Tuesday 5 December 2017
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Tolls on the Mersey Crossings
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tolls on the Mersey crossings.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Although the motion is in my name, it is very much the result of a team effort, as demonstrated by the number of right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches today.
The issue of tolls on the new Mersey crossing has caused consternation across our sub-region and, for me, today’s debate centres on two pillars: deceit and inconsistency. In the mid to late-1950s, the Runcorn-Widnes crossing was a transporter bridge, the likes of which we now see only really in Middlesbrough, so when the new bridge was opened at the start of the 1960s it was a revolutionary leap forward in transport infrastructure. The Runcorn-Widnes bridge, the green bridge, the Silver Jubilee bridge—as it became after renovation in 1975—or even, simply, the bridge, grew as an essential artery for the sub-regional traffic, and it can be argued that the success of the area, from the growth of Liverpool airport to the industrial areas around Speke, Widnes and Runcorn and the new multimodal hub, has all been possible because of the crossing. But with its more than 80,000 vehicle movements per day, it was clear that the old bridge was beyond capacity and that, having been a source of growth in the past, it was in danger of becoming a brake on growth and development.
I say at the outset that I welcome the new crossing. The fact that we have a new bridge is not the issue. I also acknowledge that the tolls did not come as a surprise. How we pay for the new crossing has been a matter of debate since the project was first mooted, and that is where the inconsistency comes in. At this year’s Conservative party conference, the Secretary of State for Wales told the assembled masses, in relation to the removal of tolls on the Severn bridge:
“After 50 years—just think—no tolls, no booths, no charges and no long queues to get into Wales. This decision will immediately boost the economy of South Wales by over £100m a year. Equally important is that it brings the opportunity to bind the South West and Wales.”
He was right of course: infrastructure investment leads to economic growth and brings communities together.
My hon. Friend makes a very good case. Was he concerned, as I was, to hear the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), yesterday dismiss the problem of the tolls for the bridges and the Mersey tunnels limiting economic growth in the region and attribute, I understand, to the Mayor of the city region views that he does not hold?
I was most perturbed to hear that, and perhaps the Transport Minister here today might pass the concerns of the assembled right hon. and hon. Members back to the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse. In relation to attributing views to the Mayor of the city region that he does not hold, I understand that the Mayor, Steve Rotherham, has today written to the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, asking for a retraction. I hope that retraction will come as quickly as the Minister’s original comments.
In relation to the Severn bridge, I can well understand the argument that the costs of the bridge might have been paid off by the tolls received in preceding years, but the arguments made by the Secretary of State for Wales about economic growth and bringing communities together apply in this debate as well. Indeed, they seem to apply in Scotland, where the new Forth crossing is untolled, and in London, where many millions of pounds of Government money go simply into studying the feasibility of Crossrail 2. The same principle applies in the east of England, where plans for the A14 upgrade to be tolled around Huntingdon and Cambridge were scrapped in 2013. The planned toll was described as a “tax on East Anglia” by the local chamber of commerce. The principle applies everywhere, it seems, except to the Mersey crossing. Indeed, in contrast to the growth potential of infrastructure, the Freight Transport Association tells me that some of its members face an annual cost of £1.5 million in tolls from the new Mersey crossing, which will kill business, not boost it, and that is without the admin costs of keeping fleet lists registered and up to date for so many different toll schemes.
It was announced that most, but not all, residents of Halton Borough Council would get reduced tolls, which is understandable on the basis that it brings together two parts of that cross-river borough. But that brings me on to, if I may use the term, the question of deceit. Just days before the 2015 general election, on a campaign visit to the area, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, late of this parish, announced that free crossings would be extended to Warrington and to my borough of Cheshire West and Chester. In a tweet on 23 April 2015, Mr Osborne said:
“Confirm we’ll extend free bridge tolls to residents of Cheshire W & Chester + Warrington—a victory for”,
and he then named two local Conservative party candidates. That was naked political opportunism, but having said that he would extend the free scheme to neighbouring boroughs, he should have made good on the promise. To make such a clear political declaration and then reverse it after the election denigrates politics, denigrates elected politicians—because the public will not always see it for what it really is—and degrades confidence in our democracy.
I am told, although I cannot prove it for certain, that Mr Osborne took his own officials by surprise, at which point a solution had to be found to implement the promise he had so glibly made in the pursuit of cheap votes. It seems that the solution was to say that residents of the neighbouring councils would indeed benefit from reduced tolls, but that the councils would have to pay for it, which was not what was promised by Mr Osborne. And when we take into consideration that Cheshire West and Chester—I cannot speak for Warrington—had its budget cut by central Government by £57 million from 2015 and is barely able to deliver statutory services, we can understand why once again passing responsibility on to local government to deliver a central Government policy pledge without providing the requisite finance—a tactic we have seen several times from this Government—has engendered such cynicism from residents.
At no point has any Minister either apologised for the deceit or, indeed, recognised the wrongness of it, and that adds to people’s anger about being misled. Nor has Mr Osborne ever faced the required obloquy for his deceit. I am clear that the tolls must go, but I am also trying to find a practical way through the mess for my constituents who use the bridge daily, and the many others who work on the other side of the water who now have to pay upwards of £1,000 every year to get to work. This is a retrospective tax that is simply unfair.
My constituent Clive has proposed a solution to Ministers, which is that anyone who could demonstrate that on the day the tolls were announced they had a permanent job on the other side of the water would be eligible for reduced tolls. He also pointed out that the number would only ever diminish over time; it would never increase. Ministers have rejected the idea on the basis of the cost to the scheme, but they are happy for the public to bear the cost burden. Perhaps today the Minister might consider that option again for those residents who have suffered the double whammy of being told they were to get free tolls only for that to be withdrawn, and then being hit with an annual £1,000 charge just to get to work.
As my constituent Rob, a teacher, told me:
“Recently, I have registered for the Merseyflow sticker for my car so that I can cross the new multimodal bridge to get to my work in a school in St Helens. I am not resident in Halton and I am therefore ineligible for anything other than a sticker, which reduces each crossing from £2.00 to £1.80. Whilst I am grateful for this reduction, my annual bill for using the bridge will surpass £720. This does not include any times where I may have to make the crossing more than twice in a day (Open Evenings, Prom etc).”
The situation has been further compounded because the original bridge, now closed for renovation, will itself be tolled when it reopens. As my constituent Tim pointed out to me, the equivalent would be that when the M6 toll was opened, the original M6 would also have been tolled—a clearly ludicrous suggestion, but equivalent to what we have here.
Operational matters are also causing problems. Now, all four crossings on the Mersey are tolled. The first two are run by Mersey Tunnels and the second two by Merseyflow. I cannot for the life of me see why we should have to register twice with different organisations just to get across the Mersey from Chester. Ideally—the Minister might want to consider this—all the tolled roads in the UK would have one central tagging or registration scheme. To have two in such a short distance is daft. Organised bodies such as road haulage organisations and fleet operators will have to register all their fleets twice because of the two different schemes.
I am told that the signage on the new crossing is inadequate, both to notify drivers that the bridge is tolled and to inform them how to pay. I am also told that upwards of 50,000 instances of non-payment have taken place already, totalling £1 million, which, in only six weeks of the crossing being open, is a staggering amount, if true. It must surely indicate that something somewhere is going badly wrong.
I have raised the issue on behalf of my constituents in north Wales who feel that they do not have clarity on the signage and did not know that the tolls were there. I have had a letter back from Merseyflow, which says:
“I fully appreciate the points in reference to the new scheme which may have led people, particularly from outside of the area to be confused on the ways to pay.”
I have constituents who have paid the toll, who have been fined for not paying the toll and who were not clear, when the toll was introduced, that the toll was even there.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point and leads me into the next part of my speech. I will quote Rachel from north Wales, who has seemingly had a similar experience to his constituents. She said:
“Two weeks ago I drove over to Walton for a long awaited hospital appointment. Not only is it a 120 mile round trip, it’s an area I don’t know at all so subsequently I was reliant 100% on my Google Maps. While crossing this new bridge I did see a brief sign that mentioned Mersey Flow, but as I was concentrating on the road in an unknown area I was paying more due care and attention to the road and not the sign about a method of payment, I just assumed that being a ‘Toll bridge’ there would be a booth at the other side. 3 days after this event I was told via friends that you had to pay online or I would receive a fine. I paid the £4 for both journeys. Today I received a fine like many other people, including one of my sisters after driving there at 1 am to collect my father from Liverpool airport”.
It is precisely the same experience as that of my right hon. Friend’s constituents. The issue does not just affect Halton and the surrounding boroughs, but is spreading its effects right across the sub-region and beyond into other areas.
Does it not seem extreme that within a month 50,000 have made the mistake? As my hon. Friend said, that is £1 million in fines.
It is an astonishing figure— 50,000 people in just six weeks. As I said, it surely demonstrates that something is badly wrong. There are two issues here: first, the toll system is obviously not clear enough; and secondly, it is not just drivers from the immediate Halton area who are affected. Indeed, it seems absurd that the only place that someone can pay in person is in Halton, as that is the area where people, because they live there, are least likely to need to pay. I am told by taxi drivers in Halton and surrounding boroughs that they are not considered as public transport, so cannot register for free crossings. Again, that seems ridiculous. Will the Minister clarify that, not least because so many of my constituents take taxis to Liverpool airport?
The introduction and implementation of the tolls has caused consternation in my constituency and across our sub-region. At a time when other bridges are having their tolls removed, we are having to pay. It is punitive and retrospective. In fact, it must be the first case in history of a crossing being built that has caused greater division than the divide it sought to bridge. Ministers must think again. We cannot allow an important and much-needed piece of infrastructure to cause more harm than good. In the medium to long term the tolls must go, as they have in other parts of the UK. If that is not to happen in the immediate future, will the Minister at least look at alternative arrangements for my constituents and others who are being clobbered by toll charges and fines?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who made a very powerful case. I will be brief, because there are one or two straightforward arguments that need to be put. Before I get into those arguments, it is important to emphasise the point that my hon. Friend made: a commitment was given to a group of residents on the Cheshire side of the bridge by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that commitment has now been completely ignored by the Government. I have no doubt that in that general election some people voted the way they did in the expectation that exemptions would be made for a wider area. However, that would not have covered my side of the river, and I will talk about that in a moment.
At the outset, I should say that I make no criticism of Halton Borough Council. I know that it was effectively given a choice of having no bridge or having tolls. Given the need for a further crossing, I can well understand why it took that decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) will make that point more fully, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Paisley.
Over the past two years, myself and others have been trying to get some further exemptions. If it was right for the people on the Cheshire side of the new crossing to have exemptions, as promised by the former Member for Tatton, George Osborne, it equally would be right for the people in Knowsley, Liverpool, Warrington, St Helens and even north Wales to have some exemptions. I tried to press that point, and I eventually got a reply from a Transport Minister that hinted that it was legally all too difficult to do. The spread of Members attending this morning’s debate tells the story, because if the exemption was extended to, for argument’s sake, the City of Chester, how could that be justified when people from Knowsley or Liverpool have to travel in the opposite direction? I think it probably is too legally difficult to make exemptions.
I also argued that there should be exemptions for those who have to use the crossing for work purposes, or for people who need to attend medical appointments, or—it would be relatively few people—those who have to use the crossing for educational purposes. I think we have exhausted that argument, and the Government, possibly for those legal reasons, are not going to accept the argument, but we are still left with the problem. I have constituents—my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester referred to this—who are paying up to £1,000 a year to go to work and back. I understand entirely why they see that as an additional tax. For those not on a high wage, such as many of my constituents, £1,000 a year is a substantial amount of money to pay just to go back and forth to work. That is not even counting the cost of putting petrol in the car and keeping it on the road. Certainly those who need to use the crossing for regular medical appointments have every reason to be annoyed about what is happening.
That argument has now gone, and with Ministers having rejected further exemptions for people in Knowsley, Liverpool and other places, I have come to the conclusion that, expensive though it will be, the only way forward is for the tolls to be scrapped altogether. I can see no other way of doing it that would not be open to some sort of legal challenge. I realise that is a very expensive option, but it is the only fair one. I hope Ministers will accept that. I put it forward not to be irresponsible, but to be fair to those who need to use the crossing for their everyday lives and to go to work. By the way, the issue also applies to businesses. We have all been approached by businesses that are at best confused about how the toll affects them and at worst furious about the additional costs it puts on their transactions. For the benefit of residents and businesses, the only way forward that I can see is, as some have said, to scrap the tolls.
I will concentrate on the three or four key issues in this area that most constituents contact me about; I cannot concentrate on every issue that every constituent has raised with me.
I would like to put on record my congratulations to Halton Borough Council. It is a fantastic achievement to have delivered this huge infrastructure on time and to budget when the council is probably one of the smallest in the country. If central Government had that record, they would probably be a bit more pleased about some of their recent projects. It is excellent delivery by the council. Of course, there are some teething and snagging problems and other issues that hon. Friends have raised, but I want to concentrate on three or four main issues.
First, I absolutely agree that we should have a bridge with no tolls. That has always been my position. Certainly longer-standing hon. Friends here have supported having a new bridge, but not one that is tolled. Why should we have all the tolled crossings when London and the south-east have crossings on the Thames where people do not have to pay? I keep being told it is an estuary crossing, but why does an estuary crossing differ from the one a little further upriver, as is the case on the Thames? It is bizarre. I totally agree with my hon. Friends that the bridge should be toll-free.
However, the bridge is not toll-free. It was clear from the beginning of the discussions I have had with the Government since the early 2000s and thereafter—the previous Labour Government, the coalition Government and the Conservative Governments—that there would not be a crossing if it was not tolled. The decision letter from the Secretary of State stated:
“The Inspector said that the £604 million cost of the Project would be funded by toll revenues and PFI credits...The Secretary of State wishes to clarify first that the Project is intended to be funded from a mixture of toll revenues, PFI credits and RFA funding.”
That funding range has now changed, but that is what was said. On charging tolls on the Mersey Gateway bridge and the Silver Jubilee bridge, the decision letter stated:
“While noting that there was opposition to both the principle and perceived effects of tolling, particularly as regards the imposition of charges on the Silver Jubilee Bridge, the Inspector said it was clear that the Mersey Gateway Bridge could proceed only if tolled and that an un-tolled crossing would generate significant additional traffic contrary to transport policy. He accepted also that, without tolling the Silver Jubilee Bridge, traffic would not use the Mersey Gateway Bridge and the Project would not meet its objectives.”
I do not agree with the decision letter, but that is what was said at the time.
My hon. Friend is right about the decisions taken and the concern about traffic flows. Does he agree that evidence is now appearing that the tolling on the bridge is increasing traffic flows through Warrington, which is already very congested? And that is after the former Member for Warrington South appeared in the 2015 election in front of a big banner saying, “No tolls”, so people rightly feel aggrieved.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is increased traffic going through Warrington, which was always expected, and that is causing further congestion. Again, it comes back to this: if a bridge is tolled, some traffic will try to find an alternative route. How long that will go on for, I do not know, but it is having an impact.
The reality is that we needed a new bridge. The Silver Jubilee bridge was congested, its capacity was far exceeded, and it was having an effect on investment in the borough because people were regularly queueing to get over the bridge. Sometimes, if a vehicle broke down or there was an accident, people could be there for hours. There was a regular queue of traffic going over the bridge. It is in need of major repairs as well, which is why it has been shut for about a year to carry out the repairs. Imagine closing that bridge with no other bridge in place: there would be chaos not only in Warrington, but all round the north-west. The fact that the bridge was needed is indisputable, and we need to understand that.
There is also an issue of pollution. Communities around the Silver Jubilee bridge had to cope with all the pollution of standing traffic and huge traffic increases. There was no doubt in my mind about the need for a bridge, but as I say, I want an untolled bridge, as do colleagues. However, we have this situation at the moment, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say.
As part of the discussions that I had, I met George Osborne, the former Member for Tatton, along with colleagues Graham Evans, the MP for Weaver Vale at the time, David Mowat and Andrew Miller. My primary aim in having that meeting was to argue that, for Halton people, it is their local road. They use it to go to the hospital, to work and to the train station, to go shopping and simply for normal business. I do not know anywhere else in the country where a borough has a tolled road that people have to cross to get to another part of the borough. It simply does not exist. It would be totally unfair.
George Osborne eventually accepted my argument and agreed that residents in Halton should be able to travel toll-free. He put out a press statement in July 2014 to announce that. I will make this clear for the Minister. The Treasury press release stated that the bridge
“will be free to use for all Halton residents”,
“a small charge”
for registration. It stated:
“The extension of the discount scheme will...apply to...categories of vehicles included in the existing discount scheme.”
I have written to the Department on numerous occasions because around 425 residents in Halton are in bands G and H and, because of the discount scheme, are excluded. The fact is that George Osborne—the Treasury—said that all residents would be able to travel free. I keep getting letters back from the Minister quoting the issue about the local discount scheme, but it is not quoted here. It is clear.
I also wrote to George Osborne, and on 5 December 2015, he wrote:
“I am happy to confirm that as the Government has previously announced, tolls for Halton residents will be free once the Bridge opens.”
That is very clear. There are no ifs or buts, and no mention of excluding people in bands G and H. It is totally unfair for people in bands G and H to be denied the chance to travel free, albeit with a small charge, across the borough. Why should they have to pay? It is completely unfair and not reasonable. I hope the Minister will go away and look at this matter again, because the policy should be changed. Not all of the people in bands G and H are cash-rich. In some cases, people are not on great incomes, but that is not the point. In principle, they should not have to pay. I hope the Minister will look at that issue.
On small businesses, the then Chancellor made a statement—my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) referred to that. I have the press coverage here and witnesses heard him say this. As well as extending the scheme to Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington, the then Chancellor said there would be “a special scheme” to help small businesses. He added that if firms paid nothing, taxpayers could pick up a higher bill, but he said that there will be a scheme to help small businesses. Of course, once he went, the promise to Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington, was ditched, so I wrote to Ministers again. Halton businesses have the same issue as residents because they use the bridge a lot more. It is their local base. Again, the Minister wrote back and said there was no way that could be done, and this time used the argument about state aid rules.
I got in touch with the Library to do some research, and the Library believes there is a way of helping at least some small businesses by having a scheme in Halton. Again, the Government have ignored that, after a promise made by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hope the Minister will look at that as well.
Another issue raised regularly with me is about businesses in Halton that might suffer as a result of paying the extra tolls, particularly if they are transport-heavy, such as haulage and delivery companies. Also, the constituents of my hon. Friends here today travel in and have to pay the toll. Some businesses tell me they are fearful of losing experienced and skilled staff who might go elsewhere because they do not want to pay the £1,000-a-year toll. The Minister needs to look at that issue, which has been raised with me by several companies.
The Minister needs to look seriously at some of the promises that were made and should revisit them. Although I want free tolls for everybody, the key issues for me are my constituents in bands G and H, small businesses, staff travelling into Halton and the impact on businesses. Most businesses think faster speed and lack of congestion are great. They are happy with that, but some have expressed concern about paying the toll.
One thing that frustrates many people who have an interest in this debate is the fact that national leaders seek to blame local leaders. It is very clear that responsibility lies with the Minister. We had promises from the former Chancellor. It was the Government that announced the scrapping of tolls on the Severn crossing. Is it not right to expect a real answer from the Minister today and not simply, as we saw yesterday, pushing this issue back down on to local leaders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact remains that it was not Halton Borough Council’s decision to make it a toll bridge. I know that because I have been involved with the project from the very start. It was clearly central Government who made that decision.
The solution that has been raised by my hon. Friends today rests with the Government, not Halton Borough Council, which has had its budget cut by over 50%. It is one of the smallest councils in the country and it is struggling on a daily basis to provide the services that its residents need. The solution rests with the Government alone, and they need to look at that very carefully.
In conclusion, the bridge is a great, iconic structure and it is fabulous to have it, but the toll system is causing untold problems. I raised the issues faced specifically by Halton constituents, but I also understand very well the concerns of my colleagues, some of whom will make further points of their own later on.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on obtaining this timely debate, and on the way he set out some of the concerns that have been raised with him. Generally speaking, it is certainly better to have the new bridge than not to have it, and I congratulate Halton Borough Council on taking on the necessary and ambitious scheme to get the bridge built and operating. It is a shame, as a couple of my right hon. and hon. Friends clearly set out, that the bridge has not been delivered in a way that allows my constituents to cross the Mersey at Runcorn without paying a toll.
The Silver Jubilee bridge has been free since it was built in the 1960s. It is now closed, and when it reopens it, too, will be tolled. The tolls, the discount arrangements and the entire administration need to be rethought. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort on that in his remarks at the end of the debate. I accept that the situation is not primarily the choice of Halton Borough Council; its choice was to build a toll bridge or no bridge, thanks to central Government requirements. We must therefore look to the Government for solutions.
Halton Borough Council has acted in a spirit of a long line of entrepreneurial local government organisations on Merseyside, which have been innovative and ahead of their time when it comes to infrastructure development, whether in respect of that original wet dock back in the mists of time in Liverpool or, more recently, tunnels under the Mersey. Unfortunately, Merseyside people often seem to end up having to pay for infrastructure in a way people do not in other parts of the country.
I will make three basic points which I hope the Minister will address. First, I have many constituents who cannot afford to pay the new tolls and are finding that their imposition, without a sufficiently widespread and generous discount scheme, is making their lives financially unsustainable. I will give some examples of that. Secondly, the administration of the tolling arrangements appears secretive and unresponsive. There are, let us say, teething problems—which may turn out to be basic flaws—in the administration of the tolls. I have some examples of that as well. Thirdly, there is not sufficient public accountability, whether by Merseyflow, which operates the tolls; Mersey Gateway Crossings Boards Ltd and Halton Borough Council, which commissioned and look after the bridge; or the Government, who intervene when it suits them, then wash their hands of any further need to get involved when it does not. None of those things bodes well for the future smooth operation of these arrangements.
