Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 643: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2018

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 June 2018

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Backbench Business

UK-Romanian Relations

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK-Romanian relations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Betts. I declare an interest, as I am the chairman of the all-party group for Romania. I welcome colleagues who were involved in a recent all-party group visit to Romania, and those who went there a couple of years ago under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Before I talk about the current situation, it is pertinent to review the relationship between our two great countries, which has existed for more than 100 years. Our diplomatic relations with Romania were established on 20 February 1880, but there was a considerable period, particularly during the second world war and the cold war, when relations were not as friendly as they currently are, so 1990 is considered to be the start of the modern UK-Romania relationship. Our relationship has grown stronger and stronger over the past 28 years. The United Kingdom was a firm supporter of Romania’s joining NATO—I will say a bit more about that later—and the European Union, and we championed its calls to join both organisations. The strategic partnership that we currently enjoy was established in 2003.

Last summer, British troops undertook key exercises with Romania and other NATO allies in the Black sea region and the east of Romania. Our excellent ambassador, Paul Brummell, noted that it was the busiest period of activity in our bilateral defence engagement in recent memory. That demonstrates our shared history of defence and economic co-operation.

Our relationship is not limited to our diplomatic or economic relations. Prince Charles has a sprawling estate in Transylvania and visits Romania regularly—at least once a year. This year’s visit coincided with our visit to Romania, and many of the key people met him and went to see his estate. The other great relationship is that Michael I, the last King of Romania, was a cousin of Prince Philip’s, so we share a royal history. Colleagues perhaps do not know that Romania is home to virgin forests—forests that have not been explored or mapped, and which people have not gone through on trails—which could be opened up for conservation and tourism.

The all-party delegation visited Romania during the Whitsun recess. I was joined by the hon. Members for Keighley (John Grogan), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), and we met many individuals from Romania, including the Deputy Prime Minister; Andrei Pop, the chair of the UK friendship group, who hosted us admirably during our brief visit; the vice president of the Chamber of Deputies; the president of the Senate; the chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee; and the long-serving Foreign Minister, whose description of the UK-Romania relationship was a tour de force. We also had a key joint meeting with the European Affairs Committee and the Committee for Foreign Policy, and visited the Ministry for Romanians Abroad—and I shall come on to one of Romania’s concerns about its citizens living abroad.

We were hosted by Angel Tîlvăr and the foreign affairs counsellor to the President. We had a large number of diplomatic meetings. We also had the opportunity to have detailed discussions with the Ministry of National Defence and its cyber-security team. We saw many aspects of the work they are doing to combat the problems they face from Russia.

During our visit, six concerns were shared in almost every single meeting we had. Romania will ascend to the presidency of the European Council in January 2019, which is a crucial time for us as we leave the European Union, and is also the run-up to the European elections and the appointment of the new European Commission. All the Romanian politicians we met expressed the desire for a smooth Brexit. They have no desire to punish the United Kingdom for leaving the European Union, and they hope that our strong bilateral agreements on the policy areas we have collaborated on over the past 28 years will continue.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On our relationships with Romania and other nation states, does he agree that, after we leave the EU next year, we can continue to build the type of relationship he is successfully and eloquently outlining with nations across Europe, irrespective of our or their EU membership? That would be very productive for both sides.

Clearly, an important part of the UK strategy is to form strong bilateral arrangements with our friends and neighbours from across the European Union. However, I am keen to highlight the importance of this particular strategic relationship, which existed long before Romania joined the European Union and NATO. It is clearly exposed to Russia, particularly in the Black sea region, and there are very important things that we have to be clear about in relation to that. All the people we met said that NATO must address the challenges from Russia in the Black sea region. The excellent document produced by the House of Commons Library strongly outlines the Russian threat to Romania and the concerns that Romania has expressed for many years about that issue.

All the people we met said they were concerned that young people from Romania are leaving the country to go to not only the United Kingdom but other parts of the European Union, denuding the country of its workforce and of people who can provide professional services. People who provide labour, and people who are highly intelligent and well qualified, are leaving Romania to go to other parts of the European Union.

On that point about young people leaving Romania and going to other parts of the EU, including the UK, does he agree with me that over the next number of years, as the Romanian economy strengthens and grows—it has been growing very well—young people will instead stay, which will cause staff difficulties in the agri-food sector in our part of the world?

I shall come on to the question of the number of people leaving Romania and coming to this country in a few moments, but the clear concern in Romania is that the young people who leave are not yet returning in any number. They may return in future, and it is true that in certain countries, such as Poland, people have started to return and to invest. A number of people who are resident in the UK are investing in Romania, but the concern in Romania is still about the huge numbers who are leaving and, at the moment, not returning, which puts a great strain on the country.

Romanians are also concerned about the trafficking of Romanian women and children through the European Union, including the UK. People are being trafficked for the sex trade and other illicit purposes, such as the drugs trade. Clearly that is of concern to the Ministry for Romanians Abroad, and it is one of those areas that we as a Parliament need to examine, to ensure that people who come here have chosen to do so of their own free will and accord to contribute directly to our economy, as so many do.

Equally, tourism and trade provide both a challenge and opportunity. Such opportunities will grow dramatically over the next few years. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister of Romania, whom we met on our trip, is married to a British businessman— who I happened to see last week when he was over here. They have been married for a long time. There are also clearly strong economic bilateral relations, all demonstrating the strength of support for the United Kingdom and Romania.

One or two aspects of modern Romania and what is happening there are probably not widely known. We visited a number of Jewish sites in Bucharest. One synagogue is being turned into a holocaust museum, to commemorate and recall the tragic events in Romania during the Nazi era. In Bucharest and Romania, people are facing up to the damage done during the Nazi era and in the holocaust and to the terrible number of people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

We also went to a Hospices of Hope centre, not only to meet the people who run the hospice there but to see their work which, in essence, is with children suffering from life-limiting illnesses such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. The centre is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from the United Kingdom. It also looks into the terrible treatment of children under the communist regime.

We saw historical stained glass windows depicting figures such as Vlad the Impaler who, if legend is to be believed, was the model for Count Dracula. He had a nasty habit of literally impaling his victims and drinking their blood, so not something we would necessarily accord with in this Parliament—[Interruption.] Not necessarily, I said. I wanted to make sure that everyone was listening. We also saw the remarkable architecture of Bucharest. It used to be known as a modern-day Paris, blending neoclassical styles with modern design, including the remnants of communist-era buildings.

Another key feature worth noting is that every meeting we had on our visit was held in English. The Romanians spoke brilliant English, and they were most accommodating. In many of the countries that we have the opportunity to visit, politicians and diplomats all speak in their own language and have a translator. In Romania, every single meeting was conducted in English, demonstrating the modern Romania—and our inability to speak another language.

I warmly thank the UK ambassador to Romania, Paul Brummell, whose term of office comes to an end this August after a number of years. He will return to this country after an extremely successful time there. He is extremely well respected and clearly does a brilliant job for us. I also thank the Romanian ambassador to the UK, Dan Mihalache, who was with us for the whole visit. He has formed excellent relations in this country for Romania. Finally, David Webster acts as the APPG secretariat and was the trip organiser, and I thank him for all the arrangements that he made for us.

Last year the Office for National Statistics put the number of Romanians in the UK at 411,000, which was an increase of 25% in a single year. The Romanians have now overtaken the Irish and the Indians to become the second most populous non-British nationality in the UK. The most recent figures I have seen for 2018 indicate that that number has now topped 500,000. The Romanian population is therefore growing, while the Polish population, which was 908,000 in 2017, has apparently started to dip as Polish citizens choose to go back to their country of origin, as I said earlier.

Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and any restrictions on the movement of Romanians were lifted in 2014. In my constituency, we have approximately 10,000 Romanians, and every single week I see more than 100 more arrive to live in the constituency. They are young people who come to work here, not only to invest their own resources in our economy, but to earn money—contrary to popular myth, not to depend on benefits applied for in the UK. These people are equally at home in the building industry and our service industry. Notably in London, in any restaurant, café, car or shop we are likely to be served by a Romanian citizen who speaks excellent English and provides excellent customer service.

The bilateral relations that I alluded to earlier come about in a variety of ways. Prince Charles going to Romania annually gives us an enviable opportunity to use those connections. Equally, the Duke of Cambridge’s cousin and the Romanian consulate recently set up in Scotland are other opportunities to enhance our soft power. In May, George Ciamba visited London. He was supposed to meet the all-party parliamentary group, but unfortunately that was not possible. I believe that he did meet our excellent Minister during his visit. He is a career diplomat, the Secretary of State for Political, Bilateral and Strategic Affairs in the Euro-Atlantic Area and, as such, leads for Romania on bilateral relations. Clearly, through him, we can build our soft power and the friendship that exists between our two countries. Furthermore, our excellent ambassador, Paul Brummell, and Andrew Noble, who replaces him in August, offer two more people with a shared relationship that can build soft power and improve understanding between our two great countries.

