Wednesday 19 July 2017
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Queen’s Speech: Implications for Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Wales and the Queen’s Speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am delighted to see so many Welsh Labour colleagues on the Opposition Benches; what a shame that there are no Conservative colleagues here to speak from the Government Benches. In the Gracious Speech on 21 June, the Queen said:
“A priority will be to build a more united country, strengthening the social, economic and cultural bonds between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. My government will work in cooperation with the devolved administrations, and it will work with all of the parties in Northern Ireland to support the return of devolved government.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does she agree that the Conservatives’ giving money to Northern Ireland outside the Barnett formula and not giving the other UK nations their fair share is hardly likely to strengthen the Union?
I absolutely agree; it is nothing more than a bung to the Democratic Unionist party to hold up a minority Government. In her briefing on the Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister said that
“this Government will do everything in our power to build a more united nation and strengthen our precious union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We will take seriously our responsibility to govern for the whole United Kingdom and will seek to work closely with the devolved administrations.”
The Prime Minister and her Government have not got off to a very good start, as my hon. Friend referred to. The DUP bung—a minimum of £1 billion in exchange for 10 votes to prop up the Government—hardly builds a more united nation and certainly does not demonstrate a will to work with all parties in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I know that there has been commentary from the Welsh First Minister about whether it needs to be reviewed. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that in his response.
The paucity of the Government’s programme for this two-year parliamentary Session was laid bare in the Queen’s Speech. Much of the Conservative party manifesto was abandoned: dementia tax; means testing the winter fuel allowance; grammar schools in England—of course, we do not have them in Wales—a vote on repealing the fox hunting ban, although I suspect that Plaid Cymru Members would have been glad at that policy; fixed-term Parliaments; the energy price cap; and the removal of free school lunches. The U-turns and concessions have continued apace since then.
What exactly was on offer for Wales in that Speech and since from the Government? After the dog’s dinner of the Wales Act 2017 in the last Parliament, there has been no progress on tidying up and providing much-needed clarity on the devolution settlement, nothing to offer on rail electrification or anything concrete on scrapping the Severn bridge tolls and no Swansea bay tidal lagoon announcement, despite the Government sitting on the favourable Hendry report since January.
My hon. Friend mentioned rail electrification in north Wales. Although I welcome the announcement of an HS2 hub in Crewe, does she agree that that was an ideal opportunity to announce at least a plan for the future of connectivity from Crewe to north Wales? Electrification could be a part of that.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Severn bridge tolls. The Conservative party had a very late conversion to scrapping the tolls during the election campaign, yet there was nothing about it in the Queen’s Speech. Does she agree that businesses and commuters in south Wales need clarity about what will happen next?
Does my hon. Friend agree that another big gap in the Tory agenda is the issue of low pay in our valleys? Should they not really have brought in a real living wage of £10 an hour, which would make a big difference for our communities?
Absolutely. Our party’s manifesto promised a £10 minimum wage by 2020—a proper living wage, as opposed to the fake living wage introduced by the Government.
There was no confirmation in the Queen’s Speech of any investment to expand our capital city rail station at Cardiff Central and no confirmation that the Wylfa Newydd project will be delivered to ensure a sustainable economic legacy for Anglesey and the wider north Wales region. There was no devolution of air passenger duty and no transitional help for the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women of Wales, whose campaign here and in Wales has been led with such distinction by Welsh Labour MPs, including my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). There was also no announcement on scrapping child burial fees, which was another campaign led so passionately in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. The Government have even cut the number of Ministers in the Wales Office, which is a clear illustration of their lack of interest in Wales.
All we have been offered from the Queen’s Speech is an arrogant, hard and damaging Brexit and a repeal Bill—after reading it last week, I see why the word “great” has been dropped. It is a dangerous Bill that offers two power grabs by the Executive for the price of one: from Parliament and from the devolved Administrations. That continues the Conservative party’s strategy of many years of minimising scrutiny, challenge and oversight. This week we had the deliberate sabotage of our Select Committees and even the disgrace of the public being locked out of presenting online petitions to Parliament until at least September—an undemocratic and desperate act by a desperate Government.
We have all lived and breathed Brexit for the past 15 months, and today I will focus some of my remarks on what influence women, and Welsh women in particular, have had and will have on the path to Brexit. I do not know about other hon. Members here, but I thought that the EU referendum campaign was the worst I have ever been involved in, for a number of reasons. It was not just the nastiness and vitriol spewed out by some—I emphasise “some”—campaigners, using the excuse that it was a discussion about immigration. It was not just because my friend and our colleague Jo Cox was assassinated by a right-wing fascist the week before the referendum. It was not just the insurmountable task of trying to undo 40 years of negative press and stories about the EU and what membership meant, and it was not just because we had to listen to and watch the then leader of UKIP spout bile every single day of the campaign.
I felt alienated by that campaign because the voices I heard time after time were men’s; I rarely heard women’s voices, despite our best efforts to be heard. I wrote a piece in our national newspaper in Wales before the referendum urging women to get involved, to get their voices heard and to talk about the issues that concerned all of us. I particularly wanted young women’s voices to be heard. A University of Loughborough analysis of the referendum campaign showed that men received an astonishing 91% of EU referendum coverage in newspapers and 84% of the coverage in broadcast media.
The voting patterns by gender in the referendum were also interesting. In all age categories up to age 64, women voted to remain in higher percentages than men. In the 18-24 age group, 80% of women voters voted to remain, compared with 61% of men. The majority of women were not heard during the campaign and the majority did not get the result they wanted in the referendum either. However, it was a woman, Gina Miller, who took on the Government after the result. She suffered horrendous abuse and character assassination in the process, but it was her determination and bravery in the face of all of that that led to the Prime Minister being dragged back to Parliament to obtain specific permission to trigger article 50.
What about the withdrawal negotiations, now that they have started? I know the Minister will say this, so I will pre-empt him by saying that I know we have a female Prime Minister. However, her ministerial negotiating team is entirely male: the Brexit Secretary and the Secretaries of State for International Trade and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Their teams at the Departments for Exiting the European Union and for International Trade, and the Foreign Office are also all entirely male—there is not a single female Minister from the House of Commons in those teams. That negotiating team is working on behalf of 65 million people, more than half of whom are women.
We have a lot to lose through Brexit. Wales is a net beneficiary of EU membership and has been in receipt of EU structural funds for a number of years. The availability of the European social fund has supported a range of programmes in Wales that have focused on not only tackling the causes of poverty, but investing in skills and young people. Many of those programmes have focused on addressing the barriers that continue to hold women back and contribute to ongoing economic inequality. Chwarae Teg’s Agile Nation 2 project is one of them. Others include Agile Nation 1, funded as part of the previous round of structural funds, and the Welsh Government’s Parents, Childcare and Employment programme—PaCE—which provides targeted support to help women gain employment.
On its own, the Agile Nation 2 project is worth £12 million and is funded by the European social fund and the Welsh Government. The project works with women and with small and medium-sized enterprises in priority sectors in Wales to address the causes of the gender pay gap. Those projects not only deliver services that support women; many also provide employment for women. The third sector workforce in Wales is predominantly female, and 66% of the public sector workforce in Wales is female.
European funding has been used to deliver projects directly focused on equalities and, probably more importantly, cross-cutting themes of equality and tackling poverty. So far there has been no guarantee from the Government that funds repatriated to the UK will be made available to Wales to continue work similar to that which has been possible through funding streams such as the European social fund.
Membership of the EU has had a very positive impact on equalities legislation in both the UK and Wales. It is vital that we receive guarantees that the rights and protections from EU-derived equalities legislation in the UK will be maintained post Brexit. The current EU framework of legislation has acted as an absolute equality protection here in the UK. For example, it has prevented the scrapping of parts of the Equality Act 2010 as part of the Government’s one-in, two-out deregulation red tape challenge.
Membership of the EU has ensured not only that legislation is passed that explicitly deals with the causes of inequality, but that the impact of all Government policies on equality is considered, in relation to preventing discrimination and advancing equality. We have kept equality impact assessments in Wales, but the UK Government have scrapped them. As a result, the cumulative impact on women of seven years of austerity policies, such as welfare reform and tax changes, under the coalition Government, the previous Conservative Government and the current Conservative Government has not been accurately assessed by Government Departments, and policy is not being developed with a focus on equality. It has been the Labour party and groups such as the Women’s Budget Group that have illustrated the damaging effect of the past seven years on women in Wales and the UK.
Brexit will lead to a further lack of focus on preventing discrimination and advancing equality, and the full impact of Government decisions on women will continue to be ignored by this Government. The Women and Equalities Committee report, “Ensuring strong equalities legislation after the EU exit”, published in the previous Parliament, made a number of good recommendations. I hope that the Minister has read them and might discuss them with his colleagues. They included bringing forward an amendment to the Equality Act 2010
“to empower Parliament and the courts to declare whether legislation is compatible with UK principles of equality”,
including a clause in the repeal Bill that
“explicitly commits to maintaining the current levels of equality protection when EU law is transposed into UK law”
and developing a cross-Government equality strategy.
I am really concerned about access to equalities data and research and European networks post Brexit. Similar concerns were raised by those who submitted evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee for its inquiry. Wales and the UK must have access to European civil society and equalities networks, and funds must be ring-fenced to allow current equalities research to continue undisrupted. That evidence base is crucial to shaping domestic policy and demonstrating the UK’s progress in meeting international obligations such as the sustainable development goals.
Is my hon. Friend concerned that the Government are now proposing in the repeal Bill to give themselves so-called Henry VIII powers to modify a whole raft of legislation as seems appropriate, which could have an impact on legislation relating to women?
My hon. Friend mentioned the WASPI women. Did we not see here in Westminster Hall recently the Government’s contempt for Parliament when the motion on that debate was rejected by Members, and instead of there being a deferred Division on the WASPI issue, the Government have completely ignored it and not brought it to the Floor of the House? That shows they cannot be trusted with the Henry VIII powers they are bringing in via the Queen’s Speech.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes an important point. I do not think there is any trust in what the Government are trying to do with the repeal Bill.
As negotiations progress, it is crucial that thought is given to the financial impact that Brexit will have on women in Wales and the steps that should be taken to ensure that strong equalities legislation is maintained. Leaving the EU must not mean throwing away the decades of positive work that has been achieved in relation to equalities by the trade union and labour movement and progressive labour lawyers. Equality must be at the forefront of the agenda. This is why I, along with the Mother of the House, have written to the Prime Minister to express our concern about the lack of women involved in the Brexit negotiations. Where is our voice? I cannot see where it will come from.
The Prime Minister has said:
“As we leave the European Union…we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
I am afraid I simply do not have faith in those negotiating with our EU partners. I am going slightly off-piste here, but does anyone remember the opening lines of the song from the “Pinocchio” Disney film?
“When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong, give a little whistle.”
After the £350 million a week to the NHS promise on that bus, the Foreign Secretary’s latest insult to the EU 27 just reinforced his Pinocchio credentials. I make a joke of it, but when the task ahead is almost too large to comprehend, we need to have confidence in those negotiating on our behalf, and I do not.
Does my hon. Friend think that one of the rare shafts of light that occurred during the general election campaign from the Prime Minister was her refusal to guarantee the people of Wales that they would not suffer by losing out financially as a result of the Budget negotiations? Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister to give an assurance that there will be no reduction in the settlement for Wales as a result of the Budget negotiations and the conclusion of the deal?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The Minister heard the question, and we look forward to hearing his answer.
There are more than 40 years of laws made in the context of European Union membership. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, has described Brexit as unleashing a “legislative tsunami”, and he thinks it will be the greatest challenge in history to the integrity of Parliament’s procedures. The repeal Bill published last week does nothing to reassure us that the integrity of Parliament’s procedures will be sustained, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) gave the example of what happened in the WASPI debate.
The Bill does nothing to reassure me and women across Wales that the Government will protect and maintain our hard-fought-for rights when we exit the EU. When I hear the Brexit Secretary say, for example, that all current workers’ rights under existing law will be protected, I am not convinced at all. It is not a promise, and it is certainly not a guarantee. We know what the Government are up to with the inclusion of those dangerous Henry VIII powers in the Bill. As we all know, Henry VIII’s powers never did much good for women—I’m here all week.
Wales is far more dependent than the United Kingdom as a whole on trade with the European Union. We know that 67% of Welsh exports went to the EU in the last quarter of last year. More than 190,000 jobs in Wales are connected to demand from the single market, yet the Wales Office has declined to publish any formal analysis of the effects that different forms of trade partnership with the European Union would have on the Welsh economy.
On higher education, we have more than 5,500 students from the EU enrolled in Welsh universities. Analysis from 2011-12 shows that EU students generated nearly £133 million for the economy and more than 1,200 jobs. Cardiff University in my constituency has gained from live framework programme 7 and Horizon 2020 projects awarded up to the end 2016, amounting to more than £24 million, with further applications to Horizon 2020 in the pipeline to the value of another £20 million. For Cardiff University alone, European structural fund projects are worth an additional £39 million, with a further £22.5 million of projects in development. One significant recipient of the funding is CUBRIC—Cardiff University brain research imaging centre. That is set to become one of Europe’s leading facilities for brain imaging, but it was able to exist only because of more than £4.5 million of EU funds.
Cardiff University is collaborating with other EU universities on more than 50 research projects, and 16% of Welsh university research funding comes from the EU; that is far more than the 10% from private sources. More than 4,500 students and nearly 1,000 staff from Welsh universities have studied in other countries under the Erasmus scheme. Where is the guarantee from the Government that the EU funding streams will be replaced in full after 2020? Please will the Minister address that when he responds to the debate?
However, the most pressing issue, which has left at least 3 million EU citizens in Britain and more than 1 million UK citizens in the EU in complete uncertainty, is their immigration status. EU citizens moving to the UK at the moment do not know under what immigration rules they will have to apply to live here. The Home Office website currently states:
“The cut-off date will be agreed during the negotiations but we are clear that it shouldn’t be earlier than 29 March 2017…or later than the date the UK leaves the EU.”
That raises the possibility of the Government telling EU citizens who arrived in Wales after 29 March 2017 that they will have to apply under a completely different set of immigration rules, despite that deadline not existing when they arrived here. Not only have the Government failed to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, but the repeal Bill is absolutely clear that the Government will have the power to modify, limit or remove the rights that UK law gives to EU citizens. That can be found on page 10 of the explanatory notes to the Bill if anyone wants to look at it.
There are 73,000 EU nationals living in Wales. Welsh public services are acutely reliant on non-UK citizens to take on public sector roles, and about one third of non-UK citizens living in Wales work in the public sector.
I apologise for not being here at the start of my hon. Friend’s speech. She is touching on a very interesting point. During the general election campaign, I met a flower seller in Mountain Ash market who is Italian and lives in Cardiff. He said he was very upset, and when I asked why, he said, “Because ever since Brexit has been talked about, people keep coming to me and saying, ‘You’ll be going back home now, won’t you?’” He has lived in Cardiff for 15 years and is extremely upset. There are many people in that situation, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree.
I agree entirely: we will all have examples of families and individuals in our constituencies who feel exactly the same way. This is a complete mess. People want to know what will happen to them. It is having a terrible effect on their lives, their family life and their work.
I will give an example. Just last week, a couple came to see me who are living and working in the United Arab Emirates. He is a UK citizen; he is from Cardiff Central and has a home there. He has worked abroad for 20 years, in Greece and now in the UAE. His wife is a Greek national, and their child was born in Greece but has a UK passport. His wife has never lived in the UK and neither has the child. They want to come back to Wales in order for their child to sit his A-levels, and they wanted to know whether they should come back to Cardiff before March 2019 and, if so, whether they would all be able to stay and work in the UK, or, if they left it until after March 2019, whether the mother, with a Greek passport, would be allowed to live and work in the UK. I cannot advise them on what to do. I have absolutely no idea whether they will be able to do that or when they will be able to do it, and I do not even know when I might be able to tell them. I do not think the Prime Minister knows either. Why are the Government treating people in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England in that way?
I have mentioned before in the House my constituent Bashir Naderi, who came to the UK more than 10 years ago as an unaccompanied child refugee. Now aged 20, he has been living in Cardiff and made his home there. Last year, the Home Office attempted to remove him forcibly back to Afghanistan. Before fleeing Afghanistan as a child, he had seen his father murdered by the Taliban; that happened in front of him. He does not know whether any of his remaining family are still alive. In Cardiff, though, he has a girlfriend, Nicole, and a Welsh family who love him. He has been to school in Cardiff and then to college. He has worked hard to complete his training and is now ready, as an adult, to play his part in the economy and the workplace. That is what Wales needs—people who have worked hard and developed skills to play a part in our communities.
We handed in to the Home Secretary a petition with nearly 15,000 signatures. I organised it, along with Bashir’s family and supporters, and it was presented to the Home Secretary in January. I have raised in the House Bashir’s case and the wider policy issues about child refugees, and I have written to the Home Secretary about it. However, I have not even had an acknowledgement of my letters, never mind the petition, and when I will get a substantive answer, I do not know.
The Government’s current policy on child refugees such as Bashir—forcing them to reapply for asylum when they turn 18—is not only callous, but an ineffective use of Home Office time when the Government could be supporting people who need it. I have large numbers of constituents, as I am sure many hon. Members have, who are appealing Home Office decisions to reject asylum claims.
Thank you, Mr Howarth; I will do that. I gave that example because many of these constituents have skills that they want to contribute to the Welsh economy, but they are not allowed to do so because they cannot work while their asylum status is unconfirmed. That is UK Government policy that applies to Wales and is affecting the ability of people to contribute to the Welsh economy.
The current target time for asylum appeals to receive a court date is 48 weeks. That is 48 weeks when people are in limbo. It is partly because of civil service cuts, but also because of cuts to the tribunals service, which have left Wales with inadequate services, too few people to process cases and insufficient judges to hear them. Without action from the Government to improve case processing and decision making, and increasing capacity in our courts system in Wales, the problem will only get worse, but there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to address it.
Those examples show the negative impact of the Government’s approach to Wales and our people, and the general election results confirmed that Welsh voters agree. We saw the loss of three Conservative seats, resources poured into target constituencies that the Conservatives failed to win, and the majorities of their re-elected MPs slashed across Wales. We should not be surprised by that. People in Wales know that the Conservative party does not care about Wales. What exactly is the point of Tory MPs in Wales? They have stood by and let the Prime Minister dole out an enormous bung to the DUP and have done nothing and got nothing for Wales. Wales knows that Welsh Labour MPs, Labour councillors, Labour Assembly Members and the Welsh Labour Government continue to stand up for the people of Wales and to fight for an equal and progressive nation. That is why the Conservative party has never been, and never will be, elected to form a Government in Wales.
Before I call the next speaker, I would point out that we have just 33 minutes before the winding-up speeches and seven hon. Members hope to be called. I will at this point give informal guidance. If everyone sticks to a five-minute time limit voluntarily, we might just get everyone in. Even then it will be a bit of a push, but I am leaving that as informal guidance at this point. I call Madeleine Moon.
Thank you, Mr Howarth; I will speak fast. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for an amazing speech and for arranging for the debate to take place. The focus on the rights of women in relation to Brexit was spot on and something that no one else has raised so far. I am so pleased that she has done so.
One highlight of the Queen’s Speech was the customs Bill. I want to focus on that and the impact in Bridgend and in particular on Ford’s automotive engine plant. Like many other automotive companies in the UK, Ford relies heavily on tariff and customs-free trade. Automotive experts, including the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, have made it crystal clear that customs barriers and tariffs will cripple the industry. It is no secret that the single market and customs union have been critical to the sector’s competitiveness. That is critical; we cannot allow that to change. The most recent figures show how significant the industry is to the UK economy. Its turnover was £71 billion and it supports 800,000 jobs. The EU is the largest market for the UK’s automotive sector, with 56% of exported cars going into it.
The Government should heed calls from the sector and ensure that the benefits of the single market and tariff and customs-free trade with the EU is retained. That is essential. Keeping free trade and the supply chain unaffected is imperative, otherwise costs will increase. It is estimated that the effect on the automotive industry of losing free access to the customs union will be catastrophic. This is a highly integrated global industry, with vehicles and parts crossing borders multiple times in the assembly process. It relies on the just-in-time manufacturing process, so we need to maintain a seamless customs arrangement. Without that just-in-time process, we will have companies’ cash tied up in making sure that parts are available and stockpiled rather than arriving just in time. That will have a devastating impact on the viability of the automotive trade in the UK.
Leaving the EU without a deal would mean reverting to World Trade Organisation tariffs and customs checks at UK borders, which would increase delays, significantly increase costs and impact competiveness. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders found that a 10% tariff on finished vehicles because of World Trade Organisation rules would cost the industry a staggering £4.5 billion, which would inevitably increase costs for consumers—the average cost of a car in the UK is expected to rise by £1,500 as a result. Research from the PA Consulting Group has found that the cost of moving to a World Trade Organisation regime would impose a 4.5% tariff on vehicle components alone, including the parts needed for the engines being built in Bridgend. That would impact the competiveness of companies such as Ford in Bridgend, and then there is the knock-on effect of 14,000 jobs associated with that factory in Bridgend—14,000 jobs that I am determined to protect.
I cannot stress enough how important tariff and customs free trade is. Investment in the UK car industry has already sharply declined in the first half of this year to just £322 million, compared with the total of £1.66 billion that was invested in the UK’s automotive sector last year. Companies are delaying spending because it is difficult to plan amid uncertainty over our future trading arrangements and concerns relating to the World Trade Organisation tariffs. The Government should carry out an impact assessment on how changes to customs procedures will affect the automotive industry, and absolutely avoid the possibility of resorting to World Trade Organisation rules.
The industry needs concrete reassurances and further details on how the customs Bill will ensure frictionless trade. Nothing is being told to the companies, everyone is living with uncertainty and employees are deeply concerned about their future, their ability to invest in mortgages and the uncertainty of their job prospects. Are they actually going to be in work in two years’ time? Nobody knows. Without doubt, the imposition of tariffs by losing access to the single market and customs union puts our businesses across Wales, such as Ford, at a significant disadvantage.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the Government’s industrial strategy. It talks about the whole of the UK, but in the automotive sector they have done a sweetheart deal with Nissan, putting greater uncertainties on the other car plants in the United Kingdom. If we are going to have an industrial strategy for all, there must be a level playing field.
This Government do not like level playing fields. They do bungs to the DUP, and goodness knows what bung has gone into the north-east—I don’t know, nobody knows. We have to have transparency, and we do not have transparency.
A completed car being exported into the EU would face a tariff of 10%, with 4.8% on assembled engines and 2% on components. Currently, banking passporting of capital across the EU is allowed. Is the Wales Office monitoring the number of Welsh businesses applying for banking licences in the EU? SMEs will need time to cope with dealing with the customs transition. Are SMEs going to have support, training and opportunities to ensure awareness of the impact of exiting the customs union on their businesses? There is a great deal of concern that that is not there. Finally, will the Minister comment on REACH rules, on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, which are used widely in the automotive industry, and say what he is doing to look at the impact on the automotive industry in Wales?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this debate and on her very fine speech.