On affordability, I do not believe it is fair that residents living near the bridge in Halton receive almost free travel while my constituents, who have made decisions about where they live and work based on the longstanding availability of an untolled bridge, suddenly have to factor significant extra costs into their calculations. The Silver Jubilee bridge has been available and untolled since the 1960s; when it reopens, it will be tolled at the same rate as the Mersey Gateway.
Liz Simon is a teacher who works in Stockton Heath in Warrington. She has been in her job for seven years and has two young children. She says:
“I now have this additional bill to pay when we are only getting a 1% pay rise in the education sector. This will certainly not cover the £1000 a year toll charges.”
She has had to stop buying school dinners for her children to try to offset the additional costs she faced in getting to work. She says:
“It is frustrating that people who I work with who live in Halton pay £10 a year when ‘as the crow flies’ I live a lot closer (to work) than they do.”
Yet she pays 100 times more than her workmates—almost £1,000.
Another of my constituents, who works at the Countess of Chester hospital, also has to use the bridge daily to get to and from work. As a relatively poorly paid health worker, his pay rises are also capped at 1%, but he suddenly has to pay an extra £1,000. He has cancelled his home insurance, but does not know where he is going to find the other £500 per year he will need to pay the extra cost of getting to work. Understandably in my view, he calls this
“a no option commuter tax”.
What does the Minister suggest he does, and is it right that he has had to cancel his home insurance?
I have some constituents who have told me that they will have to give up their jobs because going across the river is no longer financially viable. Some of my constituents, when they are diagnosed with cancer, have to attend the Clatterbridge Centre on the Wirral for treatment on a regular basis over many months. Many of them lose a substantial portion of their income and end up relying on sickness benefits. They are now also having to find the money for bridge tolls, at a time when their income is dwindling and their costs are increasing—one more worry for people who need to avoid worry in order to recover. I have been contacted by constituents in that position who, for understandable reasons, do not want me to reveal their names. There are many similar stories, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have also given some examples.
On the administration of the tolls, the arrangements are unfair and are being operated badly, insensitively and secretively. My constituent, Liz Simon, has already drawn attention in the comments I have quoted to the current anomaly: big discounts for those happening to live within one local authority boundary create inexplicable differences between the treatment of those people and that of individuals who happen to live in other places, because such a demarcation does not take account of the travel-to-work area around the bridge. That can mean people in similar circumstances having to pay 100 times more for crossings over the same bridge.
The former Chancellor, George Osborne, recognised that anomaly when he visited Halton ahead of the 2015 general election. As has been said, he promised to consider financing a similar discount scheme to that operating for Halton residents for those living in Cheshire, Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington. I am sure that it was an oversight on his part to miss out my constituents in Liverpool and Knowsley, as well as people living in St Helens, who also abut the whereabouts of the bridge. The alternative explanation, offered by some Members in today’s debate, that he was offering discounts only to those living in Tory marginal seats ahead of the general election cannot possibly be true; it would be a breach that the Treasury’s accounting officer would not let him get away with indulging in. The fact that the current Chancellor has not gone ahead with his predecessor’s scheme—indeed has not deigned, as yet, even to reply to my letter asking him to consider it—does not negate the great good sense of having a much fairer tolling scheme than the one currently in place.
In addition, can it be right that a £2 toll attracts a £40 fine for non-payment that escalates to £60 if unpaid for a month? I know that payment within 14 days cuts the penalty to £20, but that is still extortionate. The Liverpool Echo reported yesterday that between £l million and £3 million has been charged in penalties within a month of the bridge opening. Indeed, some people feel as if the arrangements are specially designed to catch them out—again, some of my hon. Friends have referred to that in their remarks.
The signage just after the bridge opened was not clear, and it is still possible to drive over the bridge, unable to see the instructions about how and when to pay. The free-flow system has the advantage of not requiring cars to stop, but has the disadvantage of allowing people to incur costs without realising it. Elderly people and those not used to paying for things online are particularly disadvantaged, as are casual visitors, who often do not even realise that the bridge is tolled. I have had contact on social media from people passing by who end up with a fine and—I might say—a very bad impression of Liverpool because they feel they have been trapped into incurring a charge that they were unaware existed. Businesses are also suffering in administrative and financial terms.
What about tractors? You might not be aware of this, Mr Paisley, but I represent a small number of arable farmers. They were told that there would be no tolls for their tractors. After all, they do not pay road tax, or have number plates on the front. In addition, the plate on the trailer does not have to be the same as the plate on the tractor. However, they are having to pay and, as a consequence of the lack of visible number plates on the front of the tractors, they are incurring fines. That may not seem like a large problem, but to a small number of arable farmers it is a serious issue. Merseyflow, the operator of the bridge, has refused to meet them or to address the issue with the National Farmers Union and has just said that it is all fine. I do not think that is sufficiently responsive.
The system has been going wrong. I have heard from people who have had penalty notices when they have paid and people who have had penalty notices when they are exempt. The Liverpool Echo reported that Alison Hill’s husband had received 10 penalty charge notices demanding £220 in total, even though he is a Halton resident exempt from the charge and registered his vehicle in August. My constituent Phillip Grace has had penalty charge notices totalling £616 for 28 crossings because the signage detailing how to pay was missing for the first few weeks of operation.
My constituent Angela Hitchmough paid for a monthly pass for her car—£100 in total, with a £10 registration fee. Three weeks later, she changed her car but was told that she could not transfer her pass to the new vehicle. She has had to lose a week’s worth of travel, register the new car and buy a new monthly pass. She uses the car to go to work part time in Runcorn, so those extra expenses are considerable for her.
On accountability, the organisations in charge of the bridge and the tolling arrangement are not helpful; I do not see why they should not be more accountable for their actions in public. They have not shown much sign of wanting to engage with the public thus far. That needs to change.
Given the complaints I have received, I wanted to know how many people had been fined. I asked a written question, and the Minister told me in a written answer on 3 November:
“The Department for Transport holds no information on the number of people who have been fined”,
and that I should ask Merseyflow. I asked Merseyflow on 6 November to tell me how many fines had been issued since the bridge opened. After further prompting by email and telephone on 4 December, I finally received verbal advice that it would not answer my question and I should put in a freedom of information request to Mersey Gateway Crossings Board.
The Liverpool Echo, as we have heard, was told on 20 November that 50,000 penalty charge notices were issued in the first month of operation. That is a suspiciously round number, but a very large one—fine income of between £l million and £3 million in one month, depending on how quickly people pay their penalty charge notices. That is all money being taken out of the Merseyside economy.
The chief executive of Halton, David Parr, who, according to the Liverpool Echo, has refused to answer a freedom of information request about what he gets paid as a director of the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board, refused to say how much money had been raised in fines. Instead, he waxed lyrical about how popular the new bridge is. It is popular to some and not to others. Operators need to be much more open and transparent about what is going on and the Government need to collect information and give it out when asked.
Does the Minister not agree that the answers to the questions about how much money has been raised in fines and how many penalty charge notices have been issued should be in the public domain? Getting answers should not be like getting blood out of a stone, particularly given that the money is coming straight out of the hard-earned cash of local people and businesses, who are struggling to find it. Should the Department not have the information, particularly given the guarantees it has given to stand behind any shortfall? Why should the details of the contract and the scheme not be published as well? The people of Merseyside have a right to know the answers to those and other questions, and the Government, having insisted that Merseyside could only get this bridge if it was majority-financed by tolls, should be at the forefront of making sure that we have access to and transparency in the information, and should not be indulging in their usual trick of blaming someone else.
Many of my constituents cannot afford the extra costs imposed by the Mersey Gateway Bridge and its current tolling arrangements. There should be, and needs to be, a full reappraisal of how it works, who pays and how much should be paid, which should include looking at getting rid of tolls completely. We need that review sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me and my colleagues the opportunity to raise our constituents’ concerns about this important issue in the House.
The tolls on the Mersey crossings are a huge issue for hundreds of thousands of people living in the north-west. My hon. Friends have already commented on the regional disparity in the tolls across the United Kingdom and the inconsistencies in the Government’s policies. They proudly claim the economic benefits of scrapping the tolls on the Severn Bridge; I cannot believe that simultaneously, for the first time in the UK, they are imposing a toll on users for what was previously a toll-free bridge, the Silver Jubilee bridge. It is currently closed and there is no pedestrian or cycle crossing on the new bridge. The decision is affecting a huge number of people in the north-west, with little consideration for the damage it will do to the region. The tolling of the Silver Jubilee and Mersey Gateway bridges is quite simply causing misery for a huge number of my constituents.
As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester mentioned, just before the 2015 election, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer came to Warrington and made a commitment to the people of Warrington, and Cheshire West and Chester, that they would be exempt from the tolls. In January 2017, that promise was broken. If I were more sceptical of the Conservative Government of the time, I might suggest that there was some electioneering in the timing of the former Chancellor’s announcement. It is no surprise that the U-turn on the commitment has left many of my constituents with a deep feeling of betrayal.
The new toll leaves residents facing an additional cost of £1,000 per year to make crossings that were previously free. For many, that huge cost is for carrying out everyday activities such as travelling to work or attending hospital appointments. Halton and Warrington hospitals form part of the same NHS trust, yet they are on either side of the bridges so many people are forced to cross them to receive treatment. As one of my constituents with a chronic illness put it to me, the toll is yet another tax on illness for hundreds of people.
I have also been contacted by many NHS staff in my constituency, who we already know far too well are suffering as a result of the public sector pay freeze. They are now expected to take what is in effect a £1,000 pay cut, simply for the luxury of travelling to work. That is a huge financial strain on my constituents, especially for those on the lowest wages. The situation appears even more unfair when we consider that the Government spend more than £1,000 per head more per year on transport in London than they do in the north-west, yet they expect our constituents to spend an additional £1,000, which many of them simply do not have, to carry out everyday activities.
The introduction of the toll is a serious burden on local businesses. One local business, a Freight Transport Association member, has predicted that the tolls alone will cost it an additional £1.5 million.
Is that not the frustration? The bridge was a chance to enhance connectivity, not just across Liverpool city region but with Wigan, Warrington, Chester and right into north Wales, but if workers in St Helens are having to pay £80 a month, and businesses are having to pay thousands of pounds a year, does it not become a barrier and a disincentive to building our economic region?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is so important that the Minister addresses how this is affecting businesses and local people and makes a firm commitment today for the region. My constituent says that it will cost his business £1.5 million per year, and there will be administration costs on top of that for completing the necessary paperwork. The millions of pounds that motorists across the region are being forced to spend to make the crossing is money that is no longer being spent in local businesses or used to boost the local economy.
It is not just the financial burden that is affecting local residents. Since the toll bridge opened, I have been contacted by dozens of constituents who have concerns about the increase in traffic in and around Warrington. The town centre is already highly congested at peak times. Naturally, motorists are keen to avoid paying the toll where they can, and many are opting instead to drive through Warrington town centre. Warrington already attracted almost 200,000 journeys to work before the tolls on the bridges were introduced. Local infrastructure simply cannot take any further increases in traffic congestion. Local people in my constituency and Warrington town do not deserve to suffer any more traffic misery.
Warrington already suffers extremely high levels of air pollution. In 2016, the World Health Organisation highlighted that it had breached air pollution safety levels. The major increase in vehicular movement is having an adverse impact on local residents’ health, and is exacerbating Warrington’s poor air quality problems.
I have raised just a few of the problems with the tolls in the Mersey region. I echo my hon. Friends’ excellent comments, but it is time that words became actions. I welcomed the opportunity to meet the Minister last month, and I am grateful that he took the time to have discussions with me. He assured me that he would do his best to take action on this issue. I look forward to our follow-up meeting in the new year. However, the issue will not go away until real action is taken to alleviate the burden on our constituents. I would like the Government to commit to undertake an urgent review of the tolling of the bridge. The concessions that have been made to Halton residents were part-funded by £350 million from the Government. There is no reason why the Government cannot fund an extension of that scheme to help people in neighbouring constituencies who have no choice but to use the bridge regularly.
I will go even further: I urge the Government to consider renegotiating the ownership of the Silver Jubilee bridge with private investors with a view to bringing it into public ownership and keeping both Halton crossings toll-free for all residents. The bridge has the potential to be a valuable economic corridor connecting local communities and businesses. It should be part of the national road infrastructure; we should not have sought private investment when building it.
I urge the Government to prove to local people that the north matters. This is only the beginning of a long fight to scrap the Mersey tolls. I will fight for Warrington South every step of the way.
Thank you for chairing this crucial debate, Mr Paisley. I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for securing it.
Like my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, I am opposed to tolls on the Mersey Gateway. As MP for Weaver Vale, I am in a unique position, in that half of my constituents live in Halton and have access to the funding and free travel arrangements that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) referred to. I echo his point that bands G and H council tax payers and small businesses in the Halton part of my constituency should be included in any concessionary scheme, as the previous Chancellor argued in the past. The other half of my constituents live in Cheshire West and Chester, and therefore, like those of the hon. Member for City of Chester, must pay. If the system is unfair to users who, having paid their taxes to the Treasury, are forced to pay again to use the bridge that they have already helped to fund, it is doubly unfair to my constituents whose friends and neighbours get what they perceive to be free travel simply because of their postcode. For them, they are subject to a postcode lottery that they did not ask to enter in which the ticket cost is, in many cases, more than £1,000 a year, and they have no choice but to play. Like with other lotteries, they pay to enter only to see somebody else rake in the winnings, but the winner is not a fellow player but a private company making a hefty profit from the private finance initiative.
Before I expand on what the situation means for my constituents, I want to be clear about where the responsibility for the unfairness lies and who has the potential to fix it. Halton Borough Council rightly campaigned for decades for a new bridge across the Mersey. To echo a point made by other hon. Members, it was needed. It is a wonderful piece of engineering and infrastructure. It is iconic, and it certainly has improved connectivity and speed flows across the city region. In the public inquiry, the residents of Halton were given a choice between a toll bridge and no bridge, so it is understandable that they chose a toll bridge. Halton Borough Council’s hands were tied by successive Governments. This was the only show in town.
The best way to fund major infrastructure projects—it always seems to be done like this in other parts of the country, particularly the south-east—is from the Exchequer. The only solution is for central Government to address this issue, as they have done for other crossings across the country. If the Conservative Government can abolish tolls on the Severn bridge, they can do so on the Mersey—including for the Mersey tunnels. If the Conservative party can promise free travel for Cheshire and Warrington during the 2015 election campaign, the Chancellor can honour that promise in government. It was not Halton Borough Council or the Labour party that made and broke a promise to my constituents about bridge tolls; it was the previous Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and the Government must be held to account for that.
Although I recognise that the bridge has been good news for travel times and is a fantastic piece of engineering, it is clear that the current-set up, as my hon. Friends said, is posing major challenges for people in my constituency and way beyond it. Money is all too often the reason. More than £1 million in fines—arguably more than that now—has been dished out in one month. I have spoken to many residents who have been dealt with harshly and insensitively. There has been poor communication and signage. An elderly woman in Helsby, which is part of my constituency, was fined £80. She was in tears on the phone because she did not know how to access the internet. It was unjust—she was just a couple of days late with the payment.
Constituents are being hit with bills of £150 if their car breaks down, due to some strange contractual arrangement that means they must be towed by an approved private contractor and pay a charge before their car is released from the compound. Membership of the Automobile Association or the Royal Automobile Club does not count, which is also a frustration for those organisations.
Although it is true that the bridge has created hundreds of skilled jobs during its construction, the jobs that support its ongoing operation are with a private company, Emovis. To be clear, as a Labour MP I am very disappointed that it does not recognise a trade union or pay the real living wage. The true benefit to the economy cannot be measured only in travel times, as crucial as they are; it has to be whether the benefits are shared fairly by all residents, as my hon. Friends have argued.
Recently, with others, I have launched a Christmas campaign. I was disappointed with the clear and quick answer I got from some of the powers that be. The clearest illustration of the crossings arrangements was that clear and quick refusal even to consider allowing free travel on Christmas day. Hon Members may correct me, but we have that for the Mersey tunnels, so on that one day of the year friends and families can visit relatives and so on. They are travelling from all over the country, as hon. Members have said, and we want to ensure that they do not get caught by that interesting arrangement of a fixed penalty notice. I do not believe that the Government should get in the way of a private contractor offering such a concession at Christmas, but in a recent reply about why it is not possible, comment was made not only on the financial arrangements but on the need for Government permission to offer that concession.
The tolls, however, are not just for Christmas but for a period of about 25 years. Ministers will no doubt point to other crossings and say that the scenario is the same there, but the reality is clearly anything but, as people have already said: the new Forth bridge is toll free; tolls will be abolished for the Severn bridge—I have listened to Ministers’ interesting arguments about the economy—and the Dartford crossing is free at night; and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester has mentioned the option chosen for the East Anglia road toll. There is, however, no respite for users of the Mersey Gateway. Instead, when the Silver Jubilee bridge reopens next year, that will be tolled as well. My constituency has many unique and welcome claims to fame, but being near to the only place in the country that has two tolled bridges side by side—the Mersey tunnels are tolled too—is a scandalous situation for the people of Merseyside. It is a unique arrangement.
We have heard much from the Government about the northern powerhouse. Words have yet to be matched by actions or funding, but I do believe that some Ministers in this Government genuinely—I hope—want to tackle the regional divide. We understand that tolls on the Humber bridge are in line to be scrapped as part of a future Yorkshire devolution deal and, if that is the case, we would welcome the same for Merseyside, Cheshire and Warrington. As one constituent said to me, if this bridge was across the Thames, it would be free. What better way to prove that the Government want to change the perception than by abolishing the tolls?
I recognise that the Mersey Gateway is a multi million- pound project, and if abolition outright is not immediately feasible, extending to others the deal that Halton council secured would be a step forward. I and my colleagues would welcome sitting down with Ministers to see how that could be achieved as a first step. The £1,100 a year taken away from an individual household income is simply not fair to constituents and is a tax on jobs. It is not good for our economy, and not good for our region. I urge Ministers to join me and my colleagues in looking at things again and to abolish tolls.
I am about to call the last Back-Bench speaker, but I would like to call the Opposition spokesperson before quarter to 11. I am not imposing a time limit, but I would like you to bear that in mind—I call Justin Madders.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, but I am sure I will be finished well within the time. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing the debate and on the assiduous way in which he and other hon. Friends and hon. Members have pursued this matter for some considerable time. As we have heard, the issue has caused consternation—my hon. Friend used that word several times—as well as frustration and anger locally. Not only are people being asked to pay a toll when they were told that they would not have to, but they see other toll crossings around the country now becoming free.
I have no wish to list all the crossings where there is no charge, but it is worth setting out some of the headlines so that the Minister may see why our constituents feel so aggrieved by the situation. None of the crossings in Northern Ireland are tolled. None of the road crossings in Scotland are tolled. None of the 18 estuary road crossings in London are tolled. In fact, more than 90% of the tidal crossings in this country are toll-free, with several of those that are tolled due to become free shortly.
I hope that I have established that tolls for crossings are a relatively rare thing, and few crossings in recent memory have had charges imposed on their users. What is even rarer, however, if not unique, is the situation on the Mersey, where an existing free crossing is having charges introduced—just because, heaven forbid, people might want to use it: yes, a road charging scheme that is not about managing congestion or recouping construction costs, but about dissuading people from using the crossing altogether.
On the subject of construction costs, the existing Silver Jubilee bridge was partly funded by Cheshire County Council when Halton was part of it. Should not the successor authority to the county council get some sort of refund, or are my constituents expected to pay three times over for this crossing? They pay through the original construction cost, their road tax and the toll for every time they cross the river.
To be clear, my constituents and those of other hon. Members will pay through the nose for the scheme. The toll income is estimated to be about £38 million a year and, as we have heard, fines could well increase that figure. Anyway, Merseylink will be a tidy £113 million better off thanks to taxpayer handouts—the Merseylink accounts put the cost of the bridge at £455 million, yet total Government support for the bridge until 2044 is £568 million. Will the Minister explain where that extra £113 million is going? It is certainly not going to the benefit of my constituents.
To move away from those astronomical figures for a minute, let us look at the human impact. We have heard from hon. Members about how their constituents have been affected. I too have been contacted by many constituents who tell me that they are struggling to cope with the impact of the tolls. Many work in the public sector, be that the NHS, local government or education, where they have, of course, not had a pay rise for seven years, so having to find another £80 a month or so just to get to work is causing them real difficulty. I was very sad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) describe how some of her constituents were having to think about giving up their jobs as a result—that is completely indefensible.
I will read out the personal account of one constituent who contacted me. She said:
“I live in great Sutton but I work in Knowsley. I work extremely hard, long shifts unsociable hours but I love my job (exercise rehab) I have managed to buy a house by myself and can afford a second hand car but have very few luxuries. With the new Mersey bridge being tolled I am going to find it extremely difficult to get to work £2 each way means £4 a day, £20 a week, £80 a month, £1000+ a year all on top of road tax, fuel, and insurance.”
“I personally believe this is highly unreasonable, especially as both bridges will be tolled. There is no escape and there is only yourself to cover the costs.”
The nub of it was:
“I feel penalised for working.”
There we have it: hard-working constituents feel that they are penalised for having a job. Is that the message that the Government want to send? We have heard that employers on both sides of the river already say that staff are looking to leave because of the additional cost. When did the so-called northern powerhouse become a tax on jobs?
