continued development, and one that is now sadly missed by most of my constituents. It is important to recognise the success that the development corporation had. The approach adopted for areas of housing in the Stewartfield and Lindsayfield areas embraced urban green spaces, at James Hamilton heritage park. As in many other new towns, there was a focus on creating a pleasant living environment, and Calderglen country park and the National Museum of Rural Life are perfect examples of our many visitor attractions.
Today’s debate is about challenges. Over the decades East Kilbride has experienced the loss of key industries. Rolls-Royce moved out of our town just the other year, as did Motorola before that; we were previously thought of as a great semiconductor town in Scottish industry. Now, under the UK Government’s plans, we face the challenge of losing the office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We must invest in our new towns, create jobs there and maintain those that keep them thriving. I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that happens, including revisiting the plans for HMRC. An impact assessment would show that the plans could decimate the new town, and surely he does not want that to happen within his remit.
The focus of the debate is on challenges, but I believe that East Kilbride has a vibrant future, entailing, for example, a modern shopping centre complete with a new leisure hub. I would like to see a new designer outlet mall, although my husband clearly does not want such a development. The town centre needs a bit of a facelift; we are very proud of our town, so we want to make sure that happens. We also need manufacturing, jobs and livelihoods to be brought into the 21st century, so during the summer recess I shall host my day of international trade and development for East Kilbride. I hope that the new Chair—elected today—of the International Trade Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), will open the event, and that we will have representatives from many of the great trading centres of the world, including China, Hong Kong and Japan. I hope that they will speak about why it is so important to invest in our new town, and that we can continue to build such links.
In future it will be important for me to maintain my role on the newly developed East Kilbride taskforce. My key focus is on jobs, livelihood and trade. We need to focus on the town’s unique selling point, and give that the priority it deserves, across Scotland and the United Kingdom: we have excellent low-carbon ideas and aspirations, and we want to become the UK’s low-carbon town. We want new town development plans; they should be ongoing and ours should not die with the sad demise of the East Kilbride Development Corporation. The taskforce and key stakeholders across the town, including our MSP, are working hard to make sure that we regenerate and continue to build. It is important for us to retain the jobs at HMRC. The impact assessment indicates that that will be vital.
I call on the UK Government to invest in new towns, not just in new city deals. We are connected in our new town, with its multitude of roundabouts. Indeed, I will check the figures to see whether the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) is ahead of us on roundabouts —East Kilbride is widely known and loved as Polo mint city, so I need to check the veracity of that nickname.
East Kilbride is a shining example of a wonderful new town. I want to work with all key stakeholders at council, Scottish Government and UK Government level, to ensure that it will continue to shine. I will do all I can to push for investment and trade. I would like to attend the all-party group described by the hon. Member for Telford, which is a wonderful idea. There is much to be done, but we will make it our priority across the House. I could not recommend East Kilbride more highly to people throughout the UK and beyond. Come to work, live in and visit East Kilbride.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing it. I am also proud to represent the new town of Redditch. Something that we have in common with other hon. Members present is the fact that famous or notable people came from our town, including a gentleman who has just been commemorated by a blue plaque—John Bonham, the Led Zeppelin guitarist. Hon. Members may know the song “Stairway to Heaven”; I sometimes think of its lovely lines when I am climbing one of the stairways in this place.
Redditch was built as a new town in the 1960s, to accommodate people from a rapidly expanding Birmingham. Somewhat similarly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Telford described, we are a centre of gravity for Birmingham, but in the other direction. To this day, Redditch is a desirable commuter town and there is significant demand for housing, because of natural growth and migration. The concern that Redditch residents raise with me is land availability, and the need for developers to find a balance that protects and sustains the green spaces and environments that are such a distinctive feature of the town.
The purpose of creating the local plan is to locate growth, limit commuting out of Redditch, make the best use of existing highway infrastructure, and promote sustainable transport options, while also creating a place where businesses can thrive. What conversations has my hon. Friend the Minister had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on ensuring that businesses are attracted to new towns as well as to urban centres? We in Redditch want that idea to be promoted.
There are parts of the town centre in need of regeneration, because of neglect over a period of years—something my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) raised about his constituency as well. People in our town also have a perception that there are safety issues, because of antisocial behaviour and crime. I welcome the fact that all local plans must be accompanied by sustainability appraisals. Redditch Borough Council has undertaken discussions about that, but residents are still understandably concerned about the effect, particularly on surrounding services and transport systems, of expanding developments in the area. What regular discussions has the Department had with the Department for Transport and rail operating companies to ensure that new towns such as Redditch have transport links to connect them to major urban centres such as Birmingham, so that residents who work there can get to work easily?
Webheath is a beautiful rural area of Redditch. A problem for my constituents is the fact that land there has been identified for expanding development. It is on the south-west boundary of Redditch’s urban centre, and between 400 and 600 dwellings are proposed. It is a difficult issue for residents. I welcome housing and accept the need to provide it, but residents feel that developing the land in that way will be intrusive. The development is likely to proceed, but there is a risk of flooding, and the roads are inadequate—there are lanes, not roads, and we do not have pavements. A great deal of investment is required to make the development safe.
Also, the services of Diamond Buses are inadequate; people are being let down on their daily journeys to work, and left stranded in outlying areas. Redditch has one of the lowest levels of car ownership in the country, and one in five households have no access to a vehicle, which shows how important the bus services are in people’s daily lives. I regularly meet councillors in those areas to raise constituents’ concerns, because many rely on public transport to get around.
I therefore ask the Minister to consider the overall redesign and expansion of Redditch, and to work with borough councils and neighbouring local authorities, because development is often driven by neighbouring local authorities and impinges on Redditch, which is in a different council area. We need to make sure that councils work together across the piece to mitigate the impact of those decisions strategically.
I support providing for the increasing population of Redditch, but I feel that further consideration must be given to the impact it has on services and infrastructure. I have already mentioned our hospital, and I make no apologies for mentioning it again—it is the No. 1 issue we face in Redditch. People are rightly worried that their town will grow, because it is a growing town with a young population. We want to see long-term, sustainable plans for health, not the sudden removal of services that then becomes permanent, because that has a negative effect on peoples’ perception of how they are being treated. Redditch residents feel that they deserve services in their town just as much as neighbouring Worcester does. I share those concerns, and I do not want my residents to feel that they are being unfairly overlooked in that regard. I welcome the APPG initiative and will give it my full support.
It is a great pleasure to sum up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. As I explained in my maiden speech—it seems a long time ago now—although my constituency is called Glenrothes, slightly more than 50% of my constituents do not live in the town of Glenrothes. I think it is disrespectful for the name of the constituency to ignore that fact. As a lot of hon. Members alluded to, many new towns were planted in the middle of established communities, which are sometimes very concerned about maintaining their own identities. I will continue to ensure that officialdom recognises the identities of the many disparate communities in the Glenrothes constituency that are not in Glenrothes.
As a long-term resident of the town itself, I will make some comments on what a wonderful place it is to live. However, let me first commend the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing the debate and all hon. Members who have spoken for the clear passion they have demonstrated for the new towns they represent and their pride in the people in those towns. Although we have heard a lot about roads and roundabouts, and schools and roundabouts, and houses and roundabouts, and shopping centres and roundabouts, this is about people. All of those things were supposed to have been built for people, and with hindsight I sometimes wonder what the architects and town planners thought the people were supposed to do.