This is a pivotal period in our history. It is a point that will determine the future of our economy, our governance and our relations with the rest of the world—that is, the world beyond just England—but I regret to say that the Prime Minister’s legislative programme is a deficient plan for defining times. The UK Government have no majority of their own, a compromised mandate and, as far as I can see, no real plan for Wales. They do have a split Cabinet, a lame duck premier and a legislative programme dominated by what one senior EU diplomat described to me recently as a vanity project for a few politicians who have now largely jumped ship—all that based on an unassailable sense of entitlement and an optimism that all will be well and the world will beat a path to our door.
My contribution today will be focused on two of the most wretched elements of the Queen’s Speech: the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and the Government’s wilful neglect of Wales’s infrastructure. It is now quite clear that Westminster intends to claw back powers from the people of Wales. The UK Government intend to encroach on our basic power to govern ourselves, trashing the settlement that, since 1999, has allegedly been based on an agenda of respect. Plaid Cymru MPs will do all that we can to oppose the Bill. We have always said that we will never vote for legislation that takes power away from the people of Wales. Now that the Brexit Secretary has conceded that his withdrawal Bill will need the consent of the devolved Governments, the way that he achieves his purpose will be revelatory, if not miraculous. I look forward to how he will explain himself, but there we are—we live in very strange times.
One way to avoid the provisions of the withdrawal Bill that would most damage Wales would be to make it largely unnecessary by maintaining our economic links with our soon-to-be-former partners. Staying in the single market and the customs union would render much of the Bill nugatory. Yet, as I said, there is no majority, no mandate, no plan, a split Cabinet, a lame duck premier and a legislative programme dominated by a vanity project. As the Prime Minister might say, “Remind you of anyone?” Well, actually, it does; but it is more John Major than Margaret Thatcher.
Turning to infrastructure commitments, where is the concrete commitment—literally concrete—to deliver for Wales? There is a further commitment to HS2, and Welsh taxpayers will be contributing to building the most expensive railway in the world without an inch of it being in Wales. Whatever benefits might come to north and north-east Wales, and perhaps even my constituency, objective commentators have said that it will actually damage the economy of much of the south of our country. I do not think that has been given the attention that it should have been.
The most glaring omission is the electrification of the south Wales main line. I understand that we are to have a further Government U-turn—possibly today, or perhaps it has already been announced—just before we leave for our constituencies. The Prime Minister said the other night that she hoped we would leave Westminster to settle down. Well, we are here not to settle down but to settle up. The Labour Government promised us full electrification in 2009—I took their word for it then, and I am sure their intentions were sincere—and full electrification was promised again in 2010. It is enough of a scandal that eight years later we are still waiting for it, but for the British Government to scuttle electrification of the line to Swansea while expecting the people of Wales to stump up for England’s HS2 is breathtakingly arrogant and totally indefensible. I should be glad to hear the Minister’s attempt to defend it.
The UK Government are backtracking on the electrification of the south Wales main line. As for the equivalent electrification of the north Wales main line, I suppose we can join the long line of honest people queuing up to whistle for their money from this dodgy Government.
I think not, because time is rather short.
The Queen’s Speech claws away at our ability to strengthen our country, and it indulges the country’s constitutional obsessives and imperial Walter Mittys at the same time. Plaid Cymru will oppose this destructive and offensive stupidity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing the debate. We had to wait longer than we expected for the Queen’s Speech, apparently because the ink took longer than expected to dry on the vellum. When it came, it made no mention whatever of the tidal lagoon. It did include five interesting objectives: working with the devolved Administrations to ensure prosperity outside the EU; an industrial strategy that spreads opportunity throughout the UK; backing infrastructure to support economic growth; backing new industries; and acting to reduce energy bills. However, it seems to me that, unless I can be convinced otherwise, the Government have no interest in Wales.
Five years ago, in 2012, the first formal planning document for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. The construction of the tidal lagoon featured in the Conservative party manifesto in 2015, but not in 2017. In January this year, former Energy Minister Charles Hendry published his independent review of tidal lagoons, which concluded that the Swansea bay tidal lagoon would be cost-effective and
“a significant economic opportunity for Wales and the UK more generally.”
Crucially, Hendry stated that moving ahead with a lagoon off the Swansea coast should be seen as “a no-regrets policy” and that it should be built
“as soon as is reasonably practicable.”
The Swansea bay tidal lagoon is set to be the blueprint for tidal energy in the UK. It is a game changer for Wales, but despite the support of the Welsh Government, a number of MPs, AMs, councillors, Wales Office Ministers and Charles Hendry, the UK Government have still not committed to backing the project. We have had enough.
As Cardiff bay, which attracts more than 1 million visitors per annum, has shown, developments that increase the attractiveness and usefulness of Wales’s shoreline can provide a catalyst for further investment and leisure use. There is a strong expectation that the new tidal lagoon would support national events and raise Swansea’s profile. It could build on Swansea’s very strong existing maritime heritage, which includes the National Waterfront Museum and the water sports centre of excellence. As hon. Members will have read in the review, the range of employment opportunities will be far-reaching, not just in design, build and manufacturing, but in related services such as tourism, recreation and recruitment. That will be of huge benefit not just to Gower, Swansea and Wales but to the rest of the United Kingdom. I feel I need to highlight that point, because we are being very short-sighted.
As an educationalist, I feel it pertinent to note how the University of Wales Trinity Saint David is responding by focusing on the skills, needs and opportunities that the tidal lagoon will bring, including the digital skills that are needed to deliver it.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on the tidal lagoon. It is also worth mentioning that 100,000 tonnes of British steel will go into the project. The Prime Minister said that she was disappointed with Donald Trump for withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, yet she refuses to give the go-ahead to this vital, clean, green energy project. How are those two positions compatible?
I can tie it back in: the Government missed the opportunity to include our green agenda in their Queen’s Speech.
It is through education and training that we can provide job opportunities for our young people to thrive and prosper in the communities they grew up in. I feel strongly about that, as does a very good friend of mine, an Assembly Member for Llanelli. We do not want the children of Gower to think that they have to get out of Wales to get on. Let them have opportunities locally so that families and future generations can survive in Gower and Wales.
My constituency and the Swansea bay area, which is represented by several hon. Members present, will not see the project’s full benefits unless the Government commit to it. Recent reports have stated that the tidal lagoon is in its most precarious position since its inception; it is in danger of not happening. Funding is available until Christmas, but what will happen then? We need answers. More than £200 million has been provisionally committed, with investors ready to raise hundreds of millions more to fund the project, but David Stevens, the founder of Admiral Insurance, recently said:
“If there’s no evidence that the government is committed then at some point the patience of investors will be exhausted”.
He is right. Swansea tidal lagoon investors have reportedly now decided to delay their investment. We have to have the go-ahead. It is reported that staff have been asked to cut back to a four-day working week. In the words of Mr Stevens, unless the Government act,
“an opportunity will have been lost and it will be very hard to piece together again”.
This is about the future of my constituency. The tidal lagoon would provide a £1.3 billion infrastructure investment in Swansea bay and the surrounding areas. In each year of operation, it would save approximately 236,000 tonnes of carbon, while still fully powering 155,000 Welsh homes.
My constituents and I are very disappointed. I am led to believe that the last Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), was pushing the tidal agenda forward quite forcefully, but the incumbent is stalling. Like my predecessor, he has failed to deliver for Gower and Wales.
Why have the Government not given their support? Are they not interested in green energy, or do they simply not care about Wales? The tidal lagoon project would bring billions to the local and national economy. Wales and the UK would lead the world in exploring green energy alternatives. This project was started five years ago, and now it could be at an end—unless the Government give the tidal lagoon in Swansea the go-ahead immediately.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing the debate. One thing she said that struck me forcibly was that the Government lost the general election in Wales. I was pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) gain their seats from the Conservative party.
Having three new Labour Members of Parliament in Wales is relevant to the Queen’s Speech, because it has put a stop to the Government’s grammar schools policy, their proposed legislation on free schools meals and their dementia tax proposals, which caused tremendous upset in my constituency during the election. Positive things have happened because of the general election result, such as last week’s announcement of the inquiry into contaminated blood that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) had demanded. [Interruption.] The Minister looks quizzical, but he knows that 28 Labour Members and four Plaid Cymru Members were elected in Wales. The Government’s majority is non-existent in Wales.
To secure the passage of the Queen’s Speech through the House of Commons, the Government have effectively had to bribe the Democratic Unionist party with more than £1 billion. I ask the Minister: if the Government are going to give a significant £1 billion boost to Northern Ireland—including £400 million for infrastructure development, £150 million for the roll-out of ultrafast broadband, an extra £200 million investment in health, and further investment to tackle deprivation and mental health issues—is the Barnett formula now dead, as the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) suggested? I support the Barnett formula; it works well, ensuring that UK Government expenditure is distributed on a par across the regions of the UK. However, if the Government can find £1 billion from the magic money tree that they said did not exist and give that money to Northern Ireland to invest in things that Wales also needs, such as broadband roll-out, strategic transport infrastructure, housing support and investment in health, then they need to come to defend the Queen’s Speech today.
As the First Minister of Wales has said, if that £1 billion had been apportioned correctly to Wales, it would have meant an extra £1.6 billion for the economy of Wales. That money would have been used, for example, to help to boost the projects that other hon. Members have mentioned today, including not only the south Wales tidal lagoon but proposals for a tidal lagoon in north Wales. It would also have helped us to build on the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Transport two days ago on High Speed 2 at Crewe, to ensure that we get the benefits of HS2 in north Wales through investment in the line from Crewe to Chester and the electrification of the lines across to north Wales. It would have ensured that we met the commitment that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in the Budget statement to provide money for a growth deal for north Wales, which I am yet to see; I hope the Minister will give some indication of it in his winding-up speech today. There are a range of things that could have been done in the Queen’s Speech, but which the Government failed to do while giving money to Northern Ireland.
I will mention one other thing, because it is happening today. Today in the House of Lords, there is a by-election for a Member of these Houses of Parliament. It is a by-election for an hereditary peer, and among the hereditary peers who are standing is one of my constituents, Lord Mostyn. I had to fight an election six weeks ago to convince thousands of people to vote for me. His electorate today is 31 people—hereditary peers. I hope the Government will bring forward proposals to ban hereditary peers, to stop this nonsense in the House of Commons and the Houses of Parliament. We must abolish hereditary peers and end this system today.
Who created that system?
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. I will certainly do my best to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) to make a contribution on equal parity.
The Queen’s Speech was an opportunity lost. It was a two-year programme that did not have a Welsh dimension, which is an absolute disgrace, particularly when we heard warm words from the Prime Minister, and indeed in the Queen’s Speech, that there would be a programme for the whole of the United Kingdom.
I will concentrate on three main points; other Members have touched on them, but I want to elaborate on them and get some answers from the Minister. The first is the north Wales growth deal. We have seen Cardiff and Swansea city deals, which I welcome. In no way do I want to take away from them, but north Wales needs a focus of attention. This growth deal has been announced in numerous autumn statements. It is supposed to be bottom-up from the councils in north Wales, but the reality is that they have been squeezed; they do not have the finances or other resources that are needed. If we are to have an industrial strategy for the whole United Kingdom, we need the United Kingdom Government to take the lead and not pass the buck.
Many of us here in Westminster Hall today received increased mandates from the people of Wales, including the people of north Wales. We want to have a voice when it comes to growth deals, and we want to be able to say that we can help deliver the best for our constituents, so I ask the Minister: what is happening with the north Wales growth deal and why are we as MPs being excluded from its consideration?
I know that the Minister has sympathy with me on the second issue I will raise, which is Welsh ports. That is because Welsh ports will be impacted by Brexit more than any other ports in Europe, because they are the corridor to the Republic of Ireland. If we are to have a “seamless” or “frictionless” border, we want to know what that means; businesses need to know exactly what that means. If we have tariffs in Welsh ports, including Holyhead, then we will have delays and additional costs, which will impact on jobs in north Wales, in Wales as a whole and in the whole United Kingdom. We need clarity on that. I understand the issues with the border in Northern Ireland—I understand the Good Friday agreement and the fragility of that policy. However, the issue of Welsh ports is very important, and thus far it has not been given the attention it deserves.
Finally—I want to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore to make as long a contribution as possible—I will refer to the Hendry review and the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. The policy has just been kicked into the long grass, with excuse after excuse. I support the policy, and when I was on the Energy and Climate Change Committee we conducted an inquiry into it. We concluded, across parties, that it was a good thing for British energy and British industry. The Hendry review was an independent inquiry, based on a model that this Government had put in—contract for difference strike prices. It is their model, it is their review and it is time they delivered.
I will finish with one last point. The DUP has had £1 billion—in many ways, good on it—but that has taken money and attention away from Wales, which is a disgrace. It is the job of the Wales Office to stand up and be the voice of Wales in Westminster, but it is failing us.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth; I am grateful for the brief time I have.
I want to make three points. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing the debate. I agree entirely with her, and indeed with the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), about the power grab that the repeal Bill is now conducting against the Welsh Government. I believe that we could be bordering on a real constitutional issue in how devolution moves forward if—at the moment it appears that this will be the case—not all the relevant powers that currently reside with the EU are devolved to the Welsh Government by the UK Government.
There were two things missing from the Queen’s Speech that I feel quite passionate about, because they have an impact on Wales and should have been referred to. The first relates to rail electrification. We have had the Transport Secretary on the train to Paddington and we have had the Welsh Secretary driving the train from Paddington to Cardiff, and then saying that we will have additional funding for electrification to Swansea. That would have a significant impact on my constituency and many others across the south Wales belt, and it would have further implications for the electrification of the valleys lines, including the lines through Pencoed up to Maesteg and possibly even to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon)—that would create a transport hub in Bridgend.
That electrification is vital, and the UK Government—the Conservative Government—are failing the people of Wales by not securing it. That is simply unacceptable, especially given the hundreds of promises that Ministers have made time and again to provide electrification. Maybe the Transport Secretary and the Secretary of State for Wales just like driving trains—that might explain why they are so keen to make false promises.
The key area I wish to focus on is the impact of pension changes on women born in the 1950s, which was not considered in the Gracious Speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central for plugging the work of our hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and myself on this issue. The issue is specific to Wales—
Yes—sorry; it was a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, rather than by myself.
There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to aid women born in the 1950s. As a result of the pension reforms introduced by the Conservative Government between 1990 and 1997, and indeed by the coalition Government—we must not forget the role of the Lib Dems in this, because it was their Pensions Minister who made the changes—those women have been severely disadvantaged. I am sure that every Member was made well aware of the issue by their constituents during the general election campaign. These women, who account for about 8% of my constituents, had planned their retirements, from both a financial and a social perspective, only to have the goalposts moved. That is a grave injustice, and this Government continue to ignore it.
Public pressure is mounting. Since the swathe of public opinion was made known at the general election, there has been another spike in support for these women. My understanding is that close to 50 Conservative MPs now publicly support the campaign, in addition to all the opposition MPs across parties. I encourage all Members who are concerned about the issue—I will make a plug here—to attend the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, which is meeting in Committee Room 5 at 3 pm. Perhaps the Minister would like to come along and listen to accounts of the issues these women face.
In conclusion, the Queen’s Speech was littered with missed opportunities. The repeal Bill, in its current form, flies in the face of devolution and makes no effort to respect the constitutional arrangements in Wales while arranging our exit from the EU. The continued lack of clarity about the electrification of the Cardiff to Swansea railway line will serve only to aggravate my constituents and local businesses. The silence on the issue of women born in the 1950s shows the continued ignorance about the injustice of the Government’s pension changes. The Queen’s Speech was a disappointment and serves only to show that this Government are not seriously considering the issues that impact Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on her very good speech and on securing this debate. We in Scotland share many of the concerns she outlined. She spoke about the lack of vision for Wales in the Queen’s Speech and asked what was on offer for Wales from the Government. She then went on to mention a long list of major projects they have failed to announce. There was also no mention of transitional help for the WASPI women. We have had all that while the Government also apparently cut the number of Ministers in the Welsh Office. It hardly suggests a Government greatly interested in listening to Welsh concerns.
The hon. Lady went on to highlight the dangers for Wales of the repeal Bill, which features power grabs from the devolved Administrations, as the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales made clear in their joint statement condemning it. She deplored the nastiness and vitriol of the EU referendum campaign, and I very much share those concerns. She rightly deplored the awful attack on Jo Cox and highlighted the drowning out of women’s voices in the campaign, quoting figures and giving examples that I continue to find shocking, and I look forward to the Minister explaining those.
The biggest part of her speech was on Brexit and the mess we should expect from the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. I, too, think the situation is unsustainable. There is still no proper formal input from the Welsh and Scottish Governments on an issue that we all know will cause massive damage to both nations. The Government’s obstinacy is matched only by their eagerness to get a deal done with the DUP, as several Members have highlighted. What are the priorities? Does the DUP get a greater say than the Governments of Scotland and Wales? When will there be proper engagement? If I may press the Minister, what happens if either Scotland or Wales, or both, withhold legislative consent for the repeal Bill?
In a Backbench Business debate on 2 March, the hon. Lady laid out the huge damage being done to the higher education sector in Wales by Brexit and how much damage was likely to follow as research funding dried up. To be clear, Scottish MPs have the same concerns for Scottish universities, but does she consider that the damage will be so great and so long-lasting that it will be too much for Wales to bear? She might conclude that she should be doing whatever she can to frustrate the headlong rush of the Government and her party towards a Brexit cliff.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) rightly highlighted the threat to the automotive industry from Brexit, specifically to Ford in her constituency. As was mentioned, Nissan received some assurances from the Prime Minister early on after the Brexit referendum. I do not recall any similar help or assurances being offered to Ford at Bridgend. Forgive me if I have missed that, but I cannot recall a Minister ever having said that action would be taken to help the Ford workers keep their jobs. What investments will the Government consider to help keep Welsh jobs?
The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) made a very good speech. He spoke of a deficient plan for defining times and focused on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the clawback of powers from Wales and the lack of investment in Welsh infrastructure. His comments about the power grab from the devolved Administrations were rightly scathing. We in Scotland very much share his view. I must also mention the very good contributions from the hon. Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). [Interruption.] Apologies for that pronunciation; my Gaelic is not too bad, but my Welsh is sadly lacking.
Finally, looking at the list of Bills in the Queen’s Speech that affect Wales, I cannot escape the conclusion that those things would be better done in Wales. Does anyone seriously believe that Welsh agriculture is better served by legislation made here rather than in Cardiff? Tackling domestic violence and abuse in Wales—would that be better done here or there? I think the Welsh people are plenty smart enough to do those things and a whole lot more in their own capital city.
I withdraw. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this important debate and so eloquently illustrating her points about Brexit by way of graphic examples from her constituency. I pay tribute to her for highlighting a refreshing and original analysis of the gender imbalance in the whole Brexit debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who spoke about Brexit issues and the impact on the car industry in her constituency.
This debate should have been about the Government’s vision for Wales and the rest of the UK. It debate should have offered the Government an opportunity to show their deep understanding of the needs, wants and aspirations of the people of Wales. It should have provided us all with an opportunity to discuss and improve the Government’s Wales-specific proposals. Regrettably, as contribution after contribution has highlighted, there is no such opportunity, because the Tories have no vision for Wales. The Tories have no programme for Wales. The Tories have no understanding of Wales. We are an afterthought.
The people of Wales saw through the Tory manifesto in the general election. They realised they were being sold a pup—a pig in a poke—and rejected the offer, instead choosing Labour’s visionary manifesto. That risible Tory offer stands in stark contrast to Welsh Labour’s general election manifesto. From a position of weakness, the Tory Government are now asking for consensus and agreement to get their emasculated manifesto into statute. In the spirit of co-operation, I wish to highlight some of Labour’s positive popular policies, which they are welcome to introduce. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Government have already flattered Labour by stealing our ideas for an energy price freeze and ending austerity, which is being discussed in the higher echelons of the Tory party. The more they steal Labour’s policies, the more they show themselves to be a party bankrupt of ideas, out of touch with ordinary people and lacking in leadership.
However, there are other policy areas where the Government could learn from Labour to create a more prosperous, healthier, fairer country in Wales. Our manifesto had Wales-specific policies. It had a proudly Welsh agenda, with Welsh values of community, equality, efficiency and hope. It shows that a UK Labour Government working with a Welsh Labour Government would not launch a power grab. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for highlighting that aspect of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. It is a naked power grab to take powers back to Westminster. The manifesto shows that a UK Labour Government would be committed to investing in Wales, not another five years of austerity, cuts and indifference.
Many families in Wales, and indeed the UK, are financially worse off than they were 10 years ago. On average, a family is £1,400 worse off. Voters are sick to their hind teeth with austerity, which does not work. Low and middle-income earners are taking all the pain, and the high-income earners are making all the gain. Even Tory Ministers now accept Labour’s analysis of austerity. Our manifesto promised investment, reward for hard work and, most of all, hope. It made a commitment to work with the Welsh Government to tolls on the Severn bridge—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who highlighted that—and pledged to end years of Tory under-investment in national rail infrastructure. We promised to commit more than £700 million from a national transformation fund to fund electrification of the Great Western main line to Swansea. That was highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
The manifesto contained a commitment to transform transport networks in north Wales, with electrification from north Wales to Crewe, which would link the region with HS2 and create capacity for new, more frequent services into Liverpool, and beyond to the north of England. The manifesto had clear support for the Wylfa Newydd project to ensure a sustainable economic legacy for Anglesey and the wider north Wales community. Those issues have been thoroughly explored by many Members today, especially on the Labour Benches. Also mentioned many times was the impact on our proposals for the tidal lagoon. I commend and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on raising that issue.
I have outlined numerous Labour policies, but which of those bold, much needed commitments have the Government committed to fully fund in their Queen’s Speech? The answer is none—not a single one. Perhaps we should not be surprised, because not only do the Government have no vision for Wales; they have no overall mandate for Wales. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) mentioned the Conservatives’ target seats and my success and that of other hon. Members in the Chamber today. The Tories proposed a Labour wipeout across Wales. They tried to plant their Tory tanks on Labour lawns in Bridgend, Wrexham, and Newport East. The ConservativeHome website listed the seats they were going to win from Labour Alyn and Deeside, Bridgend, Cardiff South and Penarth, Cardiff West, Clwyd South, Delyn, Newport East, Newport West, Wrexham, Ynys Môn and Torfaen.
I will return to the Queen’s Speech and Wales and probably the grubbiest element, Mr Howarth: the alliance of the Conservative party with the DUP. The Prime Minister was reduced to securing her own position by throwing money from the magic money tree, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn—the magic money tree that Conservatives alleged Labour had. Well, I want a branch of that magic money tree in Wales. Does the Minister want a branch of that tree in Wales? [Interruption.] He says he will respond in due course. I hope that will be in the positive and the affirmative.