Talking of the northern powerhouse, it would be remiss of me not to mention the great architect of this grand illusion, George Osborne, who hon. Members have already spoken of today. His promises in this area have proved to be as meaningless as the Evening Standard circulation figures. I remember coming across a voter during the 2015 election who told me that she was considering voting Conservative because she had heard that the then Chancellor would promise to scrap the Mersey tunnel fees. I expressed scepticism at the time, but looking back, he said:
“They will definitely be cut. I think we might be able to go further, I'm quite optimistic that we might be able to go further and abolish them all together”.
When I heard that, I could see why she might have thought that was a pretty clear statement of intent. In fact, it is almost as clear as what he said about the Mersey Gateway tolls. We have heard a number of Members quote things that he said at the time. He also said:
“I think you've got the balance right by extending the scheme to residents in Cheshire, Cheshire West and Chester and in Warrington.”
It is pretty clear that a promise was made just before the election, but the two statements about the Mersey tunnels and the Mersey Gateway have proved to be utterly meaningless.
Governments of all persuasions are rightly criticised for making election promises that they cannot keep, but in this case the then Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear and unambiguous financial commitments to the electorate. As for his statement on the cost of extending the free scheme to Warrington and Cheshire West residents, it is worth noting that a detailed study on the cost to the taxpayer was prepared and published in July 2016—more than a year after the promise was first made. It looks as though he said what he did with no costings having been done, and with no apparent intention of it being carried out. That is an indictment of the vacuous, tweet-led and dishonest politics we have too much of in this country.
As we have heard, the current boundaries on who pays and who does not make no sense. People can live closer to the crossing in Warrington, or Cheshire West and Chester, than someone in Halton, yet have to pay. I have received complaints, as have other hon. Members, from people about the difficulty they have had in paying. Having no toll booths at all for the occasional visitor is opening people up to unnecessary fines. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said, that creates a very bad impression for visitors to the area. It should not be forgotten that the bridge is located right by an international airport. My constituents should not have to pay fines or fees at all; they should be exempt from paying altogether and this Government should have the decency to honour their promises.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for making such an excellent speech, proving once again that he is the right advocate for the people of the City of Chester. He exposed the fact that across that 20-mile stretch of the River Mersey there is real confusion in the Government’s management of the river crossing and how it is paid for. I thank all my hon. Friends for their powerful speeches.
Before I specifically address the bridge tax, I want to look at what is happening about the disparity and the growing inequality in our country, not least the fact that the north is receiving around a 10th of the economic and transport infrastructure compared with London and the south-east. Of the 18 river crossings in Greater London, not one attracts a toll—Dartford is outside Greater London, of course. Yet in the north-west, we see tolls being extended to bridges that have never had tolls in their 60-year history. This is a region where wages are significantly lower. Therefore, a tax of £4 for a double crossing, which is £1,000 a year, is a real penalty on the north, and is not putting the power back into local people. We heard about the impact that this has on driving congestion in some of the cities, and on air pollution, with air quality deteriorating in places such as Warrington, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) mentioned.
We need to look at why we came to the point where we needed a second bridge. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) said—that it was absolutely necessary—but we must recognise the completely failed public transport infrastructure. I met people from the region who told me how train journeys took so much longer than driving. Therefore, they had no choice. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) that it seems that people do not have the choice of cycling or walking across that bridge. Choices for people in the north are being narrowed. We know that this is all about choices, because we need only to think that last week, the Secretary of State for Transport tried to conceal a deal on public transport with Stagecoach and Virgin, burying £2 billion, which should have gone into the state but was taken out. We could have had an additional £2 billion, which more than covers the cost of these bridges. This is all about choices, which need to be addressed. If that can be done at one stroke, I am sure that this problem can be redressed at one stroke. That makes it even more shocking.
We have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) talk powerfully about the accountability of Merseyflow. People cannot even access information from that company, and we cannot even communicate properly with the company to represent our constituents. It is absolutely crucial that the Minister gets control of that company and sorts out some of those really basic issues. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and others about the impact on local businesses. A penalty is being put on businesses and our public services, not least on Christmas day, when people not only visit their families but go to work for our public services. We heard how people using the NHS are having to pay this tax to cross the river.
We know that there are 80,000 crossings a day, so it is absolutely clear that this is all about enhancing connectivity, improving social mobility—another issue where the Government are in desperate need of solutions—and improving economic growth in one of the country’s most deprived regions. We have to seriously examine why there are four crossings that have to be paid for in the north-west, when there are none in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, with the removal of the tolls on river crossings there. We are down to just seven crossings. I was just looking at the list: funnily enough, it is mostly in Labour areas where people still have to pay tolls.
It is clear the Government will have to bring redress to back up their rhetoric about economic investment. We have heard about how the former Chancellor seems to be planting money trees all over the place. Unfortunately, he then pulls them up after the polls have closed on election night. It is so important that the promises and commitments are followed through. For the residents of Warrington, Cheshire, Halton and the whole region, those promises must be honoured. There is a huge disparity. We heard so eloquently from my right hon. and hon. Friends exactly how that disparity and the way in which the system operates do not make logical sense.
Local people have been failed, particularly with the signage not being complete, having to understand a system that is not explained to them, and having to use the internet when perhaps they do not have a digital connection. It is a complete mess. The Minister needs to get a grip and get a hold of this situation to make the changes. Why are local residents having to pay so much for the scheme? I understand that in the Mersey tunnels alone, they have already paid for the cost of those tunnels 23 times, and now they have to pay again not just for the building of the bridge but for the public finance initiative scheme, paying about £113 million more. Surely that is a huge injustice.
I will not take up much more time, because I know that Members want to hear from the Minister. We need him to get hold of this problem, not pass it on to someone else. It is not local authorities’ problem. He needs to take responsibility for this issue and to ensure that he honours the words of this Government, who said they would address the charges—the bridge tax—that residents have to pay.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for calling this debate. It is testimony to his chirpiness and to the energy of Labour Back Benchers that they have been able to muster such a crowd after a night like last night. I congratulate them on that, too.
Many issues have been raised that will not merely resonate in the Palace of Westminster but be noted by Halton Borough Council and other local councils, and by Merseyflow. I hope that they also have an important wider impact in terms of informing hon. Members’ constituents of the present situation. I have a lot of material to get through, so I am going to be quite quick.
Let me start by pointing out that, contrary to some rumours and suggestions, the Government are very focused on investment in the north, including in the north-west and in and around Liverpool. As the House knows, we have committed to invest £13 billion during this Parliament to improve regional connectivity so that northern towns and cities can pool their strengths and create a single and more interconnected economy. The Liverpool sub-region is a very important part of that policy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a centre of innovation, industry and culture that serves a local population of 2 million and a global population of billions. There are important economic sites in the area, including the Daresbury enterprise zone, Liverpool John Lennon airport and the Omega site in Warrington, but this Government, like colleagues across the House, recognise that the area requires greater investment to support economic growth.
To that end, we have provided nearly £300 million of local growth funding for a number of transport improvements in the region to boost the local economy. Those include the Halton curve, the Warrington waterfront transport infrastructure scheme, improvements at junction 8 of the M62, access improvements to the Knowsley industrial park and the Knowsley expressway, and the M56 junction 11A scheme, which we expect to provide a new junction with the Mersey Gateway bridge and to support the Daresbury enterprise zone. We are doing a lot, and we plan to do more. Subject to future decisions, we could also see improvements such as a high-level crossing of the Manchester ship canal in Warrington and improved access to the port of Liverpool, which is already included in my Department’s road investment strategy.
There has been great growth in this area, and there will be more, with the support of public investment in infrastructure, as has been recognised across the House and in this debate. But it is also clear that, in the middle of all this, the Silver Jubilee bridge in Halton became a victim of the success of the local economy. It is a vital link between the two halves of Halton and one of the few strategic crossings of the Mersey, and it is therefore vital to the wider sub-regional economy, as has been widely pointed out today. It has been upgraded over the years so that it can cater for significantly higher levels of traffic than it was originally designed to accommodate. Nevertheless, as has been recognised, it faced serious congestion, which was holding back local growth. There were delays of up to 10 minutes at peak hours and gridlock on the local network, and there were significant increases in incidents and pollution, as has been recognised. At some point, whether we like it or not, and whatever might have happened to any other river crossing, that bridge would have had to be closed and upgraded. It is important to understand that.
Of course, the new Gateway bridge was itself the product of significant local care, thought and attention. There was a long gestation period, which began before studies in 1994 and included extensive public consultation. It was always clear that both bridges would be tolled, not just the new one. As has been mentioned, there was a public inquiry during May and June 2009, which was chaired by an independent planning inspector. It considered seven planning applications and legal orders, and those orders were confirmed in 2010.
That is a very important backdrop, because it makes clear the context in which we are presently operating. The new bridge, as a striking addition to the local landscape, is already helping to cut congestion, improve journeys and boost the region’s economy. We have heard that there are already 80,000 journeys a day on it, which testifies to its strength. As Members have recognised, it is an astonishing achievement. It is more than 2 km of bridge and road, with 239 enormous beams weighing up to 106 tonnes. It will create nearly 5,000 permanent jobs and will add an estimated £61.9 million in gross value added from new jobs every year by 2030. As the hon. Members for Halton (Derek Twigg) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, it is a fantastic achievement to have delivered that scheme on time and on budget.
Will the Minister give way?
I have no time. The right hon. Gentleman can ask his question if he wants to, but I really want to respond to the points that have been made.
The Government have provided £288 million so far to fund this piece of infrastructure, on top of the £86 million already provided to Halton to develop the scheme and to pay for land and for decontamination. It has been the policy of successive UK Governments—this Government and previous ones—that major estuarial crossings should be tolled. That has been the case with similar English crossings and with the Mersey tunnels, and it was decided that the Gateway bridge would not depart from that policy.
The tolling proposals have been integral to the scheme and to the financing package for the new bridge. As was recognised, it is a practical impossibility to have a situation in which the new bridge is tolled while the adjacent Silver Jubilee bridge is not. That would mean that most users would opt to use the existing bridge, which would defeat the objective of bringing that bridge back to more local use and upset the agreed financial package. There is nothing new here. These issues were all considered and debated at the public inquiry into the legal orders that Halton Borough Council sought to construct the new crossing.
It is important to recognise that, at the final approval stage in 2014, the then Chancellor announced that the Government would fund the difference, to allow eligible residents unlimited use of the bridges for registered private cars only. As a result, there is a discount scheme for local residents. The residents of Halton are in the unusual position that the existing bridge connects the two parts of the borough either side of the River Mersey. We continue to feel that it is right that those who live in that situation receive free crossings, as is the case with the Dartford crossing in Kent. Many hon. Members said that there is therefore a case to be made for the extension of free tolling to residents of councils beyond Halton. As I have said, we have looked at that, but it is a practical impossibility, for two reasons. First, the cost to the Government and to local authorities would be substantial. Extending the benefit to residents of just the five neighbouring authorities would cost more than £600 million. We would expect the cost to be split according to the ratio that has been used so far. That would leave nearly £370 million to be found by the five councils.
Will the Minister give way on the point about bands G and H?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people in bands G and H. There has to have been a socioeconomic basis for that, otherwise the problem could not have been addressed without a leakage, but I am very happy to revisit the letter that he received with Treasury colleagues to see whether further consideration can be given to that issue.
I want to give the hon. Member for City of Chester a chance to wind up, so let me say very quickly that it is not fair to point to the crossing on the M4 in Wales as a precedent, because that bridge had been paid for through its tolls. Yes, there have been teething problems and snags. Those are issues for Merseyflow and Halton Borough Council.
Let me conclude by reminding those present of the significant transport investment that the Government have made and wish to continue to make in the Liverpool sub-region. These crossings are the subject of local governance by the relevant bodies and I am delighted that the bridge opened successfully on schedule.
There is no time for a wind-up speech—whether to allow one is at my discretion—so I will put the Question.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tolls on the Mersey crossings.
Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I applied for the debate for one reason: because miners and their families deserve a fair deal from their pension pots. In the time I have, I will talk a bit about the scheme—what it is, what the issues are and what could be done going forward—but first, I want to talk about why it matters.
I have a very personal stake in this because of where I am from and my family. Like much of south Wales, coalmining is a big part of Blaenau Gwent’s history. We were the crucible of the industrial revolution in Wales. Steel and coal propelled the Welsh economy, shaping our landscape and employing hundreds of thousands of people. There were tragedies as well, such as at Senghenydd and Six Bells in my constituency—I could go on.
Like many people in Blaenau Gwent, mining also played a big part in my family. I was named after three colliers—my three uncles on my mum’s side—Nicholas, Desmond and John. I still remember the 1974 coal strike: I went with my Uncle Dessie to pick coal off the patches high above Tredegar to help keep our homes warm. They were all members of this scheme. Working deep underground, miners like my uncles helped keep our country running for decades. It was dangerous work, but they just got on with it. Oakdale colliery, where a lot of my family worked, shut 28 years ago. The British mining industry is almost gone, but what is left is former mining communities such as Blaenau Gwent and pensioners like my uncles.
In 2006, there were 280,000 total members of the scheme. By 2016, there were just over 177,000 members. The scheme projects that that number will fall by about 50,000 in the next 10 years, which would take total membership down to about 127,000—a drop of 55% over 20 years. Those members who are left deserve a duty of financial care from our Government.
I have hundreds of constituents who have paid into the scheme and deserve the money, in contrast to the Government, who have not made a contribution since 1994. In discussions, the Government have said that they do not intend to agree to changes that are not in their interests. This is simply not fair. They need to think again.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point that gets to the nub of the question we are considering.
I called for the debate following the productive meeting that Labour colleagues and I had with the scheme trustees recently. At the meeting, we looked at ways of improving outcomes for the scheme’s members, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) for organising it.
On the scheme itself, in 1994, there was an agreement between British Coal pension trustees and the Government. The Government made a guarantee that any pensions earned up until privatisation were safe and would not fall in cash terms. In return, if the schemes were in surplus and doing well, that surplus would be split 50:50, with half going to scheme members and the other half to the Government. The sharing of the surplus is at the heart of our discussion.
Since 1994, the Government have taken £3.5 billion out of the scheme, without making any payments into it. It could be argued that £830 million of that was British Coal’s original share of the surplus being paid back to the Government—I sort of get that and it is a fair point.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions British Coal. He will know that British Coal made no employer contributions between 1987 and 1995, when a Conservative Government were in power. Does he agree that that was an error by that Government that clearly proves that, in their time in government, they did not care about ex-mineworkers?
My hon. Friend and neighbour really captures what has happened.
As my hon. Friend has said, the surplus gets to the heart of the issue. Does he accept that the surplus the Government have received is far in excess of their own expectations for what could have happened?
My hon. Friend and neighbour, like my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), gets right to the bone. Nearly £2.7 billion has come from the scheme to the Government as their share of the subsequent surpluses. That means that the Government have taken the same share as the people who earned the pensions in the first place.
Instead of paying in, the Government act as a guarantor in case things go wrong. That is a good thing and has been helpful—the trustees say that. The Government say that they take the money because they will step in and protect the value of pensions if the fund encounters difficulties. The trustees accept that this protection has enabled them to pursue more lucrative investments than might otherwise have been the case. I would like to be clear: we are glad that the Government guarantee is there. It has made a difference and helped to lead to better returns.
I have also met the trustees. Does the hon. Gentleman accept what they have said—that the guarantee is the most important part of the agreement, and that they would not wish to give any movement on that guarantee within the scheme for any price?
The hon. Gentleman is right. When we met the trustees, they told us that the guarantee was important, and I accept that. It has been helpful in terms of pursuing lucrative investments, which have aided scheme improvements and its funding. It has also given miners the peace of mind that the pension they earned will not go down in value, no matter what happens in the markets. It is a good thing. The basic nature of the guarantee is not in dispute. The concern is about how much money is being taken out of the surplus in return for it. That is the question we have to try to tease out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting this important debate. The miners feel deceived and that they have been led down the garden path. As he and many colleagues know, there is anger in mining communities because they feel they have been duped. Waiting and waiting for some kind of resolution is not good enough. May we have an inquiry by the Treasury Committee into the scheme? Would he agree with that?
I agree. More parliamentary consideration of this important initiative and where it goes next would be valuable.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, the tone of his remarks to date and the manner in which he and colleagues are campaigning. Will he explain why during 13 years of Labour Government the deal with the trustees was not renegotiated at all?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but this is not about looking backwards but about looking forwards and looking after the hundreds of thousands of people I mentioned in my introduction.
The Government have provided the guarantee, which is an important commitment, but I would like to ask the Minister three things and I would like three answers today, please. How many other pension schemes that the Government guarantee have delivered them a windfall of billions similar to that in this instance? Do the Government still think that the 50:50 share of the surplus is fair? Importantly, will the Government consider taking a reduced share in the future?
It has been estimated that the Government will receive windfalls of £51 million each year between 2016 and 2019—another £200 million. Lots of people feel that that belongs to the retired miners, not the Government, and I agree with them. Today, I call on the Government to revisit the surplus sharing arrangements, and in particular I urge them to meet the trustees of the scheme to chart a way forward. I am sure that I speak for many colleagues in saying that there is support for change in our constituencies, and that we should do the right thing by retired mineworkers and their families. The time has come for a better way to help the trustees support our communities. This is the miners’ money. They earned it through years of hard work at the coalface, and they deserve a better and fairer share of it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate on an issue that we feel passionately about.
The Government profiting from the pensions of ex-miners over all these years is nothing short of a national scandal, and billions have been pocketed by the Treasury since 1994 because, as colleagues have said, of the unjust 50:50 surplus-sharing arrangement. That sum was agreed at the outset, with little analysis or justification, and the split has weighed far too favourably in the Government’s favour. It would never have been forecast, or expected, that the Treasury would make so much money without ever having to pay a penny into the fund. We cannot rest until we put that right, and I will continue to raise this issue in Parliament.
I have met the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I have organised meetings between colleagues and the trustees of the pension scheme. I and colleagues have been told by Ministers that the surplus-sharing agreement is working well, that only the trustees could change it, and that no objections have been raised. However, I have met the trustees, and they want the arrangement to be changed so that miners can benefit from the scheme’s success to a greater and fairer extent. The ball is in the Government’s court. They are forecast to pocket many millions more over the next three years. That is wrong, and it is time to say that enough is enough. It is time for justice for ex-miners and their widows. They have waited long enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this important debate. I ask hon. Members to bear with me, because while I will probably reach the same conclusion as others, my rhetoric might be slightly different.
Like many hon. Members, a number of my constituents who are beneficiaries of the mineworkers’ pension scheme have contacted me with concerns about its arrangement. I, too, recently met the scheme’s trustees, and had a long and productive discussion with them. The closure of the mines was obviously a major blow to people in my constituency. The mines represented their livelihoods and communities, so I understand why this is such an emotive issue.
I am not here to retread history. Successive Governments have undoubtedly ignored this issue, but the existing scheme also has a number of benefits. The guarantee that the Government provided for this scheme, and careful investment, has meant that the pensions of ex-mineworkers are a third higher than they would have been had the guarantee not been made. We should be clear that, at that time, the profit-sharing arrangement corresponded with the risk assumed by the Government in underwriting the fund. However, times have moved on, and thanks to the scheme’s excellent financial management, investments have thrived and the Government and pension holders have done well. With that in mind, I would like more of the profits from the scheme to go to the people whose hard work and dedication paid into it, and I ask the Government to consider changing the profit-sharing model in line with the fund’s success.
Mansfield has long felt ignored and alienated from Westminster, and it has never believed that this place has its best interests at heart. As the constituency’s new Conservative MP, I want that attitude to change, and I urge the Government to revise their share of profits from the scheme down to a fairer but sustainable level, without compromising that guarantee. It is now time to have that discussion directly with trustees, and to show that a Conservative Government have a commitment to supporting coalfield communities in the future.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Paisley—I hope it will not be the last—and I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate, and other hon. Members for their contributions.
Pensions are complex, and I asked to respond to this debate on behalf of the Government because I was previously the Pensions Minister. Although I was not involved specifically with this case, that role gave me—I hope—an understanding of all aspects of pension funds. The Philip Green case received a lot of publicity, and there are lots of other cases, but this is the first time that I have come across a pension fund in such a situation of surplus, compared with the usual story these days of low interest rates and low returns for investors.
In his eloquent speech, the hon. Gentleman asked whether there were other schemes of a similar nature, and the only one that I have come across—again, this was in my previous role—is the rail workers’ pension scheme, which, as I remember, was significantly in deficit all the time. I have not previously come across this type of circumstance, but if by chance I find other examples, I will meet or write to the hon. Gentleman.
I know that time is limited and the hon. Gentleman may want to respond to the debate, so I will do my best to keep within the time allowed. The mineworkers’ pension scheme is big—it has 177,000 members, pays pensions at an annual cost of more than £800 million, and has assets in excess of £11 billion. It is managed by the trustees. The Government’s role is as guarantor. Officials in the Department meet the trustees regularly to discuss the operation of the scheme. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), have also met those trustees—they seem rather more open to meeting than other trustees I have known, which is good. I have not had the chance to meet them, but if I had had, I certainly would have done.
When the scheme was set up in 1952, members contributed no more than 20p a week, and benefits were small. From 1975, contributions and benefits were linked to members’ salaries, with British Coal making up the difference. At privatisation, the Government took on the role of British Coal, and the scheme had a surplus in 1994, half of which was used to enhance members’ pensions immediately, with the other 50% payable to the guarantor. The Government of the day agreed to leave their share of the surplus in the scheme as an investment return. Those arrangements were agreed between the trustees and the Government in their role as guarantor—hence the mineworkers’ pension scheme of 1994. At that time, all parties believed the equal sharing to be a fair settlement—this arrangement did not come about in conflict or anything like that; it was agreed to be a fair way of proceeding. The Government receive their share not because of their guarantor status—that is a big issue in the financial world, because it allows a much greater risk profile than a normal pension fund could have—but also because of the contributions that they have made to the scheme to make up the pool of money. Again, neither of those points are particularly controversial in themselves.