I mentioned the threat posed by Russia to Romania. Clearly, NATO and its members are expected to assist Romania against any and all Russian aggression. Reuters reported in February 2017 that a senior Russian official considered Romania’s hosting of elements of an American anti-missile shield as a threat to Russia. Clearly, Russia takes the view that NATO establishments in Romania are a direct threat to it. It is quite clear from talking to people in Romania that Russian aggression is deliberately calculated to cause trouble. It has up to seven active submarines in the Black sea at any one time. Russia accuses NATO of encircling it through its operations in the area.

One of the concerns being expressed for the forthcoming NATO summit is that Russia’s operations in the Black sea are not on the agenda. That is a concern to Romania. We need to send a strong message that NATO will not accept any position that threatens Romania or any other NATO ally. It is clear that in Romania’s view the purpose is peace, not war, but we have to always be ready for the ultimate possibility. The exercises last year were helpful in demonstrating our capability to assist Romania in its possible time of need.

I mentioned that Romania takes the presidency of the European Council from January until June of next year. It has outlined its mission statement: to look at the conclusion of Brexit, hopefully an appropriate and smooth Brexit; to prepare the new multi-annual financial framework, which will be a key challenge for the budget; and to deal with the end of the current European Commission and Parliament and the build-up of the elections thereafter.

The centenary of the great union of Romania is on 1 December 2018. It marks the unification of Transylvania, Bessarabia and Bukovina with the rest of the Romanian kingdom. The all-party parliamentary group will set up a stall in the Upper Waiting Hall in November, to educate MPs, their staff and any visitors on that significant event in Romania’s history.

I would like the Minister to answer some questions. Firstly, what discussions are taking place between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its counterparts in Romania in preparation for the Romanian presidency? Secondly, what discussions are going on to develop the strong potential for bilateral arrangements post Brexit? Thirdly, what actions are the Government taking to ensure that Russian involvement in the Black sea is discussed at the NATO summit next month, and not sidelined as envisaged by the agenda? Fourthly, what action is being taken to combat child and other trafficking of Romanian citizens, in co-operation with the Ministry for Romanians Abroad? Fifthly, what arrangements are being made to develop trade relations and to support UK businesses in Romania? That is particularly important because many businesses that operate from the UK say that they would appreciate more help. Finally, what help is being given to develop tourism between our two great countries?

Thank you, Mr Betts, and colleagues for allowing me the time to speak. I hope we will have an interesting discussion and that we can develop the relationships between our two great countries, for the benefit of not only Romania but the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for setting the scene. In the main Chamber and across the House, he and I agree on a great many things. I am sure that on some things, we do not agree, but I have not found out what they are just yet. He takes forward issues that I am also concerned about. I am here to support him, but I also want to take the opportunity to speak about this issue, because a large proportion of my constituents are Romanian and I want to speak on their behalf.

Since I hail from a constituency with a thriving construction industry that employs a large number of EU nationals on sites—although nowhere near the scale of London—we have a job to do post Brexit to secure relations. We must reassure the Romanian nationals who have lived in my area for a great many years and those who are coming in great numbers. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the factories and the important employment in the agri-food sector. That sector is very strong in my constituency and I have those issues in my area, too. The agri-food sector employees a large number of people and adds to the economic life of Strangford, Northern Ireland and, as a result, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is important that we speak about these matters.

About a month ago I visited Romania for the first time. I had never been to Romania—before I became a Member of Parliament, I had been to very few places, to be honest. Being a Member of Parliament has given me the opportunity to enlarge my spectrum of knowledge of countries, which helps in this House. I was there to visit RAF’s Operation Biloxi as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, to see how the RAF squadron operates within NATO. It is important to remember that Romania is one of our NATO colleagues—the hon. Gentleman referred to that in passing, but it is important to remember the relationship we have with Romania in that sense.

We all remember the revolution. I have never been to a museum anywhere in the world like the museum in Constanţa, where a period of history has been excluded. Romania sided with Germany in the second world war, and it has blocked out that part of history, probably because it is embarrassing and something that they do not want to remember. We walked through its history to the beginning of the first world war, but then it was as if life stopped and restarted in 1944, when the communists beat the Germans and took the country back. Now it is a NATO ally. It is an important partner for us and we need to build our relationship from a defence point of view and make sure that the Romanian army, navy and air force are strong. Biloxi is important because there will be a new railhead, motorway and airfield, to make it a centre point for the distribution of NATO personnel. It is also not that far from Russia across the Black sea.

In the short time we were in Constanţa, we had the opportunity to see some of Romania’s great potential for tourism development. I hope that the Minister will look at that potential. Constanţa has not been developed as it could be. It is ripe for development and construction. The possibilities are great there; the town has been run down over the years but it has potential. The railhead and road and airport contacts will make a difference. We met the very personable mayor of Constanţa; he sells his city well. There is a lot of development in Constanţa, but they want more tourism contacts and links. We flew with Wizz Air, but Blue Sky also flies there and another company that I cannot remember. There is development, but there is potential for more. We should try to develop those contacts to a greater extent, for everyone’s benefit.

On tourism and trade, does my hon. Friend agree that there is scope for two-way development between Romania and the UK, as well the other eastern European nation states, to build a closer relationship that will help as a bulwark against Russia, to build that two-way trade relationship and to help the economies in both nations?

My hon. Friend is right—the contact is two-way. The advantage for us is that we get labour coming over, and we also have contact through people going back. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should invest in Romania. There is potential for investment, for development and for making money—investors want to make money on their projects.

Those are just some of the things I learned in my very short time in Romania. I was impressed by the people we met—by their kindness, their hospitality and their eagerness to be friends. We want to ensure that those relationships continue. The fact of the matter is that we had a great relationship with Romania before we were instrumental in bringing it into EU membership, and it appears to me that there is a desire to ensure that that relationship is protected and enhanced post-Brexit. It is my firm belief that where there is a will, there is a way. I often use that phrase—it probably comes from my mother—but it is very important today, as it was many years ago.

In 2016, the UK exported £1.8 billion of goods and services to Romania, and imports from Romania were £2.6 billion. The UK therefore had a trade deficit of around £800 million. Romania is an important trading partner, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) illustrated, that means we can do more to get the deficit back in balance. The deficit is due mainly to trade in goods; trade in services is broadly in balance. Romania is the 18th largest market in the EU for UK exports, and the 19th largest in terms of imports. I can well believe that Romania’s will to continue that trade, in which it has the upper hand, will ensure that a way is found to do that, and that is my hope. The potential is there for all to see—we just need the will to make it happen.

I am pleased that we have such a good Library briefing for the debate. That briefing makes it clear that there are many reasons for the Romanians to stand up for a fair Brexit deal that enables us to keep working with them. In its most recent figures, the Office for National Statistics estimates that some 411,000 Romanians live in the United Kingdom, which means that they are the second largest non-British national group in the UK—I believe they are second only to the Poles. The ONS estimated in 2017, using figures from 2011, that 521 British citizens lived in Romania.

The migrant workforce from Romania has a significant role in the UK economy. More than one in six people working on house building sites across Britain comes from another EU country, rising to half of site workers in London. A survey of some 37,000 house building workers across Britain showed that 17.7% were from the EU. More than half those are from Romania. Around 95% of the 29,000 seasonal workers who pick fruit in the United Kingdom are from the EU, with most coming from Bulgaria and Romania. According to Universities UK, 7,200 Romanian students were enrolled in programmes at UK universities in 2015-16, and a further 370 students are studying for UK degrees in Romania through transnational education provision.

Let me be clear: I do not cite any of those statistics to drag up the Brexit question. That question was put, the answer was received and the deal needs to be done. I do not need to defend Brexit—the nation backed it and we are going to move on—but I want to highlight the good relationship between our nations. That must continue post Brexit for the sake of both nations, and I very much look forward to ensuring that that happens.

Northern Ireland has a very strong link with Romania. In 2014, more than 1,400 Romanians registered for a medical card in Northern Ireland, compared with only 200 to 300 in each of the previous four years. National insurance number applications also increased in 2014: in 2012-13 there were just 268 applications from Romanians, but that figure rose to 972 and 2,424 in the following two years. That shows a clear trend of people coming from Romania to Northern Ireland, and specifically to Strangford. I am pleased to have them there working, co-operating, socialising, taking their children to school and very much being part of my cosmopolitan constituency.