So there is a magic money tree in Northern Ireland that is worth £1 billion. As has been mentioned before, if it was transferred to Wales, that would mean £1.6 billion that we could invest in the infrastructure of Wales. After years of cuts from central Government, amounting to £1.2 billion a year from the Welsh block grant, our constituencies are suffering because of the lack of infrastructure and investment.
I hope the Minister will address the issue of the magic money tree for Wales when he winds up. We are in the mother of Parliaments. We are one of the best democracies in the world, yet we are reduced to pork-barrel politics for Northern Ireland, which is not a way to run a democracy. We need fair, open and transparent funding across the UK. Our people are crying out for it. The Minister knows his people are crying out for it. That is why his majority was reduced by such a massive amount and why I am here today. I will not have a word said against my benefactor and patron, the Prime Minister, who has allowed me to return to this place.
I thank my hon. Friend for his “Hear, hear.”
The debate has been very good. There was not much to debate because there was not much in the Queen’s Speech to benefit Wales, but we have picked over what little scraps there were. We have done justice to the people of Wales by analysing the Conservative programmes, or lack of them, proposed in the Queen’s Speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on his return to the House and to the Front Bench. I am not sure whether that is a reflection of the fact that nobody else was willing to take the position under the current leader of the Labour party. It certainly seems that the only speech to indicate support for the leader of the Labour party was the final speech, from the shadow Minister, but we might have expected that.
The debate has been interesting. It has drifted away from the Queen’s Speech as it affects Wales on numerous occasions. Westminster Hall is a forum where hon. Members have more of an opportunity to make a point that is relevant to their own constituencies or to highlight issues of a partisan nature.
On the issue of my survival, which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd highlighted, I remember that in 2015 the hon. Gentleman was in my constituency on the Wednesday prior to the election. I can assure him that I was not in his constituency in 2017, because I was looking after my own patch. If a little less hubris had been shown in 2015, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would not have had a two-year break. Now I will take an intervention.
On the Minister’s point about debating the Queen’s Speech in Westminster Hall, is it his intention to have a fuller debate in the Welsh Grand Committee, which was set up for Welsh issues only? It would also provide an opportunity for Conservative Welsh Members to attend and to speak up for Wales.
Order. Welsh politics has always held a great fascination for me, although I do not think this debate is the occasion to run either the last general election, or, as the Minister seems to be doing, the one before that. If we can stick to the issue at hand, I am sure the people of Wales will be very grateful to us.
I will take your advice on board, Mr Howarth, and will quickly respond to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). We agreed to a Welsh Grand Committee on the subject of the Queen’s Speech, but the people of Wales would think it odd if we had the same debate twice. However, we will of course have a Welsh Grand Committee in due course.
It is important to highlight that the point of the Queen’s Speech, to be perfectly frank, was to deal with the issue of Brexit. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central is a passionate advocate of remain. I have nothing but respect for her position, but I question whether her comments were more of a cry for help against the Labour manifesto rather than a complaint about the Queen’s Speech.
We are dealing with a decision taken not only by the people of the United Kingdom, but by the people of Wales. The decision was made in Wales, in the constituencies of many Labour Members, that Wales would leave the European Union. A vote was held and I suspect that every person here would describe themselves as a democrat. As such, we are left in a situation whereby the Government have an obligation to legislate for what was decided democratically in a referendum by the people of Wales and the United Kingdom. The Queen’s Speech therefore highlights the fact that a significant portion of the Bills in it deal with our leaving the European Union. It is clear from the constructive and not so constructive comments made by Opposition Members that everybody recognises that the process by which we will leave the European Union will be complicated and difficult and will require a degree of co-operation across the Floor of the House. I am certain that that will happen. The intention of the Government is to work with, not against, Opposition parties on these issues.
Before we turn to the content of the Queen’s Speech, it is worth reminding hon. Members that there was little difference between the Labour and Conservative manifestos at the general election when it came to leaving the European Union. Although the Government remain united in dealing with our exit from the European Union, in contrast with the Labour party, which has already lost shadow Ministers following disagreements about leaving the European Union. I therefore say to Labour Members that although we have 27 Bills in the Queen’s Speech, the vast majority of which have an impact on Wales, it is worth highlighting that the aim of the legislation on leaving the European Union is to provide clarity, continuity and certainty for people, businesses and organisations in Wales that are dealing with leaving the European Union.
As the Minister has said, the bulk of the Queen’s Speech is about exiting the European Union. Is he confident that the economy, foreign affairs and a whole host of other issues will get the attention they require while we spend our time discussing the minutiae of the regulations on fish fingers or whatever?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is imperative that all of us try to ensure that while we deal with this complex issue in a constructive manner, we also do not take our eye off the day job. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s comment.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was introduced in the Queen’s Speech. The aim is to provide certainty and continuity to businesses, workers and consumers in Wales and across the UK as we leave the European Union. The aim of the Bill is to fulfil the Government’s promise to end the supremacy of EU law in the UK by repealing the European Communities Act 1972, removing the supremacy of EU law and returning control to the UK. That is the only way for the UK to leave the European Union and ensure that our future laws are made in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.
That is an important point. We have talked about this so-called power grab, and I assure hon. Members that there is no intention whatever of a power grab. The first person to talk of the importance of UK frameworks as we leave the European Union was none other than Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales. I agree. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where we leave the EU single market and damage the UK single market. The whole point of frameworks within any future settlement is to ensure that the UK market and the UK system work on the basis of equality between businesses and individuals across the United Kingdom. Although I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who represents the Scottish National party, would disagree, it is fair to say that I am surprised that the Labour party, which claims to be a Unionist party, seems to be very annoyed at the prospect of having rules that apply across the United Kingdom agreed across the United Kingdom as part of the withdrawal process.
It is clear that withdrawing from the European Union and repealing the European Communities Act 1972 will leave a large hole in our statute book. We therefore have to ensure that there is no cliff edge on the day that we leave the European Union. Part of the intention of the legislation is to ensure that the body of law is incorporated into UK law, which will be known as EU retained law, to ensure that on the day after departure, businesses, consumers and so forth will be in a situation of certainty, knowing that the rules and regulations that applied on the day before we left the European Union apply the day after we leave. That is an effort to ensure continuity, which will be absolutely crucial.
As the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) highlighted in a passionate speech—I agreed with every single word, I must say—the certainty that businesses require in our departure from the European Union means that the regulations currently in place as part of EU law need to be in place as part of our own law, on the basis of continued EU legislation within the UK. We are trying to ensure that the issues raised about Bridgend are dealt with as we leave.
The hon. Lady is a member of the Labour party, so I understand her suspicion of the intentions of a Conservative-led Government, but the aim of the Henry VIII powers are to correct deficiencies within the law as it stands. There will be thousands of deficiencies where legislation refers to European regulations and European laws. There will be a need to correct them. The same need to correct deficiencies will be granted to the Governments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and, I hope, Belfast. The intention is to correct deficiencies. The last thing the hon. Lady would want to see on the day after we depart the European Union is for our legal system to be inoperable. That would be a dereliction of duty on behalf of this Government.
I hope that gives some degree of comfort to the hon. Lady. Ultimately, there is an obligation on the Opposition to scrutinise as we go through the process of putting that the legislation in place.
Not for the time being; I have to make some progress.
Converting EU law into UK law is not enough to ensure a functioning statute book on exit day. As I have mentioned, retained EU law will contain a broad range of deficiencies that need to be corrected; the intention is that that those deficiencies can be corrected both at a devolved level and in Westminster.
In addition to the withdrawal Bill, there will be other EU exit Bills, which are absolutely essential for the way in which we can operate as we leave the European Union. The customs Bill will provide for a stand-alone UK customs regime on exit, and the trade Bill will put in place the essential and necessary framework to allow the UK to operate our own independent trade policy. I suspect Opposition Members, who respect the result of the referendum, would not argue against the need for a customs Bill or a trade Bill.
On the comments of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn about ports, the Wales Office is aware of the issues in relation to Holyhead port. I think I am right in saying that the Secretary of State has visited. I have recently had meetings with Irish Ferries, for example, to discuss the issue in detail. Although we all recognise the sensitive nature of the border in Northern Ireland, it is imperative that we ensure that the ports in Wales are also protected. The Wales Office is certainly very aware of that issue, and I am more than happy to deal with the hon. Gentleman on that in due course.
The trade Bill is also crucial because, as has been pointed out by many hon. Members, Wales is more dependent on exports than any other part of the United Kingdom. We saw a significant increase in our exports in the year to March 2017. When I hear the doom and gloom of Opposition Members about the Welsh economy, I would remind them that our exports are increasing, not decreasing, and we are exporting more to the European Union than we did in the year prior to the decision to leave the European Union. That is some source of comfort.
It is also imperative that we have an immigration Bill that deals with some of the issues raised about the concerns of EU citizens and the wider implications. On the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff Central about her constituent and the lack of response from the Home Office, I would personally be more than happy to take that up on her behalf with the Home Office, if she would care to write to me about it. Such a delay in responding is simply not acceptable; I will happily look into it on her behalf.
We will also bring forward a fisheries Bill and an agriculture Bill, which will undoubtedly have an impact on Wales. Some 60,000 people are employed in the agriculture sector in Wales—we all know the importance of agriculture to our rural communities. We need to ensure that we have a functioning sector as we leave the European Union.
There are other pieces of legislation in the Queen’s Speech that are important to Wales. We will bring forward a number of proposals, for example modernising the courts system and dealing with domestic violence through the creation of a domestic violence and abuse commissioner. Those issues are not England-only; they apply in Wales.
I will try to respond to some of the points raised by hon. Members. I have touched on the fact that a number of pieces of legislation in the Queen’s Speech have a direct impact on Wales. Anybody who denied that would be wrong.
On the financial settlement for Wales, hon. Members have very short memories. Just before Christmas, we announced a fiscal framework for Wales that ensured a Barnett floor—something that has been called for by many interested parties in Wales for a very long time and was never delivered by the Labour party when they were in power in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay. It has been delivered by this Conservative Government. The fiscal floor currently ensures that for every £100 spent in England, £119 is spent in Wales. It guarantees that there will be a floor. In other words, because of that funding commitment, the Barnett squeeze will not happen again.
Over and above the Barnett consequentials, the Government have also delivered support for growth deals for Cardiff and Swansea. I assure the hon. Member for Ynys Môn that we are working very hard on achieving a growth deal for north Wales. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) is in discussions with us on a regular basis on the growth deal for north Wales.
I do not have time.
I have recently met every council leader and chief executive in north Wales, and I will be meeting the final ones this afternoon. If the hon. Member for Ynys Môn wants to meet me about the growth deal, I would be more than happy to have such a meeting.
I would point out to the hon. Member for Arfon that he is incorrect in stating that there are no consequentials from the High Speed 2 project. There are: HS2 is included in the Department for Transport budget and therefore there have been consequentials.
Yes, I am aware.
There have been Barnett consequentials to the Welsh Government’s capital budget from HS2. I also support the fact that the Crewe hub is essential for north Wales and will be very positive for that area. I hope that I have highlighted that the Queen’s Speech is not just positive but relevant for Wales, and that this Government are delivering for Wales.
I thank you, Mr Howarth, for your robust chairmanship this morning. I also thank all hon. Members on this side of the House who contributed to an excellent debate. The fact that we have debated much that was not in the Queen’s Speech for Wales but should have been is indicative of the current Government’s attitude, as is the fact that we have had no contributions whatever from Conservative Members to the debate, other than the response from the Minister. I am sure we will pick this up in September. I hope that “in due course” means September for a Welsh Grand Committee and that we can carry on with these discussions later in the year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Wales and the Queen’s Speech.
Strategic Road Network: South West
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the strategic road network in the South West.
First, I welcome the welcome the Minister to his place. As you are aware, Mr Howarth, I worked with him on the nuclear issue and Hinkley Point. I also thank his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), and my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) for being here. I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) are here too. I am sorry about the pink specs, Mr Howarth—I managed to lose mine.
I am grateful to be able to raise issues about the road network in the south-west. They relate exclusively to that network, and they have to be cured. The strategy for the major roads can be a bit of a beggar’s muddle, which roughly translates as a complete and utter mess, liable to cause confusion and dismay. I represent Bridgwater and West Somerset, and the M5 is our only official strategic route. It covers the whole of our area. If someone needs to get strategically to Watchet, Williton or Minehead, they need the A39. That road is every bit as strategic for hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers and for anybody who happens to live there, yet the M5 and the A39 come under entirely different management.
Most A roads in this country are looked after by county councils. All motorways and a handful of A roads are the responsibility of Highways England Ltd. Two years ago, the Government quite rightly shook up the old Highways Agency, turned it into a flash new company and hoped it would learn to operate within budget and focus more attention on customers. There was frustration in Whitehall that new roads took far too long to complete—we have all suffered from that. It would be much better, it was thought, if one company was given a big budget and simply allowed to get on with it. The Government also wanted to speed up the whole planning process.
A chief executive with an impressive track record was hired. Jim O’Sullivan used to be the chief engineer at British Airways, and claims he can still change the brakes, wheels and engines on an aeroplane, but I would rather he concentrated on his day job. After all, Highways England spends £7 million of public money every single week. That is enormous bucks, given that the highway under its control adds up to just 2% of the total road network. The company got a rap over the knuckles from the rail and road regulator in its first appraisal last year. The regulator said that it was not transparent enough about plans or accurate enough about accounting. I can think of quite a few level-headed Somerset people who would agree and go further.
Highways England has sparked a monstrous planning row that shows what is wrong with the whole process of strategic road development. At the end of the week, I will get in my car and drive home to the west country. I usually travel on the M4, then on to the M5 and home. Occasionally, if I am in a hurry, I will risk the A303 and the A358 into Taunton—my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil knows how tricky that is—but from drivers’ point of view that is a gamble. They face swarms of druid-fanciers at Stonehenge, armies of articulated lorries struggling up hills and enough caravans to drive Jeremy Clarkson bonkers—all going at a snail’s pace throughout.
You are probably not aware, Mr Howarth, that parts of the A303 are still single-carriageway. Most of the A358 is a bottleneck, and Taunton has become a snarled-up no-go area. As a matter of fact, there is no good reason to go anywhere near Taunton since the useless council lost its famous cattle market to Bridgwater and is allowing the shopping centre to waste away and die. Councillor John Williams is now the sheriff of a wild west tumbleweed town. He struts about spending oodles of taxpayers’ money on gold taps and new showers for Deane House, and people say he is on the take—more of him later, I promise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his rose-tinted spectacles. On the issue of strategic roads, does he agree that the other key road in the south-west that is worth a mention today is the A417—in particular the bottleneck at the Air Balloon roundabout, which prevents the link between the M4 and the M5?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is quite correct to highlight such situations. His constituents suffer in the same way as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil on those inadequate roads. We need a policy that covers A roads and motorways. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has done a noble job for his constituents, and I am glad he has raised that point.
Highways England had a brief to create an alternative route to the far south-west using the A303 and the A358, even if it effectively bypassed Taunton. As my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil is aware, it would have made much more sense to upgrade the A303 and carry on over the Blackdown hills with improvements to the A30. Devon County Council wanted that option, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who unfortunately cannot be in his place today, argued for it. It would be a much shorter route, and cheaper too.
The most cost-effective solution is just to improve the M5 and widen it. It would save a fortune—problem solved. That would be it sorted. The trouble is that Highways England did not get the choice. It was lumbered with the A303 and A358, and it came up with a series of wildly expensive plans. Surprise, surprise, it picked the cheapest option, although it makes no strategic sense whatever. The result has been a storm of protest. Highways England has totally cheesed off Somerset County Council, which thinks the plan nuts. Highways England stupidly cancelled the public consultation meetings during the May general election campaign. Why? It has made so many blunders that the Campaign to Protect Rural England is threatening to take it to court for a judicial review—ridiculous.
Worst of all, Highways England will be using something called a development consent order to secure the right to build the road. It does not matter how many people protest or what the local council says, because development consent orders were designed to put time limits on all objections. Basically, unless the Secretary of State intervenes, a development consent order can be a legal bulldozer. I should add that the long list of objectors to the proposal includes Taunton Deane Council, bizarrely, which desperately wants a new road but would much prefer a link with one of its plum building projects called Nexus 25.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has been a champion for the A303 and A358 since he stood as a candidate. He has done a remarkable job in ensuring that the Government are fully aware of the feelings of the people of Yeovil. Yeovil and Bridgwater are the only two industrial towns in Somerset. This issue matters enormously given that the railway station for Yeovil is outside the town, so we have double strategic problems.
Nexus is a rosy apple in the eye of Tumbleweed Town’s Wyatt Earp, Councillor John Williams. Quick on the draw as he is, Wyatt Twerp intends to make sure it happens. Anyone who objects could end up on Boot Hill with an overdose of lead poisoning. Nexus is a plan for a giant business park on green fields next to junction 25, off the M5. Wyatt Twerp’s builder pals from Summerfield bought the plot cheap a few years ago. Taunton Deane now intends to use a local development order to force it through. Local development orders were designed for one purpose: to enable the development of brownfield sites, but Nexus is greenfield, and Wyatt Twerp is on the fiddle again with legal trickery to stifle objections. Local development orders, like development consent orders, make a mockery of consultation, but in lawless Tumbleweed Town that’s the way they do things. Wyatt Twerp wants to win, which is why he complained so strongly about the plans of Sir Tim Smit, the architect of the world-famous Eden Project, which we have all been to and know so well. Sir Tim Smit wants to build an extensive complex at junction 27 on the M5. It is a well-engineered proposal from a team with excellent form. Sir Tim Smit understands consultation. He actually attends all public meetings in person, which is impressive.
Wyatt Twerp sees any rival development, even in neighbouring counties, as a dreadful threat. Right now, he is getting his posse together to ride out and lynch the man—bizarre, I know. Imagine: Sir Tim Smit’s plans might lure people away from the invisible attractions of Tumbleweed Town.
My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of another crazy caper dreamed up by Wyatt Twerp to merge West Somerset Council, which is in my constituency, with Taunton Deane. That could result in a new authority, no doubt to be called Greater Tumbleweed. West Somerset would end up without a single local office, and with no staff and few elected councillors. Wyatt Twerp organised a consultation process, which, as hon. Members would expect, was shallow, shabby, inaccurate and so badly drafted that few people took part. It was not worth the paper it was written on.
Once again, Wyatt Twerp is on the fiddle. His bid to merge has been submitted to the Secretary of State using a piece of law that gets around the need to consult anybody. Needless to say, my constituents are crying foul play. When they finally rumble his bent regime and boot him out, he would be very well qualified—dare I say it to the Minister?—to join Highways England as a consultant.
That brings me back to the A358 and the road that Highways England wants to build with no links to Nexus 25. I have a suspicious mind. I have already discovered that Summerfield Developments has bought another large plot of agricultural land, which happens to be remarkably close to all of Highways England’s route options for the A358. At present, Summerfield would not get permission to erect a garden shed on it, but if the A358 becomes a dual carriageway, nearby land will become ripe for new homes and Summerfield will be quids in. I wonder how much more land it has an option on already. I wonder which well-known land agents are scouting on its behalf, and who else has invested in that beautiful green-belt corner of Somerset.
Perhaps Wyatt Twerp himself will come clean and tell us why he bought a 30-acre plot close to Stoke St Mary parish church all those years ago. He might claim that it was because of his love of rural scenery or his abiding affection for the great crested newt, which we have all come across. Perhaps it was because of his desire to safeguard a precious plot for posterity. Or was it an early bid for a garden town—“Williamsville”, for instance, which is a great name—which my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil has championed? We know that there are fairies at the bottom of his garden and pink pigs flying above them, but the leader of Taunton Deane Council is a greedy builder at heart, and he must have known that 300 houses would fit on 30 acres. Wyatt Twerp bagged a bargain when he bought that land.
The point is this: if the A358 is turned into a highway, there will be huge building opportunities. Highways England understands Wyatt Twerp’s ambitions. Taunton Deane Council has been involved in secret talks with Highways England for months, but it took a freedom of information request from a gentleman called Dave Orr, who is not one of my constituents, to prove it. Two weeks ago, he obtained a memo from Highways England’s global consultants. Those experts recognised Taunton Deane’s extraordinary plan to build 17,000 houses and advised that 3,460 could be built on the land near the motorway junction. As far as I can make out, Mr Orr is a fair man. He decided to alert officers of Taunton Deane Council and Somerset County Council in case they had not seen the document. Nobody reacted, so Mr Orr called the press. It was a story—it was all true—but Wyatt Twerp went bananas and ordered his deputies to threaten the local paper for publishing “fake news”. Wyatt had a nasty attack of the Trumps.
That is a revealing episode in a very sad saga. I believe that this is the wrong strategic route for the south-west. We now know for certain that any road developments around this green part of Taunton will bring extra houses by the thousand, which will affect my hon. Friends the Members for Wells and for Yeovil. No wonder so many people are angry. No wonder there is growing distrust of the system and growing contempt for the local politicians—my hon. Friends excluded—who have conspired to allow this to happen. On that point, I rest my case.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate, which has the very wide title “The strategic road network in the south-west”, and on his extremely pungent and colourful speech. I will start generally and then focus on the specific issues that he raised and the area itself.
As my hon. Friend knows, our road network is the backbone of Britain. Let me remind him and colleagues that the strategic road network, which comprises approximately 4,300 miles of motorways and all-purpose trunk roads valued at more than £100 billion, supports the safe and efficient movement of people and goods. Whatever the optics might be in terms of the percentage of road length the network represents, it is vital to the UK economy and to our current and future economic growth. Around 80% of all goods travel by road, with about two thirds of large goods vehicle traffic being transported on the network. Some 4 million vehicles use the network each day.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, this Government and the previous Government have made a strategic decision to continue to develop the strategic road network by providing extra lanes on our motorways and improving key routes, but also by investing in parts of the country that have suffered due to poor transport connections. That is why the Government are investing £23 billion in England’s roads, £15 billion of which will be spent on our motorways and major A roads.
That funding underpins what has become known as the road investment strategy, a five-year plan launched in December 2014 that sets out the schemes and funding levels from 2015 to 2020. In the five years from 2015, the Government will invest around double the capital in strategic roads that was invested in the five years from 2005. That is a record of which the Government and, in fact, all Government Members can be very proud.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate. The Minister highlights the investment that is being made. Will he confirm that that will include finally sorting out the issues at Stonehenge that mean that so much traffic from London to the south-west ends up going via Bristol?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will discuss the A303 and Stonehenge later in my speech.
The road investment strategy is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads—our motorways and major A roads—in a generation. It will see the addition of more than 1,300 extra lane miles to our busiest roads. The schemes cover every region of England; in the two years since 2015, 12 major schemes have opened for traffic and 16 more have started construction.
Does the Minister agree with me and with Conservative-run Plymouth City Council that it is time that we continued that investment in our strategic road network by extending the M5 from Exeter to the Tamar bridge?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. The answer is that we have a number of funds available and we look forward very much to the submission of bids, which will be given the full scrutiny that they deserve and merit.
