Tuesday 6 March 2018
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
British Transport Police/ Police Scotland Merger
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposals for the merger of British Transport Police Scottish division with Police Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We had a slight wait for you to take the Chair, but I know better than most that the match cannot start without a referee, so it is good to have you in your place. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us time for this debate, as well as all right hon. and hon. Members who supported the application—in particular, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who joined me in front of that Committee to present our case for the debate. I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My wife is a serving police officer: a police sergeant with Police Scotland.
I want to divide my remarks into three sections: the process from the Smith commission to the vote in the Scottish Parliament approving the proposed merger; where the process got to and the pause announced last month; and finally, the next steps and, I hope, the opportunities for the British Transport police Scottish division.
Early in my remarks—before any Scottish National party Members jump up with interventions diligently provided to them by party researchers—I would like to note that the merger of the British Transport police into Police Scotland is wholly different from what was proposed in the Conservative manifesto. I strongly opposed from the outset the SNP plans in Scotland. Our plans in the UK manifesto pledged to protect specialist policing at a UK level by bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and British Transport police. That is a completely different approach from the one supported by the SNP, which is to rip the Scottish operations out of the extremely successful British Transport police and merge them into Police Scotland—which has itself been beset with problems since its inception and formation as an amalgamation of eight regional forces.
Having sat through the various stages of the Bill at the Scottish Parliament, the hon. Gentleman will be more aware than anyone else that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland have gone out of their way to give assurances that the transport police function and specialism will be preserved even after the merger. What is the difference between that assurance and the assurance given by the UK Government?
What is different about that assurance is that the Scottish Government could not even deliver it by 1 April 2019 as they proposed. The assurances were so weak that even the joint programme board had to finally accept that it was not going to happen and the services could not be protected as they had said they would be.
That is not a fair categorisation of what the board said at all. It said progress had been made in some parts of the merger process, but not in others. The hon. Gentleman has not answered my question about what is different about the Scottish Government’s guarantee to preserve the police specialism and the functions for the transport police, and the UK Government’s guarantee.
As an example, the Scottish Government say that they would take the 280 or so full-time equivalent BTP officers in Scotland and merge them into Police Scotland with its 17,234 officers. That would not protect them, because if the officers within Police Scotland who wish to have a specialism in railway policing were first on the scene at a non-railway incident, they would be stuck with that incident right the way through. Currently, if Police Scotland are the first on scene at the railways, they can transfer that to a BTP officer when they arrive and vice versa. They could not do that. That is not protecting the current situation and the good work done by BTP officers in Scotland and across the country.
My opposition and the strong opposition from Scottish Conservatives in Westminster and Holyrood must not be considered as disrespecting the Smith commission and devolution settlement that followed. I agree that the functions of the British Transport police in Scotland should be a devolved matter—I just strongly disagree with the approach taken by the SNP Government.
There were and are other options to devolve the powers, but we know that they were never considered by the Scottish Government. Right from the start, the SNP had a blinkered view on its approach—unwilling to listen to expert advice, which opposed its plans, and unwilling to listen to the views of BTP officers, the British Transport Police Federation, rail unions and rail operators. Basically, everyone with considerable knowledge of railway policing warned the SNP against the plans, but they were ignored and the SNP marched on regardless. It only consulted on its preferred option: full integration with Police Scotland.
That was the first of many failures by the Scottish Government, who were unwilling even to consider alternatives put forward by the British Transport police authority as far back as 2015, which suggested giving increased accountability to the Scottish Parliament and giving the Scottish Government greater power over setting policing priorities. That was put forward by the BTPA, and ignored by the SNP Government, who only consulted on their preferred option.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is going to speak about the SNP policy that we are discussing today—the debate is about the proposed merger of the British Transport police into Police Scotland—or, as the SNP constantly does, does he just want to deflect attention somewhere else, shouting and screaming, “Look over there; don’t look at our failures in Scotland”? The SNP is letting Scotland down. This is yet another example of its centralisation plans, which seem to work in SNP heads and on a bit of paper, but do not deliver for the people of Scotland.
Every proposal was dismissed by the SNP. With the support of the Scottish Greens, the SNP Government forced through their plans. In the face of overwhelming volumes of evidence showing that this was a bad move that would dilute the service currently provided and potentially put rail users at risk, the Bill was passed in the Scottish Parliament. The plans were criticised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland for being entirely political. It also criticised the fact that no business case or due diligence outlining the benefits and costs was or had been prepared by the Scottish Government, saying:
“As the decision to transfer BTP’s functions in Scotland to Police Scotland was a Ministerial decision, no single, detailed and authoritative business case which articulates the benefits, disadvantages or costs of the transfer to Police Scotland was developed.”
That is shameful and unacceptable.
Given that the merger will not in fact be cost-neutral, as originally claimed by the Scottish Government, does my hon. Friend agree that stopping it will not only protect the quality of railway policing in Scotland but save money for hard-pressed Scottish taxpayers, who pay more in Scotland than taxpayers in the rest of the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree. We were also told that the merger of eight regional forces in Scotland into Police Scotland was going not only to deliver a better service but save money. However, the single police force is struggling because of the financial restrictions put on it by the Police Scotland; it is not saving money as the SNP promised it would.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall for consideration. Does he agree that a workable timeline must be set before allowing a safe transfer that does not compromise public safety? Furthermore, the vital role carried out by the British Transport police must be allowed to continue seamlessly for the benefit of everyone.
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. Safety for rail users and our officers has to be of paramount importance and I will come on to that in my concluding remarks.
One of the issues that I raised in the Scottish Parliament, when I was on the Justice Committee, was the personal track safety certificate and what it covers. Every BTP officer has that certification. Would all 17,234 Police Scotland officers have that certificate? No, because the cost involved would not allow it. There is a safety risk if officers who have not received the certification go on to the tracks.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Police Scotland, and it will be very important for the know-how and full power of the police forces to be combined as quickly and efficiently as possible, to ensure that the benefit of knowledge and experience comes together at the right time.
Absolutely. I will come to the timing in a moment, but there is no doubt that, several years after the merger, Police Scotland is still operating under considerable strain because of it; now is not the time to add to the workload of Police Scotland when it is struggling to manage what it has now.
Absolutely. We have to remember that the joint programme board is made up of representatives of the Scottish Government, the UK Government and Police Scotland. At their latest meeting in February, they all agreed to recommend a pause to the Scottish Government. None of them could see the implementation of integration being achieved safely by 1 April 2019.
The intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) takes me back to where we are now, which is the pause. We are in a welcome place: the SNP, Police Scotland and the joint programme board all accept that the implementation date of 1 April 2019 will not be met. Gone are the supportive comments from the Police Scotland high command that everything about the proposal is rosy.
I cannot forget the response I received to a question that I put as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee; it came from Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins. Almost exactly a year ago today, on 7 March, I asked him about the problems we had seen with the merger of the eight forces into one and the ongoing challenges faced by Police Scotland. At that point last year, I was asking whether it was the correct time to force ahead with this merger. ACC Higgins, before the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee, replied:
“To be frank, two years is a luxury, based on what we had to do to bring Police Scotland together, so I am confident that the transition would occur”.
Two years as a luxury and confidence from an assistant chief constable of Police Scotland—all now wilted on the vine. Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone has made it very clear, in his remarks to the joint programme board and since, that Police Scotland was not ready, that it was not a luxury to have two years to implement the integration and, therefore, that it is correct that we have now paused.
Given all that, does my hon. Friend think it might be the time for Her Majesty’s Government to consider delaying the laying of orders facilitating the merger north of the border?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The chair of the British Transport Police Federation said, in the light of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, that the merger should be suspended permanently. The fact that he is talking about terrorism shows the significant difficulties that there might be over safety in the merger.
I agree with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Nigel Goodband and the BTP Federation have been strong advocates for the BTP maintaining its current form in Scotland, with its strong links with Police Scotland and across the rail network. They are strongly opposed, as many of us in this Chamber and indeed in Holyrood are, to the SNP’s plans for integration.
I have just quoted ACC Bernie Higgins from almost a year ago to the day saying that two years was a luxury. Even more recently, however, SNP politicians have been saying, “Everything is fine. Don’t worry about this. We’ll keep on moving.” On 24 January 2018 in the Scottish Parliament, my colleagues in the Scottish Conservatives, led by our justice spokesperson Liam Kerr, moved a motion calling for a pause, but every single SNP Member voted against that motion.
Not only did the SNP MSPs vote against, but they gave us some great quotes. Rona Mackay said:
“What more proof do the Conservatives need that the merger has been planned meticulously to ensure a smooth transition in 2019?”
“It would be preposterous to pause the process while negotiations are on-going, so I urge the Conservatives to stop trying to derail the merger, which will make Scotland a safer and more secure place in which to live and travel.”
Her colleague, Fulton MacGregor, said that
“plans are going as expected and there should be no issue with integration going ahead on 1 April next year.”
Deputy SNP leadership candidate James Dornan said:
“The terms and conditions have been worked on regularly and I am pretty sure that, when they get to the merger, everybody will be happy.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 24 January 2018; c. 54-64.]
It turns out no one is happy, because we will not achieve the merger on the timescale put forward by the SNP Government. They were wholly unprepared for the problems faced by a number of elements in the joint programme board, yet they were optimistic that everything would be fine, it could all be sorted out and, finally, they could get rid of the “British” from the name “British Transport police” operating in Scotland.
I want to look at a number of other aspects. We have had many useful briefings for this debate, and in particular I welcome the contribution of the British Transport Police Federation. A recently published study by Dr Kath Murray and Dr Colin Atkinson looked at the British Transport police merger in Scotland. It was published just before the announcement of a pause, but it included many useful pieces of information. For example, 83% of British Transport police officers in Scotland responded to the study to say that they were either very unsupportive or quite unsupportive of the merger plans—83% of our BTP officers in Scotland; that tells a story.
The study was also useful for some of the quotes of the respondents, which I want to read out. Speaking about the BTP Scotland merger, one officer said:
“It is being destroyed for political reasons. I am happy with my job and the way I am treated. It is an infuriating turn of events.
It is this political motivation which has angered officers most rather than any other issue.”
“I find it incredible that a merger of this size has been allowed to progress without a formal business case outlining the benefits and risks.”
One final quote is:
“The communication throughout has been woefully lacking. Two years of talks; I am unsure what, if anything, has actually taken place.
The vacuum of information is filled with rumour and hyperbole which tends to affect morale.”
Those are just three of the comments made by officers who contributed to that study, but they are reiterated time and again by the British Transport Police Federation, which is standing up for its officers and opposing the merger.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that survey, which will of course have to be addressed, but one of the key reasons behind those levels of opposition was, in essence, a sense of loyalty to the British Transport police as it stands. Does he not agree that the proposals in his party’s manifesto would receive a similar response if there was a survey on those as well?
I am unsure whether I have given way two, three or four times to the hon. Gentleman, yet he has still not mentioned his own party’s plans, which we are debating today—the SNP plans to merge the British Transport police in Scotland into Police Scotland. He only wants to ask about the Conservative plans; perhaps he should propose a debate on them to the Backbench Business Committee. I would gladly join him in Westminster Hall to debate those proposals, but today we are debating his party’s plans—dangerous plans for merging British Transport police into Police Scotland. We should focus our remarks on how damaging those plans are to police officers in Scotland, rail users in Scotland and indeed the operators.
The lack of a financial case has been highlighted a number of times. When I was on the Justice Committee, we concluded that the supporting financial memorandum did not provide enough detail on the expected cost of integration or on who should pay. We said at the time that that was unacceptable, and again the Scottish Government did not respond with the information required.
Another huge issue for the federation and officers was terms and conditions: the so-called triple lock that was promised by Michael Matheson as Justice Secretary and Humza Yousaf as Transport Secretary. There is a real vacuum on information available to our officers, who potentially were just 13 months from the merger—from leaving the force that they joined and were proud to serve in, to be merged into Police Scotland—yet still had no concrete detail on pay and conditions and on terms and conditions. Again, they have rightly felt let down by the Scottish Government in their negotiations.
On jobs, pay, conditions, and terms and conditions, it was actually guaranteed that there would be no jobs lost; terms and conditions were maintained, and there will be no pension issues arising from either retired, deferred or current British Transport police officers transferred across.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning pensions, because that is exactly what I was about to come on to. In the Public Gallery, we have members from the National Association for Retired British Transport Police Officers. What consultation did they have with the Scottish Government or the joint programme board? Zero. Retired officers, who will be impacted, were not consulted, included or even recognised by the Scottish Government in the merger proposals. Those officers have serious concerns, which include that they understood that the proposal was for Scottish members to be moved from the main funds to a newly segregated Scottish fund. That is likely to amount to around 250 serving officers, and probably about 200 retired officers, affected, without the courtesy of being informed of how many members in Scotland would come under the proposal. That will create almost immediately a closed fund: at one end, the number of serving officers will reduce each year due to retirements; at the other, retired officers will stop taking their pensions. Very quickly, there will be no new money coming in.
I would be grateful if SNP Members responded to the many concerns from the National Association for Retired British Transport Police Officers on that point, because they have never been answered by the Scottish Government through the joint programme board or at any opportunity in the Scottish Parliament. Such uncertainty is unacceptable for men and women who have served this country with great dignity and service, but are being left in the lurch by the SNP.
There are some positive developments. I said at the beginning that I welcome the fact that the SNP Government have paused these plans. We called for that in January; the joint programme board agreed it in February, and the SNP Government have finally listened. The Deputy Chief Constable designate of Police Scotland, Iain Livingstone, welcomed the delay and made no commitment at the most recent Scottish police authority board. He said that
“we will be reassessing in the coming months what the challenges and options are, and will then report back to Government”.
I took that as a very welcome signal from the top of Police Scotland that it is not simply pausing, but looking at all other options.
It is also extremely welcome that the British Transport police integration will be reviewed by Audit Scotland as part of its annual review. Proper scrutiny of the plans has been missing throughout this process, to judge how things were progressing as we went along. That intervention by Audit Scotland is welcome, but we must ensure that any progress, or lack of it, is highlighted at the correct times.
I am grateful that we have the UK Minister here; I think the hon. Member for East Lothian will agree that much of the concern from the SNP at the Backbench Business Committee was, “This has nothing to do with Westminster; you devolved these powers in 2016.” The SNP Member on the Backbench Business Committee told us that we should not debate it here. When I raised the issue in business questions or with the Prime Minister, SNP Members in the House of Commons shouted me down because they did not want it discussed in Westminster. But it is right that this issue is discussed in Westminster, because, as was said in an intervention, the UK Government still have to lay the orders that are scheduled for this autumn. I hope the Minister confirms that those orders will be paused, because of the pause in Scotland.
We do not devolve and forget. It is right that elected Members from Scotland in this place continue to look at the merger of British Transport police into Police Scotland. It is also right that peers in the other place tabled a motion of regret on this very point. Indeed, as I have said a number of times, this issue has been debated as recently as January in the Scottish Parliament. Both Parliaments are right to raise it and to discuss and debate it.
There is a role for this Parliament, and not only for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman stated, as there will be a consequence for the British Transport police, too, when the Scottish section is taken away. There are no railway stations on the Scottish border. Therefore, transport police from England will have to travel beyond Carlisle and beyond Berwick, through the Scottish border, when that is not their responsibility.
Absolutely. That was highlighted a number of times when the issue was debated in the Scottish Parliament, and it has been included in almost every briefing that we have received. If we end up with the SNP proposal and the status quo here in the rest of the UK, potentially two different forces will be investigating crimes on the same line. Not only is that confusing to rail users and consumers, but it will lead to duplication and misunderstanding, which will lead to a poorer service for Scottish rail users. We should not accept that.
Let us not just pause this process; let us restart it. Let us go back and look at all the options, to ensure that everyone is considered and every option listened to. When I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, she made it clear that she did not believe that this Government should devolve and forget. She also made it clear that passenger safety must come first in any decision making. That has not happened so far, which is why the pause is welcome and why we must look again from the beginning, to ensure the best outcome for BTP officers both current and retired, for rail operators and for everyone who uses our rail services in Scotland and across the UK.
I will take my final words from the study by Dr Kath Murray and Dr Colin Atkinson, which sums up the issue better than anything else. An officer who looked at the plans said:
“It quickly became very clear that dissolving BTP Scotland as opposed to devolving BTP Scotland was going to take place…With no career future in sight, I decided to leave, but long service, conscience and pride in what we have achieved so far means I will stay until the last day. Leaving the best crime and justice legacy of BTP Scotland is important to me. My name will be on it at handover.”
I hope that that officer will continue to serve BTP in Scotland, because with this pause he can continue longer in the force he joined, the force he enjoyed working with and the force in which he took great pride in protecting the people of Scotland and the UK on our railways.
The debate can last until 11 o’clock. As there are five Members who wish to speak, I will impose a five-minute limit on speeches. That allows some leeway for interventions, but if there are too many, I am afraid that the last speakers will not be allowed the full five minutes. I call Ian Murray.
As always, it is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I do not want to echo all the remarks made by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), whom I congratulate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), on initiating the debate.
We are having this debate at a crucial point in the life cycle of the British Transport police and this issue, and I am delighted that it has been brought forward.
Let me say at the outset that all five parties that sat around the Smith commission table agreed that the Scottish section of the British Transport police should be devolved. No one suggests that it should not be; the questions are how it will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, how it will subsequently be operated, and what that will achieve not only in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. Those are significant issues for everyone involved.
The issue really is safety. We know that the merger is driven by ideology—everything is driven by ideology for the Scottish National party—but safety is the issue.
It is important to say that the merger is not driven by ideology. What does the hon. Gentleman think of the recent review of terror attacks in London by his colleague, Lord Harris, who aired the possibility that the London underground functions of the British Transport police should be considered for merger with the Metropolitan Police Service? Other Governments are thinking about these things, too.
The hon. Gentleman has just highlighted that, in terms of terrorism, the Metropolitan police do not say that the British Transport police should be merged in the same way that is suggested in Scotland. I am glad we are having a discussion about terrorism. As I mentioned in an intervention, the BTP chair said that, in the light of terror attacks, any reorganisation of the British Transport police should be paused or halted permanently, on the basis that terrorism and the safety of the people of this country are the single biggest issue that the police service and security services deal with. Everyone should pause and reflect on why the Scottish Government have completely dismissed the British Transport police’s incredibly serious concerns about terrorism. As the biggest public safety issue, terrorism should be at the forefront of our minds. As I said, none of us wants the devolution of transport policing stopped; the question is how it is done in a way that ensures that the police service operates correctly.