A large part of the problem, certainly in Glenrothes, is legacy; the well-intentioned people who planned the town all those years ago had no idea what kind of town they needed to produce for the 21st century. I think that one difficulty is that society was a lot more paternalistic then. Glenrothes was built on precincts with a typical population of 2,000, although some were quite a bit smaller. Those precincts would often have a primary school and what was charmingly described as a tenants’ meeting room that typically held about 50 or 60 people. There was nowhere within the precincts where the community could meet. A lot of the communities did not have a polling station big enough for everybody to go and vote at on the same day. The vast majority of amenities were to be in the town centre, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned.
Another big difficulty became relevant shortly after I was first elected as a councillor in the town in 1992, because the new town development corporation was wound up in 1995-96. We expected all of its functions to be taken over by the new unitary Fife Council, but the Government of the day—as represented by Michael Forsyth, the Scotland Office Minister for everything—were keen to sell off as much as possible in order to keep it out of the hands of the elected council.
Our town centre was sold off, as were a lot of the industrial estates, such as the Whitehill industrial estate on the western edge of the town, with disastrous results. The neighbourhood shopping centres were sold off, and the Glenwood centre in Glenrothes has been in the ownership of, I think, three different bankrupt or liquidated companies. All of those facilities, which should have been maintained for the benefit of local people, have been allowed to run down because they were sold off for short-term gain, often to people with neither the capacity nor even the will to make them succeed in the longer term. I thought it interesting that the hon. Member for Telford referred to that.
Having said that, there have been several successes in the town, a lot of which are down to the people—sometimes for taking things on board for themselves, sometimes for forcing the council, the Scottish Government, the UK Government and everybody else to deliver what was needed. During my time as a councillor, we saw a new dental centre and a new health centre built at Glenwood in west Glenrothes, a new secondary school built to replace the former Auchmuty High School, the new Michael Woods sports and leisure centre built to replace the aging and almost literally collapsing 1970s sport centre.
We are also in the process of seeing a new residential care home at South Parks to replace two older homes—I give credit to the former Labour Administration in Fife Council for delivering that. We have also seen a lot of investment in a sports hub for the community at Gilvenbank in the north of the town, and there has been an excellent community initiative at Over Stenton playing fields in the south of the town to provide a home for the Glenrothes Strollers, who have previously been awarded community club of the year by the Scottish Football Association.
What is remarkable about all of that to some Members here, but is just accepted by those of us on the Scottish National party Benches, is that the total private finance initiative liability for all of those community facilities is nil. If the political will is there, all of that can be done without mortgaging future generations to the mercies of international financial conglomerates. I hope the UK Government listen to this, because there is a better way to finance large-scale public investment.
I mentioned the people of the town I am so fortunate to represent. Since the start of the general election campaign, the people have run very successful large and small community events in Macedonia, at St Ninian’s Church in Tanshall, in Collydean, Gilvanbank, Collydean again, at Over Stenton and at Woodside. All of that happened in a town that a lot of people said did not have any community spirit. It was felt that, being a new town, people tended to live their own lives and never really interact with one another. I think a lot of the credit for that community spirit belongs particularly to our primary schools, because they tend to bring families together in a way that few institutions can.
A big fillip to the town over the past 10 or 15 years has been the influx of young families from central Europe. Because Glenrothes was designated as a new town 59 years ago, the population has tended to age with the town, and a lot of our communities were in danger of growing too old. The influx of younger families from other parts of Europe has been of huge benefit, and I hope it will be allowed to continue.
If I had one ask, what my town needs, as I suspect do a lot of towns represented here, is significant public sector investment. The private sector will simply not fix this problem on its own. If the political will is there, the money can be found, and all of the towns represented here can be turned into towns that their residents desire and deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing the debate, and I wish her town and the respective constituency towns of the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) a happy birthday. I also welcome the Minister to his new post in what I believe is his first outing. Is he the Minister for pubs? For the northern powerhouse? For devolution? Yes? All of the above, but not for parks, apparently, which I think his predecessor was. I think he should fight for that, given the comments today on green spaces in new towns.
Nobody listening to the debate can have failed to hear the passion and pride that all hon. Members have in their new towns—or cities, as in the case of Milton Keynes. The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) certainly demonstrated a “Whole Lotta Love” for her town—as well as for Led Zeppelin—while recognising the challenges faced by new towns.
As the anniversaries show, many new towns no longer consider themselves new and, as hon. Members have outlined, there is now a need to look to renewal and investment. I am afraid that some of the issues raised today have only been exacerbated since 2010. As the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, many town centres across the UK have been starved of investment and are in desperate need of regeneration. The Government will surely have to look at the complications mentioned of dealing with multiple private companies in town centres when trying to address this. I have been looking closely at regeneration with my local authority and Departments to try to improve the situation in my constituency of Great Grimsby, so I am well aware of the difficulties and challenges that people face.
The Government, of course, commissioned Mary Portas to write a review of the future of high streets in 2011, but she slammed them just three years later for making only “token gestures” in response. Many of the things we have heard today reflect a frustration that, on the one hand, the Government say they want to support towns, new towns and house building, but on the other, as two hon. Members mentioned, there is a loss of Government jobs in these towns. Those jobs are critical for not only the local economy but individuals. The loss of HMRC jobs—really good, secure jobs—is having an impact in my constituency as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Redditch mentioned transport infrastructure. There was quite a strong emphasis on rail, but I was pleased also to hear a reference to buses. There is a significant issue around bus transportation, particularly for those on lower incomes. Buses are essential, but unfortunately since 2010 funding for buses across England and Wales has been cut by a third, with thousands of routes cut or downgraded as a result. Ensuring that there are good bus routes is essential for people’s ability to move around their local areas.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind birthday wishes to Harlow on its 70th anniversary. She mentioned Government jobs, but would it be fair to say that that does not reflect the whole picture? I mentioned that the Government invested £400 million to bring Public Health England to Harlow, to make us, except for Atlanta in the United States, the public health science capital of the world. That will bring thousands of jobs, including skilled scientific jobs, to our town.
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is benefiting from that investment. I am sure that lots of Members around the room will be hoping for something similar or the same; I certainly would not be disappointed if the Minister came to me and offered something similar.
Broadband, which I thought might come up, has not been touched on today. In 2015 we were promised ultrafast broadband to nearly all homes in the country. Maybe someone will leap from their seat and say, “It’s all absolutely fine; we’ve got ultrafast broadband,” but I know that across the board, only a handful of constituencies have more than 1% of connections receiving ultrafast broadband speeds. To make all our towns across the country successful, the Government must take that seriously and press forward on it.
I should point out that the National Infrastructure Commission, which is looking at the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor, is not just considering hard infrastructure such as roads, railways and the rest; broadband provision is very much part of its work.
I would also like to comment on broadband. It came to my attention at a constituency surgery recently that there is real concern about new housing estates. If the number of homes being built does not reach a certain number, broadband does not necessarily have to be provided for residents. Residents are buying new houses, expecting broadband to be a feature of what they are buying, but there does not seem to be any legal requirement for it. Will the hon. Lady comment on that?