In conclusion, Romanians should be able to continue to live and work in the United Kingdom provided they have a desire to, but let me say clearly that there is an onus on Romania to speak up in Europe to allow that relationship to continue. We always hear, with respect to Brexit, about the negotiations and discussions that take place about our position, but the other countries in Europe need us, too. Romania needs us, as do all the other 27 countries. We need the partners we already have in Europe to speak up for us, as we speak up for them. We want our relationship with Romania to continue beyond 31 March 2019. I believe that would be beneficial to both countries: to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together—and to Romania. We are better with them as well.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a fellow member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. He made a typically extensive and interesting speech.

There are three reasons why I am delighted to take part in the debate, Mr Betts. The first is the fact that you, a fellow Yorkshireman, are in the Chair. The second is that today we are celebrating a great victory by an England squad with no fewer than seven Yorkshire-born members.

That is a minor detail, but yes.

The third reason is that the debate was secured by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who led our delegation to Romania with great diplomacy and distinction. It was a good group—we had two Scottish nationalists, one Labour Member and one Conservative Member. We were not quite representative of the nation, but he led us very ably and I learned a great deal from the visit.

I will not repeat the hon. Gentleman’s remarks; instead, I will try to choose five reasons to be cheerful about Romania, building on what he said. The first is democracy. We stood on the balcony of the Interior Ministry one afternoon and looked out at the same view that Ceauşescu, the dictator, had less than 30 years ago, in 1989. How well Romanian democracy has developed in that time. My first encounter with Romania was a few years ago, when I was not an MP. I looked at Leeds civic hall on a Sunday morning and saw a massive queue of people. I thought, “What are they doing?” I asked some of them, and they were Romanians who wanted to vote. Some of them had been standing there for three or four hours. Romania generally has been a success in that period. While we were there, a new political party was formed. There is a lot of intense political debate—I will come back to that—and women are very well represented in Parliament. We met some very bright young people who no doubt have great political futures.

The second reason to be cheerful about Romania is its economy, which the hon. Gentleman touched on. The Romanian economy is racing ahead. The growth rate has touched 8%, and I think it will be more than 4% this year. Sectors such as motor vehicles, electrical goods and IT all have great futures, and Romania gets an awful lot of foreign investment. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the English. As one person we met suggested, the development of English has definitely happened in this generation. There are obviously many long-standing French links in Romania, but there has been an adjustment in the past generation. We had extensive debates with people from the British Council—youngsters and young adults—and they had excellent English. One of the older students suggested that that was because Romania has always had a tradition of not dubbing foreign films but subtitling them, and that that made some difference to the learning of English, even in communist times. The Romanian economy is definitely a success story, and the United Kingdom needs a slice of it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to foreign policy. Romania has a long tradition of having an independent foreign policy—that was the case even under the Soviet Union. Reference was made to our memorable dinner at a restored synagogue. Romania has a role to play in the middle east. I learned that not only is there a Palestinian population in Bucharest, but there are long-standing links with the state of Israel. Many Jewish citizens of Romania went to Israel—in fact, Ceauşescu even demanded payments from Israel—in the period of communism. There is still a strong, small Jewish community there, and that certainly brought home to me the need continually to fight anti-Semitism wherever we are.

We look forward to Romania taking the chair of the Council of Ministers. Without prolonging references to the European debate, I envisage that if by that stage the United Kingdom were suggesting that we might stay in the customs union or even the single market, the Romanian diplomats would find a way of bringing that about. They are certainly preparing well for their period in office—they were keen to tell us about the number of people they have in Brussels for that—and they will have many options for us, should we need them.

The hon. Gentleman, who mentioned tourism, spoke about the Black sea in the important context of security, but it is also important for tourism. Many cruise ships and holidaymakers now go to the Black sea. Romania is now the sixth largest producer of wine in Europe, and we had a little Romanian wine—just half a glass.

A final reason to be cheerful: today we are all thinking about sport. Sadly, Romanian football is not as good as it used to be. However, Mr Speaker is always keen to mention the No. 1 men’s tennis player, and of course Simona Halep, the No. 1 women’s tennis player, deserves a mention, having recently won the French open.

Finally, it would be remiss for the debate to go by without mentioning corruption in Romania. It was raised at many of our meetings, and not many of the politicians were comfortable speaking about it. However, I want to do so, not least because their current Government are a sister party of the Labour party. Incidentally, corruption affects all Romanian political parties. Without going into all the details of Romanian internal politics, the position of Ms Kövesi, the state prosecutor, is under threat, and the President must rule on her future soon.

It is not good enough just to talk, as some Romanian politicians do, about the deep state and how everyone is against them. Corruption must be dealt with. It is important for all the existing and new political parties that Romanian politicians of all parties confront the issue. The new, young generation of Romanian politicians, many of whom we were privileged to meet, must make it clear that even if such ways of operation happened in the past, they will not happen in the future.

Mulţumesc, Mr Betts. May I say what a delight and pleasure this is? I am no national chauvinist, so you will not hear me banging on about the fact that both goals last night were scored by a Londoner, and you will not hear any of this Yorkshire chauvinism, even in reverse. What you will hear is my congratulations to my neighbour to the north—not the far north; barely north of Ealing—the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on bringing this important subject to the House.

We are fortunate in who we have on the Front Bench for the debate: not only my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), who knows the subject very well indeed, but the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who is, if I may say so, one of the most impressive Foreign Office Ministers I have ever known. If I have one cavil against him it is that wherever I go, be it Belarus, Bucharest, Warsaw or anywhere, he will have been there before me and set a high bar. He will have set a standard for literacy, charm and intelligence that I can only aspire to. He represents our country extremely well, and we should be well aware of the pleasure of having him on the Front Bench.

May I cross swords with the hon. Member for Harrow East? When he spoke of the vast, untouched, untrodden forests of northern Romania as we approach the Carpathian foothills, where the wild boar and Balkan bear roam free and untrammelled, I thought to myself, “Some flipping travel agent somewhere will be noting this down and seeing it as an opportunity.” Those of us who have entered the foothills of the Carpathians as the Romanian moon flies high in the dark sky, remembering the great and glorious traditions of he who was known as Vlad Tepeş, will have looked around us and thought, “This really is the most glorious untrodden, unspoilt part of the world.” Is it any wonder that His Royal Highness Prince Charles feels so comfortable and at home there? Duchy Originals biscuits at 500 guineas a packet are fortunately absent, for which we can only be grateful. The food we were offered on my last visit to Romania was ample and delicious.

Can we, on the one hand, praise Romania and say what a marvellous country it is and, on the other hand, say, “let it not be ruined by tourism”? There is a balance to be had in what is happening in Constanţa on the Black sea coast, particularly with the cruise ships calling there. I was intrigued to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) enjoyed half a glass of wine. I suspect that it may have been a fairly large glass—do not forget that a glass can be any size, so half a glass could be a few gallons.

Romania is a wonderful country. In some ways, its past was cursed by its mineral wealth. Ploieşti has been mentioned, where some of the worst, most brutal fighting in the second world war took place, with some of the greatest losses. My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about Romania’s part in that war, and we should not forget that after the coup of Prince Michael they were our allies, fighting with us against a determined and well-entrenched Nazi force particularly concerned with protecting the oil fields. We should be grateful for that. In fact, the history of oil exploration in Europe and the middle east could not be written without recognition of the advances made in Romania, going back 1,000 years. Axle grease for chariots was mined in Romania and became a well-known product throughout the region. We should be aware of that.

We should note our relations and close links, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrow East. I visited the Hospice of Hope and thought what an extraordinary building it was. It was created initially by two Englishmen who saw what was happening with paediatric illness in the country and decided that something must be done, so they raised the money for the hospice, where no other similar hospice exists. It is a testament to the close links between us.

In some ways, Romania has not had the best of all presses, but there are many things to be proud of. Reference was made to Mr Speaker, whose family originally came from Romania, as well as to tennis players. I have been privileged to have stood on the battlements of the great noble towering castle of Braşov and looked out over the glories of northern Romania in the company of the man who in 1975 was simply the most exciting tennis player the world has ever seen. Of course, I speak of he who is now Senator Ilie Năstase. We may talk of Adrian Mutu during his time with a team who should not be mentioned from the other end of the Fulham Road, but no one can hold a racket to Ilie Năstase. What an extraordinary player. That he is now a senator says so much about modern Romania.

The other thing that struck me when I went to Romania was the language. The hon. Gentleman touched on this. Many Romanian words have an extraordinary resonance with us. For example, when someone in Romania says “goodbye” they say “la revedere.” For “good evening” they say “bună seara”, and “good morning” is “bună dimineaţa.” I see the Hansard reporters looking a little worried. Phrases such as “la revedere,” so similar to the Italian “arrivederci”—“bună seara” is also similar to the Italian—show how Romania was such a crossroads between western Europe and the Black sea. In some ways, the country suffered from the constant tramp of military feet marching through, but equally it benefited in culture. It has an amazing music and theatrical tradition that has drawn from many sources to create a unique culture. Then there is the extraordinary language, so memorable and easy on the ear. It was right for the hon. Member for Harrow East to mention our ambassador, Paul Brummell, who is one of the finest representatives of our country, and has done very much for it.