The guarantee means, of course, that however bad the work of the trustees—it is not bad; please do not think I am saying that, but in theory the trustees could be really poor investors who did not do their job—the Government would have to stand by and underwrite the money to pay the pensions. That is what a guarantee would do. We see adverts all the time in which people are lent money with someone else guaranteeing it, but they do not quite say that the guarantor will pick up the bill if the person concerned does not pay. That principle is true in this case. It ensures that guaranteed pensions, including inflation increases, will always be paid, as long as the Government can pay—and hopefully that will be so for the rest of our lifetimes and many more to come.
It is indeed the case that early projections underestimated how well the scheme would perform. It was not expected to perform as well as it has.
How many times since the 1994 deal was struck have the Government had to step in with any cash to bankroll the scheme?
I think the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that he knows the answer, which I do not, and that it is zero, but I should like to write to him formally, because I do not want to inadvertently mislead anyone. I do not have the information to hand, but if he will bear with me until later today, I shall make sure he gets a letter or email straight away. It is a reasonable question, but, if I may put words into his mouth—although one never should—I think he really means to say that the Government have never been called on to put money in. I think that is a reasonable assumption; the scheme is unlike others, in that respect. However, Governments get a reward, as anyone would, for risk, and just because things are working one way, that does not mean that they always have or always will. I think that most people would accept that. By the way, I heard nothing unreasonable in the speeches that hon. Members made during the debate. There is realism here; it is a question of judgment about what to do with the surplus.
Some hon. Members have argued that the Government are taking money from scheme members. I think the word “robbery” was used, which is a bit inflamed, but I know what it means—that it is something improper. Others say that the pensions would be higher if the Government did not take their share of the surplus. Both those views might be true, but they do not present the full picture, because pensions are paid according to the scheme rules, so that the sums due to scheme members would not change. They could potentially benefit from bigger bonuses if they had a greater share of surpluses, but in that environment the trustees’ investment strategy would be more risk-averse, and returns could be less than they currently are. In any event, would it be fair to ask taxpayers to take all the risk with none of the benefits?
The scheme has been a success, and at least the money is there.
I just have a simple question: what is the cost to the guarantor, compared with the cost of the surplus? How much do the Government need in the pension fund to provide a guarantee on the pensions? Do we know the figure?
The cost to the guarantor is a contingent cost. It could, in theory, be all the money—the billions in the pension fund. That is the only answer I can give, because, of course, that is what a guarantee is. If one guarantees a loan to a bank, to use the analogy I gave before, it is the whole thing. If the person who has borrowed the money pays back 25% of it, the guarantor pays 75% of it. The principle is exactly the same. However, the scheme in question has been a success, and I would argue, and I think the trustees would agree, that it is the guarantee that made that possible. All the other pension funds—I dealt with quite a few in my previous job—buy very low-risk Government bonds, all the time. They do it because of fear; obviously, they have got to pay money out. With their fiduciary duty they cannot risk it. That is one of the reasons that British pension funds do not invest in infrastructure and similar things as much as we would like. They cannot risk the pensioners’ money, because of the need for returns. A guarantee on all pension funds would transform the whole pensions industry, but of course the Government would then have a contingent liability of I do not know how many billions.
I do not think anyone is arguing that the scheme has not been successful. I am a coalfield MP and have many constituents with long-term health conditions that are the effect of their jobs. My hon. Friends and I are saying that if the scheme has been successful, the success should be shared by the people who benefit from the scheme, and not necessarily by the Government, who have been involved in a technical role, as opposed to being an actual part of the scheme.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the role is more than technical. First, the Government have also contributed a lot to the scheme. Secondly, the guarantee is more than just technical; it is a golden guarantee. That is a good thing—I ask the House please not to think that I am saying it is not, but it is more than just technical. The fact that the guarantee has not been called on may make it look far less important than it is. I want hon. Members and others who listen to the debate to know that a lot of successful investments were made because the trustees have had the security of the knowledge that the Government are standing by.
Surpluses are calculated during scheme valuations, which happen every three years, by the Government actuary. That is not controversial. The trustees are invited to give their views before conclusions are reached. There have been eight such valuations. I have set out the benefits of the guarantee during good times, but we must bear in mind the fact that future outcomes are not known. There may be very bad times ahead in the pension world. I do not know, and I hope not. If things turn out to be disastrous, and if investments turn bad—Members may have been listening to debates in the House about the European Union, and who knows what will happen?—it is for the trustees to consider the situation. It is for that very reason that a lot of general pensions will hold surpluses. Any volatility going forward would certainly affect the amount of money in the scheme. Taxpayers would then bear that burden.
There was a valuation in 2013, and pensioners were paid a bonus—a new bonus of 4% was given in March 2014. The trustees have subsequently been able to award those bonuses, so it is not as if the surpluses just stay where they are. However, I accept that it is the trustees’ job to be prudent. They have a fiduciary duty to consider the position. I have not met the trustees, but I imagine that for that reason some of them would err on the side of caution and say, “We can’t distribute the money,” because that is their fiduciary duty. However, the bonuses that are paid are very important. It is one of those things. Current arrangements have certainly allowed the trustees to implement a high-risk investment strategy, but I want hon. Members to know that because of that strategy the typical pensioner receives a pension that is 33% higher in real terms than they would have with a normal Government bond-type of strategy. It is not as if they do not benefit from it. The strategy is backed up by the Government guarantee, which can be called on at any time, on demand, based on the ages of scheme members. We expect it to run for about another 60 years.
I accept the points that hon. Members have brought up, and am happy to meet and go into further detail or discuss new stuff. I am very open to representations. However, I have looked at the matter in the limited time I have had since I have been in the job, compared the scheme with others, tried to assess whether the risk element, the guarantee and compensation are fair in all ways—the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned that quite a lot of aspects are fair—and I have reached the conclusion that the existing arrangements in this case remain fair to all parties.
Question put and agreed to.
City of Culture 2021: Swansea Bid
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Swansea’s bid to be City of Culture 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. Today I have the enormous pleasure of bringing forward this Westminster Hall debate. Hon. Members may be asking, “What is a city of culture, and why is it so important?” The UK city of culture is an award given to a city in the UK every four years. That city holds the title for the period of one year. The award was devised to support the sustainable regeneration of cities by positioning culture at the heart of city planning and development. Having previously reached the shortlist for UK city of culture 2017, Swansea is competing to be the city of culture 2021, and has once again been shortlisted. The panel of judges will make their decision this coming Thursday, 7 December, and my hon. Friend the Minister will announce it. We could encourage him to announce it in this debate if he would like to, but he is being coy.
The current holder of the title is Hull, which needs to be congratulated on its excellent year as Britain’s culture capital. The winning city receives the right to hold various prestigious cultural events, as well as encouraging inward investment. While there is no monetary support or prize attached to the title of UK city of culture, Hull has successfully secured £15 million in Government funding, as well as £3 million from Arts Council England and £3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In the first half of its year as UK city of culture, Hull hosted at least 450 events, exhibitions and cultural activities, attracting over 1.4 million visits. It is estimated that Hull’s year as city of culture will lead to a £1 billion boost for its economy and an extra 3,500 jobs.
Swansea could replicate that, and indeed more. Swansea should be the next city of culture not because of unfairness, because we missed out in 2017, or because a city from Wales has never played host to the title; nor is it that Coventry, Paisley, Sunderland or Stoke would not make a worthy city of culture. It is because Swansea deserves it, and we all know how it would allow Swansea to develop and to begin a new chapter for that ever-evolving city.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that Swansea deserves the title in its own right, but he is also right to say that Wales deserves it. Here is a nation full of culture, wanting to share it with the rest of the world. I am from north Wales, but I will be supporting this all-Wales bid to have the city of culture. I have come off the fence: my son-in-law is from Coventry and my friends are from Sunderland, but I am sticking with the Welsh bid because we deserve it.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I am also surprised and delighted that he has some friends—that is even better.
The hon. Gentleman leads me on to a good point. Hon. Members may be wondering why the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is introducing this debate, which some people would expect to benefit south Wales and Swansea constituencies. My northern Radnorshire boundary is 100 miles from the city of Swansea, but the southern tip of my constituency is only 15 miles from the city centre. Like him, I firmly believe that if the bid is successful—I hope it will be—the city of culture status will not only benefit my constituents in the up-and-coming cultural centre of Ystradgynlais in the upper Swansea valley, but will be of benefit right across my constituency and to the whole of Wales to the north, east and west of Swansea. I do not say to the south, because those who know Swansea well will know that they will get their feet wet, and a little bit wetter, if they decide to go south.
Swansea is where the coast meets the city, where the city meets the country, and culture is a natural thread running through it like an artery. I was lucky enough to be born and brought up at the bottom of the Swansea valley, in what was then a very rural area. Now, of course, it has developed as a suburb of Swansea itself. Since my childhood, Swansea has changed considerably, and it continues to change. It is an area that constantly embraces change, hence its status as such a cosmopolitan city today.
Swansea has also had an ever-changing past. In the late 18th and early 19th century it was one of the top seaside resorts in the UK and a true destination for tourists. Its long, sandy beach brought in tourists from far and wide, and the continuation of the coastline around the Gower Peninsula rivalled any beauty spot in the country. It was later to become Britain’s first area of outstanding natural beauty. Then came a great challenge to the town, as it was then: tourism or industrialisation?
In 1840, a new identity was forged. New docks were built, foundries were established and Swansea became a key centre of the global copper industry. Wales can lay claim to being the world’s first industrial nation. By the late 19th century, south Wales was a global centre for heavy industry, coal production and maritime trade, and Swansea was central to that. Swansea expanded considerably throughout the great industrial age, bringing great wealth and also great poverty to the area.
The bustling town was then reduced to rubble during the blitz of the second world war. As a major port, with its ammunition-making factories and foundries, Swansea was a massive target. But we are talking about Swansea and its people, and like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, the centre was rebuilt, with new buildings emerging and new life brought into the centre of the still-important city.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate—obviously a timely one, given the week it is in. As I live in and represent part of the city of Londonderry, the first ever UK city of culture in 2013, would he accept my saying that the phoenix rising from the ashes is an appropriate euphemism? One of the things that Swansea, if successful, needs to do is to harness communities across the city and the region of south Wales behind the bid and beyond the bid. There must be legacy projects so that people can say, “That is a tribute to what was achieved as a result of Swansea being successful,” if it is successful on Thursday.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Londonderry is, of course, a prime example, so we listen with interest and take his words very seriously.
Not long after the blitz, change was again on the horizon for Swansea. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the old industrial areas and manufacturing industries closed, vast areas of previously productive commercial and factory sites became obsolete and turned into waste grounds. Swansea was getting ready for yet another period of change. The old Swansea vale, once dominated by the smoke and pollution of heavy industry, now became a magnet for industries of a different type. It became a modern industrial park with high-tech companies, with a progressive out-of-town shopping centre. The city centre still includes a busy shopping core, at the centre of which is the legendary Swansea market, where people can still buy that great Welsh delicacy, laverbread, to go with their cockles and bacon, followed of course by the cultural Welsh cake. There is still a way to go to fully regenerate the city and see Swansea again become the world leader it once was. Being awarded the city of culture prize would be the catalyst for that transformation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate to Westminster Hall. I offer him and all the hon. Members for Wales every best wish for Thursday. I hope they are successful. Part of that success spins off. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, not only Londonderry but the whole of Northern Ireland gained from the city of culture status. The whole of Wales would gain from Swansea’s success.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I am sure the Minister hears the cross-border, cross-country support for Swansea’s bid. I am sure that will weigh heavily on his decision.
I make a confession: although I represent Cardiff Central, I am actually a Jack—I was born in Swansea. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate and join him in hoping that Swansea is successful on Thursday. Not only would that bring benefits to Swansea, but a lot of the people travelling to Swansea to see the city of culture will travel through Cardiff.
We are honoured by the hon. Lady’s making such a confession in this Chamber. She should be truly praised for it.
We have heard of the history and the geography of Swansea, but what of the culture? Some examples of cultural initiatives run by Swansea include hosting the British Science Festival; the International Dylan Thomas Prize; an artist-led regeneration of the high street; a range of arts and literature festivals; and the work of theatre companies at large. One of Swansea’s most famous sons is, of course, Dylan Thomas, who was born in the city and who based much of his early work on his experience growing up there. Do Not Go Gentle is a new fringe festival in the Uplands area of the city, where Dylan Thomas was born and lived for many years.
The Swansea Grand Theatre is the largest in the region, hosting many west end productions. Several independent theatre companies are also based there. In the summer, outdoor Shakespearean performances are a regular feature at Oystermouth castle—I know the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is a regular attender of those—and Singleton Park is the venue for a number of parties and concerts, from dance music to the outdoor BBC Proms in the Park.
In addition, Swansea hosts an international jazz festival every summer and an international arts festival in the autumn, where international orchestras and soloists perform in unusual venues, such as empty department stores, as well as Brangwyn Hall—a concert venue in Swansea praised for its acoustics for recitals, orchestral pieces and chamber music alike, not to mention its collection of the Brangwyn paintings. As a young man, prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, I sang there as a chorister. I am sure Opposition Members are terribly sorry they missed that, but I am sure the recordings are available at supermarkets near them.
Standing near Victoria Park on the coast road is the Patti Pavilion, which is used as a venue to stage live music and events and is named after the great Victorian opera singer, Dame Adelina Patti, who built her home at Craig-y-Nos in the upper Swansea valley, at the bottom of my Brecon and Radnorshire constituency. There are also many independent galleries and artist studios, such as the recently expanded Glynn Vivian Art Gallery—a regional partner to the Tate—as well as a large number of live music venues.
The Liberty stadium is home to Wales’s only premier league football club—it is lucky for the hon. Member for Cardiff Central that she made that confession earlier.
I would not place too much emphasis on that, bearing in mind that Swansea City are currently bottom of the premier league and Cardiff City are second in the championship.
Just as we are only partway through the Brexit negotiations, we are only partway through the football season, so let us see what happens.
And it could not get much worse.
If the hon. Gentleman means the football, that is a fair comment.
The Liberty stadium has a capacity of 30,000 when used as a music or event venue. There is also the Great Hall and Taliesin Arts Centre, which are owned and managed by Swansea University. The venue hosts a broad programme of events, including cinema screenings, an average of 10 visiting exhibitions per year and a variety of live performances, from dance and drama to jazz and world music.
Of course, there is also the rugby, the football, the churches and chapels and the great food and drink. There are the places of learning—the schools and the colleges and, of course, the University of Swansea, with its outstanding new Jersey Marine campus. Then there is the Welsh language, which is renowned throughout the world. Who could fail to be moved by Welsh song and dance, including by our many Welsh male voice choirs, which lead the world?
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate speech. He mentioned the Swansea bay campus. One important thing for the record is that that campus is actually located in the great constituency of Aberavon—I hope that has been noted by Hansard. On the internet coast proposal, to which we very much hope the Government will give their full support, does he agree that city of culture status would be a fantastic force multiplier for that investment in the Swansea bay city region?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is supportive of that scheme. Of course, Aberavon looks on to Swansea, and anything that benefits Swansea, or, indeed, Aberavon, will be of great benefit to Wales as a whole.
Swansea has produced many great sons and daughters who have turned into cultural icons of today and of yesteryear. Household names include, from broadcasting, Huw Edwards, Ian Hislop and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, and musicians such as Sir Karl Jenkins, Bonnie Tyler and Dire Straits’ Terry Williams. They also include rugby players and footballers including John and Mel Charles, Dean Saunders, Dan Biggar and Shane Williams, actors including Sir Harry Secombe, Rob Brydon and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and writers such as Dylan Thomas and Iris Gower. From the law—from the upper Chamber in this place—they include Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the former Lord Chief Justice, and from the Church, of course, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Many great politicians have come from Swansea—legends every one of them—but I shall save their modesty and not name anyone directly.
Swansea is now ready for the next chapter in its varied existence. It has the infrastructure in place to provide high-quality cultural services to its communities and to host a world-class product, but co-operation, collaboration and skills development across the sector, accessible to all its diverse communities, have not yet been realised. Swansea can build its reputation as a place of culture, learning and innovation. Although the universities are making great strides on that, many of Swansea’s communities have low confidence and a tendency to look inwards rather than outwards. I strongly believe that becoming UK city of culture could help to overcome that in ways that would be otherwise unachievable. I am confident not only that Swansea can deliver an exemplary year artistically and logistically, but that the social and economic impacts will be strongly and widely felt. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, legacy and sustainability are key, and the bid committee are agreeing the structures and delivery partners to secure that through long-term engagement, skills development and employment opportunities, alongside the continuation of audience development and funding partnerships.
Having the opportunity to share that, to tell a new story about Swansea and to enable its communities to see themselves and their city through a new lens will build connectivity, cohesion, confidence and aspiration that will secure a better future for the city. A better future for Swansea supports a much wider hinterland, Wales as a nation and, ultimately, its relations with the UK and its global profile, as it stands side by side on an international platform, celebrating and broadcasting world-class productions.
I congratulate the team, led by the City and County of Swansea Council, in putting together the excellent bid, as well as the partner organisations for their continued and enthusiastic support. I hope that the city of Swansea, so described by the poet Dylan Thomas as the
“ugly, lovely town…crawling, sprawling…by the side of a long and splendid curving shore”,
becomes the 2021 city of culture.
It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the Swansea boy, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), on securing this important debate.
I am so proud to call Swansea my home. It is the city that gave birth to Mal Pope, Bonnie Tyler, Russell T. Davies of Doctor Who fame, Harry Secombe, Mervyn Davies—known affectionately as “Merv the Swerve”—and Kev Johns, a senior local Swansea celebrity. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned, Dylan Thomas referred to Swansea as:
“An ugly, lovely town…crawling, sprawling…by the side of a long and splendid curving shore.”
I am afraid I have to disagree with Dylan on that small point. Swansea was recently named the most beautiful UK city. It is hard to think of a more beautiful destination. We can admire the glorious coastline at Rhossili bay, voted Wales’s best beach in 2017, get lost in Singleton Park or gaze down at all of Swansea in its splendour from Kilvey hill in the proposed Skyline cable cars.
It is estimated that approximately 5.7 million people will visit Swansea if it is awarded city of culture status, spending more than £431 million while they are there. That will be a welcome boost for the small businesses of Swansea and the surrounding region—businesses we are all supporting. Thousands of paid and voluntary roles will be created, including as artists, performers and apprentices and in tourism and event management. City of culture status may come with a one-year timeframe, but this is not a one-off arts project; it is a driver and accelerator of significant investment and a means to create more resilient and connected communities.
There will also be a programme for young people who are not in employment, education or training, as well as the disabled, those on low incomes and other social groups who need greater support to achieve their potential, by gaining work and volunteering experience. That will include 40 programmes run for and by older people, to address isolation and loneliness, communication, dementia and intergenerational support, alongside engaging some 2,000 students to volunteer or take part in cultural events or programmes that help them feel supported.
Culture is not simply about the arts. This will reinforce the culture of community integration and the wellbeing of the 685,000 people living in the Swansea bay city region. The unifying theme of Swansea’s city of culture bid is “Turning Tides—A City Revealed”. Would it not be fantastic to finally see the Government commit to Swansea bay tidal lagoon before 2021?
I represent the east side of Swansea—a constituency that I love and that no one could convince me to move out of at any cost. In that region of Swansea, families are more likely to have a lower income. The team behind our city of culture bid has recognised that and will implement measures to ensure that Swansea residents do not miss out based on geographical location. Residents of Swansea East will be supported through ticketing, transport and family learning activities in their communities and in the city overall.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is shining the spotlight on each shortlisted city this week, starting with Coventry last Friday and Sunderland today. I see it as fate that Swansea is being celebrated on Thursday, the day that the overall winner of city of culture 2021 is announced. I will be watching “The One Show” avidly with bated breath this Thursday—parliamentary business permitting—to hear the city of culture 2021 announced as Swansea. I have every faith in Swansea’s ability to deliver a winning bid, and I for one cannot wait to share my ugly, lovely town with you all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing the debate. Having been brought up in Swansea East and educated at Morriston Comprehensive, he knows the area well.
Swansea and the Gower is the hidden gem of Wales and the United Kingdom and deserves far more attention than it currently gets. My constituency of Gower would benefit greatly from the extra publicity, with tourism being a major employer. Gower, located within the Swansea region, is one of the most beautiful and picturesque areas in the world. In fact, the Gower peninsula was the first place in the UK to be named an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Gower has so much to offer as part of this city deal. It has four blue flag beaches—Bracelet bay, Langland, Caswell and Port Eynon—and five beaches with the green coast award for natural and unspoiled environment, including the little-known Pwll Du cove. Going around the peninsula, Rhossili to the north was voted the UK’s best beach, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, as well as the third-best beach in Europe and the ninth-best beach in the world, with rare birds and wildlife and the sight of shipwrecks along the beautiful coastline. There are so many beaches and picturesque areas of coastline that there is even an app for people to navigate their way around the peninsula.
Sport is a way of life. The surfing and water sport beaches of Llangennith and Caswell are a great attraction for thrill seekers and beginners, with the option of lessons from the brilliant Gower surf school. Next summer, you may even catch me on a paddle board going around the Mumbles. Mumbles is always a popular attraction for tourists and has so much to offer. The Swansea bay rider, a land train operating between Blackpill and Mumbles, offers a fun way to travel and enjoy the bay, with great sights such as Mumbles pier, boutique shops and—thanks to Italian families such as my own in the area—the option of ice cream from Joe’s and Verdi’s. It also hosts the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat station, which is a vital service for ensuring safety across the coast.