I certainly urge the Minister to consider that. When people purchase new build properties on those estates, modern facilities fit for the 21st century must be part and parcel of them.
Renewal and expansion of the housing stock are clearly issues that face new towns, as the right hon. Member for Harlow in particular highlighted. Under the Conservatives, we have seen the lowest level of house building since the 1920s and the lowest level of affordable house building for a quarter of a century. As rent and house prices have hugely outstripped rises in people’s incomes, we now have a generation of young people who cannot afford to buy a home—and not just in London, but right across the country, with the result being 200,000 fewer homeowners today than in 2010.
The hon. Member for Telford spoke of the specific problems for those who buy leasehold properties. Increases in ground rent charges are a particular issue that sees leaseholders being ripped off by developers or management companies and can make it impossible for individuals to sell their property. An APPG on the specific issue raised that in the previous Parliament, but perhaps her new all-party group will consider it as well.
When we are considering these issues, nothing should be off the table. It has to be something workable and reasonable that protects leaseholders. That option will not necessarily be the right solution, but it certainly should be available for consideration.
Labour has proposed capping some of the charges and, in the longer term, ending the routine use of leasehold ownership in developments of new houses entirely. That is an alternative, perhaps, to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Glenrothes. The 2017 housing White Paper pledged 17 new garden towns and villages, but it came five years after the former Prime Minister announced a consultation on new garden cities in his speech to the Institution of Civil Engineers. That delay does not exactly instil confidence that the Government recognise the scale of the housing crisis facing the country today, or the importance of new towns and garden cities to tackling the crisis.
Let us compare and contrast with the Labour Government of 1945. It took the Attlee Government just one year to enact legislation for new towns and to designate Stevenage the first. A new planning system was introduced the next year. Within five years, 10 new towns had been started, with social housing for rent making up the overwhelming majority of new homes built. That shows what Government can achieve if the desire is truly there, which is exactly what the hon. Member for Glenrothes was talking about earlier. Will the Minister update us on the progress of the new garden towns and villages?
The viability of new towns and garden cities relies on the agreement of the local population. They have to be developed in a way that genuinely improves the local area by bringing the jobs and services needed for a real community. When the latest tranche of garden towns and villages was announced in January, the former Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), said:
“What worries me about all of these announcements…is perhaps it is just a good name to tag on to more housing development rather than somewhere…you’d really want to live, bring up children, work and play.”
He went on:
“And if it is not all of those things then we will have failed to actually create new garden cities; we would have just tried to make housing sound more popular.”
Will the Minister reassure us today that these proposals are not simply spin on new housing developments but will genuinely reflect the ethos of garden cities?
We have heard today about the higher infrastructure costs faced by new towns. Labour has suggested that in future, new garden cities or towns should retain 100% of the business rates locally, to provide an income stream for those higher costs. Business rate retention was one of a large number of policies dropped in the Queen’s Speech, but perhaps the Minister will consider reviving it for new garden cities.
I also want to ask about the need to provide greater protection for those purchasing new build homes, which is of course a particular issue in new towns and villages. I spoke about the Bovis Homes scandal in my previous role as a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee. When I challenged the former housing Minister, now chief of staff to the Prime Minister, on what the Government are doing to safeguard new homeowners from this in future, he told me that a planned announcement had been put on hold when the Prime Minister called the general election. Nothing was brought forward to address the issue in the Conservative manifesto and there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps the Minister here today can say what this previously imminent announcement was and when we can expect it.
It is a pleasure to have my first outing under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I start by saying happy 70th birthday to Harlow and happy birthday to Telford, Milton Keynes, Stevenage, Crawley and all the other new towns that have an approaching big birthday with a zero in it. I have a birthday with a zero approaching in a couple of years.
It is because we are at such an important crossroads for new towns that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for this debate today. It gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to new towns and recognise their continuing role in delivering the Government’s house building agenda. It is important to look at the lessons to be learned from the new towns programme so that, as we move forward and build garden towns, villages and cities, we do not make the same mistakes.
I welcome the way in which new towns can now work together, and not just at local authority level. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s idea of an all-party parliamentary group, which will start an important conversation here in Parliament. The Town and Country Planning Association’s new town network is doing great work and I have a copy of its report here.
I will focus initially on the new town in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which in many ways is leading the Government’s thinking on new towns. Like all new towns, Telford is testament to the fact that place making never ends. The town has grown to be a success story as the commercial gateway to Shropshire over many years, but it faces some challenges. Parts of Telford have ageing infrastructure. The problem is not restricted to Telford and today we have heard many colleagues talking about that. The contemporaneous obsolescence test in new towns is that if everything is built at the same time, everything wears out at the same time, which poses real challenges.
In addition, the development style of many new towns, which during the ’60s and ’70s was the height of modernity, especially in our town centres, can look outdated and often does not provide the modern shopping experience that consumers demand today. Telford and other new towns have risen to the challenge and in 2016 the Government signed a unique land deal with Telford in which they committed £44.5 million from land sales to reinvest in Telford’s infrastructure. At the same time, we will deliver 2,800 new homes and create 8,500 jobs. Telford has been successful in several rounds of growth deal funding to improve its infrastructure, to build a new bus station—linking to the comments on buses—and to invest in skills. The growth deal for Telford is precisely the sort of forward-looking approach that we would welcome from all new towns up and down the country and could be progressed through the housing deal flagged in the recent White Paper.
My hon. Friend asked what we will do about the new towns legislation, which is hugely important for all our new towns. We have legislated through the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 to enable the creation of locally accountable new town development corporations to provide powerful and effective delivery options for garden towns, so that updating has already taken place.
Telford, like so many of our new towns, is a dynamic and exciting place to live. We have heard from representatives of all new towns that they all seem to be dynamic and exciting. Telford has halved its unemployment since 2010 and doubled its apprenticeships. Its business start-ups are up, its housing starts are up and even my hon. Friend’s share of the vote at the recent general election was up, which I welcome. It shows, as we have heard today, what a difference a fantastically hard-working MP, on whatever side of House they sit, can make for their town. Telford is one of the most economically successful towns in the midlands and its gross value added and employment are on a par with many areas of the south.
We have also heard from colleagues from across the Chamber. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) talked well about Skem. I am from the area and I know that it is not universally known as Skelmersdale; we call it Skem. Lancashire County Council and the local enterprise partnership are working on a plan for Skelmersdale railway station and I hope the hon. Lady will come forward with bids to the housing infrastructure fund. She spoke very well about some of the challenges of the infrastructure in Skelmersdale. I am pleased there is good news locally with major employers such as Flavourfresh and Huntapac reflecting the growing economy around Skelmersdale.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about the challenges, but it is clear she has real pride in her town and I know that she will be a powerhouse on the APPG. The idea of an international trade exhibition promoting a new town is excellent.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is supporting local proposals for high-quality transformation and growth for Harlow through the Harlow and Gilston garden town proposal that he supports. New new towns, as I think we will now have to call them, must learn lessons from old new towns like Harlow. We welcome bids from Harlow and all the new towns to the infrastructure fund that he spoke so well about.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) spoke about his town centre, which faces challenges like many other new towns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) spoke about smart cities and the Opposition spokesman also spoke about the importance of embedding infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, in our new towns for their plan for the future.