Finally, let me address some misconceptions about Romania, which in some parts of the world—and some parts of the UK media—has had a bad press. I see the Romanian community in my constituency in a different light. I do not see a criminal confraternity or a group of people who are causing problems and difficulties for this country. I do not even see people who are unskilled labourers. Instead, I see IT professionals, doctors, dentists, cardiologists—people for whom we should be extremely grateful. I will not be drawn down the slippery slope into the ghastly foul nightmare of Brexit—it is too close to breakfast time even to talk about such horrors. However, we should be grateful that so many skilled and intelligent Romanians have done us the great favour of coming to work in our country.

If any Member would like to try some Romanian food, they should come to Ealing North. They should go straight past Harrow East—obviously, if they see a red light they should not stop; they should wind up the windows and come on down to Ealing North where they will find an extraordinary group of people who are industrious, hardworking, commercially astute and, if I may say so, an absolute credit to their country and my constituency. I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members would say the same.

Romania is in some ways the victim of its past, which hangs heavy on the shoulders of that emerging nation. There are, however, many signs of hope, democracy and of a new, young and vibrant economy. One of the buildings of the Ceauşescu era had the second largest footprint on the face of the earth after the Pentagon. I remember asking what the planning permission was like, and what had been the consultation with the local community. How exactly did it manage to get built? Was there a proposal under a section 1 agreement? Was there a community infrastructure levy? I was looked at askance and they said, “Ceauşescu did not much bother with community consultation.”

We must consider that that is the recent past, and we spoke to people who had lived through that era. We have moved on from there to a young, hopeful, optimistic, forward-looking Romania, and it is so important that debates such as this take place. I do not wish to be otiose, but we must put on the record how we in this country appreciate, value and support our fellow Europeans in Romania, and hopefully we can work together and go forward. This debate will, I trust, put down a marker for future relations, and I look forward to hearing the Minister respond—indeed, there has never been a time in my parliamentary life when I have not looked forward to hearing the right hon. Gentleman. I know that in his heart he has heard our words, and that he will feel the same emotion that we feel, which is a huge affection for Romania, the Romanian people, and above all, the Romanian future.

Order. I now call the Front-Bench speakers. You have no more than 12 minutes each, because we need to allow time for the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) to respond to the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I will try to keep my remarks within that time, but perhaps you could allow me some leeway because I was one of the members of the all-party group for Romania who went on the trip, so I have a bit more to say than just summing up the debate.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep to the time limit, because it is the same for all the Front-Bench speakers.

I have made the request, and I will try to accede to your request, Mr Betts.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important and overdue debate on Romania, and the issues that affect it and its relationship with the UK. For a moment or two I wondered whether this debate was actually about last night’s England-Tunisia game, but let me congratulate England on its win and then move on.

You will notice, Mr Betts, that in honour of this debate I am wearing a tie made from Romanian tartan. I must make a non-financial declaration of interest because since 2012, which predates my election to this House, I have served as honorary consul to Romania for the Highlands and Islands. It has been an absolute pleasure to do that on behalf of my Romanian constituents. Indeed, all hon. Members would find such a job easy, because just as it is the work of an MP to look after their constituents, so is it the work of an honorary consul to look after those people’s interests—there is very little difference. On St Andrew’s day last year, as a result of my work as honorary consul, I was awarded the rank of “cavaler” of the Romanian Republic, for which I was very grateful and honoured.

The hon. Member for Harrow East spoke about the trip of the all-party group, and the range of meetings and visits that we undertook. Brexit and security were common and recurring themes throughout our visit. People acknowledged that the UK had guided Romania through its accession to the EU, for which they were very grateful, but at every single meeting there was also an expression of sadness and some confusion about why the UK is leaving the EU. They also underlined how committed they are to the EU27 and to it continuing. As the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce said, people are looking for a human approach to Brexit, and in all our meetings we heard that they are keen on seeing an expansion of the EU. They also spoke again about the security threat from Russia, and the feeling that Russia is creating a buffer of influence using hybrid methods—political propaganda and military.

I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East for talking about the publicity that Romanian people get when they work in the nations of the UK. They are clearly not here to claim benefits, and statistics show that they are not causing any problems with crime. Indeed, statistically they are likely to behave better than our own indigenous citizens in the UK.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the importance of Romanian workers in his constituency, and underlined the importance of the NATO relationship. As was pointed out, in fairness it is important to remember that Romania did change sides during the second world war, and it worked with Soviet forces to drive the Nazis back. I also echo the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about opportunities for investment.

The hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) spoke about five reasons to be cheerful, and gave a comprehensive list of some of the reasons for optimism that we should have for Romania. He spoke about his feelings regarding the change since 1989, and recalled standing on the balcony then—I will come back to that in a moment or two. He also underlined Romania’s growing economy, which I will also return to shortly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the joy of the British Council debates. They were probably the most fun that we had in Romania, working with students of all ages in the British Council, who were a delight to engage with. He rightly raised the issue of corruption and the need to challenge that at every level. Wherever corruption exists, and in whichever political system, it is the duty of all elected Members to raise the issue and point out measures that can be taken to tackle it.

Finally, in an enjoyable speech—well, they were all enjoyable—the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) tried to dampen the expectations of tourists by saying how beautiful, unspoiled and untrodden Romania is. He laboured on about how great the food and drink is, all to keep people from going there. He does not want Romania to be ruined by tourism, but he did a fabulous job of attracting people there, which I will try to emulate. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know, with regard to the long relationship between Britain and Romania, that the Romans used Dacian—Romanian—troops to build Hadrian’s wall; so it is a long connection.

Importantly, the hon. Member for Ealing North spoke, as did other Members, about the bad press given to Romanian people. Romanians in the UK have had a terrible time from the press here; they have been exploited for dramatic and grossly unfair headlines. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should take into account the fact that those people are doing us a favour by working here. We should all pause to think about that. Finally, the he talked about how exciting that new, young, hopeful and optimistic country was—those were very good words from the hon. Gentleman.

I want to talk about the visit by the all-party group. We visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and stood on the balcony over Revolution Square. It is an eerie feeling for someone who stands there to realise that they are in the place where Ceauşescu made the speech when his dictatorship exploded in real time. Footage can still be found on YouTube of that speech during which things disintegrated—from the orchestrated, disciplined crowd to the ludicrous concessions and promises to raise wages immediately by 20% because he could feel the crowd going away. It followed a pattern that happens when people see the end coming. We see a leader who is paranoid and unable to trust anyone, disconnected from the people and famed for using wooden language, seeing their support disappear and desperately throwing out uncosted off-the-cuff promises and abandoning long-held strategies to try to stave off the inevitable—but let me get back to Ceauşescu.

How Romania has moved on. Its fast-growing economy has been mentioned. Real GDP growth is in the region of 78%, and the IT sector is undergoing a meteoric rise. It is now 9% to 10% of GDP, and it is so impressive that the London stock exchange is moving its back-office operation back into the EU from Sri Lanka. Romania is a nation of 22 million people with enormous potential for trade and the exchange of cultural ideas. As has been mentioned, the countryside is fabulously beautiful. The cities still bear the scars of the Soviet era, but they are rapidly improving. A lot of interesting development is going on, including in urban areas.

On a visit before I was elected to this House I went to Argeş county. I was struck by the similarities that I saw between the highlands and Argeş. I visited its folk museum and struggled to see the differences between it and the one in my constituency, so similar were they. I am delighted that High Life Highland will undertake an exchange visit this year with the folk museum, to discuss the opportunities for cultural exchange. As to opportunities for Scotland, clearly two sets of welcoming and engaging people are involved, and there are huge opportunities for the massive food and drink industries of Scotland and Romania. There are high-quality products, and opportunities to work together.

In the minute or so I have left I want to reflect on the pleasure of being able to work as the honorary consul in the Highlands and Islands. I thank Mihai Delcea, the Romanian consul general in Edinburgh, and the ambassador, Dan Mihalache, who has been mentioned in the debate, and who has been very supportive. Romanian Scots are well integrated and welcomed into our society. We are glad of them, and their contribution to modern Scotland, as we are of all people who come to work, and to add to our society. Given the shared history that we have with the people of Europe, including Romania, this is a special time to be saying that we appreciate both what they have done in coming to assist our economy and the relations we have with them.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing this important matter to our attention, particularly at this time. One thing that he said slightly perplexed me, and that was his notion of a smooth Brexit. I hope he means something constructive, and that he will vote for such a smooth Brexit in the Chamber when the matter comes before us again tomorrow, so that we will have some sort of accountability in Parliament on moving things forward. I look forward to walking into the same Lobby as the hon. Gentleman on that question.