Apart from the obvious highlights of the peninsula, my constituency has a lot more to offer, with heritage centres in Clydach and Gower, the latter offering a 12th-century working water mill. Loughor town hall is undergoing a major redevelopment, and glorious woodland walks can be found in Coed Bach Park in Pontarddulais, which has green flag certification.
My hon. Friend is speaking with real passion for the constituency she represents. She is a true champion of the people and communities of the Gower. Just up the road is the equally wonderful constituency of Ogmore, which is full of rolling hills and valleys and lots of walking opportunities. Does she agree that part of the success of the bid, if it is granted, will be the wider cultural aspects and recreational and physical activities on offer in constituencies such as mine, as well as Aberavon and so on, for people who are visiting?
That is a very important point to highlight. Walking and exercise are very important and form the recreational part of the bid. What happens in Swansea will then filter down into nearby constituencies.
We also have some amazing food, from cockles and oysters from Oystermouth, to Salt Marsh lamb from north Gower, delicious Gower Cottage brownies and Gŵyr gin, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has still to taste. We are unique in what Swansea can offer. We have the local Gower and Mumbles breweries—I believe my predecessor even brought some of those breweries’ products to the bar. I hope that Members will be ordering their Gower Christmas trees. A tree from the Gower Christmas tree farm in Three Crosses is proudly displayed in Downing Street this year.
However, there is room for strengthening our offer to be city of culture for 2021. The Swansea bay tidal lagoon would be a pioneering piece of infrastructure for renewable energy, harnessing the power of the tides. The lagoon will be a world first and will shine a light on Swansea with an inspiring new infrastructure, offshore visitor centre, arts programme, sculpture park and more. The deal is vital for the city, and I hope it is considered as well as the bid.
My constituency has so much to offer to secure this bid and deserves recognition as one of the cultural hubs of south Wales. Many parts of Gower are hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. Swansea’s being awarded the city of culture will put Gower on the map and bring much-needed investment, along with the £1.3 billion city deal. This bid is supported by many Members across the House and across the country, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who has stated how Hull’s recognition as city of culture has had such a positive impact, not only financially, and is fully behind the bid for Swansea city of culture 2021.
It is a great pleasure to follow my friends, my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and of course the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies). I am so glad we have come together as a team across Wales, having agreed at a reception that I convened to collectively put in this bid. Everyone in the room is so strongly in support of a successful bid for Wales and in particular for Swansea and the Swansea bay city region.
We have heard today a glowing history of where Swansea has come from, including its industrial history in relation to copper—it was known as Copperopolis—and coal, and the problems that we faced during the blitz. We were brought through industrial turmoil and change to where we are today, confronting a new era of challenges with Brexit and regional poverty and deprivation in the context of Europe. Of course, Swansea has a very rich history of culture, which has been echoed in the speeches today, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, and a rich natural beauty.
My own family have been in Swansea for five generations, and during that time we have seen a continuance of unity, creativity and resilience, alongside change. It is a changing community, but we still have a lasting identity. As has been said, we are the only Welsh city that has been put forward for the title, and we feel a great responsibility in holding the mantle for Wales: the language, the songs, the poetry and the nationhood. We feel proud to be coming forward.
Many of the famous stars of Swansea have been mentioned. In the context of the Swansea bay city region overall, we think of people such as Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Katherine Jenkins, and of course Dylan Thomas is our most famous son, an international brand name that is known across the world. Indeed, Swansea itself is a global brand name thanks to our footballing success. There is a connectivity between the poetry and culture and the international branding. UK city of culture is also a very strong brand and would be another very important way of bringing vital inward investment to communities that are in many senses struggling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower mentioned our world-class coastline. In fact, Gower was the first area to be named an area of outstanding natural beauty in Britain, and it remains as she described.
Swansea is a community of communities, interlinked and interwoven, working together for the common good. That is one reason that Swansea’s theme for the bid is “Every Wave has a Voice”. The proposition is basically that we are all individuals, but working collectively we have a louder voice, and we will pull together, in harmony, for the good of all, particularly in difficult times.
We have a lot going for us. The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery has just been refurbished. The Taliesin Arts Centre puts on stuff. There is also the Grand Theatre. Of course, we have the Liberty stadium, which hosts great sporting events but is also a music venue. With the university, both the Bay campus in Aberavon and the Singleton Park campus, there is an opportunity to host cultural events. With our venues and communications, we have the means to be a first-class city of culture. We have the National Waterfront Museum, which is also a great place to host art.
My hon. Friend mentioned music. UK Music’s most recent figures show that music tourism results in a direct spend in the whole of Wales of £95 million a year. Much of that will be spent in Swansea. Does he agree that our passion for music in Wales and in Swansea is an integral part of the city of culture bid?
Yes. I am very pleased to hear that intervention. Music is at the heart of all Welsh people, across Wales, and in Swansea it is a vital part of our identity. I mentioned the Liberty stadium, where there have been various big concerts. Music is a vital part of our attraction for tourists. Again, we need to invest in the cultural infrastructure to amplify the voices of the local people and give them opportunities in culture and the arts.
The Minister will know from his own experience and office how important tourism and culture are to exports and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) has just said, how important music is. The music industry relies more these days on audiences rather than direct sales of records, as they used to be called, or even downloads. I am referring to live music, amplified, and we certainly want to be given opportunities to host that.
The Welsh language has of course been raised. We are very proud of our Welsh language, and the Government are supportive of it. Again, we would want to use the city of culture title as a way of amplifying and sharing more widely the diversity of the languages within the UK. We are moving forward into slightly unknown territory because of globalisation, and people are also looking back at their own identity. This is an important moment for Welsh history, and we hope that we can take this crown.
In Swansea, we face real challenges in relation to poverty. People living within a mile of one another might have a difference in average life expectancy of seven years. The Swansea bay city region of west Wales is regarded as one of the poorest parts of Europe. That is why we are beneficiaries of convergence funding, which we will no longer attract. It has been mentioned that in the case of Hull, something like £1 billion was generated through the magnet of tourism attractions and activity. We have a lot to offer, whether it is the football, the Ospreys, the music, the language or just the general friendliness and warmth of the people of Swansea. There is a community of restaurants and there are opportunities to go around the more than 100-year-old city centre market, whose fresh products go through our restaurants. That provides a new offering to visitors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East mentioned the lagoon. We have great support locally for our lagoon. Basically, the project involves green electricity from tidal energy, and we continue to press the Government on that. Again, we hope that, if successful—it was given the thumbs-up by the Hendry review—it would itself be a tourist attraction that would help us rise to the challenge of being the UK city of culture.
We have hopes for the electrification of the railways, alongside a Swansea bay city metro, which together would reduce the journey time from Cardiff to Swansea from an hour to half an hour, making the opportunities for visitors much greater. Of course, if we were the city of culture, there would be mutual benefit. The business case for electrification and the Swansea metro has been cast into doubt by the Government. They have been asking about the journey times and the level of demand: “What is the business case?” We are now saying that if we combine the half-hour reduction in journey time with the city deal that is coming forward and the extra investment for new jobs, and if on top of that we had the city of culture title, there would be an overwhelming case for electrification. The reduced journey time would multiply through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said, and give extra bonuses to an area that has been hit by difficult times.
We can look at the changes in social security. That might involve universal credit or a trimming down of public expenditure. It might be the bedroom tax. All these things have a disproportionate impact on Swansea bay and Swansea. The community wants the tools to succeed, and it is very much a cultural city, which would look to take full advantage of what could be a £1 billion investment.
We hope to attract more and more international visitors as well. The expansion of the university has enabled many more international friendships to emerge. We hope to use the university investment alongside the cultural investment to attract more tourism income, which would have a halo effect right across Wales and the UK.
I will not go on much longer, Mr Wilson; I know that other hon. Members are keen to speak. I will just say that the voices that we hear from Swansea are rich in terms of diversity—there are various communities and people have different nationalities, of course—and art, music and industry. The keenness to combine the cultural contribution and the economic contribution to provide a stronger, fairer future for Swansea is embedded in the proposition that “Every Wave has a Voice”. As the city of culture, we would help to ensure that those voices were heard.
Finally, as has been mentioned, Londonderry in Northern Ireland had great success as a city of culture; in Scotland, Glasgow is the European city of culture; and most recently, in England, Hull has been a city of culture, so we feel it is time for Wales to receive the crown. Who could be a more fitting successor than Swansea, the queen of Welsh hearts?
Why am I speaking today about Swansea when I represent a constituency some 25 miles along the M4? I cannot propose to speak with the same passion as my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). When we hear them speak, it is obviously a case of “Cut them and they bleed Swansea”. It is important to have representatives who feel so passionately about the constituencies they represent. I want to thank them on the record for everything that they do for the city they are so passionate about.
My experience of Swansea is limited to betting shops. I worked in Jack Brown bookmakers for several years. I remember the fantastic villages of Cwmbwrla, Gors and Townhill, and I still feel the fear running up my spine—no, I am joking. We are talking about the city of culture today, and I want to talk about my experience of living and growing up in Wales for the past 40 years of my life. I was born in the mid-’70s and brought up in the Rhondda in south Wales. We were made to believe that people did not care about us. We never heard anybody ever mention Wales. Or if they did mention Wales, it was always in a negative sense.
I remember, many years ago, the national lottery coming to the Rhondda Heritage Park. We all crowded down there because it was a national event. We were all there, and there was a male voice choir dressed up as miners, with black marks on their faces, as though they had just come up from underground. We were disappointed, because that was not our image of Wales. The innovation, the cleverness of our communities was not coming forward in the national image. People had an image of us in soup kitchens and on the breadlines, only interested in going down the pub and getting drunk or whatever, because our industry had gone away. That is why it is so important that Swansea wins the bid to be city of culture.
We have an image problem still. There are people who do not visit Wales who believe that we are in some sort of post-industrial meltdown. I say let them come to cities such as Cardiff or Swansea to see how the Champions League, the premier football event, was hosted in Cardiff. Let them see how many tourists that brought in and how many people were shocked by our culture.
When I was a kid, I did not have many Welsh icons because there were none on the television. I remember being moved by my great hero, Richard Burton, who was born in Pontrhydyfen, just down the road from Swansea, as he quoted, “Do not go gentle into that good night”—
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
That is what we must do when we are advocating Swansea as a city of culture. We are raging against that negative image of Wales. That is why it is vital we have the city of culture, but it is also important for Swansea itself.
For a city that has an unemployment rate of 5.3%—higher than the rest of the UK—the city of culture would be a massive confidence boost. It would mean that Wales is front and centre. When I look at previous bids, I am concerned that Swansea is the only flagbearer for Wales. If the city of culture goes to England once again, what message would that send to the regions of Great Britain? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about how Londonderry, or Derry City, benefited from being a city of culture. Wales must have the same thing. I am not denigrating Stoke, Coventry or Sunderland; I am just saying that Wales needs this more than ever. We need to be in the shop window.
As has been mentioned, we have great stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones. Dylan Thomas has already been mentioned. When I think of Swansea, I also think of “Twin Town”—I think they are making a sequel—and we remember how they denigrated it and how somebody twisted Dylan Thomas’s words about an ugly, beautiful town and called it something else. I remember Dougray Scott standing outside the train station and saying Swansea looks like “a pretty”—bleep—“shitty city”. Oops, I just said it! [Laughter.] I’m going to be on the news for that one, aren’t I? I am sorry, Mr Wilson; that was a direct quote from a film, but that is how people saw Swansea, and Swansea needs to change that image.
Swansea has academic institutions. My old university, formerly Trinity College, Carmarthen, now Trinity Saint David, University of Wales, has a strong engineering section. We also have the Richard Burton archives in Swansea. We have museums, and heritage plays an important part, but much of our heritage has been lost. Swansea was called the copper capital of the world at one point, but as the heavy industry went away, the heritage was taken away. The museum warehouse has the sailboats and vintage vehicles, but much of our heritage went away. We have only the culture now, which is what we need to put over. I do not know whether the Minister has ever visited Swansea, but it is a unique city. It has a seafront. It has wintry nights, and I know the Swansea Members here will say it is one of the most beautiful cities when it is lit up by the wintry sunlight as well.
I support the bid, not only because I know how beautiful Swansea city is and how beautiful the people are. Above all, I support it because if Swansea wins the bid to be the city of culture, Wales will win as well. We should get behind the bid and support it. Regeneration is important in post-industrial cities. Phil Redmond, the producer of “Brookside” and “Grange Hill”, comes from Liverpool and he will know how important regeneration is. I hope he will look favourably on the bid. I really hope we have some good news on Thursday.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Wilson. It was a late decision to contribute to the debate, but I want to join in the enthusiasm in the Chamber and for Swansea to be chosen as the city of culture.
Montgomeryshire is a long way away from Swansea, but in my view it is Wales’s turn. It does not matter whether people are from Montgomeryshire or Ynys Môn—the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has left the Chamber—the selection of Swansea would be a great achievement for Wales, and would benefit the whole of Wales. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing the debate. He explained his support for Swansea with his constituency 15 miles away. Although I represent Montgomeryshire, when I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales I represented Mid and West Wales, also 15 miles away from the centre of Swansea, and it included Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. My main point is that I want to support Swansea’s bid.
The big issue in terms of fairness across Britain is the need to move investment and wealth away from the south-east corner and away from London. It is moving successfully to Cardiff, but we need to move it further west. That is the only way we will develop Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. Swansea is a key staging post and developing the city of Swansea is absolutely key to the whole of west Wales. The same applies in mid Wales. The key to mid Wales might be Birmingham. In north Wales it might be Manchester or Liverpool. We have to draw the investment and economic activity west, which is what investment in Swansea does.
We have talked about the historical icons of Swansea. I have always been fanatical about sport and still am. I watch the Ospreys, but I do not watch Swansea at the moment because I do not get the chance—I desperately hope they manage to retain their premiership status. It is important to us and the derbies next year with Cardiff will be absolutely terrific. My greatest hero of all came from Swansea: John Charles. I met him and I am old enough to remember him playing. He was amazing. He was the greatest forward in Europe, and the greatest centre-half in Europe. I think £65,000 was paid for him to go off to play in Italy, which was unheard-of money then. He was a precursor of Gareth Bale and more, but he was a back as well as a forward. He was a wonderful man. When I met him it was one of the greatest of privileges. The BBC invited me to a dinner that he was at. He was elderly and failing in health, but for someone so great he had incredible humility. I looked on him as the greatest sportsman I knew, and he came from Swansea.
I wish the best of luck to the bid. I desperately hope that it wins, for the sake of Swansea and Wales.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for supporting the Swansea bid. Apart from anything else, there are only 3 million people living in the whole of Wales, and he made the point that we are very connected, nationally. The Swansea bid, as he said, will shift the focus of investment from Cardiff, which is on the English side of Wales, westward through Ceredigion. The nation has only 70% of average gross value added. We can make the most of the investment, and in Swansea we will make sure that it delivers for the whole of Wales.
I completely agree. Let us all give our full backing to Swansea, and let it be known that we shall be most displeased if it is not selected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech in support of Swansea for the city of culture. He told us that his constituency stretches down very close to the boundary of Swansea in the town of Ystradgynlais, and reminded us of the city’s history, including, in particular, the fact that Swansea was among the cities that suffered heavily during the blitz in the second world war. Often that is not widely recalled; Swansea really suffered at that time.
We had a wonderful contribution from my very good friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is a passionate campaigner on many subjects—a successful one, who I am sure hopes to be successful on this occasion. Her description of Swansea made it sound rather like the garden of Eden.
I hope she is not suggesting that original sin was invented there, but her description certainly conveyed the beauty of the city and its environs very well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) lives in a beautiful constituency at the edge of Swansea. I know it is beautiful because my sister, Colleen, lives there. I recommend anyone who has never visited the Gower to do so, because it is one of the most beautiful places in Wales, Britain or, in fact, the world. My hon. Friend’s talents know no bounds. I knew already that she had won nine caps for rugby, for Wales, and I knew that she had recently won the House of Commons darts competition; but I did not realise she was such an avid paddle boarder. We all look forward to coming down to Swansea to watch her undertake that pastime. She mentioned Joe’s ice cream: other ice creams are available—but not many, if any, are as good as Joe’s, and she was right to highlight that wonderful Swansea institution. She rightly challenged the Government about the tidal lagoon project. Although the Minister is a man of great influence and power, we do not expect him to make the announcement today in the debate—unless he is feeling so inclined—but I encourage him to encourage his colleagues to get on with it. We heard about the importance of Swansea’s industrial heritage, but Swansea has a wonderful future, and is the best place in Britain to build a tidal lagoon. I hope that the Government will announce their support for the scheme in the near future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) mentioned the Welsh language and its importance to the city of Swansea and to the city of culture bid. Perhaps we should mention its Welsh name, Abertawe, as the bid is a bilingual one, and it is right that even here in the UK Parliament, where we use English, we should use that name.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke passionately about the influence and impact that Swansea’s becoming city of culture could have on the image of Wales. He is right to emphasise that issue. When I joined Cardiff Council in 1991 we set up a body called Cardiff Marketing and we did some studies of what image of Cardiff and Wales people had. Many people living in London thought Cardiff was about six hours away by train and full of coal mines—an utterly inaccurate picture. Swansea is, by car, a mere 45 minutes beyond Cardiff, and the journey would be much shorter by rail if the Government would get on with the electrification of the line beyond Cardiff to Swansea. That would have the kind of impact that my hon. Friend was calling for, if the title of city of culture were to be used to promote economic development and a better image. He quoted Dylan Thomas, and actually corrected his grammar to “Do not go gently”, whereas Thomas did not use the adverb, and said “Do not go gentle” in the poem. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his superior grammar, despite his slight slip of the tongue later in his remarks.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies)—I want to call him my hon. Friend; I have known him for many years—who rightly mentioned John Charles. There would have been a big lacuna in the debate if he had not. The “gentle giant” was probably the greatest ever Welsh sportsman—and there have been many great Welsh sportspeople, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. John Charles was probably the greatest, and if it had not been for his being kicked off the park during the 1958 World cup and therefore being unavailable for the quarter final against Brazil, when Wales was beaten one-nil after a goal was scored by an unknown 17-year-old called Pelé, Wales probably would have won the cup.
I want to make a few of my own remarks about Swansea and the city of culture bid. The scheme was set up in 2009 by the Labour Government. They established a UK city of culture competition, with the aim of making creativity and culture part of the answer in difficult economic times, rather than a luxury for the small number of people who could afford them. I think it has been a successful programme, and I am pleased that the current Government are carrying on with it. I commend them for doing so. It allows cities and groups of towns to show what culture means to them, instead of being told what it is through a top-down check list. The city and its residents are rightly at the heart of the process. As we have heard, in Swansea’s case it is not just the city but a whole nation that is behind the bid.
Since 2009, the programme has had a tremendously positive impact in Derry/Londonderry, as we have heard, and currently in Hull. When Derry/Londonderry was city of culture, it became clear how much the city had changed since the time of the troubles, and it was an important way of changing its image. Hull residents have told us that since it was given city of culture status, people are even more ready than they were to gather together as a community, and that they feel even prouder of their city than they were before it won the prize. In both cases, becoming the UK city of culture has drawn attention to and encouraged parts of cities that were already flourishing, but that were not always seen beyond their own borders, in other parts of the United Kingdom.
It is clear, then, why a number of cities are bidding for the title in 2021. All the shortlisted contenders are strong. The House will understand why, speaking from the Front Bench, I cannot back a particular city’s bid, even though I am a Welsh MP. I think that I have never disagreed with my neighbour and very good hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens). She made her own interjection in the debate—I will say no more than that.
It is clear that Swansea is an excellent candidate to be city of culture. We have heard a lot about the poet Dylan Thomas who, as well as his poetry, is known for his colourful personality. I remember learning “The Hunchback in the Park” at school:
“A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water enter
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark”.
As a lover of poetry, I think it would be wonderful for Swansea if it could win the title of city of culture, and Dylan Thomas could be even more widely recognised. Scotland has its Burns night, and I always think that we should have a Dylan Thomas night in Wales to recognise our greatest poet in the English language.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if Swansea were to win the city of culture 2021, people would be able to plan visits to Swansea, based around Dylan Thomas and other cultural icons? High Speed 2 will reduce the journey time from London to Manchester by half, down to one hour and eight minutes, and at the same time we are pressing to reduce the journey time to Cardiff and Swansea through electrification. Alongside fears that there will be a displacement of investment towards the HS2 corridor instead of to south Wales, does my hon. Friend agree that winning the title of city of culture would be a major influence in buoying up the local economy across south Wales and Wales, at a time of uncertainty?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I agree with that.
We have already heard the famous quote by Dylan Thomas about Swansea as an “ugly, lovely town”. Well, he was right, it is lovely, and perhaps once it was ugly. Now, however, it is a beautiful city, not an “ugly, lovely town”, and today people can visit wonderful cultural institutions in Swansea, such as the Dylan Thomas Centre that we heard about earlier, which opened in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of his birth. They can also visit 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, and that is a short walk from Cwmdonkin park—the subject of the poem that I recited earlier—where there is a blue plaque and a permanent exhibition to commemorate him.
It is not only Welsh writers who have an association with Swansea. We have not yet heard mention of Kingsley Amis, who spent many years as a lecturer at University College, Swansea. He wrote “Lucky Jim” and “That Uncertain Feeling”—that was later made into a film with Peter Sellers called “Only Two Can Play”—while living in the Uplands in Swansea. It is a town with a real literary and cultural background. My very good friend, the artist Paul Edwards, is from Swansea. It is full of theatres, castles and galleries and has a vibrant cultural life.