Let me turn to the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset. He started by referring to the A39, which I will touch on for a second. He will be aware that that is a local road, but as he also knows, the Government recently announced that from 2020, under the new roads fund that we have set up, which is entirely funded by vehicle excise duty—that is a tremendous innovation, or rather a move back to the future for our road network—we will segregate what we consider to be a major road network investment programme. I think that the A39 will be eligible to be funded under that programme. Once the consultation has been done and work is under way to programme that investment, my hon. Friend and local authorities will be absolutely welcome—indeed, they will be invited—to submit bids. I am aware of his strong feelings, rose-tinted spectacles or no, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) about the importance of dualling that road in both directions.
Overall, the Government are investing heavily in the road network in the south-west and have committed some £2 billion to major schemes through the road investment strategy. Later this year, we will announce the preferred route for the A303 Stonehenge tunnel, which is a very significant project in its own right, and for the A358 Taunton to Southfields and A303 Sparkford to Ilchester schemes. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset has particular concerns—concerns that he expressed with considerable pungency—about the route that the A358 should take into Taunton.
Will the Minister reassure us all that, regardless of which of those routes and attendant end points for the A303 are eventually chosen, utmost priority will be given to completing that work as fast as possible? My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) cannot contribute to this debate—he is the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary—but I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) feel strongly that taking the pressure of long-distance traffic off the M5-M4 triangle and allowing it to make progress down the A303 corridor is absolutely essential for everyone who lives on the M5, as well as for the long-distance traffic that uses it to get through Somerset.
I very much take my hon. Friend’s point. Of course, the point of the tunnel is not merely to safeguard the extraordinary and historic global asset we have at Stonehenge; it is also part of a much bigger programme of trying to improve the A303 for trunk purposes, in a way that is designed precisely to lift some of the pressure off other arterial routes. I take his point very well.
I should say that I do not recognise the description that has been given of Highways England. From my limited experience as a Minister, I know that it is not a perfect institution, but it has made significant progress since becoming Highways England. It is undoubtedly focused on the task of the effective delivery of schemes in order to get the best outcome for local people, which my hon. Friend mentioned.
I am glad of that intervention, and if I may, I will proceed with my remarks.
To return to the A358, of course my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made some quite colourful remarks about that. I am sure he will understand if I do not take a position on the issue, but he has made his concerns, and the public concerns of others, very well, and they sit in the record for further excavation and inquiry.
As my hon. Friend will know, Highways England recently held a public consultation on the routes that the A358 should take, and it will work closely with local partners to advise the Secretary of State and myself on the preferred route. Those schemes are just the first part of the £2 billion plan I mentioned to create a new dual carriageway route from the south-west to London.
If I may range slightly further outside the specific issue of the A358 and the A303, improvements to the A30 in Cornwall—both a planned improvement and one nearing completion—will extend dual carriageway standard road as far as Camborne. The Temple to Higher Carblake section opened last week and Highways England announced the preferred route for the Chiverton to Carland Cross scheme earlier this month.
Highways England is also creating a new junction on the M49 to support development at Avonmouth. The port of Avonmouth and the Avonmouth Severnside Enterprise Area to the west of Bristol currently have no direct access to the M49, which is hindering proposals to support economic growth in the area. A new junction on the M49 will improve access to those areas, ease congestion and contribute to the economic growth of the region.
If I may respond in anticipation of the much-welcome but inevitable intervention from my beloved colleague from Gloucester, a little further afield, to the north-east, Highways England is also developing the A417 Air Balloon roundabout improvement—I should say that it is not a small scheme. Potential route options are being identified for public consultation before the end of 2017. That scheme will tackle a missing link in the dual carriageway between Gloucester and Cirencester, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on his tireless championing of that important scheme, which will certainly have through benefits for trunk users of that road coming from Herefordshire to London.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset has a particular interest in the M5 junction 23 Bridgwater scheme and wrote to the Transport Secretary recently on that matter. Let me turn to that, if I may. The Government’s view is that it is vital that there be a good connection to Hinkley Point. The new power station—and one must not forget the existing power station there—is of strategic importance to the UK, and the Government will ensure that the road network around it gives all the necessary access to the plant and works. That will support local economic growth, housing and local jobs.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that up, partly because it affects the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) as much as mine, and also those of my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Yeovil (Mr Fysh). We have heard about Weston, and I certainly know, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Wells, that Burnham is a very tight junction. The Secretary of State has been helpful to Somerset MPs in sorting this out, but will my hon. Friend the Minister allude to the need for more capacity at all the junctions from 27 to 21? We may need to revisit that, but I am grateful to him for what he is saying about junction 23.
I absolutely take the point. It would have been remiss of me as the Minister not to have addressed this important issue, on which my hon. Friend has been vociferous—and rightly so—along with other colleagues in the past. That is why I have raised it now.
Highways England has been assessing a larger-scale upgrade of the Bridgwater junction, as set out in the road investment strategy. When my predecessor wrote to my hon. Friend recently, he relayed the fact that Highways England was continuing to collect data to inform its assessment so that it could continue to ensure the right solution for the local area. I will make certain that Highways England presses on with that process. I have encouraged it to continue to improve its engagement with colleagues—this is a valuable case in point—so that all relevant views are properly taken into account.
In addition, in March 2017 the Government named 27 proposed small congestion relief schemes that can be delivered quickly. The south-west was allocated some £32 million for improvements, better driver information and queue protection on the M5. Of course, we welcome further inquiries as to how junctions elsewhere in the region and on that road can be improved.
In the time that remains, I will briefly turn to the question of the future. As I have said, the £15 billion currently being invested represents a substantial increase in the rate of investment in roads, but even so, the first road investment strategy—what we call RIS 1—remains only an initial step, albeit more strategic than hitherto. That is why we have already started work on developing the second road investment strategy, RIS 2, which will handle further investment in the network beyond 2020.
The Department is currently gathering and analysing evidence about the performance of the network and the future pressures it faces. Of course, that is a dynamic process as further changes are made and ways of using the road network themselves change. Central to that approach has been Highways England’s work to refresh its 18 route strategies, each focusing on different sections of the strategic road network, which were published in March. As part of that work, Highways England gathered information from MPs, road users, local authorities and other stakeholders through an online public consultation last summer and through face-to-face meetings.
My hon. Friend will be particularly interested in the Birmingham to Exeter route strategy, which identified areas along the M5 where there are current and anticipated future pressures on the network. I am sure that also goes for other Members of all parties present in the Chamber.
We will use that evidence, and the results of a public consultation planned for later this year, to develop an investment plan that is affordable and deliverable and that will meet our key aims for RIS 2, specifically to support economic growth; improve network capability; enhance integration with local roads and other transport modes; reduce the number and severity of accidents; and protect the environment. We remain on track to publish the second RIS before the start of the next road period on 1 April 2020. In that context, I will pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). That approach also needs to take into account some of the pressures that a route strategy has in relation to other arterial roads to ensure that the counterbalancing we have discussed is properly discharged.
While I am aware that the focus of this debate has been on the strategic road network in the south-west, I hope that I may acknowledge quickly the value of the local road network. Most journeys that use our motorways and major A roads start on the local road network. The Government continue to provide funding for local authorities and local enterprise partnerships in England to help fund large transport schemes that improve connectivity, ease local congestion and improve or update existing infrastructure, thereby helping to promote growth and deliver more housing. Most of the Department’s funding for large schemes now sits in the local growth fund, with some £6 billion provided to local enterprise partnerships through different growth deals.
Since 2011, the Department for Transport has invested over £360 million in major local schemes in the south-west. As well as the largest schemes, we continue to fund smaller schemes designed to open up developments and help maintain roads and bridges. The Government are also keen to invest in road maintenance to make roads better for users. That is why £12.5 million has been made available to fix potholes—a topic of great interest to every member of this House—in the south-west.
Shortly, I plan to announce the winners of the 2017 to 2018 highways maintenance challenge fund, whereby the Government will be investing £75 million to improve smaller local roads, including through resurfacing, pothole filling and other infrastructure projects. In summary, we are delivering on our plans for investment in the south-west’s road network, both strategic and local, to give the south-west the roads it needs for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I have a couple of housekeeping announcements before we kick off the debate. First, you may have noticed that the clock that we are working to is running about 40 seconds behind the annunciator clock. That will become relevant later when I put a time limit on speeches, because a lot of Members want to take part this afternoon. Secondly, in view of the climate, I am prepared to allow gentlemen to remove their jackets if they wish—but not their ties under this Chairman, thank you very much.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future shape of the armed forces.
As the new Member for Aldershot, the traditional home of the British Army, I am honoured to lead the debate. In the limited time I have, I will touch on the nature of current threats and dwell for a little longer on my central point, which is that our people—our servicemen and women—must be at the heart of our defence policy.
When we consider the future shape of the armed forces, we are seeking to assess current threats but also to predict what threats may arise in the future. That is very difficult, and the only certainty we have is that threats are and will continue to be manifold and deeply alarming. After 15 years or so of engaging in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still face a threat from global terrorism, which is more dangerous, more mobile and more transnational than ever before. It has recently struck in our cities, and, indeed, at the very gates of Parliament. The middle east is highly unstable, ISIS is diminished but not defeated, we have failed states, we have Hezbollah, we have a dominant Iran and we have North Korea in nuclear stand-off with the rest of the world. We also have a resurgent Russia and the rise of cyber-conflicts.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one vital element of our national defence and resilience is the threat to our cyber-security? Is he concerned, as I am, about whether our armed forces and their hardware are fully protected from that threat, and whether they have sufficient capability to be effectively deployed to deter such a threat?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I think we all agree that the internet has now been weaponised to an extremely alarming degree. That should be at the heart and centre of our defence strategy. I imagine the Minister will take the opportunity to address that.
We face today the simultaneous threats of state-on-state conflict and global terrorism. We are facing down those threats with our allies in NATO and elsewhere, such as our friends in the Gulf states. We will continue to need a very large and potent armed forces to do that; mass matters, and it will continue to matter. It will come as no surprise that, as a former soldier, I am and will always be an advocate for a bigger armed forces. In an ideal world, I would like to see not 2% of GDP spent on defence but somewhere nearer 3%. However, we have to live in the real world, and we have to play the pitch we inherited. We are still dealing with the legacy of Labour’s mismanagement of the economy, which left a large black hole at the heart of defence spending.
In my judgment, the 2015 strategic defence and security review did a good job of assessing and responding to the current global threats I described, and combined with the ongoing investment of £178 billion over the next 10 years, it will deliver a raft of impressive new hardware and, more importantly, an agile and highly deployable force. All of that is against the background of significant financial constraints. I am particularly pleased that elements of the new strike brigades formed as a result of that SDSR—including 4 Rifles, 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 2nd Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment—will be based in my constituency. We have two impressive carriers coming online, new submarines and new frigates, as well as a total and unreserved commitment to our continuous at-sea deterrence, Trident.
While we praise all that, we must, as parliamentarians and constituency MPs, always critically assess our own Government’s policies. We must ensure that our procurement is smart and that the carrier group we are investing in can fight. We must ensure that 2% of GDP spent on defence actually means a real 2%, and we must ensure that projects such as the F-35 are completed on time and on budget. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us on that note today.
We clearly need significant force, but just as important, especially when it comes to dealing with global terrorism, is our approach and attitude towards using that force. I think the primary lesson of the last 15 years of expeditionary counter-insurgency wars is that it is only when we are discreet in the use of force, and when we work to empower and partner with local allies, that we achieve great results in combating terrorism.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. However, I am puzzled by his line of argument. He seems to be saying that expeditionary counter-insurgency warfare is what we expect to do in the years ahead, while at the same time saying we must be flexible. What does he think about the notion that NATO has this entirely wrong, that we are focusing on the last war and that the next war may well be, for example, in the north Atlantic or high Arctic? That is something that the Select Committee on Defence is halfway through studying.
If my hon. Friend is unsure of the meaning of my remarks, I am saying that mass is important—we absolutely need a very large and potent armed forces—but the lesson of the past 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we may get counter-productive results if we engage without the politics being right, as he will see from the remainder of my remarks. It is only when we engage and work with allies that results that match our interest and theirs can be achieved.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, our good intentions were overtaken by the realities of local politics on the ground and an over-optimism about what the British state can achieve politically by the overt use of military force. We must guard against that in future. I learned that lesson as a soldier in southern Iraq more than 10 years ago. I remember one particular day when I visited a police station run by an Iraqi police unit that we were mentoring in al-Amarah in southern Iraq. Despite our working very closely with them, I was alarmed to find, on visiting the interior of the police station, a picture of Muqtada al-Sadr, who was the leader of the Mahdi army—the very insurgent group we were fighting, supposedly with the Iraqi police. That kind of duality and duplicity undermined our capability and the likelihood of us having a positive outcome in Iraq.
I have carried that insight with me over the years, but for many others, including my friend and fellow soldier, Captain Richard Holmes, that duplicity and the central dilemma of our presence in Iraq had lethal consequences. Richard was a classmate of mine at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and went on to be a fine Parachute Regiment officer. He deployed on his second tour of Iraq in the winter of 2005 to mentor the Iraqi police—something he put his heart and soul into. Progress was made thanks to his efforts, but despite his commitment and earnest professionalism, the forces of sectarianism, violence, Shi’ite rivalry and Iranian meddling prevailed. One day, after leaving the very same police station that I had visited the previous winter, his patrol was struck by an IED, and he and his driver, Private Lee Ellis, were instantly killed.
The point I am making is that no matter how good or how dedicated the servicemen or women are, politics—in the middle east, it is often the politics of violence—will always trump good intentions. The lesson at the heart of this is that we must be discreet, and we must work with allies whose interests match ours and who genuinely need our help. That lesson and that approach should shape the way we do business in the future and the way we train and deploy our forces. If we follow that approach, we can achieve great results.
In Iraq, we are now having a very positive impact. Today we have more than 1,200 personnel deployed on Op Shader across Iraq and Syria, co-ordinating Royal Air Force airstrikes, taking the fight to Daesh and, critically, working very closely with Kurdish peshmerga forces, whose interests match ours. That type of involvement —helping our allies to achieve their goals with the bespoke use of expertise and hard power—is a model for the future. We can and should replicate that approach around the globe.
The other primary lesson we have learned from the campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that the current generation of British forces men and women are equal to the example shown by their forebears across all three services. Young men and women join the armed forces today in order to deploy. We are in their debt, and it is our duty to arm them, equip them and protect them as best we can. Our servicemen and women are this country’s most precious asset, and we must put them at the heart of our defence policy. I welcome the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which will have a very positive impact on the working lives of our armed forces men and women. We should celebrate the fact that they are prepared to take risks. They are not victims, but heirs to a remarkable and magnificent tradition. The recent remarks made by the Chief of the General Staff about service personnel needing empathy rather than sympathy were very welcome and apt.
We must maintain our resolve to deploy whenever and wherever necessary. We must not lose our nerve. On that note, I will conclude my remarks by quoting from a letter sent to me recently by a veteran who, as a young commander, led a team in Afghanistan at the height of the conflict. At one point he survived an IED strike so powerful that it destroyed the armoured fighting vehicle he was commanding. His letter reads:
“In Afghanistan I was scared of many things. I was frightened of the Taleban, I doubted myself, I worried about the availability of helicopter medical support. The one thing I never doubted or questioned was the willingness of the soldiers under my command to fight tooth and nail. No matter how badly they were bleeding, no matter how cold, how hot, how tired or how dehydrated they were, time and again their willingness to take a step forward, put their hand up and say ‘ok then, let’s go’ was extraordinary. 18 year olds who had volunteered to go 5000 miles to protect the Afghan people. These much-maligned members of the ‘PlayStation generation’ were in fact the heirs to boys who stood at Waterloo, sailed at Jutland and flew in the Battle of Britain.”
I quote from that letter because those words so eloquently convey why we are proud to have the finest armed forces in the world, why our servicemen and women will always be our greatest asset and, importantly, why, despite all the financial and fiscal constraints of the current time, we should be confident and assured of our future as a formidable military power.
Order. Nine Members have submitted their names in advance to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm, so I am imposing a four-minute time limit on speeches. It may assist Members to know the batting order, so that they know where they stand: it will be Rachael Maskell, Robert Courts, Chris Evans, Jack Lopresti, Jim Shannon, Andrew Bowie, Luke Pollard, Eddie Hughes and—last but by no means least—Colonel Stewart. Those whose names have not been called will understand that they are not on the list. This is not an open invitation to make lengthy interventions; it is an indication that if they wish to intervene, they should keep it brief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on opening this debate so thoughtfully.
I want to pay my tribute to the armed forces and the incredible work that they do in an ever-changing and complex world that evolves day by day. We owe a debt to the vital strategic and critical thinking and actions of our serving men and women as they seek to de-escalate the risk of conflict and bring reparation when not in the throes of the theatre of war.
We know that building strategic alliances secures greater global resilience. We know too that warfare is changing and therefore the shape of our armed forces needs also to evolve. What is really important is that the needs of our armed forces are met. One thing that is clear is that they are not necessarily content at this time, as we saw in the continuous attitude survey this year, which did not make good reading for the Government. They feel let down. Only half are satisfied with the standard of their accommodation and less than a third with the maintenance programme—and those figures are in free fall. We know that low morale in the Army is up by 12% and satisfaction with service life has fallen by 18% since 2009. Yesterday’s Pay Review Body announcement will not help either. Only 33% of personnel are satisfied with their pay, 27% with their pensions and just 23% with the recruitment and retention pay. That is serious, and that is why it is so vital that we listen to our armed forces—which is exactly what I have done in York.
I can tell this Government very clearly that the community wants the armed forces to stay in York. The economy needs the armed forces to stay in York. The armed forces want to stay in York and the families do too, and they are a crucial part of our armed forces. After 2,000 years of the armed forces being in York, the cry from my city is that they should remain there. The City of York Council, which is a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, has resolved to oppose the Government’s plans to remove the Army from York. All stakeholders, except for Government Ministers, have gathered together against “A Better Defence Estate”.
The Queen Elizabeth barracks in Strensall and Towthorpe is where the 2nd Medical Brigade and 34 Field Hospital are based. We know of the work they do, not least their work in the recent Ebola crisis. They have recently received a £2.3 million investment, yet are due to close in 2021—a waste of taxpayers’ money—despite wanting to remain in York. Imphal barracks in my constituency is also due to close by 2031. That will have a devastating impact, and not only due to the loss of 1,600 jobs from my city. The proper checks and balances have yet to take place, including economic and social impact assessments. Document JSP 507 says that those assessments must take place before closure proceeds, but they have not been carried out. I was told by the Minister’s predecessor that it will take 18 months to do that.
The armed forces want to stay in York because Army families’ children catch up with their education with our excellent education system, and the spousal employment opportunities and opportunities for future career development are there for all to see. The Nepalese community also wants to remain in my city, and their needs must be addressed. Most of all, I want to stress to the Minister that guarantees were given to my predecessor as late as 2015, after the rebasing programme, that the Army would remain in York. My plea is for the Minister to listen to my city and ensure that they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this extremely important debate. I also welcome him to the House, because it is so important that we have Members with his experience to bring first-hand knowledge of the issues that we are discussing today and throughout our deliberations.
My brief comments will be about the need for flexibility. I am conscious of the words of the Select Committee on Defence: that in many ways we face a world that is “more dangerous and unstable” than at any time since the end of the cold war. The point has already been made that there is a real danger that we plan how to fight the conflict that we have just fought. Having spent 15 years fighting asymmetric warfare, we are in real danger of considering that that is the sort of warfare that we will always face, but of course we face, in the east, a resurgent and much more aggressive Russia. We find ourselves in the extraordinary situation, which I do not think any of us would have thought a few years ago that we would be in, of having to defend and train against a potential conventional threat, with a need for training with heavy armour and eastern forces in the forests of eastern Europe, as opposed to the hot, high and sandy warfare that we have been engaged in for the last few years. My contention is that this dangerous world is best met by flexibility.
We must be careful because history is full of surprises. We know that as soon as we plan for one area of warfare, the one that we are most likely to be fighting will be totally different. The only way we can face that is by having the flexibility in our armed forces to meet the evolving threat, but how do we do that within the constrained budget that we have?
The first factor, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is our people. We must ensure that the armed forces are seen as an optimistic, exciting, challenging, profitable and worthwhile career, so that we attract young people to join and they know that they will learn a trade and, crucially, be looked after. That is why I place such importance on the armed forces covenant. I commend everything that the Government have done to ensure that retention rates in the armed forces are kept at the high level where they ought to be.
For the same reasons, I applaud the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which this House will see shortly; I look forward to seeing the detail of it. The Americans do a great deal of that, with greater use of reserve forces. I applaud the Government for looking at the issue, thinking creatively and ensuring that we can get the best from our young people as we go forward.
The two aspects to equipment are hardware and software. Let me deal first with hardware. I am very lucky that my constituency contains Royal Air Force Brize Norton, where the whole of the Royal Air Force’s transport fleet is based, and we have the Voyager programme there. The Voyager has the classic capability of a tanker and transport aircraft but, because of the way the AirTanker consortium is set up, there is a surge capability. The aircraft normally can undertake air-to-air refuelling, and there is a relatively limited fleet for peacetime, but were we to need it, we have the ability to bring in a great many more very quickly. With the C-17, C-130 and A400M programmes, we also have outstanding transport capability, so we have very high capability aircraft, but also a greater number of less complex aircraft, which means we can have more for the resources available.
A great emphasis on intelligence is of course critical. That is why, particularly in terms of Waddington, I encourage the Government to keep the Sentry, the Sentinel and the Rivet Joint aircraft at the forefront of their mind—because it is that intelligence that we need to fight the wars that we will be fighting.
Lastly, I come to the software point. Of course, not all warfare these days is fought through hardware, kit and equipment. Much of it is software-based, and if we do not have the intelligence gathering and, crucially, the cyber-skills, we would very quickly find that our aircraft were unable to fly while the others were. Thank you, Sir Roger, for giving me time to speak in this debate. Flexibility is the key, because after all, history is full of surprises, as we know, and so of course will the future be.
I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who spoke with passion based on his own distinguished service. Even though I am on the Opposition Benches, I also pay tribute to all those Government Members—who I am looking at now—who also served in our forces and served Queen and country with distinction. Thank you very much.
On Saturday 24 June, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who will respond to the debate for the Opposition, to witness our armed forces marching through Caerphilly town centre as part of Armed Forces Day. Anyone watching on that day would know the esteem in which the public hold our armed forces. If we asked anyone marching, they would tell us that they are able to serve only because they have the support of their family. However, many feel that they are being badly let down by the Government. No one will be able to give their best in theatre if they are worried about their loved ones back home, yet that is the reality that those living in service accommodation have to face each and every day.
All regular service personnel are entitled to subsidised accommodation, and those who are married or have children are entitled to service family accommodation. The accommodation is provided by the Ministry of Defence and managed by the private contractor CarillionAmey. The armed forces covenant dictates that service accommodation must be of good quality, in an appropriate location and reasonably priced. However, under the current contract, very few properties seem to meet those criteria.
