Wednesday 28 March 2018
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Social Mobility and the Economy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered social mobility and the economy.
Most of our debates in this place are about problems, but today, I want to have a debate about solutions. Improving our poor social mobility is this country’s biggest challenge, and our biggest opportunity. Britain will not truly succeed until it becomes a country where there is equality of opportunity for the first time.
Like other hon. Members present, I did not grow up with advantage or privilege. I grew up in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, where my father and grandfather worked in the steel industry. My father would probably have benefited from the national minimum wage being in place and he spent time unemployed, so I know what it is like to grow up in a family on benefits. I am sure that many young people who are starting out today feel the same as I did: I never wanted to have extra advantages over my peers; I just wanted to have the same opportunities as everyone else—a level playing field.
Most people in our county are not connected. They do not necessarily have someone who they can ask for advice on careers when they need it. They do not have someone to make the right introductions to get them work experience. When they apply for jobs, they do not have anyone who knows x, y or z in that company to put in a good word for them. They do not have the contacts to help them to get work experience in the kinds of companies that they might be interested in working for, so they tend not to get as much experience and do not do as well when they apply for jobs. Because of that, far too much of our nation’s talent goes to waste, which is totally unacceptable and has to change. There is still such a thing as a class ceiling for most people in Britain, and we have to get rid of it.
A year from now, Britain will be on the verge of Brexit. The debate has divided our country, but the time is rapidly approaching when we will need to come together behind some sort of common vision of what kind of country we want Britain to be post-Brexit. That common vision should be of finally creating a Britain that has equality of opportunity for the first time. Brexit must be a moment for change when we smash that class ceiling on opportunity once and for all. In a knowledge-based, global economy, it has never been more important to use all our nation’s talent to the max.
I will focus on social mobility and the economy, and the huge role that businesses can play in driving the economic benefits of social mobility. The social mobility dividend for our economy and our people is significant.
In July, the Sutton Trust published its modelling of the link between stronger social mobility and productivity. The research looked specifically at European countries and found that, if the UK simply improved its performance on social mobility to match the western European average, the benefit to our economy would be an improved annual GDP of between 2.1% and 9%. That is an annual benefit to our economy of between £39 billion to £179 billion, which is the equivalent of each household being £590 to £2,620 better off. We talk about minimising tariffs and barriers to have strong trade, but talent is no different. We know the benefits of free trade, and a free market in talent is just as, or perhaps even more, important.
Education has a huge role to play. The social mobility action plan that I launched before Christmas sets out a clear agenda for the Department for Education to strongly tilt its strategy to lift up the educational prospects of children being left behind. Business has a key role to play too.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. On educational underachievement, does she agree that, in many working class communities, getting beyond that barrier to achieve is about getting beyond looking at school as a dredge or as something that minimises capability? We have to try to promote that, to ensure that people break the class ceiling, as she puts it.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are three elements to that. First, it is great that the educational attainment gap is steadily closing, but it needs to happen faster. Secondly, businesses can play a role in lifting the aspirations of young people while they are in our education systems, starting from the earliest age in primary school, which is part of what the social mobility pledge asks companies to come forward and do. Thirdly, we must ensure that businesses continue to nurture and develop young people’s talent once they enter the world of work, and that they have a level playing field when they seek to progress their career after leaving the education system.
This is an important debate and having a former Secretary of State for Education here is a real treat for us. At the moment, the Government fund young people who go to university to the tune of about £10,500. For people who go to a further education college, the funding is about half that. For young people who get an apprenticeship, it is about £1,500 on average. For people who fall off the cliff altogether, there is very little money and it is a confused landscape, unless they end up in the criminal justice system, in which case we spend a fortune on them. Does the right hon. Lady believe that it is time the money followed the young person rather than the institution?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The T-levels reform will help to ensure that the route a young person follows, whether they are interested in a more academic route and university, or want a more vocational, technical route, will be every bit as high quality as any other. Towards the end of my comments, I will briefly talk about how Government reform could enable that to happen more easily.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case for social mobility. It is important to record that we still have big issues with the attainment gap in Scotland, where children from the most deprived households are much less likely to go to university compared with those in England. Social mobility needs to be spread across the whole United Kingdom. The benefits of people being mobile need to spread to every part of the kingdom, not just those living in London and the south-east.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We face a simple but powerful problem: talent is spread evenly across the country, but opportunity is not. We need to ensure that we nurture that talent. I share his concern that educational attainment in Scotland looks like it is slipping backwards relative to the rest of the UK.
In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), it is important to point out that the UCAS website says that
“in Scotland, around one third of admissions are not processed through UCAS, so this provides only part of the picture of entry to higher education”.
That should be placed on the record and hon. Members should keep it in mind. It is important not to do down Scottish education, because there are many positive things about it. A higher percentage of our students who attend university have been to further education courses first, which is not picked up by the UCAS stats either.
A lot of hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, would dispute those facts.
I recognise that there is an important debate to be had on higher education, but I want to focus my comments on business and the economy because business has a key role to play in improving social mobility in our country. Today, I am asking businesses large and small to commit to a universal social mobility pledge.
I hugely thank David Harrison and the Harrison Centre for Social Mobility for crucially supporting the work to enable us to launch the pledge today. The social mobility pledge is about three things: partnership between schools and businesses; businesses offering access to work experience or apprenticeships; and businesses having recruitment practices that are transparent and open, to promote a level playing field for talent.
First, partnering with schools is something that every single company, big or small, can do. It does not have to be hard. Some outstanding organisations are already providing a platform for action, and the resources needed for companies and businesses to make a start: Speakers for Schools; Inspiring the Future; the Careers and Enterprise Company; and the Prince’s Trust, which is setting up the e-mentor scheme, to name just a few. A lot of these organisations want to do more working through business, and they also want to do that in locations outside London and the south-east, where young people often have fewer opportunities. However, we need the fantastic employers in those areas to come forward to help make that happen.
Some great organisations are doing amazing work on access to work experience and apprenticeships, such as the Social Mobility Business Partnership, which can help. I also say a massive “thank you” to Barry Matthews, who set up the SMBP, for his help in working with me recently to help put together the social mobility pledge, so that companies large and small can get behind it. The Social Mobility Foundation does a huge amount of great work. Alongside that is the Sutton Trust, which I mentioned earlier and which has pioneered so many of the great initiatives that we have learned from and that companies can get involved in.
All companies can make a decision to open their doors and let young people who might not have any idea about that organisation come in and spend time learning about it, shadowing people and working on projects that give them a sense of what working in those careers is like.
This is a fantastic speech and I thank the right hon. Lady for sharing her experience and ideas. In Rotherham, which she knows well, employers are looking to open their doors, but we also need teachers and parents to give the young people a shove to go over the threshold.
The hon. Lady is right—this must be a two-way street. I put the call out to teachers to have the confidence to work with businesses that want to come and help raise aspirations for their young people, just as teachers themselves do. Inspiring the Future works successfully with thousands of schools—primary and secondary—around our country. We know such activity can work and we know how it benefits those children. Today, I am seeking to expand the opportunities for children who currently do not have enough of them.
Businesses such as South East Coachworks, Macknade and BMM Weston in my constituency make huge efforts to give kids work experience and opportunities, as do schools such as the Abbey School. However, the children still tell me that they want more work experience, and to know more about career opportunities and what work will be like. I fully support my right hon. Friend’s initiative to make it easier for businesses and schools to work together and give children the opportunities that can help them to get ahead in life.
I am grateful for that intervention because it gives me the chance to point out that a recent study up in the north-east showed that 83% of young people felt that having work experience should be a compulsory part of the school curriculum. The challenge that they and we face is that there are not enough opportunities for them to do that—it does not matter whether they are growing up in Kent or in Newcastle. Businesses alone can help us to close that gap between the work experience that young people know they need and want, and the opportunities for them to do that while they are going through school.
The final piece of the pledge is about open recruitment practices. Changes such as introducing name-blind recruitment or contextual recruitment can help to promote a level playing field for candidates. In name-blind recruitment, the candidate’s name is replaced by a number and their CV is then assessed as normal. Employers can have unconscious bias in respect of black and minority ethnic candidates, and name bias based on gender and traditional working-class names, so name-blind approaches work. That is why Clifford Chance, a major law company, uses name-blind recruitment—in fact, it is one of the founding companies signed up to the pledge.
Contextual recruitment, which was referred to in the Social Mobility Commission’s annual report in 2016, takes into account the situation in which the academic and personal success of a candidate have been achieved, and how their performance compares with that of their peers from similar backgrounds who have had similar opportunities. It is already used by companies such as Deloitte, and by some of the magic circle law firms such as Linklaters. The research shows that disadvantaged applicants were 50% more likely to be hired using contextual recruitment than they otherwise would have been.
Finally, I am especially grateful for the support of the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, and the many businesses that have signed up to the pledge, including companies such as BT, ITV, Adidas, Severn Trent, Viacom, KPMG, Aviva and PwC, to name just a few. The British Chambers of Commerce is encouraging all 75,000 of its members to sign up to the pledge, which is fantastic. Achieving that would be transformational. Similarly, the Federation of Small Businesses is behind the pledge and is encouraging its 170,000 members to commit to it.
What my right hon. Friend is saying is very powerful. In the north-east of Scotland, we are obviously dominated by the oil and gas industry, but there are skills shortages—they are not necessarily among graduates but among those from a technical college or technical college background. I do not want to overly politicise this debate, but we have to ensure we get the balance right. In my constituency, Aker Solutions and Wood Group—two huge employers—are concerned about getting enough technical and engineering staff. Are we getting the balance of academia—technical colleges and universities—and apprenticeships right?
The short answer is that we do not know, because to date young people have not really had the choices that they want and deserve when they want to follow a technical education route. If our technical education reforms open up that form of education as an opportunity for young people, it would not only be a win for them—young people should not have to stop their education just because they do not want to follow an academic route—but a huge win for British business, which is crying out for the skills these young people want to learn. In launching the pledge today, I seek to knit together those aligned incentives and hopes, so that we can start to unlock opportunity for both young people and businesses.
I will briefly draw my comments to a close. As I have said, with this level of support from companies large and small, I believe that we can work together to have a huge impact. I would also like Members of Parliament from both sides of the House to work collectively to make a difference in our local communities. That is what I will do. I will ask my local companies to commit to the social mobility pledge, and will sign up to the pledge as an employer. We should seek to work on a cross-party basis to galvanise British business, because we know that, when Parliament speaks with one voice, business listens.
I also hope the Government support the social mobility pledge and align cross-departmental policy to help us to go further and faster on social mobility. For example, we could look at how the apprenticeship levy can evolve, whether extending into supporting work experience or focusing on geographic areas that need more investment in training, such as opportunity areas. We can look at the development of degree apprenticeships, which are hugely popular but are in the early days of making the impact that they can make.
In the spring statement two weeks ago, the Chancellor rightly set out how he is asking the Office for National Statistics to assess how we can better value our human capital. That is crucial, because if things are not valued properly, they are not invested in properly. I hope the Treasury can reform even more to shift its decision making to more overtly invest in a socially mobile Britain. That is not just about smarter valuing of our investment in people, but better measurement of our national progress on social mobility and opportunity. That means having a longer timeframe for investments and budgeting, so that when we invest in children and young people, we see the value that it creates over a lifetime and not just over the next five years. Realistically, five years gives little chance for this sort of investment to be demonstrably realised.
In conclusion, it might feel like a huge ask to change the country forever and deliver on social mobility, which we have never been able to do, but it is about a collective effort. It is about lots of people doing lots of things. I am not asking all of us to do everything. I just need us each to make a change in our local communities, whether as MPs, businesses or individuals. It is a start if Putney businesses improve Putney, and if Rotherham businesses improve Rotherham. If the Government back that up with smart policy at a national level, things can change. Tackling social mobility is complex. It is like a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, but people need to do their piece. If we all do that, the picture gets completed. We need to do that to get more opportunities for more young people, so that we have equality of opportunity. I hope the social mobility pledge can be a step along the road to delivering just that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is the greatest pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who is a Rotherham girl. She lives and breathes exactly what she is outlining. Her family background is very common in Rotherham. The fact that she has achieved such incredible heights is genuinely an inspiration to my constituents. It is exactly what we are looking to do. I fully support her social mobility pledge. I urge her to come back to Rotherham so that we can work together to make it happen.
I am particularly proud that a woman is launching the social mobility pledge, and a great deal is owed to the right hon. Lady for her work on this. We have now got cracks in the glass ceiling. Indeed, as she rightly said—I am going to steal her line—a ton of bricks is now falling on the class ceiling. That is something we have to address as a country, not least because this week the Children’s Commissioner highlighted the huge gaps that exist between the poorest children in the north and the poorest in the south. Her report found that a child on free school meals living in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a child on free school meals from Hartlepool. London children on free school meals are 40% more likely to achieve good maths and English GSCEs than children in the north. Rotherham, by contrast, ranks 188th out of 324 local authority areas for social mobility and has the seventh highest secondary school exclusion rates in the country. The Children’s Commissioner found that too many children are dropping out of education and training before 18, with several northern cities having more than 10% of children missing out on crucial parts of their education.
The all-party parliamentary group on social mobility recognised that social mobility is improved through education and high-quality teaching, yet its former chair now leads a Department that is cutting school funding by 4.6% between 2015 and 2019. Across England, more than half a million primary school children are in super-sized classes. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, class sizes in Rotherham rose in more than half of our schools and the pupil to teacher ratio rose in two thirds. Some 57% of schools have cut their staff. While the Government talk of a fairer funding formula, schools in Rotherham will have suffered cuts of nearly £3 million between 2015-16 and 2019-20. I fail to understand how that can help our children reach their potential.
Another issue that we cannot ignore is the economic environment that children live in. I am pleased that the Children’s Commissioner recognised that northern children are proud and optimistic, but her report found that many lacked confidence that economic regeneration will mean more job opportunities for them.
Rotherham ranks 119th out of 650 constituencies on the highest number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and universal credit. According to the Office for National Statistics, productivity growth nationally over the past 10 years was the weakest since modern records began. We have some fantastic businesses in Britain. As the right hon. Lady knows, we have fantastic businesses in Rotherham, but there is a serious skills shortage, as she outlined. A recent survey from the British Chambers of Commerce found that skills shortages were reaching critical levels in the last quarter of 2017. How will we address the gap and the lack of productivity if we are not training our young people in the skills needed for a modern economy?
In Rotherham, many businesses are in manufacturing. They recognise—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for securing this debate.
Everybody should be given the opportunity to make the most of their life, irrespective of where they were born. It is equality of opportunity that matters. The Social Mobility Commission report published last year identified hotspots and coldspots, which were areas with higher and lower levels of social mobility. I never considered Knowsley, where I grew up, to be a particularly socially mobile region, but it ranks reasonably well at 171st out of the 325 local authorities in England. What may come as a surprise is that my constituency of Chichester is 287th. Chichester is not unique in that respect, as a quarter of coastal authorities were classified as coldspots, and only 6% were identified as hotspots.
The problems are clear and have been for generations. Tackling the issue is complex, but incredibly important, not only for the young people who gain an opportunity to change their circumstances, but for the economy. In 2016, the Sutton Trust estimated that just reaching Europe’s social mobility average would equate to an annual increase to GDP of 2%. It is key that we bring out people’s talents at all ages. Almost every one of my classmates in my failing comprehensive school in Knowsley had talent and the potential to achieve whatever they put their minds to. Some of us beat the odds despite our school, but others did not get that opportunity. They were let down in school and were not offered enough support or alternative routes into work when they left at just 16. From attending a failing comprehensive school every day for five years, I know there was as much talent there as on the playing fields of Eton.
My social mobility journey came in the form of an apprenticeship that I started at 16, so I know from personal experience the benefits they can provide. It gave me seven years of work experience, a degree and no student debt—all I needed to build a career. It was a business that changed my life, not school. More than 3.4 million young people have started apprenticeships since 2010. Although that is a significant achievement, we must work to ensure that they are high-quality training programmes. I am pleased that we are seeing a greater emphasis on quality, with advanced and higher level apprenticeships up by 35% last year as compared with the previous year.
Colleges, universities and business are developing successful, collaborative relationships. Chichester College has seen more than 25,000 apprentices pass through its doors, and its success continues with increased participation year on year. Some 94% of level 2 apprentices continue into employment or further education. The college has put employability at the heart of its curriculum, and it is working with around 5,000 businesses to do that. At the University of Chichester, 34% of its largely regional intake are from the lowest household income groups, and more than half are the first generation in their family to participate in higher education. The university has increased its numbers and is reaching out to the latent local marketplace.
It is important to remember that even if all those opportunities pass someone by, it is never too late for them to learn and improve their opportunities in life. There are such programmes as “Get into”, which is run by the Prince’s Trust; the “Choose Work” programme that Chichester District Council runs, which is designed to help young people get work experience; and the brilliant work of Business in the Community, which works to give young people CV and interview training and work experience. Many businesses are now involved in Business in the Community.
Different areas have always varied in social mobility outcomes. My life has been what some might call a social mobility success story. The solution to better outcomes for young people is multi-faceted, but we should tap into talent wherever it is to satisfy growing demand and bolster our economy.
I apologise, Mr Davies: I will have to leave the debate a few minutes early to get a ticket for Prime Minister’s Question Time. I thank the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for allowing us to debate this really important issue. I know how committed she was to social mobility when she was Secretary of State for Education.
The right hon. Lady knows that the roots of social mobility start far earlier than a place on work experience. They start from birth, primarily in the first 18 months of a child’s life. By the time a child gets to school, a poor child is 18 months behind its classmates. A poor child—let us call her Jo—is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a well-off peer. She is one of the 50% of children from low income families who do not reach the expected developmental milestones by age five. Because of her low progress by age seven, Jo has just a 50% chance of avoiding the bottom of attainment when she completes her GCSEs almost a decade later. That does not come as a surprise. Her secondary school is also more likely to be disadvantaged, with stark evidence that the top-performing comprehensives prove to be highly socially selective, with only 9.4% of pupils eligible for free school meals in the top-performing 500 comprehensive schools—let us not get started on selective schools—which is far lower than the 17.2% average.
When Jo tries to secure an invaluable internship, she cannot afford the £1,019 a month cost of its being unpaid, and she does not have the high-powered networks that could offer a golden ticket into a business. Meanwhile, Jo is trying to find a home.
Most Members, many from London and the south-east, know that at their advice surgery they will see hundreds of families terrified of losing their private rented accommodation and being placed in temporary accommodation. If someone lives in south-west London, temporary accommodation means Birmingham, Kent or Luton. How does a child continue to go to school if they live so far away in temporary accommodation? How do they have the confidence and security of being able to study if they never know where they and their mum will be able to live or how many brothers and sisters will be in the same bedroom? That is the reality for the many families that we see.
Although confidence and a personal contribution are paramount, we cannot ignore the social system in which many children and young people find themselves. It is not a level playing field, because they are far behind the starting line from the very moment of their birth.
It is a great pleasure to be able to contribute to this debate today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on her excellent speech and on opening the debate on this important topic, which I know she is passionate about. I was honoured to be able to work closely with her as her Whip when she was Secretary of State for Education. I particularly welcome her speech, her approach and the support she has already received from the business sector. I welcome and endorse strongly her social mobility pledge. Partnership, access to work experience, a level playing field and of course open recruiting are vital if we are to go forward and utilise the talent that we have across the whole country.
As a former teacher and lecturer, education and social mobility are particular passions of mine and are areas in which I have always tried to be involved. We are discussing social mobility in Britain to ultimately ensure that everyone has the opportunity to build a good life for themselves, regardless of their family background or the area of the country that they come from. In a socially mobile society, every individual should have a fair chance of reaching their full potential. Social mobility is not only good from a moral perspective, but from an economic perspective. By ensuring that talent is harvested across the social spectrum, we have the opportunity to boost productivity and GDP, more of which later.
I come from a family that grew up in the east end of London. It was education, opportunity, good teachers, family encouragement and also some businesses that allowed me work experience that gave me an appetite to develop. I grew up in Essex, but my family background was in Bow, where opportunities were very limited except through education, so we need to look across the country to make sure that opportunities are greater than currently exist in some places.
I actually enjoyed work experience because it meant I met other people and did other things. I learnt and got into the habit of getting up and getting there on time and participating as far as I could.
The Government have made considerable progress on education and opportunities, with 1.9 million more children now in good or outstanding schools. That is a real achievement and we should not minimise that. We should be proud of what has been done, but we need to do more. Local and central Government cannot do it all. It has to be businesses and communities—all of us—contributing and participating.
We are rather fortunate in my borough of Bexley. We are a hotspot when it comes to these things. We achieve things and I am proud of the opportunities that businesses, the council and Government policies have encouraged, which has resulted in a very good situation, but it is not enough. Even within Bexley there are children who underachieve and do not have ambition. I have always fought hard against people who say, “What can you expect? They come from that background in more deprived parts of the borough.” That is absolute rubbish. Everyone has the potential wherever they come from, and we must realise it and get opportunities for every individual. I had a longer speech, but unfortunately I have not got time to do it.
The Government, of course, have a key role, but when we look at the figures, the “State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain” report found that only 6% of doctors and 12% of chief executives were from working class origins. More has to be done. In conclusion, we need a plan, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney has offered us a good plan that we can all sign up to. It is not party political; it is something for the benefit of this country and I endorse it strongly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett), who made a powerful speech. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on securing this important debate on social mobility and the economy. She made a passionate and practical speech.