The UK established its first diplomatic mission in Bucharest in 1803, 77 years before formal diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in, as the hon. Member for Harrow East said, 1880. Also quite significantly we share royal blood, as Queen Marie of Romania was British by birth and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria; so there is a long historic relationship, certainly through the royal family, and I think that the UK wants a long working relationship. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—it is quicker to call him the hon. Member for the rest of Scotland—Hadrian’s wall was built by Dacian troops. Despite all that, his taking on the role of honorary consul shows what support there is for the people of Romania. The first and second world wars were mentioned, and the fact that Romania changed sides dampened the relationship somewhat; the cold war with Russia also created difficulties. Since those times, as has been said, our excellent ambassador Paul Brummell has done excellent work. He will move on in August, which is a shame, but that is what must happen in such posts. I am sure that he will be replaced by an equally brilliant ambassador, because we need to work with Romania.

The security issue, including in relation to Russia, has been mentioned a number of times. There is also a question of the relationship of Moldova and Romania and how, because of their shared history, the two need to work together. Of course, Moldova is not in the European Union at the moment, although it is striving to join—an issue that it is important for us to consider. We need to see how a bilateral relationship, and a continuing relationship between those two countries, can have a strengthening effect. The involvement of the Russian Army in Transnistria was mentioned. It is still there, so there must be a lot more work to resolve those security issues. Our role will be limited by leaving the EU, but it should not be a reason for us to stop working on the matter. It is all the more reason for us to continue our relationship, and our NATO commitment should allow us to go further in working together. It is hugely important to keep a relationship with Romania and strengthen our role in that regard. I think that in security terms, doing that will stand us in good stead in the region.

As to cultural exchanges, the British Council has done a phenomenal amount of work on cultural exchange for a long time—since 1938. It does good work across the world, and the relationships it builds through education are everlasting; there should be continued support for that.

The role of the Prince of Wales was mentioned, as was the fact that in Romania he has a foundation, which again is about education and supporting what we do. The best way of working with any country is through education. Talking about the role of education overall, I hope that we will allow more students to come in to the UK—qualified in proper universities—who want that sort of support to be able to move forward.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the statistics from the Office for National Statistics. Those statistics are important because they show the number of people who are here, but also the types of work they do for us, and the types of support they give us, to move things forward. They play a huge and fundamental role. He also mentioned the role of the agricultural and seasonal workers who have come across. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already mentioned the role those seasonal workers play and the support they give. There is a question for the Minister later about how we support that industry to continue post Brexit and how we deal with that. It is extremely important for us to see how we move forward.

An increasing number of students are coming into our universities, which is very welcome as far as I am concerned. I believe the Government need to look closely at that, to see how we can support more students coming to this country. Our continued relationships will always exist if we have a better relationship through the education of people coming to this country, which will provide a much longer, deeper and further relationship in support of those combined countries working together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), as always, was right in praising the Minister for his great work. The fulsome praise he gave is well deserved; the Minister is respected across both sides of the House for the work he does. I will not go into whether people should cross traffic lights when they are red. My hon. Friend’s views on the great work done by the Romanian community, and the skills and support they provide to our country in doing it, are noted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) mentioned the significant issue of corruption. For a member of the European Union, corruption must be dealt with. It is extremely important that we do so, and we should work much more strongly on that; if we want to move forward with our relationship, it should be based on anti-corruption. It is crucial to work on that.

It has been an excellent debate, but I will just ask the Minister about the status of Romanians post-Brexit; the status of seasonal workers, whose support is much needed in this country; and also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North said, the skilled people who come to support us in our hospitals, on our building and construction sites and on all the sites we have available. As I have already asked, what regional relationship will the Minister ensure with the heritage of Moldovans and the Romanians on security, with the 14th Brigade there? What further work can we do through NATO to secure that relationship and see that that is not in any way a flashpoint for further instability in that area? This has been a good debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East for securing it.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate, and for his hard work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Romania. I am grateful for the feedback on the all-party parliamentary group’s visit to Bucharest last month from the hon. Members for Keighley (John Grogan), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), two of whom have spoken today. I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members and I will try to respond to all the points raised.

I will say at the outset that I welcome this opportunity to illustrate the strength of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Romania and our commitment to deepening our ties. I am still blushing from the kind words of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), slightly echoed, for which I am thankful, from the Opposition Front Bench. I sense that after the paean of praise from the hon. Member for Ealing North I owe him a sizeable bottle of Romanian wine—a magnum at the very least. We thank him for his special speech this morning on Romania. It was interesting, informative and entertaining, but most importantly it caught the flavour of our relationship with Romania, a sentiment that I think is shared by everyone participating in this debate.

The UK shares a close and long-standing partnership with Romania. Our diplomatic relations stretch back nearly 140 years, spanning two world wars and, most importantly, Romania’s emergence from under the yoke of Communism. Today we have close connections at every level—Ministers, officials and parliamentarians. As we have heard, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales also makes regular visits to Romania, as the highly respected and popular patron of numerous charitable organisations in the country, and as someone who has property there and takes a deep interest in many aspects of the country’s life. I was honoured to accompany him to the funeral of King Michael of Romania last December, joining friends from Romania and around the world to pay tribute to an extraordinary and distinguished monarch who stood up to both communism and fascism in his lifetime. The popularity of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was clearly evident from the warmth of the reception he received from the gathered crowds.

In recent years we have significantly strengthened our security co-operation with Romania to help to address threats in the region that are a concern for Romania and its neighbours. Last year was the busiest in recent memory for our defence engagement. The British military presence was seen on land, in the sea and in the air, and senior British representatives visited on a number of occasions. We plan to maintain that level of engagement in 2018 and beyond.

Last month, four RAF Typhoons returned to Romania to resume air policing activity, and the significantly named HMS Duncan docked at the port of Constanţa for the second time this year. In fact, I have been following my Type 45 destroyer namesake around Europe for the best part of 18 months, but always seem to be two days behind or two days ahead. I look forward one day to coinciding with HMS Duncan; they probably have enough Duncan tartan on board, but I will think of something appropriate to give them when I board.

Our successful defence co-operation benefits both Romania and the United Kingdom. It also demonstrates the key role that the UK’s world-class military and security capabilities continue to play in helping to protect our European neighbours. As the Prime Minister has made clear, our commitment to European security will remain steadfast and unconditional after we leave the European Union. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East that I am confident that Russia’s activity will form part of the discussions at the NATO summit next month.

The same is true of our co-operation on law enforcement to tackle serious and organised crime. We have joint operations under way right now to tackle illegal immigration and financial crime. Combating modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking is a key focus of our work together. There are 16 active joint investigations in progress to tackle modern slavery, more than between any other two EU member states. We also share the hon. Member for Keighley’s concerns about the maintenance of proper efforts to tackle corruption within the Government.

As an outward-looking nation, we also remain committed to supporting peace and security in the rest of the world. I take this opportunity to put on record my concern at recent suggestions by some Romanian politicians that their embassy in Israel might move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We very much hope that Romania remains with the rest of the EU in believing that this would be unhelpful to the prospects for peace in the region; in any event, it is against the terms of United Nations Security Council resolution 478 of 1980 and others.

Our economic partnership with Romania continues to strengthen. Last year, direct British investment in Romania increased by more than £1.3 billion, and trade in goods between our two countries increased by nearly 5%. That is now worth £3.5 billion to the UK every year, while our trade in services is worth almost £1.8 billion. Again, to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, we have a strong post-Brexit plan for bilateral trade.

Those security and economic ties are important and growing, but it is the daily interaction of our peoples that forms the bedrock of our relationship. Some 5,000 British people now live in Romania and make a positive contribution to the country they have made their home. Our charitable and educational links are particularly strong—numerous British charities make a real difference to the lives of individuals and communities—and this year the British Council celebrates 80 years of promoting education, language and culture in Romania.

Last month, the Office for National Statistics reported that Romanians are now the second largest group of foreign nationals in the UK, as we have heard. They are renowned for their hard work and entrepreneurship, and they make a hugely valuable contribution to our society and to every sector of our economy, be it finance, business, agriculture, engineering, healthcare or education. Many Romanians also choose to study at our universities; they are welcome here and we want them to stay. In the same spirit, we want to encourage greater tourism to Romania among UK citizens, but perhaps not for them to traipse through the virgin forests we have heard mentioned this morning.