On a recent visit to the new Metro Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, I was particularly interested that he is talking about a digital domesday book held locally to put on record the infrastructure as it is today. By mapping the existing infrastructure it is hoped that we can future-proof the expansion of towns to ensure that we are not repeatedly digging up our roads. I welcome his enthusiasm for the National Infrastructure Commission and agree that this is an exciting opportunity for local growth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) spoke about her town. I know that she welcomed the North Worcester Engineering Centre, which was opened by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), showing that Ministers of that Department are constantly in contact with her and her town. I note that the local enterprise partnership has plans to create 2,300 new jobs in the area.
Turning to the Opposition spokesman’s comments, I will not take lectures from anyone in the Labour party about the rate of house building. The lowest house building rate anywhere in the country was in John Prescott’s proposed eco towns. The problem with them, unlike our garden city proposals, was that their direction was top down, forcing housing, often in the wrong place where people did not want it, on communities. What is so exciting about our proposals for garden towns and cities is that they are locally led. We all know from our constituency role that development is often opposed, but when there is buy-in from the community from the first day, it makes it much easier to deliver.
In Bicester, we have already had 1,000 starts. In Ebbsfleet, 350 properties have been completed. In Northants garden community, Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough, 650 homes have been built and in Aylesbury Vale there are 2,500 starts, showing that this Government are absolutely determined to deliver our promise to build more than 23,000 homes in new towns.
There is still a problem with new towns and people’s perception of them, and the APPG could work on that to ensure that towns that may previously have been associated with roundabouts, with or without traffic lights, and with decay and ageing town centres start to be the leading lights of our country. I hope and believe that, when the APPG is formed, it will invite me to address it and that I can talk about our progress under the recent housing White Paper to ensure that we build a record number of homes in this Parliament, and emphasise that new towns and new new towns continue to be a focus for this Government and a fantastic place for people to live, work, raise a family, own a car, drive round roundabouts and live their lives as happily and freely as they can.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered challenges facing new towns.
Ambulance Services (Devon)
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered ambulance services in Devon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me say at the outset that we all pay tribute to our blue light services and that this debate is not in any way intended to criticise them. The intention is to set out the challenges that they confront and to celebrate their professionalism and the work that they do, but also to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to address some key issues that they face in Devon and, in particular, in my constituency.
The debate has been triggered by a number of incidents. People have contacted me either directly or indirectly to raise concerns about long waiting times faced by my constituents; an incident that typifies the situation happened last month. An elderly lady was left for two hours at the roadside, on a baking hot day, waiting for a paramedic crew to arrive. She had serious neck injuries and was in some distress. Were it not for the kindness of passing strangers, things might have been even worse, but a consultant anaesthetist happened to be passing and was able to provide critical assistance at the scene, and the lady also had assistance from the police and from staff from South Hams Community Hospital. As a result, the outcome has been good, but it could have been very different. That has caused a great deal of concern, because it is not an isolated incident. Although much of the focus of my speech will understandably be on the critical, type 1 cases, which require a response within eight minutes—everyone understands that—I would like the Minister also to think about those other cases that we are all coming across in our constituencies which are not immediately life threatening but are nevertheless very serious and where the outcome can be very different unless we see a timely response from our ambulance services.
First, I would like to address demand, which is rising at an extraordinary rate. During the five years to 2016-17, over the area of the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust we have seen a considerable rise in demand, but there has been a 19.2% increase in the Totnes constituency alone, a 29% increase in Plymouth and a 23.7% increase in Torbay. The challenge is far greater in a rural setting, for obvious reasons. The SWASFT area is the most rural area in England; and if we look at the activity for Devon, we see that 23.5% of SWASFT’s activity is in that county, but that is matched by only 22.2% of its funding.
I very much appreciate the debate that my hon. Friend has introduced in the Chamber today. She is making a very good point about the rurality of Devon, which is one of the largest counties in the country. Of course, the issue is not just its size. If one starts going north-south, there are no really fast roads—we need much more done to the north Devon link road. Apart from the scale of the county, however, the issue is about getting an ambulance to an incident in time and our very scattered population. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am sure that Ministers are aware of the size of Devon, but there is also the question of the time it takes to get from A to B if one is not going on major roads.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Of course, as we know, demand can escalate considerably during the peak summer times, but many of our roads are single-track ones with passing spaces, and it can be very difficult to get an ambulance resource to the scene in a timely manner.
My first point to the Minister is that there are no concessions for rurality; there is no funding premium to allow SWASFT to meet the extra demands that it faces. In fact, overall, its funding has fallen by 2.46% per incident in 2017-18, compared with 2014-15. It has to meet the huge increase in demand with shrinking resource, in what is one of the most challenged areas in England because of rurality. I would like the Minister to acknowledge that key point and the impact of rurality on response times.
My second point to the Minister is that although overall SWASFT is doing a good job in meeting the performance target of 75% of category 1 calls receiving a response within eight minutes, that does rather mask the picture in the most rural parts of the area. Let us take the South Devon and Torbay clinical commissioning group area as a whole, for which we have some data that show that it just meets the target, with the figure of 75.65% of calls. If we look at the breakdown for the Totnes constituency, we see that during the past three months the figure has been 61%, so my point to my hon. Friend is that, when considering a county such as Devon, he should look not just at the overall, top-line figure, but at the impact in the most rural parts of the constituencies. I hope that he will ask for that as an ongoing measure, as a response to this debate.
There is a specific example of exactly what is being described by my hon. Friend in my constituency of North Devon—the situation in Lynton and Lynmouth, the twin villages right on the north coast. At the beginning of last week, the South Western ambulance trust withdrew what was in effect a rapid-response paramedic vehicle that was traditionally stationed in Lynton and Lynmouth, specifically because of the rurality and the distance from anywhere else of those two villages. There is a lot of concern in the community because that service has been withdrawn. I pay tribute to the CCG, which is looking for an alternative arrangement, but the fear is that there is still a gap, and the response time, because of the distance of Lynton and Lynmouth from everywhere else, is key. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, through my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), to consider that particular example?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Likewise, very considerable concerns have been raised in my constituency about the withdrawal this month of rapid-response vehicles from Dartmouth and Kingsbridge and in Totnes. I understand the reasoning that double-crewed ambulances can provide the conveyance that people need to hospital and that utilisation of the single vehicles is less—about 24%. I understand the rationale behind it, but equally I ask the Minister to respond to precisely the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) has raised, because the worry in communities such as mine is that once the double-crewed ambulances are conveying a casualty to an urban centre, they tend not to come back again, whereas the rapid-response vehicles did. There is a genuine concern about how we will ensure that the double-crewed ambulances come back.
As I have said, I welcome the increase in the double-crewed ambulance resource as the rapid-response vehicles come away, and I am aware of the data whereby efforts are being made to provide a reassuring response that actually the number of hours in total will increase. However, that change is just coming in this month, and I would like the Minister to assure the House today that he will look very closely at the data as they emerge over the next few months, to ensure that those vehicles are returning to the rural areas, because I fear that otherwise we will again see that SWASFT is meeting the overall, top-line target for the entire patch, but that will be at the expense of rural constituencies such as my own, where there will simply be a worsening of the response. We need to look at that very closely, and I would like the Minister to assure me that, following this debate, he will specifically ask SWASFT to ensure that there is a response available and it does not worsen in the rural parts of Devon.