People in my community too often feel like social mobility no longer applies to them. I am told time and again by my constituents during my surgeries and on the doorsteps of Barnsley East that the economy is not working for them, and that they are being held back. It is difficult to disagree or to reassure them because they are not entirely wrong. In my constituency and across Barnsley, someone’s postcode still to this day determines their life chances and what they can, or rather cannot, become.
The Social Mobility Foundation has identified that Barnsley sits in the bottom 10% of local authorities in the country on the social mobility index. I am sure that, through her experience of growing up in nearby Rotherham, the right hon. Member for Putney knows the area well, and is at least familiar with the challenges it faces. She will also know that she remains in the minority for those born and raised in south Yorkshire. To put it simply, starting from childhood, life chances in Barnsley are far below those provided elsewhere. As many hon. Members have said, that must change.
A huge percentage of children in Barnsley’s classrooms are eligible for free school meals and come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but fewer than 10% of those children will go on to study at university—one of the lowest rates in the country. That is put into perspective, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) outlined, when compared with, for instance, the 50% of disadvantaged children in Kensington and Chelsea who will go on to higher education. Despite those struggles, Barnsley’s schools have fewer resources to progress.
Once past those struggles in childhood, the economy lags in providing the opportunities for people to get on in life. The mining industry, which helped to shape our community, once provided employment for more than 30,000 people. Although the work was hard and often dangerous, it was secure and well paid. The economic landscape is different now. The largest private sector employers in my constituency are in distribution. Both unemployment and youth unemployment are substantially higher than the national average. The average weekly wage in Barnsley East is a full 10% lower than the UK average. Across the area, many people are trapped in insecure and precarious employment, on short-term or flexible contracts. There is less certainty of work, no guaranteed income, no planning past the next week’s rota, which may change at the last minute, and no economic security to provide food or pay the bills. Such an economy is not conducive to social mobility.
For social mobility in Barnsley, and my constituency of Barnsley East, we desperately need an inclusive economy that provides the security of wages, and the opportunities that people have missed out on for too long. We need secure, long-term employment with a guaranteed income that allows people to plan, save and look further than the next pay packet. Most of all, we need an economy that works for people in Barnsley, that allows workers to advance and progress; that allows children to aspire and achieve; and that provides the opportunities and conditions for genuine social mobility, which has evaded our community for too long.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on introducing the debate, and I thank you, Mr Davies, for giving dispensation for members of the Public Accounts Committee to leave a few minutes before the end.
Social mobility is key. Given that the United Kingdom is one of the most immobile countries in the OECD, social mobility is not just desirable but essential for sustainable economic growth. When I go into schools and community groups in my constituency, people do not want platitudes or soundbites, but action and opportunities that matter to them and give them a way to progress.
My right hon. Friend mentioned education. There are educational challenges across the United Kingdom. In Scotland, our educational standards in maths, science and other key STEM subjects are falling behind in the programme for international student assessment rankings. Scotland used to be No. 1 in the United Kingdom for education; it is now No. 3, which is a worrying trend. A teacher shortage means that a £15 million fund for the underprivileged has gone unspent. We learned earlier this month that, due to the teacher shortage, we have not had the resources to spend that money, which had been put aside to help those from the most deprived backgrounds.
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, we are seeing a disturbing trend of fewer people from deprived backgrounds making it to university from some parts of the United Kingdom than from others. Even more worryingly, in my constituency in Scotland we are not increasing social mobility, but decreasing it. That is happening against a backdrop of increasing employment, and a slight improvement on the Gini coefficient pretty much right across the United Kingdom. Despite that, we are still not giving people real opportunities early on in life so that they can pole-vault forward.
Many good points have been made in today’s debate—I will not repeat them—but I will focus on social capital and lifelong learning on top of the broader educational point that other Members have made. Social capital is a topic that was spoken about at the turn of the century, certainly in universities and academic institutions, in discussing communities that had gone through post-industrialisation and no longer had the bridging and bonding capital that made many communities in the western world such successes. That capital enabled people to go from place to place and to step up, and ensured that the next generation was always better off than the previous one.
It is not just about the fact that students are leaving school with poorer highers or GCSEs; it is about what comes after that. Even if a mistake has been made or an opportunity has not been provided early on, people must be given a second or even a third opportunity later in life. It is important that we do not allow poor GCSEs or poor highers to write someone off early, as is so often the case in this country.
I am lucky that in my constituency we have Forth Valley College, which is a further education college that tries to promote lifelong learning, whether in the form of evening classes, working in partnership with businesses, going for apprenticeships, or working with public bodies. It is important that we provide that opportunity throughout people’s lives. I give credit to the Labour party for one of their policies in the last election: funding people through lifelong learning, and giving people access to funds to go back to college, and do different types of qualifications at any stage of their life. People are now living into their 80s and 90s, which is not what our original welfare system was designed for. We need to ask ourselves how we can give people the opportunity to have two, three or perhaps even four careers in their lifetime, as some hon. Members may well have had.
I am conscious of time, but I want to address on a more practical level what we can do in our constituencies as MPs. In my constituency, we are fortunate enough to have two city deals coming: the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal, and the Tay Cities deal. I have been speaking to representatives from the Prince’s Trust to ensure that those city deals do not just bring financial investment and physical assets into our constituency, but improve social and human capital. I am working with those organisations, and with communities, to ensure that, when we talk about investment, we do so in the broadest possible terms. It is not just about road, rail and wires, but about the social capital and the bonding and bridging capital that allows our communities to come together, and allows people to leap through different communities because they can go as far as their abilities allow them.
Social mobility is one of the key reasons I stood for election to this place. I believe it is incumbent on us as MPs that, when someone has had a door closed in their face, we always open a window to give them an opportunity to succeed, whatever stage of their life they are in.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on an excellent speech. It is clear from her time as Secretary of State for Education that she had a desire to advance social mobility, and it is shame that she is no longer in that position.
When I saw this debate on the Order Paper, I welcomed the opportunity to take part in it. I am conscious that, as somebody who was born to a single parent, and who grew up on a council estate in Glasgow and left school at 16, I am probably the exception to the rule in terms of having got to the House of Commons, given my class and the people I went to school with. I grew up in the shadow of the Cranhill water tower, and I now work in the shadow of Big Ben. It is important that we have come to speak in this debate, and that we do not pull the ladder up behind us.
I do not want to get into an egg-throwing match on education with my colleagues from Scotland in the Conservative party, because I think it has been a constructive debate. We can do more on education. My wife is a primary schoolteacher, so it is not an alien concept to me. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) did not mention that the Scottish Government are investing in the pupil equity fund. I see that in my constituency, with organisations such as Beacon Warriors and Licketyspit doing work in schools. As I say, I do not want to make that a party political point.
One area that I will focus on today is internships, but before I do, I will address the issue of apprenticeships. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who is a fellow former modern apprentice. It is important that we put more emphasis in this place on modern apprenticeships. I am glad that we have invested in apprenticeships north of the border. Politicians are beginning to understand that we cannot just have a factory churning out people who go through primary and secondary education, go to university, and then get their masters. In order to have a diverse economy, it is important that we invest in apprenticeships. I make the plea that I always make, which is for pay equality for young people. Unfortunately, at the moment under-25s are excluded from the national living wage, and apprentices under UK law can still be paid as little as £3.50 per hour. If we are serious about building a country that works for everyone, we have to pay people appropriately.
The main thing I want to speak about is internships. I had the fortune to undertake a political internship a number of years ago. It was unpaid, and there is a wider debate that we could have about such internships. However, at this time of year when we, as MPs, are looking at our staffing budgets, this debate challenged me to think about what I am doing as a Member of Parliament to bring through the next generation of politicians—not people who studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at university, but people from different backgrounds. That is why I am very pleased to be advertising a paid internship. It is called the John Wheatley internship in recognition of a Labour MP for east Glasgow in the 1920s who came to Parliament and did an immense amount of good on housing.
There is a challenge to us as politicians to ensure that, when we take people on in our offices, we pay them appropriately. If we are serious about getting people into politics and serious about our offices representing our communities, we cannot just take people from the local university societies.
Working with the local college, Barnsley College, I have a living wage apprentice in my office. My apprentice, Adam, works in my office and then spends some of his time studying. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good to encourage Members across the House to have political internships and apprenticeships both in Westminster and in the constituency?
Absolutely. I genuinely and warmly commend the hon. Lady for having an apprentice who she pays the national living wage. This is a subject very close to my heart, and the leadership she is showing is to be commended—others in the House should certainly be doing so. The issue of internships is something we have to grapple with. We know that a number of offices have unpaid internships—I am sure some of my colleagues have people on unpaid internships—but if we are serious about getting people from different backgrounds involved in politics, we need to show leadership.
On social tourism, I get quite annoyed at The Guardian for continuing to use the same photograph of run-down flats that were demolished about 10 years ago, but it is fairly well known that Glasgow East is not exactly the richest part of the world. In my constituency, the headteacher at Sandaig Primary is open about the fact that some of the children who go there have never seen sand. One of the ways we can take people from different backgrounds and show them different things is through the concept of social tourism. I commend the Family Holiday Association. Getting people into different environments and out of their comfort zone is hugely important.
This has been a very good debate, although it is a shame that it was only 90 minutes. There is definitely the appetite from Members for a Backbench Business Committee debate. I urge the right hon. Member for Putney to continue. I think she will find cross-party support.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on securing this important debate.
It is a pleasure to follow colleagues who have spoken so eloquently on this critical subject. In a similar way to other Members, I come at it from my experience and my life’s journey. I attended a comprehensive school in a normal part of the west midlands, and I now find myself in this place. What a great privilege that is, but it is incumbent on all of us to continue the fight. My right hon. Friend the Member for Putney is setting out a marker and providing great leadership, which I am delighted to be able to follow, on the practical work that we can all do in our constituencies. I very much come at the issue from a place-based perspective.
Statistics from the Social Mobility Commission show that Britain is divided and that a child’s prospects are affected not only by how much their parents earn and their ethnicity but by geography. The west midlands is particularly poor in social mobility, as I saw as an employer in Birmingham before I came into this place. I saw a lack of aspiration and a social mobility divide in practice in that city.
To tackle that, I set up my own charity, Skilled and Ready. We were instrumental in bringing together local employers to create an awards programme that was delivered in local schools, to help students recognise and develop employability skills. I am very proud that that delivered change for the young people who went through the programme.
When I became an MP, I was mindful of the fact that our area is behind in social mobility indicators. More than a third of areas in the west midlands are social mobility coldspots, and that unfortunately includes my constituency of Redditch. I started to engage as a priority with schools, colleges and businesses in the constituency, and it became clear to me that there is deprivation on a number of indicators, which other hon. Members have referred to. There is also the issue of aspiration. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney, I firmly believe that, while the Government have a role to play, businesses do too. They are instrumental. I welcome this debate because it identifies some practical things that we can all do.
I am working with the Mayor’s mentor scheme, set up by the current Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to create a Redditch mentors programme. I pay tribute to the schools that have already signed up—Heart of Worcestershire College, Tudor Grange Academy, Trinity High School, Ridgeway High School and Arrow Vale. Some fantastic businesses have also indicated their support, including Simon Hyde from Faun Zoeller, Julie Dyer from Heller, Darren Houlcroft, Keith Gardner from MSP and Nicola Hall from Bellis Training. They have all signed up and committed to becoming mentors for local schools in my constituency. I thank them most sincerely for what they are doing. It is a fantastic commitment and investment of their time to help young people in Redditch.
I very much welcome the initiative that my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney has laid out in her social mobility pledge. I will be taking that on board and encouraging the pioneering businesses in Redditch that have already committed to this agenda to follow that lead and to add their names to the campaign.
I have been inspired by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East to think about what more I can do as a Member of Parliament, because we have a unique opportunity to spread the message about how important this work is.
I do not believe that maintaining the status quo is an option. It is not fit for purpose. The issue of social mobility is not just about creating a fairer and equal society. It is about addressing social, educational and economic divisions, which are unsustainable and are having a detrimental impact on our labour market and our competitiveness as a country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I commend the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for holding this debate on an important topic. One thing she said that rang true with me was that when she started out, she was not asking for special treatment, she just wanted the same opportunities as everyone else. That is such an important point to make. She spoke of the significant gains to the economy from nurturing its talent and the part that businesses have to play in that. That is crucial as well. She also set out some interesting proposals that might address that, along with her pledge, and made some points about blind and contextual CVs. As she said, we all have our part to play. She spoke of a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, which is a good image for us to take away. We should all play our part in trying to make social mobility possible for our young people and others throughout society.
The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke of the importance of economic regeneration and the part that that plays in social mobility. She highlighted this Government’s cuts to school funding and talked of the gaps in productivity, and asked how training can be provided urgently to fill those gaps.
The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) shared her personal experiences with us. I always find such points very interesting. She spoke at length of the benefit of apprenticeships, but stressed the importance of them being high-value apprenticeships, which is another good point.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) gave a passionate speech. She spoke of poor accommodation, poor schooling and the social systems that put children “far behind the starting line” before they even start. That is a very good point indeed. She spoke of the effect on young people’s confidence and feelings of security, and the longer term impact on them.
The right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett) also spoke of personal experiences and how the opportunities he received helped him along his way. He called for everyone to receive the same opportunities. He made one point that really startled me: that only 6% of doctors come from working-class backgrounds. That is an extraordinary and sobering point.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) pointed out that less than 10% of young people in her constituency will go on to university. She suggested that what was needed was an inclusive economy with secure employment that allows for future planning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), in a very fine speech, also talked about the importance of investing in apprenticeships and of fair pay for those apprenticeships, and about what he is doing personally as a politician with the internship scheme in his office. That is a great example to set. He also spoke of how social tourism can help in taking children away from their day-to-day environment and exposing them to different experiences.
In preparation for this debate, I turned to the “State of the Nation” report with interest, anticipating a thoroughly good read. The chapter on Scotland and Wales—neither nation got its own chapter, unfortunately— pointed out right at the start that the data available for Scotland does not measure social mobility, nor does the data for Wales. It seems that that is because successive Scottish Administrations have concentrated on alleviating poverty rather than measuring social mobility. Of course, alleviating poverty is not easy if the Government are hellbent on cutting social security payments and limiting the funds available to the most vulnerable members of society for ideological reasons. So we find ourselves discussing England and its problems again. The Social Mobility Commission’s “Time for change” report was clear that two decades of chasing higher social mobility have made no difference. Fervent ministerial announcements turn out not to deliver results—who would have thought it?
It is important to acknowledge that when the right hon. Member for Putney was in office she put in place a plan for addressing some educational inequalities, and it appears to have been well received. I admit that I have not read it because it concentrates on English education, but I was intrigued to see that it followed the Scottish Government down the path of addressing the attainment gap. That is a very good thing and is to be encouraged. I hope the Minister will indicate whether that plan will be implemented.
As many, many people tell us at great length, education is one of the great levellers. It is key to ensuring that talent rises and talented people are rewarded. How education is paid for is equally important. I was intrigued by the recent publication of evidence from Robert Plomin and Emily Smith-Woolley of King’s College, which showed that selective schools add next to no benefit to education. Funnily enough, the “Freakonomics” economist Steven Levitt found the same thing in Chicago.
The real inhibitor of social mobility in education comes when a young adult leaves tertiary education. The burden of student loans that graduates carry is substantial. I think I am correct in calculating that an English student studying in London for three years could leave with more than £60,000 of debt. For someone from a less affluent background who secures employment in a graduate entry-level job, that debt will stay with them for years.
Setting aside the discourtesy of not being mentioned in the hon. Lady’s summation—I am a Scottish Conservative colleague, but that is fine—on tuition fees, perhaps she can advise her colleagues in Edinburgh truly to lead the way and not charge tuition fees to English, Welsh and Irish students, who are great friends in our one United Kingdom.
That point has been made many times by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, and he has heard the very good reasons why that is not happening. He wants me to mention his contribution, but I find it difficult to get past the fact that, once again, the Scottish Tories talked down the Scottish education system. It is a constant disappointment that every time they mention Scottish education in this place, they do nothing but complain about the work that is being done there. Some fantastic work is going on in Scottish education at the moment, and it would be lovely to hear the Scottish Tories occasionally acknowledge that.
Does my hon. Friend share my bemusement about the fact that the Scottish Tories who are left in this debate—two thirds of them have left the Chamber—continue to harp on about investing in education, yet they rail against any increases in income tax for higher earners in Scotland? The options are either to increase income tax or to cut public spending, which would mean cuts to education. Does she agree that the position of the Conservative party in Scotland seems ridiculous?
Indeed. I agree with my hon. Friend. It is difficult to see exactly where the Scottish Tories are coming from on this—they are so confused.
For someone from a less affluent background who secures employment in a graduate entry-level job, that debt will stay with them for years. That is if they even manage to get what we once would have considered a graduate job. One in 20 graduates do not find any work at all, and the destinations of others is often less than optimal.
During the time that graduates carry that debt, they have less disposable income, their contribution to the economy is lessened, they find it more difficult to get on to the property ladder, decisions about starting a family are made more difficult, and their career decisions are limited. When they have children, that disadvantage is passed on, because they will not have advanced as far in life as they might have done if they did not have to carry that debt. It might be advisable for anyone who believes in improving social mobility to look at removing or alleviating that debt. Abolishing tuition fees would be a start.
To digress a little, I recommend that Members read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s paper on migration and social mobility from 2005, which suggests that immigration encourages social mobility in the UK. That is on top of what we know already.
If I could take the hon. Lady to my constituency, I would take her to homes where there is not a stick of furniture. In those homes are Tamil and African families, whose children are the doctors, lawyers and engineers of tomorrow. Social mobility is an issue of class and ethnicity. That is difficult for us to talk about, but in London we certainly need to talk about it.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I think we would all agree that we have heard some excellent contributions today from both sides of the Chamber. I thank the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for securing this debate. She knows that I have a very high regard for her, and that I think she is a real loss to the Government. I agree with much of what she said. In her creditable time as Secretary of State for Education, she set out a genuinely engaged geographical disadvantage agenda, for which the former social mobility commissioners argued. She deserves our thanks for moving the debate forward in that way.
I have been in my job for only a few short weeks, and I will admit that this debate is a little early for me, but it gives me an opportunity to say a little about where our work on social mobility is going. This week, the Children’s Commissioner for England released a report called “Growing up North”. She argued that regional development plans, such as the northern powerhouse, must consider necessary infrastructure such as good schools and appropriate post-16 routes to be just as important as rail and roads. I want to quote what she said, because it expresses a broader truth about social mobility:
“Children growing up in the North love and are proud of the place they live. They want a future where they live near their family and community and they want jobs and opportunities to rival anywhere else in the country.”
She is right. For too long, in too many places, social mobility has meant literally moving away. It is a hard truth, but if young people do not have the opportunity to realise their potential in their home towns, many will go away to university or find jobs elsewhere, and will stay away. We do not have an economy that works for all parts of our country. We force people to move out of their communities, because the basic infrastructure to enable economic growth is lacking in our regions.
I very much agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. As a representative of a midlands constituency, I have personally seen that exact pattern. Does she agree the Government could look at further devolving spending on further education, higher education and apprenticeships to local areas to address those challenges?
Talking about the education brief is a bit beyond me this morning. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand if I just duck that and move on. I think honesty is always the best policy.
As this is a Treasury debate, I will start with a bit of Treasury stuff. May I gently say that the Government’s record on the economy, and certainly on social mobility, is not at all good? Average pay is still £15 a week lower in real terms than it was before the financial crisis. Not long ago, the Government confidently predicted a minimum wage of £9 an hour by 2020, but downgrades to economic forecasts have taken their toll, and the Office for Budget Responsibility now expects it to be just £8.57. A real living wage—one based on what people actually need to live—is already higher than that. Planned statutory wage increases will not meet the burden of rising living costs. Two thirds of the children living in poverty today have parents in work.
I know this has been said before, but it is true nevertheless. In the 20th century a contract was understood in this country: each generation was better educated, and had higher incomes, greater home ownership and a longer, healthier life than the previous generation. Even if working class kids—I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Putney for introducing class into the debate—did not succeed educationally, they could still expect higher incomes than their parents, and the dream of home ownership coming into reach. That is clearly no longer the case.
The housing crisis is now one of the biggest barriers to social mobility in our big cities. My borough of Newham is ranked second worst of all local authorities in England and Wales for adult social mobility indicators, a consequence of low pay, high living costs and insecure rented housing. The most recent quarterly statistics show, for the sixth time running, an increase in the number of households in England living in temporary accommodation and, since the end of 2010, a 75% increase in the number of children living in temporary accommodation to 120,000. Hon. Members know what a problem that is: a safe, warm, healthy and secure home is so important to childhood.
I was privileged to live in a council flat in east London.
It provided my family with an affordable home, and we were secure in the knowledge that if we were responsible tenants who paid their rent, it was a forever home. That security provided me with the space to learn, thrive and strive, to do as well as I could. My little sister has massively achieved and is a well-respected solicitor, and I am in this House. We could not have done that without the security of an affordable property behind us. Today, far too few of my constituents have that benefit. They live in private, insecure and expensive tenancies, with their children forced to move schools often or to travel long distances for their education. Such conditions make it so much more difficult for them to fulfil their potential.