The Mayor of Constanţa said he would like to see more tourism contacts, particularly involving airlines. Does the Minister have any thoughts about how we can help him to achieve his goal and therefore, I believe, build greater economic ties between our two countries?

I hope that in building the sort of bilateral relations that we want with all the EU27, we will see a cross-Whitehall approach to encouraging increased activity in all sorts of areas, including tourism. I very much hope that the afterlife, as it were, will deliver what the hon. Gentleman seeks.

In common with other EU citizens in the UK, Romanians want clarity on their rights after the UK leaves the European Union, which is why the Government have made safeguarding citizens’ rights a high priority in our negotiations. We are confident that the agreement we have now reached with the EU provides those citizens with the certainty that they need. Earlier this year, working closely with the Romanian embassy, the Foreign Office organised two widely publicised events, in London and Manchester, for the Romanian diaspora to explain the agreement reached on citizens’ rights. We want to ensure that Romanians feel safe and welcome here, and we hope to run more such events in the future.

Looking to that future, particularly after Brexit, we are working with the Romanian Government to develop a new strategic partnership that looks far beyond March 2019. We welcome their commitment to our future relationship and look forward to strengthening our collaboration across a range of issues, including foreign policy, trade, security, culture, education and defence.

I was specifically asked if there have been any discussions about the coming Romanian EU presidency. I can tell hon. Members that we are already working closely with Romanian colleagues, and the British embassy in Bucharest has been discussing Romania’s developing plans for the presidency with Government officials for some time now. On 8 June, Lord Callanan, the Minister of State for Exiting the EU, met the Romanian Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry for Romanians Abroad to discuss preparations for the presidency in the context of our exit from the EU. We also maintain excellent relations with the Romanian embassy in London, and we very much value and appreciate our working relationship and the attention it pays to us, which I sense is endorsed by all hon. Members here.

Many elements help to strengthen the partnership between the UK and Romania. The successful collaboration between our Government Departments, Ministers, parliamentarians and armed forces are all essential components of that good relationship. They are all underpinned and reinforced by the relationships between our peoples—the British citizens living in Romania and the Romanians living here, whose rights we are working hard to protect. We should be proud of the vibrant relationship between our two countries, which the Government, and I personally, intend to nurture and strengthen in the years ahead.

I thank every hon. Member who has participated in this welcome debate—particularly the Minister, who was widely praised even before he spoke. It is important that we send out a strong message to our citizens in the United Kingdom, to Romanian citizens in the United Kingdom and to our friends in Romania that we want a strong bilateral arrangement and relations going forward and that people who have chosen to come and live in our country are welcome. We congratulate and thank them for the service they give us and we want to make sure that they continue to contribute to our economy. Equally, we want to make sure that we stand shoulder to shoulder with Romania in our defence relations and, looking forward, in our trade relations and in tourism, even if that tourism is promoted by Pound Associates, that well-known travel agent in Ealing North.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. We have had a warm and welcome debate, with speakers from across the nations of the United Kingdom, which demonstrates the great force and the great opportunities around Romania. We are also grateful for those Romanian footballers who have come to our country, including, notably, two who came and played for Tottenham and demonstrated their great abilities on one or two occasions to overcome the other team that plays in north London.

It is a pleasure to sum up the debate, and I look forward to the various activities in the rest of the year to promote the excellent relations between our two countries. We can look forward to a solid future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered UK-Romanian relations.

Rail Services: Hassocks

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services in Hassocks.

I welcome the opportunity to raise the subject of the rail services provided for villagers in Hassocks in my constituency, and for others who use the station there, which is on the Brighton main line and which offers Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express services. Hon. Members may wonder why I am talking about rail services to a village. Although it has a population of only 7,700 people—making it the largest settlement in my constituency—Hassocks is nevertheless the 10th busiest rail station in west Sussex and is used by many people who do not live in Hassocks itself. It is a commuter village.

Many people move to Hassocks specifically because of the rail links that it provides to London and other places. In fact, 1.3 million passengers a year use Hassocks station. Therefore, my first and key point—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken it on board, because he very generously met me to discuss this issue before the new timetable was introduced last month—is that this is not a small issue. A large number of people use the rail service from Hassocks in my constituency, and the Minister knows that they are very angry indeed. They have put up with two years of disruption because of the problems with the Southern service and the London Bridge upgrade. They fully accept that the London Bridge upgrade will ultimately be of benefit to passengers, but they are certainly not seeing that at the moment. Just as it looked as though we might be moving towards a steadier state for rail services in West Sussex, which over the past two years have been absolutely dismal, we have serious disruption again.

This all started with the introduction of the new timetable last month. I should say straightaway that I fully appreciate that the new timetable provides more peak trains to Victoria from Hassocks and the same number to and from London Bridge—theoretically; I will come to the actuality shortly. Theoretically there are more such services, but—here is the “but”—there are no longer any direct services to Clapham Junction, the busiest rail station in Europe, from Hassocks. Despite the size of the village and the numbers of people commuting from there, the direct services to Clapham Junction have simply been withdrawn, and I am talking not about the disrupted timetable, but about the new timetable, which was meant to offer an improved service to everyone.

Four peak-time morning trains to Clapham Junction have been removed, and Govia Thameslink Railway admits that three of those journeys will now be slower by up to 10 minutes because of the need for my constituents to change services. Six peak-time return trains from Clapham Junction to Hassocks have been removed, and GTR admits that four of the journeys will be slower by up to 10 minutes. GTR has told me that it appreciates that

“passengers will need to change trains,”


“the journey time is only increasing by an average of 7 minutes.”

Commuters dispute that: they say that changes at Gatwick or East Croydon are rarely quick or easy, because of overcrowding. I know that GTR is giving figures based on a four-minute change time at Gatwick. I defy the Minister, GTR executives or anyone else reliably to be able to change at Gatwick at peak time, even if the trains were operating properly, based on only a four-minute window.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for the work that he is doing. Many of us in West Sussex are working together on this; it is a huge problem across the county. On his particular point about a changeover time of four minutes and with crowded platforms and mass disruption, commuters in my constituency are very concerned about the safety aspect. I am sure that that is a concern for his commuters as well.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. We have indeed been working together in West Sussex and we have been working closely with our right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who is also very concerned about the disruption to services on the line. We are all concerned about the unfeasible interchange times and the safety implications, the implications for disabled passengers and so on. It is no good producing figures that show a theoretical benefit or not much of a change or not much of a problem for commuters, because of course it is actually very disruptive for people to have to change when they had a direct service before. These are busy working people. They often cannot get a seat once when they have changed. Their working patterns are disrupted, and they are just very irritated by the claim that somehow the service is nearly as good as it was before. It really is not.

There is a mismatch between demand and train routes. Gatwick Express trains, which stop only at Victoria, are relatively empty, whereas Thameslink trains have been severely overcrowded. I have raised before with the Minister whether it makes sense for Gatwick Express trains not to stop at the busiest station in Europe, Clapham Junction. If they did, that would offer more choice to people flying to and from Gatwick. The demand that those trains run direct from Gatwick to Victoria is problematic anyway, but it is certainly disadvantaging my constituents at the moment.

The Minister will tell me that only 9% of journeys in relation to Hassocks are to, from or through Clapham Junction. It sounds like very few when we hear that only 9% of my commuting constituents are affected, but actually it is 9% of a large number. It is 9.45%, to be precise, of the nearly 595,000 journeys that are being made to London. That means that more than 56,000 single journeys a year from Hassocks to Clapham Junction, in either direction, have now been withdrawn, in terms of the direct service, so that is not a small impact. It is impacting on the village, and people are very upset about it. Hassocks is a growing village—the number of houses will increase by one third in Hassocks alone, never mind the surrounding area—so to pick on one of the biggest stations in West Sussex and withdraw entirely the direct service to Clapham Junction simply does not make sense. I would therefore be very grateful if I could repeat to the Minister the request that I have made to him, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to GTR and to Network Rail, in so far as it is a matter for that organisation: will they please reconsider the new timetable, which has withdrawn what was an essential service for a large number of my constituents?

All this would be one thing, and I might not even have raised it in this Chamber, if it were not for the fact that these are theoretical new services anyway, because the disruption that has resulted from the new timetable has worsened the service not just for the commuters who have seen their service withdrawn, but for hundreds—no, thousands—of others. Frankly, the service since the introduction of the new timetable has been completely intolerable. I said at the beginning of the debate that my constituents were angry about it—they really are angry. This disruption is happening on a daily basis. It is deeply ironic that before the new timetable was introduced, GTR told me:

“We hope that with the introduction of this timetable, we will be in a position to provide…much more reliable services for all passengers travelling on our network.”