As we have heard, Swansea University goes from strength to strength. I recently visited the new campus at Jersey Marine, and the Morgan Academy, which was set up in memory of the late, great Rhodri Morgan, who was my predecessor as MP for Cardiff West and the former First Minister of Wales. Given all that, it is clear that Swansea’s cultural life is truly worth celebrating, and its bid is very strong.
I would like briefly to mention the European capital of culture, because I think that relates to today’s debate. I have asked the Government for a list of meetings that were held in 2017 on that issue, given the recent announcement by the European Commission that Britain’s bid for European capital of culture will be withdrawn. Unfortunately, in answer to my parliamentary question, the Government referred me to a public list of meetings that goes only until June this year, and I think that we need a more serious response to explain what happened with the European city of culture. I hope that the Minister will be able to make a passing reference to that, and say a bit more about why the UK Government, and the bidding cities, which were spending money up until the last moment on their bids, were so blindsided by the announcement that the European capital of culture competition would not be going forward in the UK. I hope that the Minister will confirm—I am sure he will—that the competition for UK capital of culture will be going forward, and that the bidding cities have not been wasting their time and money.
We have heard a lot about the kind of impact that being city of culture can have. It does not magically create culture where it does not exist, but it celebrates and encourages great work that is already being done but is often under-publicised. As such, Swansea is already a city of culture, regardless of whether the bid is successful. I hope that the UK city of culture competition continues to thrive, and champions the cultural activities that make cities and towns across the UK such wonderful places that we can be proud of.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing this important debate on Swansea’s bid to become the UK’s city of culture 2021. As always, I acknowledge the contributions of all Members who have spoken so passionately this afternoon. The full spirit of the UK city of culture has been on show, and a great depth of knowledge has been shown about Swansea and all its cultural attributes. This has been a very worthwhile debate as we get into the final stages of this competition.
The House has already heard similar debates on the four other towns and cities shortlisted to be the next holders of the UK city of culture title—Coventry, Paisley, Stoke and Sunderland—so this debate will be the last in the present series. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) managed, with typical skill, to include in the debate the issues of the tidal lagoon and electrification. I will not be able to respond to those points from my position in DDCMS, but I acknowledge his concerns and will take them back to my colleagues.
Before I begin the substance of my speech, I wish to say a few words about the European capital of culture programme, which has featured in the headlines in recent days. I am sure that many Members of the House were, like me, shocked and dismayed by the position taken by the European Commission two weeks ago, which is that the UK cannot host the title in 2023. That went against everything that had happened up until that point, and we had no expectation that it would occur. Five UK cities have, like Swansea, invested huge amounts of time, resource and commitment in developing their bids, only for the Commission—at a point when the bids had already been submitted—to sweep the rug from underneath them. I know that Swansea, together with the cultural sector right across Europe, has expressed its solidarity with the five UK cities of Belfast, Dundee, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Nottingham. We are in urgent discussions with the European Commission about its action, and in positive talks with the five cities themselves—I met representatives from them all last week, and I hope to update the House more substantively in the near future.
The UK city of culture programme grew out of the success of Liverpool’s tenure as European capital of culture in 2008. As Minister for the arts, I see this programme as one of our nation’s Crown jewels. The winning area must build a high-quality arts and cultural programme of national significance that reaches a wide variety of audiences and participants. As we have seen with Hull, winning the city of culture title must be a catalyst to regenerate and transform an area. Cities must demonstrate that they are ready and able to grasp the opportunity provided by the title. I was moved by the speech by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who spoke about how things were when he was growing up, and the cultural gap that was perceived to exist. Providing an opportunity for transformation is exactly the purpose of this programme, and that case will be made by all the bidding cities.
This year, 11 places from across the UK set out their ambitions to become the next city of culture. Following a recommendation from the independent panel, chaired by Phil Redmond, I agreed a shortlist of five in July. It is hugely gratifying to know that those areas that regrettably did not make the shortlist—Hereford, Perth, Portsmouth, St Davids, Warrington and Wells—are all continuing with their ambitions. They see their bids as the beginning of something, not the end. I sincerely believe that that will be the case for all those that are unsuccessful this week. As has been referred to, Swansea bay was shortlisted for the UK city of culture in 2013 when it narrowly lost out to Hull, and it is clear that, while ultimately unsuccessful, the bid was an important step in the city’s cultural development.
Now, for the shortlisted towns and cities, decision day is fast approaching. We have about 51 hours to go, and as we speak my officials and the independent panel are en route to Hull, where they will receive presentations from all five areas before making their final recommendation. As the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, Swansea will present its bid on Thursday morning, and I will announce the winner later the same day. Some might say that is an unusually quick and efficient process for Government.
I know that the Minister will be looking, as the panel will be, at the past, present and future cultural offering for Swansea and other places, but will he be looking very carefully at relative deprivation? I say that because, as he knows, the average UK gross income is £19,106 but the average in Wales is £16,341 and in Swansea, £15,604. Weekly, that is £550 for the UK and less than £500 for Swansea. Can he confirm that he will be looking at the impact on deprivation and the inclusivity of these bids?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The independent panel will be looking at a whole variety of factors. It will be looking at what advantages, and the extent of those advantages, the different bids are likely to accrue to their given cities, and the economic advantage will be one of the elements that they will look at very carefully.
As with the other debates, I thought it would be helpful to set out the benefits of the city of culture. Speaking of Hull, it is helpful to reflect in this debate on how much is to be gained from winning the UK city of culture title. Hull City Council estimates that the local economy has benefited from £3.3 billion in total investment since being awarded the title in 2013. Seven out of 10 Hull residents say that the UK city of culture status is having a positive effect on their lives. As I have mentioned in previous debates, Hull 2017’s volunteers have already undertaken more than 300,000 volunteer hours. City of culture status has helped to restore local pride, and who can forget Hull City’s fans singing, “You’re only here for the culture!” at a premier league match earlier this year? Ironically, I think they were playing Swansea at the time.
Although this is just an anecdote, does the Minister think it represents Hull? I remember going to a Cardiff City match against Hull where the Hull fans had a big banner saying, “Ghetto of excellence.” I think they can lose the “ghetto” bit now, after city of culture.
The hon. Lady makes a fine point. Hull has seen brilliant engagement with the arts.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
Let me make a little progress and then I will come back to the hon. Gentleman. I wonder what he has to say.
Hull has seen brilliant engagement with the arts, with nine out of 10 residents attending or experiencing at least one cultural event in the first three months of the year—it might be higher now as we get to the end. That is more than double the number engaging in such activities before the city’s successful bid.
I was going to have a watching brief in this debate and hold my tongue because there have been many great speeches on why Swansea should be the city of culture. Based on the football element, the Minister will be aware that the local football side St Mirren has renamed its stadium the Paisley 2021 stadium in support of the bid. That highlights the huge support it has across Paisley, Renfrewshire and indeed Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman, as expected and quite rightly so, makes another plea on behalf of his home bidding city of Paisley. I have received so many representations and passionate requests on behalf of the bidding cities. We do not have long to wait, but I do acknowledge the quality of the bids across all five cities, and it is very sad that only one can win this week.
I pay tribute to the many national institutions, from the BBC to the Government Art Collection, that have also contributed to the success in Hull. We have seen genuine collaboration across the whole of the arts and cultural sector.
I now come to the substance of this afternoon’s debate: Swansea’s bid to become the UK city of culture 2021. One of the enormous pleasures of my job is learning about the history and culture of towns and cities across the UK, and I try to visit as many of them as I can. I have learned that Swansea has an incredible 32 miles of stunning coastline, that Swansea Museum is Wales’s oldest public museum, and that Welsh National Opera originated in Swansea. I was clearly already familiar with the “ugly, lovely town” described by Dylan Thomas and now a thriving city, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West pointed out.
Swansea is rightly proud of its most famous son and I know that the Dylan Thomas Centre is one of the city’s great attractions, with ever-increasing participation figures. Back in 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded nearly £940,000 for a three-year project that centred on the celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. A range of organisations across Wales participated in the celebrations, including the National Library of Wales, which showcased an archive of Dylan Thomas material in a major exhibition. Most importantly, the Dylan Thomas Centre has the lasting legacy of a permanent exhibition, “Love the Words”, which opened on 27 October 2014—Dylan’s 100th birthday. This interactive exhibition tells the story of the work, life and cultural context of Dylan Thomas, and includes a learning space, activities for children and a temporary exhibition area.
I acknowledge other important cultural institutions, including the National Waterfront Museum, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Plantasia and the Grand Theatre. In fact, VisitBritain has included the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery’s hosting of the “Leonardo da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection” exhibition as a key reason why international tourists should visit Britain in 2017. There are also many independent galleries and artists’ studios, digital workspaces and live music venues. Wales’s first dedicated space built purely for use by the creative industries is located in Swansea’s Urban Village development in the city centre, and both the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Swansea University offer a range of graduate and undergraduate courses in the creative sector, encouraging new and exciting start-ups and performing arts companies to thrive.
I am enjoying the Minister’s speech, but I just want to point out to him that we have two engines in the universities there that are producing enormous numbers of qualified people in both the arts and the sciences. One of the things we lack is the retention of those people in the city. Does he agree that city of culture status would enable them to stay in their home and build the economy, with visitors and tourism helping to fuel that fire?
Throughout this debate the hon. Gentleman has made a number of passionate interventions showing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Swansea, as anyone would expect, and he is absolutely right on this point. The effect of cultural investment in creating a stickiness and a magnet for businesses to want to continue to invest and for employees to want to stay is really important. That is a significant feature of what we have seen in Hull: more investment and people wanting to stay there. Whichever city is successful later this week, we hope that that will be replicated in four years’ time.
Swansea has its own international arts festival and an international jazz festival, which I believe is now the largest in Wales. The Heritage Lottery Fund has provided almost £25 million for projects in Swansea, including the aforementioned Dylan Thomas exhibition, a number of HLF Young Roots projects and the All Saints Church restoration. As we have heard, following its city deal, Swansea is also going through a period of major physical transformation, investing in the largest regeneration programme the city has seen since world war two. I am very heartened to know that culture, creativity and this city of culture bid are right at the heart of these plans.
From all we have heard this afternoon, it is abundantly clear that Swansea, in common with the other shortlisted areas, has the heritage, vision, infrastructure and cultural leadership to be the next city of culture. Whichever city wins, I am sure it will be a very worthy winner. and will continue the journey that began in Derry/Londonderry in 2013 and has continued so spectacularly in Hull this year.
In conclusion, I sincerely wish the city of Swansea the best of luck in presenting its bid to the panel this week. As I said, in just over 51 hours, I shall announce the winner on the recommendation of the independent panel, chaired so well by Phil Redmond.
I thank the Minister for his conclusion. It is clear that he is not the judge alone; he is the conduit to deliver the judges’ address and result on Thursday, but any influence that he can exert over them would be gratefully received by those of us in Swansea. We have clearly heard today that this is not just a city bid but a national bid. We have had support from Anglesey to Aberavon, covering a vast area—a rural area and a city area—and adjacent cities and counties across Wales. This is a very important bid to the people of Wales, and certainly to the city of Swansea.
I thank all my colleagues from all parts of the House for the cross-party support for Swansea’s city of culture bid. I am grateful to have so much support and to hear the various views and bids for Swansea to be given city of culture status. We have heard a lot about Swansea’s background and history—it was how I began my opening speech—but the city of culture bid is all about the future. It could offer so much to the people of Swansea. From youngsters going through school to the children who have not even been born yet, all can benefit from Swansea being named the city of culture for 2021. This is very important to us. As I said during my initial address, I was not pushing and supporting the bid from a feeling of unfairness because we had missed out in the past. Like all my colleagues, I support it because Swansea truly deserves to be the 2021 city of culture. Let us all hope on Thursday for the right result to be announced—that Swansea will be that city of culture in 2021.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Swansea’s bid to be City of Culture 2021.
Banking Sector: Fraudulent Accounts
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fraudulent accounts and the banking sector.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, for the first time that I can recall. I hope we have a full and useful debate.
More than two years ago, a constituent approached me about having been the victim of banking fraud. I called this debate because I have been unable to get the spider’s web of organisations with responsibility for making our banking system safe to act in the best interests of my constituent and bring to justice the perpetrators of a fraud that has left him £13,500 poorer.
The British banking system is one of the most advanced in the world, with an apparent cornucopia of legislation to give customers a comfort blanket of trust. My constituent fell victim to a simple fraud, paying £13,500 into the British high street bank account of an individual who had undertaken to deliver services that my constituent never received.
My constituent, under the impression that this country’s extensive money laundering regulations meant that bank accounts could be opened only by legitimate individuals with established UK addresses, reported the crime to the police when it became clear that the services that he paid for would not be provided, and that he had been the subject of a fraud. He was told by the police that available information about the person who opened the bank account was insufficient for them to proceed with their inquiries, and that the bank account involved had been opened with a provisional driving licence. Following cursory police investigations, it became immediately clear that the individual concerned had never lived at the address supplied to the bank when the account was opened. Indeed, the address given was incomplete.
To this day, Lloyds bank insists that it made no errors in allowing the opening of the bank account used to defraud my constituent, even though the police have confirmed that the suspect has never resided at the address given to Lloyds. Furthermore, for more than a year afterward, the Met police did not pursue inquiries into the crime because they thought, erroneously, that Lloyds would not give them the account opening information that they needed to pursue more thoroughly the criminal involved. In fact, that information had already been given to another police force in Bedfordshire. By the time the error was established, the case was a year old and lines of inquiry were cold.
I have spent two years being handed from one organisation to another in the attempt to have this case properly investigated. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can explain how Lloyds can be held to account for the situation. Is he content that a bank account can be opened without a valid postal address for the applicant? Is that not in breach of money laundering regulations? I am not a lawyer, but I have read the regulations, and it would seem so.
The police thought that Lloyds would not divulge the application details, yet they found a year on that that was not the case. Why is there no established protocol for banks and police to follow in fraud cases such as this? Which organisation is responsible for ensuring that Lloyds complied with money laundering regulations when, as a result of the bank’s actions, there is insufficient information for the police to investigate possible criminal money laundering breaches? Is it perhaps time to review banks’ responsibilities when it comes to fraud, and bring them more in line with the credit card industry?
I commend my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. She mentions the credit card industry. She will be aware that the protections afforded to people using credit cards are far greater than those afforded to people using debit cards or making online transfers. Does she agree that those protections should be extended to forms of banking other than just credit cards?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to bring up that inconsistency in how financial consumer protection works. Many people would be taken aback to understand how little protection they might have on a bank account money transfer when, if they simply used credit cards, they would be far more protected. The difference seems reflective of the situation in the past when credit cards were set up, when they might have been seen as a much riskier proposition. The evidence that I am giving suggests that banks are also a bit of a risky proposition when it comes to fraud. He makes an excellent point.
The cost of fraud across payment cards, remote banking and cheques to banking customers and share- holders was more than £768 million last year, involving almost 2 million separate cases. Given the scale of the problem, it is little wonder that the police are not always in a position to act.
For the past two years, I have done all that I can to get justice for my constituent, only to be passed around a bewildering array of organisations. Lloyds bank says that it made no error, yet the police say that the individual who opened the account never lived at the account opening address. The ombudsman says that it cannot investigate how an account was opened, the Financial Conduct Authority tells me that it does not investigate individual cases and Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau do not investigate crime, it appears, but pass it to the relevant police force. Who exactly ensures that money laundering regulations are followed, and that banks allow new accounts to be opened only with proper evidence of identity and residence?
In this case, the police are clear: their investigation shows that the person who opened the account never resided at the address. I feel trapped in a Catch-22 situation. Lloyds allowed inaccurate information to be used to open an account, but because the identity evidence that Lloyds collected is so poor, the police have no grounds to do anything further, and it appears that only the police can take action to enforce money laundering regulations. The Payment Systems Regulator has admitted that bank fraud is causing customers harm and the industry is not doing enough, and that banks could be doing far more to identify fraudulent payments, but has rejected calls to put more pressure on banks to prevent fraud by making them responsible for reimbursing victims, as is the case with credit card fraud. At a time when the payments industry can spot credit card fraud using algorithms, surely we can expect banks to properly check the ID of their customers.
Financial Fraud Action UK, an industry body, is calling for the payments industry to be more transparent about the scale of the problem and to take a common approach to how frauds are handled. Which?, the consumer magazine, is also clear that banks should shoulder more responsibility for money lost due to fraud, but they need to be incentivised to do so and to focus more on detecting and preventing fraud.
Failure to check account opening details correctly is a serious criminal offence, with a criminal penalty to match. The banking code is clear that documents must prove ID and address. The police say that the reason their investigation is not ongoing is that the person involved never lived at that address, yet no one appears to be willing to hold Lloyds to account, perhaps because the evidence available does not meet the criminal standard of proof.
Will the Minister explain why my constituent should be satisfied? Surely Lloyds has breached its own anti-fraud requirements. Lloyds closed the account because of fraud. In correspondence with me, the bank has admitted that a provisional driving licence was used, but will not confirm what other information was used and why it failed to check the address, given that it was incomplete. Lloyds allowed a fraudulent account to be opened and there appears to be a reasonable case for saying that that is a breach of money laundering regulations. Will the Minister investigate, or at least tell me who might investigate? I have tried for two years, but I simply cannot find out who that might be.
Some cases similar to my constituent’s have received compensatory payments from other high street banks because of the investigative journalism of somebody at The Daily Telegraph. I find it a miserable state of affairs when we rely on journalists’ intrepid work to ensure that our banking system is fair and accountable.
In February 2016, the Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, established a fraud taskforce. Can the Minister update the House on what has been done through that taskforce to stop banks allowing accounts to be opened fraudulently? My constituent, who quite rightly wants to protect his privacy, needs to have justice, but he also wants his experience to lead to changes that will help to stop this situation happening to many other people.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the tenacity with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has championed the cause of her constituent, who has clearly suffered from the traumatic case that she rightly raises with the House today. She outlined that she has been working on this case for some time, including exchanging correspondence with Treasury Ministers last year. I welcome the opportunity to update her on the work of the taskforce that was set up, as she correctly said, by the Prime Minister and on developments with the payment systems regulator and others.
To be clear, banks must take action to prevent accounts being used for criminal purposes. The Financial Conduct Authority is responsible for ensuring that firms meet their legal and regulatory obligations. As my right hon. Friend is aware, the FCA is an independent body. That is vital to its role; its credibility, authority and value would be undermined if it were possible for the Government to simply intervene in its decision making.
I will discuss the positive steps that the regulators and industry are taking shortly, but I will first touch on the issue at the core of my right hon. Friend’s concerns. Bank accounts used for fraud and other criminal purposes are a serious concern of the Government, the FCA and the industry, particularly given that authorised push payment scams—the type of fraud to which she refers—are the second biggest payment fraud after card fraud. The FCA’s rules expressly require banks to have systems and controls to counter the risk that they are misused for the purpose of financial crime, including money laundering and fraud.
The money laundering regulations require banks to verify the identity of their customer and to assess the purpose and intended nature of the business relationship when a customer opens a bank account. A key part of the regulations is a requirement to carry out customer due diligence, which was another of my right hon. Friend’s core concerns. Customer due diligence measures mean verifying the customer’s identity on the basis of information or documents obtained from a reliable source that is independent of the customer. As I understand it, Lloyds maintains that when it opened the account, it was applying the “industry-wide acceptable documentation”, but I know that my right hon. Friend has concerns in that regard.
Since my appointment, I have encouraged the industry to consider the use of new technologies where they are as effective or more effective than existing practices. The increasing digitisation of financial services and products means that it is important that customers can prove who they are online. Firms should develop robust tools to ensure that they know who they are dealing with. In essence, there is scope through an electronic footprint to enhance the standard of customer due diligence in the future.
Where a bank assesses greater risk, it may take additional measures, including seeking additional documentation and checking the customer’s source of wealth or funds. Banks must conduct ongoing monitoring, including scrutiny of the transactions undertaken throughout the course of the relationship, to ensure consistency with the customer’s business and risk profile. Banks must also undertake reviews of customer records so that information obtained for the purpose of due diligence is kept up to date.
The FCA is responsible for supervising banks’ compliance with the money laundering regulations and for ensuring that they maintain systems and controls to prevent financial crime more generally. If the FCA finds evidence that a regulated firm has not undertaken due diligence checks, that firm would be in breach of the money laundering regulations. That addresses one of my right hon. Friend’s core questions about who is liable and who enforces the money laundering regulations: it is the FCA’s responsibility to ensure that firms have systems and controls in place to avoid money laundering.
The point that I made was that when I wrote to the FCA, it said that it did not take on individual cases. The Minister is right to say that it looks at systems and processes, but not at individual cases. I hope he might be able to refer me to who does look at individual cases, because, frankly, I have not worked that out in two years—but he is much cleverer than I am.
I will come to some of the steps that are being taken to mitigate that. The key point is whether the standards applied met the requirements of the money laundering regulations or whether there was a loophole. I know that my right hon. Friend has corresponded with the FCA on that point.
As I say, if the FCA finds evidence that a firm has not undertaken its due diligence checks, that firm would be in breach of the money laundering regulations. Where a bank falls short of its obligations, the FCA has shown that it is capable of taking action through multi-million pound fines for two of the largest banks in recent years. At the same time, the FCA must ensure that its supervisory regime is proportionate and efficient and that its unintended consequences are minimised.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will appreciate and recognise that there is a balance to be struck in terms of the level of scrutiny required for due diligence checks. Recently, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) raised the issue that, at the other end of the spectrum, refugees often experience concerns about their ability to open a bank account because banks ask for levels of documentation that give them the impression that they are being prevented from opening accounts. So the balance is between a proportionate level of due diligence checks and a level that does not stop refugees, for example, being able to legally open a bank account.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke also raised the issue of the Payment Systems Regulator, which is leading the work on this type of scam where someone is tricked into making a payment to the wrong account or into paying the fraudster directly. The Government have made it clear that more should be done to stop that happening and to mitigate the harm caused when it does happen. I am pleased to say that progress is being made. The PSR’s ongoing programme of work with industry aims to reduce the risk of the scams occurring and to reduce the damage that they cause. Existing initiatives include better data sharing between banks, a function to enable customers to be sure who they are transferring money to and best practice standards for the reporting of scams. The PSR has outlined milestones for those initiatives to ensure that the momentum is kept up.