I realise now that the hon. Lady was just getting into her flight there. The whole issue of housing is something that we have not explored in the context of social mobility. I am very conscious that in the past few years in Scotland we have abolished the right to buy. That seems to be a major issue. Governments will build social housing, council housing, but it is then sold off. Does she agree with me that it is time in England for Governments and parties of all colours to look at abolishing the right to buy, just as the Labour Government are doing in Wales?
I am going to duck that one.
Studies at Harvard University show that growing up with the toxic stress of economic hardship in the family can be severely damaging for a child, and they conclude that it has life-long effects similar to those caused by parental drug abuse or exposure to violence in the home.
I have been in this job for a few short weeks. One of the things exercising me is the very notion of social mobility itself. I am not sure that it is the right concept, and perhaps the Education Committee is on to something with its report that stated that we need a broader concept such as social justice. I fear that the concept of social mobility can be used to promote what I call a grammar school society, where a few of us can get on but most cannot, where the few of us that succeed are held up as a beacon of equal opportunity, whereas in fact those lucky few are a testament to hard work, yes, but often quite a bit of luck, frankly. A society where a few kids from deprived families get to the Cabinet table but the vast majority face daily hardship is simply not an opportunity society.
I know that the hon. Lady is very passionate because I have worked with her on many campaigns in the past, but would she endorse today’s pledge? What she is saying might be a debate for another day, but today we are trying to get bipartisan agreement on the pledge so that we can go forward on that front.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will work with anyone in order to improve social mobility in our country, because it is something I am absolutely passionate about.
Many of us will have seen the new research from Durham University confirming that grammar school pupils do better because they are more likely to have social advantages, not because selective education is superior. If we are to have a just society, a society in which all our talent and hard work allow us to fulfil our potential, we need to have a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to tackling today’s challenges. We cannot be satisfied with a few token programmes to help a small number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds into institutions and professions that are as dominated by privilege as ever. We cannot pretend that a few programmes amount to a strategy.
Social mobility, social inclusion or social justice are not just about school attainment and university access; as we have talked about today, unfairness persists into the workplace even for university graduates. Graduates with rich parents can earn as much as 60% more than those who have lived with the disadvantages of poverty. The gap is smaller for graduates from the most prestigious universities but, as we know, those institutions have the least inclusive intakes.
What about those who do not go to university? Where are the essential high-grade apprenticeships that this country needs, ones that mean we can be equally proud of the graduates of apprenticeships as of academia? Do we not need to challenge the bias that pervades post-16 education and learning so as to secure social mobility and inclusion to provide the skills base that this country needs for the 21st century?
Any social inclusion, social justice or social mobility policy must address increasing wealth inequality. It must also address the shocking gap in productivity and economic opportunities between our global cities and our smaller towns and coastal and rural communities which have been held back by our existing economic model. As a society, we cannot afford to continue with an economic model that promotes a minority of our people while the rest are denied investment. Labour is determined to embed greater equality, wider opportunity and shared prosperity right across the country. Shared prosperity is our goal—to coin a phrase—to create a society for the many and not the few.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies.
May I say how grateful we all are that my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) secured this debate? She has done so on the back of an outstanding record in government, including at the highest level. She brings to our debates a burning strength within her as to the importance of social mobility.
During this debate a number of Members have referred to their backgrounds, which have informed in many ways the views they have reached on social mobility and their desire to do something about it. My parents left school at the ages of 15 and 14 because of economic hardship, and the thought of them ever having become a doctor or a scientist, or even having gone to university, is about as fanciful as any one of us stepping on the surface of the moon. It would have been entirely and utterly impossible. My great break in life was when I got a free place at the grammar school, and I took that opportunity and never looked back. I therefore share with many of those present the burning drive to do something about the issues that we have discussed.
We can all agree that far. The question is, how do we approach these issues? As has been evident in the debate, many different strands are involved. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) mentioned housing, for example, which is one component. There are of course many other components, but I will focus on a couple of key areas, if I may, because they relate to the worthy and outstanding initiative launched today by my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney: educational skills, and the economy and business.
We should not overlook the progress we have made, in particular on education and skills, some of it on my right hon. Friend’s watch. We now have 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools than we had in 2010, and a record number of young people in education and training. We have more disabled and disadvantaged young people going to university than at any time in our history. We have driven up standards right across the piece. There is no point in getting people into education and training unless we give them good education and training that will be useful to get them work in future. We are achieving that: the EBacc is driving up standards and we have opened up access, particularly in the case of our great universities.
We recognise that we need to do more, so we recently invested £72 million in the 12 opportunity areas across the country, with £50 million allocated to early language and literature skills and £250 million to technical education. We have delivered £406 million for education and skills within the industrial strategy, particularly focusing on maths, digital skills and technology. My right hon. Friend mentioned apprenticeships and T-levels; there have been 3 million new apprenticeship starts since 2010 and 1.2 million since 2005.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) mentioned the importance of not writing people off early in their career and the idea of lifelong learning. We are launching our national retraining scheme to ensure that we have upskilling at the centre of our offer. He mentioned the economy, and there is no doubt that providing a strong economy and employment is the best way to get people moving up in society and, in particular, avoiding poverty.
There are a lot of things I would like to comment on, but the Minister mentions the economy; is it not true that we live in a world where if someone is born into a family that has assets, they are almost certain to succeed in life, but if they are talent-rich but asset-poor they are not? What will the Minister do to restructure the economy so that those born into families who do not own property and do not have savings have a much better chance of success?
On the specific issue of wealth, the hon. Gentleman will find that income inequality is at its lowest level for about 30 years. If he looks at the tax system, which includes property and assets, as he will know, the top 1% of earners in this country pay 28% of income tax. He will know that the national living wage is being increased by 4.4% as of this month with the start of a new tax year, and he will know that the very lowest-paid in our country have had a real-terms pay increase of 7% since 2015. I hope Members will recognise that the Government are on the side of the poorest in our society and are actively engaged in dealing with those issues.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been in several debates where he has raised exactly that point time after time, and I am grateful to him for raising it again. There is an element of affordability to that; there is also the fact that there is a minimum wage, which we are increasing through time, for those who are under 25. We have been able to provide the above-inflation increase to the national living wage because our stewardship of the economy has allowed us to. The problem with some of the prescriptions that we hear is that they are big on spending and borrowing money and increasing taxation, and I am afraid that is just not a recipe for being able to make the kind of progress on the national living wage that this Government have been making.
I will move on to the overall economic progress that we have made as a Government. We have a near record level of employment in our country; we have more women in work than at any time in our history; and we have virtually the lowest level of unemployment for 45 years—youth unemployment is down by 40% since 2010. We have had five years of continuous growth, and the deficit and the debt are both falling.
I recognise the things that the Minister mentions, and of course they are to be welcomed, but we are talking about young people’s aspiration not just to get a part-time job in the corner shop but to become an MP, a judge or a surgeon. Surely that is what we are lacking, and that is why I hope he supports the pledge of the right hon. Member for Putney.
I do not disagree with the hon. Lady, but my point is that unless there is a successful economy, with jobs, growth and all the things that this Government are delivering, it becomes more and more difficult to provide social mobility. This Government are providing all the things that I have outlined, and that is driving social mobility.
The way that the economy is managed has an important impact on poverty, which, as we know, is one of the greatest evils that hold people back. Since 2010 we have a million fewer people in absolute low income—a record low. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised the issue of child poverty; we have 300,000 fewer children in absolute low income. There are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute income poverty and 500,000 fewer adults of working age in absolute low income since 2010. In fact, of the 28 EU member states, our country has the fifth lowest level of persistent poverty. That is not the same as saying that where we are is acceptable or that we do not have to do more, but we should recognise that progress is being made.
Doing more is right at the heart of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney suggests. The Government warmly welcome her initiative; she rightly said that a lack of social mobility leads to talent going to waste. I totally endorse that. She referred to the important link between productivity and social mobility, a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) also raised. It is a simple fact that living standards can increase dramatically if we get productivity right. In fact, if we had the same level of productivity in our country as there is in Germany, our economy would be 30% larger than it is. I am wholeheartedly with her on that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Putney also raised the issue of Brexit and talked about the freedoms that will come with it as a moment for change. That was an apposite and far-sighted point to make. She urged companies to engage in her social mobility pledge, focusing on partnerships with schools and work experience. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett) spoke passionately about his work experience when he was a younger man—or should I say an even younger man—than he is today.
On companies’ recruitment practices, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney raised the issue of name-blind applications and the work that Clifford Chance has done, as well as the contextual recruitment carried out by Deloitte, Linklaters and others, which takes into account applicants’ backgrounds as well as the contents of their curriculum vitae. If I may paraphrase her, it is a case of employers being blind to everything but someone’s suitability to do the job. We can all unite around that. She also raised the important matter of degree apprenticeships and made an interesting point about how the apprenticeship levy is used and whether it could be directed in ways that may be more helpful to the issues that we are debating.
My right hon. Friend raised the important point of how we measure social mobility and human capital. Personally, I think that is an area that would be worthy of greater attention. I do not believe that the Office for National Statistics or any other such bodies produce such statistics, and it may well be worth us looking at that more closely. She raised the importance of working with others, such as companies in our constituencies and organisations such as the CBI, the FSB and the others that she has already brought on board, for which I give her huge credit.
It may be impossible to discuss such a deep and important issue as social mobility without being partisan, and almost inevitably there have been elements of partisanship in the debate. But my right hon. Friend should be congratulated on at least uniting us in spirit on an issue that we are all determined to confront. She left us with a powerful legacy from her time as Secretary of State for Education. I have a feeling that there is far more to come from her; that she is far from finished in her drive for a fairer and better world, with social mobility beating alive, loud and whole at its heart, and I thank her for bringing forward this debate.
I simply want to finish the debate by thanking all hon. Members who have taken the time to contribute. For me, social mobility is something that we have never had in this country; it is not about this Government or the one before. It is a structural deficit on opportunity that has persisted for decades and we need to recognise that. The sooner we realise that we need to raise our sights and work cross-party on this, while reserving the right to have a debate on resourcing and policy, the better, because one of the reasons things do not change is that there is not enough longevity to our approach.
I hope that over the coming months and years, we can really improve the evidence base on this issue, because the more that can inform our policy, the more successful we will be.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6).
Leaving the EU: Legal Services
I beg to move,
That this House has considered promotion of legal services after the UK leaves the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of the future of UK legal services and how they are promoted after we leave the European Union.
The best way to set out the significance of this matter is to recite some facts about the legal service sector’s contribution to the UK economy and beyond. In 2016, legal activities added £24.4 billion to the UK’s national accounts. That is around 1.4% of the UK’s total gross value added. The UK legal services sector employs about 344,000 people. Most of those jobs are outside London, but of course the City of London has a huge hub of specialist lawyers who support the financial services sector. English law is the most widely used in the world, covering some 27% of the world’s 320 legal jurisdictions. More than 200 foreign law firms from more than 40 jurisdictions—all the EU jurisdictions but also, obviously, some beyond the EU—have offices in the UK. In 2016, the UK legal services sector generated £31.5 billion in revenue, £4.9 billion in total exports and net trade of £4 billion. It is forecast to produce turnover of £30.82 billion and net exports of £4.25 billion by 2020.
I say all those things as a lawyer—I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—but this matter goes well beyond the law and is inextricably linked to the United Kingdom’s financial and professional services sectors. Our economy is of course overwhelmingly service-based.
My hon. Friend described the contribution of legal services as a whole, but commercial law contributes a large amount to that annual income. I wonder whether he is happy with the arrangements for mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments after we leave the EU.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. At the moment, the UK is the jurisdiction of choice for the majority of commercial law contracts, litigation that follows from them, and commercial law arbitration, but we cannot take that for granted. A number of English language commercial courts that apply UK law have already been established elsewhere in the world. As I understand it, another is proposed in Amsterdam, which would clearly have an impact once we leave the EU. Mutual recognition of judgments is one of the UK legal sector’s key asks, and he anticipated with great timeliness that I was about to move on to what the Law Society, the Bar Council, the City of London Corporation, TheCityUK and others in the sector are looking for from the Government to maintain the position of UK legal services once we leave the EU.
The legal services sector’s key priorities are as follows. First, EU27 legal providers should be permitted to provide services in the UK, and vice versa—UK legal providers should be able to provide services in the EU27—on the basis of mutual recognition of regulatory regimes. That would enable European lawyers based in London firms and UK lawyers based in the EU27 to continue to advise and represent their clients.
Secondly, the UK and the EU27 should continue automatic mutual recognition of legal qualifications gained before and during—and after, I submit—the UK’s exit from the EU. That ought to be part of the agreement we seek. Otherwise, we would be in the perverse position that an English lawyer who, like me, is also qualified in the Republic of Ireland—I am a member of the Irish Bar—was able to continue to practise in the EU27 using their Irish qualification but not their English qualification. That is why there has been a considerable increase in the number of English solicitors being admitted to the Law Society of Ireland and English barristers seeking to be called to the Irish Bar. It would be much more sensible to retain those people in the UK as part of a mutual deal with our EU partners.
Thirdly, as my hon. Friend said, it is critical that UK court judgments can continue to be enforced in the courts of the EU27. That obviously applies to commercial law, but it also impacts maintenance payments, for example. Let us say that the partner from whom a UK national is having difficulty getting support for their child is an EU national who is living back in the EU27. Maintenance payments, like a judgment in the largest commercial litigation, can currently be enforced in any EU27 court and implemented by the authorities of any EU27 member state by virtue of our membership of the EU. One regulation covers the whole lot. It is important that we seek to preserve that arrangement. It would be extremely complicated if we had to enter into arrangements with individual EU member states, so we must try to do it en bloc.
It is also to the benefit of the EU27 to have the judgments of their courts recognised and enforced in the UK. There would be mutual advantage to preserving that arrangement, and it is most important that that is done without any break in continuity. Contracts of all manners are being entered into that, in all likelihood, will run beyond the date on which we leave the European Union. It is essential that people can enter into such contracts with sufficient certainty that they will be enforceable throughout the transition period and in the end state after we leave.
It is suggested that, as well as seeking the broadest possible deal with the European Union on that, the UK should consider re-signing The Hague convention as an independent party. I suggest that the two are complementary—it is not either/or. We are currently a party to that convention by virtue of our membership of the EU, but that will no longer be the case once we leave. I ask the Minister to take on board the concern that, in the negotiations, we should seek a waiver from the EU to allow us to re-sign as an independent party prior to Brexit so that there is no delay in ratification.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and I entirely agree with him about The Hague convention, but does he agree that the great prize would be replicating the provisions of the recast Brussels I regulation, which derives from EU regulation 1215/2012? That is the gold standard. It is the best option, and The Hague convention is very much a fall-back provision.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—he and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) will be aware of the work that the Select Committee on Justice has done in this respect—which is why the first option should be to get a deal for continued mutual recognition. The Hague convention is, in a sense, a fall-back. It is not either/or—we could do the two in parallel, in the same way that we are seeking a generous agreement in relation to Euratom but also looking at the fall-back position of making our own regulatory arrangements if need be—but it would be much better if we maintained the existing mutual recognition. The Select Committee stressed that clearly in the report we published towards the end of the last Parliament on the impact of Brexit for the justice system, including legal services.
There are other key matters to stress, including the need for a system that deals with the ability of the UK to attract talent, which applies to the legal services sector. It applies to all the professions, but in the service economy our great strength is the quality of the personnel we are able to attract to the UK. Any immigration regime should therefore be so organised as to make it possible for firms easily to move staff between offices in the EU27 and the UK, and vice versa. It is also important that, as I have indicated, as well as recognition of qualifications, all existing UK lawyers practising EU law in the European Union should be able to continue to do so, and vice versa. Those are essential matters.
It is also important that we avoid any barriers and friction, to use a popular phrase, that might arise by virtue of any regulatory difficulties. Depending on our arrangements, if we do not have a comprehensive agreement and a proper partnership with mutual recognition and access, UK law firms could face restrictive regulations, preventing them from providing services and involving about 30 different regimes. We can see the complexity for firms if we do not get that solution. That is why it is important that the Government make it clear to the legal services sector that it is a priority in the negotiations.
When we talk about services, we sometimes understandably pay a lot of attention to the financial services sector, which is the biggest and most valuable part of our service economy, but the legal services sector is the critical underpinner of that sector. People come to the UK because our banks are sound and dependable, our regulatory system is perceived internationally as sound and dependable, and our legal system is seen as being second-to-none sound and dependable. It is a place where people want to litigate, and want to have their contracts written in English law. We cannot take any of that for granted.
None of that precludes us from using the opportunities that come as we leave the EU to seek to expand British legal services elsewhere in the world. It is important that the Government build on the “GREAT” campaign, with which the Ministry of Justice was associated last year. I hope it will be made clear that legal services, as a key British specialism and area of British excellence, will be a central part of the drive we make going forward. That is not always easy. In fact, even in common law jurisdictions adopting broadly similar laws to ours, including many Commonwealth countries, considerable restrictive practices get in the way of British law firms and lawyers operating. For example, the British Bar and the Law Society have been fighting extremely hard to get access to the legal markets in India.
India is talked of as one of the great potential commercial prizes for a free trade agreement post-Brexit, but it is by no means easy. India currently has protective regulatory structures. Progress is being made in parts of the financial services sector, but India has been reluctant to open up its legal services. When we negotiate trade deals, we should not be thinking purely in terms of manufactures or financial services—it is most desirable that legal services can be sold as part of a package that goes with the other services, and sometimes with manufactures. For example, many people will have bought a car with an attached insurance policy. When something is exported, it may have an insurance policy attached. It makes sense if lawyers who specialise in that field can advise their clients in those new markets.
There are opportunities, but a joined-up approach is required, particularly between the Ministry and the Department for Exiting the European Union. I am delighted to see my hon. and learned Friend the Minister in her place, who I know understands this well, having had distinguished practice at the Bar in the UK, but there is sometimes concern that other Departments are not as well sighted on the needs of the legal services sector, which sometimes perceives that it takes a fight to get itself heard in the broader Brexit negotiations discussion.
I hope the Minister will reassure us and take from the debate the message that there needs to be a specific taskforce for dealing with legal services. Many people in British law firms are ready and willing to supplement the Government’s in-house lawyers on policy advice. Established organisations such as the Financial Markets Law Committee, chaired by the noble Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, have made a number of suggestions to the Government on technical but important regulatory changes that will be necessary to protect the position of financial law.
There is expertise, but I have a suspicion that it is not always obvious to look outside the traditional civil service ranks for advice—perhaps it is sometimes the nature of Government—I remember this from when I was a Minister. I hope the Government do that right across the piece on Brexit, because we have great expertise. The Bar European Group has equal levels of great expertise.
I hope that, in this short debate, I have flagged up some of the key needs of British legal services, their legal service providers and their clients—not just commercial clients but the little people who benefit from access to European markets. I know that the Minister is engaged and will respond positively, but the more specific detail she can give on how the Government will address those specific items, the better that will reassure the sector and its clients.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also a pleasure to hear the debate brought about by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the contributions made by the other members of the Justice Committee. That Committee is doing a huge amount of work to ensure that the issues that matter in our justice system are brought to the forefront and to Ministers to ensure that we have the best possible justice system going forward.
Today, as always, my hon. Friend highlighted important issues that affect us in relation to Brexit. Like him, I acknowledge the important work done by our legal services sector. By reference to points similar to his, there are four key points. The first is jobs, and the legal services sector is the source of many jobs. As he rightly mentioned, it employs well over 300,000 people.
Secondly, the sector contributes significantly to our economy: £24 billion every year. As my hon. Friend highlighted, that money is brought in by not just the legal services sector but its interdependency and relationship with the financial services sector. He mentioned TheCityUK, whose CEO, Miles Celic, highlighted that very point. He said:
“The UK-based legal services sector forms an integral and crucial part of the wider financial and related professional services ecosystem which makes the UK a truly globally-leading international financial centre.”
The legal services sector does not only those things but so much more. It supports people when they are most vulnerable. Many lawyers give up their time to support others for free through the Bar Pro Bono Unit and LawWorks, and I was pleased to see the launch in 2014 of the UK collaborative plan for pro bono, with more than 40 firms committing 325,000 hours a year to support the most vulnerable.
Our sector is so successful because we have outstanding professionals. We have a well-established system of law and a first-class judiciary, whose expertise and impartiality is recognised throughout the world. For those reasons, my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to protect this sector post Brexit, and we are doing that in a number of ways.
My hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), and for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to the importance of mutual recognition and the enforcement of judgments. I hope that in our withdrawal agreement we will soon reach an agreement on the protection of and mutual recognition of judgments, and on separation for cases that are pending and currently before the courts.