That would produce a very hollow laugh indeed from my constituents. The Minister knows that there has been widespread withdrawal, cancellation and delay of services.

The important thing for the Minister to note is that the situation is not getting better; in fact, it is just as bad as it was when the new timetable was first introduced. In the week before the timetable change, to 19 May, there were 18 train cancellations. That was a “normal” service. “Normal” service in West Sussex appeared to mean that my commuters had to accept that level of cancellations. Can people imagine an airline being run on the same basis? But never mind; there were “just” 18 cancellations in that week. In the first week of the new timetable, 245 trains were cancelled, and I am talking about trains to and from Hassocks. In the second week, there were 267 cancellations, in the third week 312 and in the fourth week 290. We are now in the fifth week and still nearly 300 trains a week are being cancelled. Might we have expected that after one month of the new interim timetable, which is resulting in services being withdrawn altogether, there might be some improvement? I am afraid not.

On Monday morning I received an email from a despairing constituent, Mr James Read, who lives in Hurstpierpoint. He said:

“I feel I must write to express my dismay at the current situation which appears to somehow deteriorate further everyday. This morning for example, I have never seen so many people waiting for a London train on the platforms at Hassocks. This morning, the 0623 was virtually full before it reached Hassocks. Then there were additional stops at Hayward’s Heath and Three Bridges to compound matters. It is totally unacceptable for people to be standing on a train service at 0630!”

I agree with that. I have a simple question for the Minister: when will this shambles come to an end? We are now four weeks on and it continues to be appalling.

I have here a timetable for rail services from Brighton and Hassocks in 1905, well over a century ago. The fastest of three direct trains from Hassocks to London Bridge took just one hour and 17 minutes. Those were steam trains. Theoretically, we now have direct services from Hassocks to London Bridge that are 23 minutes faster, but the reality is that we have a completely unreliable service. My constituents would be grateful to be transported back to the days of 1905, when they had three reliable steam trains that took them to London every single morning, compared to the chaotic, shambolic, disrupted, withdrawn and cancelled services that they are facing now.

What will be done about this? There is the issue of redress. I am grateful to GTR for at last recognising that tickets that are valid on one of the services should be passported to the others. I specifically asked for that and am grateful that it has been introduced. If a passenger has a ticket for a Southern service that is cancelled, they should be allowed to use it on a Thameslink or Gatwick Express service, or whichever service is available.

Then there is the issue of compensation. Of course, we must compensate passengers, but the compensation system is simply not good enough. It is not direct enough, immediate enough or sharp enough. It is too complicated for constituents to use. It just increases their irritation even more. We need a modern, sharper form of compensation system that is better than delay repay, so that the rail operating companies feel real pain when they are providing a shambolic and shoddy service like this, and passengers are compensated on a much more immediate basis. We need that not just because it would be fair to customers, but because it would introduce greater accountability.

Who will be accountable for this shambles? We have seen the resignation of Charles Horton, the chief executive of GTR, but what about Network Rail’s responsibility for this matter? It has admitted that it has some responsibility for the problems with Thameslink services, because of its failure to deliver in the north, which meant that it did not have enough staff to manage the new timetable. GTR says that one of the reasons it was in such trouble is that it was not given enough time to introduce the new timetable. The blame game is being played a lot. Who is being held accountable at Network Rail for this shambles? Yes, other projects may have been delivered on time and London Bridge might be wonderful, but that is not the point. My constituents want to know that people are being held accountable for these problems, so that they will not happen again.

Those were unforced errors, frankly. This is not the same situation as we are seeing in the north with union disruption. It is not the same as the situation over the last two years with the disruption to Southern services, which, we all came to realise, were largely driven by the unions manipulating problems that already existed with the lack of track because of the London Bridge upgrade and the shortage of drivers. There were other responsibilities, but the unions were driving it particularly. That is not the case with these Thameslink services now. We cannot lay the blame at the door of the unions for this. The blame has to be laid with the managers, whether in Network Rail, GTR or the Department for Transport, who presided over this shambles.

Why was there not an early warning system or risk register? Why were red lights not flashing, because this was a major change and could result in problems? We were still being told right up to the introduction of the new timetable that it might have minor teething problems, but it would be all right on the night. I am afraid it has not been all right on the night. We have to learn the lessons. I know that there will be an inquiry into that.

I am being placed—as my hon. Friends are—in a position where we are constantly having to apologise for the performance of the rail industry in our constituencies. It is difficult to explain to our constituents why more drastic action has not been taken to deal with this franchise.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is making a speech of great passion and he is spot on with every point. As he knows, we are facing the same issue in Balcombe. I have discussed it with the Minister before. Balcombe is a small village with a huge number of commuters who come into it. They pay a fortune every year in order to get to and from London. The least they can expect is to be able to do so reliably.

I like my right hon. Friend’s tone. Does he agree that an inquiry is one thing, but we simply need to know when these drivers will be trained and when the timetable will be working? Those are two simple questions, to which we need to have the answers as soon as they can be provided.

I agree with my hon. Friend. He has made the point directly, and I am sure the Minister will have heard it.

We will have to look at the size of this franchise again. It is too big. It was meant to deliver benefits in economies of scale, but it has only given us problems from the moment that it was introduced. We also need to look at the franchise holder. I appreciate that that is a legal process, but my constituents cannot understand why GTR is still running this franchise. There are longer term questions about the level of investment necessary in these lines. Hon. Members representing West Sussex constituencies will be very supportive of an increased level of investment, but that does not deal with the short-term issues.

In conclusion, my constituents in Hassocks are paying in excess of £5,000 a year for their season tickets. They rely on these rail services. I would, therefore, be grateful if the Minister would, first, look again at the question of whether direct services to Clapham Junction from Hassocks can be restored and, secondly, if he can tell us when normal, reliable services are likely to be restored.

I am grateful to the Minister for his attention to these problems, and I know how hard he has been working on them. His door has been open to us, and he has been receptive to the points we have been making. I certainly attach no blame to him or his colleagues. He has been badly let down indeed. I am sorry to address him in such tones, but it is important that I do so, because it is important for him to understand just how angry our constituents are now about this perpetually bad service and how despairing they are that there seems to be no end to it. They just want a normal, reliable rail service. In the 21st century, is that really too much to ask?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who, as we have just seen, is an extraordinarily powerful champion for his constituents, on securing this important debate on rail services in Hassocks. At the outset, I assure him that it is the Department’s No. 1 priority to ensure that his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) get the rail services to which they have every right to feel entitled as soon as possible.

He is under the impression that services have not been improving in recent days. I am disappointed to hear that. I will look into the statistics and the picture he painted of performance to and from Hassocks. Passengers travelling on those services already should have started to see improvement in their performance since GTR started cancelling services in advance, rather than on the day.

During the week beginning 28 May—some time ago now—there were several days with just three morning services from Hassocks to London Bridge. The other scheduled services were cancelled on the day, meaning that passengers could not plan ahead. Last week, by contrast, there were no on-the-day cancellations and five services ran in each morning peak period. I grant that performance is still far from being at the level that my right hon. Friend or we in the Department would find satisfactory, but I hope that passengers seeing that change feel that improvement is starting to happen. It must now accelerate and that is the priority for the Department.

On the Hassocks to Victoria route there are still too many delays. I should add that in the morning peak last week, 12 services ran each day, compared with the seven scheduled services before the timetable change. Even if there is much more room for improvement on the Victoria line, even there we are starting to see things move in the right direction.

Network Rail and GTR are urgently developing and delivering plans to do more to reduce the disruption, and to give passengers the greatest possible certainty of train services so that they can better plan ahead. As I have mentioned, GTR is removing services from its timetable in advance, rather than on the day, and reducing weekend services to pre-May timetable levels. It is now updating journey plans on Fridays with the information about which services are being cancelled for the following week being all loaded up there and then, so that passengers can get a sense of what the travel patterns will be like for the coming week. That should bring about a more stable service than we have seen in recent weeks and will be in place, to answer my right hon. Friend’s question, until a full replanning of driver resourcing can take place. GTR also aims to publish an amended timetable across the whole network. Once that is in place, the promised improvements of the May timetable will be introduced incrementally, rather than as a big bang, to reduce the risk of further disruption.

Let me turn to the questions about the future timetable, once we are over this difficult period of disruptions following the implementation of the timetable. When it is fully implemented, the new timetable will deliver improvements to as many passengers as possible while balancing the competing and often contradictory demands of different passenger groups.

As my right hon. Friend noted, peak-time services from Hassocks no longer stop at Clapham Junction. That is because all peak services between Hassocks and Victoria are Gatwick Express trains coming from Brighton, which cannot stop between Gatwick airport and Victoria. However, there can be a single change at Gatwick airport. We can examine his view that a four-minute positive interchange was an unrealistic ambition; I will certainly go back to Network Rail and GTR to see whether four minutes is a realistic interchange time. However, if we assume for a moment that it is possible to interchange in that time, Hassocks passengers can make the journey to Clapham Junction with an average journey time that is roughly the same as before the timetable change, with some journeys being faster and, I grant, with some being slower.