I would also like to address the matter of the workforce, which is an issue across the NHS as the Minister knows. Within our paramedic resource there is actually an 11% turnover of paramedic staff, in part because they are such a skilled and valued workforce, which means in many cases they are being attracted into other parts of the NHS, for example to work in casualty departments and minor injuries units. Everyone can understand that, but we need to make sure that we are recruiting and retaining within our blue light response services as well. For example, there are currently about 100 vacancies over the whole of the SWASFT area, and 16 whole time equivalent vacancies in Devon alone. What is the Minister doing to work alongside Health Education England to address the workforce issues? I will again make the point I have done in previous debates about the impact of the pay cap on the recruitment, retention and morale of the workforce. Again, I call on Ministers to consider giving the pay review bodies greater flexibility to be able to increase the rates of pay.
We know that there are pressures on our ambulance services, but we cannot view them in isolation. I would like the Minister to consider the impact that this is having on our other blue light services, particularly the police. They have raised some worrying concerns with me about not only the amount of time that they are having to spend on scene—as they did the other day in the incident that I described—while they wait for an ambulance resource to arrive, but the fact that on occasion they themselves have to take people to hospital who should really be conveyed by an ambulance resource. To clarify, in May this year there were 226 incidents where an ambulance was requested but no ambulances were available to be assigned in the Devon and Cornwall police area, and in June there were 158. These long waits are having a knock-on on the police’s ability to carry out their other duties, and that should concern us all.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way and congratulate her on securing this much needed debate. As she will be aware, it is not only the police who are experiencing long waits. One of my constituents, Susannah Tandy, has got in touch about an incident a week ago when her 12-year-old son fell 11 foot from a tree. An ambulance was called at 1 pm but did not arrive until about quarter to 4. These sorts of waits not only build up anxiety but could see situations get much worse. Thankfully Murphy appears to be making a recovery, but it could have been a lot worse.
I think we are all glad to hear that Murphy is making a good recovery. As my hon. Friend says, we must focus not just on the immediately life-threatening incidents but on the kinds of incidents that he described, where an ambulance is very important and somebody’s condition could deteriorate because of a long wait. For SWASFT we must keep an eye on not just the category 1 incidents, but the others as well, and I hope the Minister will do so.
In this debate we should also celebrate the successes, because there are undoubtedly those as well. We have seen examples of very good co-working between our blue light services. For example, in the “collapsed behind closed doors” scheme fire services co-operate with the ambulance service where there are concerns that somebody might be collapsed in a residence. In the past the police may have responded, but now the fire service can also provide that assistance, and I pay tribute to those co-responders in the fire service. From my time as a rural GP in Chagford, I remember the number of occasions when people phoned me in surprise because the fire service had arrived instead of the ambulance service, but it is actually providing a fantastic resource. On occasions when it is absolutely critical that somebody has a defibrillator on site as soon as possible, the fire service can and does perform an amazing job. We have got further to go, particularly in remote rural communities where a fire resource might be closer to hand. I hope the Minister will look at how we can go further to make sure that we develop a multi-skilled workforce who are properly rewarded for the expertise and skills that they develop across the fire service.
The ambulance crews across Devon do a fantastic job. I represent an urban seat in Plymouth, but the demand that is placed on both urban and rural ambulance services has a knock-on effect, because there is no wall that divides Plymouth from the rest of Devon. Demand needs to be understood between both urban and rural areas. Will the hon. Lady comment on what happens in the summer months when the south-west becomes an even more popular tourist destination and additional demand is placed on not only the ambulance services but our wider emergency services? That moves the ambulance resources out of their normal patterns. Ambulances are increasingly moved to further away places with longer response times than their normal patterns might take them.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. He will know that for both our ambulance services and our police services those kinds of influxes from outside are not adequately reflected in the funding formula. That is in addition to the rurality that he referred to. In fact, the key point remains that the greater danger is to people living in rural areas where, for example, a resource might take somebody to Derriford Hospital but not return, and then when the ambulance service dispatches the nearest ambulance it will be in Derriford. That is why ambulance services tend to get tied up.
I would briefly like to mention the impact of the 111 service. SWASFT is doing extremely well—it is, in fact, the best-performing in the country—at treating patients at home rather than conveying them to hospital. That is the so-called “see and treat” model, and they are also doing well with “hear and treat”. However, there is a concern about the increase in calls, because there has been an overall increase in calls of 24% for the whole of the SWASFT area over five years, with 470 more calls per day, although only an additional 81 people per day are having to go to hospital. While that may reflect the great success of paramedics’ expertise in seeing and treating at home, will the Minister consider whether it also reflects unnecessary calls and the impact of 111, which has been raised many times in this House? Are too many people still having an ambulance called on their behalf when it could have been avoided?
Finally, I would like to end on a positive note in thanking all our volunteers who do so much to save lives across Devon, working alongside our blue light services. I would like to praise all those who support our Devon air ambulance service, all the volunteer community first responders and those who support, fund and supply defibrillators in our communities. On behalf of all in this House, we thank them and our wonderful paramedics and ambulance service crews.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I wish you every success in your endeavours elsewhere today. On that note, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing not only this debate but unopposed re-election to the Chair of the Select Committee on Health, which role I am delighted to see her continue in.
By happy coincidence, I had the pleasure of visiting the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust only last week. Having visited the chief executive in his office, and seen for myself some of the challenges presented by the rurality and the distances—as mentioned by hon. Members in this debate—I feel slightly better briefed than I would otherwise have been. I drove from Exeter to Barnstaple to Plymouth on the same day, in the height of summer, on a Friday, when the roads were, it is fair to say, not at their least busy. I do absolutely appreciate some of the challenges reflected in this debate that are imposed on the ambulance service’s ability to deliver the service to residents in this large, very rural and very beautiful county. It is particularly appropriate therefore that we have the chance to discuss this briefly this afternoon.
I thank my hon. Friend for the characteristically considerate and appropriate way she posed challenges to me and thanked people employed in the ambulance service, and those who support it as volunteers, for the magnificent work that they do. She began her speech by recognising that the ambulance service in the south-west, like all other ambulance services in the country, is busier than ever. Demand has been rising significantly. Across the country, there were some 7 million face-to-face responses from the ambulance service in the year ending 31 March—a 14% increase over the last five years. In the south-west of England, demand has increased even more sharply, with a 29% increase over five years; I think she mentioned a 19% increase in her area of south Devon.
The trust is challenged by the geography of the area it serves, with its greater distances and slower transport routes. Nevertheless, it is doing well, not just in meeting national targets but in comparison with other trusts. We should congratulate all those involved, but that does not mean that there are not a number of challenges. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned a particularly difficult case in which an elderly lady was left waiting for some time, and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) raised a case from his constituency in which a child had to wait some time for an ambulance.