I am encouraged to hear that. Some of the evidence presented to the inquiry stressed that if we get such an agreement right, there is a great opportunity for a springboard, particularly in east Asia, where there is a lot of work that British lawyers can seek to win. However, that will require that sound foundation of mutual recognition of judgments, and mutual enforceability.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and it is important to give certainty to the legal services sector, so that they can advise their clients accordingly. My point was about the withdrawal agreement and what will happen to cases that are already pending before the court. The second stage of our negotiation was about implementation, and we have given businesses legal certainty by ensuring that our current arrangements will continue to apply during the implementation period. We are starting to negotiate and come to an arrangement on what will happen in future after we leave the EU.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was right when he mentioned the gold standard and the Brussels regulation, and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley was correct to identify the importance of the Hague convention. Both those things are important, and we hope to secure the Hague convention as a minimum. It is right to ensure that there will be no gap before we rejoin that convention, and we are pressing to secure that. Our ambition and aim is to negotiate as hard as possible and ensure arrangements and protections in future that are similar to those we currently have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst raised the important question of legal services, the right of citizens to practise here and abroad, and the mutual recognition of qualifications. Again, on separation, as part of the withdrawal agreement we have agreed that any lawyers within the scope of the citizens’ rights agreement who have become part of the host profession in the member state should remain recognised and able to practise. Last week we agreed the terms of the implementation period, in which we will have the same rules as now. Therefore, rules on market access will continue, including on the provision of services and establishments for lawyers. The Government are keen to ensure a good deal for the legal services sector in future.
I am glad to hear the Minister say that, and I am sure she will recognise that for the legal services sector, a CETA-type deal simply is no good. For legal services, a CETA-type deal is no deal. When we seek an ambitious deal, we must go beyond that which has been posited by some as a solution, because CETA would be just as bad as the cliff edge, which I think the Minister and I, and the Government, do not wish for under any circumstances.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but we can see how the Prime Minister is approaching this. In her Mansion House speech she specifically said that it makes sense for us to continue to recognise qualifications in future, and she identified the importance of civil and judicial co-operation. She specifically identified a few areas where the UK and EU economies are linked, and one of those was law.
As my hon. Friend rightly identified, our opportunity to expand our legal services extends not just to the EU, and we also have the opportunity to develop free trade agreements with third countries, which may cover legal services. He was right, however, to say that protectionism already exists in other countries, and although few FTAs currently cover legal services, we hope and are ambitious to change that in the future.
It is not only in the Brexit discussions that we continue to support our legal profession, and considering LawTech, technology, and innovation in legal services is key to ensuring that the United Kingdom retains its world-leading status. That is why the Government, building on success in the FinTech sector, are ensuring that new and innovative legal technologies are embraced and supported. We are fully supportive of LawTech innovation, which is now gathering pace. The number of LawTech start-ups in the UK is increasing each year, from three in 2010, to more than 60 in 2016. We are committed to ensuring that the UK becomes a world leader in smart contracts, and we are keen to bring together work that is being done to make those contracts a reality.
We are doing other significant work beyond the UK to support and promote legal services abroad. We are joining up with the judiciary and legal services sector, helping it to gain footholds in new markets, and proactively spreading the message about why English law, and the legal offering in the UK, is so strong. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the GREAT campaign, and the “Legal Services are GREAT” campaign was launched by Lord Keen in Singapore last year. The campaign targets stronger links with emerging and established markets across the world, and it aims to cement the UK’s reputation as the world’s pre-eminent legal centre. It is showcasing the very best of what the UK’s legal services sector has to offer, bringing business to the UK and our legal firms, chambers and courts.
We are also working with partners to target the countries that matter to the UK. In April we will deliver an English law summit in Kazakhstan, alongside the Law Society and the Bar Council in England and Wales. In May, our campaign will feature in the UK pavilion of the Silk Road Expo in Xi’an, China. We are working bilaterally with our key allies on areas of mutual interest. Legal services feature prominently in the regular programme of bilateral ministerial meetings that we organise, including last year with Ministers from Singapore, India, Australia and China.
My hon. Friend made a number of important points, and we must recognise the importance of talent, and the mutual recognition of qualifications and judgments. He rightly said that there is a wealth of knowledge in the legal services sector, and the Department is using that. I greatly welcome the expertise that that sector brings to ensuring not just a good justice system, but the right deal on Brexit in the future. My hon. Friend also mentioned intergovernmental Department contributions, and the importance of other Departments appreciating the significance of the legal sector. I assure him that I am already talking to my counterparts in the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Treasury to identify the importance of the legal services sector. Yesterday I gave evidence with a legally qualified Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Suella Fernandes), and having heard her give that evidence, I am confident that she is very much aware of the importance of our legal sector.
In conclusion, our overall message is simple: the UK is, and will continue to be, one of the pre-eminent legal centres in the world. We will continue to be a leading player, and I am determined to ensure that English law remains the law of choice, and that the UK continues to be the jurisdiction of choice.
I welcome the Minister’s positive remarks. On work within Government, can she assure us that maximum effort will be made to join up the work of the legal services working group, which exists within the Ministry of Justice, and the Brexit Law Committee, which reports to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy? The profession is concerned that there should be no disjuncture between the two. It sounds as if the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have been talking, but it is important that that happens consistently at official and professional level.
That is a good point that I am happy to take forward. It has been helpful for me to air these points today, and once again I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and indeed all hon. Members on their contributions today.
Question put and agreed to.
GP Recruitment and Retention
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered recruitment and retention of GPs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon—for the first time, I believe. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate on an issue of critical importance to all our constituents.
General practitioners are the cornerstone of the health service in this country. The work they do on a daily basis is vital to the nation’s wellbeing. As the first point of contact for people with physical or mental health problems, they have a unique duty of care within the NHS. From newborn babies to our elderly citizens, the continuity of care that they provide from cradle to grave puts them at the heart of communities up and down the country, and the lifelong relationship they build with their patients as a result is unique. We in this House must do our best to protect and promote that relationship in any way we can. That is one reason why I am holding today’s debate.
I also sought this debate out of increasing concern for the state of general practice in my constituency and the wider north-east. Since entering the House in 2010 I have noticed a marked increase in the number of constituents getting in touch to raise concerns about the amount of time it has taken them to see their family doctor. It was on the back of those concerns that I began to survey my constituents on waiting times at their local GP practice. That survey is ongoing, but the results that have come in over the last year are concerning. When asked how long they had to wait for an appointment to see their GP regarding a routine matter, over 30% of those who responded to my survey said it took more than two weeks, and 15% said it took even longer. Waiting times for urgent care were equally concerning, with over 30% waiting more than 24 hours for an appointment. The growing difficulty in accessing GP services is clearly having a knock-on effect on the rest of the health service in my area.
Due to staff shortages in a local GP surgery, one of my constituents in the Colne Valley was referred to our local hospital for a blood test. They had a 30-minute drive each way and a two-hour wait for the test to take place. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a warning sign that general practice is struggling to cope with extra pressures and less money?
I am sure the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent is happening up and down the country. We want to ensure that people can access quality healthcare close to home. It is neither cost-effective nor in the best interest of patients to have to travel further to hospital for things that could be dealt with more readily within a GP’s practice.
More and more local people are telling me that they have to attend accident and emergency to get the treatment they need, because they cannot get an appointment with their GP or their local practice is closed when they need it. We saw record numbers at Sunderland Royal Hospital A&E this winter, when the entire NHS was stretched to breaking point. It is extremely worrying in that context that so many people are turning to emergency services simply to access the care that family doctors might ordinarily provide.
The hon. Lady has made a brilliant start to her speech. I did a similar survey to the one she describes in my own constituency, and I found that access to GPs was almost instantaneous provided that people did not specify the GP they wanted to see. My own practice consists of a number of GPs. I think the results are patchy around the country. Is this not a time to look at the old partnership structure of GPs, to avoid the situation where a young doctor has to find £100,000 or £200,000 in order to go into practice?
The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point about patchiness, and I hope the Minister will be able to respond to it in his summing-up. There are big regional variations, and differences even within cities and towns, and we need to try to even out access to general practice. He raises an important point about routes into the profession and the barriers that they sometimes place in the way of those seeking to work in general practice, and I hope the Minister will say a bit more about what the Department will seek to do to take away some of those barriers.
In my constituency, just yesterday, a practice in Hightown that had been earmarked for closure was saved at the eleventh hour thanks to a vigorous campaign by residents, the local authority and the parish council. Does the experience of Hightown, which is no doubt repeated elsewhere, not show that the damage done by the reorganisation of the NHS from 2010 onwards has caused real problems in GP services up and down the country, and that the Government need to get their act together and address the shortage of GPs for communities in all our constituencies?
I am happy to hear that my hon. Friend was successful in his campaign, but we are seeing closures and mergers of practices across the country, and we need a much broader solution. It should not fall only to local campaign groups or local NHS managers to try to put right some of the broader systemic problems in our health service.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about not just patchiness but the consistent pattern we see across the country. It is not simply down to people being too picky about who their GP is. In Scotland we have seen the number of GP practices fall from 1,029 when the Scottish National party came into power in 2007 to just 956. We have seen the number of GPs increase by only 1% in Scotland, but the size of GP practice lists has increased by 7%. The root cause is one of supply and demand; we are not getting enough GPs to come into the sector when more and more are retiring all the time.
I agree with my hon. Friend and I am sure his constituency, in common with mine, has significant problems with industrial illness and long-standing health problems, which means that we do not need just the national average number of GPs, or just enough to get by. To deal with the health need we face in the local population, we need a much better service to ensure that we drive down some of the health inequalities that most seriously affect communities such as mine and, I am sure, his.
More generally, constituents are also worried that changes to the GP workforce at their local practice are producing a less effective service. Many are concerned by rates of retirement, especially among family doctors with whom they have built up a close relationship over many years. They also believe that the overall decline in the number of family-run practices resulting from retirements is damaging the continuity of care they expect from their local practice.
On the securing of timely appointments, constituents who work full time are frustrated by restrictive booking systems and a lack of availability in the evenings and at weekends. Others complain that constraints in the system mean that the 10-minute consultation period is so strictly enforced that multiple appointments are necessary just to outline the problems that they face. Their frustration grows if they cannot see the same doctor on each occasion and have to repeat the same problems time and again.
There is a general sense among my constituents, and indeed in the comments posted on the House of Commons Facebook page ahead of this debate, that the pressures on general practice will only increase as more new homes are built in communities where public services are already under pressure.
I will touch on all the points the hon. Lady raises as I continue through my contribution.
I am clear that addressing the housing crisis in our country should be an absolute priority for the Government, but I argue that building thousands of new homes without ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is in place to meet increased demand on health, transport and education services would be a recipe for disaster. Poorly planned housing developments that do not take account of local need will only undermine public confidence in supporting a housing revolution in this country.
It is not just our constituents who are concerned about the deteriorating state of general practice in the north-east. Just over 18 months ago I was contacted by the Sunderland local medical committee about the findings of a confidential survey of local GPs and practice managers, which showed that almost half of those surveyed had seen a large increase in their workload and a further 31% reported an increase to unsustainable levels. Although two thirds of practices had attempted to recruit new family doctors, many had found recruitment difficult, and a majority reported that patient care had been adversely affected by the failure to recruit and retain GPs, the increasing workload that imposed on existing GPs and the significant reduction in core funding allocated to their practices. As a result, 60% of Sunderland GPs and practice managers said that their practice was viable only for between one and three years, with many local doctors considering early retirement or a career change.
That survey highlighted the profound problems at the heart of general practice in Sunderland, further evidence of which was laid bare in statistics I requested from the Department of Health later in 2016. Those figures showed not only a shocking 25% reduction in the number of full-time equivalent GPs in the NHS Sunderland clinical commissioning group area between 2013 and 2015 but also an accelerating rate of decline from one year to the next. The way in which full-time equivalent GP numbers were measured changed in 2015, but the new methodology shows a continued decline of 9% in the Sunderland CCG area between September 2015 and December 2017.
I am sorry to say that the most recent figures for other parts of the north-east make for even more painful reading. In the Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees CCG area there was a 15% drop in numbers over the last two years. In the South Tees CCG area it was 14.9%. In the Darlington CCG area it was 13%, and in the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield CCG area it was also 13%. I could go on, but it is obvious that the exodus of family doctors from the profession is having a serious impact on the number of hours being made available for general practice in our region.
As a result, the demand on family doctors who continue to soldier on is intensifying. Not one practice in my area has a lower ratio of patients to full-time equivalent GPs than the England average of 1,738:1. In fact, each and every practice is consistently and significantly above that. The situation will be similar, if not worse, in other parts of the north-east.
Coupled with the plummeting number of full-time equivalent GPs is the similarly concerning decline in the number of GP practices in the area, from 53 in 2013 to just 40 today. I accept that there are merits to the argument that consolidating practices makes them more sustainable in the long term by creating larger patient lists. However, it is really important to remember that practice closures can leave behind big holes in communities.
In Scotland we face a shortage of 1,000 GPs by 2021. Torry medical practice in my constituency has really struggled to fill vacancies and decided to end its contract with the NHS at the end of July. The practice is vital to the area, and thousands of my constituents rely on its services. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Scottish Government should seriously consider ways in which they can attract more medical students to Scotland?
I am absolutely delighted that Edge Hill University in my constituency has just been granted a medical school. Does my hon. Friend, or indeed the Minister, have any view on how to retain the doctors who will train there and ensure that they can practise in the area? Lancashire has seen the largest fall in the number of GPs of any county since 2015—it is nearly 10% down. We need solutions to make areas attractive in order to retain the medical students who train there.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I will say a bit more about Sunderland’s successful bid for a medical school—a number of parts of the country have benefited from those new schools. She will no doubt accept that this is part of a much longer-term solution to resolving the crisis we face. Meanwhile, we need action from Ministers to deal with some of the short-term pressures on local services.
The most vulnerable patients, who already find it difficult to get to their local practice, will undoubtedly be further inconvenienced if that practice moves further away. The creation of larger super-practices also risks breaking the critical link between family doctors and the patients they serve. In any case, the national and local strategic push for larger practices appears to be having little impact on GP numbers, as I have sought to make abundantly clear.
I do not believe that we can go on like this. We should rightly celebrate that people are living longer, which is in part a testament to the world-class care that the NHS provides, but we need to acknowledge that an ageing population with increasingly complex long-term care needs is likely to put further pressure on GP services in years to come. The British Medical Association is clear that general practice in England is under unprecedented pressure to deliver more support to patients with fewer resources. As the problems grow increasingly severe, GPs are being forced to test their resilience beyond reasonable limits and to confront issues from a multitude of directions.
I am deeply concerned that eight out of 10 GPs feel unable to deliver safe care; that seven in 10 feel that patient access to services has decreased of late; and that six in 10 have reported a rise in their stress levels. There is a workload limit beyond which we cannot reasonably expect family doctors to go. Given that more than half are now considering the temporary suspension of new patient registrations to ease the burden, it seems that we are close to that point.
If we are to address the crisis in general practice, we must first consider the factors that drive it. The Sunderland CCG practice area is grappling with several problems that I am sure will be familiar to GPs in other parts of the country. I have mentioned the long-term challenge of coping with an ageing population that has longer and more complex care needs, but that is coupled with rising public expectations of what their local general practice should be able to deliver. Let me be clear: demands for flexibility in terms of evening and weekend opening hours are not unreasonable at a time when so many people work during the week. After all, public services must be responsive to how people live their lives. That said, it is inevitable that offering round-the-clock access to GP practices will increase the pressure on existing workloads unless more family doctors come into the system.
Unfortunately, the opposite is happening in my area, where there are significant issues with recruitment not only of GPs, but of nurses and other healthcare professionals. Meanwhile, existing GPs and practice managers are dealing with additional work moving from hospitals into the community without associated funding. Added to that is the increased pressure on budgets resulting from rising estate costs from NHS Property Services, and the fact that the percentage of the NHS budget allocated to general practice has not kept pace with the rest of the health service. Finally, the cost of medical indemnity for GPs has risen significantly in recent years, pushing up the cost of insurance and making some work, especially unscheduled care, prohibitively expensive for GPs.
We therefore have a perfect storm of pressures on general practice that is driving experienced family doctors from the profession, with a third of GPs in the Sunderland CCG area considering retirement in the next five years. The dramatic fall in the number of GP partners over the last year should also come as no shock given the increasing responsibilities of running a practice where income is falling but workload is rising. In that context, it is easy to understand why more and more experienced GPs are opting for locum work instead, which allows them to work set hours with a set fee to a very specific set of tasks.
However, the cost to the NHS of this shift in culture cannot be measured only in financial terms, although that is certainly a major concern. As I mentioned earlier, the closure of a local practice is often devastating for a local community and can leave the most vulnerable patients with less access to the long-term care they need.
The crisis in GP retention therefore needs to be urgently addressed, and I ask the Minister to explain what the Government are doing to stem the flow of GPs quitting the workforce or rejecting partnerships. The GP retention scheme has proved a popular way to help family doctors who are considering leaving the profession to remain in work for a reduced number of sessions, but the Government simply must do more to ease their workload if they are serious about their commitment to attract and retain at least an extra 5,000 GPs in England.
On the other side of the coin is recruitment. Given the challenges for retention I have outlined, improving recruitment is critical if the general practice forward view target of increasing the number of GPs by 5,000 by 2020 is to be met. The BMA has warned that that target looks increasingly unachievable without a significant increase in the number of doctors through the expanded international GP recruitment programme.
Sunderland CCG is part of the NHS Cumbria and North East submission to that programme, and at least four local practices have expressed an interest in hosting a minimum of 10 GPs. In addition, the CCG is running other schemes to attract more family doctors, such as the GP career start scheme, the golden hello scheme and the GP bursary, yet whatever additions those can make to the workforce will clearly be insufficient to address the long-term drop in the number of hours made available for general practice in our area, with the number of full-time equivalent GPs falling from 201 in 2013 to just 139 in December last year. I know that the methodology for measuring that number has changed, but it is evident, whatever way the figures are measured, that there are simply not enough new doctors coming on stream to plug the ever-widening gap in service need in Sunderland.
I hope the Minister will take responsibility for this situation, and that he will agree that this is a national crisis, rather than an issue to be dealt with by local NHS managers. He will be aware that, in addition to the GP shortages we have discussed, the most recent figures show more than 100,000 NHS posts currently lying vacant—this is before we have even left the European Union.
What assessment has he made of the impact of Brexit on EU workers in the NHS, and does he agree that the Government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards migrants from both inside and outside the EU risks exacerbating the jobs crisis within the NHS at a critical moment? Rather than creating a hostile environment, should the Government not celebrate those who have come to our country to keep our NHS going, and who have made such a fantastic contribution to our health service since its inception?
I hope the Minister will at least acknowledge the problems that the north-east faces in recruiting new medical students into general practice. We in the House have a duty to confront those challenges and to support creative efforts to help the NHS to attract more students into the profession in the areas of greatest need. That is why I was so delighted by the news last week that the University of Sunderland was successful in its bid to set up a new medical school. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and I supported the bid, because the school will focus specifically on addressing workforce need in general practice and psychiatry in the north-east. It will deliver an additional 150 graduates into general practice between 2024 and 2028. All the experience is that GPs tend to stay in the longer term in the areas where they train, so the creation of a dedicated medical school in Sunderland is an important development for the city and the wider area.
The bid should also be praised for seeking to widen access to medical schools by ensuring that those with the talent and motivation to succeed are encouraged to apply regardless of background or social connections. The new medical school will champion general practice as a career path for researchers, offering them opportunities to explore their chosen field of interest after their training is complete. It will focus on reflection, responsibility, leadership and motivation when recruiting students to the programme in order to identify those who are most passionate about building a career in general practice. The creation of an institute for primary care practice and a general practice society should also help to foster communities of practice that will last for many years to come.
I have every confidence that the new medical school will play an important role in addressing health inequalities across the north-east in the long term, while improving social mobility in the region. I therefore wish it every success and hope that other medical schools will replicate its innovative approach to attracting talented students from less advantaged backgrounds into medicine and, specifically, general practice. I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who were involved in putting together the bid, especially Professor Scott Wilkes and Vice-Chancellor Shirley Atkinson. Without their determination, dedication and leadership, the bid would never have succeeded. They deserve a great deal of credit.
We can all agree that training new family doctors in this country is the most sensible and sustainable way to improve recruitment and retention in general practice in the long term, but that will do nothing to address the immediate crisis facing the GP workforce. I have already discussed some of the programmes that have been put in place to meet the target of 5,000 new GPs by 2020, and I agree with the BMA that it is encouraging that the number of GPs entering training has risen for the third year in a row. However, as I mentioned, those gains are being offset by the fact that many existing GPs are choosing to work less or retire completely because of rising workload pressures. Furthermore, the BMA is clear that the overall intake for GP training places still falls far short of the Health Education England target.
Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the north-east, where the fill rate for GP specialty training vacancies last year was just 77%. That is by far the worst rate in England and it is nothing new. Two years ago, for example, the north-east fill rate was a shocking 62%, which at the time was the lowest in the whole country. There is a real problem in relation to general practice in the region that has some of the most acute health inequalities in the country. Sunderland, South Tyneside and Hartlepool are ranked in the top 20 of 326 local authorities for bad or very bad health, and Sunderland has some of the worst health metrics in the UK for diabetes, hypertension, respiratory disease and many other health conditions. Setting aside for a second the increased demands that the forecasted ageing population will place on primary care provision, we can see that there is an urgent need for more family doctors to deliver health improvements today.
I raised this issue with senior NHS leaders during a recent session of the Public Accounts Committee, but I want to put it to the Minister again. Will he tell the House what exactly the Government are doing to ensure that the regional imbalances in GP recruitment are addressed, and how does he intend to ensure that the right people are trained in the right places? That is a crucial aspect of the challenges facing general practice in my area, and put simply, we need to know that Ministers and the Department have got a handle on it. Furthermore, will the Minister tell us whether his Department is looking at ways to open up access to medicine more broadly—not just supplementing existing provision, but looking at creating new and different ways of getting people into medicine in the way the University of Sunderland is seeking to do? Those are critical questions and they deserve concrete answers. I am sure the Minister will not disappoint.