Although the PSR accepts that not all scams can be prevented, it has taken a decisive step to align incentives and to reduce harm. It has proposed a contingent reimbursement scheme in which banks would reimburse victims when the banks have not met the required best practice standards, provided that the victims had taken appropriate care when making the payment. That speaks to a further point that my right hon. Friend made about compensation. The PSR’s consultation on that scheme is open until 12 January 2018. The consultation gives a clear sign to consumers that the regulator is on their side, and the PSR will respond to it in due course.
Banks and the FCA must do all they can to prevent fraudulent bank accounts from being opened in the first place, but fraud is a much wider problem. The joint fraud taskforce, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, was set up by the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary in 2016 as a partnership between Government, law enforcement and the financial sector. The taskforce is working in innovative ways to deliver a more effective response to fraud, including by investing £3.1 million, with industry, in a campaign to improve the ability of people and businesses to protect themselves from fraud; working to understand how even more funds can be returned to fraud victims; pursuing a cross-industry strategic plan on so-called “card not present” fraud; and considering what makes victims susceptible to fraud and how to reduce vulnerability.
The Home Office has asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services to conduct a review of police response to fraud at a local level, which my right hon. Friend also raised as a concern. The review will assess how local forces deal with demand, assess risk and provide victim care services and will examine the role of the City of London police as the national lead force for fraud.
I thank my right hon. Friend again for raising these issues. The Government recognise the terrible impact of this type of fraud on its victims. There are already strict rules that banks must comply with when opening new accounts, and the independent FCA is responsible for ensuring they do so. The PSR and the industry are doing robust work to tackle all types of fraud, working with the Government’s joint fraud taskforce. The Government will continue to drive appropriate action on these issues, which are so important to all of us in this House.
I sense that the Minister is drawing to a close. His remarks have addressed the generalities of the banking system, which I understand are hugely important to the regulator and the Government, but may I press him again on particular instances in which individual constituents such as mine have been let down? It is very difficult to see what recourse they have when banks fail to abide by their own codes of practices and rules, leaving them poorer for it.
As I understand it, my right hon. Friend draws a distinction between systemic responsibility for the rules of a firm as a whole and responsibility for individual cases, but if I have mischaracterised that distinction, I am happy to write to her. My understanding is that responsibility for firm-wide systems and controls falls to the FCA, but specific one-off cases of fraud are in the police’s remit, so it is for the police to look at individual cases. I am very happy to follow up that point in further discussions.
May I detain the Minister a moment longer? The problem is that if a bank fails to gather information about a perpetrator of a crime who has opened a bank account, it leaves police unable to follow the perpetrator. Ultimately, it is very difficult for the police to find the criminals if information on their addresses and names has not been collected in the first place.
I am acutely aware of the problem that my right hon. Friend raises. Whether the correct information was collected in her constituent’s case is an issue of fact: I understand from Lloyds that it was, but my right hon. Friend may care to differ. Her point about the remit of the police illustrates the reason the Prime Minister asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary when she was Home Secretary to review the role of the police in addressing these issues.
All hon. Members recognise how traumatic these cases are. Prevention is better than cure, which is why the industry is taking measures through the PSR. Where fraud occurs, we need to look at how the responsibility of the banks aligns with potential compensation. The PSR consultation is open until mid-January, and I am sure my right hon. Friend will want to contribute to it. We need to look at the balance of responsibilities between the FCA as regulator and banks in individual cases.
I hope my right hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that, partly as a consequence of her tenacity in raising her constituent’s case, the Prime Minister has announced a review of police response and a suite of measures on the FCA, on standards and on the role of the PSR, to ensure that others do not suffer as my right hon. Friend’s constituent has.
Question put and agreed to.
World AIDS Day 2017
I beg to move,
That this House has considered World AIDS Day 2017.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to see by Members from across the House in attendance. I am thankful for the fact that this important debate has been granted because, as we all know, on Friday—1 December—it was World AIDS Day. This World AIDS Day was particularly important to me because it was my first as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS. I personally thank, on behalf of the all-party group officers, the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who unfortunately cannot be with us today, for all his hard work while he was chair of the group. I also thank those officers who have been able to join us today, and I draw attention to our relevant declarations in the APPG register.
This World AIDS Day was one of many anniversaries. It was the anniversary of Positively UK and the 30th anniversary of the National AIDS Trust. It also marked 30 years since the first UK Government public health campaign on HIV—“Don’t Die of Ignorance”—the famous tombstones adverts for which we must pay credit to the Lords Speaker. He has made an enormous contribution to the HIV cause, both then and over the years since. It was a delight to join him and the Commons Speaker in Westminster Hall last week at the exhibition of the iconic AIDS memorial quilts, which have been placed out for the 30th anniversary. The AIDS Memorial Quilt Conservation Partnership organised the exhibition, and I am sure that many Members have seen it. It was moving to see such a visual display of a deep and personal part of our social history and to meet family and friends who lost loved ones to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also a reminder of how far we have come in tackling the HIV epidemic, in the UK and abroad, but, perhaps more importantly, it highlighted that there is still so much further to go. Given that it is a Department for International Development Minister who is responding to the debate, I will focus the majority of my remarks on the international aspect, but I will also touch on a number of issues to do with the UK domestic situation.
Last week, as well as joining with the Terrence Higgins Trust, Positively UK and the memorial quilts organisation, I met some absolutely incredible young people—Davi, Horcelie and Masedi—at the incredibly powerful and personal World AIDS Day event that Youth Stop AIDS held in Parliament. The young people spoke about their experiences in Indonesia, the Congo and southern Africa, and the challenges so many people around the world still face. Hearing their personal stories of how HIV and AIDS have affected their lives and those of their families was very moving and, I am sure Members will agree, it is important for us as parliamentarians to understand how our international policies can directly affect people’s lives. We are truly grateful for their courage to speak out about their status and their experiences.
Before we begin to look at the areas in which more work must be done, I want to highlight some of the excellent progress that has been made to date. Here in the UK, as Public Health England data have shown, this year marks the first time since the epidemic began that new HIV diagnoses have decreased among men who have sex with men—by 18%. That is a real achievement and is testimony to the hard work of Governments of many different types over the years, the HIV sector—including non-governmental organisations and all those who work in our health service—and many other stakeholders who have dedicated their expertise to improving HIV prevention and treatment. Clearly, something is working.
Internationally, huge strides have been made since the beginning of the epidemic, with a 48% decline in deaths from AIDS-related causes, from a peak of 1.9 million in 2005 to 1 million in 2016, thanks largely to the global scale-up of antiretroviral therapy. Having worked with a number of NGOs that work on the epidemic, including World Vision—which the Minister knows well—and Oxfam, and latterly in my time at the Department for International Development and then with Oxfam International, I have seen the epidemic and some of the efforts around it changing over the years, along with some very positive impacts. However, there are still 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV, 14.5 million of whom do not know their HIV status.
Stigma is still a major barrier to accessing treatment. Even here in the UK, the Terrence Higgins Trust is working hard to get the message through that undetectable equals untransmittable—the U=U campaign—and that is also vital globally. Later in the debate we will talk a little about pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP is a game-changing drug that could reverse aspects of the epidemic, but access is a problem, particularly in low and middle-income countries—we have only just seen major trials and major availability in this country. Some 17 million people, or 46% of people living with HIV, are now on antiretroviral treatment and 38% of people are virally suppressed. That means that we are therefore still a long way from reaching the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, which are that, by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression. UNAIDS has reported that progress on the decline in new infections has, unfortunately, slowed down and that we are now off track for achieving those internationally agreed targets. In 2016, there were 1.8 million new infections worldwide; the target is to reach just 500,000 by 2020.
Although overall new infections among adults have declined since 2010, progress has varied according to region. For example, in eastern and central Europe new infection rates have increased by an alarming 60%, and we have heard very worrying news from Russia this week, where there have been soaring infection and death rates from HIV/AIDS in recent years, as the epidemic has spread from intravenous drug users to the broader population. Russian and global health experts say that that is the result of the authorities’ long-running refusal first to acknowledge the problem and then to back internationally recognised policies to combat it, such as health education, drug substitution programmes and large-scale antiretroviral treatment programmes. That is alongside the suppression we see of the LGBT+ community in Russia and many parts of the former Soviet Union. Figures are merely statistics, however, and unless we look more closely at what they mean for people living in the poorest countries, and some middle-income countries, we do not see the real impact on lives and the devastating effect that HIV and AIDS can still have.
Although here in the UK AIDS-related deaths have been significantly reduced since the terrible days of the 1980s and early-1990s, worldwide, millions of people are still dying from AIDS-related causes. I would like to praise the leadership that DFID has shown on HIV over many years, under many Governments, particularly its recent contribution to the global fund. I was delighted to meet the fund’s interim executive director a few weeks ago here in Parliament, with members of relevant APPGs, and I congratulate Peter Sands on his recent appointment to that role.
HIV is treatable and should not result in death, but there are a number of reasons why it still does, and I will try to cover them. HIV is still the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age. According to UNAIDS data, young women aged between 15 and 24 are at particularly high risk of HIV infection, accounting for 20% of new HIV infections among adults globally in 2015. Although the UK Government are clearly committed to improving women’s rights and opportunities there is some concern that HIV is being overlooked in that area, given that there is, for example, no mention of HIV in the recent update of the strategic vision for girls and women. Will the Minister comment on that, and agree that, given the importance of HIV as the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age, he will consider adding in a specific reference to HIV when the strategy is next updated?
The all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS is currently conducting an inquiry into the withdrawal of aid from middle-income countries and its impact on women and girls living with HIV, which we hope will shine some light on this crucial issue. Multilateral aid, such as that given through the global fund, is vital, but it is not the only answer. The UK has shown a very significant presence, both in its personnel and its ministerial involvement at international conferences and, crucially, at country level. A presence on the ground through bilateral aid is also crucial, and that is something we have recently discussed with the global fund and other organisations. Those bodies require partners on the ground with whom they can work, and we have a proud track record on that, which we do not want to see decline.
Young people are also particularly vulnerable, because they are often denied the information and freedom to make decisions about their sexual health and do not know how to protect themselves from HIV. Therefore, along with women we need to ensure that young people are at the heart of the UK Government’s HIV prevention and treatment strategies globally. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that young people are at the heart of the agenda? Will he look at DFID’s youth agenda and include specific reference to young people living with HIV and AIDS?
I mentioned earlier that there has been an alarming increase in new HIV infections in eastern and central Europe. One of the key problems—aside from those issues I mentioned about stigma and the lack of commitment to education and treatment—is that some of the middle-income countries, particularly in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, are falling through funding gaps. As international aid is pulled out, their Governments are unable or unwilling to provide funding for HIV prevention and treatment services.
DFID’s support of the Robert Carr civil society Networks Fund is crucial in providing the necessary funding for civil society groups in those harder-to-reach places with harder-to-reach populations. We heard about the importance of the work funded by that network in the event with STOPAIDS last week. UNAIDS’s latest report, which was released on World AIDS Day, highlights that outside of eastern and southern Africa, HIV prevalence is highest among men, particularly within key populations, and that they are the least likely to seek treatment. UNAIDS warns that that is a blind spot within the current HIV response. DFID has given £5 million over the past three years to the RCNF. Will the Minister tell the House whether his Department plans to increase that amount to make further progress towards the 90-90-90 target?
While we have seen a significant increase for multilateral funding and the global fund, others are not doing their bit. What discussions has the Minister had with other donors about their responsibilities and their funding for the global fund and bilateral funding? STOPAIDS released an important report looking at UK bilateral funding, which had some worrying statistics. While I absolutely welcome the funding we have seen for the global fund, the RCNF and other things, we have worries in the sector that some of our bilateral funding is perhaps not what it should be. Will the Minister say a little about that and the steps we can take to increase the transparency of DFID’s funding in this area?
DFID is currently using a policy marker to estimate its HIV spend, which essentially means that a programme identified as having a significant HIV outcome is able to automatically attribute 50% of its budget to HIV tracking. The problem with that is that it risks overestimating our contribution in those areas. That might seem like a technical issue, but I am sure the Minister will agree that we need to know how our money is getting results and where it is being used. Currently, there is no way of accurately telling. Will he look at that issue and how we can improve our transparency on that spending?
Another crucial area is access to medicines. In our 2014 report, we highlighted some of the barriers to accessing HIV medicines. Sadly, three years later we are still grappling with some of the same concerns. While the cost of first-line treatment has come down from a high of £7,500 to £75 a person a year, thanks to generic competition and huge civil society pressure, third-line treatment remains prohibitively expensive for people living in low and middle-income countries, and there are still too few paediatric formulations available. Unfortunately, that is one of the downsides of the current system. We have close, frank and regular dialogue with those in the pharmaceutical industry, but we have to find ways of working with the sector to improve access issues.
While many great initiatives already exist—the International Partnership for Microbicides, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and various other public-private partnerships, the Medicines Patent Pool, multilaterals such as Unitaid and the Clinton Health Access Initiative and others—there is still more we could be doing to improve the situation. For example, we should ensure that where public funds are used, there are sufficient conditions in place to safeguard public return on research and development investment. Will the Minister say a little about the work his Department is doing to ensure that we have access to medicines for all those who need it? It is important that we continue to invest in vaccines. We need to invest in the prevention technologies that will ultimately be the way to secure a sustainable end to the epidemic.
Those are some of the challenges we face with HIV internationally, but before I conclude I want to reflect briefly on some of the domestic issues. The issues of stigma, discrimination and access to treatment for vulnerable groups apply across the board. I was astounded to read the other day that a YouGov survey found that one in five Britons would be uncomfortable wearing the red ribbon for World AIDS Day because people might think that they have HIV. There should be absolutely no stigma surrounding HIV status. We all need to do our part to ensure that we stamp out that stigma for once and all. I publicly had an HIV test at the Terrence Higgins Trust centre in Cardiff last week. I was proud to share that on social media and encourage others to take a test during national testing week. I thank all Members, including those here today, who have worn their ribbons in the past few weeks and who have been along to take tests.
I pay particular tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Harry and his new fiancée Meghan Markle for the part they have played by making one of their first public engagements going along to a THT centre. His Royal Highness took a test last year, and I understand that that increased testing rates significantly. As an all-party group, we were delighted to meet him recently and discuss his passion for and commitment to the cause. I am sure we all applaud that work.
Before my hon. Friend finishes his excellent and timely speech, I commend him on securing the debate and apologise that I am not wearing my red ribbon, although I am wearing my sustainable development goal badge. “It ain’t over”—those are the words of the pledge we have all made to recommit our energies to ending AIDS/HIV by 2030, but we will not achieve that goal unless we are committed politically and financially to ensuring that it becomes a reality.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. “It ain’t over” was the central message from STOPAIDS when we met last week. We need to get that message out there loud and clear. The challenge has not gone away, although we have seen much progress.
On the domestic front, I want to mention two issues. I would be grateful if the Minister reflected on them and perhaps discussed them with his colleagues in the Department of Health. First, we have seen the fragmentation of services. The all-party group published a report last year called “The HIV Puzzle”. It looked at some of the fragmentation of services in England since the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and some of the resulting challenges for people in accessing treatment and prevention services locally. Some worrying statistics are coming out about treatment availability in some areas. Secondly, while we welcome the trial of pre-exposure prophylaxis in England and the announcement in Wales and Scotland, in England PrEP will be available to only 10,000 people over three years. What will happen when we reach 10,000? Will we suddenly stop making PrEP available? Surely that cannot be the case. The many organisations that campaign for PrEP want to see it available to all those who need it.
I conclude by thanking all the Members who have come here today to support the debate on World AIDS Day 2017. We will never forget the millions of lives lost to AIDS, and we will continue to fight in their name for HIV and AIDS to become a thing of the past.
This is an hour-long debate that will finish at 5.30 pm. Six Members are seeking to speak. I am obliged to call the first of the Front-Bench spokesmen at seven minutes past 5. There are guideline limits of five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, with three minutes for Mr Doughty to sum up the debate at the end. [Interruption.] Mr Doughty is generously declining to have the full three minutes, but he will perhaps take a minute or so. I am afraid there will have to be a time limit of three minutes so that everyone has a chance to contribute. The next speaker will be Ross Thomson.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this important debate. Last Friday was World AIDS Day, and I was pleased that the day was commemorated by MPs across the House donning the red ribbon. It is a symbol of solidarity with the almost 37 million people globally living with HIV/AIDS and the millions who die every single year from HIV-related illnesses. It is one of the most destructive pandemics that has not yet been eradicated.
Since the 1980s we have come a long way in tackling HIV and AIDS, as well as the stigma surrounding the issue. We are so close to getting to zero new infections, an achievement of which we would all be proud. However, stigma still stands in the way of reaching that target. We must tackle discrimination around HIV wherever it occurs—ignorance and isolation limit the opportunities for those with a diagnosis.
Across Scotland and the United Kingdom, buildings were lit up in red to mark World AIDS Day. In Aberdeen, the granite from Marischal College to King’s College glowed red to remind us of the work that is still left to do. In Scotland, more than 5,000 people are living with HIV. That figure has doubled since 2001. The figure is far too high and is growing far too fast. Knowledge is a powerful tool, and information liberates us from our current ignorance. Education is vital to progress and is key to tackling the growing figure. Some 79% of young people believe that pupils should have access to up-to-date and effective sexual health education, yet three in five pupils in Scotland do not remember receiving any HIV information in school. With two young people diagnosed with HIV every month, that is not acceptable.
Globally, we are moving in the right direction, as in 2016 there were 300,000 fewer cases than in 2015. Breakthroughs in scientific research have meant that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence, and that it does not have to be passed on. Those with a diagnosis are our colleagues, friends, partners, children and neighbours. They lead lives that in the 1980s would not have been thought possible. Such people are a living testament to how far we have come.
We all have a part to play in eliminating HIV-related stigma. Eliminating AIDS and having an AIDS-free generation is within our grasp, if we continue to reach for the goals that we have set. We have fought AIDS and now must work to eradicate the pandemic.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing it. Earlier this year, on 20 April, I led a debate in the Chamber on tackling infectious diseases. It was a wide-ranging and well-attended debate, with interest from across the House. A lot has happened since then, however—not least the snap election, and the appointment of a new Minister covering health at the Department for International Development and a new Secretary of State.
In three minutes, I will try to cover two or three areas very quickly. I am the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global tuberculosis. Hon. Members may not be aware of this, but in recent years TB overtook AIDS as the world’s leading infectious killer. What is worse is that TB is the leading killer of people living with HIV/AIDS. Together the diseases form a lethal combination, each speeding the other’s progress. In 2016, TB was responsible for almost 40% of all AIDS-related deaths.
Next year, the UN will convene its first ever high-level meeting on TB. I urge the Minister to ensure that DFID engages fully in that process, and presses for global agreement and investments to end the deadly duo. Last year, I welcomed the Government’s increased commitment to the global fund. Its investments do great things; it has been at the forefront of tackling co-infection and is on course to save another 8 million lives over the next couple of years.
When DFID’s HIV strategy lapsed in 2015, it was not renewed. Without a strategy to guide DFID’s work, it is little wonder that there are gaps in its financial and programmatic commitments. Ministers have dismissed calls to renew DFID’s strategy, but I urge the new Minister to reconsider, so that we can have a strategy in operation in the coming years.
Will the Minister outline what his Department is doing to ensure that we develop the tools we need to end the epidemic? On balance, much progress has been made, but as the STOPAIDS campaign says, “It ain’t over” yet. There are many challenges, but there are also opportunities, and we must seize them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on such a great presentation of the issues.
Every year, I run a dinner for my association and invite an MP from this place to come across for it. It is an occasion to raise a bit of money, but the great thing is that half of the monies raised through that dinner go to Eden Mission, which has a charitable orphanage in Swaziland. Swaziland is a little country with about the same population as Northern Ireland. The people, like my constituents, are warm, friendly and ever so helpful, but unlike my constituents, almost one in every two of them has AIDS. The epidemic has resulted in a lost generation, with grandparents raising their grandchildren on a massive scale, as the middle generation is dying of AIDS. Every year, the Eden church in my constituency brings over a choir of children, and this year managed to raise some £50,000 for that orphanage and for other projects that Eden Mission has in Africa as well. Those children are still children, but some of them, through no fault of their own, are ill with AIDS. With a healthy diet and medication, AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was, as the hon. Gentleman said very clearly when introducing the debate.
It is always nice for the children to come and sing in my office, in return for the small part I play in fundraising to allow them access to life-saving drugs. I am proud to wear a red ribbon today as a homage to that lovely choir and the many people throughout the globe who have AIDS. I am very proud to wear that ribbon, like other hon. Members here today. However, looking at home, more people are now diagnosed with AIDS in Northern Ireland than ever before. The figures came out just last week—more than 1,050 people. We are above the norm in the United Kingdom, and that is just the over-50s. Again, just to put a marker down, we look across to Swaziland, other African countries and elsewhere, but perhaps we also have to look at what is happening a wee bit closer to home.
We also have to look at how we deal with this matter in schools. We probably all had to go through an uncomfortable sex education class at some stage; it has to be done. Let us understand it better, and do it better in schools. We should preach the importance of safe sex.