It is not just politicians who say that—35% of BTP officers and 45% of BTP staff in Scotland say that they would probably leave the service if this integration went through. They have a great deal of pride in the service and safety that they provide to the public. Before my nationalist colleagues jump up and say that I am talking the police service down, let me say that the entirety of the police service—BTP and the police in my constituency—do a fantastic job in incredibly difficult circumstances. Great damage is being done to Police Scotland because of the botched merger of all the police forces to create that body, not because of individual officers, who do as much as they possibly can on the ground with the slim pickings of resources they are given.
To see how bad this integration would be, it is worth thinking about one of the basic grassroots issues—trains. They were discussed at great length on a cross-party basis when Lord Foulkes of Cumnock brought a debate on this subject to the House of Lords. There is no station on the border, on either the west coast or the east coast. In fact, no one could get a train into Scotland for four days last week. The last stations in England and the first out of Scotland on the UK main lines are Carlisle on the west coast and Berwick on the east coast.
Many constituents got in touch with me last week who had been stranded in Carlisle and relied on the help of the British Transport police to make arrangements to get home safely. Surely that would be disrupted if this merger happened and the single policing structure on the west coast main line were dislocated.
The service would be disrupted, and it would be an incredible waste of resources. If I may use these crude terms, we would need either English officers to stay on trains from Carlisle to Glasgow or from Berwick to Edinburgh, or—vice versa—Scottish officers to stay on trains going south. There will have to be some kind of agreement. None of that has been taken into account. That is why we welcome the pause in the integration and the fact that all these issues will have to be looked at.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman doesn’t mind, because of the time. Other people want to speak.
Many people have asked for a commissioning arrangement to be set up that would allow the Scottish Government to commission BTP services and the chief constable to be directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament—and perhaps even the UK Parliament—for the operation of the Scottish side of BTP. That arrangement would be based on a framework that everyone was happy with. The shadow Justice Secretary in Scotland, Daniel Johnson MSP, called for a pause, and I am delighted that one has been put in place. I hope that the Minister listens seriously to what the people who actually police our safety, our borders and our transport system say about how such a commissioning arrangement may work in the longer term.
The pension fund is a huge issue. No one has any confidence that the integration would be done properly, because the creation of Police Scotland was botched. I will not go into the VAT issue, but the SNP created a problem by ensuring that Police Scotland was no longer able to apply for section 33 VAT exemption. They said that it did not matter and blamed the UK Government for removing Police Scotland from the exemption. The UK Government then said that they would exempt Police Scotland again, and the SNP claimed victory and blamed the UK Government for its removal in the first place.
I use that example not to make a political point but to say that it is little wonder that police forces, police officers and people who work in the sector have no confidence that the integration can be done properly. The pension fund is a big issue. It is a small fund, and I understand from one of the pensioners in it that it is in surplus. Integrating it or taking away the safety net of the wider British Transport police pension fund would certainly be detrimental to current pensioners and future pensioners. I hope that the Minister will look very seriously at working with his Scottish counterparts to ensure that any integration is done properly and will look at the commissioning proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing this important debate.
Members will be aware that recommendation 67 of Lord Smith of Kelvin’s report on Scottish devolution, which was published in November 2014, provides:
“The functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter.”
Furthermore, sections 45 and 46 of the Scotland Act 2016 empower the Scottish Parliament to legislate for the policing of Scotland’s railways and provide for the Scottish Government to be consulted on appointments of senior officers to the British Transport police. That said, I contend, as I am sure would many others, that it is not in the travelling public’s interest to apply those powers and that this is not the appropriate time to bring together the British Transport police and Police Scotland. However, I note and welcome the Scottish Government’s very good decision to put on hold indefinitely their plans to absorb the Scottish division of the British Transport police into Police Scotland. Why would they seek at this moment in time to amalgamate the British Transport police—a specialist, standalone, effective force that apparently operates seamlessly with Police Scotland—into Police Scotland, a force that in recent years, together with the Scottish police authority, has been under increasing public criticism and scrutiny?
I must make it clear that the vast majority of Police Scotland’s frontline officers are to be commended for continuing to serve to the best of their abilities in difficult times, when consistency of high-level leadership may be perceived to be lacking and maintaining staff morale is immensely challenging.
In 2017, the British Transport police set a core budget of around £297 million for policing Great Britain’s railways and kept its price promise to keep budget increases below the retail prices index. It has maintained policing costs at the same level as last year. I doubt that the same may be said for Police Scotland since its inception. The chief constable of the British Transport police reports that more than 7,000 rail passengers and rail staff responded to a public consultation, and 85%—a significant number—of rail passengers were positive about the work BTP was doing at their local station. The satisfaction rating and feedback were apparently similar among the rail staff who responded.
As I understand it, the Scottish Government’s vision, although it is on hold, is for the British Transport police to become a specialist railway policing unit within Police Scotland. However, that unit would be funded differently from the remainder of Police Scotland. How can we be sure that the train operating companies, freight companies, Network Rail and London Underground, which currently provide funding, would continue to do so for a force that was incorporated within another based solely in Scotland? If we cannot be sure of that, might the Scottish taxpayers yet again be burdened with extra financial costs?
Concerns were expressed by the British Transport police authority, who identified a number of potential operational risks associated with the integration, including, in particular, and as mentioned by hon. Members, cross-border issues and staff morale, and the serious issue of pensions. The Rail Delivery Group identified possible additional expenses and a dilution of accountability associated with the Scottish Government’s proposal.
I, for one, am not convinced that those reasonably held concerns have been properly addressed to everyone’s satisfaction to ensure that we achieve British Transport police’s vision of working with industry partners and stakeholders to deliver a safe, secure, reliable and expanding transport system. Will it be maintained at its present, effective level should a merger take place at some time in the near future? I do not think the British Transport police’s effectiveness would be preserved if the merger took place.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. This is clearly an issue that he feels passionately about—and quite right, too.
I start by paying tribute to the officers and staff of the British Transport police for their dedicated service and hard work in making safe the journeys of millions of passengers every day—not just on the rail network, but on services such as the London underground, docklands light railway, Emirates air line, Glasgow subway and others.
The officers of the British Transport police have been involved in some of the most difficult and dangerous incidents and policing operations in living memory, including the 1987 King’s Cross underground fire; dealing with numerous IRA bomb threats; rail crashes at Southall, Paddington, Hatfield, Potters Bar and Selby; and the response to the 7/7 terror attacks on underground trains near Edgware Road, King’s Cross and Aldgate. Whatever our views are on the future structure of transport policing, we are all united in offering our thanks to those officers and staff.
Although the British Transport police draws its authority from an Act of Parliament from 2003, it can trace its history back to 1830, allowing it to claim to be one of the world’s oldest police forces. Its history is also one of numerous reinventions and reorganisations to meet the challenges of the times. In the same way, each of the Governments of the UK are called on to make sure transport policing is prepared for current and future challenges. These are challenging times—or, as the British Transport police authority’s 2013 plan put it,
“a period that will require unprecedented change in railway policing”
to provide exceptional service quality at reduced cost.
Different proposals have come forward. As we have heard, in last year’s elections Conservative MPs across the UK stood on a manifesto that included the pledge:
“We will create a national infrastructure police force, bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and the British Transport Police to improve the protection of critical infrastructure such as nuclear sites, railways and the strategic road network.”
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan commissioned a review by the Labour peer Lord Harris of Haringey into London’s ability to deal with a terrorist attack. Noting that the Home Office is currently exploring options for merging certain national policing functions, his lordship reported that
“if such changes are being considered, it is important that the benefits of fully integrating the MPS and the underground policing functions of the BTP are considered at the same time.”
The outgoing Met Police Commissioner said there was a “good argument” for a merger, because the current set-up is “confusing” and such a merger could achieve “improved operational effectiveness” in responding to terror attacks.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that the examples he has cited from other parties in the UK are quite different from the SNP’s proposal for Scotland—to merge a specialist force into Police Scotland, which itself is a relatively new body still struggling with its own merger of the eight regional forces into one?
Of course there are differences between the various merger plans, but a variety of different institutions and Governments in the United Kingdom are having to make changes to how transport policing works. Indeed, the possibility flagged up in Lord Harris’s report is of integrating the specialist British Transport police on the underground into the more general Metropolitan Police Service.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government have decided that policing and public safety are best served by merging the recently devolved British Transport police into Police Scotland. That decision was debated in great detail in the Scottish Parliament, including by the hon. Member for Moray, but ultimately the Scottish Parliament backed that decision, passing the Railway Policing (Scotland) Act 2017, which is the first step in making that happen.
Without raking over old coals again, I do think that was the correct decision. Through the merger, the assets, resources and range of skills of the second-largest police force in the United Kingdom will be deployed routinely, rather than on request, on rail transport policing, just as for our roads, seaports, airports and border policing. That, together with clear assurances from both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland that specialist railway policing functions and the skill set of our transport police will be preserved after integration means that the merger’s objective is to not just maintain but enhance safety and security standards on railways in Scotland.
All those arguments are mirrored in Lord Harris’s report to Mayor Khan. Given the developments at the Home Office and the Conservative Government’s proposals, without the Scottish Government’s decision we might have ended up being the only part of the United Kingdom with a stand-alone transport police service, which would not have made much sense. It is not clear whether Conservative Members are arguing for that today.
Rather than reopen that argument, our task is to ensure that the considerable challenges of the merger are overcome, and that the inevitable and legitimate concerns and uncertainty for staff are addressed as thoroughly as possible. That is why a joint programme board was established. It was always the case that the timetable for the merger could change as progress was reviewed. While progress has been made in some areas, the board has recommended that the merger target date be extended beyond April 2019. That is regrettable, but it is right that the timescale is changed rather than the merger attempted at an impossible pace.
Meanwhile, Police Scotland has provided assurances that the right of any BTP member transferred to police the railway environment until they retire will be respected. There have been detailed discussions between the Scottish Government, the British Transport Police Federation and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, and a guarantee has been pledged that secures jobs, pay and pensions through the course of integration.
Despite the picture that has been painted, there has been constructive engagement among railway operators, the Scottish Police Authority, Police Scotland and the Government. Unlike at present, a railway policing management forum is to be placed on a statutory footing to ensure rail operator engagement and accountability, and tasked with reaching agreement on the service, performance and costs of railway policing in Scotland. There has been positive engagement with the Transport Department at Westminster, where statutory instruments will be required.
I acknowledge that this has been and will be a challenging period for the British Transport police and current and retired staff. However, I believe this ultimately to be the best option for transport policing in Scotland—in fact, it is almost the only option. I trust that all parties involved will continue to work to make the transition as smooth as it can be.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate, which it was a pleasure to co-sponsor. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it. It is, as always, an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I thank the Scottish Government, who have eventually arrived at the same conclusion as almost everyone else in Scotland: there is a need for a pause and to think through full-scale integration. Rather than dwell on what took so long, I hope that we can face the challenges and complexities of merging these diverse organisations and look at it again, for the sake of passenger safety, on the advice of experts including the federation, trade unions, Police Scotland employees, me and the Labour party. We need to kill the concept of a future full-scale merger.
The debate has been carelessly framed by some as a divide between those who want to weaken the current devolution settlement and those who want to strengthen it. The Smith commission was clear. It said, among other things on transport, that
“the functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter.”
I will not, because the hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions and had his chance to make a speech.
I hold no objections to the devolution of functions from the British Transport police to Police Scotland. In fact, the Scotland Act provides good scope for the transferral of such policing powers; yet, contrary to popular belief, a full merger under the devolution powers was not the only option.
The Smith commission preceded the publication of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s report on the matter. The Committee produced a number of options, which offered a range of answers. Options 1 and 2 looked first to provide an administrative and legislative settlement that would provide political accountability to Holyrood and Police Scotland. Those options, which were ignored by the Scottish Government, would as a preliminary settlement still have carried the recommendations brought forward by the Smith commission. We would still be able to devolve the service without putting passenger safety at risk and casting the uncertainty over pensions and jobs that we have heard about today.
Option 3 was full-blown integration: the most complex route to answer the devolution statement. By opting for a full merger, the Scottish Government put dogma before the people and services that they should serve. We have heard—this is an example of an alternative administrative legislative settlement—that Transport for London funds more than 2,500 police officers across the Metropolitan police, British Transport police, and the City of London police. Those police tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, and they make people feel safer when travelling in London. British Transport police have responsibility for the tube, the DLR and other areas, and through their neighbourhood policy they cater for the particular needs of communities near the stations they serve.
We have considered the financial demands that the Police Scotland merger has created, the stress faced by officers who serve on the street, and the managerial integration that is proving so very challenging. We have heard discussions about terrorism: the British Transport police have a terrorist specialism based in London, as does the unit that specialises in murder on the transport network. That is because, unfortunately, that is the geographical area where such things occur the most, so the specialist teams are where they need to be.
Hopefully, this debate will highlight the financial impact of the merger and the genuine questions that Police Scotland and BTP employees have about pay and conditions. It is better late than never, and I am relieved that those concerns have put any merger on hold. However, the past refusal of the Scottish Government to consider alternative forms to devolution fails to rectify the issues under discussion.
The Scottish Government have questions to answer, but I also wish to pose three questions to the Minister. When does the Secretary of State plan to lay orders to transfer power under the Scotland Act? Has the Minister received any acknowledgement of discussions between Police Scotland and train operators to establish a railway policy agreement? What discussions have the Government held with their counterparts north of the border about the review of British Transport police integration by Audit Scotland? There are proposals, including the commissioning model, that are supported by BTP, rail users and other interested parties. Such solutions will deliver an transparent and accountable BTP for Scotland, and a fair, consensual devolution settlement that I hope all parties will get behind.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your efficient chairmanship of this debate. I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing it.
Last week we debated Scottish city deals, which examined one side of the devolution equation. This debate examines the other side of that equation, and looks at how effective the devolution process has been over the past 20 years. We are seeing the emergence of the Scottish Government as a Leviathan—an unwelcome Leviathan in many ways. The devolution process was never designed to be like this; it was designed to create institutions to facilitate collaboration and strong partnerships at all levels of government, including local government and with the UK Government. Devolution should never be considered an annexation of power; it should be about building strong partnerships that facilitate efficient collaboration. We need to rediscover that as part of the devolution settlement.
I wish to reflect on the process through which the Smith commission discussed the devolution of the British Transport police to the Scottish Government, and the spirit in which that was done. No one disagrees with the idea of devolution, but the manner in which the Scottish Government have subsequently managed it has been less than satisfactory. The Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee presented three options for railway policing following the publication of the Smith commission’s report and the passage of the Scotland Act. Instead of consulting on which of those three would be the most effective, the Scottish Government instead railroaded through one simple option, with little room for stakeholders to affect the outcome. What sort of democratic devolved discussion and collaborative process is that?
Option 1 looked at administrative measures, including ways to increase alignment with Police Scotland initiatives and BTP’s accountability to Scottish institutions. It examined a new role for the Scottish Police Authority in scrutiny and performance, but that was disregarded. Option 2 considered legislative and administrative measures, including clarifying in statute arrangements through which the Scottish Government may give direction to the British Transport police authority. Under that option, the BTPA would retain responsibilities for pensions, employment contracts, and defraying the costs of policing to the rail industry. Planning and strategy setting for railway policing in Scotland would be reviewed to enable greater involvement by the Scottish Police Authority. Both options considered new branding for the BTP in Scotland, but again that was disregarded without any consultation.
The only option presented as a meaningful way forward was full integration, which was also deemed the most complex route. There was, however, no justification for it on that basis, so why were the other options disregarded out of hand? It is no surprise that the process has been halted, because its basis was clearly unsound from the beginning. That is why the chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland stated:
“The scope and scale of the challenges and complexity of the transfer should not be underestimated. It is not a merger of one complete organisation with another, but the partial extraction of a function from one organisation and its integration into another organisation.”
There is also a problem with staffing, morale, and the skills that are vital to sustaining the British Transport police across the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government seek to merge the BTP with Police Scotland, but they opposed the first two options on the grounds that they would not deliver a single command structure for policing in Scotland.
However, a single command structure is not necessarily desirable, because staff of the British Transport police want to maintain their integrity and their skills and specialisms. If they are removed from that structure and the only way to advance in the organisation is to move out of the rail division and into another part of Police Scotland, the dilution of the skills base will be self-evident. Why is that desirable? It is not, which is why it is necessary and key to maintain the discrete structure of the British Transport police in Scotland through other measures. Such dilution of the skills base is not desirable for staff or for efficient devolution.
For devolution to be a true success, we must examine both sides of the equation and ensure that local government, structures and institutions in Scotland are protected from the encroachment of Edinburgh. We must ensure effective collaboration among the Scottish Government, the UK Government and UK institutions to enable the most efficient management of those services in Scotland.
Because opportunities for advancement within the British Transport police transcend the border—people can move between different regional divisions and they can learn different skills and benefit from training across the UK. It is desirable to maintain such opportunities, and on that basis the British Transport police structure in Scotland should be revisited. We should reconsider those three options and discuss them openly and with good intentions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank you for your guidance. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. He raised important issues, and I will try to address some of them in my speech. Parts of his contribution felt a bit like Saturday when the football was happening in front of me but I was not necessarily enjoying what I was seeing.
For me, the low point is the suggestion that this change is driven by a desire to get rid of the word “British” from British Transport police, as that clearly is not a credible argument. The hon. Member for Moray also accused my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) of shouting and screaming, but all he was doing was trying to make valid interventions. The hon. Gentleman did make important points, however, and I will come on to them.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) confirmed that five parties in the Smith commission agreed on the devolution of the Scottish division of British Transport police, and we must understand that devolution is about handing powers to the Scottish Parliament, and about that Parliament making decisions using those powers. That is where the thrust of the debate should be. The hon. Gentleman also said that there was no train station right on the border, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) intervened and said that passengers were stranded at Carlisle last week, and if it had not been for the British Transport police helping them to go up the road, they might have struggled. However, I fail to see how that will change in a new set-up. The police will always do their best to help passengers, constituents and members of the public, and that will not change. To suggest that it will is to cloud the issue.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) mentioned the overall budget, but he failed to say that Scotland currently gets 5% of the BTP budget. Given that it has more than 11% of the rail network, that suggests a budget deficit. Perhaps that can be looked at in future, with the possible merger with Police Scotland.
I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and I were suggesting that customer service at Carlisle would be damaged by any of these changes to British Transport police, but if there is an incident on a train between Carlisle and Glasgow, who deals with it?