On that note, I will draw my remarks to a close. I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber will agree that the challenges for general practice are significant and require a range of approaches, none of which will be quick fixes. To meet those challenges, the Government need to take a long, hard look at the things that they can do in the short, medium and long term to help to reverse the growing crisis in GP recruitment and retention. We cannot do otherwise, because this is simply too important to our constituents and to the future sustainability of our precious NHS.
Thank you, Mrs Moon. I did not expect to be called quite this early, but I am very pleased to speak at any time in this Chamber, as everyone will know.
I thank the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for setting the scene and giving us the chance to participate in the debate. Its title is “GP Recruitment and Retention”, and I am very pleased to speak on this topic. The title does not refer to a particular area, which gives me the opportunity to talk from a Northern Ireland angle—although as most hon. Members will know, that would not prevent me from speaking from a Northern Ireland angle anyway.
During the debate on the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill just last week, I raised the issue of GPs, out-of-hours services and so on. I highlighted the fact that we need to improve the accessibility of GPs and enhance the capability of GP out-of-hours services to help with the immense pressure that our accident and emergency departments are under. The fact is that we are an ageing population, which increases demand on GP services, and at present we seem unable to meet the demand.
The Minister and I seem to meet in this Chamber on many occasions, and also in many Adjournment debates in the main Chamber. He is obviously a very popular Minister, but he also has a remit that includes many of the issues in which I and other hon. Members have an interest.
In Northern Ireland, this issue has certainly been a big concern. GP practices have been moving away from the old surgery system to a new system in the hope of triaging demands on doctors and surgeries. Health is a devolved matter, but I want to give a Northern Ireland perspective to this debate. Thankfully, the Department of Health’s permanent secretary in Northern Ireland has released funding for a scheme that was approved by the outgoing Minister of Health but not implemented before the untimely demise of Stormont, which is now in limbo-land. It saw the investment of an extra £3.9 million, following investment earlier in the year of £1.9 million for elective care and £3.91 million to continue the roll-out of nearly 300 practice-based pharmacists. I know that the Minister is deeply interested in this subject, not just because he is the Minister responsible for it but because he has a genuine and sincere personal interest. I hope that details from Northern Ireland might be of some help in considering what is done here on the mainland and in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The permanent secretary said at the time:
“Given the current difficult financial position, investing nearly £10m more in GP services, the largest additional investment in recent years, reflects the Department’s commitment to the continued development of sustainable and accessible primary care services…The Department is also introducing changes to…eligibility to the sickness leave scheme for GPs.”
That is another thing we have looked at in Northern Ireland, and perhaps the Minister will comment on it. The permanent secretary continued:
“It is estimated that these changes will save GPs more than £2.5m per year in sickness leave insurance premiums.”
The thrust of the debate so far, and undoubtedly of the speeches to come, is about how we can retain GPs. The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South clearly made that point, and I too think that that is what we need to try to do.
The move to which I have referred was made in a very uncertain political climate back home in Northern Ireland. Few other decisions to implement schemes have been taken by any Department’s permanent secretary. We are slowly moving towards what will perhaps be a hybrid system of government in Northern Ireland, whereby we can ensure that the health schemes move forward.
I have spoken to former GPs, who have illustrated to me how much the system has changed and how happy they are to retire. Some have begun to do a few hours in GP out-of-hours services, which takes a bit of pressure off the ordinary GPs, but it is important that we have a system that sustains itself, and the pressure and stress that services are under has seen most GPs walk away from that system. We are trying to stop GPs walking away—that was the point that the hon. Lady made in introducing the debate, I fully support it. The simple fact is that our doctors cannot cope and we need to help them find a new way forward.
In 2016, 36% of the 15,430 people who died in Northern Ireland were aged under 75, compared with 50% 30 years previously. The resident population of Northern Ireland rose by 10,500 people to reach 1.862 million in the year to June 2016. Every GP surgery knows that the people on their books who need the most attention are the grey vote and the young families. Our GPs are great, and we support them greatly. We understand their position—we know the pressures that they are under and we have the deepest respect for them.
One of my local surgeries has heavily invested from its own budget in a machine that can determine whether chest infections are bacterial through the practice nurse taking blood and analysing it on-site. That innovation stops the surgery sending people for analysis in hospital and facilitates the provision of better care in the GP surgery. It allows antibiotics to be prescribed and means less pressure on the hospital. Such a machine would help every surgery. Sometimes we have to look at a different way of doing things. If we can do them better, let us do that. We should be making funding for such innovations available, for the benefit of all of us across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Due to the stringent nature of benefits assessments, many practices in my area now refuse to give support letters for benefits. That is another pressure on GP surgeries all the time. I am constantly contacting GPs on behalf of my constituents, saying that they need a letter about their health condition to support their application for disability living allowance—personal independence payment, as it is now—and employment and support allowance. The GP says, “Let them write to us; we will reply,” and they do, but they usually send a list of the constituent’s appointments with the GP, which is not what PIP is about.
I am adhering to your timescale, Mrs Moon—I have worked it out, so I know what time I will have to stop.
A retired doctor I am very friendly with suggested to me—I know the Minister is sympathetic to this idea—that we have a bursary scheme whereby if a medical student will commit to doing five years or more at a surgery, they will have some or all of their student debt written off. That would encourage people to get into GP surgeries and make a difference for five years or so. I am given to understand that the Department are looking into schemes like that, and I hope so. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that idea, because I think that might provide encouragement for some of the young student doctors who wish to go on to general practice. If we provide that incentive through a bursary, I think it will be a massive step forward in addressing the issues, as the Department proposes to do by reducing the pressure on GPs and increasing their number.
Have any discussions taken place with the regional devolved Administrations so that they can respond? The Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), has vast knowledge of medical issues, and I know that her contribution to this debate will make clear what has been done in Scotland. Yes, it is a devolved matter, but the NHS is nationwide and this scourge in our surgeries is in every area. A focused, co-ordinated approach is the best one to take, and I ask that the Department focuses on this vastly important issue. We need good GPs, and we need to support GPs. If we do not do that, there will be a domino effect on our hospitals and all other NHS institutions. We need to encourage our first line of defence, which is GPs, and ensure that defence is sure and certain. At the moment, the fact of the matter is that it is struggling.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on leading the debate. I will be short, because I wish to make three key points and I do not need long to do that.
First, we have a recruitment and retention problem in Stroud, like in many other parts of the country. That became apparent to me only when I was re-elected, when I talked to various of my GP friends who were keen to retire and were not necessarily finding replacements easily. It is clear that at the moment there are huge gaps in the service. However, it is not necessarily that they are not being filled, because as my hon. Friend said, locum work is very popular. That is the main point I want to make. Because locum work is so popular, we have to look at the reasons why the traditional model is not working. Even for people who become doctors, it is not necessarily a lifelong career, so for all sorts of reasons buying into a practice now is not an attractive proposition. I ask the Minister to look at what ideas are coming forward, as it is clear that the traditional practice model, where a GP buys into the assets of the practice as well as becoming a doctor there, is now of a bygone age. That particularly matters because trying to get a lead practitioner is onerous, because they are often the only full-time doctor in their practice, which puts additional responsibilities on them. I hope that we can have some flexibility in how we attract people in, otherwise there is only one direction things will go.
Secondly, the number of people who start on the route to becoming a GP but do not end up as a GP in practice is disappointing. There is something wrong both in doctoring in general, and particularly in general practice, with the number of people who fall by the wayside. Again, as I have intimated, that is because there are attractive alternative career structures. There are ways in which people can be a GP part-time as well as doing other things, which may be commendable for someone’s work-life balance but does not fill the gap. I hope the Minister will look at what is happening to recruitment patterns. We need to recognise that eight or nine years is a huge investment, so if someone does not become a GP in some form or other at the end of it, it is a wasted investment. I hope the Minister will be able to say something about how we can ensure that people follow through on their training potential.
Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South mentioned, we need to recruit a number of doctors from overseas at least in the short run. Having talked to consultants and the Royal College of General Practitioners, I know that there is a problem at the moment—at least in perception, if not in reality—of people not wanting to doctor in this country when they would traditionally have wanted to do so. We need to overcome that problem urgently, because we need those people in place, otherwise, there will be an even greater shortfall.
My last point—it is not to do with GPs, but I think it is crucial—is about the pressure on other people within primary practice. I get calls continually from health visitors, practice nurses and physiotherapists saying how difficult things are, and that must have an impact on general practice. If we could ease some of the pressure on those people, we could only help those who want to be in general practice and be at the front end of our NHS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on making such a powerful opening speech. I want to talk about primary care in Plymouth, because I am worried that the crisis we have is at risk of getting much worse in the coming months, as GPs are considering whether to hand back their contracts in the next couple of days.
A lot has been done in Plymouth to integrate our healthcare system and our social care system. Sometimes our distance from London has meant that we have managed to avoid the headlines, but not the hard work. There has been a huge effort of innovation and integration in the west country, merging social care, mental health provision and our acute hospital trust together. Enormous thanks and credit should go to the hard-working staff who have pioneered that, along with the city council and other providers.
There is, however, a problem with primary care in particular. That is exacerbated by other parts of the system that do not seem to work, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, but there does seem to be a real crisis in primary care that needs to be addressed. I welcome the news given by Simon Stevens on his visit to Plymouth last week that we will get an additional 12 GP training places for our university, but there is a real crisis today. I am looking for actions from the Minister to assist us in combating that crisis today.
Nurse and GP vacancies persist in Plymouth’s primary care sector, and waiting lists continue to be high. It is important to say that this is not because the superb staff in our NHS are not working their socks off, because they really are. However, there is persistent underfunding of not only general practice but the wider sector. NHS England estimates that one in seven GP posts in Plymouth have not been filled, which is an alarming statistic. I have heard of one GP surgery in the heart of the city that has been advertising a GP vacancy for a year and has had no applications so far.
I have similar issues in Melksham in my constituency. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the targeted enhanced recruitment scheme, which offers £20,000 to attract trainees in areas that have failed to fill places for a number of years? That is available in Swindon, in Wiltshire, but also in Plymouth.
The problem is that the schemes that currently exist are not having the effect that we need them to in Plymouth, because we have a crisis today.
I want to talk about the concern that a lot of GPs have expressed to me. My remarks will be about what GPs have told me, rather than my analysis of what I believe GPs are saying, because I think it is important that their voice is heard in this debate. Will the Minister meet those GPs so that they can raise their concerns in person? There are a number of GPs who have solutions or suggestions about what can be done.
At the moment each GP in Plymouth has about 2,364 patients. As we heard earlier, the average is about 1,700, so there is a greater demand on the GPs we have in Plymouth. One GP told me last night:
“I’ve just walked in the door after a day where I saw my first patient at 0825 and left my last patient’s home at 8.15pm. Because the district nursing service is currently unreliable (through no fault of their own), I will go back to the latter at 0800 tomorrow as the patient is housebound and needs blood tests.”
He went on to say:
“A large part of the pressures on...GP’s is the fact that other community services have had such drastic cutbacks.”
“I feel very...lucky to have a secure well-paid fascinating and rewarding job but it is all a little overwhelming and I constantly worry that just one major problem will mean things become very, very unsafe.”
I will continue, if I may. Apologies.
Another GP, Dr Williams, said that the system is failing and it feels as though it might be intentional. GPs have heard NHS England say that it is watching Plymouth as a place where primary care could fall over, a sentiment that several GPs have expressed to me in private. They believe that Plymouth’s city-wide system is facing bigger concerns in primary care than elsewhere. A meeting with the Minister is vital, so that he can reassure those GPs that the Department of Health and NHS England are on top of this.
Another inner-city GP said:
“I became a GP to help people with physical and emotional health difficulties and this is a job I have really enjoyed for a number of years. During this time patient needs and demand on general practice has increased significantly but unfortunately funding has not kept pace...We only get...£115 per patient per year to provide the totality of patient care so it’s no surprise we are struggling when some patients consult us at least once a week.”
The general medical services contract includes between £73 and £117 per patient, but as we have seen in Plymouth where GP surgeries have fallen over and emergency providers have been brought in, there can be as much as £347 per patient under emergency access contracts. There seems to be a huge financial gap there that could be moderated by supporting GPs—not by giving them more money themselves, but by providing support and assistance so that they can hire more GPs, and by supporting the other professions that make for a successful GP practice.
Worryingly, the doctor I referred to said:
“I no longer enjoy being an NHS GP because I cannot keep pace with demand and I know our patients are getting frustrated with restricted access to their GP. Patients are complaining, and rightly so, but those complaints just compound my loss of joy from the job because I’m working harder than ever to try and provide the service patients want but the majority of feedback we get is negative.”
That has been echoed by a number of GPs in Plymouth, who really want to inject the joy and passion back into their role. They entered the profession not because it was easy—it was hard and difficult—but because their efforts would make a huge difference to their communities.
I will continue, if I may.
I am genuinely worried that Plymouth’s primary care crisis is going to get worse in the coming days. We know that there are GPs who are considering whether to renew or to hand back their GP contract—a decision that will be made in the next couple of days. That is deeply worrying not only for them, but potentially for patients.
My GP surgery in Plymouth closed recently, so I know what it is like to lose my GP. At the moment I am especially concerned about people who do not reregister with a new GP, effectively becoming an unregistered cohort of people in the city who then can rely only on acute A&E services. Our staff at Derriford A&E do an absolutely fantastic job, but they cannot keep going if there is a continuing crisis.
The Plymouth Herald reports that a third of GP surgeries are at risk of closure as vacancies in primary care escalate. Will the Minister meet Plymouth GPs so that they can raise concerns directly with him? There is an opportunity to avoid the crisis getting any worse through proactive measures. I do not want to see the crisis getting worse and then more emergency access having to be put in place as GPs who have worked beyond the point of exhaustion hand back their contracts. That decision can be justified because of the pressure on them and their families, but we can avert that situation if we take action today. I hope the Minister will address that in his remarks.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I compliment the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on a real tour de force around the issues before us today. Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I will dwell on an aspect of the issue that affects a constituency that is part of a devolved Administration. I hope that what I am about to say will be helpful at the UK level and possibly at the Scottish Government level.
I come from the basic premise that no matter where someone lives they have an equality of right to decent health services. I represent the second biggest constituency in the UK, and there is a particular challenge in the north of Scotland in terms of access to GPs and other medical services. In that context, within the past few days a big issue has developed—it has been fairly well reported in one of Scotland’s main newspapers. In the Caithness part of my constituency, in the top right- hand corner of Scotland, GP provision and access to other health professionals is not what it should be, notwithstanding the best efforts of the professionals that we do have. In no way do I want anything I say to denigrate their efforts because they work exceedingly hard, but the issue is a big concern for my constituents, and they raise it with me repeatedly.
Out of fairness to the Scottish National party represented here, the matter is devolved, but I hope that what I suggest will be helpful. A group called the Caithness Health Action Team has been formed and it outlines the problem on its Facebook page probably more succinctly and better than I can during the brief time available to me. I give credit to the fact that the group is campaigning in a constructive way to try to help matters.
NHS Highland has recently admitted that the recruitment and retention of GPs and similar professionals in other branches of medicine is proving a real challenge in that remote area. It really prompts the question of whether we say there is nothing we can do about it. Do we have to walk away and accept that some parts of the UK or Scotland will not have equality of provision, or do we say we will roll up our sleeves and tackle it? In my book, the answer is the latter.
Before I return to recruitment specifically, one of the most irritating things, or perhaps encouraging things, is that when we recruit a health professional in somewhere like my part of the world—although I daresay it is also true of Plymouth—after a while they begin to love it. There is every chance they might settle and their children be educated locally, and that is good for the community. That is a prize worth remembering.
I want to mention two specific points. Several Members have already mentioned a kind of bursary, a cash incentive to encourage someone to do GP training. We all know how expensive medicine is, how student debt can be built up and the length of time it takes to qualify. This is just a suggestion and it might not be possible within UK recruitment law—I am prepared to be corrected—but I am keenly aware that the armed forces can offer a bursary to go to college or university to be trained, but part of the deal is that when the person graduates the armed forces can send them to where they are needed most. I have a daughter who is serving in the armed forces and she knew right from the start that that was part of the deal. Whether that can be done within UK law, I do not know, but it might be worth looking at. A given health authority could help someone through their five years of GP training, but then have the right to say that for the next two or three years they will be placed in Plymouth, Wick or wherever in the UK. I think a cross-border UK-wide solution is best in that respect.
My second point is an old one. I remember that when I was a kid the nurse got a house. There were doctors’ houses, and that made a difference in recruiting people. As far as I am aware, the nurses’ houses have all gone and no longer exist, but it was part of the local authority’s responsibility to allocate such housing.
The answer in the Scottish context is for NHS Highland and probably the Scottish Government to take a co-ordinated and targeted approach to a specific problem in a specific part of the highlands. I think the willingness is probably there, to give credit where it is due. As and when a solution is found as to how we get people into the area, that experience could be useful to UK Government Ministers as well. There is everything to be learnt from each other. Should the Minister or the UK Government find a way to deal with these problems before the Scottish Government do—
As a constituency MP, the hon. Gentleman has no doubt had the same correspondence that I have had from Scottish students who have been denied access to Scottish medical school. I do not know whether he shares my concern that the current cap by the Scottish Government on Scottish domiciled student places means that only 51% of current medical places at university are filled by Scots.
That is a relevant point, and I share that experience. I do not want to go into the specifics, but within the past two days I have encountered the case of a sixth-year pupil at a school in my constituency who, because of the curriculum limitations in the sixth year, will be unable to pursue the tertiary education in the medical field that she would like to. It is a worry, but I shall take that up with the director of education.
The matter we are debating is a big issue in my constituency. It is particularly acute because of the distances involved, and it is at the forefront of my constituents’ concerns. I accept that it is devolved, but I feel duty-bound to air the matter in this place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Moon.
I declare an interest, in that my other half is a GP. He is German and has been here in our service for 32 years. That highlights a particular problem that we shall face in the next few years because of Brexit. As the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) mentioned, GPs are not just gatekeepers, but are the core and heart of general practice, which is where most interactions occur. They specialise in teamwork and continuity. They may know their patients for years and over generations. All UK health services face three key problems. We all face tight budgets and increasing demand because of an ageing population, and the workforce is bringing those things to a head in relatively short order.
There is a drive in Scotland and England to rebalance the proportion of funding that goes towards primary care, to approximately 11% of the budget. With the climbing complexity of cancer care, emergency care, A&E and targets, more money has been moving into secondary and, indeed, tertiary care. The demand is still there. Having worked as a breast cancer surgeon for more than 30 years I can tell the House that we also face shortage and increased demand, so there is no easy solution—but if primary care fails, the entire system fails.
In Scotland the new GP contract was designed by working with the British Medical Association, and at the moment it is in phase 1, which is trying to stabilise the system. Two thirds of practices will have a significant increase in income, and the others will be protected so that no one experiences a fall. Phase 2, which will start next year, is an attempt to consider something a bit more radical. It touches on issues that have been raised by some Members, to do with changing the shape of primary care, and the system. The income of GPs varies hugely. Some practices are immensely profit-making and have a good income. In other areas the GP, despite perhaps working longer hours, may earn £20,000 or £30,000 a year less. That means that the area in question becomes relentlessly harder to recruit to. Consideration is being given to whether there should be a range of income, perhaps similar to what consultants have—an NHS salary.
That is obviously a huge change from the situation at the moment—the independent contractor status. Older GPs who have lived with independent contractor status certainly do not want it to go. They welcome the independence and the ability to design and run their practice as they see fit. However, it is important to recognise that the younger generation feel utterly differently. As has been mentioned, they are not interested in buying into a practice or even, necessarily, in being partners. They are not attracted to the businessman side of being a GP. Therefore we need contracts that do not destroy independent contractor status for those who already have it, or those who want it, but that enable people to work in practices where perhaps the building is provided by the health board, and where they are salaried and can create a more predictable work-life balance.
One of the small-print issues that is arising in England is the fact that no new general medical services contracts have been awarded since 2013; everything has been done on the basis of alternative provider contracts, which means that they are only for five years. It might be attractive to a big multinational to take on a franchise and hope that it gets the contract again; but there is no possibility that a family doctor would be interested in setting up or taking on a practice for a mere five years.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall come to that naturally later.
The issue of indemnity has been touched on. I am not sure whether it is realised how extreme the position is. GPs in England are paying three to four times the indemnity that GPs in Scotland are paying. The range in Scotland would be £1,500 to £2,300 on a range of half a dozen to 14 sessions, but in England that would be £5,500 to £9,500. That is a considerable chunk of money to ask of someone, and it is very significant when it comes to taking on the extra weekend surgeries of seven-day working, or out-of-hours work.
I absolutely agree. As I have said, it is not particularly an issue in Scotland, but it is very much one in England. I know that it is being looked at under the new contract. Hon. Members may remember the Prime Minister’s challenge fund: extra surgeries at the weekend are better paid and do not involve the same indemnity issues as going to do a stint at the local out-of-hours. Unconsidered consequences of that kind must be looked at.