A National Audit Office report earlier in the year about service accommodation was absolutely damning. One family were left without hot water and heating for weeks, despite informing the contractor, CarillionAmey, that they had a seven-week-old baby and a four-year-old. In fact, in 2016, an NAO report found that satisfaction levels with the contractor’s maintenance request responses and the quality of maintenance works undertaken had reached lows of 32% and 29% respectively. At the Public Accounts Committee hearing, we were even told that such was the worry on the part of the Department that the contractor had to face the then Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the way forward.
Since taking up the contract in November 2014, CarillionAmey has consistently failed to meet the key performance indicators that it was contracted to attain. One case in particular highlights the poor treatment of service personnel and their families by the company. The wife of a serviceman reported that their family had been provided with a damp and mouldy property and, despite there being alternative accommodation available, the contractor refused to move them. The family reported that the property’s carpets were stained and the oven was dirty, but rather than cleaning the property and getting rid of the mould on the walls, CarillionAmey painted over it. On top of that, the family spent up to hours on the phone to the contractor every day for eight weeks trying to get somebody to help them to deal with the property’s many issues.
The hon. Gentleman is of course right to criticise CarillionAmey—in many respects it is not great at all—and his party of course does not like anything being contracted out, but if we took the contract away from CarillionAmey, what would an incoming Labour Government do?
I am criticising CarillionAmey quite rightly, but what I am saying is that we need a different contract or a different way of tendering for these contracts. This is not good enough; it is not good enough for forces’ families or for our men and women in the field. I hope that the Minister will take these comments away and look with urgency at the way the contract with CarillionAmey is being managed. This is not good enough, and I think all of us in the House would agree with that.
On 24 occasions, the family to whom I was referring were told that they would receive a call back regarding the issues, yet they did not, and technicians refused to progress the issues and deal with them. It would be an absolute disgrace if any family had to suffer in that way, but these are the families of our bravest men and women. Joining the armed forces is not like joining Barclays or Tesco; we are asking people to risk their lives each and every day for our safety at home and abroad. No one should underestimate just how huge an impact the standard of service accommodation can have on those in the armed forces. Impact on family life is the most cited reason why people leave the armed forces, and accommodation is a critical factor in that.
I urge the Minister to look at the contract again, to look at the way CarillionAmey is treating our forces’ families and to do something about it. I think all of us in the House can agree with those sentiments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, even if only for four minutes—I will keep to that. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this crucial debate and on the eloquence of his speech. It is a privilege to be able to speak in the House about our armed forces as someone who has also worn the Queen’s uniform. I must declare an additional interest: one of my sons, Michael, recently joined the Army and serves with the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery as a gunner—the fourth generation of my family to do so.
I note the Government’s policy on the armed forces as stated in the Gracious Speech:
“My ministers will continue to invest in our gallant Armed Forces, meeting the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of national income on defence, and delivering on the Armed Forces Covenant across the United Kingdom.”
For me, the key words are investment, commitment and covenant—words that we in this House would do well to reflect on. Investment means not only providing the resources that our armed forces need, but supporting and encouraging our servicemen and women and their families. Of course, it also means that we must invest in training and equipping our armed forces so that they can do the job we ask them to do. We all remember the shameful stories of service personnel in the 2003 Gulf campaign who were ordered to give away their body armour only for casualties to be suffered subsequently; indeed, there was one fatality. Also, there is no point in having defence assets if they cannot be used. Training on equipment such as fast jets can be expensive, but it is necessary to maintain the war-winning edge that our forces need.
Commitment means that the UK supports its allies, whether in NATO, the Commonwealth or elsewhere. Not only will we need to do that in time of need, but we will help to develop and train our allies’ armed forces so that we can prevent conflicts from developing in the first place. It also means that when we commit to spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence, we mean a minimum. Some colleagues are calling for 3%, given the uncertainty of the times we are in. That is something we should consider seriously, looking at all the aspects of defence policy and the fact that we are looking to increase our global presence and reach. What matters most for our service personnel and allies is that the UK has the capability to make a difference when we arrive in a theatre of operations.
Last but certainly not least is covenant, which has almost a sacred feel and echo to it. It reminds us that the bond between service personnel and the society that they serve is special, in which case it must be a duty of the Government and this House to ensure that we keep our side of the covenant. Too often we hear tales of administrative incompetence, which adversely affects the lives of our service personnel. Support for families and decent housing is often seen as an additional administrative burden that detracts from frontline fighting efficiency. With an all-volunteer force and a need to recruit a reserve force as well, we must ensure that the conditions of military service are as attractive as in any other vocation, particularly when service personnel are injured and need good medical support and rehabilitation.
I am going to skip forward in my speech. Representing a constituency that is a world-renowned hub of excellence in aviation and defence manufacturing, with companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing, GKN and Airbus, I can speak with conviction of the benefits that this brings to local communities and the wider economy. Aerospace Defence Security, the defence manufacturers’ trade association, estimates that in 2016 the UK defence sector directly supported 142,000 jobs, of which 32,000 were in research, design and engineering. The sector also supports 4,300 apprenticeships along with the MOD, which supports a further 18,000 apprenticeships, making it the largest provider in the UK.
I am running out of time, but broadly we need more spending, to maintain our commitments and our global reach and technological advancement, but never forget that we need men and women who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. We should never forget that.
I thank the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for bringing forward an issue of great concern to all of us here. I declare an interest, having served as a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Royal Artillery for 11 and a half. When I look around this Chamber I see many hon. and gallant Members who have also served, and I congratulate them on being here.
I have said this before in this House, but it bears repeating: our armed forces are without doubt the premier armed forces in the entire world. We have highly trained and highly skilled individuals who place Queen and country above their own lives and often ahead of their family lives. I am often concerned when we debate these issues in this House that it is very easy to concentrate on numbers and not on the human aspect. Some of the contributions so far have dwelt on the human aspect, and I understand how important that is.
I understand that times are changing, and I can grasp the importance of technology and of having the best and brightest minds in the Army. I watch my granddaughter, who can work a tablet without any bother. There is a real need for us to recruit the best into the ranks; however, having served in uniform, I also understand the discipline and understanding that comes from someone making their way up the ranks. I believe that the recommendation to recruit civilian cyber-warfare specialists, aviation experts and tech wizards is essential—hopefully the Minister will respond to that—but there must also be a carefully monitored structure that enshrines the qualities that are taught and lived while in training and in the first years in the armed forces. Those of us who have served and those who have an interest in the armed forces will understand what I mean.
In my office we saw at first hand the effects of the cyber-attack. Indeed, probably all of us in the Chamber witnessed how hard it was to work in an office without the use of computers—it was back to the old times of telephone calls to the executive and the road service. The attack showed just how reliant our society has become on computers, and it is clear that the armed forces must be at the top of their game to handle situations and scenarios like that.
I wish to address the issue of falling numbers in the armed forces. The Minister, whom I and all of us in this Chamber greatly respect, understands the issue—82,000 was the number set out, and we are at 78,000. What is being done to ensure that the target is met? In particular, the special forces regiments are suffering a shortfall in numbers, as others are, especially in those training in information technology and communications. I am anxious to understand what format measures will take to recruit those extra numbers and get back to where we were.
I am conscious of time, but I will just say this: in the confidence and supply co-operation plan that we have with the Government—I want to make it clear that we are very pleased to be part of that, by the way—we secured some more recruitment for Northern Ireland, based upon the fact that out recruitment levels are already up and we can fill some of the gap that I mentioned. The Government responded to us on that point, and we are doing some more recruitment through the Territorial Army and the reserves. I am also conscious of the fact that there are those who have risen through the ranks of life and those who come in at graduate level. A delicate balance of understanding must be found.
I will quickly touch on the spending plans, another issue that weighs upon my heart. While we can and must be wise and good stewards of money, we cannot afford to cut back on the planned spending of £178 billion on kit and maintenance and projects such as the F-35 fighter, Dreadnought nuclear submarines and the P-8 Poseidon spy planes. On procurement, I make a plea to the Minister to make sure that we get some of the contracts in Northern Ireland. The Minister knows that I want that—I have said it before, and I ask for her consideration on that matter. We look to her to honour the spending commitments and to honour our troops.
I would and could not finish without thanking those who wear our uniform for all that they do and reiterating our determination to do right by our past and present military personnel. I say to them: your sacrifice will ever be appreciated, and we will stand with you in and out of uniform.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this very important debate.
Britannia Royal Naval College in Devon stands high on a hill overlooking the Dart estuary and the town of Dartmouth. It is an impressive building, designed to instil a sense of pride and purpose in all those who have marched up its famous steps, to awe all who set eyes upon it and to leave no one in any doubt about the importance that this island nation places on the strength of its Navy. Along the front of the building are engraved the following words:
“It is upon the Navy, under the good providence of God, that the Wealth, Prosperity and peace of these Islands do depend”.
Those words are as true today as they were when they were first set down more than 340 years ago. For although it is very easy to forget, this is an island nation, forever dependent on open sea lanes and peace on the high seas for its survival.
To prove that point, let me go through some facts and figures. Some 90 % of global trade is carried at sea. The top ten trading nations in the world account for 47% of the total of world trade, and the UK is the fifth largest trader, with 17.3 billion tonnes of goods imported alone, with a value of more than £525 billion. UK ports, the shipping industry and trade support more than 600,000 jobs in this country, and 40% of the UK’s food is imported at an annual value of more than £32 billion. Oil is of vital importance to my constituency in Aberdeenshire, and more than half the world’s oil supply is moved through set maritime routes, mostly through eight maritime choke points. Disruption at any one of those can have a devastating impact on the oil price. The strait of Hormuz between Iran and the UAE, for example, sees 17 million barrels of oil per day pass through a 29 mile-wide corridor. In the very recent past we have seen how easy it is to disrupt that trade. It is estimated that piracy off the Horn of Africa in the last years of the previous decade cost global trade $6.9 billion per year, before it was brought under control though the actions of, among others, British vessels working with our partners in Operation Atalanta—an operation with its headquarters here, at Northwood in Hertfordshire.
My point is that as we are a global, island nation, maritime trade is our lifeblood. As such, a strong, flexible, globally deployable Royal Navy is vital. The future make-up of our armed forces must reflect that, and not only for the reasons that I have set out. If we truly want to be at the forefront of the war on drugs or the war on terror, and to be a nation that does not shirk from its international responsibility to provide humanitarian aid to parts of the world ravaged by natural disasters, we need a senior service that is equipped with the tools, and manned with the people, to do the job.
Flexibility has been a watchword in this debate. Would my hon. Friend support flexibility in the budgets of Government Department’s engaged abroad? I would like to see aid, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, defence and security budgets interlinked, to allow us to focus on the most pressing priorities in each country where we have a presence, rather than seeing each Department working on their own independent causes without the proper co-ordination that is sometimes required.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments on that point.
I stand here proud that, for all we talk today about moving towards a more flexible, agile armed forces, armed and trained to fight the asymmetric wars of the future, the Conservative Government have proven, in not only words but actions, that they do not suffer, as other Governments have, from sea-blindness. In this year of the Navy we have already seen major developments, including HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship and most advanced aircraft carrier in the history of the Navy, sailing from Rosyth in Scotland and undertaking sea trials before arriving in Portsmouth later this summer. Her younger sister, HMS Prince of Wales, will enter the water for the first time at Rosyth—again, in Scotland—later this year. The Type 26 frigate programme, to be built in Scotland, continues apace. The first of the Navy’s five next-generation patrol ships, HMS Forth, also built in Scotland, will begin her sea trials.
Outside Scotland—I suppose I have to mention that as well—design and manufacture will continue on the multi-million pound Crowsnest, the early-warning eyes in the sky system for the helicopters that will protect the new carriers. The first of our four Tide-class tankers, RFA Tidespring, has arrived and is undergoing UK customisation work. The fourth Astute-class submarine has entered the water at Barrow. I am proud that it is Scotland, specifically HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane, that is home to our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, the cornerstone of our defence policy. I am equally proud that it is the Conservative party—and, it would seem, only that party—that is truly committed to renewing our deterrent, thereby contributing to the security of not only ourselves but our friends, overseas territories and allies.
I know there are problems in recruitment and retention. I know that the propulsion issues on the Type 45s are not good for the image of the fleet or for the morale of those serving in it. Cuts, although necessary after we were left, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot mentioned, with a £30 billion black hole in the defence budget, obviously left the Navy feeling leaner and more stretched than before. Many, possibly including me, hanker for the days when ships lay six abreast at Pompey, Devonport or Rosyth, when you could cross the Solent without even getting wet—at least, that is what is said. Those days are sadly behind us. What we must do now, and what the Government are doing by not only increasing the budget but for the first time in many years increasing the size of our fleet, is to ensure that as we debate the future of our armed forces in general, the Royal Navy is fit to fight the battles of the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), because I also intend to speak about the Navy. I want to pay tribute to not only our armed forces but all the civilians who work with them. It is important that their contribution is also noted, because without them we would not have the armed forces that we have today.
Defence is an issue close to my heart. I have asked the Minister a few questions on the subject, and I am sure I will ask more. I am the son of a submariner, and the future shape of the Royal Navy is important not only to my family but to Plymouth, which I represent. The challenge now is how to adapt the Navy to serve the challenges that we face as a country. I fear that the 2010 and 2015 SDSRs did not do us many favours in creating the shape of the Royal Navy that we need. We have too few escort frigates. We need more, and they need to be more capable in their defensive and offensive weaponry. I am deeply concerned about the armaments on the Type 26 and Type 31, because they do not provide the full-spectrum capabilities that those frigates require in the face of the threats they will be asked to meet.
I am concerned that there is a broad capability gap in our Royal Navy at times, which can best be summed up in what is happening with HMS Ocean, a Devonport-based helicopter carrier. In 2015 there was much hullaballoo in Plymouth after rumours that the Conservative Government were going to scrap HMS Ocean. We had reassurance from the Minister that that was not true, but three months later it was announced that HMS Ocean was indeed to be scrapped and sold off. I am concerned that the Government have still not addressed in the latest SDSR the lack of helicopter carrier capability, especially carriers able to operate in littoral waters, and that needs to be looked at. It is inconceivable that we would put a carrier—a capital ship of that size—so close to the shore that it can adequately deploy a two company lift without having the support of a littoral capability. Our carriers do not have such capability, so I am concerned as to how that fits.
HMS Ocean is not our only amphibious craft. HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, two more Devonport-based ships, are also vital to the Royal Navy’s ability to deploy. One of them is tied up alongside at the moment and the other one is back on sea trials. We need to look again at our full-spectrum capabilities in the Royal Navy to make sure they are adequate.
On the frigate conundrum, I am pleased that the Minister has ordered three Type 26 frigates. I would like to see a full order book. I was in nappies when previous Governments ordered the Type 23s, the workhorse of our Royal Navy, but if we look at the costs of splitting the batches of the Type 23s and at the procurement of ships in the past, we know that we derive greater value from ordering in larger batches. The large cost of the three Type 26s could be reduced further if we ordered more of them at the same time. There could be a risk that we will switch production from Type 26s to Type 31s, which means there is a concern about how skills and efficiencies can be derived from the yards in Scotland where they will be produced.
We have a huge opportunity to make sure that the Type 31 is an adequate and capable frigate. At the moment the outline for the Type 31 frigate includes only one offensive weapon, which is its main gun. Will the Minister think carefully about the capabilities of not only the Type 26 but the Type 31 as well? If we are asking the Type 31 frigates to be put in harm’s way, having one offensive weapon on the entire ship is insufficient. I am pleased that the Artisan radar for the Type 23s will continue on the Type 26s, but there is much to be done on capabilities. Will the Minister think again about how much weaponry we put on the Type 26s and the Type 31s?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this debate. In speaking this afternoon I feel a huge degree of deference to those in the room who have military experience, but we need to reach out to the public if we are to have any discussion of the future of our armed forces. In Walsall North we have three remembrance monuments: in Willenhall, Bloxwich and Short Heath. I will work with the Royal British Legion to ensure that we continue the Remembrance Day parades in those areas, although unfortunately the police are no longer agreeing to road closures for those areas.
Things have changed hugely since the world wars. At the time when I was born, we had Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. I understand that we had 21,000 troops stationed in Northern Ireland at that time. Sadly, 700 of those military personnel lost their lives owing to paramilitary attacks. Coming forward closer to home, the Good Friday agreement and lengthy diplomacy means that now we have only hundreds of troops there instead of thousands.
What is the state of the British military in terms of troop numbers? I read an interesting article from 2014 in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend that made a perhaps unfortunate comparison between the number of troops and the number of hairdressers that we have in the UK. At that time we had 185,000 hairdressers, but only approximately 160,000 troops. That feels like a disproportionate balance to me. Where are we today? The papers that came to us in preparation for this meeting suggest that we have not reached the 2020 targets, although we are trying hard to do that, and the adverts tell me that I have people who were born in Willenhall and Bloxwich, but have been made in the Royal Navy.
Our troops are operating in 80 different areas around the world. People in Walsall North will be familiar with some of those areas, such as the Falklands, but perhaps not so familiar with Bahrain, other than as a venue for the Grand Prix. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot has written about Bahrain, and I have read his papers. I understand that we have recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of Anglo-Bahraini relations, and the port there is the second busiest area of activity for the Royal Navy outside of Portsmouth.
We deploy troops around the world, but the nature of combat is changing. On 7 October 2001, American forces used the first drone strike two months after 9/11. They have subsequently argued about whose fault it was that it hit the wrong target. The RAF took delivery of 10 drones in 2007. For the benefit of people in Walsall North, I point out that those drones cost approximately £10 million each and fire Hellfire missiles at a cost of £120,000 each. That is sophisticated but expensive equipment. They can fly for 30 hours and can be operated by people thousands of miles away. However, they are no replacement for boots on the ground. We cannot over-exaggerate the reassurance that local people in war zones around the world will feel from having the benefit of our brilliant, brave and well-trained troops offering them reassurance on their safety for the future. The first rule for any Government is that they must protect their residents. We must ensure that we provide sufficient funding for them to do so adequately.
We all know that the first duty of Government is the defence of the state, which historically has meant defending it at any cost, but that may no longer be the case. Western public opinion is not prepared for ever increasing amounts of money to be spent on defence. The last really big conflict, the second world war, was the best part of a lifetime ago. Never in modern history has there been such a gap between wars in Europe. Not being threatened by war makes the public increasingly reluctant to divert funds from such things as hospitals and schools towards military forces—just in case they are needed—when we need those hospitals and schools now. Clearly the armed forces will have many fewer soldiers, sailors and airmen than they did in the past, and almost every one of their training or operational activities will be gauged against cost.
The days of large-scale operations and exercises are over. We shall definitely need more specialised troops—special forces. Those forces are clearly expanding. The Special Reconnaissance Regiment—I was in one of its antecedents—has been formally established, and a parachute battalion is now specifically tasked with supporting 22 SAS. Increasingly we must expect our military forces to operate on the streets of the United Kingdom in plain clothes, supporting the police, the special branches and the security forces on such things as surveillance. It takes 20 people to watch one person. Also, the country is taking the threat of cyber-warfare seriously—witness the establishment of 77th Brigade, which combines Regular Army and Army Reserve forces. It draws on specialists nationwide, and does not necessarily look very military in what it does. Hacking can be more deadly than any gun.
Clearly our armed forces will be much smaller than in the past, which is disgraceful. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) that we do not have enough troops; 82,000 is laughable. The total number of soldiers, sailors and airmen in uniform is about 160,000 to 170,000, which means our armed forces are smaller than they have been since the 17th century. Of course I want 2% of GDP to be spent on defence, but I want more than that: I want us to sort out what we need to spend on defence. We should conduct our reviews by looking at what we need—not against a figure. Some have suggested that the days of armoured vehicles are over, but developments such as the Russian T-99 and the Chinese Type 99A1 suggest that that view is not held by everyone. Armed forces must still be designed to combat state-on-state conflict. It is our duty to have decent soldiers who can deter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger; I appreciate the opportunity to be squeezed into the debate, and I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this important and timely debate. I want to focus on a small number of issues that have been taxing my mind for some time, with regard to the structure of the British armed forces. A number of hon. Members have spoken with great knowledge about the senior service, the Royal Navy. No one has specifically discussed the RAF, and a crueller man than I am might suggest that that is because they are the RAF, and they kind of deserve it—but I would not want anyone to think that. [Interruption.] Ah, no— my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned the RAF, so never mind, that is forgiven.
I want to focus on the Army, but some things that I say will be broadly applicable to the armed forces as a whole. I will echo some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, to the effect that the key word is flexibility. I was pleased that Her Majesty outlined in her Gracious Speech the Government’s willingness to introduce the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. This is the right time, if not perhaps slightly overdue, to recognise the different demographics of people joining the armed forces. I cannot help thinking that if we were better at managing flexible working for armed forces personnel we would not lose so many people at the pinch point where personal and family circumstances and military commitments conspire to put them under pressure that forces them to leave. If we could find a way to manage the transitions from full-time to part-time and back, we would not lose so many highly experienced and important individuals.
I am going to be an unapologetic nerd on the subject of equipment. As a Conservative, I obviously believe that all the questions of the future are answered somewhere in the past, and I draw the Minister’s attention to other periods in our military history when we have been under huge—often existential—threat as well as severe financial limitations. It should be noted that in the brigades and divisions that went ashore at Normandy the Sherman tank platform had commonality across a wide range of weapon systems. There were the standard Shermans, with the Sherman Firefly in support, the Sexton 25-pounder armoured gun and the Achilles anti-tank gun, all based on a common Sherman chassis, which meant that spares and repairs were easily and efficiently delivered to the front line. I welcome the fact that we are moving to a shared platform now for our strike brigades, and I urge Ministers not to do what we have done throughout our history, which is to start with the best intentions for commonality and shared platforms, and then drift until finally the hard-working men and women in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers are presented with a plethora of platforms that they have to repair and maintain during conflict. Flexibility as to people and platforms must be the watchword.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on bringing the issue before the House. It is one that affects us all, irrespective of our background. I have been struck by the thoughtful, intelligent and knowledgeable contributions to the debate, which have done the House proud.
All roads lead back to the last strategic defence and security review, and it would be inappropriate if I did not mention the preceding one, too, which was an extremely rushed and botched job as a preparation of the country for its own defence. However, the current SDSR is perhaps, if anything, slightly over-ambitious, in that many of the things it contains are difficult to deliver in the timescales. Indeed, it ignores some future challenges and, as has been mentioned, falls into the trap of fighting the last war when the Government should be considering the future threats facing the nation, and some of the opportunities for gain, such as using defence for the growth of the economy.