Obviously, I am not involved in the day-to-day workings, but it would depend where the incident was reported to. It is clear that working practices could be put in place, to be agreed between companies, about who to speak to about an incident and who would take charge.
That sort of example would be no more challenging with respect to cross-border rail police than would an incident on the roads, for example. Immigration officers also surely have to cross borders regularly, and powers are created to allow people to operate across borders and overcome such difficulties.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) has said he welcomes the pause in the process, but in fact he considers it as an opportunity to kill the policy off outright. He said that the British Transport police centre of excellence on terrorism was in London because London was more prone to terrorist attacks, but I do not see why that means that the Scottish division should not be incorporated into Police Scotland. There is still clear cross-border co-operation on such matters.
I cannot just now. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East spoke of an automatic dilution of skills. That is not a logical conclusion. If a railway division is retained in the new set-up, there should not be a dilution of skills. In fact, it is a way to enhance skills and opportunities within Police Scotland.
No; I will see if I have time near the end of my speech.
We are debating an important matter, which the Scottish Government are trying to deal with. It is clear that there are concerns within the Scottish division of the British Transport police about the proposals, and the claim that there are concerns among staff members cannot be refuted. We have to take the concerns seriously, given that we are talking about valued police officers who provide vital services, keeping us safe. Staff morale and welfare in relation to stress or concerns is of utmost priority. I think that that is what led to the current pause. However, even when those factors are taken into account, they do not justify the complete policy U-turn that most Members of other parties have called for.
To take the question away from what Opposition parties say, Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone said at the last Scottish police authority board meeting that we should look at options, not only at the merger that has been paused. If the hon. Gentleman does not agree with Opposition politicians, does he agree with Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone?
He obviously feeds into the joint programme board that will be developed; but it depends what he means by “options”. It could be timescales and how the integration goes ahead.
The Smith commission recommended the devolution of the transport police. The SNP Government submission at that point made it clear that their planned governance mechanism would be to incorporate the British Transport police division into Police Scotland. No opposition party responded to the consultation on British Transport police integration, so I have to ask what their concerns were previously. In reality, following the devolution of the British Transport police, the Scottish Parliament approved the integration proposals in June 2017. The majority of the Justice Committee endorsed the proposals; as I said, it was the Scottish Parliament that agreed to them, not simply the SNP Government. The SNP does not have a majority at Holyrood.
Page 44 of the Conservative manifesto for the UK general election in June stated:
“We will create a national infrastructure police force, bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and the British Transport Police to improve the protection of critical infrastructure”.
It is clear that the UK Government propose to merge those specialist areas into one body. There may be a justification for that, but it still means that the Scottish division of the British Transport police would be left as an isolated railway division, separating the forces anyway. The UK Government still want their own single force.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned, the staff are highly motivated people who clearly enjoy their roles. They have clearly developed a loyalty to the British Transport police. That is a good thing, and it helps us to understanding some of their concerns, too. If they have worked for a long time in a division that they know to be high-performing, clearly there will be natural resistance to change. It is not directly comparable, but in my career I worked through the mergers of Strathclyde Sewerage, with the incorporation of the water division and the West of Scotland Water and Scottish Water mergers. At no point, as an employee, was I in favour of any of the mergers or changes, but once they went ahead there was never a desire to look back. I am confident that the same will happen once the merger we are debating goes ahead and there is a high-performing integrated police unit.
As to concerns about terms and conditions, I said earlier that there was a triple-lock guarantee to secure the jobs, pay and pensions of railway policing officers and staff in Scotland. There has been ongoing consultation with representatives of the British Transport Police Federation and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. Admittedly, some staff members clearly felt that there had not been enough communication, but that has now been addressed, and hopefully their concerns will be allayed, especially by the guarantees on terms and conditions. Again, the delay should help allay those concerns and allow the communication process to clarify things.
Some of the respondents to the staff survey were concerned about the loss of the specialism. However, there are plans to retain a specialist railway department and I hope that in due course that will prove to be the correct working arrangement and will maintain the specialism. Ultimately, the integration will provide a single command structure, with seamless access to wider support facilities and specialist resources. It will also ensure that railway policing in Scotland is accountable to the people of Scotland through the SPA and the Scottish Parliament. The integration can be used further to enhance the safety of passengers and railway staff. Some British Transport police staff have also recognised that there could be enhanced promotion and learning prospects within a wider Police Scotland. Concerns have been expressed about the integration of the IT systems, and clearly it must be done properly, but an integrated IT system must be an operational advantage in the bigger picture.
There is an argument that seamless cross-border working happens at present. Leaving aside the fact that the UK Government want to create their own national infrastructure force, it is clear that cross-border working happens with Police Scotland and other police forces now—particularly with counter-terrorism. If police from different police forces work on areas of that kind on a cross-border basis now, surely that can continue in the new set-up.
Police Scotland was mentioned in passing, and I should point out that it is being protected, budget-wise, in real terms. It has 1,000 more officers than in 2007. The fantastic work that its officers do needs greater political support, not to be drowned out by high-level politicking. Police Scotland performs well in its day-to-day fight against crime, which is at an all-time low in Scotland but is rising in England and Wales. The current D division employees of the British Transport police do a fantastic job, and I am confident that integration can be made to work well, and will prove the correct model in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, in what has been a strong debate on the Railway Policing (Scotland) Act 2017, which permits the merger of the British Transport police Scottish division with Police Scotland, although it does not make it obligatory. Clearly there are many other models, as we heard from the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who opened the debate so well, and from my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who explained the importance of the Smith commission and the devolution settlement in moving forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) articulated incredibly well, that meant not annexation but collaboration. We should move forward in that way, and the debate is timely in the light of the announcement of 20 February on the pause in the process.
It is vital in policing that policy decisions be backed by strong evidence. Sadly, I have heard more ideology from the Scottish National party today. As to SNP Members saying that they are confident there will be no looking back, confidence is not enough. We need strong evidence, because this is a matter of public safety. The transport network faces challenging issues today. When we hear that 83% of police oppose the measures, we need to understand why there is a lack of confidence in what the SNP has put forward.
We cannot take away some of the other challenges that are being brought to bear, particularly the governance and capacity issues within Police Scotland—not that they cannot be resolved in the future, but they certainly exist at this time. We have heard about the challenges over pensions, terms and conditions, and cross-border policing, which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) has been pursuing through written questions and raised again today.
The hon. Gentleman has just had 10 minutes, and I need to make progress.
We also need to understand that more work should have been done on the three options that were presented, because clearly only one option was looked at. I believe the Scottish Government had a responsibility to dive deeper into each of those options from the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee to find the right model in moving forward, and that that would have led to the safest option. We need to ensure that those options are now revisited and reviewed, to make sure proper scoping work is carried out and to understand the impact of that. If option 1, talking about the greater alignment of institutions, is taken, it might be recognised that that is as far as it needs to go to ensure complete public safety across the railway. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian has highlighted, the commissioning model of Transport for London, working in an integrated, collaborative way, is another option, and there might be a hybrid model that comes forward once we have been able to review the situation as it is. We need to go back and review those options.
We also need to understand how complex the situation is, not least because we are negotiating across a range of bodies. We have to go back to the fragmented railway system as it is, with the different franchise operators servicing the Scottish railways. Labour wants to see a much more integrated, nationalised railway, which would certainly make things far simpler, but it is important that we look at these issues in the time we are in.
We must think about the specific issues that the transport police are involved in. Of course, that is not isolated from community policing. In my York Central constituency, the transport police have worked closely with the police in dealing with antisocial behaviour and tackling alcohol consumption on trains, making my city safer. That collaboration is vital, but the key is collaboration and working together. It is not changing systems to suit a particular narrative, which, I am afraid, is what this debate has steered into. We also need to be mindful of the integration of the work of the British Transport police with, for instance, that of the guards. We have seen assaults rising quite sharply on our rail network, which is why Labour is committed to ensuring that we have guards on our trains to make the public safe. It is an integrated role.
There are specific roles: dealing with missing and vulnerable children is a big issue for the transport police, as is dealing with public safety at railway stations. Mental health challenges are a big issue that the police have to address at stations, including the specifics of trying to engage with the public to reduce the risk of suicide and harm. One hon. Member raised in the debate the issue of being able to access the rail line, because of vulnerable people finding their way on to railway lines, or trespass. There are specific tasks with specific training that are done by the British Transport police. If we fragment the service, where is that specialist training going to come from without the years and years of expertise built up in providing that access?
Will the hon. Lady explain why, if a specialist police division is retained within Police Scotland, suitable training on suicide prevention and the other measures she mentions cannot be provided? That issue probably cuts across Police Scotland and other measures that other officers have to take.
I struggle again with the SNP’s intervention, because there are specific issues about not just people at risk at stations, but people finding their way on to the rail network itself and how that is addressed. We have heard about the training that is needed on access to the track and keeping the public safe.
Is it not correct to say that, for example, when we share the east coast main line, which runs north and south, the integration has to be north and south? Events that happen in York or Newcastle have knock-on effects both in Scotland and down in London on that one railway line.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That point came out strongly in one of the submissions to the consultation, talking about things such as the management of football fans and ensuring that that is done through co-ordination between Scotland and England. It is important that we see that integration continue.
Coming back to issues of expertise, the British Transport Police Federation chairman, Nigel Goodband, said:
“Given the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the ongoing and significant threat from terrorism, I am writing to you as a matter of urgency to implore you to suspend the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill.”
Here we have somebody in a lead position of expertise imploring the Scottish Government to put this proposal, as it is presented today, on ice, who is backed by the trade unions, the police and Labour.
We need to ensure greater alignment and good collaboration—I think everybody in this debate would agree with that—but we must remember that policing is needed across borders too. Rail does not respect borders, and neither does crime. If this is about keeping the public safe, we need to ensure that we have good communications between station staff and police throughout the network and on board the trains. We cannot afford to lose or regress on the skills that have been developed over time. We are talking about 284 staff and officers who have gained those skills over numerous years and built up a specialism.
We must respect specialism in the police, but many issues are now pulling that expertise away from the service. Many people say they will leave—I believe it is 16% of experienced officers and staff—with 14% going elsewhere in the British Transport police and 22% uncertain over the future. They are uncertain because there is no clarity on pensions and terms and conditions. We are talking about not only existing staff, but the future workforce, who have not been referred to in the debate.
I welcome Audit Scotland’s reviewing the debacle that this has turned out to be, but I also press it on the Minister today that we should see a pause in the laying of orders before the House and ensure that the work goes back to the scoping phase, to reflect properly on the responses to the consultation, which reject the SNP’s proposals, and instead to put forward a sensible model of greater alignment and collaboration as we move forward, thereby ensuring that public safety is put first.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing today’s debate on this important subject. I am aware of his long-standing interest in this matter, both as a Member of this House and previously while a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Before setting out the Government’s position, I would like to make a point that I am sure we all agree about: that the continuing safety and security of the travelling public and of the staff who work on our railways must remain our No. 1 priority in this matter.
As hon. Members will be aware, the decision to devolve the functions of the British Transport police honours the cross-party Smith commission agreement, which explicitly set out that
“the functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter”.
The Scotland Act 2016 gives effect to that recommendation. Legislative competence for railway policing in Scotland has been devolved. The Scottish Government have stated their intention to integrate the Scotland Division of the BTP into Police Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament has passed legislation setting out the Scottish Government’s plans for the future policing of the railway. The process of devolution is therefore under way. It is now for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to use the powers they have been given.
For our part, the UK Government are committed to devolution and to delivering the Smith commission’s recommendations in full. We have been working closely and effectively with the Scottish Government, the two police forces and the two police authorities through a joint programme board, which has been established to oversee the delivery process. We want to see a smooth transition to the new arrangements for policing the railways, with the focus on ensuring that the safety and security of rail passengers and staff remain at the forefront of the process and that the UK’s interests are fully recognised and protected.
Significant progress has been made on a number of aspects of integration, including in preparing the secondary legislation that will transfer those BTP officers and staff currently responsible for policing the railways in Scotland to Police Scotland, and on mapping their terms and conditions. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) asked when we would lay the orders in question. We had planned to lay them in the autumn, but given the delay until a new plan and timeline for the project has been determined, we do not know now when we will lay them.
It needs to be said that any deferral will be for a period of one or perhaps more years, because of the contractual arrangements through which policing costs are recovered by the British Transport police authority from train operators. The transfer can take place only at the start of any given financial year, so we need Police Scotland, working with the BTPA, to commit to a specific, achievable deadline by when it will be operationally ready to deliver the transferred functions, as and when it is in a position to actually receive them. That timeline must work for the BTPA, ensuring that the BTP can continue to focus on its critical activities.
We have been very clear throughout this process that it is our intention that the transfer should take place on an as is basis, ensuring that transferring officers and staff see no change in their terms and status. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) mentioned pensions. We are currently working with the pension trustees on how best to deliver the commitment that pensions will be preserved. The question is how that can be best achieved while ensuring that costs fall where they should. The UK cannot cross-subsidise police pensions in Scotland after the transfer.
Last month, the joint programme board was advised by Police Scotland and the BTPA that a number of significant operational issues remain to be resolved, and that the scheduled transfer date of 1 April 2019 could not be achieved without undue risk to rail staff and passengers, with further time needed to deliver integration most effectively and safely for railway passengers, staff and officers.
In particular, a number of issues were raised about the integration of critical functions, such as ICT, with Police Scotland’s systems. Police Scotland has found itself unprepared to receive the transfer. Scottish Ministers accepted that advice, and a detailed re-planning exercise, supported by external advisors, will now take place to ensure that robust delivery plans are in place and to establish a new delivery date. That will allow also for increased engagement with both industry and staff.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to listen to concerns and criticism and to agree to delay the transfer. I also recognise the concerns raised by hon. Members about Police Scotland’s ability to take on railway policing. Our No. 1 priority remains the safety of the public, and all parties agree that the transfer cannot take place until it is safe for that to happen. However, let me be clear: this is a delay to an agreed process. The Scottish Government have been clear that the transfer will still happen—that is their decision—but only when they are satisfied that all of the necessary actions have been completed.
I must again emphasise that this is devolution at work. The Scottish Government have the power to take decisions and therefore have to take responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions. For our part, the UK Government remain fully committed to delivering the devolution of railway policing, and will in due course bring forward the secondary legislation required in the UK Parliament to enable that to happen.
I assure hon. Members that, as with any effective relationship, we will continue to be absolutely clear and frank with our partners in the Scottish Government as this process continues.
The Minister talks about being open and frank with his colleagues in the Scottish Government. Will he therefore use this time, while the integration programme has been paused because of the reasons outlined, to look at the commissioning model that seems to have support across the industry and the House, and to impress on those colleagues, through frank and open discussions, that that model might be the best way forward?
Railway policing has now been devolved to Scotland, and it is therefore the domain and the prerogative of the Scottish Government to determine how best those responsibilities can be discharged. The commissioning route that the hon. Gentleman prefers is not the policy choice of the Scottish Government. It is now for them to deliver on devolution and to make it work as best they can, with the UK Government playing a supporting role.
Does the Minister agree that devolution is not necessarily about the Scottish Government having full oversight of this, and that there is nothing to stop those of us with electoral mandates to represent the people of Scotland from offering a view? The UK Government should also not shrink from offering their preferred view of what should happen. This is not the nature or the spirit of the collaboration that should underpin devolution.
We will continue to work collaboratively with our colleagues in Scotland to ensure the smooth transfer of powers. We all have the interests and the safety of the passengers and the staff working on our railways at heart. We want to put in place sustainable and endurable arrangements within the framework of law set by the devolution settlement.
I assure hon. Members that, working through the joint programme board, we will be ready to challenge the approach where it is necessary to do so in the interests of passengers, officers and staff and the security of the country. We will continue to ensure that the UK’s interests are fully protected, including by ensuring that the critical, specialist work of the BTP in England and Wales continues to protect rail users and staff.
First, I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the way you have chaired this robust but respectful debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney). I also thank the Front-Bench spokespeople for their contributions, particularly the Minister.
I have to pick up on a couple of points from the speeches made by Scottish National party Members, which I have to say were disappointing. They mentioned that terms and conditions had been progressed. This is an issue that we have considerable concern over, but SNP Members seem quite happy. However, their own Justice Minister in Scotland, Michael Matheson, said that the pause would allow extra time to allow more engagement with the BTP Federation on pay and conditions. Even their own Justice Minister in Scotland does not think they have gone far enough on that.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned IT and how that would be a positive of the merger. However, the Rail Delivery Group, in its briefing for the debate, said that the failure to progress the implantation of ICT systems was one of the biggest hazards of the merger. It went on to say that discussions suggest that the earliest an equivalence system in place would be in April 2021—two years beyond the proposed April 2019 date, which has fortunately been paused.
We are all fortunate in Scotland to have the strong influence of BTP officers in our constituencies. In my constituency of Moray, they were very active during the recent construction of the new Forres railway station. I welcome the support that we have had from pretty much across the Chamber for the pause to now be used as an opportunity to consider options going forward. I am disappointed that SNP Members trotted out the party mantra, unwilling to look at alternative options. However, there are options, and we are in a pause, so we should look at them. They would allow us to respect the devolution settlement and the views of experts.
I will use my final words to praise the commitment, dedication and expertise of British Transport police officers, and indeed all Police Scotland officers. Their unstinting service keeps us safe across Scotland and the United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proposals for the merger of British Transport Police Scottish division with Police Scotland.
Childhood Obesity: Bexley
I beg to move,
That this House has considered childhood obesity in Bexley.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am particularly delighted to see here my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), a constituency neighbour and personal friend; we work together for Bexley. We are glad to see him back in his seat after his recent illness; indeed, we are delighted to see him here today.
I am grateful to be able to raise what is both an extremely important health issue in my borough of Bexley and a national concern—namely, childhood obesity. This is an opportune moment to raise the issue of obesity, because today Public Health England chief executive Duncan Selbie is urging shops and food outlets to reduce portion sizes by 20% within the next six years after stating that obesity has become “the norm”. Indeed, he is today launching the One You campaign, with the slogan “400-600-600”—the number of calories that people should eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner. He says that the issue of overweight or obese children needs to be addressed. PHE nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone says that children are consuming 500 calories a day more than they require; that is equivalent to another meal. Therefore, as I said, this is an opportune moment to raise the issue.