There is obviously increasing demand. We talk negatively about the ageing population, but living longer is a good thing, and I would like to recommend it. I spent 30 years trying to achieve it. In Scotland the number of GPs increased by 9% between 2005 and 2015, but the number of patients over 65 increased by 18%. Obviously, much innovation across the UK is to do with trying to reduce workload. Scotland was first to get rid of the quality and outcomes framework, which had encouraged significant quality improvements but grew into a huge bureaucratic machine. We are working on developing the multi- disciplinary team, with physios, access to counsellors, and pharmacists. That is happening in England as well. One innovation in England is known as “time for care” and concerns extra training at the frontline—reception—to encourage triage of patients to the right member of the team. However, my attention has been caught by the development of a new app that allows patients to book appointments directly; that would remove the option for triage. It is important for innovations to be joined up.
We need to innovate and to use all community resources. Scotland has for 10 years had community pharmacies providing minor ailment services. Our optometrists are allowed to make direct referrals to hospital for cataracts, and now they treat 90% of all acute eye problems. Those are things that may at the moment be referred to general practice simply to ask for a letter to be passed on. That is a waste.
There has, obviously, been a climb in the number of practice vacancies, including in Scotland. Our whole-time equivalent has fallen, in the past three years, by 1.9%—in England the figure is 2.8%. There has been a 50% increase in the number of GPs taking early retirement, at the age of about 57. Some of that is because of the change in pension tax rules. The problem of having too big a pension is a nice one to have; however, if people who invested 40 years ago in very expensive added years are finding suddenly, as they approach retirement age, that that means they are accruing no further pension, we have a problem.
Brexit is definitely a threat. In Scotland, 3.5% of the health and social care workforce—and 5.8% of doctors—are from the EU. In London the figure is 14%. We know that 14% of EU doctors in Scotland, and 19% in England, are already in the process of leaving and, as has been said, that is simply because they feel unwelcome. As we have seen with the difficulty of getting tier 2 visas over the past four months, recruiting from outside the EU is a real issue. Businesses in London can increase someone’s salary to get past the limitations, but the NHS is not able to be so flexible.
Obviously, in Scotland we do not have tuition fees, so that is a considerable difference in student debt, particularly for a five-year medical course. We do not, as yet, have a system of bonding or tying students down. The worry is that that would create a feeling of being trapped, and that as soon as the bond finishes, the person runs away. I am sure that all Governments in the UK are thinking about such things, but it is about working out whether such a scheme is beneficial or negative in the long term. We do have a GP bursary scheme for those entering a traineeship, so that when someone moves from a hospital where they work on-call, and becomes a GP trainee, the drop in salary is compensated.
As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, in Scotland we have a particular issue with the provision of rural services. We have a much higher ratio of GP per head of population, with 91 GPs per 100,000 people, as opposed to 71 in England, 73 in Wales and 70 in Northern Ireland. What often gets forgotten when people look at the weirdly angled weather map, is that although Scotland is one third of Great Britain’s landmass, it has 8.3% of the population. Anything that involves providing services across an enormous area is a challenge. We also have 70 inhabited islands that require services. Our recruitment and retention fund is putting additional money into this issue. The Scottish Rural Medicine Collaborative involves 10 health board areas, and relocation money—the golden hello for trainees or indeed any GP moving into practice—has been increased from £2,000 to £5,000. Any GP moving into rural practice will have a golden hello of £10,000, and trainees will have £20,000. That has been rolled out from the 44 island practices to all 160 rural and remote practices.
One key issue driving this problem, which perhaps is not often recognised, is the change from full-time to part-time working. Headcount for GPs is up by 5% in Scotland, but down by 4% from 2013. The change seems to have been in the last five years—indeed, there is a real culture change as the next generation comes in. When my husband became a GP, he was the first part-timer in his practice. They interviewed all the women before him, because it seemed so weird to have a man who wanted to work part time—that is because I was always in the hospital. Now, out of eight GPs, only two are full time. The number of patients in the practice has not changed, but instead of six actual GPs, there are eight. Therefore, the average GP is working considerably less. In England, the change in headcount of those looking to work full time meant that numbers went from 39,000 to 27,000. That shows the dramatic difference between the full-time equivalent and headcount, and it means that the average GP is working about 70% of what a full-time GP worked. The problem for any Government is that they then need to train 30% more GPs to cover that.
The key, however, is satisfaction. At the deep end, the 100 most deprived GP practices in Scotland face the inverse care law: people do not demand, and therefore service is not delivered. Govan health centre is running the SHIP project—social care and health integrated partnerships, and that innovation is now being picked up elsewhere. It means that GPs have extra time, and a significant multidisciplinary team, but in those areas, 31% of patients will have four or more conditions.
We have an even deeper problem, however, which is the attitude to general practice. Other specialisms look down their nose at it, and therefore a student may not be encouraged to enter general practice. Students are not getting enough exposure to general practice, either as students or in their foundation years. We also have a particular problem with the two foundation years since “Modernising Medical Careers” came in. We pour all our young doctors into a hopper—a computer—and they get divvied out. They will struggle to be with their family or where they were living before. In 2011, 29% of young doctors left after the two foundation years. Last year it was 50%. They do not feel part of the team or have a sense of continuity—things that are utterly crucial to general practice. Therefore, although we may be putting in more money and coming up with schemes, we must also reform the foundation years so that we do not have an entire lost generation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for securing this important debate and for the strong case she made.
To set the debate in context, the NHS has the equivalent of 28,960 full-time GPs, which is 1,300 fewer than two years ago, despite the fact that the Government promised in the NHS Five Year Forward View to deliver an additional 5,000 GPs by 2020. The situation is getting worse as fewer medical students decide to enter general practice, while at the same time more GPs are opting for early retirement. The average age of retirement among GPs is 59, and given that 20% of all GPs are approaching that age, it is no exaggeration to say that there is a ticking retirement time bomb. The situation is set to get a whole lot worse as the number of GP vacancies continues to rise.
In 2011, the number of GP vacancies stood at 2.1%, but by the end of 2017 that had risen to a worrying 12.2%. NHS Digital data showed that, between 17 March and September 2017, the number of full-time equivalent GPs decreased by 166. Over the same period, the number of GP partners fell by 638. I spoke to one young GP and former practice partner who gave his reason for leaving. They said
“no one wants to be the last man or woman left standing.”
When GP recruitment was raised during Health questions in December, the Secretary of State said:
“One of the best things about the NHS is that people have a GP who knows them and their family.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 894.]
I agree, but increasingly that is not the experience for many people. For the elderly, the mentally ill and the chronically ill, that lack of continuity is troublesome. I have elderly constituents with complex needs who rarely see the same GP twice, and because no single GP really knows the whole person, they are constantly bounced back and forth between the surgery and A&E. Too often, that leads to hospital admissions that could have been avoided.
In many areas across the country, patients report that they have experienced difficulty getting to see any GP—that point has been made forcefully by a number of Members today. Indeed, it is not just patients who say that: 71% of doctors surveyed feel that patient access to services has decreased. I have spoken with GPs across the country—including some with 30 years’ experience or more—who declare that there is a crisis in general practice, the like of which they have never seen. The traditional service is struggling to cope with the ever-increasing demand from an ageing population, and GPs face unprecedented workloads. In addition, the harsh economic environment has negatively impacted on the wellbeing of many of the poorest people. Depression and stress-related illnesses have increased, further adding to the demand for GP services. Inadequate mental health resources mean that GPs are often unsupported, with patients in need of specialist support. Cuts in adult social care budgets have meant that many old people are left at home without the support they need and with no one to turn to except their local GP.
In the face of all those pressures, it is no wonder that doctors are choosing early retirement. The more who leave, the greater the pressure on those who have been left behind. The downward spiral of retention is particularly evident in the most deprived parts of the country, where the challenge of recruitment is reaching nightmare proportions. I spoke to one GP in such a community. He said that he had had only one week’s leave in three years because he had been unable to recruit either a partner or a salaried GP to help. Other GPs have told me that they feel like they have their finger in a hole in a dam holding back a tsunami of demand.
It is clear that this situation is unsustainable. The BMA says:
“With an insufficient workforce, a funding plan that is no longer sustainable, a growth in population and a sea-change in the level of complex cases being presented, urgent steps need to be taken to save general practice.”
It tells me that eight out of 10 GPs feel unable to deliver safe care. For the benefit of patients and the long-term future of the general practice that we all know and love—the service that was the envy of the world—the Government must heed these severe warnings from the professionals.
The Government have taken little action to date. When I raised this with the Secretary of State in December, he said that we must
“encourage more medical school graduates to go into general practice as a specialty”.—[Official Report, 19 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 895.]
I agree, but progress is poor. The recently announced new medical schools are welcome, but they will not in themselves make the profession more attractive. If the Government are serious about delivering 5,000 additional GPs, they must demonstrate that they truly value the service. At a time when morale in the profession is low, the Government must stop adding to the pressures by demanding seven-day access, which is not a priority for patients.
The offer of an additional £2.4 billion is welcome but does not go far enough. The Government must increase the proportion of NHS funding that goes into general practice. They must put general practice at the heart of a primary workforce strategy. Instead of having ill-equipped private companies foisted on to surgeries, GPs should be offered comprehensive support with everything from surgery premises to professional indemnity. If the sector is properly resourced and supported, it will be a more attractive proposition for medical graduates. Such measures would not only attract new graduates into the profession, but help to retain existing practitioners. The current GP retention scheme for doctors who are approaching retirement and considering leaving the profession for personal reasons is helping, but reducing the daily workload would do more to stem the tide of retirement.
Finally, the service cannot be viewed in isolation. There is no doubt that properly funded adult social care, and public health and mental health services, would alleviate pressure. I also make the case for greater utilisation of community pharmacies, which are not to be confused with the welcome addition of pharmacies in GP practices. They would help in so many ways. A nationwide roll-out of minor ailment services would be a good first step that would help enormously, leaving GPs time to see patients with more serious medical needs.
GPs across the country, the excellent Royal College of General Practitioners and the BMA will be listening. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our GPs for their exceptional dedication. I want GPs across the land to know that the Opposition appreciate the work they do, which so often goes above and beyond the call of duty. They want the Minister to go beyond warm words and wish lists and to outline a detailed, properly funded plan to save general practice. I hope the Minister will not let the professionals and our constituents—the patients—down.
It is a pleasure to see you on your throne this afternoon, Mrs Moon.
I have a lot of time and respect for my shadow, the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper), but what a counsel of despair that was. As the sun comes out after a day of rain in London, let me see if I can bring some sunshine to our proceedings.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing the debate. She spoke passionately, as always, about her constituents and her area. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that we are often in here together and share many of the same subjects. That is true but, to be fair, he is in here even more than I am.
I note the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday that she intends to bring forward a long-term plan for the NHS with the Secretary of State, Ministers and our partners. That will build on our record of extra funding for the national health service in England year on year since 2010, to deliver a NHS that is fit for the future. I agree with the shadow Minister that this is about the wider NHS, and that we cannot see primary care in isolation. We are able to do what we have done for the past eight years because of the state of the economy, which we have got into a better place. When the economy fails, the NHS catches a cold or much worse, which is important.
I will not give way at the moment.
As everybody has said, we recognise the importance of general practice as the heart not only of our NHS, but in many ways of the country. It is as much about prevention before people get into the NHS as it is a gateway to it. That point was made well by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who spoke for the SNP. As others have kindly said, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the NHS has the resources, workforce and Government backing to make it fit for the future.
As the hon. Lady said, it is a great success that we are living longer, but an ageing population and more people living with long-term conditions, or so-called comorbidities, means that general practice will become more important than ever in keeping well and living independently for longer. On Friday, I spent a morning sitting and observing—lucky patients—a general practitioner in Hampshire, not in but near my constituency. I watched him do his morning surgery. It was a brilliant thing to do as the Minister with responsibility for primary care, but I would recommend it to any Member who has that relationship with GPs in their area. By sitting and watching, it is possible to see what comes through the door and the pleasures of general practice, which is not dissimilar to the surgeries we hold as MPs.
The number of people over the ages of 60 and 85 is set to increase by about 25% between 2016 and 2030, and the number of people living with long-term conditions is increasing. In 2017, almost 40% of over-60s had at least one long-term condition. I am sure we can all think of people in our families who are in that position—I certainly can. We recognise that that places general practitioners in England under more pressure than ever before, and are taking comprehensive action to ensure that general practice can meet the demand.
The NHS set out its own plan for general practice in the general practice forward view. We have backed that with additional investment of £2.4 billion a year by 2020-21, from £9.6 billion in 2015-16 to more than £12 billion by 2020-21. That is a 14% increase in real terms. That is not made up—those are genuine figures, on the record. As has been said, we have also announced our ambition to grow the medical workforce to create an extra 5,000 doctors in general practice by 2020, as part of a wider increase to the total workforce in general practice of 10,000. We recognise that that is an ambitious target—it is double the growth rate of previous years—but it shows our commitment to growing a strong and sustainable general practice for the future.
This debate is about recruitment and retention, so let me break those down. NHS England, which we work with—it is approaching its fifth birthday—and Health Education England are working together with the profession to increase the GP workforce. That includes measures to boost recruitment, address the reasons why GPs are leaving the profession and encourage GPs to return to practice. We recognise that GPs are under more pressure than ever, but we want them to remain within the NHS and are supporting them to do so.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) made the point about recruiting and then following through. As I said at oral questions last week, there are things we can do, but there are things the profession can do too. If doctors in general practice are a counsel of despair, it is little wonder that people do not want to follow them. There are some good, positive voices in general practice, ably led by Helen Stokes-Lampard, who leads the Royal College of General Practitioners. She is a brilliant example of the cup being half full. That kind of positivity is very important—it is a partnership.
I am grateful to the Minister, because I am conscious of the time. He spoke about the support that can be given with regards to recruitment and retention. In my area, the cost of housing is part of the conundrum that we have to solve for everybody, but particularly for key workers. Does he agree that excellent, well-run district councils such as West Oxfordshire—ones that think creatively, outside the box, and help to provide affordable housing in a new way that is targeted at key workers—can be part of the solution to the recruitment and retention challenge?
They can certainly be part of the attractiveness of coming to an area. My council in Winchester is one of the few authorities that is building new council houses—all power to it. My hon. Friend makes his point well, as always.
Increasing training in general practice is important. It is a top Government priority, which is why HEE has made 3,250 places in GP speciality training available every year since 2016. As a result, the number of doctors entering training has increased year on year. In 2017, a record 3,157 new starters were recruited to GP training posts.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South spoke very well in introducing the debate, but hon. Members may not be aware that she asked me my first question as a Minister at Health questions in July. She said:
“Does the Minister accept that new medical school places should be created in areas such as Sunderland, where there is the greatest need to recruit and retain general practitioners?”—[Official Report, 4 July 2017; Vol. 626, c. 1008.]
All I can say is that we were listening. I did not say yes at the Dispatch Box, but we looked at the under-doctored areas and at the areas where it is hardest to recruit, which is why Sunderland’s bid was successful. I am glad she welcomed that.
The hon. Lady also welcomed the University of Sunderland putting that in place. As she said, the medical school will encourage general practice as a speciality after students have completed the two years of foundation training. It is envisioned that 50 new students will enrol in 2019 and 100 students in 2020. Experience tells us—this will be encouraging to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), who is no longer in her place—that GPs tend to stay longer in the area where they train, so it is an exciting development for general practice in Sunderland. Once someone has gone there, why would they leave?
As we have heard, the Government have introduced the targeted enhanced recruitment scheme, which funds a £20,000 salary supplement for GP trainees who commit to work for three years in areas of the country where GP training places have been unfilled for a number of years. The hon. Member for West Lancashire is back in her place now—she missed her mention, but I am sure she will catch up on it. The scheme was launched as a one-year pilot in 2016. It was extended for a further year in 2017 and again in 2018. It is a positive innovation.
I am whipping through my brief because of the time. There are a lot of points to try to respond to, and if I do not respond to them all, I will write to hon. Members. A number of hon. Members asked about international recruitment. In August 2017, NHS England announced plans to accelerate its international recruitment to 2,000 GPs in the next three years.
A small number of pilot areas started recruitment last year. The next stage of the recruitment programme is on track to start at the end of the financial year as planned. The aim is to recruit 600 doctors by the end of March 2019 and the remainder by the end of March 2020. As the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said, that is part of the north-east and Cumbria submission to the national scheme, which runs from this year to source qualified GPs from abroad to work in England. She welcomed that, as do we.
On retention, in addition to our significant efforts to train and recruit more GPs, we want experienced GPs to stay in the NHS and are supporting them to do so. The GP retention scheme, which the hon. Lady mentioned, is a package of financial and educational support to help doctors who might otherwise leave the profession to remain in clinical general practice. It was launched to support GPs who cannot work more than four sessions per week and who cannot secure a suitable substantive post. In September, 218 GP retainers were working in general practice, which is a 40% increase on two years previously.
The induction and refresher scheme provides a safe, supported and direct route for qualified GPs to join or return to NHS general practice in England. By December, it had received 600 registrations. Of those, 368 GPs have completed or are progressing though the scheme back into general practice.
Several hon. Members rightly mentioned pensions. We need experienced GPs to stay. Pensions are an issue for them, alongside workload and indemnity. They are ultimately a matter for the Treasury—it would be a foolish junior Health Minister who wrote Budgets in Westminster Hall—but my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) recently made the point in Prime Minister’s questions—the Prime Minister assured him that the Chancellor was listening. He will also listen to hon. Members who have raised it today. We certainly need to address it. As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said, to have a full pension pot is a nice problem in some ways, but I take her caveat on board.
We recognise that indemnity is one of the challenges to people staying in the profession. It is a great source of concern to GPs and to me. We want to put in place a more stable and affordable system of indemnity for general practice. At the Royal College of General Practitioners conference in Liverpool in October, the Secretary of State announced that we would develop a state-backed indemnity scheme for general practice in England. We are working with GP representatives and those conversations are going very well. We expect to announce further details of the scheme in May, with the scheme going live in April next year.
Several hon. Members rightly mentioned the partnership model. The Secretary of State and I believe in the partnership model and that it has a role to play in the future of general practice, but times have changed, as the hon. Member for Stroud said in his first point. The Secretary of State announced at the RCGP earlier this year that we are setting up a review with the BMA and the RCGP to consider how it can be reinvigorated and sustained for the future. We hope to announce further details soon. I encourage hon. Members to engage with it.
I get excited about multidisciplinary teams and the wider workforce in primary care, because they are so important. They allow experienced GPs to deal with people with long-term conditions and comorbidities. Pharmacists working in general practice through the pharmacy integration fund, who will number 2,000 by 2020, are very important, as is community pharmacy. The hon. Member for Burnley is passionate about that, as am I. They are part of one NHS and are funded through public funds, so they should absolutely be part of sustainability and transformation partnership discussions. I discussed that with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society at the Department yesterday. The wider workforce is critical to us.
General practice is and always has been the heart of the NHS. GPs play a crucial role in our communities in terms of treatment and prevention. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said that the majority of feedback that we get is negative—he mentioned the feedback from some of his GPs—but that is not what the GP patient survey says. In answer to his question, he should bring those GPs in. I would very much like to see them and I may even make them a cup of tea. He should contact me and I will do that.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. A tremendous amount is going on, and we face a tremendous challenge, but good things are happening across the country and I am out and about visiting all the time. We have to take that best practice and not just share it, but implement it across the NHS in England to address many of our primary care challenges.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. We have heard that the future of general practice faces a significant challenge the length and breadth of the country.
On the Minister’s point about funding, since 2010, the rate of increase in NHS spending has slowed considerably. It is well below the real-terms average increase of the 3.7% that the NHS has received since its inception in 1948.
For all that the Minister referred to the Prime Minister’s comments about a long-term and sustainable funding model for the NHS, we are nearly eight years on. We need that model, but we also need something to undo at least some of the damage that has taken place in that time.
On a more positive note, given the success that we achieved in the University of Sunderland bid, I hope the Minister will look carefully at regional variation in the fill rate for training places. We need to take more action to address it.
The scale of the challenge that we face with general practice is clear. It falls to the Minister and to NHS England to take action so that all our constituents, no matter where they live, get the access to world-class healthcare they need.
Unconditional University Offers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered unconditional university offers.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, for what I hope will be a debate that is both pithy and genuinely important.
I remember being at school when I first heard about unconditional offers. I thought that perhaps some Oxbridge college, then the usual issuer of such things, would be so obviously struck by my talents that an unconditional offer would be a possibility. The prospect of an unconditional offer gave me hope of relief from the pressures of the exams that dominated my life then and that sometimes dominate young people’s lives now. So I hope that hon. Members will not interpret this speech as an attack on unconditional offers per se.
By the way, I pause briefly to add that in so far as Oxbridge was struck by my obvious talents, it was only to suggest that I attend a different university, but perhaps taking my teenage self down a peg or two was the best thing that Oxbridge could have done.
Back then in 1999, and indeed up until last year, the typical student who was made an unconditional offer was still predicted three As—by the way, I was not predicted three As—although Oxbridge had abolished unconditional offers earlier. UCAS has reported that 3,000 unconditional offers were made in 2013, and that in 2017 the figure was 50,000. The Department for Education and the Select Committee on Education are therefore right to look at the overall picture, which has seen a quintupling of such applications, according to UCAS, from less than 1% of all offers in the past to more than 5% today. In my own constituency nearly 30% of all applicants received at least one unconditional offer, and those applicants were predicted grades ranging from BBC up to ABB.