This is clearly an operational issue. I strongly encourage hon. Members who are concerned about individual cases to bring them to the attention of the chief executive of the relevant trust, and to continue to represent to their constituents that even if the overall number of such incidents is not great, the ambulance service is required to provide an appropriate response through the disposition of its resources. From experience in my own area, I know that MPs are listened to by chief executives of ambulance trusts and can make a difference in securing deployment of resource to meet the particular demands and concerns of their constituents. It is well worth pursuing that approach.
Let me touch on some of the initiatives under way to meet the challenges that we all recognise and that have been referred to in the debate. Sir Bruce Keogh undertook a review of the NHS urgent and emergency care system, which is trying to cope with the root causes of demand. Following the review’s recommendations, ambulance services will increasingly be transformed into mobile treatment centres, with greater use of “hear and treat”, in which telephone calls are closed with advice, and “see and treat”, in which paramedics are equipped to treat patients on the scene without a conveyance. There will also be greater integration with the rest of the health system. Some 2,600 more paramedics are now operating within our ambulance services across the country than in 2010, and in the past year 1,400 trainees have started on paramedic courses. There has been a big shift towards training more ambulance staff to undertake treatment on the ground.
The Care Quality Commission has recognised that SWASFT is one of the highest-performing trusts in England, particularly in its “hear and treat” service, which enables clinicians to assess and triage patients over the phone and close the call without the need to send an ambulance. In April, 49.1% of calls to SWASFT were resolved without transportation to A&E—the highest percentage of any trust in England. That allows more patients to be treated in their own home or in the community without needing to be taken to hospital, helping not only the patient, but the system.
Another way in which SWASFT is addressing the growing demand for services and the need to better manage peaks of activity is through reviewing how emergency vehicles and staff are rostered. Its review has moved ambulance resources closer to areas of high public demand. Instead of a paramedic crew logging on for a shift at a rural station and then getting pulled into an urban area—an issue highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes as a particular challenge in her constituency—resources should now be positioned in the right places and should stay more local, more of the time. She expressed a degree of scepticism about whether that is actually happening. I can confirm that in my area in the west midlands, we have worked with the ambulance service to ensure that ambulance stations are not necessarily kept in the same physical location, but are placed in parts of the country where demand is highest. This can now be well mapped by ambulance systems to ensure that service is provided as close to areas of demand as possible.
Evidence from the trust’s rota review shows that the patients with the most serious, time-critical and life-threatening injuries have experienced improvements in response times, and that ambulance resources stay local more of the time. My hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable challenge for that to be proven—for the facts that demonstrate it to be provided to Members of Parliament and the public—and I will encourage the trust to provide that information.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members referred to the trust’s fleet. It is being reviewed to enable the right resource to be sent the first time. The trust has invested £3.6 million, which has allowed an additional 61 double-crewed ambulances—an increase of 20%—across the operational area, meaning that in South Devon four more double-crewed ambulances will be available this year than last year. This approach has allowed a reduction in rapid response vehicles, which—as my hon. Friend said—are not being utilised as fully as the ambulance crews themselves and are therefore not always the best resource to send.
There are now some 57 fewer rapid response vehicles. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) highlighted some areas in which that has caused local concern. I would say to him that the ambulance service needs to demonstrate to local people that fully crewed paramedic-staffed ambulances are now more readily available to serve communities, so that the people in most need of conveyance to hospital are more likely to get there more quickly. The trust needs to demonstrate that as it moves its resources to this new pattern.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes is aware of the ongoing review of the way in which ambulance services respond to calls through the ambulance response programme. SWASFT has been involved in piloting new operating models. The new programme seeks to deliver clinically appropriate responses to all patients and is part of ensuring that the ambulance service in England remains sustainable. The evidence behind the ARP is extensive, covering data collected from more than 14 million emergency 999 calls. The review has looked at a number of key issues for the south-west, including the provision of ambulance services in rural areas and putting an end to unacceptably long waits by removing the long tail of ambulance response times.
A revised operating model is crucial to achieving sustainability in the ambulance service, given the growing demand that we have all described. Trials have been independently evaluated, and the Secretary of State has recently received recommendations from NHS England. I hope to report to the House the ARP’s findings and NHS England’s recommendations shortly.
In addition, SWASFT has adopted a number of recommendations to improve response times, particularly in rural areas. One such initiative, which my hon. Friend referred to, is the increasing use of community first responder groups across the south-west. Totnes is one of the focuses for the next phase of recruitment in South Devon, which will start later this month. There are some 458 community first responders and a further 110 fire co-responders across the county, alongside the network of public access defibrillators that she mentioned. SWASFT is in discussions with three of its local fire services about introducing a conveyance and support service by fire crews, which would help to supplement conveyance when ambulances are not available. These initiatives do not change the priority or category of a 999 call, but they help to ensure that a patient with a life-threatening emergency can begin to receive the required care as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend rightly raised staffing. I understand that the clinical vacancy rate at the trust is currently 7.7%. The trust has undertaken a very successful graduate recruitment campaign, which has resulted in 130 graduates accepting offers to join it. They are expected to start in September, including 31 who will start in the west division, which covers Devon.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
UK Elections: Abuse and Intimidation
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public in UK elections.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I should start by saying that since the election the Conservative Whips Office has been dealing with at least three credible threats to colleagues every week, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and general thuggishness around and after the election. For all I know, other parties’ Whips Offices may be having similar experiences, and I look forward to hearing cross-party contributions on that score. It is for that reason, and a few others, that I thought it was appropriate to call this debate now.
When I first entered the House seven years ago, it never crossed my mind for one minute that I would end up making a speech like this. As far as I was concerned, elections were four or five weeks of robust banter followed by a shake of the hand and a pint in the pub, yet now it all seems so different, with swastikas on election boards and offensive slogans and language on posters.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I have been an MP for just over two years, and I cannot remember a single day that has gone by without me receiving some sort of abuse, whether that is death threats or a picture of me mocked up as a used sanitary towel and various other things. The last election was the most brutal I can imagine. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have to look at this issue with a non-partisan view and accept that in all our parties, as much as it hurts us, there are people who do not represent our values? For some to suggest that it is only one party doing it is wrong.
I absolutely recognise that point, and I will come to it later in my speech. There will be individual contributions from Members who might have had particular experiences that defy that challenge, but I agree with the hon. Lady, and I am grateful to her for making that point so early in proceedings.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. While I understand why he has brought forward a debate with particular regard to general elections, does he not agree with me that the recent research done by BBC Radio 5 Live—it found that half of British female MPs have been threatened with physical abuse, nine out of 10 have been abused online and 80% have been verbally abused—shows that the issue is not restricted to election time?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her timely contribution. One thing that has struck me—I know it has struck people in our Whips Office, too—is that when I started uncovering this topic, I found out about stuff that I simply did not think existed. I have been astonished by the quantity of evidence I have received from all sides. As she said, I had assumed that the issue might just be around election times, when we are perhaps a higher profile community, but it is not. Actually, it seems to be going on all the time, and a number of colleagues are suffering in silence. I hope that they do not have to suffer in silence.
I mentioned swastikas on election boards, offensive slogans and language on posters, but there have also been scratched cars, broken windows and posters of the bleeding heads of some of our political leaders on stakes at marches and demos. There has even been the occasional police officer or teacher joining the overall fray. That is not the rule, but it is occasionally the exception.