Bexley is a great place to live and work in, and I am delighted to have been a resident of Barnehurst for a considerable time, because there is so much to see and do. I urge you, Mr Hollobone, and my hon. Friend the Minister to come down to Bexley sometime and see the huge opportunities that there are to visit the parks, stately homes and other facilities that are so good.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his very kind wishes on my return to duties at Westminster. I support him in this debate and what he says about the London Borough of Bexley. He has rightly focused on the comments this morning by Public Health England. Obviously, part of this issue is what goes into ready meals and things like that. What thoughts does he have on what Public Health England has said about ingredients and what goes into so much of the food on the supermarket shelves that we buy, and the impact that that is having? He is making really important points this morning.
That is a very valid point. Recipes, portion sizes and calories need to be looked at and addressed. I urge all restaurants, fast food outlets and food manufacturers to look seriously at how they can reduce people’s salt, sugar and calorie intake. We have to address that, as I am sure the Minister will accept later.
The statistics for childhood obesity in Bexley are mixed when compared with those for the rest of England. There are areas of public health where we do much better, and I will highlight the stop smoking campaign, which has been very successful across our borough, but unfortunately childhood obesity is a real issue in the borough and needs attention.
It is widely accepted by health experts that once weight is gained, it is difficult to lose. The Government have called childhood obesity
“one of the top public health challenges for this generation”.
That is certainly the case for Bexley. The Government are well aware of the issue nationally and are being proactive in addressing the concerns. The childhood obesity plan in 2016 was a welcome step forward, but plans need to be actioned; we are looking for results and outcomes. Measures in the plan included the soft drinks industry levy, which will apply to manufacturers; a recommitment to the Healthy Start voucher scheme, enabling low-income families to buy fruit and vegetables; and action to increase physical activity in schools. We all appreciate that there is no quick fix, but that is the first step on a long journey that aims to
“significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next ten years.”
We do need an understanding and a culture change.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House. It is in the news every day—indeed, it is in the news this morning—and it is very important for people back home in Northern Ireland. “Childhood obesity in Bexley” is the heading for this Westminster Hall debate on the Order Paper, but in Northern Ireland we have similar figures—of children aged between two and 15, 17% are classed as overweight and 8% as obese. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that it is time for the Department for Education and the Department of Health and social care to work together to put in place a strategy to reduce childhood obesity, which would clearly involve schools?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and totally agree with him. I think that the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care are working together, but more needs to be done. I appreciate that this is not just a Bexley issue—it also matters to the people of Northern Ireland and across the country—but I specified Bexley because it is particularly bad compared with other places.
The earlier a child is exposed to obesity, the earlier they can experience medical consequences and problems. In fact, a study by Cancer Research UK found that obesity could cause 670,000 cases of cancer nationally over the next 20 years, plus millions more cases of other diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Obesity and the medical problems stemming from it cause problems for our whole society. It causes a loss of productivity in the workforce. It restricts opportunities for individuals. And it adds another burden on to our NHS. In fact, Cancer Research UK also claims that the cost to the NHS per year by 2035 could be an additional £2.5 billion, over and above what is already spent on obesity-related diseases. Of course, quality of life can also be reduced by being heavily overweight, as that restricts opportunities and choices.
Childhood obesity is strongly linked to adult obesity. According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, four in five obese schoolchildren are likely to be dangerously overweight for life. Therefore, we have to act early, before there are serious consequences from something that is avoidable.
I have said that, statistically, Bexley is not performing well, unlike other areas, where provision and action are good. In Bexley, the prevalence of overweight or obesity among children in reception classes is 26.7%. That is worse than in London in general and in England in total. In year 6, the figure in Bexley increases to 39.4%, which is almost one percentage point higher than the London average and more than five percentage points higher than the England average. That is very disappointing. When we consider that in Bexley 12.3% of reception age children and 24% of year 6 children are obese, it is a real cause for concern. Let us look at the trends over time. The number of overweight or obese reception age children in Bexley increased from 20% in 2007 to 26.7% last year. That is why we are raising this issue today with the Minister—to highlight the issues that we have in Bexley.
Diets, of course, play a very important role in lifestyle. Approximately 54% of adults in Bexley meet the “five a day” recommendation for fruit and vegetables. Again, that percentage is below the London and national averages. It does not set a good example for our children. Sadly, children do follow their parents and grandparents, and when habits are formed young, the consequences are great. We need to promote and pursue the importance of fruit and vegetables. Fruit can be an enjoyable snack and an alternative to chocolate, cake and sweets, while a diversity of vegetables is essential to a balanced diet.
Bexley Council—a good, Conservative-led council—is taking action. Just over a year ago, Bexley joined the nationwide Sugar Smart campaign led by Jamie Oliver. The aims of the campaign for us are to educate people and raise awareness across Bexley about the harmful effects of excess sugar consumption, and to reduce individuals’ sugar intake across the borough. The council is encouraging local organisations and businesses to participate in the campaign and support this very important initiative. Bexley has now signed up to the campaign 16 participants, including a number of schools, and I hope that the figure continues to grow during the rest of this year, because that is a very important facility and opportunity.
I am grateful for the information that has been given to me by Dr Anjan Ghosh, who is the director of public health and deputy director of health and wellbeing at the London Borough of Bexley. Dr Ghosh advises that the Bexley health and wellbeing board recently signed off on the development of a system-wide prevention strategy that is far reaching and ambitious in scope and has the potential to harness council, NHS and community assets in improving health and wellbeing outcomes, helping Bexley residents to start well, live well and age well. The strategy is currently in development, and part of that involves developing an obesity strategy for Bexley that has the same population health focus.
Part of the work is to unpick why obesity statistics in Bexley are poor compared with statistically and demographically similar London boroughs. The programme includes a two-tier child weight management programme for children aged four to 11 and their families, a family lifestyle programme and guidance to support healthier living, eating and lifestyles. Each category programme is designed specifically to provide age-appropriate messages, activities and behavioural change that will benefit the whole family. Once the 12-week programme is over, there will still be access for the families and young people to drop in, to update themselves and take the service further.
I know that schools and teachers are doing their very best to advise children, as well as to educate and support them to eat well. However, parents, as the primary educators, have primary responsibility and we need more support from parents. The scale of the issue is huge. I will not go through the statistics of how many biscuits, cakes, ice-creams and all those type of foods are consumed by young people every year, or how many calories those foods and fizzy drinks contain.
One has to say that it is a worry to see secondary school children coming out of school in the afternoon into Bexleyheath, going to the fast food outlets in the town and consuming burgers and chips, which have an enormous calorie intake. That is a huge concern. There has been an increase in our borough of waffle shops, ice cream parlours and other fast-food outlets. While it is good to see business thriving, it is worrying that some are exacerbating the problem and increasing the sugar and calorie intake of our youngsters. Treats are fine for special occasions, but should not be the mainstay of an individual’s diet. I am not a killjoy, but everything should be in moderation. In addition, I think that many of us eat too much and have portions that are too large. That is why the report I have highlighted this morning is so important.
Further to that point, on the news this morning they were saying that they were not against the idea of fast-food outlets, but we should have smaller portions. In other words, if we start with smaller portions, it will be a step in the right direction and maybe that is the way to go forward.
I think that is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman highlights the calorie content and intake, which is so important.
I also want to highlight physical activity, or inactivity, which is a huge problem that can lead to obesity and is the fourth leading cause of global mortality. Increasing activity levels could help to prevent a number of illnesses, including cancer and diabetes. Regrettably, in Bexley, over 21% of adults are physically inactive.
I was honoured and privileged to serve as Sports Minister in the then Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the first half of 2016, while covering the maternity leave of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). It was a brilliant experience to go around the country and see first-hand how sport can make a real, positive impact on people’s lives. We must promote the wide range of sports available out there and their benefits. Sports participation is a great way for young people in particular to become physically active, improve their health and fitness, and—depending on the sport—to be part of a team, socialise and be part of something, gain motivation and confidence, and also have fun. We all know that sport is fun.
I know that the Minister will agree with me on that. I used to be a keen tennis player. I do not get time for that now, but I am still a keen walker. We have places such as Hall Place and Danson Park in our borough, where one can have a good walk. It is a really invigorating experience. I also enjoy going to north Norfolk and Sheringham Park with my wife, Marilyn, and we have long walks along the north Norfolk coast. That is important exercise.
In conclusion, we must take action on all fronts. The concern is not only the advertising and promotion—in supermarkets we still see the calorie-laden chocolates and what have you by the check-out, which is a worry too—but what parents are feeding their children and the fast foods. The intake of sugar and salt is too high. The issue is people making sensible lifestyle choices, to ensure that they are eating healthily and looking after their health. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the serious issues across the country. Government, industry, schools, the NHS, families and friends all have a part to play to ensure that we are eating and living healthily.
The benefits of reducing childhood obesity are clear. It will save lives, but it will improve the quality of young people’s lives, which is important. Education is the key. We need to educate our children and businesses. We need to encourage everyone to be more active and eat better. We need more promotion of sports and to continue to reduce children’s calorie and sugar intake. We need to educate parents and grandparents on the risks of lifestyle to themselves and their families. Of course, publicity and promotion are important, essential in fact. Politicians at local and national level should get on board too and need to be engaged to achieve results. For our Borough of Bexley, we need results. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know well, to take these matters seriously and give us the lead.
Let me start by repeating what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett): childhood obesity remains one of the top public health challenges, if not the top one, facing this generation. I have said that in this Chamber before, and I welcome any chance to debate this subject. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also echo his words about how nice it is to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back in his place. He is my dear friend and I worked closely with him when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We have said many prayers for him in the last few months. It is great to see him back in his place.
As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the latest figures, which I pore over, continue to show us that child obesity rates in England remain way too high. Almost a quarter of children are overweight or obese when they start primary school. Probably more worrying is the fact that that figure rises to around a third by the time they leave primary school.
Evidence shows us that the deprivation gap in obesity prevalence between children in the most and least deprived areas is increasing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford gave figures for Bexley, and he was right to, but let me give some national averages. Obesity prevalence among children in reception living in the most deprived areas was 12.7%, compared with just 5.8% among those living in the least deprived areas. In year 6—the final year of primary school—those figures were 26.3% and 11.4% respectively. That gap worries me. It should worry us all. It continues to widen. This is one of the great burning injustices of our times; the Prime Minister has used that phrase, and she is dead right. My view is that we have not just a right to act, but a responsibility to act as a Government with a publicly-funded health system.
Bexley is fairly affluent, but there are areas of significant deprivation, as there are in all of our constituencies. Data for Bexley show higher rates of excess weight in children than the averages for London and for England. Also, obesity prevalence has remained higher than the national average, as my right hon. Friend said, for over five years, so he is right to highlight the issue. The impact for Bexley and the rest of the country was highlighted just last week through new analysis by my good friends and partners at Cancer Research UK suggesting that millennials are on course to be the most overweight generation in history. That should and does worry us greatly.
We know that obese children are much more likely to become obese adults; it is very hard to lose the weight, as my right hon. Friend said. That increases their risk of developing the serious diseases that I speak about as part of my portfolio, including type 2 diabetes. There was a lot of press coverage and an Adjournment debate in the House last week about the sheer number of people picking up type 2 diabetes, which is an entirely preventable condition. It increases your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, including bowel and breast, two of the most common cancers, which is why CRUK are rightly so active in this space. It is also a major risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
We launched our child obesity plan in August 2016, as my right hon. Friend rightly said. It was a very robust piece of work informed by the latest evidence and research in the area. At the heart of the plan is a simple desire to change the nature of food that children eat and to make it easier for families and parents—who play a key role—to make healthier choices for them and for the country.
The plan is a challenge—and it is meant to be—to us in national Government as well as those in local government, which I will come on to, in businesses, in the NHS, and in schools and families. We all have a role to play in reducing child obesity levels. In developing the plan, my officials and my predecessors have been clear, as I am, that we have considered a number of different policies. We have focused on the ones that are likely to have the biggest impact on preventing child obesity.
As my right hon. Friend will remember, key measures in the plan include the soft drinks industry levy, which was announced by the previous Chancellor; the sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme; and helping children to enjoy an hour of physical activity every day, which is so important.
Since we published the plan, real progress has been made on sugar reduction. The soft drinks industry levy will come into effect in April—it is important to remember that it has not yet come into force, but it is nudging behaviour. Public Health England has formulated a comprehensive sugar reduction programme with the aim of a 20% reduction in sugar in key foods by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one. We will be judging that shortly to see where progress has been made.
Companies, such as the makers of Lucozade, are important. I visited the headquarters of Ribena, the Suntory brand, in Uxbridge earlier this year. I pay great tribute to its work. I was in the lab testing the new Ribena, which goes live this week.
It was very nice and very refreshing.
As a company, Ribena has taken a hit in doing that, but it reports great staff satisfaction and a feeling that it is doing the right thing. As the Minister, I have never been afraid to call out businesses that are making poor choices and those that are making the right choices. Ribena is making the right choices.
Kellogg’s also made a good decision about the reformulation of sugar in its cereals, which sit on my children’s breakfast table every morning. Tesco, Waitrose and Nestlé have led the way by removing millions of tonnes of sugar from their products and they deserve credit for that. We expect almost half of all drinks that would otherwise have been in-scope of the soft drinks industry levy to have been reformulated by the time it comes in. That is a crucial step towards improving our children’s health, as data shows that sugary soft drinks are the main contributor of sugar in our children’s diets.
My right hon. Friends might be thinking that we will be victims of our own success, because the industry levy will not produce the revenue so we will not be able to reinvest it. However, someone far cleverer than me, before my time, managed to persuade the Treasury—a clever, neat trick—that we will invest all the revenue we expected to get from the levy, plus what we said we hoped to raise during this Parliament, in giving school-aged children a better and healthier future, including through doubling the primary school PE and sport premium; investing in school breakfast clubs, which are so important; and providing £100 million in 2018-19 for a new healthier pupils capital fund.
As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford and by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, this work should be done between the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, and of course it is being. Our original plan was a cross-Government piece of work. Last month, I talked to the new Secretary of State for Education about the plan and introduced him to some of things that I want to do.
It is a joined-up conversation because, as my right hon. Friend said, schools have a huge role to play in teaching children about healthy eating. The national curriculum requires them to teach children about food, nutrition and healthy eating, and how to cook a repertoire of dishes as part of design and technology classes. Things have changed since my day, when a fish finger sandwich was one of my challenges in design and technology and I managed to get it wrong.
It is compulsory for pupils in maintained schools from key stages 1 to 3 to be taught about the principles of a healthy and varied diet and why that is important, and the national curriculum can be used as a benchmark for free schools and academies, which ordinarily sit outside it. Alongside our commitment to continue to provide free school lunches to infant pupils, which means that about 1.4 million more children are eating a healthy lunch, we are investing £26 million in breakfast clubs, using revenue from the soft drinks industry levy.
Our plan is not just about school-aged children. In November, we published a series of example menus and associated guidance to support early years settings, such as nurseries and childminders, to offer food and drink in line with Government dietary recommendations for infants and children from about six months to four years—a key cohort—before they get to primary school.
The guidance includes useful information for early years settings to show how they can meet the early years foundation stage welfare requirement to provide “healthy, balanced and nutritious” meals for children. They are also responsible for educating parents and carers to help them to prepare healthy, balanced meals at home and introduce their child to new foods. There has to be a consistent thread from the education setting to the home setting.
My right hon. Friend was right to mention local authorities, which have a key role to play in creating healthier local environments in our constituencies. They can have a significant impact in local communities through levers such as the planning system, urban design and transport strategies. There are great examples of that, such as the restrictions on new hot food takeaways in Gateshead, which is something that my right hon. Friend might want to look at. I was interested to hear from my right hon. Friend about the borough-wide prevention strategy. As the Minister with responsibility for prevention, I would be interested to hear more and I note his offer to visit him in his constituency.
Other local initiatives include last year’s London-wide great weight debate on child obesity, which several London authorities, including Bexley, took part in. Such events show how communities can make their own contributions. The results of that debate are feeding into the five-year obesity strategy being developed in Bexley, which my right hon. Friend talked about. I welcome that, because it cannot all be about what the national Government do. We have to set the framework and the ambition. Sometimes we can use the taxation system as we have with the industry levy, but local government has a key role to play. I am excited to see the progress being made.
We continue to learn from the latest evidence around the country and around the world, such as the very interesting whole-systems approach in Amsterdam that led to a reduction of 2,500 in the number of overweight and obese children between 2012 and 2015. I am talking to people there and I hope to visit at some point.
This week, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, to implement part one of the child obesity plan, we launched our ambitious calorie-reduction programme alongside Public Health England. It is ambitious: it challenges all sectors of the food and drink industry to reduce calories in everyday food by 20% by 2024. I absolutely believe the sectors can do that—we have had a brilliant and positive response from them—and yesterday’s announcement, which is in the newspapers today, is very welcome. We are confident that those measures can make an impact.
All the reports and data that we publish on our progress in delivering our world-leading childhood obesity plan will be open to scrutiny and, I hope, to further debates in this place. That will include Public Health England’s assessment of progress on sugar reduction, which I mentioned earlier and which will be published in the spring. The Obesity Policy Research Unit’s evaluation of that research will be published as individual projects are completed. We are deliberately publishing and being measured all the time, and we will use that to decide whether sufficient progress has been made and whether we need to go further.
I thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford and for Old Bexley and Sidcup for their contributions, and I look forward to continuing the conversation in coming months.
Question put and agreed to.
Fire Safety and Cladding
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on 18 December 2017, on the independent review of building regulations and fire safety, HC 555; oral evidence taken before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on 15 January, on the DCLG Annual Report and Accounts 2016-17, HC 553; and correspondence between the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and Dame Judith Hackitt, relating to the independent review of building regulations and fire safety, reported to the House and published on 8 January and 29 January.]
Before I call Mr Reed to open our debate on this important matter, you can all see that there is a cast of thousands. This is a very important subject. When Mr Reed has sat down, I will let you know exactly what the time limits will be. You should plan for three or four minutes, and we will see how we go.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cladding and remedial fire safety work.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful so many colleagues have turned up to the debate, which emphasises how significant this issue is for so many of our constituents.
I first came to the issue because of a block called Citiscape in my constituency. A group of residents came to see me because the block has the same kind of cladding on it as Grenfell Tower: aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding with a polyethylene core. Polyethylene is a kind of compressed paraffin. At Grenfell, this cladding had the equivalent combustibility to 32,000 litres of petrol over the outside of the building, so it is understandable that Citiscape’s residents were so concerned.