This growth in unconditional offers comes not from universities that dominate the top of the league tables but from elsewhere; nor does it come in the subjects for which university entrance is the most hotly contested. Less than 0.1% of all medicine and dentistry students received unconditional offers, compared with nearly 10% of all mass communications and documentations degrees. As a former journalist myself, I would not dare to demean a media studies degree, but given that at one time there were more people studying the media at university than there were actually working in all of it, it is right to ask why universities are seeking to fill their courses in this new way, and whether it is for financial reasons.
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward for debate; I spoke to him before the debate, telling him that I would seek to make an intervention. Does he agree that the fact that over 15 times more unconditional offers as in the past have been made to university students in the UK indicates a mindset among universities of focusing on ensuring that they reach their capacity of “bums on seats” rather than on a student’s ability to take a course? Does he agree that some children will go with a course that is less suited to them than other courses as they will know it is in the bag, as it were, and that they will therefore miss out on courses that could have been better for them as an individual?
I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, that contrasts sharply with what Universities UK has said in response to the Education Committee:
“Unconditional offers account for a very small proportion of all offers made by universities. It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed at university.”
There has clearly been a huge growth in the number of unconditional offers, for some of the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.
Schools have expressed concerns about students across the spectrum of abilities not performing to their full potential in exams, because they are safe in the knowledge that they have already secured a place at university regardless of their grades. Although that can be a welcome safety net for some students, we must balance it with the impacts that it can have on schools and how it affects their exam results overall, for which they are held accountable and against which, of course, they have their own performance measured. This is not a new problem but it has now spread far more widely, as I said earlier.
In my constituency, anecdotal evidence has been cited of students giving up college courses after receiving an unconditional offer, which of course may result in their struggling at university if they have missed fundamental information that they would otherwise have been taught. If we let this development go unchecked, we are letting our young people down at a time when we should be supporting them in preparing for their next step in education. Of course all universities should be able to make unconditional offers, but in doing so they should surely exercise a duty of care to the interests of the prospective student at the same time.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views in a moment on what is a complex matter. Some universities, for instance, have reportedly been inducing students to come to them by giving unconditional offers, so long as they are ranked as the student’s first choice. In the competitive landscape that a large number of universities find themselves in, such a tactic could be seen as potentially damaging to students, when other incentives would more typically involve vouchers or computers.
The risk is that a student might end up with a degree from one university when they might have got into another university that is ranked more highly, and that they might end up with worse results in their school exams because they did not need good grades to get to university. It is a vicious circle if things go wrong, and it applies to all subjects rather than simply being about the promotion of the most academic subjects.
I will give an example from my constituency. Already this year, 23 students at Boston Grammar School have received an unconditional offer from at least one university. That is more than a third of the students from the school who have applied to universities for admission through UCAS. If there is a demotivational effect, there is a risk that it will reflect badly both on the school and on the students themselves in later life.
The headmaster of Boston Grammar School, John McHenry, who has helped me to put together this speech, tells me that the school has even seen comments suggesting that universities would “appreciate” it if students completed their studies. He says:
“In other words, it actually won’t make any difference at all if they don’t finish their A-level courses. It’s very difficult to understand how it is possible for universities to permit students onto degree courses without passing examinations, when schools themselves have strict admission criteria relating to A-level courses. How would a ‘free for all’ at A level impact on GCSE results nationally?”
If people drop out of school courses prior to university, or prior to doing anything else, it will compromise both their ability to complete a degree and their CV for the rest of their life. This is a serious issue.
The risks of having the wrong unconditional offers system are obvious: universities struggle to attract the best students for a course, which can lead to those with lower exam results being accepted, but those students then end up struggling further, which in turn holds those children back when they become adults. It compromises the long-term quality of that university course, and schools, too, are punished for declining results. The ramifications of getting this matter wrong are extensive.
Universities are rightly independent of Government, but they are also regulated and subsidised by taxpayers. In this area, as in others, a totally free market may not serve the wider interest. As The Times Educational Supplement has highlighted, some universities have explored making so-called “contextual offers”, whereby lower grades are required of members of certain demographics. Although that seems like part of the solution, that sort of positive discrimination should very much be handled with care. Likewise, courses such as music and art may rightly rely on a portfolio of work rather than purely relying on A-level grades. However, those two things do not explain the situation that we are in.
This debate is ultimately about pupils; it is not about universities or schools, but about the pupils who are going through the system potentially damaging their CVs and job prospects for the rest of their lives. I end by quoting Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders:
“Universities need to understand that making unconditional offers to students on the basis of predicted grades is not in the best interests of these young people. It can lead to students being less focused on their A-levels because they feel their university place is in the bag. They then attain a lower grade than they are capable of achieving and this can later become a significant problem for them if a prospective future employer takes A-level grades into account in their selection process. We urge universities not to make unconditional offers on the basis of predicted grades, and advise students against choosing a course on the basis of an unconditional offer and to ensure they find the university and course that best suits them.”
Today I echo that call, and I hope that the Minister will consider reviewing the effect of unconditional offers on the overall education ecosystem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. I want to talk briefly about the impact of unconditional offers in restricting opportunities.
The first problem with unconditional offers is that they tend to come with conditions, mainly that students must place that university as their first choice. In 2017, less than one fifth of unconditional offers were down as insurance offers. Students are therefore often encouraged to pick a lower-performing university or a course that is not ideal for them. In other words, they hedge their bets. We are inadvertently encouraging them to underestimate themselves, yet universities are supposed to open doors, not close them. In the past, unconditional offers were often made on the basis that students were perfect matches or star pupils, but that is not the case anymore. UCAS found that predicted grades of BBB were more likely to get unconditional offers than straight As. With an increase in fees, we have seen an increase in unconditional offers. Some 50,000 students last year were made an unconditional offer. That is an increase of 1,629% since 2013.
A second way that unconditional offers can restrict opportunities is through the knock-on effect they can have on A-level results, as we have heard. Unconditional offers encourage students to take their foot off the gas, which can have important long-term ramifications because those A-level results stay on students’ CVs for life. When I am seeking to employ someone—I am sure colleagues do this—I look at their A-level results and give them due diligence and consideration. Some colleges have reported that up to 75% of students given unconditional offers have failed to meet the expected grades. Again, that is not opening doors but closing them.
I sit on the Education Committee, and in December the chairman of Ofqual admitted that the situation is very concerning. I agree with the head of UCAS, who said that we need an “open and honest debate” about unconditional offers and their impact. We need to halt the rising tide of unconditional offers, which are closing doors and opportunities for young people in Chippenham and across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this important debate and on the balanced and self-deprecating way in which he made his speech. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues he raised.
I, too, am deeply concerned by the recent large increases in the number of unconditional offers received by students and the potential impact that those offers can have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) so clearly outlined. For example, some students may coast in their studies at school or college or perhaps not even complete their course. Another possibility is that students might accept the obvious attractions of an unconditional offer at one institution, rather than a conditional offer at an institution that would better suit their ability level. I want to be clear that higher education providers should not make unconditional offers to students who lack the talent and potential to complete a higher education qualification, especially when those students may benefit from exploring different education options or becoming employed on finishing their A-level qualifications.
It is right that higher education institutions should be able to make unconditional offers when it is appropriate, but I agree with Members that that should be done with extreme care. I therefore welcome this opportunity to highlight the sharp rise in the number of unconditional offers made in recent years and why it is right for the House to be concerned. Data from UCAS for last year shows that the number of unconditional offers to 18-year-olds increased to more than 50,000 from fewer than 3,000 in 2013—a seventeenfold increase. Last year, 17.5% of 18-year-old applicants received at least one unconditional offer. While the overall proportion of such offers remains relatively low, at some providers unconditional offers account for more than 20% of all offers made. The House is right to be concerned.
Universities rightly have autonomy over their admissions. The principle of institutional autonomy has been recognised as central to our higher education system for many years. In fact, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 goes considerably further than previous legislation in recognising that principle. Institutions select their students, and it is their responsibility to ensure that they only take students who are appropriately qualified and able to succeed on the course they are applying for. I expect institutions to assess carefully the impact of unconditional offers on students, ensuring that they really do get the right students for the right courses. They should not allow students without the potential to succeed to continue into a route that will not benefit them.
There is considerable advice from UCAS for prospective students on how to consider unconditional offers. UCAS advises applicants to wait until they have received initial decisions from all their university and college choices and then to consider them carefully before accepting an unconditional offer as their firm choice. It also emphasises to students who accept unconditional offers the importance of completing their qualifications to the best of their ability, recognising that employers are likely to be interested in their exam results as well as their degree classification.
Our reforms in the 2017 Act will help ensure that institutions are accountable for ensuring that the students they recruit can succeed. We have put in place a new regulatory framework, and the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework will include metrics on non-continuation. The TEF will take into account student feedback, drop-out rates and graduate outcomes to help prospective students make the right choices and ensure that they get the value for money they deserve from higher education. That will act as a strong incentive for institutions to ensure that they recruit sensibly and support all their students to succeed.
In addition, and in response to the concerns that many have expressed about the impact of unconditional offers, the Government have already asked the Office for Students to monitor and review the number of unconditional offers made by registered higher education providers. It is important that the sector and the public have the evidence available to make clear judgements about any impact such offers may have on student access and outcomes in higher education. The Office for Students intends to work with UCAS to analyse the data on unconditional offers made during the last three years. They will look at such factors as provider, location, subject and student characteristics, including the grades with which they ultimately entered higher education relative to their predicted grades. That will enable initial conclusions to be drawn on the scale and focus of unconditional offer making and its impact on attainment prior to entry into higher education. The OfS will produce a report on the first aspect of the work this year.
The OfS will also analyse the relationship between unconditional offer making and subsequent outcomes in non-continuation, attainment, progression to postgraduate study and employment. Where the OfS identifies a problem, I expect it to take action in accordance with its powers set out in legislation. The exact course of action will be for the OfS to determine. I am clear that I do not intend to see the life chances of young people adversely affected by a desire to fill places at some institutions.
This is the right debate to have, and we are having it at the right time. The OfS will comes into being on 1 April, so it will be well placed to take the necessary action in the interests of students, as my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness said. We want the university system to act in favour of students.
Question put and agreed to.
Cotswold Line Upgrades
I beg to move,
That this House has considered upgrades to the Cotswold line.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. I am pleased to lead this important debate, and thank all colleagues who have come to take part.
The debate is timely because the Department for Transport is consulting on the future of the Great Western Railway franchise along the Cotswold line. I have responded in full to express my priorities for the Cotswold line, for west Oxfordshire, and for the future of rail services along that line. I would like those priorities to be reflected in the re-franchising process as it progresses.
Rail services are crucial to the future of west Oxfordshire. There are eight train stations in that district, seven of which are on the north Cotswold line. The two largest are Hanborough and Charlbury, but a number of smaller rural stations are equally important to the people who use them: Ascott, Shipton, Kingham, Finstock and Combe. Tackley is also in my constituency, but it is on the Cherwell valley line.
The annual passenger entries and exits for 2016-17 give an idea of how popular and well used the services in my constituency are. I will not give all the figures at this stage, but suffice it to say that the total for 2016-17 was 737,552, whereas in 2006-2007, it was 486,771.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I thank Mrs Moon.
The use of railway services in my constituency has increased over the past 10 years by 52%—an increase of 250,781 passenger entries and exits. That shows two things: first, that there is a very real appetite for the services that are provided; and secondly that significant improvements to those services will be needed in the years ahead. We can do so much more to make the most of the existing line if we work together and look to the future. That is necessary because, given the expected housing growth over the next 10 years, we will need to make the most of the services along that line. It is important to look at Oxfordshire as a whole economic unit, and for west Oxfordshire not to be forgotten when looking at infrastructure.
I am pleased that there have been improvements, and that there will be further ones in due course, particularly at Hanborough and Charlbury. The installation of shelters, footbridges, coffee shops and additional parking is welcome, and very much improves the overall passenger experience. However, more can be done to improve the infrastructure around those stations. For example, working closely with local councillors and the parish council, I have been pushing for a pedestrian bridge at Hanborough over the railway along the line of the road. Simply put, a pedestrian bridge would reassure passengers making their way to the station that they can do so safely. It would make the station more accessible and encourage more people to use it. As the station grows in size and importance, safe access for pedestrians is essential. It is always important to remember not only what people do when they get to the station, but how they get there in the first place. I look forward to meeting councillors, representatives from the parish council, GWR and, if necessary, Network Rail in the coming weeks to try to find a way forward.
In the longer term, I would like longer platforms at Hanborough if necessary, a second platform, more parking, further cycle provision both on trains and at the railway station, and the station building that has been procured, which is soon to be installed. We want people to use public transport and rail transport, but the key lesson is that they will do so only if they have a service that is comfortable, affordable and reliable.
I will now lay out some of the things that I think will help in the years ahead. On upgrades to the Cotswold line, the route between London Paddington and Hereford, specifically past Oxford and serving the stations I mentioned—Hanborough, Charlbury and so on—would greatly benefit from increased train frequency. It is a valuable commuter line, with many residents travelling to London for work, as well as to Oxford, Didcot and Reading. The line is currently well served from Oxford onwards, but is not so well served through west Oxfordshire. That is a problem in the evenings, when there is only one train an hour from Paddington to Hanborough and Charlbury. Increased frequency and later return times from London would enable residents to enjoy more flexible and stress-free travel, and would improve the business and economics of our area and the areas along the route.
The current timetable is far from ideal. The last evening train from London departs at 9.50 pm on Saturdays, which is not good for people who have to work late or at weekends, or who have gone into London for events. My constituents need to be able to do those things, but they are restricted by the existing service. With a little work, the infrastructure could provide so much more. Early morning commuters are also affected by the current frequencies. The first train from Hanborough to London every morning is at 6.13 am, and runs only every 30 minutes. That is not regular enough now, let alone when the number of passengers grows, as we can expect in the years ahead, having seen such growth in recent years.
The solution is to redouble the north Cotswold line at least to Hanborough, but ideally all the way to where it is currently redoubled at Charlbury. Ideally, the solution would involve electrification, certainly to Oxford. Only then can we use the line’s full capacity, and use the existing track bed to provide the rail services that west Oxfordshire needs. I hope I will be forgiven for stressing that the track bed used to have two tracks. Parts of it now have only one, but a second track could easily be provided. That would have enormous advantages in terms of frequency and reliability. That simply must happen as soon as possible if we are to establish faster, more frequent journeys to and from London.
I commend the work of the north Cotswold line taskforce. I have attended meetings of the taskforce and will work closely with it to realise our shared aims. I also commend the close working of the county council, the district councils and the growth board along the entirety of the line through Oxford and beyond. The single track is a severe hindrance to progress and must be addressed if we are truly to improve services along the Cotswold line.
On public transport, we need to consider the whole journey of passengers, not just the part of the journey that is spent on the train. That is important in west Oxfordshire, where stations are often located in villages some distance from jobs and people’s final destinations. No matter how good the rail service—if all my recommendations are followed, we will have an outstanding rail service—people will not use the train if they are stranded when they get off it, miles from their place of work or their home, without a reliable transport link. They will not use those stations and the rail facilities if they cannot get there in the first place.
That is a problem at Hanborough, which is located about six miles outside Witney. There have been improvements in the area, but we need a fully integrated timetable that links rail and buses. People should be able to leave for the train to go to the bus stop, or get off the bus and within a few minutes be on a train heading for their destination, be that London or Oxford. Only through that system can we have a smooth link from Witney to Oxford or beyond. Hanborough could and should function as a Witney and wider west Oxfordshire rail service, without the need for a car. If we work together, that is easily achievable.
We need to think creatively and encourage transport providers to work together. We can co-ordinate timetables, promote integrated ticketing systems for trains and buses and develop smart card schemes, which offer savings to passengers who buy a joint train and bus ticket. That would remove the need for paper tickets—the system could work like the Oyster card, making the most of modern technology. It would give passengers more control over their journeys and enable greater flexibility and choice. Crucially, it would encourage greater use of public transport.
As a keen cyclist, I would like much more space for cyclists to bring their bikes aboard trains and more racks at railway stations if they wish to leave them there for later collection. If we want to take cars off the road—I suggest that we all do in our various areas, as I certainly do in west Oxfordshire—and promote public transport, we need to ensure that public transport is fully integrated, and that different modes of transport are effectively sewn together. All of those things together will increase passenger numbers and at the same time reduce congestion by taking cars off the roads.
One example is the Cowley branch line. I support the reopening of the line to passengers, a shuttle service running from Hanborough through Oxford and on to Cowley, more parking, and the creation of a concentrated public transport hub, including cycle and bus provision, and regular and reliable connections to Witney, Eynsham, Woodstock and beyond, and particularly to the nearby Oxfordshire garden village planned in close proximity to Hanborough railway station. Having a regular shuttle service from Hanborough to Cowley will enable many residents to avoid driving on the A40.
Any hon. Members who have heard me speak about transport in west Oxfordshire will know that I mention the A40 all the time. I make no apology for doing so. A reopened branch line will enable people to avoid driving on the A40 in the first place and would dramatically ease congestion by providing a direct route for commuters from west Oxfordshire to Oxford and the other side of Oxford and the employment located there. Simply put, the more people we can encourage to use this existing line, the fewer people there will be using the A40.
The full potential of this option will be realised only with an integrated public transport network around Hanborough as a hub. That would enable residents around west Oxfordshire to travel to those large employers in south Oxfordshire or around, without having to drive, which would reduce congestion on the A40 and other roads. The importance of that to west Oxfordshire is simply impossible to overstate. It simply must be addressed, and this is a relatively straightforward way of doing so. It is an affordable, deliverable option that would not alter the essential rural characteristics of our area.
Smaller rural stations are absolutely vital to people, businesses and communities, but some trains from rural stations to Oxford are as infrequent as one a day. Delayed and cancelled trains have a far greater impact in those communities than they do in other places. There is no later train for them to catch, or even a bus. They are stranded and have no way of getting to work or surgery appointments or wherever they may be going. A great many constituents who rely on such services have written to me recently to express their concerns over the number of cancelled trains they have experienced in recent months. I simply say that we must improve services at Hanborough and Charlbury, but we must not forget those who rely on services from the smaller stations in between.
There is a safety concern at the crossing at Tackley—Tackley is not on the north Cotswold line—and this debate comes at a poignant time: 10 years ago this week, 82-year-old Margaret Evans, a Tackley resident, was tragically struck and killed by a train when she was crossing the platform to catch a train to Oxford. A great many pedestrians and cyclists use that crossing every day. A passenger bridge is the solution we must work towards—that is what I am pushing for. We need to resolve this once and for all. I will continue to work with Network Rail, Tackley Parish Council and the local community to see that solution as soon as we can.
I do not wish to bring a cloud of negativity as the sun is finally coming out outside, but I have to mention the poor service in recent months, because it is of enormous significance to my constituents. In the first 34 working days of 2018, there were 16 cancelled trains between Charlbury, Hanborough and London, and a great many more delayed services. That figure will only have grown in recent days and weeks. There are particular problems on the 16.22 service from Paddington, which so many of my constituents rely on to get home in the evenings. I accept that some of these are unavoidable delays—we have all experienced extreme weather in the last weeks and months. The redoubling of the line, which I have spoken about, would go a great way to improving reliability. It is a major issue.
Many of the cancellations and delays are avoidable and are down to a lack of train crew. I know there have been challenges introducing the new intercity express trains, but when people are spending increasing sums of money for tickets, it is not unreasonable for them to expect a superior service than that which they currently experience. People should not be paying rising fares for a decreasing service.
I hosted my first “Ask the GWR” public meeting earlier this year in Charlbury, with GWR and Network Rail—I am grateful to them for coming along. More than 100 local people came to express their concerns. They are understandably angry at the service they have experienced recently. I have been working with GWR—I am grateful to GWR for that—and putting pressure on it to address the poor service many have experienced in recent months. I look forward to things improving in the weeks and months ahead. People need to feel that they are getting value for money and I will always endeavour to ensure my constituents receive the high standard of performance and service they deserve. Currently, the level of delays and cancellations is unacceptable.
I have four key points in conclusion. First, we urgently need to upgrade the north Cotswold line, including redoubling the line and increasing the frequency of trains to and from London. Secondly, we should look at opening the Cowley branch line for passengers with a shuttle service to Hanborough to significantly reduce congestion on the A40 and other roads. Thirdly, we need to upgrade existing stations and ensure they are safe and accessible. Fourthly, we need to think creatively and encourage greater timetable and ticketing co-ordination between rail and bus services. We need to build a truly integrated public transport system in west Oxfordshire that is fit to meet the demands of the future. We need a dynamic rail service for a dynamic area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this debate. I will not try hon. Members’ patience by repeating his comments, but my constituency also lies on the north Cotswold route, which is vital to the local economy, and I therefore echo his concerns and comments—in particular, his appeal to the Government for assistance with further upgrades. I want to express my appreciation for the tone he adopted, because it is important that we are partners with GWR. We want to support it and work with it, but by its own admission its recent service has been disappointing. I will talk about that shortly.
I am incredibly fortunate to represent Mid Worcestershire, which covers the main Wychavon areas—one of the most desirable places to live in the country. I am originally a Lincolnshire boy, Sir Edward, and I know you may disagree with me. Of course, Witney is quite a nice place to drive through on the way to Worcestershire.