Retailers and hoteliers have felt that they cannot support a candidate publicly or make a donation to the party or candidate of their choice, because they are worried that they might be attacked on online review sites or, even worse, in person. There are elderly voters who will not put up a sign in their windows. There are volunteers who worry about handing out leaflets and having abuse hurled at them. There are colleagues whose sexuality or religion has resulted in them being spat at—not once, but regularly. We will hear more on that later in the debate. These people form the core of democracy and our election effort, yet they are being steadily put off getting involved in politics at a time when their contribution has never been more important.
Of course, the abuse is online, too, and we will probably spend quite a bit of the debate talking about that. For Government Members—I am sure it is similar for colleagues in other parties— #toryscum is a regular feature of our lives, and that is just the bit I can repeat in the Chamber. I chose my words carefully. I do not know how many colleagues have read the report from BCS—the Chartered Institute for IT—and Demos. It contained a survey showing that over a three-month period MPs received 188,000 abusive tweets. That is one in 20 tweets received by MPs.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that legislation already exists to protect those who are abused online, but that legislation is often ignored or not enforced. Will he join me in putting pressure on the Government to launch a review to see why that is the case?
The hon. Lady is psychic, among many other things. What she said was going to be my next comment. I absolutely agree with her. There is another element with the existing laws, which is how few people know that they exist. Indeed, some law enforcement agencies do not know that they exist. The questions I will be putting to the Minister in a few minutes are partly intended to get a greater understanding of what legislation is there, where the gaps are and what we can do to fill them.
My hon. Friend might be aware of the Home Affairs Committee’s report from last year that looked at the online abuse MPs have to suffer. There was an issue about the threshold we have to endure as Members of Parliament, which is different from that of members of the public. If abuse is persistent and falls over into real-life activities, surely social media companies have to be held accountable, too.
I am sure that a number of colleagues would agree with that contribution; I certainly do. I will be coming to some proposals and thoughts on social media in just a moment.
I want to take a moment to describe the example of our former colleague Byron Davies, who until recently was the MP for Gower. During the election campaign he was subjected to a sustained attack on Twitter that contained absolutely unfounded allegations about a criminal investigation for electoral fraud. That was not an embellishment or exaggeration of a story; it was simply made up. Whether Members supported him or not, he was a colleague defending a majority of 27, and he had to do that against a constant drip-feed on social media of people simply making things up as they went along. Could it have contributed to the loss of his seat? I do not know. It was certainly blatant defamation—that much we do know. The Electoral Commission could not help, social media platforms would not help, and the police investigation, like all police investigations, will take time. It is grinding slowly on, but our former colleague Mr Davies is having to do all that himself, and he is bearing the cost. When that inquiry eventually reaches its conclusion, what remedy will he really have?
I could mention my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and the many others who have suffered similar or vaguely intimidatory experiences during the election campaign. Almost more worrying than that is the number of colleagues I have spoken to in the past few days who do not even want to come to this Chamber to make a contribution, lest it compound the intimidation and abuse they have been receiving in recent weeks. I hope that we are all in a sense making our contributions not to ease our bruised egos, but on behalf of colleagues who have put up with a lot of this nonsense over quite a long time, and are looking, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said, for a lead from the Government.
Having said all that, I want to make the point that this debate is not about thin-skinned politicians having had a bit of a bruising time and feeling rather sorry for ourselves. Nor is it, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) mentioned, about left versus right or right versus left, or whatever it might be—the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) made an interesting contribution on that particular score in her speech to the Fabian Society at the weekend. It is actually about families, staff, helpers and volunteers. For those of us who have teenage children who might follow us on Twitter and Facebook, it is about being able to say to them, “Don’t worry about the death threat; don’t worry about the abuse and the false accusations.” It is also for them that we speak.
I have had death threats for a number of years—I now have panic buttons and a restraining order against somebody. What is different about what happened at this election—in which I was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, my staff were spat at and my boards and property were attacked—is that the abuse has been politically motivated. The elephant in the room is that it has been motivated by the language of some of our political leaders, when they accuse people of one political side of murder, and when they dehumanise them in the way that is happening at the moment. There is something more sinister to this. Yes, it affects left and right, but we have to deal with the issue of what is happening on our side of politics.
One of my most important recommendations is about the role of political leadership and what political leaders need to do, rather than what they need to say.
I wanted to mention the example of our former colleague Charlotte Leslie in Bristol, whose parents became victims of abuse. Their entire oil heating supply was drained into their garden by somebody who had an objection to Charlotte’s position on fracking—a slightly ironic way of dealing with an environmental consideration, but none the less one that caused enormous distress, as did the scratching of “Tory scum” into her elderly parents’ car. That is not something that anybody in this House should condone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has just pointed out, when it comes to leadership, it is exactly such an example that should trigger a robust response from everybody who has the benefit of a high profile in politics.
It is about religion, sexuality, social background—it is about people who might have been to public school and sound a bit posh. It is about anybody who might have a political leaning one way or the other, and who might be thinking of becoming a local councillor, or of a career at some future stage in some branch of politics, not even necessarily as an MP, an Assembly Member or a Member of the Scottish Parliament—whatever it might be. We have to ask ourselves: why would they want to take that step when they see what Members of this House have to put up with and, worse still, what Members’ families, friends, relations, campaigners and donors also have to subject themselves to?
To the social media platforms, to the left, to the right, and to groups such as Momentum, which has been mentioned, rather than taking the lazy way out and saying that they are responsible for this, I say, “Help us. If you are on the left, help us. If you are on the right, help us. If you are a social media platform, help us. Help us identify what has triggered the increase in abuse, the smear campaigns, the intimidation, the harassment, the thuggish behaviour on and offline, and the general criticism of people simply because of an inability to match or contest their arguments.”
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: this behaviour is reprehensible. He is right to identify social media. Does he also think that the traditional print media, particularly newspapers such as The Sun, has had a role in creating a climate in which it is okay to abuse politicians? Perhaps we need to look at the traditional print media as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, print media is governed by a rather different and more visible level of regulation. There is a line between robust challenge, the cut and thrust of politics and the sort of stuff that we know we are letting ourselves in for when we take on this job—some papers would argue that they are on the right side of that line—which is a mile away from the stuff we are talking about. People being made to feel a little shamefaced or guilty because they have cocked up—if I can use that expression—their particular contribution to politics is one thing. If there is an example of a newspaper inciting racial hatred, anti-Semitism and that sort of thing, the regulators ought to be looking at that, without impinging on the free press.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case. I am a little concerned that this debate might blur the lines between criticism of the performance of a Member of Parliament or a stance they take and actual abuse. My concern is that the abuse particularly stops women entering politics. I will give the example of a candidate who stood in Ealing and was unfortunately not elected. Candidates have to declare their addresses when they stand for Parliament. She said that she started becoming nervous during the election campaign when opponents started standing outside her door, spitting in her face and following her. That is the threatening behaviour that she wants to highlight. This is not about criticism in the press.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. Legislation of course already exists to deal with such incidents but, as we touched on before, it is not always easily accessible. It is not always entirely advantageous to be distracted by that during an election campaign.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been sparring partners on many occasions, but on this one I congratulate him on raising this issue. I agree that all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. On the other hand, it is very easy for us in this place to make the case and put the arguments down—we are protected by privilege and have the means of putting our views on the record—but there are councillors and ordinary people out there volunteering for political parties and charities up and down the country who are not protected in anything like the same way as we are in Parliament.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that contribution, which touches on the reason we are here: the degree of collateral impact from which we may fairly visibly suffer, and the knock-on effect on people who want to do good things for their community, charity or cause, but who are beginning to ask themselves whether it is worth the effort. What plans do the Government have to assess the extent of the issue, because I do not think that any of us here know what it is?