In Scotland, we are seeing cuts to bases and the diminution of our defence footprint. HMS Caledonia in my constituency, Fort George in the highlands and Glencorse barracks in Edinburgh are all under threat, and that is after decades of an imbalanced defence footprint across the UK. Many Members have mentioned bases and the support they have in their constituencies, whether in Wiltshire or Hampshire, which seem to be awash with military bases. I remind hon. Members that the Royal Navy surface fleet is based no further north than the south coast of England.
I will try to make some progress. Just give me a second if that is okay, and I may take an intervention later.
The Navy, for example, has more admirals than ships, and not one of those admirals is based in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. If there is to be another SDSR, it must balance the strategic defence needs of the whole of the UK.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who has just departed, has been a long-standing advocate of ensuring that the UK, and, by extension, Scotland, takes more account of the threats that face us from the north. The fact that we do not have a surface ship based in Scotland to protect our coastline from increasing Russian submarine incursions into our waters needs to be considered in any future SDSR.
What a tremendous example: one single minesweeper to deal with the whole of the North sea and the north Atlantic. I am sure everyone in Scotland will sleep easy in their beds tonight.
The hon. Member for Aldershot started his speech by talking about the importance of people. The overall issue is that all three services are currently running significantly under strength—I think the figure across the three services is in the region of 5%. I am told that some critical parts of those services, such as submariners, are about 25% under strength at the moment, and there is continuing pressure for qualified technicians and engineers. While I know that the Minister has made some good progress on recruitment and retention, which we welcome, that has clearly not gone far enough if we are to protect our nation at home, to defend communities here at home and look at our international obligations.
On the positives, does the hon. Gentleman recognise the contribution of our cadet training forces across the United Kingdom, such as the 383 Alloa Air Training Corps in my constituency, and that we are investing in youth, which will help supply the manpower for our forces in the future?
I am always happy to endorse a neighbouring constituency and the work done there. Again, recruitment into cadet forces and support for them is important if we are to build up the defence structure and infrastructure we need and invest in people from a very young age to ensure that they have the skills and competence to deal with future threats.
There has been much discussion in recent days about the 1% pay cap, and while we immediately think of teachers, nurses and people who work in the public sector, that cap is having a huge detrimental effect on our armed forces. Is the Minister in a position to consider the Government’s policy on that in terms of recruitment and retention? For the people currently in our armed forces, there is often a much more attractive life for them in civvy street, where they are not away from home for months on end and the pay and conditions are much more amenable to family life. Will the Minister commit to considering the pay deal in a future SDSR? The issue for her in doing that is that the budget is predicated on an annual 1% increase in pay for all armed forces; any more than that and the overall defence budget begins to become seriously unbalanced. With a Government whose stated aim is to live within our means, there will be no wage increase for our serving personnel beyond the 1% until the Government promote another, more flexible SDSR.
On other financial commitments in the budget, big ticket items such as the F-35 and P-8 are two examples of very expensive pieces of kit procured in the USA. We have seen those costs rise because of the weakness of the pound, which makes imports more expensive, sometimes to the tune of 20%. I know the Minister has previously said that we are hedging as much as we can to ensure the budget is protected, but we cannot protect 100% of costs involved in the current SDSR through hedging.
My final point is on shipbuilding and the Navy, which is critical to what is an island nation. After much asking, pushing and haranguing, the Minister will know that the national shipbuilding strategy is still to be published. As some people in Europe would say, “The clock is ticking.” We need a commitment to replace the Type 26s and Type 31s—ships used to protect our aircraft carriers. Although there has been an announcement for three, which is welcome, three is not 13. The clock is ticking on that one. We need an SDSR that does not fight previous wars but balances the needs of all of the UK and truly meets the needs of our serving personnel and their families. On all those issues, the clock is ticking.
On Monday, The Times talked about some of the problems with the F-35 programme. Sir Richard Barrons called for a move away from metal and platforms and to think seriously about how to construct armed forces fit for
“warfare in the information age”.
That is where we are at the moment. I hope the Minister will give some consideration to the points raised and consider producing another SDSR that will meet the needs for a new century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this debate. No doubt, the fact that he was the Conservative candidate in Caerphilly in 2015 stood him in enormously good stead in terms of his future career.
We have had a good debate, with a variety of contributions. We have heard about the Navy and the Royal Air Force as well as the Army. We have heard about Scotland, accommodation and some of the problems and dilemmas that the armed forces face in the future. We all agree that the armed forces deserve our unreserved, full and unqualified support—we are all united on that.
It has to be said that when I saw the motion of the debate on the future of the armed forces, what sprung to mind was the problems we have seen at the Ministry of Defence in the past few months, and the continuing problems that have been widely reported. There have been reports in The Sunday Times and The Times only this week about: F-35 Lightning aircraft and their cost and suitability; Type 45, 26 and 31E surface ships; the lack of surface-to-air missiles in the Navy; the difficulties of the Astute submarine; problems with the Ajax armoured vehicle programme; the Warrior capability sustainability programme; and the difficulties with the new Queen Elizabeth carrier. The list could go on and on. I want to ask the Minister specifically: when will we see the new shipbuilding strategy? It has been promised and promised, and promised again. It is high time that we saw the strategy. When will it be published?
On top of all of those difficulties, there is the lack of personnel in our armed forces. The Army is, as we have heard, woefully under strength, and rumours are rife that there may well be further cuts in the future. The RAF could certainly do with more personnel, but the shortages are most acute—arguably in the short term—in the Royal Navy.
That is happening at a time when there is greater uncertainty and unpredictability across the world than ever before. Against that backdrop, the United Kingdom is in the process of withdrawing from the European Union and questions are being asked by our traditional allies about our future co-operation with them. It has to be said that even the Americans are questioning Britain’s international commitments and our resolve to make sure that our armed forces are properly equipped, with sufficient and appropriate personnel. Our answer to those concerns must be that we want to see military co-operation with our European partners continue, and more than anything else we must strongly back NATO.
In the Army, despite the Government’s promises—including their 2015 manifesto commitment to have an Army strength of 82,000—the full-time strength of the Army in May 2017 was only 78,150. That is nearly 4,000 short of the MOD’s 2020 target. According to information provided to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the Minister of State for Defence, Earl Howe, has indicated that many of the infantry training courses that we have in this country have large vacancies. That applies to Catterick, Purbeck, Winchester and Harrogate, for infantry training courses for 2015, 2016 and 2017. This must be a cause of concern for us all.
In the Navy, there is a worry that personnel are being transferred from other ships to the new carrier because of a lack of qualified personnel. The problem is most acute regarding engineering skills, and so serious is the problem that the Royal Navy is now offering short-term contracts for ex-Navy personnel who are in their late 50s and even for 60-year-olds. Surely this highlights the need for a long-term strategic commitment to proper and well-financed training.
With regard to the Army, much of the recruitment is now in the hands of Capita, a private sector company. The contracts signed with Capita have been much criticised by the National Audit Office and there is growing disquiet in the Army itself about Capita’s performance. Capita would argue that it is now meeting the targets set for it, but I am told that many of the young recruits are being falsely attracted and when they realise what the Army is all about, they leave. There is a growing problem with retention and it appears that Capita is contributing to it.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Aldershot, lessons must be learned from Iraq and Afghanistan; indeed, I would argue that lessons must be learned from all the conflict situations that we have been involved in recently. We have to recognise that the threats that we will face in the future will not be tackled simply. There is the ongoing threat of terrorism, which may assume other forms, but, as has been mentioned, there is also the threat of a growingly assertive Russia. That threat will not go away in the near future.
What we need in the future in response to those new threats is flexibility, diversity and adequate levels of funding. Yes, 2% may not be enough, certainly as it is defined by the Government, but we need appropriate co-operation with our allies, which will help to ensure the most vital ingredient of all—the good morale of all our armed forces.
It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Roger, and it is a privilege to respond to this debate. It has been a very good and effective debate on a topic that we often do not have the opportunity to discuss, so I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing it. I also congratulate him and his gallant colleagues on participating in it. It has been truly fascinating to hear of his distinguished service and the contribution it makes to our deliberations in this place.
I would point out that it would normally be the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who would respond to this debate, but he is going out to visit some of our brave men and women on deployment at the moment, so he sends his regrets for not being with us today.
Several common themes emerged in the debate. I will attempt in the time available to me to touch on each of them. The first was the importance of the armed forces covenant in all our communities. I hope that everyone here today can share with me the aspiration that next year, when we have the 10th anniversary of Armed Forces Day, we will help our local areas to put on a really tremendous celebration. I am proud to have been part of the Government that enshrined the armed forces covenant in law in 2011.
We also heard about some of the issues around accommodation; in particular, from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who spoke very forcefully. A new contract was announced today with Carillion. In the last financial year we put another £68 million into accommodation, but I will certainly pass back what the hon. Gentleman said about the issues he has seen in his constituency.
I certainly heard a lot of support from Government Members for spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. I hope that the Labour party shares that aspiration; it was in its manifesto.
Nevertheless, it is a shame that we have not had quite as good a turnout of Labour Members as we have had of Government Members.
A number of colleagues mentioned the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. That has started its passage through the House in the Lords, and I was glad to hear a range of supportive voices from the Government Benches for that legislation.
We heard about the issue around the base closure at York, which is scheduled to happen in 2031. We hope that setting such a long-term time horizon will give people the chance to plan around it, and of course there will be significant investment in the Catterick garrison, which is about an hour away from York, in terms of basing decisions.
I think that everyone can see that my hon. Friend himself embodies that military unit. Beckenham is well served in terms of the voice of the armed forces.
A number of hon. Members talked about celebrating the year of the Navy. It is a very exciting year, with HMS Queen Elizabeth going off on her sea trials from Scotland recently. It was also very exciting to announce recently the first of the new frigates, the Type 26. I assure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that not only will the way we are ordering the frigates ensure that we have those eight anti-submarine warfare frigates, but it will provide the best value for the public purse. That idea is behind the approach we are taking.
As far as the Type 31e is concerned, we are still in the pre-concept phase on that, and the approach that we take on procurement is that we will always make decisions at the last responsible moment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We have published our requirement—I think it is about 4,000 tonnes of steel per frigate—on the Government pipeline website, and we encourage our contractor to look where possible to procure British steel.
As for the other issues raised on the naval front, a number of hon. Members asked about the national shipbuilding strategy. I can certainly say that it will be published in due course, but we are aware of the excitement in Scotland among those awaiting the report. Given the previous exciting events I have mentioned in terms of the Navy in Scotland, we do not want to overexcite the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) with everything all at once.
I can assure the Minister that I am an extremely calm person. The time we have been waiting for the shipbuilding strategy has become unacceptable. We were told in previous debates and in answer to questions that the strategy was expected by spring. Then, in the Minister’s own words, it was expected by summer. Going by the weather outside, it is summer. Can she give us a date for when she expects to make the announcement?
I am pleased that we are giving the hon. Gentleman ships. This week, we are cutting steel on the first of the Type 26s. We have had the HMS Queen Elizabeth sea trials. We will be naming the HMS Prince of Wales later this year. I was up in Govan cutting steel on an offshore patrol vessel earlier this year. We are giving him ships, and he will get his shipbuilding strategy in due course. By the way, he is wrong to say that there is no admiral in Scotland, because Rear Admiral John Weale, the Flag Officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland, lives on his road in Argyll and Bute.
I apologise. The admiral lives nearby.
I want to reassure colleagues on the stories in The Times this week about the F-35 joint strike fighter. We strongly disagree with the conclusions that the journalists came to. We are confident that the programme is within its budget envelope, despite the fluctuation in the exchange rate. We are also proud of the amazing capability it is demonstrating. We already have 10 of the planes in the States, as colleagues will know. We have about 100 British pilots and ground crew over there, with the pilots learning how to fly them. I have had the pleasure of speaking to one of them, who used to fly the Harrier. He said that this jet is the most amazing jet he has ever come across. The Navy and the Air Force are excited about the arrival of the planes into the UK.
In terms of our overall aspiration for defence, our vision is that we will protect our people, our territories, our values and our interests at home and overseas through strong armed forces and in partnership with allies to ensure our security and to safeguard our prosperity. This debate is a welcome opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the defence and security of our country and to the armed forces, which so many Members have spoken about and of which we are all so very proud. I pay tribute to the many servicemen and servicewomen who are currently involved in operations at home and overseas to ensure our safety, security and prosperity.
Our armed forces are exceptionally busy. More than 24,000 servicemen and women were deployed on operations at some point during the past 12 months. The RAF has carried out some 1,300 air strikes in Iraq and more than 140 in Syria as part of our comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh, working with our global coalition partners. Nearly 400 British soldiers are providing engineering and medical support as part of the United Nations mission in South Sudan. Some 500 personnel are still serving in Afghanistan, working with the NATO mission to support the Afghan security forces. With NATO, we have deployed a battlegroup to Estonia. The Royal Navy continues, as it has done since 1969—that is nearly 50 years—to provide our nuclear deterrent patrols, which are at sea every minute of every hour of every day. The Navy maintains an enduring presence in the Gulf and the south Atlantic.
There are many, many other operations and deployments in which our forces are demonstrating daily their unparalleled commitment and dedication to duty, and I am sorry I can mention only those few examples in the time available. This debate is about the future shape of the armed forces. I remind Members that two years ago the Government announced the biggest programme of new investment in our armed forces for a generation. The 2015 strategic defence and security review identified an uncertain world—several colleagues have reiterated that—that is changing rapidly and fundamentally. In response, the SDSR defined the role, size and capabilities of the Navy, Army and Air Force for the next 10 years. Joint Force 25, which is now coming into being, will ensure that the armed forces remain able both to conduct the full range of operations that they might be called upon to undertake and to succeed against ever more sophisticated and capable adversaries.
Colleagues mentioned cyber-security, which is a very important area of investment. We announced a further £1.9 billion investment in the SDSR to go into our cyber capabilities, whether that is to defend the homeland, to deter people from attacking us or in the offensive capability that has been used in the conflict in Iraq and Syria. We have the fully comprehensive national cyber-security strategy too.
In the time available to me, I will skip quickly through some points. It is important to emphasise that we are committed to increasing our defence budget in every year of this Parliament. That increase is not only linked to the size of the economy, but will be at least 0.5% above inflation every year for the rest of this Parliament. We are already the second largest defence spender in NATO and the fifth largest in the world. We will sustain that investment by continuing to meet the NATO guideline. We plan to spend £178 billion on new equipment and equipment support between 2016 and 2026. Colleagues raised points around that, but that investment will allow us to maintain the size and capabilities of the armed forces with impressive new equipment.
I have mentioned the first of the new aircraft carriers. The second is coming along pretty snappily behind. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said, they are the largest ships that have ever been built for the Royal Navy. It is an immense achievement for those who designed and built her, and for those now serving aboard her. We have also committed to building the four new Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines to provide our nuclear deterrent through until the 2050s at least. I can confirm that we will have eight new Type 26 global combat ships—the anti-submarine warfare ones—and steel will be cut on the first of those by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence tomorrow in Glasgow. I have mentioned other points about the Navy.
I wanted to talk about equipment for the Army. Divisions will be further reinforced by enhanced communications, which is very important. There will also be improved Warrior infantry fighting vehicles. I simply disagree with the tone of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who talked down what we are doing and talked down all these programmes. The programmes are incredibly complicated and complex, and the people involved in delivering them are to be admired and thanked. We are also doing a life extension programme for our Challenger 2 tanks. We are ordering 50 upgraded Apache and Chinook helicopters.
Without having enough time to touch even the tip of the iceberg in all the things that are happening, I will conclude. In every aspect of what makes our armed forces among the very best in the world—whether that is the equipment they operate, the training they undertake or the men and women who serve in the Navy, Army and Air Force—the Government are working and investing for the future; a future in which Britain has the right armed forces to ensure the safety and security of our people.
Thank you very much for your chairmanship today, Sir Roger. I thank the Minister for responding and all colleagues who have taken the time to come and contribute today. The Romans were fond of saying, “If you wish for peace, you must prepare for war”, and I will be conclude by saying that I am confident that this Government and her Ministers will allow our great country to do just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future shape of the armed forces.
Closure of Sovereign House, Newport
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of Sovereign House in Newport.
It is a special pleasure to meet under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. We know of your great contributions to debates in this House, in the Council of Europe and elsewhere, but it is the first time that I have had the chance to serve under your chairmanship.
The closure of Sovereign House in Newport is causing great anxiety in the city and elsewhere, because there is a threat to other jobs. We are not Luddites in Newport. We are very proud of the civil servants we have there, who have behaved magnificently over the past 50 or 60 years. They are of growing importance in the economy of Newport because of the collapse of much of our manufacturing industry. They have done marvellous work and we are greatly proud of the contribution they have made. They are certainly at the heart of the Newport community.
Our civil servants turned out to be absolutely right on one of the few things on which they disagreed with the Government. They were very supportive of shared services, which was a disruptive but very successful Government move to concentrate services in Newport, but when there was a move to privatise services, the people involved quite rightly objected. They were absolutely right to do so, because we went from a position of having saved the country £120 million to one in which there was a loss.
As I have said throughout my time in Parliament, having watched the civil service grow, prosper and provide a marvellous service for the country, the concern is based not on any Luddite proposal or unbalanced view, but on the fact that the civil service goes through various stages in which there is a holy grail. It used to be the Next Steps agencies, and then it was outsourcing, and now we are in the era of the super-hub—people take “super-hubism” up with an almost religious fervour. I am sure that young civil servants are told, “If you want to have a successful career, go into hubism, because that’s the way we are going.” The momentum takes over.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. What the move to super-hubs neglects is the importance of having the jobs in local communities and the support they give to local communities. It also disregards the needs of workers, particularly those with caring and family responsibilities, who have the advantage of jobs close to home.
My hon. Friend makes his point with great force. That is precisely the position. People are attracted to super-hubs because they want their career to leave a legacy. If they can think that they have built super-hubs—great phallus symbols—in various places, they can relax when they eventually retire to their haciendas in Spain. It is something to be achieved, but it is not always rational or right.
I thank the Minister for having met my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and myself to discuss the matter. We want to see a clear, practical exposition of why this decision is the right one. To my knowledge, Sovereign House has been operating since the early ’60s and has provided jobs right in the heart of the city for all that time. There are 182 people working there now, but there is capacity for 400. It is a great asset to the city. One point that is not always taken into account is that the vibrancy of the city centre depends on the workers who are there. They have their lunch in the city, use the shops and so on, so they add to it. If a city is to thrive and survive, we need that working population at its heart. Where does that point come into the calculations of those who make the decisions?
My hon. Friend quite rightly speaks about valuing the civil service jobs in both our constituencies, which we always speak up for. Does he agree that we not only risk losing the skills and expertise of those dedicated Department for Work and Pensions staff, but could end up spending vast amounts more by creating a more expensive super-hub that people will have difficulty travelling to?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must not fall into that trap. If we are going to take a decision, let us see all the facts laid out. Making people’s jobs convenient for their homes is of paramount importance —it is at the heart of the Welsh Government’s policy and I believe that they would say the same. They do not see this mania for super-hubs and bringing everything together as the answer.
There are fashions. There is a fashion for devolution and for economy of scale, and then we go in the other direction and there is a fashion for concentrating activities. These things go on, and we should not be borne along without making a reliable, scientific assessment of the advantages and disadvantages in this case.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the possible closure and relocation of the offices in his constituency and in mine, in Merthyr Tydfil, will have a massively detrimental effect on the local economies in small towns across the area? Does he also share my concern that the added burden on staff having to travel much longer distances—in some cases requiring up to six bus journeys—would put undue pressure on workers travelling to work in those new hubs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although it is Newport that is mentioned in the title of the debate, the threats are spread right around—Merthyr and Caerphilly, the Newport service centre, Cwmbran pension service and the Gabalfa DWP centre in Cardiff. They are all under threat. It is difficult to get on a balance sheet what being told that they have to travel miles further, with more awkward bus routes, means to someone who is already struggling to get to work—particularly women with parental responsibilities—and who may just be managing to cope at the moment.
We know—not from the Government but from elsewhere—that there is a plan for a hub in the Treforest trading estate, which was set up after the slump in the ’20s. It has seen the success, and has been the graveyard, of many enterprises over the years. We do not want to see the Government go down this path without fully considering the human consequences.
One of the great successes that we have seen in employment is in making buildings accessible to the disabled, including people in wheelchairs. It is now possible in many jobs for people to use the lifts and the desks, and to use the public services. We are going to add to those problems. Where do we put that in the equation?
The Government might talk about big being beautiful and the benefits of having a large group of people together, but modern technology teaches us that it is as easy to talk to someone in Australia, or indeed in any part of the world, using various computers methods, such as Skype, as it is to talk to someone sitting at the desk next to you. The location is therefore not that important, and nor is the idea of a hub.
Will the Minister assure us that the Government have made a full assessment of the alternatives to changing Sovereign House? It is an old building and I am sure that it is run down—they all are—but they should not just dismiss it and say, “We can’t do anything with it. The hub is the only object we are considering and the only way we are going.” There should be a proper, full assessment of the costs of bringing Sovereign House up to standard. I hope that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will look at these issues. I have had the pleasure of being on the Committee for many years, and I will be going back to it. We must consider locations for the civil service in the future. There has not been a glorious record of unparalleled success recently—far from it. We need proper parliamentary surveillance of such decisions.
Has the Minister consulted fully with the Welsh Government on the closures and relocations? This seems to be in conflict with the policy of the Welsh Government, who have the motto, “better jobs closer to home”. They have gone that way, and we can all see the advantages. There are problems with the flow of traffic going into and out of Cardiff and Treforest—the bottom of the valleys—at that time of day. It is far better to expand Sovereign House than to move the jobs further away.
Has the Minister completely ruled out any compulsory redundancies? What is the situation? There is great anxiety among those involved. Some people are already at their limit of travel, and others may have already moved from another location. Can we guarantee that they will not be put under pressure? Have the Government looked at the equality impact of their proposals? Do they realise that women will be unfairly penalised by the change? Have they carried out an impact study of how the closures will affect the local Newport economy?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unfortunate that the Public and Commercial Services Union and staff learned about this plan from a leak on an architect’s website before Ministers had a chance to do an equality impact assessment of the decision on staff? Does he agree that if the equality impact assessment shows, as we think it will, that staff with travel difficulties or caring responsibilities will experience difficulties, the Minister should think again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am grateful to her for that intervention.
We are not looking for a reversal of Government policy if the change makes sense, but they have to prove that it makes sense not just in economic terms but in human terms. The hub will cause disruption, as I believe it will contain many more than 1,000 people. It will be a man-made hub. There are natural hubs in various parts of the country. Those in Blackpool and Newcastle, for example, have grown up due to certain unique circumstances.
This is a question of lumping together offices that have worked magnificently in Merthyr, Cardiff and Caerphilly, because of someone’s administrative theory that hubs are better. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who has been very courteous and open about this. I hope that he will keep an open mind and say that the Government will look at this and balance the full costs—not just those that show up on a balance sheet, but the heartbreaking human problems that are likely to arise, particularly for the women who are now employed in south Wales and are likely to be transferred to the Treforest hub.