The residents were told that it would cost them as leaseholders up to £31,000 per flat to remove the cladding—a bill many of them simply could not afford—and that if everybody did not pay, none of the work would start. One older resident had to cancel his move to a care home because the flat he was going to sell to pay for that move was unsellable because of the cladding on the building. These people are stuck in a building that they describe as a deathtrap, unable to move and unable to afford the cost of making their homes safe.
The industry estimates that some 800 blocks across the country have flammable cladding: 300 are council-owned and will eventually be made safe, although it is worrying that nine months after Grenfell only three have so far been completely re-clad, and around 500 blocks are privately owned, but the Government are doing nothing to help the people living in them.
I am grateful for that question; I intend to cover exactly that in my speech. I am going to argue that it is the Government’s responsibility to remove the cladding because their flawed regulatory system is what allowed it to go up in the first place.
When I challenge the Secretary of State on this, he justifies doing nothing by pointing the finger at freeholders, whom he claims have a moral responsibility to replace the cladding. The problem is that a moral responsibility is not the same as a legal responsibility. Freeholders, like leaseholders, developers, managing agents and insurers, all deny legal liability, and so do the Government. It could take years for the courts to resolve this and all that time people would be left living in fear. On average, there is one fire every month linked to this kind of cladding. Eventually, one will not be put out in time. Is the Minister really going to do nothing and risk a second Grenfell Tower fire?
Decades of inaction led to the fire at Grenfell Tower and the loss of, now, 72 lives. All the fine words and sympathy in the world will not save lives. We need regulation now and a commitment of Government finance. What are we waiting for?
I completely agree. I hope colleagues will forgive me if I restrict the number of interventions I take. There are so many people trying to get in on the debate that I would like to leave room for them if I can.
The Housing Minister told the House of Commons last month that he recognises no systemic problem with the fire safety regime. Let us look briefly at what he thinks is good enough. The Building Research Establishment’s fire testing system is so weak that manufacturers can design the testing rigs that test their own materials, and can then keep quiet about how many tests their materials fail before they eventually get a result they want. Developers, builders and buyers are never told, because the test results are treated as commercially confidential. Conflicts of interest are everywhere in this system. The BRE makes money by running tests on flammable materials—
The interim Hackitt report asserted on fire safety:
“Those responsible for high-risk and complex buildings should be held to account to a higher degree.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that after nine months the Conservative Government have shown no willingness to act?
I agree, but I hope that we will hear from the Minister that things have changed.
The BRE makes up to £40,000 per test that it conducts for manufacturers. As it also drafts the guidance, as an organisation it has a financial interest in permitting the use of combustible materials that it then tests. The fire safety tests after Grenfell were carried out by Kingspan, which manufactured part of the materials on Grenfell in the first place. Some individuals from the BRE who drafted the Government’s flawed guidance are now advising Ministers that there is not a problem with the regulations that they drafted. What a surprise! It is even possible to bypass safety tests completely by paying somebody to carry out a desktop study, which does not involve doing any testing whatever. The privatised National House Building Council makes money by signing off flammable cladding that has never been tested, and because flammable materials—combustible materials—are cheaper to make, the industry has a perverse incentive to keep costs down by using combustible cladding.
No other country in the European Union permits a system this lax. Many EU countries do not permit the use of combustible cladding at all. The UK building industry has alerted the Government to materials authorised by the BRE that subsequently failed fire safety tests in other countries. The Government chose to do nothing. The Association of British Insurers, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of Residential Managing Agents and other building industry groups all want flammable cladding banned.
Back in 2013, the coroner investigating the deadly Lakanal House fire in Southwark told the Government to amend fire safety guidance
“with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of a building”.
She said that BRE Approved Document B, which relates to fire safety, was unclear and needed to be reviewed. However, the Communities Secretary at the time, Eric Pickles, did not do that. Nor have a string of Housing Ministers—every one since then—taken any action, including the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell. The current Housing Minister is relatively new in post. He could take a different course. I hope he will, but it is a worrying start that a consultation is under way on further weakening these already weak fire safety regulations by extending the use of desktop studies instead of insisting on rigorous, independent fire safety tests every time.
The industry has repeatedly asked the Government for clear and unequivocal advice on how to deal with the various forms of flammable cladding being found on hundreds of buildings. I wrote to the Secretary of State in January asking for the same on the industry’s behalf. As of today, the Government have given no direction at all on how these cases are to be dealt with.
After Grenfell, the Government said that cladding with a polyethylene core, like that on Citiscape in my constituency, does not comply with the guidance. The Prime Minister repeated that claim, yet I have here a certificate signed by Sir Ken Knight, chair of the Government’s independent expert panel on fire safety and a director of the BRE Trust, that says that it does comply. Quite simply, the Government are all over the place. They do not have a clue what is going on. Every single loophole and error that led to Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower is still in place. This is no one else’s fault and no one else’s moral responsibility except the Government’s.
Thousands of frightened people living in blocks with flammable cladding need to hear from the Minister today that it will be taken down without delay. They do not need any more buck-passing. They cannot afford to spend years in the courts while the cladding remains on their buildings. The Government’s flawed fire safety regime created this mess; the Government must now clear it up. We cannot risk a second Grenfell Tower. The time for the Minister to act is now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this debate on an important issue that affects my constituents in Bromley.
Let me say something about the tone of the debate. It appears that there have been failings in relation to regulation, perhaps partly because technology has moved on and awareness is greater, but the building that I am concerned with is Northpoint on Sherman Road in Bromley, a block of 57 flats that were converted from offices 15 years ago, and to suggest that responsibility lies with any one party is inaccurate. When the flats were converted in 2003—under a Labour Government, as it happens—the cladding was considered acceptable according to what was known at the time. A subsequent inspection in November 2017 led the fire brigade to conclude that it was not acceptable, so an enforcement notice was served.
Whatever the history of the 57 flats, the residents are now placed in an impossible financial situation. The flats are on lease from a private freeholder, a commercial company. The leaseholders have spent some £80,000 on a two-man, 24-hour “waking watch” on the premises, and if the building has to be re-clad, the costs are likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. They are in a difficult situation, because the developer’s 10-year guarantee is out of date and the freeholder is a commercial company.
I understand the Secretary of State’s point about a moral duty, but as the hon. Member for Croydon North rightly said, a moral duty is not legally enforceable. In any event, the directors of a commercial company have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, so they face a conflict. That creates a bind for the residents, who are forking out £6,000-odd a month for the ongoing costs of the waking watch. The normal sinking fund that they prudently set in place has long been exhausted. Their own funds will soon be exhausted, too, and the flats are unsaleable because no one will buy them in the circumstances. Many of the residents are young professionals; I received a letter from one constituent whose flat was the first home that she and her husband were able to buy. They have no chance of moving on—they are stuck with an asset that has turned into a liability.
I hope the Minister will come up with something more specific than what has been proposed. I understand that interest-free loans have been suggested, but a lot of these people are already suffering, so how will they repay the capital? I am glad that additional funding has been made available to the Leasehold Advisory Service, but again, that does not address the underlying situation. A failure of regulation is a failure of governance, whoever was in government at the time, so ultimately the Government need to stand behind those affected, rather than expecting the costs to be picked up by individuals who did nothing and had no control over what happened.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this important debate.
I will be brief, Mr Streeter, as you have told me to be. I have two questions for the Minister. First, who should pay for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding and for the interim remedial measures, such as fire marshals and temporary alarm systems? Secondly, when will we see progress on the review of Approved Document B, and can we have an update on the BS 8414 test?
On the first question, the Government are clear that they want landlords to pay, as they have repeatedly exhorted them to. In the social sector, with registered social landlords and local authorities, they have been largely successful, but in the private sector the opposite is true. Many freeholders and property management companies take the view opposite to the Government’s. As the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership has reported to my hon. Friend, it is leaseholders who are picking up the tab.
One thing is for sure: leaseholders have no blame in this. They did not design the buildings, choose the construction materials or draft, monitor or enforce the defective regulations, so why are they the victims? As the Minister has rightly said:
“We have been very clear that, morally, such costs should not be passed on to leaseholders.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2018; Vol. 635, c. 1237.]
However, that is exactly what is happening. Leaseholders are financially stretched to the full to meet mortgage payments for years ahead. They face huge bills, as we have heard. The Government need to do something for them now.
On Approved Document B, the all-party fire safety rescue group has sought a review of the statutory guidance and the building regulations. The last review was in 2006. Historically, reviews were carried out every five years, or at least every 10, but it has now been 12 years. New materials and construction methods mean new risks.
The Government must do more. The interim report of the Dame Judith Hackitt review called for a complete cultural overhaul. Dame Judith’s work has been widely praised and much has gone on behind the scenes, but we have heard nothing from the Government on simple matters such as the BS 8414 test or the ban that the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of British Insurers and the Fire Protection Association have called for on using combustible materials on the outside of buildings.
In conclusion, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the BS 8414 test, on the review of Approved Document B and the building regulations, and on how the Government intend to protect leaseholders, who are in such a vulnerable position.
I, too, will keep my comments brief. I welcome this debate and agree with the contributions of other hon. Members. I particularly support the emphasis on leaseholders of private blocks, whom Inside Housing described this week as being stuck in the middle of a battle between freeholders, the insurance industry, developers and lawyers about who will keep their blocks safe.
There are 283 high-rise residential blocks in Manchester City Council’s area, of which 223 are in private ownership. The social sector and the council are to be commended for their quick response to the need to remove and replace cladding, but the response in the private sector has been woefully poor. It has been very hard to get hold of many of the owners of the blocks, and it has been hard to get answers from managing agents about what they will do. Leaseholders and homeowners have been left to bear the brunt.
I want to highlight two specific cases in my constituency. The cladding on the Chips building has been deemed non-fire-retardant. That was known at the time, but it was still signed off, and leaseholders are now being charged well over £5,000 each to put it right. The cladding on the Little Alex block was within regulations at the time, but following an inspection it has now been deemed to fall outside them. A prohibition notice has been issued; again, it falls on leaseholders to meet the costs, which will be well in excess of £175,000. That is just unacceptable. It is not the leaseholders’ fault, yet they are footing the bill.
Who foots the bill is one issue, but I really hope the Minister recognises that this is not just about money. Leaseholders have no right of recourse. Who are they supposed to go to? The Government say that developers and owners have a moral duty to take action, but there is no body to which leaseholders can turn for recourse. Bodies such as first-tier tribunals are frankly toothless; they do not follow through and are very bureaucratic.
Hundreds of people in Manchester and elsewhere are now stuck between a rock and a hard place. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) rightly said, this is a failure of governance and of regulation. It is our job in Parliament, and the Government’s job, to put that right for the people who are now stuck in unsafe buildings that they are unable to sell.
I hope that hon. Members will accept that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate: I am on an extended convalescence from a bad leg. I welcome the initiative of the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to address low standards—a point also raised by the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed).
I have one or two points to make to the Government. First, the cost of remedy, especially for the leaseholders I am concerned with, in addition to everyone else affected, could be reduced if the Government waived the VAT on the cost of remedial works. That would reduce a £120,000 charge to £100,000, which would be worth while for all concerned. The second point is that leaseholders, apparently, do not have a right to get in touch with anybody legally about these issues; they are not party to the insurance or to the building and they are not written in anywhere. I ask the Government to find some way of deeming that leaseholders do have an interest and retrospectively have had an interest in the people who put up these blocks and the people who run them.
I have a third suggestion; many of my suggestions come from the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). It is that every freeholder of every block affected should declare who they are and how they can be contacted. There must be no more hiding behind offshore entities. The managing agents should make sure they declare who these people are. Let us have them in front of Select Committees talking about who they are and how they will respond to this issue.
We accept that there will be many legal disputes. My suggestion is that the Government should get all the parties together and try to get a test case in front of the Supreme Court as quickly as possible, preferably within the next six months, to determine who has what liabilities. Once that is settled, it will be easy to see the people who are left out.
Whether the developments are the converted office blocks mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) or purpose-built residential blocks, we ought to be able to recognise an analogy with cars. Even if a car passed the tests for it to be sold new, if a defect turns up the car manufacturer still has the responsibility to put it right. Martin Boyd of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership has made that point very clearly—I make it, too, on behalf of the all-party group on leasehold reform.
The leaseholders are particularly stuck. In social housing, we know that the tenants will not have to pay. We also know that by law a leaseholder is a tenant. I think we should put leaseholders in the same situation as social housing tenants, otherwise we will freeze too much of our housing.
I am grateful to have had the chance to make some of these points at length; one could make them at greater length. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Croydon North has done a favour to the House and to the country in securing this debate, and I hope that the Government will be able to move forward today and in days to come.
Someone living in a high-rise flat in Hammersmith or Shepherd’s Bush looks at Grenfell Tower every day; a year before the Grenfell Tower fire, they will also have seen the very serious tower block fire at Shepherd’s Court on Shepherd’s Bush Green.
There has been a response from the local authority and from public landlords to what has happened. Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group told me today that it has spent almost £1 million so far on remedial works post-Grenfell. It will not charge its leaseholders for those works, but ultimately the money for them will come from its tenants. The Government should be responsible for funding this work, but they are showing a lack of leadership and of responsibility in this regard.
Let me be specific and give the example of two blocks, both of which were built in the last 10 years. One is owned by Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group and is called Kelway House. After initially failing the Buildings Research Establishment test, it passed it. However, residents do not know whether those tests are robust or not and they are still concerned about them.
The second block is Cranston Court in White City, which is owned by Notting Hill Housing, and it failed those tests. Notting Hill Housing is removing the cladding on Cranston Court and it has acted responsibly in doing so. It is putting up temporary cladding, so that it can remove fire wardens, but it does not know what to do next. It has now resolved that it will put up non-combustible solid aluminium panels. However, that is because there is no guidance; it is taking what it hopes is the safest option.
There are some simple remedies. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), who secured this debate, I do not know why we allow combustible or limited combustibility cladding and insulation to be used any more. It is not used in other European countries, as has been said. That is why I am glad to see that public landlords have taken the advice not to use such cladding and instead are using mineral wool or other forms of cladding or insulation that are available.
However, I am afraid that these issues have to be addressed, and addressed now, by the Government. As we have seen in the trade press recently, the idea that desktop studies will be extended, and will become the norm rather than just being used occasionally, is horrifying.
Also, regarding the conflicts of interest at the BRE and the inadequacy of Approved Document B, some of us have known about them for many years and we have all known about them since Grenfell. As I understand it, although the Hackitt review is good as far as it goes, it does not look as if the final report—let alone the interim one—will give us clear guidance on these issues. It will say that the culture is wrong, but what it will not do is tell landlords—responsible landlords—what they should do. Has that review of Approved Document B got under way and, if it has, when is it due to report and when can we actually tell our landlords what should happen?
I commend the all-party group on fire safety and rescue for the work that it has done on this issue. I have attended a number of seminars on it. However, the Government have to act on it. It cannot be left to the industry alone or to us alone. We must have a solution.
I will speak very briefly, because a great many lives were lost and that always makes debates run hot. Also, given that there is an important theme to this debate about who is going to pay for works, I have no wish to divert the Chamber’s attention from that.
However, I wish to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has just made comments about insulation, because BS 8414 is a tough test. It also failed cladding that was non-combustible. The reason for adding this observation to the debate is that the situation is not as clear cut as we would all like it to be. This is an extremely difficult subject.
For that matter, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), who opened the debate, said that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was made by Kingspan. Kingspan has a factory in my constituency and that cladding was not made by Kingspan—it was made by a company called Reynobond and the majority of the insulation in Grenfell was made by a company called Celotex. I feel that it is helpful, given that all the experts are here, just to put a few of those facts on the record.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this very important debate.
I will highlight the plight of leaseholders in Heysmoor Heights, Liverpool—it is a 16-storey building. Those leaseholders are now being presented with bills for £18,000 each to replace dangerous cladding and to provide fire safety measures that have been deemed essential following the Grenfell Tower disaster. I commend the very swift action taken by Merseyside fire and rescue service; it acted very quickly. The dangerous cladding has now been removed from Heysmoor Heights and alternative covering is now in the process of being put up. However, as I say, the leaseholders are facing these bills.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about this issue and on 11 December he replied. He stated that, in such situations:
“I urged those with responsibility to follow the lead from the social sector and private companies already doing the right thing, and not attempt to pass on costs to leaseholders.”
That is simply not happening. At Heysmoor Heights, leaseholders of modest means are being asked to find £18,000 each, and the fact that payment plans are being discussed does not make any difference to that essential figure. That is a bill for £18,000 to keep people safe in a situation that they could not possibly have anticipated.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I call on the Minister to honour the commitment that the Secretary of State made in his letter to me. This issue is about leaseholders. They face paying bills to keep them safe and they could not possibly have anticipated this situation. I call on the Minister to honour what has been said. Leaseholders should not face these bills.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this debate. I would also like to show my appreciation of all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) has done since this terrible, terrible fire, which brings us here this afternoon.
The fire was a moment when I think that most of us across the House thought there would be a cross-party response showing huge urgency. We should keep in mind the 72 people who lost their lives and also keep in mind two very real issues. The first is genuine fear. There is very likely no one in this Chamber this afternoon who lives in a council tower block estate or who is a leaseholder of a former council building that they have bought. So there will be no one really in the Chamber who can speak to that issue, other than perhaps those of us who have grown up in council homes.
The second issue is trust. The Secretary of State said on 3 July last year that the Government would take every precaution in relation to this cladding. The Government said also on 26 June that they would put in place support for councils that could not pay for remedial works. As has been discussed, indifference to the context is now such that we might be moving to a situation in which desktop studies are done. Let us not dress that up in fancy language. It means that someone can sit in their office and determine a building’s fire regulations without going out and getting into the detail. That is extraordinary, in light of the loss of life. None of us would have thought it possible that nine months later we would even be debating that possibility.
What has happened in relation to the dignity of those souls and lives lost? What has happened in relation to the successive reviews of and inquiries into fire regulations in this country? Why are we going to dismiss what came out of the Hackitt review? How do we breach that trust? How do we meet the fear of those who are in these buildings at this time? How do we keep it in our minds that we are talking about mothers on the 20th or 22nd floor who are worried about how they will get their children down and out of the building? We are talking about some councils that had a policy of putting old-age pensioners in those buildings. How do the Government live up to those expectations? That is what we wait to hear from the Minister.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this important and timely debate. I have heard from many of my constituents in Battersea, including leaseholders, who are concerned about the fire safety of their homes, and the answer to those concerns is clearly stronger regulation and better enforcement by the Government. Many leaseholders are discovering not only that their buildings do not meet fire safety standards but that they will incur eye-watering bills to remedy the failings. It cannot be right for the Government to allow leaseholders to pay for failures that are not of their making.