It almost seems that the age of reasoned argument in elections is under threat. All of us, in our own particular way, have experienced situations in which we mention immigration and are instantly labelled a racist, or we mention welfare and are instantly labelled as having some extraordinary dislike of the disabled, or we want to talk about complicated and sensitive issues around the economy, which is interpreted as simply wanting to starve the poor. Absurd, extreme, ridiculous, lazy and trite comments are assigned to Members who simply want to tackle a complicated social problem in the way we were sent here to do. The fact that there is no room for reasoned argument any more is a cause of this debate. It seems that it is not really about winning votes or arguments anymore.
The manner in which some of those campaigns are conducted—I am obviously trying to steer a careful, non-partisan line here—is about driving people out of politics altogether. It is not about votes and arguments; it is about the single-minded determination to do away with anybody who happens to hold a contrary view. That is a big difference between 2015 and 2017, and it is an unattractive development that will simply reduce the gene pool from which we recruit our politicians and volunteers. I cannot believe that any member of the public, however vociferous they might be online, actually thinks that reducing the number of people from which we choose our representatives is a good thing.
What is all this doing to society? How is it impacting on candidate recruitment? What is it doing to the retention of good people in the House? Have we reviewed the recommendations that the Law Commission made 18 months ago? I am hopeful that the Minister has views on that. Are we doing enough to bring the existing provisions to the knowledge of the enforcement agencies and, indeed, to candidates? I hope that when the Minister gets to his feet in a few minutes he will be able to give us some indication of the Government’s view on an independent assessment of the extent of the problem—what is going on out there, what is the cause and what is the remedy.
Four years ago the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism produced a detailed set of recommendations on an all-party basis about conduct in elections and asked every political leader to endorse it. To date, none has. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the political leaders themselves drew up a code of conduct and a way of addressing behaviour during elections, that would go a considerable way towards dealing with the most difficult period? If there is a transgression by a candidate or their supporters, they face the issue of votes at that time, and therefore there is a tendency to try to dampen it down or ignore it during elections. That is precisely why we produced that report.
I could not have put it better myself. In fact, I would expand it to outside election times, too. As we have heard today, this problem is not limited to that four or five-week period every three or four years.
My second question to the Minister is about reviewing existing laws and seeing which work and which should work but are not being enforced. Where there are gaps, we should recommend how to fill them. Then, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, we should ensure that there is cross-party support for legislation to achieve that aim.
We need to look at the responsibilities of the social media platforms, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and I discovered not long ago, all too often wring their hands and say, “It’s all too difficult.” Actually, it is not all too difficult. It is all too important that they now adopt the same responsible attitude to what they publish in their name— although they deny they are publishers—which is, on occasion, the sort of material that is completely unacceptable. Earlier I raised the example of Byron Davies and the Gower, who asked a social media platform—I think it was Twitter—to remove an outright lie that was possibly going to affect the outcome of the election. It refused and said that what was going on was within the guidelines. It cannot be with the guidelines simply to sit back and allow people to publish utter nonsense with the aim of artificially disrupting the outcome of an election. I suspect that everybody in this Chamber is of that view.
When the then Minister responded to a debate on online bullying last year, he said:
“There needs to be partnership, and I do not rule out regulation…We need to work with the companies, and we need clear guidelines on, and definitions of, online abuse. Even more importantly, we need very quick reactions, so that all of us as constituency MPs do not have to sit in surgeries with people who are clearly utterly distressed because of online material”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 1107.]
That applies just as much to electoral behaviour as to behaviour outside that time.
Finally—thank you for your patience, Mr Hanson—we need a political lead, as other colleagues have said. That means that the leaders of all parties and groups need to stand up and not just send out warmly worded tweets about bad behaviour or transmit mealy-mouthed messages of condemnation, but take a “not in my name” approach. All of the groups we have talked about overtly and by insinuation need to say, “Not in my name. Nobody who is a member of this party or this group should engage in online or offline abuse, either during an election or at any other time.” The leadership of those organisations have the opportunity today to stand up and say that they will deal with this robustly. If they do not, they are complicit in the problem. That is why there have been rumours and this whole thing has gathered momentum—with a small “m”—over the past few months and years.
Thirteen months ago our colleague Jo Cox paid the ultimate price for this kind of stuff. It shook the nation and sent a message that I hoped people would listen to, whether they are in a position of political leadership or just able to vote at elections. One year on, the problem seems every bit as bad as it was back then. Unless we have joined-up, co-operative leadership from the Government—I hope we will hear about that now—and from all the Opposition parties and the groups that support them, all of the extraordinary work that has been done in Jo Cox’s memory will have been wasted.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party at 5.10 pm, so there is very limited time for right hon. and hon. Members’ contributions. I hope that Members bear in mind that I will not be able to get everybody in.
This is a very important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing it. We have to be clear that we are talking not about robust debate, however robust it is, but about mindless abuse. In my case, the mindless abuse has been characteristically racist and sexist. I have had death threats, and people tweeting that I should be hanged
“if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”.
There was an English Defence League-affiliated Twitter account—#burnDianeAbbot. I have had rape threats, and been described as a
“Pathetic useless fat black piece of shit”,
an “ugly, fat black bitch”, and a “nigger”—over and over again. One of my members of staff said that the most surprising thing about coming to work for me is how often she has to read the word “nigger”. It comes in through emails, Twitter and Facebook.
Where I disagree with the hon. Gentleman is that he seems to suggest that this is all a relatively recent occurrence in this election. That is not my experience. It is certainly true that the online abuse that I and others experience has got worse in recent years, and that it gets worse at election time, but I do not put it down to a particular election. I think the rise in the use of online media has turbocharged abuse. Thirty years ago, when I first became an MP, if someone wanted to attack an MP, they had to write a letter—usually in green ink—put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and walk to the post box. Now, they press a button and we read vile abuse that, 30 years ago, people would have been frightened even to write down.
I accept that male politicians get abuse, too, but I hope the one thing we can agree on in this Chamber is that it is much worse for women. As well as the rise of online media, it is helped by anonymity. People would not come up to me and attack me for being a nigger in public, but they do it online. It is not once a week or during an election; it is every day. My staff switch on the computer and go on to Facebook and Twitter, and they see this stuff.
I agree with everything the right hon. Lady is saying, but I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) was saying that this is a new thing. We have all had it for years on social media, and the right hon. Lady has had it in a particularly terrible way. What is different now is that some of this is being driven by political leaders’ language. When someone addresses a rally where there are posters of the severed head of the Prime Minister and they do not do anything about it, and when leaders say “ditch the bitch” in relation to the Prime Minister, that is the problem we have at the moment: it is the dehumanisation of each other in politics.