That is something we share, Mr Bailey. It is a delight to see you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing this important debate about the closure of Sovereign House—an office of the Department for Work and Pensions—in his constituency. I thank him for his powerful words about the contribution made by the civil servants who work in Newport and elsewhere.
The Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone. We seek to protect the most vulnerable while supporting everyone to fulfil their potential and play their full part in society. That includes reforming the welfare system to make work pay, and examining our assets to ensure we are deploying our resources effectively.
As colleagues know, the private finance initiative contract with Telereal Trillium expires in March 2018. That gives us the opportunity—in fact, the imperative—to review which offices we will need in the future and how our estate will be managed. We have sought to deliver value for the taxpayer and make best use of the space available, while continuing to provide vital support to claimants and pursuing our reform agenda. In January, we announced proposals to rationalise the DWP estate. Those proposals encompassed most of our Jobcentre Plus offices and processing centres.
My Torfaen constituency is adjacent to the two Newport constituencies. As the Minister is aware, there is a proposal to relocate the jobs that are currently at the Cwmbran pension centre down to Treforest. Can the Minister confirm whether any assessment has been undertaken of the effect on the Torfaen economy of the removal of those jobs from Cwmbran? If one has been, is he willing to share it with me?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will come on in due course to the rationale for creating the new facility, which, as he said, will be at a site in the Treforest area, and the effect on the five places whose staff will feed into it, including Newport.
The announcement on 5 July finalised the plans to rationalise the DWP estate, which include merging some smaller and underutilised jobcentres, moving some to new buildings or shared Government premises, and creating larger strategic back-office sites. The changes will enable the Department to offer a more efficient service while delivering value for the taxpayer, and will save more than £140 million a year over the next 10 years.
Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance, and 99% of applications for universal credit full service, are now made online. That, together with the lower unemployment rates, means that there are fewer face-to-face initial meetings, and that some of the space is under-utilised. Our plans reflect how customers interact with the Department today. The changes are not about a reduction in frontline jobcentre staff. On the contrary, jobcentres are actively recruiting staff. The changes are being made in consultation with DWP employees and the trade unions. That will help preserve the important local knowledge and community understanding held by our staff, with customer service being maintained.
We plan to maintain the vast majority of jobcentres in Wales. Three are merging into nearby sites. Upon consultation, the moves have been received positively by some staff, who will join larger teams in which they can gain new skills and experiences. I believe that in itself will result in better service for customers. We want our back-office operations to reflect the Government’s hub strategy, which aims to consolidate the delivery sites of departmental functions. However, in Wales in particular, we considered it important to retain offices away from Cardiff to preserve and grow employment in places where it is needed. It is worth mentioning that we are also growing our back-office presence at our Swansea site, which will grow to around 460 people, and at Bridgend, where our staff will eventually total around 350. All in all, our back-of-house processing presence in Wales will increase by about 20%.
Of course, the change of most significance to the hon. Member for Newport West is the opening of the large DWP office in the Treforest area, just south-east of Pontypridd, in 2020-21. That strategically placed site will enable us to merge functions from five nearby smaller processing centres, including Sovereign House in his constituency. We intend to expand services at the new site and eventually grow it to around 1,600 staff, boosting employment in the area. The building will be a modern, digitally enabled working environment.
I understand that the relocation and consolidation of offices in south Wales will cause some disruption to staff. To maximise the number of staff at those five offices who could transfer to the new site, we studied their home postcodes to help determine that site’s location. We were determined to retain staff who had built careers with us and minimise the loss of their valuable experience and expertise.
Yes, looking at both car transport and public transport opportunities was of course part of the analysis when these changes were evaluated.
The Treforest area borders some of the most deprived areas in Wales, and choosing it supports the aim of the Welsh Government’s valleys taskforce of creating “better jobs closer to home”, which the hon. Member for Newport West cited. I met the Welsh Government’s Minister for Skills and Science last week to discuss our plans and how we will support our staff through these changes.
In March this year, there were 212 staff at Sovereign House and only about 50% of the building was in use. As I mentioned, we assessed the distance that staff would travel to work at the proposed new site. Newport is 21 miles, or a 26-minute drive, from Treforest. There is also a bus, which takes around an hour and 11 minutes. Of course, journey times will differ depending on where staff live in relation to the site.
From 2021, we will start to move staff to the new site. We want to retain Newport colleagues, along with their skills and experience, and we have deliberately chosen to phase the moves so that people have time to make decisions about their futures. We are also prepared to pay staff members’ excess travel costs for up to three years to assist their transition. Along with other Departments, the DWP will continue to be a significant employer in the area, and I expect the skills and experience of people who work at Sovereign House to be in demand. These changes to back-of-house sites will have no effect on claimants in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, as the jobcentre there will remain open.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would go into detail about the rationale for the new site, including the financial rationale. Our strategy for the new service centre in the Treforest area is to bring colleagues together at a single location, resulting in better use of space, increased efficiency in how we work, and greater opportunities for staff development and progression. However, there is also a financial rationale. Fitting out a bespoke new right-size property is better value than refurbishing our existing older properties. Although that is not necessarily universally true for all buildings, the sites in this region are particularly old.
Refurbishing older sites can have quite a high cost, as it generally entails substantial infrastructure requirements, which might include installing more lifts, air conditioning, heating, lighting, and cabling and other technology to increase bandwidth for digital services and call centres. Although we have not acquired specific refurbishment quotes for the buildings in question, industry benchmarks suggest that refurbishing all our existing buildings would cost between 50% and 100% more in fit-out than setting up a new building. Of course, such refurbishment is also disruptive both to our work and to staff. We would need to vacate a property for six to eight months and incur the cost of moving and of temporary space for that period, or move within a building multiple times to free up floors for refurbishment.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I see how we go? If time allows, of course I will.
We also expect a new building to have significantly better environmental credentials and better energy efficiency than our old buildings, creating savings in the long term.
The hon. Member for Newport West rightly asked about the risk of redundancies. Of course we want to minimise that risk. It is impossible to be absolutely clear at this stage, not least because we are talking about a move that is some years away, but we anticipate that approximately 20 staff might not be able to move to the new site. Now that announcements have been made, it is possible to be clearer about employment and career opportunities, and we will have detailed one-to-one meetings with staff between now and then.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have met our equality duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and paid due regard to the impact of the proposals on our communities, our staff and the customers they serve. He also mentioned the requirements of people with disabilities and how office facilities have become more accessible over time—a development we all welcome. It is of course worth considering the fact that new buildings can often be designed with the specific needs of our staff in mind, including features such as improved accessibility.
As I think the hon. Lady knows, there are some things that are commercially sensitive and that it is not possible to release, and there are other things that it is possible to release. I am happy to follow up with her about that in correspondence.
I know that there is also interest in whether our plans will affect the roll-out of universal credit. I assure hon. Members that the changes take full account of the roll-out of the full universal credit service. We have ensured that our schedule of changes has the flexibility to react to changing demand—both expected fluctuations and future economic trends. From this month, we are expanding universal credit full service roll-out to 30 jobcentres a month and putting extra resources into those jobcentres and the service centres that support them.
As the way we interact with our customers changes, so do their needs and expectations. Reforms have increased our online interactions with claimants so that face-to-face contact can be used for those who require additional support. We are committed to retaining an accessible jobcentre network and continuing to serve customers in all parts of the country. Our work coaches will continue to offer face-to-face support—a core part of our service—at our sites, but customers now have a range of ways to access employment support, including email, telephone, post and online.
Around 3 million more people in this country are in work than in 2010, and youth unemployment has fallen by 375,000. The employment rate has risen to 72.9%, which is a record high. In Wales, a near-record high of 1.44 million people are in work. Now is the right time to consider how we can make best use of our resources to help bring into work those who are able to join the workforce while retaining support and safeguards for those who are not.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Thameslink passenger services.
A recent customer satisfaction survey on commuter trains by Which? ranked Thameslink third from bottom. Thameslink registered an approval rating of just 32%; it was ranked above only the beleaguered Southern and Southeastern. I want to make the Minister aware of that passenger dissatisfaction today and suggest some improvements.
My constituents report cancellations and delays almost every day on the network. Over the last twelve months, trains have been plagued with technical problems. One constituent told me that last year alone he counted 15 broken-down trains on his journeys, including two on the same day, 14 August. Cancellations are often made at short notice. They cause later trains to be extremely busy, which makes it difficult for passengers to get on or off, giving rise to what have been called cattle-truck conditions and meaning that trains often cannot stop at their planned stations. Constituents tell me that on a bad day, which is not unusual, it takes them about two hours to get from London to St Albans, despite the 19 to 22 minutes timetabled for peak-time journeys. I have been told of constituents who have given up their jobs because they cannot afford the extra childcare—some nurseries charge an extra £50 per hour’s delay—or are unable to see their children in the evening. Many are consistently late for work despite leaving home earlier and earlier.
The Train Suffragettes are 500 mostly female parents in my constituency who were so fed up with the poor service they receive that they set up a group to show their collective unhappiness. They have shared with me their terrible experiences trying to balance work in London with family life in St Albans. They have missed school plays and parents’ meetings and rarely get to put their children to bed. Persistent delays have driven many of them to quit their jobs, and some have even moved away from the Thameslink line altogether. One mum told me:
“After calling in favours too many times from too many people and being late for nursery pick-ups three times in one week alone (once where I was actually stuck on the train for an hour with no phone signal and so unable to call anyone at the nursery), I quit my job in the city in October. Financially a difficult decision but I’d had a skinful of the stress of the commute, wondering if my train home would be on time or if I would have to sprint from the office to get the earlier train, which was often cancelled too.”
A lot of technical problems have been reported with the new Siemens 700 trains, mainly with electrics, software and heating. The doors often fail to open, especially at St Pancras, because they are now controlled by the driver; one day a train sat at the station for about 20 minutes because the driver could not open the doors. I know that Thameslink is aware of those problems. There has been some welcome recent progress, including an increase in Govia Thameslink’s public performance measurement from 60% to 83%, but that is still well below the national average of 88.95%.
Over the last year, Network Rail was responsible for 54% of delays, Thameslink for 42%, and other causes for 4%. We appreciate that ongoing Network Rail works have an impact on the line, but that is no excuse for rail services not to provide a reliable timetabled service or to try to deliver improvements to it. My constituents not only suffer a poor service but get far less generous compensation than Southern Rail passengers when incidents occur. That cannot be acceptable. Network Rail should have better lines of communication with Govia and passengers. People need to know as quickly as possible why they have been delayed and what they can do to avoid disruption.
In the 2016-17 financial year, one in 11 trains run by GTR was cancelled or more than 30 minutes late—the worst performance of all the rail operators in the country. In period 3 of 2016-17, GTR had a cancellation and significant lateness percentage of 15.7%, compared with a 5.7% national average. In period 3 of 2017-18, GTR had a considerably reduced failure rate of 6.6%, but that is still nearly double the national average of 3.7%.
In my first debate on this matter in 2012, I said that First Capital Connect, which then held the franchise—it has now been replaced by Govia—was ranked
“lowest in the country, including value for money, punctuality, sufficient room on trains, satisfaction with the stations and how the train operating companies…dealt with the delays.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 342WH.]
Five years on, despite the change of franchise, nothing has changed. GTR still consistently ranks among the operators with the lowest customer satisfaction public performance measures.
The failings that other hon. Members and I raised five years ago remain failings today. Something must be done to improve Govia passenger services for all those who rely on them. It is a simple premise that to deliver an efficient, mobile workforce, we need a decent, well run and affordable rail transport service. People of all ages expect a rail service fit for the 21st century. The travelling public are being asked to pay ever more for their rail fares, and we in Parliament must ask serious questions about the services they are experiencing up and down the country.
I could not speak in a debate on commuter train services in my constituency without referring to the shadow being cast by the Radlett rail freight proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and I believe may have a catastrophic impact on the already hugely inadequate commuter service. The application for this strategic rail freight site started in 2006. In December 2016—10 years after assurances were given that access would be granted—Network Rail said that it would be in a position to confirm an “efficient scheduling strategy” once the capability and capacity analysis team completed its evaluation. However, it responded only last week, and its response, which was about essential works disruption and pathing, raises far more questions than it answers.
The Government’s national policy statement on national networks in 2014 identified London and the south-east as the areas with busiest passenger services, with passenger carriage set to increase by 46.1% by 2033. Moreover, the Department for Transport’s 2016 rail freight strategy said:
“Rail freight services operate in response to customer and supply chain demands, making it more challenging to plan for freight services than passenger services, which tend to run to a regular timetable and route.”
Commuters in my constituency certainly wish passenger services would run to a regular timetable and route.
Will the Minister guarantee that the proposed strategic rail freight interchange will not add further delays and cancellations for my constituents, who are already at breaking point? Will he undertake to scrutinise any plans to deliver the site link tunnel, and will he test those plans against the potential disruption to services? I am concerned that the significant rail works necessary to deliver the site will mean a protracted period of disruption that cannot be justified by the site’s limitations. In case the Minister is not aware, the site is in a village with no motorway access. It has a life span of 30 years and is constrained from expansion, unlike the expansion forecast for passenger services. This inadequate proposal cannot be allowed to interfere with the exciting prospect of better and more frequent passenger services for my constituents.
What can be done to improve the current situation? Commuter groups such as the Train Suffragettes in St Albans have suggested changes that would go a long way towards improving the overall service that passengers receive. The first is a consistent and user-friendly refund system to allow passengers to reclaim expenditure, including taxi costs incurred because of delays and cancellations. The second is opening station ticket barriers when there have been delays, in order to ease platform congestion, which is often described as being at a dangerous level.
The third suggestion, which is vital, is to improve communication at all levels. Passengers are fed up with being in the dark when trains have been delayed or cancelled. They have suggested following the model of the London underground, where—as I am sure the Minister is aware—when a tube is held in a tunnel, the driver immediately makes an announcement to let passengers know the reason for delay and how long a wait is anticipated. When a tube station is closed, the driver will helpfully suggest alternative connecting routes for passengers.
The fourth suggestion, which is regularly raised, relates to communication between drivers and staff at stations—St Albans station in my case. Passengers need to be able to speak to station staff to find out exactly what is going on and what has caused the delay or cancellation.
Finally, passengers demand that fares be reduced, or at least frozen, until Thameslink vastly improves the service on the line. I called for the same thing in 2012, but five years later the catastrophic situation that my constituents are experiencing is exactly the same. We also face the impact of the strategic rail freight interchange’s disruptions being put into the mix. I suggest that we are on our knees in St Albans, and the Minister needs to take drastic action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate; it is a welcome opportunity to raise the misery being caused to my constituents as a consequence of the failures of our rail services.
It is hard to overstate the cumulative impact of failing rail services on my constituents in Dulwich and West Norwood over the past two years. The hon. Lady mentioned the bottom three franchises for customer satisfaction being Southern, Southeastern and Thameslink. Those are the only franchises that operate in my constituency, so we have, on different parts of the route, different combinations of misery. Commuting by rail from my constituency is a universally difficult and miserable experience.
The debate is focused on Thameslink passenger services, which I will return to in a moment, but it would be remiss of me to contribute to a debate on one part of the GTR franchise without putting on the record the utter misery caused to my constituents who travel on Southern Rail services, which are also run by GTR. I have heard from almost 2,000 constituents over the past 18 months about the catastrophic impact that the collapse in Southern rail services has had on their employment, family life and wellbeing.
The Government’s response to Southern Rail’s problems has been, frankly, too little, too late. While everyone understands that many of the problems can only be resolved through infrastructure investment, there is much more that can and should be done in the short term to provide passengers with timely information about delays and cancellations, and to re-establish effective negotiations with the trade unions to address the safety concerns that have been raised and to resolve the industrial dispute. The fact that the chief executive of GTR, who has responsibility for the Southern Rail franchise as well as Thameslink services, received a pay package of almost half a million pounds last year simply adds insult to injury for my constituents.
Thameslink services run through Tulse Hill, Herne Hill and Loughborough Junction stations in my constituency, in addition to peak-time services through Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich. Those services are vital for people who work in areas of central London, including Blackfriars, Farringdon and the City of London, or areas of intensifying employment, such as King’s Cross and Old Street, or those who need to access the tube network from Elephant and Castle. I was a Thameslink commuter to Farringdon, and then to Blackfriars, for the best part of 20 years prior to being elected to Parliament.
Thameslink services have been becoming more overcrowded and less reliable for many years. Passengers who use stations in my constituency have suffered the consequences of residential densification further down the line, meaning that it is now often impossible to get a seat or even to stand comfortably on trains that were not previously so full. With the exception of Herne Hill station, which has lifts, the stations in my constituency are not accessible. Loughborough Junction is a particularly challenging station to use, with very steep steps and narrow, windswept platforms. At peak times, passengers at Loughborough Junction are often unable to board trains at all because they are so overcrowded. The Loughborough Junction area is currently subject to considerable new residential development, increasing the number of homes in the area. New homes are badly needed, but they must be supported by investment in transport infrastructure to ensure that everyone in the community can continue to get to and from work and to access the services they need.
The current services are also desperately unreliable. There are delays and cancellations every day, and my constituents are forced to organise their lives in order to mitigate the impact of services they should be able to rely on. New rolling stock is slowly being introduced, and while to some extent those trains provide a more comfortable environment with more standing space, they are often just as overcrowded as the old ones. There is a view among many passengers that they should have been designed like Overground trains, with seating at the sides, to allow much more space for passengers who have to stand. We need 12-car trains across the network and investment to ensure that they can be accommodated at every station to maximise capacity for passengers.
I am also concerned about the potential loss of the direct service from my constituency to Luton airport. My constituents will now only be able to access that really important service by changing at Elephant and Castle, where trains are even more overcrowded. I am concerned that fewer trains will stop at Tulse Hill, Herne Hill and Loughborough Junction overall as a consequence of the timetable changes, in a situation where we need capacity to be increased, to cope with both current and future demand.
I am concerned that services currently run by Thameslink through Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich stations and not included in the current consultation may be lost if, in the Southeastern franchise renewal process, they are not considered to be sufficiently profitable. Those services are small in number but provide a vital route to work for many of my constituents. We need much more ambitious investment in rail infrastructure than is currently proposed to meet the transport needs of my constituents, as both our local population and the population further out of London on the same commuter lines continue to grow.
I have the following asks of the Minister today. The experience of the failure of the temporary timetable on the Southern network into London Bridge tells us that the robustness of the timetable in relation to the capacity of the network is a paramount consideration for reliability. When will the Minister confirm the capacity of the Thameslink core in relation to the proposed new timetable? Will he commit to exploring the reopening of Camberwell station between Loughborough Junction and Elephant and Castle stations, to provide extra capacity and a modern, fully accessible station environment to serve local residents, staff and patients travelling to King’s College Hospital and students travelling to the University of the Arts London sites in Camberwell and Elephant and Castle?
Will the Minister commit to ensuring there is no drop in the number of services through Loughborough Junction, Tulse Hill and Herne Hill stations following the consultations on the new timetable? Will he commit to securing the future of services to Blackfriars from Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich? Will he commit to exploring the reopening of the eastern platforms at Loughborough Junction station, to enable trains to stop there between Denmark Hill and Elephant and Castle? That would double capacity at Loughborough Junction station. Will he commit to working with Transport for London to open an Overground station at Brixton East, between Denmark Hill and Clapham High Street stations, to relieve pressure on the Thameslink network?
Will the Minister work to persuade the Secretary of State, who has not previously been inclined to do so, to work in a cross-party way with the Mayor of London to transfer all suburban rail services in south London to Transport for London to run, so that profits can be reinvested in the improvements we so urgently need, rather than being used to reward the poor performance of senior leaders in the private sector? Finally, can the Minister tell my constituents when they will be able to rely on rail services to run to the agreed timetable, without delays and cancellations, and when they can stop having to organise their lives around the failures of the GTR franchise, including the Southern railway?
May I begin by thanking you for your chairmanship, Mr Bailey? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). I know what a doughty campaigner she has been on this topic. My remarks are only intended to echo some of the points she has made, and indeed some of the points made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes).
I should begin by declaring an interest: I commute, for my sins, on this line every day, so I have first-hand experience of it, but also a desire to improve it, as do many of my constituents. Literally thousands of my constituents commute every day from Radlett and Elstree and Borehamwood on that line into central London. They, like other hon. Members’ constituents, have sorry tales to tell of the poor performance of the line.
I will give a few statistics. At times last year, less than two thirds of Thameslink trains ran on time. Almost one in five trains were cancelled or significantly late. The level of frustration and volume of correspondence that I received in relation to that poor performance led me eventually to compile a dossier of more than 100 complaints from constituents, which I was able to present to the Transport Secretary. They were very similar to the complaints outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans. The most distressing cases were those of people who felt they had to give up their jobs because they could not rely on the service, and of younger mums and dads struggling with childcare. We know what it is like with childcare—we think we are going to pick our kids up at a certain time, so we allow, say, an hour for the train journey, but it takes two hours. The nursery is closing, and the level of stress involved if family or friends cannot pick our children up is enormous.
Commuters in my constituency are seeking a number of reassurances. I know that many of these do not fall within the direct purview of the Minister—they fall within the purview of the franchisee—but I hope he will be able to bring some pressure to bear on the franchisee in relation to them. Specific points that constituents have asked me to raise include the problem of trains switching at the last minute. I have seen that: people get on a train thinking it is an all-stopper or a semi-fast train, and literally moments before it is about to depart, they suddenly discover that it is either not going to stop where they thought or stopping at every stop. Communicating that effectively to commuters is very important. My hon. Friend drew the comparison with London Underground. Thameslink has been improving a little in this respect, but there is still a lot more it could do to keep passengers up to date with what is going on as it happens. If people know what is happening, it makes things that bit easier. Even if it just involves sending someone a text to say they will be late, it makes it a little easier.
There is also tremendous variability in the length of trains. There can be a full platform waiting for an eight-car train and suddenly there is a four-car train that not everybody can get on. A perennial bugbear for my constituents—although I admit it probably runs contrary to the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents—is that too few trains stop at Elstree and Borehamwood and Radlett, instead running directly to St Albans. When there are delays on the line, my constituents are just looking to get home, and in those circumstances they would look for trains stopping every time. I would be grateful for an update on anything the Minister can do to raise the pressure on that.
There is also a broader question about the infrastructure. A great number of my constituents drive to and park at the station. In both Elstree and Borehamwood and Radlett there are single-tier carparks. I simply do not understand why another level or two cannot be put on those carparks. Given the incredibly high parking fees charged by Thameslink, it would be in its interests to construct other levels. I am interested in the Minister’s perspective on that. As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said, as the level of densification in these areas of the south-east inevitably continues to rise, the demand for the station will only continue to grow. Equally, there is the issue of capacity at the station. I am grateful for the Government’s progress on Borehamwood station—they have announced some additional funding, which is very gratefully received—but that money needs to continue to flow so that we can keep up with the ever-rising demand.