This is not the first time I have raised the issue. In December last year, I asked what plans the Government had to ensure that private sector leaseholders were not held to ransom by freeholders over fire safety repairs. The Minister for Housing responded by talking about increased funding for the Leasehold Advisory Service, and about how the Secretary of State would “encourage” private sector freeholders not to pass on their costs, but gentle encouragement has achieved nothing, and that is a potential catastrophe for the leaseholders of the blocks. Constituents have told me that they felt physically sick when they heard that they might have to meet the costs.
In Battersea, the leaseholders of Sesame Apartments—a block completed only in 2014—face the prospect of being asked to pay an eye-watering £40,000 per flat to ensure that their block meets fire safety standards, news that came after a fire there last year revealed that fire safety standards were not being met, as did subsequent testing of the cladding. That cladding must now be replaced; a fire alarm system is due to be installed and a round-the-clock warden has been introduced. However, the block’s safety should never have been in doubt, and the cost of remedying the failures should be borne not by the leaseholders but by those responsible for them.
The London Borough of Wandsworth is seeking to retrofit sprinklers in all blocks of 10 storeys or higher, which is a good thing, but they wish to pass on the costs to the leaseholders and have sought guidance on how to proceed from the first-tier tribunal. While the legal questions remain unresolved, people are still living in unsafe buildings, and every day that goes by there is the risk of a disaster. It is only right that the Government do everything they can to ensure that repairs are carried out as soon as possible, but we need more than Government loans that leave leaseholders footing the bill. That is why, for the second time in four months, I ask the Minister what concrete action the Government are taking to ensure that homes are safe and that families and leaseholders are not held to ransom. The Government cannot go on simply applying gentle pressure on freeholders and talking about learning the lessons of Grenfell. Nearly a year has passed. Residents deserve to live in safe buildings and we need to find a way of protecting leaseholders from being hit by life-shattering bills. The Government need to accept that they are responsible and that they must take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) for securing the debate.
Last June, the nation was horrified to see images of smoke billowing out from Grenfell Tower, with residents trapped inside. It felt as though what was a national tragedy would be met by a national response, to ensure that such circumstances would never happen again, in London, or in Devon. In Mount Wise, in Devonport in my constituency, we have three tower blocks with combustible cladding, housing both leaseholders and social renters and, eight months on, too little has been done by the Government to prevent a similar tragedy from unfolding.
The grime artist Stormzy made his views clear at last month’s Brits. I think he spoke for most of us here when he said, “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” I have a similar question for the Minister. Where is the money that was promised to support local authorities and housing associations in the removal of combustible cladding and the re-cladding of tower blocks in Plymouth? The most outrageous thing about this injustice is that there is money to pay for it. We know that, because last week the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government gave £1.1 billion of the money in his budget that could have been spent on re-cladding back to the Treasury, as reported by HuffPost on 4 March. His decision was based on the idea that the money was no longer required. His memorandum for the 2017-18 financial year stated:
“The Department has surrendered £817 million of budget that is no longer required in 2017/18”.
I think that residents of Lynher House, Tavy House and Tamar House in Mount Wise would say that the money was urgently required and that it should have been spent on re-cladding tower blocks. I think that hon. Members right across the House will agree that the money was required and that it could have been used by Ministers.
Small housing associations, such as Plymouth Community Homes, have done a fantastic job of securing and making safe as much of the tower blocks as they can—we have 60-minute fire doors, sprinklers being installed and 24-hour fire marshals—but Plymouth cannot afford the £13 million to £20 million it will cost to re-clad the three tower blocks. Will the Minister confirm that his Department returned that money to the Treasury, and will he ask for the money back, so that it can be spent on re-cladding tower blocks, not only in Plymouth but right across the country, to ensure that people can live in safe homes?
In her statement on 22 June 2017, the Prime Minister said:
“We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]
However, that is precisely what will happen if money is not spent to take action. There is an opportunity here, as was mentioned earlier, for this to be a cross-party moment, with all parties uniting to ensure that everyone lives in a safe home. That opportunity has not yet been taken by politicians, but it is being taken by people in communities who are fighting to secure their homes. Minister, please get that money back and let us spend it on cladding.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing the debate and on laying out the scene so very well, and also right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed so passionately on an issue that they have lived.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings and the issue is of great personal interest. Moreover, the tragedy of Grenfell continues to resonate with me and with all Members of the House, and some of them have said that several months later they are wondering just what is going on. That is the question. This is one of those times when actions speak louder than words, and what would be better than to see the actions of people who are in a position to change things? That is why I am sincerely grateful that the hon. Member for Croydon North has brought the debate to Westminster Hall.
Most of us typically live and spend 90% of our time inside buildings of one sort or another, so our homes and buildings should first and foremost be designed for people and have the safety of residents at their heart. I am all for beauty and aesthetics, but as the good book so aptly puts it, man looks on the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. The outside might be the first thing that people see, but the important thing is what the structure is below the outer core, and we are here today to see what is happening down below.
The dangers of constructing substandard buildings were tragically demonstrated in Grenfell last year. The fact that the aesthetics that were put in place to pretty the building up made the danger much worse makes it clear that we must have stricter controls in place to ensure that the frame and design is not compromised or scrimped on for any reason. Although we understand that the aim of fitting exterior cladding was to increase the lifespan of the tower blocks and improve their thermal efficiency, it also provides a protective outer skin to protect them from the elements. However, the results of that have been horrendous—that is a fact—and we must find another way of elongating the lifespan of the building and better insulation.
Such cladding appears to have health ramifications, with numerous examples of residents experiencing the stress and anxiety of living in dangerous accommodation —some Members have referred to that—and facing the financial burden that that has the potential to impose on them. All those issues, aside from the cladding, need to be taken on board. A key recommendation by the all-party group for healthy homes and buildings—I look to the Minister for his response, please—was that the Government commit to making housing and building renovation a central infrastructure priority and develop plans for retrofitting the current housing stock that take a holistic approach to maximising health and wellbeing. Events such as those that took place on 14 June demonstrate the need for the UK Government to get behind and back such a scheme.
In Northern Ireland, an independent report suggested that social housing, or local housing authorities as they are called here, must consider installing sprinkler systems in tower blocks. Again, I look to the Minister. The report concluded that the housing body’s four Belfast tower blocks that have cladding are safe and comply with regulations, but that there were some contraventions that hamper smoke extraction and ventilation. Automatic fire suppression systems such as sprinklers are mandatory for high-rise residential buildings in Scotland and Wales, but not in England and Northern Ireland. That must change. I look to Northern Ireland to make the changes as much as I look to England to make the same changes.
A terrible tragedy occurred, and I do not want to see anything similar on the shores of Northern Ireland. The report carried out by the University of Ulster on social housing also noted November’s blaze at the 14-storey Coolmoyne House in Dunmurry, outside Belfast, where four people were treated by paramedics, and indicates that communications with tower block residents must be improved. I look to the Minister to make sure that that happens.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this important debate. Like him, I have in my constituency of Slough a residential building with aluminium cladding material. The building is called Nova House, a privately-owned seven-storey block of 68 flats in the town centre. Post the Grenfell horror, in the summer of 2017, that aluminium composite material cladding failed two of the tests conducted at the BRE on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In August last year, the Secretary of State wrote to all local authority chief executives about residential tower blocks with ACM cladding, telling them to take active steps and stating:
“If private sector building owners do not comply with your requests, I will look at what further action can be taken to support you in carrying out your responsibilities.”
To protect the safety of residents, Slough Borough Council has spent half a million pounds in making the building safe and funding a qualified and staffed fire vehicle at the building 24/7. The council’s work has avoided the need for the evacuation of the building. Further, Slough Borough Council developed an ambitious plan to take ownership of the block’s freeholding company, which will allow it to ensure the cladding is removed quickly and to carry out other critical safety work without delay.
Such a move by a local authority is without precedent, and I am sure the Minister will join me in commending Slough Borough Council for its commitment to the safety of constituents. The council has not hesitated to act. Now I want to see the support promised by the Secretary of State. That should include contributing towards the costs incurred in protecting the safety of residents, rather than those extraordinary costs falling on the local council tax payer.
What would have assisted the council is the disclosure of documents from the building control inspector. However, approved inspectors are not required to provide anyone other than their client with copies of approvals or the reasoning behind them. What happens where a client no longer exists? Such documents might never be made available. Information in those documents might be critical for safety. Local authorities and other agencies should surely have sight of everything they need to protect residents. Will the Minister therefore introduce measures to ensure that critical safety information in relation to privately owned buildings is shared with local authorities carrying out their responsibilities?
In the meantime, what support and advice will the Minister give to local authorities when they need to secure vital documents? Will the Department write to building control inspectors and stress the importance of liaising with local authorities? In addition to the cladding, survey work has established that there are other serious deficiencies outside Nova House, calling into question whether it met building regulations when it was converted.
The Minister knows that wider concerns about the current system of building control have been raised by the Local Government Association, which might be a hindrance to effective inspection. The LGA warned that pressure to lower costs can lower standards and lead to fewer, less rigorous inspections. Will the Minister now commit to a review of the system of approved inspectors for building control checks, including the control and supervision of them, as well as the quality of their work?
Finally, building and fire safety are crucial for public safety and go to the heart of the purpose of Government. An increase in the effectiveness and quality of inspection regimes is crucial. Again, I commend Slough Borough Council for its proactive and innovative stance. Now let us see the support promised by the Secretary of State.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) for securing this important debate. I will be brief. Lots of people have said things that I agree with, so I will not repeat them.
The cladding situation is deeply concerning. Remediation work is very limited, and where it is occurring it is failing the tenants involved. The Grenfell Tower fire happened on 14 June. Nearly nine months later, if anyone is listening, of the 314 buildings installed with ACM cladding that we know of, only 13 meet building regulations guidance. That presents fire hazards in 301 buildings more than 18 metres high. As Labour’s shadow fire Minister, I have spoken with the Fire Brigades Union and it has advised me that had that tragedy occurred outside central London, it might have been much worse owing to a lack of resources. I hope the Minister is listening to me, because that paints a worrying picture.
For all the sympathetic noises, the Government’s inaction is clear. The tragic fire at Grenfell has not pushed the Department into action. I find the pace of the Government’s action extremely questionable, as do other people. At the heart of the matter is the Government’s complete lack of direction. Ensuring the public’s safety would undermine their austerity project and be averse to their cuts in every other sector. I urge movement on this issue as it is their moral duty to demonstrate clear leadership and ensure the matter is resolved in the interests of tenants’ safety.
I went to Grenfell last June and laid flowers. I went on the silent vigil last month. The last thing that people see when they get to the end of the march is the tower —a truly shocking and haunting sight. For the sake of those who died in the fire and for the people left in the area who have to get up every morning and look at that tower, it is the Government’s duty to act now.
We all certainly felt the terrible tragedy at Grenfell. I remember waking up, watching the television and seeing the appalling conditions. I have not been to visit the tower, but I have seen it from a distance and it is an appalling sight. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) about that.
Many Members have rightly spoken about local authority properties, but I want to raise the issue of leaseholders. In my constituency, just over two years ago, Premier House was converted from commercial to residential with 121 flats. We all know what it is like to raise the money for a mortgage and stamp duty, and in the first few months or years money is often quite tight, so I was shocked to find that at the beginning of January this year the people who had just moved into those properties were told that the service charge in the block had doubled from £2,200 a year to £4,200 a year because the cladding has to be removed, just two years after the property was converted.
In addition, the managing company is also hiring four fire marshals to patrol that building constantly. That is causing my constituents huge concern. Many are self-employed or have only just got a mortgage. Some are one-parent families and are struggling to keep up with their payments. A lot of them have formed an action group and want to take the matter to a first-tier tribunal. The problem is that, if the tribunal rules in favour of the freeholder, residents will be forced to pursue their solicitors and surveyors on the question of what the problem was with the building. Ultimately, if they refuse to pay the service charge or fall into any arrears, the freeholder can take the property back.
I sympathise with those in local authority housing, but those in the private sector, equally, face a difficult situation, which I want to bring to the Minister’s attention.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on bringing the debate to the House, and on all the work he has done in his constituency. His constituents are lucky to have him fighting their corner; I am sure they know that.
I will mention once again Stormzy’s intervention at this year’s Brit Awards, which secured headlines not just because of his profile, but because he articulated how the British people feel about many of the issues that have been discussed today and how, nine months on, as many hon. Members have said, many questions remain unanswered and the victims of Grenfell have not received justice.
I want to talk about a case study in the Borough of Camden in my constituency. It relates to the human experience at the heart of the cladding question and the enormous financial burden being placed on local authorities in dealing with the matter. Many hon. Members will know that Camden Council took the urgent decision to evacuate more than 3,000 people from the Chalcots estate following tests on cladding. The tragedy at Grenfell prompted the tests, but it was the London fire brigade that ordered immediate evacuations following an assessment. The evacuation was carried out throughout the night, and has caused serious distress to residents. The upheaval of decamping to a hotel for several weeks was difficult enough, but cladding removal during the bitter cold of winter was even more difficult. Many residents’ heating systems are not strong enough to heat their homes, now that they are so exposed.
I raise those experiences to underline the need for action on building regulations, but also to stress the trauma that my constituents on the estate have experienced owing to cladding replacement. They live with cold and with seemingly endless construction. Compensation is missing, and there is a 24-hour security presence months after buildings were declared fit for purpose. That is not a normal way to live, but it has been the reality facing nearly 3,000 of my constituents since July 2017. I am speaking on their behalf today.
Replacement is a protracted process. According to a recent Camden housing scrutiny report, the new cladding will not be fully fitted across the estates until August next year, so it is not hard to understand why councils are begging for the kind of political will that would confront contractors and create a clearer set of standards on fire safety practices.
Good financial management means that Camden has taken on the costs without cutting frontline services. I commend its decision to stop payments to the company that put up the flammable cladding on the Chalcots and endangered residents’ lives. Camden hopes to spend the millions of pounds saved from abandoning the previous contract on safer cladding. The operation has cost more than £50 million and breaks down as £12 million for evacuation and safety management, including fire marshals; £9 million on repairs, including emergency repairs and doors; £10 million on cladding removal; and £22 million on cladding replacement. However, as my local newspaper, the Camden New Journal, put it, the council should not have had to do that. Had the Government kept their promise after the inferno at Grenfell, the council would not have had to drain its reserves and foot the bill.
At the heart of the debate is the question of how we make our constituents feel safe in their own homes. Replacing combustible cladding is an obvious and immediate place to start, but so too is addressing the reduced resources of the emergency services and local authorities. In the days following the Grenfell disaster, many promises were made about rehousing vulnerable residents and recouping the cost of new cladding, but that has not been the experience in my constituency. It is possible that the promise made by the Government has been forgotten, but proactive campaigners, MPs and councillors will not let it drop.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on his speech and on securing the debate. I welcome the contributions that have been made so far. Many thousands of residents face huge legal fees and potentially thousands of pounds of costs to remove ACM cladding from their buildings. Freeholders, developers and insurers will not take responsibility, nor will the Government. We are here today because the buck stops with the Government to sort the mess out.
In my constituency, there is a block of flats built nine years ago with ACM cladding. At least, we are as sure of that as we can be; residents were told that one set of cladding was ACM, and then that another set was ACM. They have been confused and let down from the start. The cladding needs to be replaced. There is a 24-hour waking watch, but residents are understandably nervous and of course anyone who wants to sell their flat clearly has no hope of doing that. The freeholder—Wallace Estates —has washed its hands of responsibility. The director told me in a letter that
“it is the case that the building is now deemed to be unsafe because of a belated recognition by those in authority that the standards governing building safety at the time of the development were inadequate”
and that those with
“responsibility for setting the standards should be liable”.
The developers, Durkin, have also washed their hands. I wrote to them but have not received a reply. They rang my office—I am not sure, but perhaps they were being careful not to put anything in writing—and said they had not done anything wrong. The insurers, NHBC, are considering the claim, but it has been with them for months and nothing has been forthcoming.
The Minister, in a letter to me today, has also washed his hands of responsibility, saying:
“I am clear that the morally right thing for building owners to do is take responsibility for meeting the costs of remediation and interim safety measures”.
So my constituents, living in an unsafe block, are left to sit in it and pay the bill for the cladding removal and replacement. They have already been asked to pay thousands of pounds and have been told that they will face a bill for thousands more. They are having to club together to pay legal bills. They have all the tea and sympathy in the world from everybody, but they still have to pay. The system has failed, and when that happens it must be the responsibility of the Government to step in and provide clarity or resources, or both, to resolve the issue.
There are big policy questions: how can Government let the legal system take over when their own testing process has been shown to be insufficient? If leaseholders are found liable, are the Government really content that residents should be made homeless—something the LGA has warned about? What about desktop studies? They have already been mentioned, so I will not go into detail.
I want briefly to suggest some things that the Minister might this afternoon commit to doing. Will he meet my constituents to learn about the pressures they face? Will he start a proper dialogue with freeholders? I thank him for his response to my letter and his agreement to arrange a phone call with Wallace Estates. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North that the Government should take the lead, but if they feel that the moral responsibility sits with landlords, they have to act to ensure that action is taken on behalf of residents.
The Government should sit down with insurers to find out what is going on. There are many claims in play, and that is leading to months of uncertainty and legal wrangling, which does not help anyone.
The Government should look at ownership rules for property. As the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, there should be no more hiding behind offshore entities. One of the problems that we have had is working out who owns buildings and freeholds. There are shell companies and offshore companies that are impenetrable. Details cannot be obtained from the website. It is complicated to get through to them.
The Prime Minister yesterday addressed the issue of land banking, opening up the possibility that developers who sit on land might face restrictions in getting planning permissions. Will the Minister take a similar approach to developers, stopping planning permission being given to them if they sit on their hands and leave dangerous cladding in place?
The buck stops with the Government. If they believe that other people are responsible, they have to make sure action is taken. My constituents, who are the least able to pay and the least to blame, are in the firing line. The Minister must surely accept that that is not fair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this timely debate and on his wider efforts to co-ordinate Members who are concerned that the Government should step up and do more. Two hundred and sixty-four days have now passed since we watched flames engulf the Grenfell tower block in north Kensington, yet on private freehold developments across the country hundreds of thousands of residents still live with the knowledge that their homes are covered in lethal material. New Capital Quay, a vast 980-home development in my constituency, is only one of hundreds of such cases, although it is perhaps the highest-profile.