Mid Worcestershire is a fantastic place to live, work and play. Employment is plentiful, we have a thriving creative sector, and tourists from all over the world come to visit us, but we are relatively let down with transport and infrastructure. The M5 runs through the area, but we have a particular problem with trains. That is highlighted by the fact that it is possible to travel from London to Coventry or Leicester in 60 minutes—they are both a similar distance from London as Evesham, near where I live—and to Warwick Parkway in about 80 minutes, but it takes 2 hours to get to London by train from my constituency. The slow service is a source of frustration, particularly when it comes to encouraging more tourism.
Worcestershire and Oxfordshire are two of the fastest-growing shire counties, and therefore this focus on infrastructure is pivotal to the long-term economic growth of our regions. We are obviously keen to work with the Government to encourage economic vibrancy and activity. I talk about tourism quite a lot. I am pleased to say that in the southern part of my constituency, Broadway is about to have a new train service for the first time in 58 years. I thank the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam Railway line for its efforts. It will open a new service between Broadway and Cheltenham this weekend, which is fantastic.
I join the calls for further upgrades to the Cotswold line and the redoubling of the line, for which my hon. Friend argued eloquently, but I do not wish to minimise the progress that has been made so far. In my constituency, we have seen significant increases in passenger numbers at all the train stations along the line, so there is clearly a desire to travel by train. I would like to express my appreciation for the efforts of various bodies and groups, including the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, the North Cotswold Line Task Force and the Vale Public Transport Group, as well as many Worcestershire MPs and the local council, for continuing to lobby and work with GWR on these improvements in services. We have already seen some significant improvements. There has been some redoubling of the line beyond Oxford, and some expansion of car park capacity.
I am also pleased that, in the not too distant future, the new Worcestershire Parkway station will open in my constituency. Once completed, it will significantly enhance Worcestershire’s connectivity to regional and national destinations, including London. As befitting a modern train station, it will be fully accessible, with disabled spaces, secure bicycle parking and charging points for electric vehicles. There will be about 500 parking spaces in total. That alone will do much to set Worcestershire Parkway apart from the other stations serving the region.
The Minister will be familiar with the asks my hon. Friend and I are putting to him today, as unfortunately we are merely reiterating some appeals that have been made many times over the years to the Government. Although I appreciate that redoubling the Cotswold line is a lengthy project that will require a considerable amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, it is difficult to overstate just how positive the impact could be on the region. Redoubling the line is one of the first issues I raised in this House shortly after being elected in 2015. My hon. Friend’s predecessor as MP for Witney, the then Prime Minister David Cameron, told the House, in response to my question at Prime Minister’s questions, that he agreed that further investment in the redoubling of the line was necessary to deliver the extra and more reliable services that our constituents deserve right along the line.
One of the most common sources of frustration for rail users along the Cotswold line is the lack of parking. For Honeybourne station in my constituency and Pershore station, just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), parking is a particularly acute issue for an ever-growing population. Honeybourne station, which is in the very south of my constituency, right on the border with Gloucestershire, is just a bit too far away to get the immediate benefit of the expansion at the new Worcestershire Parkway station. Plans for an extra 200 spaces at Pershore station were first unveiled several years ago, but progress is being hindered by ongoing disputes between Network Rail and Great Western Railway about who should provide the funds necessary to construct a bridge that would connect the station to the desired new car park.
My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, has been working tirelessly to move the process along and has been trying to facilitate dialogue between Network Rail, GWR, the Department for Transport and Wychavon District Council, which owns the land the new car park will be built on. The responsibility for solving the issue does not fall on any one single organisation. I would welcome any suggestions from the Minister about how we can look to the Government for ideas for funding sources to move the issue along.
I would welcome the Minister’s view on what more the Government can do to hold franchisees to account when the services they provide to British taxpayers fall short. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney said, in the past few months there has been a significant deterioration in the GWR’s service along the north Cotswold line. I am sad to say that my mailbag has been full of complaints about GWR’s service from constituents including my predecessor, Sir Peter Luff—he does not bother me often, so we know this is a major issue.
GWR’s performance report identifies that there has been particularly poor performance on the London to Cotswold line during rail period 12. The 11.22 am and 2.21 pm trains from Paddington to Worcester Foregate Street feature on GWR’s list of the top 10 worst-performing trains. On Monday 12 February, which some local groups have dubbed a black day on the Cotswold line, six trains were cancelled completely and six were either terminated or started at Worcester Shrub Hill, instead of operating through Worcester Foregate Street, the Malverns or Hereford. Two days later, another six services between Worcester and London were cancelled, and two commuter services between London and Worcester did not operate for a week due to a lack of available drivers. Although GWR has acknowledged publicly and in communication with me that the service it provides has fallen short, the issue has not been addressed fast enough. The Vale Public Transport Group has claimed that there is growing evidence that businesses and leisure travellers are deserting the Cotswold line to travel on the more reliable and regular routes from Birmingham or Warwick Parkway. A number of constituents have told me that they have had to abandon the train altogether and now drive into work because they cannot risk relying on the Cotswold line to serve their needs.
The current GWR franchise has already been extended by a year and will run until April 2020. I believe that is not the first time that has happened. The Government are currently analysing the feedback to their consultation on the future of the Great Western franchise, and I look forward to reading those findings. The consultation sought views on, among other things, splitting the franchise. I think the Government should seriously consider creating a stand-alone franchise for the north Cotswold line. That is something that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has been particularly vocal about.
I am not alone in hoping that any future refranchising agreement will include an explicit case for redoubling the whole of the north Cotswold line. I hope we can secure the Minister’s support for that goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for this excellent debate. I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who gave an excellent presentation. I have read his vision for the Cotswold line in his response to the GWR franchise consultation, in which he set out a coherent vision for his constituents. I also thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), although I contest his claim that Mid Worcestershire is the best place to live—I would certainly put York on the map. I would welcome him to York, which has really good rail connectivity. The hon. Gentleman highlighted incredibly well the situation for his constituents, and it was good to hear about the reopening of the link between Cheltenham and Broadway, with the opportunities that that will bring.
On the future franchise model for GWR, I must first stress that we cannot afford to see greater fragmentation of the railways. The hon. Member for Witney talked about consistency across the south-west and Oxfordshire area, making a sound case for what Labour believes is the way forward, which is one railway. He has said:
“I would instinctively prefer to keep the franchise as one…Having one, integrated, coherent service in coherent regional groupings is preferable…to have greater vision for the system as a whole, have greater economies of scale and have resilience in challenging circumstances. Secondly, it is preferable for passengers, as they have one coordinated service with one simplified fare structure and the same standard of service.”
I could not have said it better myself—the same standards, one ticketing methodology and greater co-ordination. We want to see that in the public sector, which is perhaps where we differ on such matters, but we certainly agree with the sentiment that we want the railway system to come together after fragmentation and the pain that that has brought.
Indeed, the Government recognised some of those strengths on pages 23 and 24 of the consultation document on the future of the Great Western rail franchise. The document calls for the franchise to be extended by a further 12 months and then, following discussions, a further two years—another example of a direct award, an extension of a franchise, again demonstrating that the franchising system is simply not working.
We would also strongly make the case that transport cannot be seen in silos. First, on active travel, as a cyclist I concur with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Witney—it is crucial that we look at how people access our transport system through cycling and walking. Some of the developments in cycling, in particular in the Netherlands, have been inspirational. When the Dutch talk about multi-storey buildings at railway stations, they are talking about bike parks, not car parks. We have much to learn from other European countries about the progress they have made in achieving a modal shift.
We also need to ensure connectivity with the bus network and other forms of transport. For passengers, a journey does not take place in a silo; it starts at their front door and ends at their destination. We must see seamless transport moving through, ensuring that options are available to the passenger, so that we see the modal shift off the roads and on to more suitable public forms of transport.
Why? We believe that investment in a fully co-ordinated transport infrastructure is, first and foremost, essential for the environment—something that barely got a mention in the franchise document, only two small paragraphs. I want to see the Government put more emphasis on the environmental necessity of having a secure public transport system. Investment can also address issues such as congestion which, whether it is on the A40 or the A64 just outside my constituency, exists on our road network across the country. We need to see modal shift for those reasons, and we know that would be better for business and for the economy, and to enhance quality of life.
In fact, we would say that road building in future should be the last resort, not the first. For example, when looking at parking capacity, we need to look first at the public transport alternatives to bring about the modal shift, so we can ensure that public transport solutions are trialled first and foremost. That means having discussions with current bus franchise holders. We also believe that determining some bus routes to support the rail network is vital.
Talking about connectivity, I remember when I used to travel between Norwich, where I was living, and Cambridge for a while. I had 59 minutes to wait at Ely station, and that kind of connectivity is incredibly frustrating. We need to ensure good connectivity on our rail system. That is essential if we are to motivate people to use that form of transport. We believe that discussions about bringing track and train—wheel and steel—together is vital to ensure good co-ordination throughout the network.
We also need effective bus services, as I said, particularly in rural communities, which are not well served by buses across the board. We need to see a shift there. We also need to ensure that running times for public transport, as the hon. Gentleman said, whether train or bus, match what the commuter and the wider passenger require, as opposed to what is most convenient or profitable. We need to see that as a public service, extending late, weekend and early running to fit in with the patterns of the economy and people’s lives.
Connectivity on branch lines should also be at the forefront. With my medical background, I always use the analogy with the blood system—the arteries carry the main flow of blood, but it is through the capillaries we see the gas exchange. That is, passengers coming on to the network and feeding into the main systems. If we are to realise the capacity of the railways, we need to ensure that we release that capacity by enhancing the branch lines and the feeder networks of different modes of transport.
When assessing future demand and opportunity, we believe that that should begin now. I call on the Minister to do just that, to see whether the Cotswold scheme and other schemes provide that compelling case that has been presented to us today. I therefore ask for clearer understanding of the Department for Transport’s methodology for making such assessments. Perhaps it would be good if all Members were written to, because I am sure that many across the House have compelling cases for improvements to their public transport networks. A copy might even be placed in the House of Commons Library so that people can make that assessment of how to improve transport and connectivity in their constituency and through further discussions with, obviously, Network Rail and other railway bodies.
I heard loud and clear the hon. Members for Witney and for Mid Worcestershire make the case for the redoubling of track. It seems to me that there is a real opportunity here—in particular in the light of the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Witney, when he talked about the increased demand on the railways—so we should have a close look at that. We want to see demand go up, but we want to match that with good transportation links to ensure it is possible.
Where possible, Labour also believes that we have a real opportunity to look at issues such as reversing Beeching closures or at new proposals, perhaps even seeing profitability coming out of that. There is a real future for investment in the railways, and we now need to work with Members across the House to ensure that we get the decisions right. We cannot talk only about high-speed rail; we must also talk about the branch lines, which are of equal if not more importance, so we can see a real shift in how we travel.
We need better connectivity, greater frequency, better timetabling and improved accessibility—we believe it is crucial to ensure that all disabled people have access to the network. It is unacceptable that disabled people often have to travel long distances by road in order to access the railway. I believe that more could be done by the Government to improve accessibility for all passengers, upgrading stations accordingly.
We also need to see electrification of the railway network. That is crucial as we move forward. It is greener, cleaner and what is being demanded. There are also new technologies, such as batteries and hydrogen, so we need to see that investment. The Minister has put forward the ambition that by 2040 there will be no further investment in diesel; I would like to see more ambition from the Government in this area, perhaps to drive innovation by scientists, to see what advances they can make, and to put that innovation at the heart of our economy and growth.
We want to ensure that the passenger experience is enhanced. We are talking about modern facilities for passengers—dependable wi-fi and sockets on trains, which are basics that commuters expect today. We also want to ensure that there is good communication with passengers, and to look at how we can use apps more so that passengers can be kept up to date with intermodal transport forms. We need to have two forms of communication because not everybody uses a phone, but there is real opportunity in the power of technology to communicate far better with the great British travelling public.
We have all seen the real power of the Oyster card. From the regions, we look on with envy because we know the real success that that has brought across different modes of transport. But that should not be the preserve of just London passengers—it should spread across the country. I call on the Minister to update us on the work that the Government are doing in that area, and to look at smart technology. It is crucial that we take that leap forward as we have those opportunities, not least because passengers demand that from the Government.
We must address the issue that the hon. Member for Witney made very clear from his meeting with his constituents, about passengers’ frustration about paying more and seeing a decrease in the levels of service on the railways. We need more transparency in ticketing. It is the No. 1 issue—everyone thinks they are being diddled out of a decent price on the railway. People go on the internet and they do not know if they have the best deal—perhaps if they had logged on half an hour ago or in half an hour’s time, they might get a better deal. We need transparency—people want to know where they are. Could the Minister tell us the work that the Government are doing on that? The public demands it.
The hon. Member for Witney rightly reminded us of the importance of safety on the rail network. It must be the No. 1 priority. He talked about his constituent Ms Evans who lost her life at a crossing. It is vital that we look not just at safety on the track but the wider infrastructure. No one should lose their lives on our rail network. At places such as level crossings, there is more access to the line, and that creates a risk. I would be interested in hearing an update from the Minister on exactly what is being done to reduce risk on the rail network.
In reading the hon. Gentleman’s submission, I picked up on some of his constituents’ frustration at being fined because they cannot get tickets out of the ticket machine. That is an injustice—people who in good faith have tried to travel on the network should not be penalised. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain how he would approach that issue, to ensure that there are not barriers to people having confidence when travelling on the rail network.
I will come on to the issue of stations, if I may. It is good to hear about the developments coming for two stations, but stations should be seen as a community asset. They are somewhere warm and dry, a place to wait where passengers can sit—often, it is difficult to find seating at stations these days—but also to read and work, have access to toilets, get a drink and meet basic needs. We need stations to provide that facility, but also be a community asset in welcoming people to a community. They are the gateway to a local economy. They are there for residents and visitors, as well as businesses. Although we have seen the hard commercial aspect of stations in recent times, we must think about the community value as we move forward, perhaps to marry up both those agendas and to enhance a facility for the local community at stations. A lot more work can be done on stations.
Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney on bringing forward this debate. It opened up a number of issues. The speeches from him and from the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire have been exemplary. I believe in their quest to move the railways forward in their constituencies. It is important that we look at how we move the rail service across the country. When a Labour Government are elected at the next general election, we will prioritise an integrated transport system that serves the passengers at its heart.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss upgrades to the Cotswold line. As always, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) have demonstrated their hard-won reputations as extremely focused and dedicated constituency MPs.
All rail services in Witney are provided by Great Western Railway under the Great Western franchise. The debate is timely, as the hon. Gentlemen noted, because it is a little more than a month since the conclusion of the Department for Transport consultation on the future of the franchise. I am delighted that we received more than 800 responses, demonstrating the importance that passengers and stakeholders attach to rail services. The Department is analysing the considerable volume of responses and will respond later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire, with the support of our colleague my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), raised the question of splitting the franchise. I should like to emphasise that, at this point, the Department has made no decisions. Any decision in favour of such a split would need to be made on the basis of real benefits, including to passengers.
It has been suggested that Cotswold line services could be split off to the operator as a separate franchise, with comparisons being drawn with the Chiltern Railways franchise. Such a comparison is not straightforward, and certainly not as straightforward as it would seem on paper—the Chiltern franchise operates close to 10 times as many train services as those on the Cotswold line. Having said that, the Department will look at all suggestions made in response to its consultation. I am grateful for the thoughtful way in which my hon. Friends made those suggestions.
Billions of pounds are being spent to upgrade services for passengers on the Great Western franchise. They aim to improve significantly the services experienced by a hundred million passengers a year, serving them all the way from London to Penzance and from Portsmouth to Worcester. The improvements will include brand new electric and bi-mode trains that will provide many more seats and more comfortable journeys, while timetable changes will mean faster and more frequent trips on many routes by 2019. The new intercity express trains have started operating on the Cotswold line, replacing the older high-speed trains and other types of train. The same trains will operate all fast services between Oxford and London Paddington, complementing those operating on the Cotswold line, ensuring through services on 125 mph trains, even though it has been necessary to defer electrification of the line north of Didcot to Oxford.
The Government have decided to extend the franchise, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) noted, for the current operator GWR until March 2020, to make sure passengers get the best possible service while these upgrades are carried out. The Department for Transport will seek to agree terms for GWR to continue operating until 2022, which will allow the improved services to bed in fully before running a competition for a new long-term franchise.
On the future of the Cotswold line, in his response to the Department’s consultation, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney made many detailed comments about what he considers should be the priorities for the development of the route. Given how Hanborough has developed as a key access station for fast-growing communities in west Oxfordshire such as Witney, he focused on the developments and the train services he rightly would like at that station. Today, six services from Hanborough arrive at Oxford in the morning peak. He argues for an even more frequent service. He rightly recognises the importance of science to the economic development of the area by asking for some trains to run direct on a reopened route to Cowley, serving the important area around the Oxford science park. Those improvements and others highlighted in his response to the Department’s consultation would require substantial further development of the rail infrastructure in the area, as he noted.
I have seen with interest the formation of the north Cotswold line taskforce, which brings together a wide range of interested parties along the whole route. It would have seemed incredible 20 years ago to aim for a half-hourly service with far shorter journey times. That could be made possible only by a combination of the infrastructure upgrades we are putting in place, including further redoubling of the remaining sections of single track, and the division of the train service into a new regular express service supplemented by slower trains that stop at the smaller stations. I am particularly struck by how the taskforce thinks creatively about financing options and does not simply assume that the only feasible option is more Network Rail control period spending.
The taskforce’s work and my hon. Friend’s response to the Great Western consultation also highlight that rail is seen as a real and valuable alternative to the car. He put centre stage in his concerns the regular serious congestion on the A40 and other roads in his constituency, and rightly addressed modal shift.
Those who have attended recent rail debates will know that the Government are careful to ensure that they do not commit too early to specific projects in Network Rail’s control period 6, which starts in April 2019. I cannot commit at this stage to the project that my hon. Friend advocated so powerfully, because the control period 6 process remains under way, as does the rest of our analysis of responses to the Great Western consultation.
Elsewhere in my hon. Friend’s reply to that consultation, he raised the prospect of a new station at Yarnton in his constituency. I referred to the Department’s new rail strategy, “Connecting people”, which was published in November last year, which makes it clear that, as with the reopening of lines, a strong business case needs to be demonstrated where Government funding is sought for new facilities. The Government will consider proposals on a case-by-case basis, based on the economic benefits put forward by local partners.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Tackley station crossing. The debate has focused mostly on train services, but that crossing is important. It is a passenger level crossing on a busy cross-country route with many passenger and freight trains, and it is used not just by users of the station, but by locals who want to cross the line and walkers who want to access the Oxford canal walk and the Oxfordshire way. As he mentioned, some years ago it was the site of the tragic death of a user. I recognise that it is not the easiest location at which to provide a safer alternative that is as accessible for all users, but we are encouraging Network Rail and local users to engage in a constructive dialogue so that we can find an acceptable outcome.
Hon. Members raised the issue of operational performance, which is obviously a critical question for passengers. When the Secretary of State announced the control period 6 funding for Network Rail last July, he put particular focus on better performance. The Government are determined that the railway should become more focused on issues that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. A more reliable railway would play a critical role in underpinning economic growth and bringing the country together, which is why the Government are committed to taking action to achieve those outcomes. My hon. Friend expressed forcefully the rising concern among his constituents about the level of cancellations on some GWR routes. It is critical that GWR does everything it can to minimise disruption to services and to address passenger concerns when services are cancelled.
On my hon. Friend’s points about integration and a more holistic approach to public transport, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the smart ticketing initiatives that are under way. Those projects have considerable potential to promote cross-modal use and intermodal shift more broadly. A GWR scheme is in place, and we are looking to develop that more broadly across the country.
I am happy to update the hon. Lady. Good progress continues to be made on the smart ticketing initiative, and we continue to hope that the smart ticketing system will be in place in full across the network by the end of the year. That is our objective, and it is crucial to ensuring that we get all the benefits that modern technology offers our rail system.
Overall, rail users in Witney and Mid-Worcestershire have much to be hopeful about. Brand new trains are already being introduced, building on the improvements to timetables and stations in recent years. The Cotswold line has come a long way in the past 25 years, but there is clearly considerable potential for it to be further upgraded and developed. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney and groups such as the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the north Cotswold line taskforce are powerful advocates for change and improvement. Between them, they have an exceptional record of achievement on behalf of the travelling public. The Cotswold line deserves the best possible rail service, which is what the Department is determined to provide.
I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for that considered and detailed response to our points, and to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for her response. I am also grateful for the mention of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, which reminds me to state on the record my interest as a member of it.
We have covered a great number of issues, which I will not go through again now, other than to stress that the tone of the debate and the points we have raised illustrate that this issue is of interest not just to the people of west Oxfordshire and Witney. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for their presence, which illustrates not only that the line runs through their patch but that it is of equal importance to many others. The strong business case does not just arise from west Oxfordshire; it is much wider than that.
The Minister kindly referred to the taskforce’s creative thinking. I agree with him and also praise that thinking. This has been a constructive and creative debate, which is exactly what we need as we look forward to the years ahead so that we can have the services we need along the Cotswold line.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered upgrades to the Cotswold line.