I echo the concerns about the pricing of the railway line. By many measures, this is the most expensive railway line per kilometre travelled not only in the United Kingdom but in the whole of Europe. If passengers are being forced to pay that much, the service really does need to improve to match it. I know that anything the Minister can do to keep pressure on the company to find further efficiency savings to keep the cost of commuting down would be very gratefully received by constituents.
It is also important to look at what happens when things go wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans alluded to, the compensation scheme is still not simple and transparent enough, and does not cover a lot of the on-costs. For example, if the line is down, my constituents living in Radlett or Borehamwood often have no alternative than to go to the very end of the Jubilee line and then take a taxi from Stanmore. That is in no way covered in the compensation scheme. It is a completely unavoidable cost for my constituents, and that should be considered.
It is also important to look not just at the franchisee but at Network Rail. Too often, we concentrate on the failures of the franchisee, not those of Network Rail. It is to the Government’s great credit that when faced with a dire financial situation in 2010 they decided not to cut back on railway investment. They kept the investment going for Crossrail and for the rather unfortunately named Thameslink 2000 programme. We are hopeful that Thameslink 2000 will be delivered by 2020, but that process has necessitated considerable upgrades at London Bridge. That was clearly necessary, but it has had a bad knock-on effect on commuter services, because capacity has been significantly reduced around the station. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister about progress on that upgrade. When can we expect London Bridge to be completed, and when can we expect trains to start fully running through there?
An issue has been flagged to me that I would be grateful if the Minister took very seriously. Capacity in the London core of Thameslink will be effectively doubled overnight when trains go up the northern stretch—on which my hon. Friend’s and my stations lie—not just towards Bedford, but to Hitchin and Harpenden. That will mean huge pressure through the central core. At times, there could be trains every minute or two minutes. I know the system will be computerised, but I would be grateful if departmental officials stress-tested the system before roll-out so that we do not face a cliff edge. After all the pain, the moment the system at St Pancras is not working—my hon. Friend alluded to this—we would not want to go back to square one again and have a complete failure of the service.
I would be grateful if the Minister updated me on plans to integrate between franchisees and Network Rail, as announced by the Secretary of State. That is important. One of the problems of privatisation was the artificial distinction, and it is important that we close that distinction. An update would help us understand how that can be addressed in the longer run.
Let me quickly turn to two final issues. There is a desperate need for the Oyster card system to be extended to Radlett. I know the Minister is on the case, but an assurance from him to my constituents that that will be delivered by 2018 would be gratefully received—and the same goes for Potters Bar, which is not on Thameslink but is served by Govia Thameslink, the wider holding company.
We cannot discuss rail freight without looking at the rail freight terminal: the disastrous development that is entirely unsuited to our part of Hertfordshire. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans and I continue to campaign against it, but if it is to go ahead, we must look at its impact on the railway line. At the meeting we both had with Network Rail, it updated us that the development will involve putting a line under the existing line to access the rail freight terminal. When we think about the infrastructure involved in building one railway line under another, it is difficult to conceive that that will not involve significant delays. I would be grateful for an update on that and, in particular, an assurance that the full cost will rightly be borne by the developer, and that means minimising disruption to passengers, even if that means a higher development cost. Given all that we have heard, it is simply not fair for commuters to bear the cost in terms of delayed journeys for the developer to get a cheaper deal.
Equally, I would be grateful for some reassurance on timetabling. I know Network Rail’s argument is that there are already allocated slots, but those slots are not being used by freight trains at the moment. I fear we will lose capacity once they are being used continuously by the rail freight terminal. Some reassurances would be gratefully received.
I thank the Minister for coming here. I was on the radio just now talking about this, and the interviewer said, “This is the last day of term. You will all be watching videos, relaxing.” I trust that the Minister will completely disprove that and demonstrate that he will address this issue with vigour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, in this crucial debate. We have seen the passion presented by all hon. Members on the challenges that their constituents face not just day by day, but week by week, month by month and year by year. The sheer dissatisfaction, frustration and misery that commuters have had to put up with for such a long time shows that resolution is crucial. The passenger must be listened to. We have obviously heard about the disruption brought not only to the commute, but to family life. I give all credit to parents who try to arrange childcare under the best of circumstances, but when they face an unreliable train service as well, the pressures are immense. All hon. Members have articulated that well this afternoon.
When passengers turn into activists and take action against what should be a normal part of their routine and daily life—such as the Train Suffragettes and others I know as well—it really shows that the whole rail system is in meltdown and has to be addressed. As we have heard, it is not just about train operating companies, because this has been a sustained problem across the network for such a long time. However, Thameslink particularly stands out. It has the second-lowest level of passenger satisfaction, at 73%—only Southern, at 65%, is behind—and has issues with punctuality and reliability, as we have heard. Southeastern trains are also not delivering for passengers, which is now spreading to Northern as well. With regard to Thameslink, things have not improved for several years now. When a staggering 23% are satisfied with how the company has dealt with delays, it really shows that it is left wanting, as has the whole situation.
What we have really picked up on today are the consequences of that unreliability, the infrastructure problems, the desperate need for investment and the massive overcrowding issues. The overcapacity issue will not going away, as more housing developments will put further strain on the network. We have also heard about challenges with the choice of destination, the obvious need for improvements right across the network and the impact that late or cancelled trains have on commuters.
It is important that we listen to these real frustrations. We cannot allow the situation to continue in which the Government point fingers but do not lift one to sort out what is happening. We know that there is real chaos in the way the franchise was set up, as was rightly highlighted when the Gibb report was debated in the main Chamber on 4 July. We know that there needs to be effective governance over the whole structure, which has been lacking, to ensure that issues are addressed expediently and that proper dispute resolution mechanisms are put in also. At the forefront of everything, we need to make sure that passengers’ concerns are addressed and that their safety is safeguarded. We also heard about access needs, and the fact that some train journeys are simply impossible for passengers with disabilities.
Another point that was rightly raised was the financial cost to passengers. We have seen rail prices go up by 27% since 2010 on this rail network, which is the most expensive not only in the UK but in the whole of Europe, meaning that passengers are having to pick up the cost of this failed network. We are expecting further price increases in August, and we have heard the figure of 4%—perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on that. We need certainty on pricing; all passengers, whether on Thameslink or other networks, really want to know what is happening on pricing. The Opposition believe that price rises should be capped in line with the consumer prices index. We have heard different answers from different Ministers from the Department: we have heard that price rises will continue to be capped in line with the retail prices index; we have heard twice from the Minister that pricing is under review; and we have also heard that things will be kept as they are this year—but that does not say what will happen next year. Passengers need clarity on pricing.
We need to make sure that we move forward with smart ticketing, which we heard several contributions on. Where are we at with part-time smart ticketing, which will impact on many of those parents? It is an equality issue and we need to move forward on it. We also need to make sure that we see greater flexibility in smart ticketing, including the extension of the Oyster card. With the technology that is in place, how is delay repay being rolled out on the Oyster card? There are opportunities there. Of the amount of money that the network gains, only a minimal amount reaches the customer. The process of trying to reclaim after a delay is difficult.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Many of my passengers say that they do not want to have to claim; they simply want the service they have paid for. Delay repay is better, but on the other hand the service needs to improve, because otherwise they just get money back for a bad service. That is not what they want; they want the journey they were guaranteed.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. However, we also need to ensure that, where there has been a delay, passengers are properly compensated, given that they have paid so much for the privilege of travelling on that network. Between 2010 and 2015, the train operating company generated £575 million from Network Rail for infrastructure delays, yet only £73 million went to passengers, so we have to question who benefits. Again, it comes back to governance over the system, which is poor. That comes up many times. It is a theme that is repeated in every aspect of how the franchise works. The franchise has failed passengers. We need to see delay repay extended so that the customer can be compensated automatically, as opposed to trying to seek out that compensation.
We also need to look at what has happened with the Thameslink programme. It was first put in place in 2006, so those years are moving forward. We need to see that the objectives now being met are not at the inconvenience of passengers—such as major track work, signalling and station remodelling, improvements to the lines approaching London Bridge and the overhead lines north of St Pancras. The programme was very ambitious, but without proper governance it has not been realised. On the issue of capacity, as 24 trains an hour move through the core of central London, the risks increase. We cannot even get the service moving right at the moment. We need to hear from the Minister what mitigation is being put in place to reduce risk and ensure that trains run on time and that passengers reach their destinations on time. About 14,500 additional passengers will use that network.
The Gibb report goes further on the issues that need to be addressed across the networks. It also addresses GTR’s responsibilities and Network Rail. The issues it identified include rail renewal, switching and sleeper renewal. The list goes on to talk about telecoms and cable signalling and dealing with things such as vegetation, earthworks and fencing—it is comprehensive. We need to ensure that the improvement programme is put in place and delivered by 2018. We do not want the stop-start approach to maintenance and development. We want to see the investment running into the CP6 funding round from 2019. What exactly is the Minister doing to make sure there is ongoing investment in the railway?
We must thank Chris Gibb for his report, but we must also note the responsibility to move forward on many of the problems experienced across the Thameslink network. We also need to address the issues raised by the Transport Select Committee, which has identified how poorly the franchise has been established. The relationships do not work between the train operator, Network Rail and the passenger. That must be put right. Changing an operator does not change the environment, which is so important. It is right that the Committee highlighted the problems with the initial structuring of the franchise, the inadequate planning that was put in place, weaknesses in the franchising handover period, infrastructure and rolling stock failures, mismanagement, and poor industrial relations.
I want to talk about industrial relations, because it is so important that these issues are addressed. We have people working on the rail network who are seriously concerned about passenger safety and access. We have heard about the overcrowding, which increases risk, and the real challenges on the network. More commuters will be using the line and it is vital that public safety comes first. The unions have been clear that this is not a dispute about money; their concern is about public safety.
I have spoken to train drivers in the last couple of days, and they say it is vital that they have a second pair of eyes. If they miss something, the other person can help pick it up. They say it is vital that there is someone there to deal with incidents, whatever they may be, because it is unpredictable. It could be a driver falling ill, a fatality on the rails, a terrorist attack, derailment or a crash, women’s safety at night or antisocial behaviour disturbing other customers. Of course, guards play a much wider role in maximising revenue collection and providing passengers with a wider service. We have heard today how important that service is, particularly with the line of communication, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. They can let passengers know information, be the first port of call and be the passengers’ champion when needed.
I urge the Minister to address those vital issues. We must get the rostering right to ensure that the trains run on time and address the issues in this dispute. This is not rocket science; the dispute is simple to resolve. I know, as a negotiator, that the Minister just needs to sit down and make sure the guards are in place and can continue with their role. It is incumbent on him to sort this out. I know it is not beyond his wit, and I trust he will do so.
In conclusion, we have heard about the painful experiences of commuters. We must remember that the whole rail network is there as a service—a public service—to help passengers continue with their employment opportunities and their daily lives. It is absolutely right that focus is now brought on the way the franchises and relationships are not operating and that that is worked through, to bring the service back to customers. That is why the Labour party believes that public services now need to be a public accountability, in public ownership. For far too long, decisions have been made away from the passenger. We want to see the passenger at the heart of those decisions, putting safety and service needs at the forefront and building the structures around the passenger.
I have heard all the frustrations, and Labour will take those on board and work with passengers to make sure that we can provide the service needed in the future. We will keep the pressure on the Government, as the passengers’ voice throughout this process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate and presenting her case, as she always does, with great vigour and force; I expect no less from her. She is right to hold Ministers to account for the service on her railway.
Passengers expect a timely, punctual and reliable service, and when they do not get it, they are right to want to understand why, and what Ministers and the train operators intend to do about it. This has been a helpful debate on what is occurring with Thameslink, and I am grateful to both the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) for their contributions. There was also a sensible contribution from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). We may not agree on the final paragraphs of her speech, but I thought that much of what she said made great sense.
I am aware of how important it is that we deal with this issue. As I said, passengers want a service that they can rely upon, and if they cannot, that should be a concern for us all. The Thameslink service is vital for our country, not least because our capital city depends upon it. Reliability of services through central London is critical. It is one of Europe’s busiest rail routes, so it is right that passengers will see new stations—and better stations, in fact—new trains, new infrastructure and new systems to increase capacity, reduce crowding and provide better connections for passengers across London and the wider south-east.
A number of points have been made in the debate, but I want to focus first and foremost on answering the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans. I often find that these one-hour debates are neither fish nor fowl, and I want to give proper attention to the points made by the Member who secured the debate without ignoring the other points made. Normally I run out of time in that ambition, so if I do not manage to respond to all the points now, I ask Members to make sure that I reply to them all subsequently.
The first point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans was about the impact of the new trains. Of course, people want new trains. It is right to point out that the new Thameslink trains have advanced technology; they are more spacious and modern by their very definition. We have contracted Siemens to deliver 115 of them overall. We have 37 currently in service, between Bedford and Brighton, on the Wimbledon loop and on services in Kent. We expect all Thameslink services to be served by Class 700 trains by October 2017.
Train performance on the brand-new trains is improving bit by bit every period, but I recognise that it has not been good enough. I have spoken to Siemens myself to urge improvement. I know that it is working very closely with GTR. With every software improvement we see a significant improvement, but it is worth bearing it in mind that this platform is a step beyond what Siemens has produced before with its Desiro platform. There will always be slightly more challenges with such a new piece of rolling stock, but we are seeing significant improvement over time, and I fully expect to see significant improvement in reliability over the coming weeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans gave a number of examples of where her constituents were not getting the service they desire. I have been hearing those tales about this GTR network since I started in this role last July, and that is what has inspired me to focus on trying to deliver the rail ombudsman that we had in our manifesto as rapidly as I can. That is making good progress. I want to ensure that passengers can get binding arbitration at the end of the day where they cannot secure the right outcome from their appeals. We do not want these situations to occur—far from it—but where they do, I want the passenger to feel empowered. That is why I wanted to ensure that we had passenger representation on the Gibb report panel, for example—to ensure that their voice was being heard.
I was fascinated to hear about the Train Suffragettes to whom my hon. Friend referred. I would be delighted if she could send me more of their ideas about how the service could be improved, and I would be happy to take on board as many of them as possible.
I always risk creating extra work for my private office in inviting all submissions, wherever they are from, but I am more than happy to receive them and give them my full attention.
A number of hon. Members mentioned what is referred to in the industry as passenger information during disruption. It has been a major concern of mine that passengers may, at the breakfast table, consult their mobile phone, get one piece of information that their train is running, beetle down to the station to get the train and then discover that for some reason it has been cancelled. There are too many sources of information across the industry. The Office of Rail and Road has two key obligations under law. One is improving passenger information during disruption. I have asked it to look closely at how that is working across the south-east quadrant as a whole, because I have concerns about both GTR and Southeastern ensuring that we have consistent information. I accept that that is a key point, and it is one that I am taking up.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans has raised concerns both with me and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the Radlett freight interchange. Those representations were augmented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden). I genuinely recognise those concerns; that is why I want to ensure that the timetable is protected from the impact of the works. Network Rail has reassured my Department, just as it has reassured both my hon. Friends, that the work at Park Street has been planned to have minimum impact on passengers, as freight trains will run only outside peak times and overnight, but I recognise that the concerns remain and that there is a wish to have greater oversight of the detail of what is being planned. I suspect the best thing I can offer is to broker a meeting with Network Rail, with me present as well, and perhaps we can test some of those assumptions against what my officials and the Department are also aware of. That might be of assistance to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, so we will co-operate as best we can to try to find that reassurance.
My hon. Friend also mentioned overcrowding at St Albans station. We are extending the platform to accommodate 12-carriage trains as part of the Thameslink programme. GTR is working to deliver extended automatic ticket gates at platform 4, which I believe is called the Ridgmont entrance, by 2019. The main station building will also receive an enhanced retail offering, a larger concourse area to accommodate peak periods and associated platform furniture and shelter facilities to improve the station environment. I recognise that there remain capacity concerns at St Albans station. We are thinking through the implications of that for future rail control periods.
In terms of future Thameslink services and how they will benefit St Albans, it is a matter of improved peak frequency and more capacity between central London, St Albans and Bedford, with more peak services, new cross-London routes, and Thameslink services reinstated to serve London Bridge. I expect passengers to see more comfort benefits, with more than 3,000 standard-class seats into London St Pancras, which is 15% extra from today, particularly through using the 12-carriage trains.
Essentially, Thameslink is all about expanding capacity on a key commuter route. We are trying to deliver the trains and the infrastructure to enable that, with 24 trains an hour in the peak through the Thameslink core between Blackfriars and St Pancras, which is an additional nine trains in each direction.
Part of our focus is on making sure that we have the right infrastructure—not just track but signalling. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere is right to identify that we need to make sure that signalling and timetabling are robust. We have a planning board, chaired by Chris Gibb, of Gibb report fame, and an assurance panel, chaired by another industry expert, Chris Green, double-checking the work that is going on to make sure it is reliable and will deliver the outputs that we seek.
To date, the Thameslink programme has delivered a new Blackfriars station connecting both side of the Thames. We have seen major enhancements at Farringdon, platform extensions on midland main line stations to allow longer trains and, as I said, 37 of the new class 700 trains. There are new maintenance depots at Three Bridges in Crawley and Hornsey in north London, and many hon. Members will be familiar with the new London Bridge station, two thirds of the concourse of which has been open since August 2016.
What else can passengers expect? The rest of London Bridge station will be open for business in early 2018. The new class 700 trains will start operating on Great Northern routes and on services in Kent and Sussex. Entire new journeys, such as Cambridge to Gatwick, will open up new journey options and connections for customers, including an interchange with the Elizabeth line services at Farringdon, which I think will transform how people approach travel options within London. Most importantly, from 2018 there will be services every two to three minutes through the central London core between Blackfriars and St Pancras International.
I recognise concerns about performance. We have seen performance steadily improving since the start of the year. When we are able to focus on improving the network, rather than just on industrial relations, we can deliver a real improvement in performance, working together with the drivers. The jump in public performance from 62% last December to a high of 85% this year reinforces that point, but I recognise that we need to do better—85% is still not good enough. We continue to have an immense amount of pressure on the network.
We are also looking carefully at the future Thameslink timetable. Journeys will be improved with better travel across the network, but modern track will make journeys more reliable and new trains will provide additional capacity. GTR has been actively seeking feedback from any interested parties on the timetable changes to make sure that they best match passenger need. The second stage of the consultation has just closed and we are looking carefully at what people are saying.
As I mentioned earlier, our Thameslink industry readiness board, chaired by Chris Gibb, is doing important work. Thameslink brings many other franchises on to its network, and the board is looking at making sure we maximise the potential for all aspects of the train network.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans mentioned delay repay, as did the shadow Minister. We have brought “delay repay 15” specifically into GTR as the first franchise to trial it, because we recognise the impact that the disturbances across the network as a whole have had. I share the concern that we need to explain more carefully that the impact of Thameslink is not just felt south of London. It is often hard to envisage how Thameslink is a regional service. What occurs north of London has an impact south of London and vice versa. It is worth highlighting, for example, that right-time presentation, as we call it—in other words, the right-time arrival of the train at the station—is rarely higher than 50% on services from the north of London going south through to Brighton. That indicates that problems in Brighton on trains going northwards also impact on punctuality and reliability, so investment in both sides of the central core is absolutely crucial.
We have improved delay repay, although I take on board the point about improving its delivery. We have to be careful about our terminology, as I have learned. Automated compensation is about improving the behind-the-scenes progress of individual train operating companies. It is about someone getting their compensation without doing anything to achieve it. That requires them to demonstrate that they have been on the train in question. They can either nominate their usual commuter train, in which case it can be automatic compensation, or, where they have not specified a train, they must prove that they were on the delayed train. There is sadly a risk of fraud, and we are talking about considerable sums of money from regular commuters, so there has to be that element of assurance.
I share the ambition of the hon. Member for York Central, which is why I have been pushing for delay repay to be rolled out as much as possible. Passengers have a right to expect it. We need to be much better at making people aware of it and confident about using it. I would rather, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans said, that there were no delays at all; then we would have a better service in the first place.
As I often mention, there is a £300 million investment in improvement across the Thameslink network. Not all of that is occurring south of London. Hon. Members may think this an issue just on the Brighton main line, but it is not. We are investing in additional land sheriff shifts to reduce trespass and railway crime across the entire length of the line, and there will be more use of predict and prevent condition-monitoring software and processes on the infrastructure. There will be additional incident response teams and embankment works at New Barnet. All of that is occurring north of London on the stretch that covers St Albans. Because of the point I made earlier about interaction, service delays, either north or south, inevitably have an impact on St Albans at some point.
We will continue to deliver that £300 million until December 2018, when we cease the current control period. We will need to invest further in control period 6, and we will be making future announcements about how that spending will be allocated. We are committed to doing what is needed to bring this stretch of track up to the standards required to deliver timely and punctual rail services.
I will try to make a bit of progress, because I recognise that I have not covered any of the points made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. I am not sure whether the shadow Minister had time to be briefed on this before she arrived here, but there will be talks tomorrow at the Department involving GTR, ASLEF and, I think, the RMT—I am not sure whether that is precisely correct. Hopefully, that will be an opportunity to have the discussion the hon. Lady is aiming for.
I do not think anyone disagrees that having a second person on board is a bad thing. We have been able to have a second person on board across the network where GTR is in operation. That is a good thing in my view. The issue will be the circumstances in which a train may depart if someone is not available. That is the narrow point that was in dispute in the past, and perhaps tomorrow will be the chance to resolve that—we will have to wait and see.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood made a number of perfectly relevant suggestions. I am not sure I can do them justice in two minutes, but if it would be helpful to her I would like her to come to see me and my officials to go through them in more detail. I am aware of schemes such as the expansion of Loughborough Junction and Camberwell, and she deserves a better response than me saying, “We will look at it.” If she gets in touch, I will be more than happy to meet her. I know the Secretary of State met the Mayor yesterday and had constructive discussions.
On the hon. Lady’s point about resilience, we are already seeing greater resilience through a re-diagramming of services. Part of the problem is drivers joining and leaving a service as it passes through the GTR network. By simplifying the diagrams with the agreement of the drivers, we can make for a more resilient service by ensuring that that interruption is reduced.
I noted the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere. We should not overlook the fact that GTR was criticised in the Gibb report—as was the Department. We saw penalties imposed on GTR last week, which will go towards improving the network. This is not just about trade unions, GTR or the Department; it is about an entire ecosystem, as some have pointed out. I heard my hon. Friend’s point about car parking, and I know the rail delivery group is looking at that. The passenger’s experience begins when they decide to make a journey, and that includes car parking.
Vertical integration is moving according to plan. We have already seen some of the benefits for this franchise of getting Network Rail and GTR to work more closely together and of continuing to work with TfL on the Oyster zone, which should help my hon. Friend’s constituents in particular. One highlight of the last week was the rail delivery group’s announcement of new statistics on right-time arrivals at stations, which I urge all hon. Members to have a look at.
If there is anything I have missed, I ask Members to get in touch. We will keep Members informed—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).