Furthermore, as all of us in this Chamber know, the spread of HIV/AIDS is not simply down to unsafe sex. It can happen through blood transfusions or something as simple but deadly as someone not knowing that they have AIDS and therefore not being careful about the spread of bloods from cuts. It has been transmitted to those who are hooked on drugs and share needles. Babies are at risk of getting it from their parent, yet there are measures that can be taken during delivery to help mitigate the risks if the condition is known about, so there have been massive advances.
It is always very hard for us to fit all the things we want to say into just three minutes, but I conclude with this: we cannot and must not pigeon hole this disease, but equally we cannot and must not ignore the uncomfortable truths that may prevent more people from unknowingly getting HIV. We must address the issue head on, and do what we can to stop the spread and to educate people of all ages, races and genders.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) not only on introducing the debate, but on his speech and his ongoing work with the all-party parliamentary group.
It is extraordinary to believe that with political will we could achieve the sustainable development goal of ending the AIDS epidemic, to all intents and purposes, by 2030. As others have said, however, and as the recent campaign has highlighted, “It ain’t over”. Success is a long way from being a certainty. Indeed, to get close we will all need to up our game, as it seems that the 2020 interim target is likely to be missed. As the statistics cited by the hon. Gentleman illustrate, the scale of the progress gives us grounds for optimism, but the scale of the remaining challenge is formidable.
Some key obstacles are pretty predictable in the context of international development. One is, of course, money, with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS predicting that a $7 billion annual funding gap needs to be filled by 2020 if we are to get back on course. In fact, we seem to be going in the wrong direction. A second obstacle, which other hon. Members have highlighted, is attitudes. Epidemics will flourish where fear and prejudice stop people receiving the services that they need to live healthy and productive lives. Horrifyingly, there remain HIV criminalisation laws in no fewer than 72 countries.
Now more than ever we need a detailed strategy, and careful and generous funding—so where is the UK in all this? Undoubtedly, the UK has an immensely strong track record, and has been a world leader, particularly through its founding role and contributions to the global fund. However, there are genuine concerns that it has been losing its relentless focus and leadership role, so it is welcome that this debate has provided an opportunity to air those concerns.
There have been concerns about a decline in funding for certain HIV and AIDS projects, including cuts to direct funding for civil society organisations, which are so important in overcoming stigma and prejudice. There has been an overall shift away from bilateral programmes and HIV-specific projects. I accept that the Government will offer justification for that, which does have some reason behind it. Moving disease-specific programmes into wider sexual health or health and development programmes can, if done well, be more effective and sustainable. However, done badly it can undermine the work towards the goal. For example, among the clear challenges of such an approach is the problem of assessing exactly how much we are spending and what impact it is having. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth highlighted the example of the HIV policy marker, which seems rather opaque.
Over the last couple of years, as other Members have said, we have been without specific position papers or strategies to help assess priorities and the UK’s impact. Finally, there is a concern about a lack of ministerial presence and leadership at international meetings and summits.
There is no doubt that what DFID seeks to do is good and welcome—supporting country-led and integrated responses that meet the holistic needs of target populations—so why not say that loudly and boldly with a strategy? At the very least, be more explicit about HIV and AIDS policy goals in frameworks. Why not make funding more transparent, and the assessment of progress towards clear goals more robust? Why not once again play a robust, outspoken leadership role? The opportunity is there to meet the 2030 goal, and for the UK to be pivotal to that achievement. Let us grasp that opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate.
Ten years ago on World AIDS Day, I was leading an HIV/AIDS programme on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I started the clinic out of a shipping container, supported by a team of local health workers. It was baking hot and packed full of people desperate for care, in a place where all most people knew about HIV was encapsulated by the name that they used—akakoko ka silimu, translated as “the little insects that make you lose weight”. I saw too many people who did not know what was happening to them until they started coughing up blood from HIV or gave birth to a child who mysteriously died a few months later.
Within a couple of years, more than 2,000 people were getting treatment. Mother-to-child transmission had dropped from 30% to 1%. Every school child understood the basics about HIV and stigma was lifted by brave people, who were proudly positive. Yes, it was the drugs, and huge credit must go to President George Bush and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief for making massive financial contributions at the right time to HIV/AIDS care but, more importantly, it was about the health system and the people delivering care.
In a part of the world where, on any given day, half of all health workers in Government facilities are absent, and where drug supplies rarely find their way to the front line, it is a huge leadership challenge to have happy, paid and competent health workers in the same place as needy patients, and with the drugs they need to help them.
I contacted a friend working in the field in Africa over the weekend. She told me that we are still a long way off where we need to be. She said that men are still not coming forward to test, that
“we don’t have enough drugs for everyone and are challenged by low stocks of ARVs”
and that adherence to treatment regimes is still a challenge. With the end of the HIV epidemic within our sights, now is not the time to disinvest—but disinvestment is exactly what we are starting to see, with a decline in funding between 2012 and 2015, from £416 million a year to £324 million a year, and a massive drop in funding for civil society organisations through the Robert Carr civil society Networks Fund.
I have two asks of the Minister. First, it would be really helpful to understand what the Department for International Development’s HIV/AIDS strategy is. We are currently investing more than £300 million a year of public money into HIV/AIDS, but without seeing that strategy, it is hard to communicate priorities or measure impact.
My second request is for reconsideration of the amount of financial investment. In many ways, the 20 million people currently on treatment, who were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, are the easiest-to-reach people. In healthcare, we need to spend more, not less, to reach the most disadvantaged. There are still 15 million people who either do not know their status or are not on treatment. In order to reach them, we need to invest more to engage them. If we do reach them, we have the potential for an amazing prize—the end of HIV as a global public health problem.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate.
Members will be aware of the importance of the global fund, and I want to pay tribute to the important work the fund does in the diagnosis and treatment of HIV. It is clear today that without a supply of new medical tools, we are not going to meet our global goals promise to give young people the opportunity of a future free from AIDS.
In 2009 a trial showed for the first time that the risk of HIV infection can be reduced by a vaccine, and improved vaccine concepts are now entering new efficacy trials. There is no doubt that vaccine development is a long process, but vaccines are proven to be one of the most effective and cost-effective public health tools. With that in mind, I wish to pose two questions to the Minister about UK scientific innovation.
The Government recently published their industrial strategy, which placed life sciences at its centre. Will the Minister make representations to his counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the need for research and development for new HIV prevention tools to be part of that?
There has been little, if any, discussion about how the industrial strategy will offset the uncertainties for UK science created by Brexit. In recent years, the European Commission has overtaken the UK to become the second-largest funder of global health research and development after the US, with many UK scientists benefiting from the pooled funding and collaboration. Will the Minister reassure UK scientists about what the future will hold?
I asked the Minister a question last week. I was grateful for his answer and for the correction yesterday to that answer for accuracy. HIV is still the greatest health challenge of our time. Although it does not quite command front-page attention any more, it must not be put to the back of the Government’s and people’s minds. Investment in research and development will keep the fight against this challenge alive.
We now come to the Front-Bench speeches, the first of which will be Chris Law from the Scottish National party.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for bringing this important and timely debate and for his continuing work with the all-party parliamentary group.
This debate is an opportunity to reflect on the estimated 35 million people who have died from AIDS-related illnesses and to show solidarity with the millions of people living with HIV worldwide today. It is an honour to wear a red ribbon in solidarity with all of those people. However, for many of them, stigma remains a problem. Stigma leaves people feeling ostracised and experiencing poor mental health and social outcomes. Stigma is also one of the biggest barriers to testing and treatment, and fear of a HIV-positive diagnosis discourages individuals from getting tested and engaging with health services. For some, stigma means living in perpetual fear of their HIV status being revealed to those with whom they live, work and spend time.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said earlier, in Scotland last week the First Minister took an HIV test, which gives instant results, as part of efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease. Not only that but voluntary sector bodies, along with people living with the condition, joined together to unveil a new action plan in Scotland ahead of World AIDS Day. The anti-stigma strategy “Road Map to Zero” set out how organisations such as the National AIDS Trust, the Terence Higgins Trust, HIV Scotland and others will continue to work with the Scottish Government and others to end HIV-related stigma.
We should all take pride in the fact that Scotland is a leader in HIV policy. It was the first nation in the UK to make PrEP available on the NHS and I pay tribute today to the campaigners who worked tirelessly for that to happen. PrEP is making a huge difference to the lives of many people in Scotland and I hope the UK will follow in Scotland’s footsteps.
At an international level, incredible achievements have been made in the global response to HIV. Some may argue that the worst is behind us, but sadly HIV is still a death sentence for many people across the globe. Sub-Saharan Africa remains most severely affected, with nearly one in every 25 adults living with HIV.
One of the UN’s sustainable development goals is to end AIDS by 2030. To reach that target, significant work still needs to be done. There are signs that the HIV response is beginning to stall. Key challenges remain. One is that the level of new infections each year is still too high. Only last week, the World Health Organisation highlighted the fact that the number of new infections in Europe is growing at an “alarming rate”. In central Asia, infections have increased by more than half since 2010. Key populations—for example, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs and sex workers—are disproportionately affected by HIV. A further challenge is the high price of intellectual property and drug prices, which remain a barrier for HIV patients’ access to medicine. UNAIDS predicts we would need an additional $7 billion annually to respond to the global HIV challenge. However, total DFID HIV funding decreased by 22% between 2012 and 2015, and the Department’s last strategy on HIV expired more than two years ago. It has no plans to renew it.
Without a strategy, DFID has no way to set and communicate priorities or measure impact. I would therefore urge the Minister to increase overall levels of UK funding for the global HIV response, in line with UNAIDS recommendations, and to formalise and make public its approach to HIV. With current tools, we can hope to control the epidemic, but as the Gates Foundation has highlighted, to make headway towards ending it, we must bring down the number of new infections at a much faster rate. That will require new and better prevention technologies, such as an effective vaccine.
The Minister noted during last week’s DFID questions that the UK has been a long-standing supporter of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. We all agree about that, but it now needs action. The Government must increase research and development so that we have the necessary tools for the future.
We want to live in communities that have positive and non-stigmatising attitudes towards people who are affected by HIV. World AIDS Day and debates in Parliament help us to share that goal. Ultimately, World AIDS Day reminds the public, and MPs, that HIV has not gone away. Great scientific and medical progress has been made. As others have mentioned, treatment is dramatically more effective, and many more people are living long and healthy lives. At least that is the case in wealthy countries; it is not everywhere. The UK must show leadership in the global response to HIV and AIDS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this important debate. As we all know, World AIDS Day was last Friday. I am glad that this debate has given Parliament an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to tackling HIV and AIDS, both at home and abroad, which was evidenced by the large number of parliamentarians and others wearing red ribbons last week. I hope that that demonstrates our solidarity with those suffering from AIDS and our determination to bring it to an end. It was good to see town halls and other buildings around the country lit up in red last week—that was certainly the case for the town hall in my constituency. Again, that was evidence of our desire to do something about AIDS.
There has been progress on this issue globally. For the first time ever, more than half of the people living with HIV are receiving life-saving treatment. New HIV infections in 2013 were 38% lower than in 2001, and new HIV infections among children have declined by 58% since 2001. We should welcome that decline. Nevertheless, in 2016, there were 1.8 million new HIV infections worldwide, which is 1.8 million too many. That represents more than 2,700 deaths from HIV every day.
As my hon. Friend said, 36.7 million people live with AIDS globally, 69% of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. Sustainable development goal 3, on good health and wellbeing, has a target of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Despite some progress towards that goal, however, STOPAIDS has estimated that there is a funding gap of $7 billion, which needs to be filled to reach that target by 2030, and the US’s global gag rule will lead to a further decline in HIV funding.
I will ask the Minister later about what he intends to do about the funding gap, but in passing I note that women remain more vulnerable than men. In sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rates of HIV infections in the world, there are three new infections among adolescent girls for every one among adolescent boys. Of course, HIV has a disproportionate impact on marginalised groups, especially in middle-income countries. That is further evidence of the systemic inequality that underpins our societies globally, which plays out particularly in terms of health services, information, education and economic opportunities, which are simply not attainable for many people.
I recognise that the Government have made much progress, but there are some issues I would like the Minister to address. Although the UK remains the second-largest donor to the global HIV response, it is concerning that total DFID funding for HIV/AIDS declined by 22% between 2012 and 2015. Although the UK has increased funding through multilateral institutions such as the global fund, that has not made up for the sharp decline in funding for DFID country office programmes, which fell from £221 million in 2009 to £23 million in 2015. There has been a decline in DFID funding for civil society organisations, which do such important work on the ground to tackle AIDS and HIV. We should pay tribute to them and ensure that their work is funded properly. Does the Minister intend to stop that reduction in funding and to fund those organisations properly?
Other hon. Members said that HIV and AIDS work is absent from the UK AIDS strategy. Does the Minister have plans to rectify that and bring forward a new strategy? Political leadership is important. DFID has not always been represented at international AIDS conferences. Does the Minister plan to ensure that we have a young representative attending those conferences? I want to finish by thanking my hon. Friends for their excellent contributions to this debate.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this important debate to commemorate World AIDS Day. I thank all hon. Members who contributed; this subject unites everyone in the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), and the two Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). They asked a range of questions. In the time available to me, I will not be able to cover them all, but in the time-honoured way, my Parliamentary Private Secretary has very kindly got a note of everyone who is here, so I will cover the questions I do not answer by way of letter. I will make sure the answers get out there.
This is an opportunity for colleagues to reflect on where we have got to. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for mentioning the Lord Speaker, who did so much when he had the opportunity to do so, and the haunting quilt. It was particularly noticeable when there was the odd square of anonymity because somebody still did not want to reveal something. I think of the pain behind that expression, of what people have been through in the past, and of what some people still go through. The fact that they are unable to talk about it, when for many of us it has become much easier to deal with and talk about, is a measure of the pain behind some of those issues.
None of us has the experience of the hon. Member for Stockton South. We all noted his work in Uganda, where he used his commendable skills in the best possible way. I still remember visiting AIDS orphans in South Africa with my daughter at a time when it was very clear that the babies could not be kept at home because of the shame and stigma attached to the disease, so they were just dispatched. I remember thinking that the nurses looking after them were making an extraordinary contribution. The afternoon that we saw them, my daughter and I said we did not know what we could do in life that would possibly be as valuable as the love that those people demonstrated towards those children. That was 20-odd years ago. Time has moved on and we are doing so much more.
Let me reflect a little on the progress that has been made, which colleagues mentioned, and then answer some of the tougher questions that come the way of a Minister. It is all part of the day job, even for an issue on which we are all broadly moving in the same direction. I commend the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for his speech, and the work of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, which has achieved so much over the years. I thank him for advance sight of the questions in his speech. It was much appreciated.
We have come a long way since the first ever World AIDS Day in 1988. We now have 20 million people with access to potentially life-saving HIV treatment—a big improvement on the year 2000, when less than 1% of those in need had access. We can be very proud that the number of new infections in children has also dramatically declined. It is important to put on the record the UK’s contribution to those achievements. Colleagues have been generous about that, and of course it covers Governments of all persuasions. The UK continues to play its role. We are proud to be the second-largest international funder of HIV prevention treatment and care. That work is impossible without our partners, through which we invest. Our contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria helped to provide more than 11 million people with antiretroviral therapy by the end of 2016. Our significant pledge of £1.1 billion to the fifth replenishment of the global fund will now help provide enough life-saving antiretroviral therapy for 1.3 million people living with HIV.
Our investments in research and support to Unitaid help improve access to medicines, diagnostics and prevention for those affected by HIV in low-income countries by bringing promising new health technologies to scale faster and more cheaply. The hon. Member for East Lothian was right to raise the importance of carrying on with such research. We must also recognise UNAIDS for its continued leadership of the global HIV response, for pushing for ambitious global targets to stop new infections and to ensure everyone living with HIV has access to treatment, for protecting and promoting human rights, and for producing the data we need for decision making.
Civil society with its links to communities and people living with HIV also has a critical role to play in leading the social movement for prevention, championing the rights of the most at-risk populations and those living with HIV, providing care and support services to communities that others are simply unable to provide, and—vitally—holding Governments to account.
In our contributions, some of us have recognised the good work of Churches and missions across the seas and at home. For the record, does the Minister too recognise the importance of their input physically, financially and emotionally into making the changes?
I do. The hon. Gentleman’s connections with Churches and Church movements not only in this country but worldwide are well known. Absolutely, that is an important point to put on the record because to some extent it sets the record straight about the commitment of the Church and Christian communities to this particular sort of work, which is important. In some parts of the world, only the Church network is there to provide social care across the board. We would all be the poorer without being able to support that.
Mention was made of the Robert Carr civil society Networks Fund, of which we are proud to be a founding member. I cannot give a further commitment at this stage—we are yet to announce it—but I recognise the issue and we will come back to say what the future funding position will be in due course. I have noted what colleagues have said.
There is also greater shared responsibility from low and middle-income countries. Domestic resources constituted 57% of the total resources for HIV in low and middle-income countries, which is a step in the right direction, but more needs to happen to build a sustained response. As good as that is, as all colleagues have said, there is much more to do, so let me deal with some of the questions I was asked.
In terms of the broad strategy, the UK’s ongoing HIV commitment is that we want to see AIDS ended as a public health threat by 2030. That is an important priority for us. We are proud to be the second-largest international funder of HIV prevention, treatment and care, as I have said, and as a leading donor we will use our influence to ensure that we collectively deliver on the global commitment—to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030—and that no one is left behind.
In relation to the gag, we will continue to show global health leadership by promoting and supporting comprehensive, evidence-based sexual and reproductive health and rights. We are the second largest donor for family planning assistance and we are the largest donor to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, so we will skirt around issues raised by the gag.
On a new HIV strategy, the note I have states that the 2013 review of the UK position paper on zero infections identified the integration of HIV as the key strategic priority. We intend to continue that approach, rather than to develop a stand-alone strategy or conduct a further review. However, I have heard what the House has said, so let me reflect a little on that, as I will on the Youth Agenda point—whether HIV is included. It is not currently. Clearly, the Youth Agenda is a very important part of our strategy and we recognise, as all in the Chamber do, the significance of adolescent girls in particular and the related issues. Again, let me have a look at that to see whether we can say anything further about it. I will come back to colleagues in due course.
For women and girls generally, it was right to recognise the heightened risk. Empowerment of women and girls lies at the heart of our development agenda. DFID is supporting the generation of new evidence to improve outcomes for women and girls, including the development of female-initiated HIV prevention technologies, research into how gender inequality drives epidemics, and a particular focus on improving what works for adolescent girls in southern Africa.
The UK is also working with the global fund to increase its focus on girls and women, which I think is in accordance with the House’s wishes. Giving greater attention to women and girls is a shared priority for us and the global fund. With UK support, the global fund has embraced gender equality as being central to accomplishing its mission of ending the three diseases as epidemics, including it as one of its four strategic objectives in the 2017 to 2022 strategy. Between 55% and 60% of global fund spending directly benefits women and girls. That includes programmes to prevent gender-based violence and to provide post-violence services. The number of HIV-positive women since 2002 who have received services to prevent transmission of HIV to unborn children has reached 3.6 million, and we will continue to press on that.
I welcome what the Minister has said about looking again at the issue of a strategy and, in particular, the situation with young people and women and girls. We have obviously got the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here next year. I suggest gently to the Minister that it would be very helpful to have a strong statement setting out the UK’s views on HIV and AIDS in those communities while we have the Commonwealth Heads in this country.
It is a competitive field to get things on the agenda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. I know that health will play a leading part, but the details have not yet been sorted. As would be expected, concerns about HIV/AIDS are certainly well up there and an announcement will be made in due course.
The UK Government will, however, be represented at the international AIDS conference in Amsterdam in July. Precise attendance is still to be finalised, but that depends on my diary and whether we can fit it in. I would really like to go because I think that is what colleagues would wish.
Turning to finance—on which I will write further—there are two issues. On the STOPAIDS suggestion of a 22% cut, our response is that the report gives a snapshot of the figures in a given year and does not always reflect everything that is going on as programmes come to an end and others start. It also does not reflect our huge multi-year global fund contribution. The timing of disbursements partly accounts for the difference in spend between years, but committing £2.4 billion since 2010 to multilateral funds is substantial.
The other issue was integrating the funds and the tracking. DFID uses an HIV policy objective marker to track spending on HIV within broader programming. The system ensures that programmes address a range of developmental priorities, such as health-systems strengthening, governance, social protection and sexual, reproductive and health rights. I take the point that it is difficult to track, but it is important that we put the funds into integrated services, as well as spending them directly.
There are the technical challenges of tracking, so let me take that away as well—not necessarily to change it, but to see what might be done better to give more transparency. We will keep the process of integrating the funds going. It is right and proper to do so, along with the other commitments that we make. With that, let me sit down to allow the hon. Member for Cardiff South a couple of minutes to sum up.
I thank all the Members who have taken part today, and in particular the Minister for his encouraging response on a series of issues. I am delighted to hear that he is thinking of attending the international AIDS conference in Amsterdam. The signal sent out by ministerial and official attendance at such forums is crucial, particularly given the very strong leadership role that the UK has played over many years. When people do not see us at those conferences and events, they wonder what is going on, so what the Minister said is really heartening.
I also welcome the Minister’s willingness to go away and look at some of the issues we have raised on strategy and on funding and its tracking. I know that those things are sometimes not easy, but given the nature of HIV and AIDS, and other issues such as TB, for example, it is important to understand what funding is going towards those epidemics and how it is being spent, so that we can all hold the Government to account. In some cases, it is also important for the Government to show how they are providing leadership to other countries and international organisations.
Clearly, there is much unity across the House on the importance of keeping this issue on the agenda and of us all continuing to play our part in ensuring that we tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country and globally. The message is very clear that this is not over. We need to keep the issue on the agenda, and we will all our play our part in doing so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World AIDS Day 2017.