Cladding on the site failed tests carried out by the Department in July last year, and eight months on that cladding and insulation remain in place with no timescale for their removal and replacement, and with an inadequate and expensive waking watch fire safety patrol still in place. Residents are left in limbo while the freeholder, Galliard Homes, and the National House Building Council tussle over whether there was a breach of building regulations at the time of construction, and about who is liable—this tussle might be settled out of court, but it might ultimately be resolved only through lengthy litigation.
Residents stuck in the middle of that messy squabble are terrified at the thought that their families are not safe, and leaseholders are anxious that they will be hit by the full costs of the work. At a public meeting last week, one elderly resident told me that she is resigned to the fact that she will not make it out of the building if there is a fire, even with the waking watch in place.
What has been the Government’s position throughout? It has amounted to little more than a muffled and infrequent plea to the private companies involved not to pass on costs to leaseholders. No attempt has been made to ensure that the dangerous cladding is removed as a matter of urgency. In many ways, however, that is no surprise because the Government are deeply compromised on fire safety. In 2013, they failed to act on recommendations made after the 2009 Lakanal House disaster, and they chose not to rewrite procedural guidance set out in Approved Document B. They did nothing to prevent the installation of combustible polyethylene ACM cladding of the type found on New Capital Quay.
Presumably on the basis of advice from the BRE Group, in 2006 the Government opened the door to combustible insulation material such as the K15 Kingspan insulation found on New Capital Quay. That was approved as compliant through testing, when previously it had been impossible to meet the guidance by that route.
The Building Control Alliance determined to introduce a new route to compliance through desktop studies, but as the market became increasingly competitive its members began to approve cladding without even the need for such a desktop study. It is hard to believe that the Government were not aware that that was taking place, yet they failed to amend Approved Document B to respond to it.
If one steps back from all the legal wrangling between private companies about cladding and insulation on private freehold developments, one notes the flawed nature of the building regulations regime, the inadequacy of procedural guidance within that regime, and the passive response of Government to the behaviour of the combustibles industry since 2014. That explains why dangerous, combustible cladding and insulation of the kind that surrounds the homes of my constituents were signed off as compliant.
Let me be clear: the fault does not lie only with Conservative Governments since 2010, because successive Governments have failed to ensure that the building regulation regime was fit for purpose. However, the Government have a duty to act—if not a legal duty, then certainly a moral one—and they can do so speedily in a way that will make a big difference to my constituents by issuing clear, prescriptive advice about the final date by which dangerous combustible cladding must be removed from developments such as New Capital Quay. That is the least my constituents, and others across the country in a similar situation, deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in this well-attended and well-informed debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) for securing it, and for his clear and detailed summary of the situation. The statistic that he mentioned of one fire every month is alarming, and it certainly focuses the mind.
It is essential that everyone has a safe, warm and affordable home, but following the tragedy at Grenfell last year, many uncertainties remain about how safe properties throughout the country actually are. Building and fire safety are critical components of public safety, not just in residential flats but in hotels, student accommodation and even hospitals—indeed, anywhere someone may be staying. It is concerning that so far only a fraction of that cladding known to be unsafe has been replaced throughout the country, and questions still remain about which materials are safe to use. The issue of flammable or combustible cladding must be clarified and, in my opinion, its use should be prohibited.
Further questions about who should pay—this is particularly an issue in privately owned blocks, where costs could be passed on to leaseholders—are alarming. That is not so much an issue in Scotland because the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2000 and the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004 effectively brought the last vestiges of leasehold to an end. However, the problem of owners being financially trapped in buildings affected by these issues does apply, and that has been further complicated by changes over the years to building regulations, and by responsible reconsiderations about the retrospective materials used. What may have been deemed acceptable in the past might not be now.
I represent a constituency that has no high-rise domestic buildings. Nevertheless, following the Grenfell tragedy there was considerable anxiety among many constituents living in lower level multi-story flatted accommodation. I am grateful to both local authorities in my area—Falkirk and West Lothian—for reviewing the fire safety arrangements after Grenfell, and for confirming that all council properties have appropriate fire safety arrangements in place, including both annual and five-yearly fire safety assessments. There are issues in other parts of Scotland. For example, Glasgow City Council has identified two buildings where PE ACM has been used.
Some Glasgow Harbour flats in my constituency have that ACM cladding. The residents have no recourse with builders or insurance companies, and they have to pay for fire wardens. They now face enormous bills for replacement of the cladding. With no one claiming responsibility, does my hon. Friend agree that residents should be receiving financial support for this remedial building work?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend—the issue of who pays has been raised yet again.
In Scotland, since 2005 building regulations have required all new build high-rise domestic buildings to be fitted with sprinklers. In January, Labour MSP David Stewart proposed a Member’s Bill that aims to make the installation of sprinklers mandatory for all new build social housing. The consultation document also considers the retrofit of sprinklers to social high-rise blocks. In September last year the BBC broadcast a programme that stated how out of 15 fatalities and 480 injuries in high-rise fires in Scotland since 2009, only one of those casualties occurred in a flat fitted with a sprinkler system. That is a significant statistic, although sprinklers are only one of a number of fire safety measures that may or may not be installed in any particular building.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has commissioned research into a targeted approach to fire safety, based on a detailed analysis of Scottish fire deaths and serious injuries between 2013 and 2016. That research will include a forensic assessment of whether residential sprinklers would have been effective in preventing death or injury. The outcomes of that research will help to inform future Scottish Government and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service policy, and to reduce fire deaths and injuries in the future.
This issue does not just affect residential buildings. The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow will have a small amount of cladding panels removed and replaced at a cost of £6 million. That work will be completed early next year, and the Scottish Government have committed to pay for it.
In conclusion, many issues of fire safety guidance have been raised from Members across the House. I was particularly interested in the point raised by the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the possibility of excluding VAT from remedial works. I would support such a measure, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and the fact that you managed to allow 19 people to contribute to this debate is significant. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed). He spoke only briefly today, but I know the assiduous work that he has put into this issue over a long time. His constituents should be proud of what he is trying to achieve. This has been a rightly challenging debate, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board. He is relatively new in office and has the capacity to begin to effect a change and recognise that this challenge is legitimate. This is not moral panic or outrage; this is a basic safety case that we must take on board.
Many years ago we had a major fire in Manchester—the Woolworths fire—and those of us of an older disposition, like myself, remember it well. People died and as a result the law was changed and polyurethane foam was banned for use in domestic furniture. We must be prepared to be radical if we are to make our safety case. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) made a point about fire marshals. It is good to see those marshals, but they cannot be a permanent solution—it is a short-term safety case. We must look towards the longer term, which is about ensuring that those buildings are safe from fire as far as is humanly possible. That will mean the removal of existing cladding where that is inappropriate, and its replacement with more suitable materials.
I want to begin by talking about the question of responsibility, which has engaged Members from all parts of the Chamber. It is important to say that leaseholders cannot seriously be expected to foot these enormous bills. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) who quoted from the Minister’s letter, which used words identical to those of the Secretary of State in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North. I say this kindly to the Minister, but it is not enough to write that
“I believe that the morally right thing is for the building owner to take responsibility for meeting the cost of remediation”.
The Minister is a lawyer, so he will know that moral rectitude will not stand up in court or pay the leaseholders’ bills. I am not sure whether this still applies, but in the early moments of the situation with Citiscape, the freeholder was saying to leaseholders that unless they were prepared individually and collectively to agree to pay for the remedial works, no remedial work would take place. That is not moral responsibility; that is an outrage. We collectively have to do something about it.
On this issue of moral and legal responsibility, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can learn lessons from the private rented sector? It has taken legal measures to force landlords to bring properties up to basic safety standards, with fire alarms and improved insulation for energy-poor households. Does he agree that in this matter, moral responsibility will not work? Legislation from the Government is needed to sort the problem out.
I hope the Minister is listening, because that demand is coming from all parts of the House. At this level, the matter is not party political; we have a recognition that we need the Government to act as the Government. They are the only responsible agency that can begin to show the determination.
We cannot wait for the courts. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North said that the property managers had referred the Citiscape case to the first-tier tribunal, but as a lawyer the Minister knows that the matter could be with the courts not for weeks and months, but years—it could be years before we get resolution. We cannot wait for some sedentary legal process; we need action to determine where the responsibility lies.
I have great sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made: that it is unreasonable for social landlords, whether they are local authorities or housing associations, to have to pick up the tab. That would mean we were saying to a subset of British society—tenants of a particular landlord—that they will pay for the cost of remediation, when the responsibility does not lie with the tenants or the social landlords any more than it lies with the leaseholders.
Importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, the responsibility comes back to failures of Governments of all descriptions. The reality is that the failure is recognisable here and now, and the responsibility has to be picked up here and now. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the matter is resolved. It is not about moral responsibility, but practical action that says to leaseholders, “You will not have to face bills of £40,000-plus.” That is what the amount is in some cases, and frankly people cannot afford that.
Has the Minister had any contact with the insurance industry? That is not about the responsibility for paying for the work that needs to be done, but about whether it will be prepared to insure buildings in the longer term. It would be significant if the insurance industry walked away from insuring buildings that we know have difficulties. We have to sort out the question of responsibility. In the end, that falls on the Government because of the past failure of the regulatory system.
We need to look at some of the wider issues that have emerged. This month the Peabody Trust found that one of the cladding materials it was using to replace the Grenfell tower cladding—Xtratherm—is no longer an acceptable material, as it is flammable. Peabody faces the bizarre situation of having to remove things that it used to replace what it had already removed. Who picks up the consequences of that? In the end, we have got to give people living in our tower blocks some certainty that their homes are safe, and that brings us to the question of how quickly we will see removal and replacement. Fire marshals are useful, but removal and replacement has to be part of where we move to.
Do we now have absolute accuracy about which materials are potentially affected? Do we have absolute accuracy about the number of tower blocks that may be affected across the country? That basic information will determine whether we can move forward. I may be wrong, but I am not certain that the Ministry has knowledge of all the private buildings out there that may be affected. That is a significant challenge. It means that people are living in blocks and do not know that they may be affected. Indeed, there may be private owners who do not know that their property is affected.
We have got to begin to go beyond the question of the building regulations and bringing them up to standard. A report said:
“Advice from the independent expert advisory panel set up to ensure buildings are safe and published by MHCLG in December 2017 tells building owners they can still rely on desktop assessments.”
It is not enough for the Ministry to say that to the world. Desktop assessments are only credible in this country; I understand that they would not be allowed anywhere else in Europe. Also, the building regulations are only advisory. We cannot have a situation where people can pick and choose which bits of the regulations they apply.
We have to move on to something that takes us away from the failures of the past. As some of my hon. Friends have said, we need transparency about what has happened to know what the technical specifications should be. We need to ensure that we do not have this conflict where the Building Research Establishment is taking money from its clients to be part of the testing process. We have got to ensure that the regulations are fit and proper for the future.
This has been an important debate. When we look to the longer term, the question of cost arises. A number of Members—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North raised this issue with the Secretary of State—have asked whether the cost could be removed from recladding. While there may be legal issues around European legislation, the Government can get around that by simply putting that 20% back into the pot where remedial work is taking place. Government can do that.
I come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) made. When the Government can return hundreds of millions of pounds to the Exchequer, the money is there to do this kind of remedial work. We owe it not simply to those who died in Grenfell tower, but to all those living in tower blocks to say that the time has come for the Government to act. Only the Government can act. We look to the Minister to say now how they will act.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) for securing this debate and speaking powerfully about the situation his constituents find themselves in. I am very grateful for the contributions of Members from all parts of the House. I will try to address as many of them as possible in the limited time available.
Before I address squarely the issues facing residents in Croydon and people in other residential buildings we have heard about today that have rightly been raised, I want to give a little bit of wider context. The fire at Grenfell Tower was a terrible tragedy—a tragedy that should not happen in 21st-century London or anywhere in this country. The Government are committed to learning the lessons from Grenfell and ensuring that nothing like that can ever happen again. Like the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), I have been down there and seen the devastation. I have talked to residents of the Lancaster West estate. I am personally committed to learning the lessons.
Immediately after the fire, the Department set up a building safety programme with the aim of ensuring that all high-rise residential buildings are safe from the threat of fire and crucially, as Members have rightly said, that residents can feel safe and can rest assured in their homes. To support that, the Secretary of State appointed an expert panel to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to ensure the safety of residents of high-rise buildings. We have consistently relied on that expert advice, because the issue of public safety is central to what we need to achieve.
Through screening tests, we swiftly identified social housing blocks and public buildings with unsafe cladding. Working with the expert panel, the Government provided advice to building owners on the interim measures that they should put in place to ensure the safety of their residents. Of course, that depends on the individual property, as hon. Members have rightly said, but interim measures can include warden systems, measures to prevent the spread of fire to or from car parks, and all sorts of other things. All the affected social sector buildings that have been identified have those measures in place. We are confident that that addresses the immediate issue of safety for residents. I do not think that that should be elided or confused with the wider remediation efforts that, quite rightly, also need to take place. We can give that assurance to residents.
At the same time, we tested different combinations of cladding and insulation to see which met the building regulations guidance. We published consolidated advice last autumn confirming the results of those tests, with advice for building owners, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) discussed. Since then, we have been working with building owners and the industry to support remediation work. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government have not provided clear guidance on the materials for remediation. Actually, the expert panel published advice on 5 September, and further advice was published in December, including an information note for building owners. The Building Research Establishment has also published a catalogue of past BS 8414 tests to assist building owners choosing compliant materials. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.
We have been working with local authorities to help them identify private residential buildings with similar cladding, and to ensure that they, too, are made safe. At the same time, as hon. Members know, we have asked Dame Judith Hackitt to undertake an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, to ensure that buildings are safe in the future, in recognition of the clear flaws that have been discovered in relation to the previous system. We welcomed her interim report, which was published in December, and have committed to implementing all her recommendations.
The suggestion that we are sitting on our hands, that we have not looked at this matter soberly, properly and carefully, or that we are not taking action is quite wrong, as the action in relation to Dame Judith’s review illustrates. We look forward to the publication of the final report later in the spring. Obviously it is a detailed piece of work, which needs to be done carefully and properly.
The hon. Members for Croydon North and for Hammersmith asked about the role of desktop studies. We will consult on that shortly in response to the recommendations from the Hackitt review, so we are already taking some of the findings forward. The hon. Members for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) and for Croydon North mentioned the tragic Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009. Just for the record, and as a matter of balance in today’s debate, it is right to point out that the shadow Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), refused extra funding for fire safety measures when he was the Housing Minister, because he did not deem them necessary. I am not saying that to score political points. [Interruption.] I am making the argument—
I am saying it for balance. Any hon. Member in the post of Minister would look at the matter carefully and responsibly, and take the expert advice. That is what the right hon. Gentleman did, and that is what we have done.
Let me turn to some of the specific points that have been raised today, starting with the identification of buildings with unsafe cladding. We believe that we have identified all affected social housing blocks and public buildings, and interim measures are in place as and where necessary, suitable to the individual buildings, as I have described. With regard to private sector buildings, the Government made the testing facility at the Building Research Establishment available free of charge. We continue to urge all building owners to submit samples for testing if they think that there is any reason to believe that they may be unsafe because of cladding.
In addition, the Secretary of State wrote to local authorities in August asking them to identify privately owned buildings with potentially unsafe cladding. It is their statutory responsibility to do so. The majority of local authorities recognised the urgency of that work, and provided relevant information. We are very grateful for all their hard work, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who talked about some of the good work that has been done by his local authority.
This is not a straightforward task. We have been in continual dialogue with local authorities ever since that point. The collaboration is close and constant, and it continues. In fact, an event is taking place a few hundred yards from here as we speak, bringing together the Ministry and its experts, local authorities, officials and the fire and rescue service to discuss best practice.
In response to the question asked by the hon. Members for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) and for Slough, just last week we announced a financial support package of £1 million to assist the most affected local authorities in identifying private high-rise buildings with potentially unsafe cladding. We are also looking at the statutory guidance and the statutory operating directions for local authorities in their relationship with those private sector building owners. Those measures will reinforce local authorities in carrying out that work. I assure hon. Members that as soon as we are notified of buildings with potentially unsafe cladding, we will work with the owners and the relevant fire and rescue service to ensure that those interim measures are put in place.
I want to address not just the points that the hon. Lady has made, but those made by all hon. Members in the debate.
The Government have been very clear that the remediation should be done as swiftly as possible, but it must be done properly—precisely because we are talking about the long-term public safety of residents. Let us be clear: the remediation of buildings with aluminium composite material cladding is a complex process. It involves major construction work that needs to be planned, consulted on, and carried out professionally and carefully.
Planning alone can take up to a year. It is not just a case of ripping down the cladding then deciding what to do next. I am encouraged that remediation is already under way in 58% of affected social housing buildings, and that seven have finished their remediation work already. Clearly, there is a long way to go, but that is significant progress. At least one or two hon. Members in today’s debate seemed to be blithe about the work that is under way, how difficult it is, and how important it is to do it properly.
Let me turn to the issue of funding.
I am not going to; I will address the direct questions asked by the hon. Member for Croydon North and others about funding. In the social sector, all the local authorities and housing associations that we have spoken to have indicated that they are choosing not to pass on the costs of essential remediation to individual flat owners within their buildings. We will also consider financial flexibilities for local authorities to fund essential fire safety works to buildings that they own. We have not yet declined a single request. We are taking this very seriously, and have engaged in protracted dialogue with those people who have come to us.
In the private sector, of course, the allocation of responsibility depends on the terms of the leasehold arrangements, as qualified by general law. The determination of the legal position will obviously need to be settled ultimately by a court. Proceedings are under way in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North, as I am sure he knows. I took the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made: that it cannot be right for a Minister to pre-empt or prejudge the legal determination of a relationship, where it is not only spelled out in the leasehold arrangement, but qualified by general law.
In some cases, the costs fall, in practice, to landlords or building owners; it may be clearer in some leases than in others. Where the costs do not fall to landlords or building owners as a matter of strict law, we continue to urge those with responsibility to follow the lead of the social sector. We urge those private companies to do the right thing, and not to attempt to pass the costs on to residents. They can meet some of those costs—hon. Members asked about this—through alternative routes such as insurance claims, warranties or legal action. It is rightly for them to pursue those avenues. They have the financial means, the relationship—legal or otherwise—and the wherewithal to do so. The Secretary of State and I have been clear about that in direct conversations, including with those who own the property in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North. Where building owners are seeking to pass on remediation costs to leaseholders, it is important that leaseholders are able to get specialist advice. The Government have provided free legal advice and support through a range of measures, including the Leasehold Advisory Service, or LEASE—a free and tailored service.
In the time available, I hope that I have illustrated not just the complexity of the challenge that we face across the private and social sectors, but the Government’s concerted effort to deal with the immediate issue of public safety and to ensure that the allocation of responsibility sits in the right place, which in our view is with the building owners.
I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in today’s debate and provided such powerful testimony from across the country. The Minister seems to be heavily relying on the expert panel that he mentioned, but that panel is chaired by the man who signed off the kind of cladding on Grenfell as safe—I have the document that shows it here, and will give it to the Minister afterwards. I wonder whether he should question a little more, rather than just listen to the advice that he is receiving.
The industry is still very confused about what it needs to do when this kind of cladding is found on buildings. The Department needs to issue clearer advice. Finally, we bailed out the banks when they broke the banking system. Why can we not bail out leaseholders, who are innocent victims of the Government’s failed, flawed fire safety regime?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered cladding and remedial fire safety work.
NHS Wholly Owned Subsidiary Companies
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered wholly-owned subsidiary companies in the NHS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am glad to have secured this albeit brief debate on the issue of NHS wholly owned subsidiaries, and this fairly recent but rapidly developing situation spreading across the NHS. What are these companies? They are organisations set up by NHS trusts as subsidiary companies to the trust, into which a range of NHS facilities management staff are transferred. When I say facilities management staff, I mean all the porters, cleaners, catering staff, estates and maintenance staff, and others who keep our hospitals going. Those staff are an essential part of the NHS.
York Teaching Hospital is about to enter into an alternative management company for the facility staff there. Those are staff that want to work for the NHS, not least because they get the benefit of NHS terms and conditions and pensions. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loopholes in the taxation of the NHS need to be addressed so that those people can remain working for the NHS?
I most certainly do agree with my hon. Friend. We know that NHS trusts are under incredible financial pressure and are looking for ways to stretch the available funds. Some trusts have seen wholly owned subsidiaries as a way of reducing costs. Those trusts include the Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, which provides excellent hospital services to many of my constituents.
The cost savings come about in two main ways: through saving VAT and by saving on staffing costs. For some, there may be a third area of income—advising other NHS trusts on going down the same path, which is one of the reasons why they are spreading across the country. In November 2017, the then Health Minister, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), stated that:
“NHS Improvement is aware of 39 subsidiaries consolidated within the accounts of foundation trusts”—[Official Report, 14 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 129.]
We know that more are being created even now.
The issue of pensions is very much at the forefront of the minds of myself and others in this House. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is essential that staff working through the front door of the NHS or the back door of the wholly owned subsidiary company must be entitled to retain their NHS pension? Any attack on the pension scheme must be wholly rejected and the trusts must all be made to understand the position on pensions when these types of actions are taking place.
I most certainly do agree, not just for pensions but also for terms and conditions.
What is the problem with these companies? First, it is that they come at a price, which for the most part is met by the staff who work for them. Secondly, the VAT saved by trusts with these companies is not new money coming into the NHS—the money that trusts save will be lost elsewhere in public services. Already, the Department of Health and Social Care has reminded trusts by letter that they should not engage in any activities that may be construed as tax avoidance, and the loophole could be closed in the future. Thirdly, the establishment of wholly owned subsidiaries leaves the services open to privatisation in the future, continuing the fragmentation of our NHS.
The North Tees and Hartlepool NHS trust set up a limited liability partnership last week. Even according to its own published material, it provides no guarantee of job protection beyond a few months and will create a situation with different employees on very different terms and conditions. Is this not all about Government cuts? Does my hon. Friend not agree that we could see even more staff transferred into this sort of arrangement in order to meet the Government’s cuts agenda?
My hon. Friend is being very generous in taking interventions. Unite points out that over the past five years, more for-profit companies have won contracts to run NHS services, with the total value of contracts awarded in 2016-17 standing at a staggering £3.1 billion. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must compel Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to close this tax loophole, so that NHS trusts are not forced to consider outsourcing NHS services?
I most certainly agree that the issue is a dangerous one that needs to be looked at, and it is a very worrying one because, whatever happens, the staff who have transferred are in a very difficult position.
In the longer term, the establishment of the wholly owned subsidiaries leaves services open to privatisation in the future, continuing the fragmentation of our NHS, which is not in the long-term interests of all who use the NHS. There is no evidence that the plans will improve efficiency or productivity in the NHS. They exploit a tax loophole and seek to exploit the future workforce.
The hon. Lady and her colleagues are right to highlight the fact that the financial pressure on the NHS is the main driver for this situation. Does she agree that it is very difficult in some services to differentiate between administrators and back-office services, and frontline services? Sometimes, administrators and back-office workers are embedded in clinical teams, and this actually worsens fragmentation and makes it much more difficult to deliver high-quality patient care.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. NHS staff, whatever their job, are all part of a team that delivers a service, and they all work together. For example, the catering and cleaning staff who looked after my mum’s hospital ward when she was in hospital recently were also a part of the NHS caring process. I think that is a really important point.
One of the major problems with the creation of these wholly owned companies is that they lead to a two-tier workforce in which often the lowest paid staff, such as domestics and security guards, are on worse terms and conditions than other staff. Does my hon. Friend agree that that represents a race to the bottom and is not just bad for those moved over to the new companies but bad for the NHS overall?
I most certainly do agree, and I will expand on that point shortly.
I want to speak about the impact on staff—some of the same staff we have all been praising in recent days for turning up to work in the snow and coping when we have the only too frequent crises. They are an integral part of the NHS team, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, making it possible for nursing and medical staff and other allied health professionals to do their bit in caring for patients.
On transfer to a wholly owned subsidiary company, staff already employed by the trust will be transferred on their existing terms and conditions. That is, on “Agenda for Change” terms and conditions and pay rates, negotiated nationally and checked to ensure equal pay for work of equal value. They will retain their membership of the NHS pension scheme and a set of decent terms and conditions applying to all NHS staff. The main way that trusts can make savings through these companies is by employing new staff on different, and worse, terms and conditions.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) about North Tees and Hartlepool Solutions, as the LLP is called, does my hon. Friend agree that its immediate intention to introduce worse terms for new starters sets a dangerous precedent?
Further to that point, is my hon. Friend aware that the question and answer document produced by the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust says that NHS staff transferred into the new company can expect a pay rise this year, but nothing is guaranteed in the future? They are already seeing their future conditions eroded, unless the new company awards them the pay rise they will get under the current system.
That is absolutely correct, and I have raised with my local trust the potential move away from NHS pay rises.
The main way trusts can make savings is by employing the new staff on worse terms and conditions, which means lower pay rates, less holiday, inferior sickness schemes and no access to the NHS pension scheme. As colleagues said, even transferred staff may be moved on to the worse terms and conditions over time. Trusts are doing that to the lowest-paid workers, who are essential to keeping our hospitals going.
Does my hon. Friend agree that doctors and clinicians should prescribe only medicines that have a strong evidence base and have been shown to be effective in trials? On that basis, does she agree that wholly owned subsidiaries for the treatment of illness would be ineffective?
That is a very valid point, and it must be considered carefully.
We are creating divisions between staff in the facilities management companies and other NHS staff by introducing a two-tier workforce, which health service unions such as Unison—my union—have worked hard to move away from. The setting up of these wholly owned subsidiaries is a retrograde step. It insults and undervalues the staff who do essential but less visible jobs in the NHS. It deprives them of the pension scheme that their colleagues have access to and exposes trusts to equal pay claims. Equally important, it risks breaking up our NHS—perhaps not today, but in the near future.
I have been looking at the health press in preparing for this debate, and I have seen that there are plenty of companies out there willing to advise on setting up NHS subsidiary companies and look at the benefits of such companies. There are no such advantages. There is no reason why NHS staff working together cannot produce a better NHS. Indeed, they are doing so all over the country. We need to stop this trend of establishing wholly owned subsidiaries in the NHS. We must respect all our hospital staff and prevent the fragmentation and privatisation of our NHS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Hollobone. It is also good to see a number of Members from across the House in the Chamber to debate this important issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. I am pleased to be able to join her in discussing an issue that is of concern and interest to many in the House.
I understand that Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust established its wholly owned subsidiary company, QE Facilities, in 2014 to provide estates, building and engineering services to the trust and cleaning services to the new emergency care centre building. QE Facilities is a separate legal entity, which operates along commercial lines. It has separate governance arrangements and the ability to employ its own staff and deliver services to other organisations on a commercial basis. As the hon. Lady said, a number of staff from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead transferred under TUPE rules to the new organisation in December 2014. I will respond to her points.
A number of hon. Members raised the concern that what happened amounts to privatisation, but I must point out that the legislation enabling NHS organisations to create subsidiaries of this sort was put in place by the Labour Government in 2006. If it is privatisation, it is privatisation enabled by Labour legislation, and I do not think that is the way Ministers described it to the House at the time. The subsidiaries are also 100% owned by the trust, so they are within the NHS family.
It is right that the board of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was able to use the powers enacted by the previous Labour Government. It did so because creating a subsidiary is, in its view, the most effective and efficient way of maintaining the trust’s hospital estate, which includes several new buildings. Again, that is consistent with the previous Labour Government’s approach, which was to allow local trusts to determine the best manner of managing their own estates.
I do not care which Government provided the enabling legislation. Surely the Minister agrees that the intention was never to undermine the working terms and conditions of people within the NHS just to enable trusts to cut the amount of money they need to spend?
I will happily address that. The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) also made that point and said that this is about exploitation. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) may not care whether the legislation was introduced by a Labour Government; I was merely drawing hon. Members’ attention to the fact that when the legislation was passed it was not described as privatisation. It is obviously a leap to describe the legislation as enabling privatisation when the subsidiaries are wholly owned by the NHS.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. The North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said in its question and answer document that such an organisation could be taken over by another organisation—in other words, it could be privatised. This is one step along the way to the potential privatisation of all those services.
The trust has stressed that the organisation remains in public ownership. Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point—it was also raised by the hon. Member for Bradford South— that this is about exploitation. I discussed that point with the trust ahead of the debate.
Previously, the trust had difficulty in attracting and retaining quality maintenance staff because the salaries paid in the local market were about £19,000 per annum. Under the subsidiary company, multi-skilled craftspeople are employed at about £25,000 per annum, plus a performance bonus, attracting better-qualified staff and ending retention issues, in exchange for the fact that they do not have access to the NHS pension.
I will happily give way to the hon. Lady in due course.
That is not about exploitation; it is about empowering members of staff. They get higher pay in the short term in return for a less generous pension. The hon. Member for Stockton North might disagree—
I signalled that I will give way to the hon. Member for Blaydon. She called the debate, so she should go first.
It is not accurate to say that this is simply about exploiting people if their base salary is increasing from £19,000 to £25,000, as it is in that trust. One can look at the wider bundled package of benefits and total remuneration, but one cannot describe a salary increase of £6,000 as exploitation.
The Minister is raising an issue of great concern to me, which I have discussed with the chief executive of the foundation trust, so this is not coming as news to him. If we move away from a structured pay system and give additional salary payments over and above allowed recruitment and retention bonuses, we are laying the trust or the organisation open to the claim that they are not providing equal pay for work of equal value. A huge amount of work went into creating “Agenda for Change” to avoid exactly that problem and to address recruitment and retention.
The hon. Lady is ignoring the fact that that already happens in the NHS, for existing trust staff: some staff opt out of the NHS pension, and not all the staff who TUPE-ed across in this arrangement were in the NHS pension. Once again, those on the Labour Benches want to deny the choice and options that apply to NHS staff.
I thank the Minister for giving way, because he has heard me twice now, but I welcome the opportunity. Does he not agree that the difference between then and now is that NHS trusts now are being forced down the path of wholly owned subsidiary companies because of financial constraints? It is not good enough for the Government simply to stand by and watch that happen.
Again, that is a complete misrepresentation. The trust itself has pointed to the benefits of the arrangement. Let me give a concrete example of how the arrangement is delivering to the trust savings in the interests of patients.
Under the previous delivery system, local pathology samples were sometimes lost and delayed—that is not in the interests of patients. The QEF brought in a revised system of procuring all sample containers and issuing those to GPs across the region before delivering samples to the hospital pathology laboratory hubs within four hours. The trust forecasts that that will deliver significant benefits—indeed, other trusts are interested in the services. By operating on a more commercial model, therefore, not only has the trust improved how it deals with samples and prevented those samples from being lost as in the past, but it has put in place a system that is better for patients and attractive to GPs in other trusts who now want to contract the services.
The Minister is slightly at odds about the point being made. The point is not how it is open to the trust to procure the best clinical services but how, later, through a company, staff might be re-employed on a lower salary. Clearly, trusts already have flexibility through “Agenda for Change” to start people on a higher pay point, but I wondered more generally whether my hon. Friend supports national pay bargaining and “Agenda for Change”.
The Chancellor made his support for the “Agenda for Change” programme clear in the Budget. My hon. Friend is aware of the commitment that the Chancellor made to fund that outwith the spending review 2015 process. That is a matter of record and one my hon. Friend is well aware of. The point being made, however, is that the flexibilities are popular with staff within the trust. Again, that is not simply a matter of me saying that; it is reflected in the staff survey of those working at the trust.
I will happily take interventions, but first I will finish this point, addressing the previous issue. The recent staff survey was extremely positive: 86% felt part of the Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust group. Furthermore, the figure for those with a positive response to the level of pay was 15% higher than the NHS comparator. The idea that the arrangement is exploiting people when the staff survey shows them to be 15% more approving than in other areas is again not a fair representation of the case.
In the short time remaining, I would like to move the Minister on to the issue of accountability for public money. Following a freedom of information request, in the case of Yeovil we understand that the benefit to the trust is several million pounds-worth of income, which is a lack of income from the Treasury—I have written to the Minister about this and I will be grateful for an answer. Is the Government’s position that they would be happy to forgo the expected income to the Treasury so that those companies can be set up to undercut wages?
As I set out in my reply to the hon. Lady, the Department has been clear that setting up a subsidiary is not a vehicle to avoid VAT—that is not acceptable. In the autumn, we sent out guidance to make that clear. As a former Treasury Minister myself, I assure her that Treasury Ministers would take a very close interest if they felt that an abuse of VAT was taking place.
The reality is that commissioners and regulators are responsible for ensuring that NHS providers act in the best interests of patients and taxpayers. We would expect providers to work closely with their employees in any developments.
The Minister is being very generous. Clearly there is a substantial difference of view here, but would he agree that given that public money is involved, it is very much in the public interest that the business plans that the trusts are producing for the wholly owned subsidiaries are published and public, so that they can be scrutinised? In the case of the Airedale trust in my constituency, we discovered that 60% of the savings on purchasing are in VAT. Those figures should be in the public domain, so people can see what is being done with public money in their interests.
The slightly puzzling issue here is that the savings accrued from the subsidiaries are for the benefit of the local health economy, of the trust. This is a subsidiary company 100% owned by its host trust. The more efficient the subsidiary is, the better it is at dealing with things such as its pathology—not only do we avoid samples being lost, but we run a more efficient system in a more commercial manner, which brings more money into the healthcare economy and gives the flexibility to compete effectively in the local job market for maintenance staff and others.
The benefits of those arrangements accrue to the trust that owns 100% of the subsidiary. That is why, under legislation of the previous Labour Government—correctly in my view, but clearly not in the view of the Labour Members—the local trust is empowered to empower in turn the local members of staff. That is then reflected in the staff survey, which shows a more favourable result in this trust.
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been generous with his time, but does he not acknowledge that the failing finances of the NHS are forcing trusts down that route? I am meeting the Minister next week to talk about York Teaching Hospital’s failed finances. That is the driver of the changes and, therefore, the fundamental issue still has to be addressed.
I do not know whether we are moving away from the subject to a wider debate about finance, but the Chancellor’s Budget settlement makes the Government’s finance commitment clear. The fact is that the issue of subsidiary companies is about using the resources of the NHS in the most efficient manner. That is the view not just of the Government and of the previous Labour Government, but of the trust itself. It is delivering a better outcome for patients and delivering savings—I repeat, the savings accrued go to the benefit of the trust that owns 100% of the subsidiary. It is a shame that those on the Labour Benches seem to want to deprive staff of choice and opportunity. Staff are benefiting, and that is reflected in the staff survey.
I hope that in responding to the debate I have allayed a number of the concerns of the hon. Member for Blaydon about the setting up of subsidiary companies by trusts. I am sorry that there is such concern about the legislation put on the statute book by the previous Labour Government and that it is being deemed to be a form of privatisation.
Does the Minister think it is fair for one of two different people in an organisation to receive a defined benefit pension scheme with a 50% contribution and the other to get 3% into a defined contribution scheme worth a fraction of the other in pension terms?
Within the NHS as a whole—nothing to do with subsidiaries—there is a range of treatment of staff on pensions. First, there are the legacy pension arrangements for staff in previous schemes and, secondly, people opt out of existing pension arrangements in the NHS. Again, it is a complete mischaracterisation of this debate on subsidiaries to suggest that there are differences. The point, however, is that there are also differences in pay, as has come out of this debate: the maintenance staff for whom the trust is paying a premium can be paid so because of the subsidiary.
I thank the Minister for giving way—the only way I can get a response in is by intervening. I have a few separate points. First, on the Labour legislation, is it not strange that the subsidiary companies have only started to appear in this form since 2014? As my colleagues said, that is a reflection of the fact that we have a shortfall in funding for the NHS. Secondly, I want to mention the path lab example the Minister gave. As I said in my speech, there is no reason why existing NHS staff in the NHS trust cannot make the improvements—they do all the time—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Police Station Closures: Solihull and West Midlands
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed closure of police stations in Solihull and the West Midlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am sure I am not alone in saying that crime is one of the issues that people most frequently raise on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries. Few things matter more to my constituents than knowing that the streets are safe and that Solihull remains a peaceful, welcoming and vibrant community. That is why I have made standing up for local police services one of my top priorities. Since being elected in 2015, I have fought successfully to prevent cuts to our local team of police community support officers and I have supported calls for Ministers to increase police funding across the west midlands. In that same period, David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner, quite clearly has been running down police services in Solihull, cutting the number of patrol cars in the borough and closing one of my constituency’s two police stations in 2015.