It may be helpful if I explain the reasons behind the change. Since the end of the industrial action to which my right hon. Friend referred in his remarks, the main cause of disruption on the Southern network has been trains and train staff travelling on different lines during the day. That has meant that when disruption has occurred, it has often spread rapidly across the network because if a driver or a train were caught up in disruption on one route that can impact very quickly on their availability for the route on which they are next meant to be working.

The new timetable keeps trains and train staff working on the same route throughout the day, containing any disruption on that specific route. In addition, work has been done so that the timing of services does not conflict with that of other services on the network. This work has included separating Gatwick Express services and Southern services on the Brighton main line.

The net result is that Hassocks now receives a consistent four Gatwick Express trains per hour on the route from Brighton to Victoria during the peak, and two Southern trains per hour from Littlehampton during the off-peak. Previously, as my right hon. Friend knows, Hassocks was served by a combination of Southern and Gatwick Express services coming from Brighton or Littlehampton at all times.

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s point that a considerable number of passengers are still being affected, but I believe that they are now in a position where they are able to choose between Southern and Gatwick Express services. Passengers from Hassocks will benefit from the performance benefits that will come in time from the full separation of Gatwick Express and Southern services.

I also emphasise that the vast majority of passengers travelling to London from Hassocks are being well served by the timetable change. None the less, I recognise that 9.45%, or somewhere under 10%, of weekday journeys represents a significant number of my right hon. Friend’s constituents who use services from Hassocks. However, it is also worth remembering that more than 90% of passengers using Hassocks are going to Victoria or are on Thameslink services. Overall, connections from Hassocks into London are much improved.

Hassocks now receives 12 direct services to Victoria in the morning peak, compared with seven before the timetable change. This provides a significant capacity increase for those passengers going to Victoria. As this is a Gatwick Express route during the peaks, it is run with new trains that have air conditioning, wi-fi and power sockets. On average, the journey from Hassocks to Victoria in the morning used to take more than an hour. Now it takes, on average, 51 minutes, which is significantly better than the amount of time that services took in 1905, the timetable for which my right hon. Friend produced and referred to.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Before he experiences the fate of politicians and other public figures in Sussex who have particularly infuriated us and is burnt in effigy, may I ask him to reconsider his comment that services are “much improved”? I think what he meant was that they might be much improved when the new timetable is finally introduced and works properly, but he cannot say, and nobody can say, that the current level of service is much improved.

Indeed. I prefaced all my comments by saying that this was about what would happen once we are over this hump—the current difficulties—and once the timetable is fully bedded in and working to the levels that it should. Of course my right hon. Friend is right and I repeat what I said earlier: there has been improvement, as I hope he acknowledges, but there is significant room for further improvement, so that services are of the standard that his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham have a right to expect.

On average, the journey times for trains into Victoria from Hassocks will be reduced by 10 minutes in the morning, when the service is operating at the level it should be operating at.

I appreciate that there is an ongoing inquiry. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether this situation is attributable purely to the retraining of the drivers, so that when that training is concluded the new timetable will operate properly, or are there other issues to be got to grips with as well? As I say, I appreciate that there is an inquiry ongoing, but I would be most grateful for any light that he can throw on this situation.

Yes, the sheer magnitude of the timetable change affecting GTR, which is one of the biggest changes that the railway industry has ever seen, and the late delivery of the timetable as a consequence have meant that GTR was substantially behind where it should have been on driver training and on getting in place all the appropriate train diagrams. That driver training and reorganisation work, which should have been completed in time for 20 May, is now being done at pace. Once that has worked its way through, we anticipate being able to move progressively back to the full May timetable.

There are the same number of services going from Hassocks to London Bridge as there were before the timetable change. I grant that for a temporary period Hassocks will receive fewer peak services to Blackfriars compared with the situation before the timetable change. However, that is a temporary result of the rephasing of the timetable and this route will receive an extra service each hour from December this year. Average journey times to Blackfriars and London Bridge are now between five and 10 minutes shorter than before, providing passengers with quicker direct access to London Bridge, Blackfriars, the City, Farringdon and St Pancras.

The new Thameslink service also offers passengers different options for getting to their final station. For example, people who interchange at Clapham Junction for Waterloo will instead be able to interchange at London Bridge for Waterloo East. The opening of the Elizabeth line through Farringdon in December will offer further journey opportunities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned compensation. As ever, passengers are encouraged to apply to their train operator for delay repay compensation for affected journeys. We are seeing increased take-up of that compensation, as awareness of it and the ease with which people can access it grow. We have also announced a special compensation scheme for GTR passengers. It is to be funded by the rail industry and it will ensure that regular rail customers receive appropriate redress for the disruption they have experienced. I encourage passengers to apply to GTR for delay repay compensation. GTR operates the scheme for all of its passengers and under it passengers can claim compensation for each delay of more than 15 minutes, whatever the cause of the delay.

I conclude by thanking my right hon. Friend for bringing this subject to Westminster Hall. It is an important subject and it is absolutely right that his constituents get the services they deserve as rapidly as possible. I remind the House that in time the vast majority of passengers will end up being well served by this timetable change, once it has bedded in. Those travelling to Victoria from Hassocks will have an extra five additional services during the morning peak; for those travelling on Thameslink, journey times will be between five and 10 minutes quicker than before. In time, I hope that he will agree that rail services into Hassocks will be much improved once those services are fully bedded in.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Geothermal Energy

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Before I call Helen Goodman, let me say that Members may, in view of the Ascot weather, remove items of clothing as they deem appropriate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential for geothermal energy resources in the UK.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on what is a huge carbon-free energy resource for this country. I hope we can use the debate to highlight the potential of the resource and to encourage the Minister to act, so that we fully realise the opportunities.

In Britain, geothermal energy comes in two forms: that which occurs naturally in the geological structure in some places, and that in old mine workings. I first became aware of that when I was a trustee of Auckland castle, which sits on the Butterknowle fault. At that time, the trustees looked—I understand they are still looking—at the possibility of using the geothermal energy there to heat the castle, and perhaps for a district heating scheme.

The Butterknowle fault runs across my constituency. It is a geological feature where coal was mined from the time of the Romans to the mid-20th century. Now the coal is exhausted but scope for geothermal has been discovered. At a depth of 500 metres, the heat is 30° C, and at 1.5 km there are rocks of about 73° C. It would be really good to exploit that, particularly because some of the villages on the fault—Evenwood and Cockfield—are off the gas grid, meaning that fuel bills and, in turn, fuel poverty are high. I met a woman whose winter oil bill one year was £3,000. I know that such a system exists in Southampton, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), who was the leader of the council there when the project began—indeed, I think he was instrumental in beginning it—will tell us more in his Front-Bench speech about how that works. Maps show that there are considerable areas of the country where it is a possible source of energy.

The second kind of geothermal energy we have is warm water in old mine workings. At about 30° C, the water is generally not so hot, but it is nearer the surface and therefore easier to extract. The Coal Authority has completed maps of 23,000 former collieries and has a very good understanding of the geology, the engineering and the feasibility of such schemes. The former mine workings are treated as a £3 billion liability for British taxpayers, because they must be kept safe, but they could be turned into a massive stream of income for them instead. Durham University’s Durham Energy Institute, in particular Dr Charlotte Adams and Professor Jon Gluyas, has done, and continues to do, a lot of work on this, and it has shown that the scale of the resource is phenomenal. Currently in this country, 80% of people heat their homes with gas. Durham University believes that the deep geothermal—the geological—could provide 100 GW of power, which is 16% of the electricity we consume.

Turning to the mine workings, a quarter of homes in this country sit on the old coalfields—7 million homes that could use mine-water heat instead of gas. In business terms, that represents a business or a sector with an annual turnover of about £2.5 billion and profits of £250 million. The net present value of the resource is £72 billion—I am using these numbers because I know that the Minister is financially literate and will understand their significance—and the net present value of the profits is £7.2 billion, so the Minister should look to turn the current £3 billion liability into a £72 billion asset.

Furthermore, the heat source is virtually carbon-free. It is estimated that enabling a quarter of the homes in this country to move over to it would save between 10 and 15 million tonnes of carbon a year. The current warm water would supply heat for 100 years, but if pumping technology were introduced to recycle the heat, that period could be extended almost indefinitely. I am told that by Durham University, which says that to meet our next carbon budget, it is essential to decarbonise heat. The Government’s current strategy is to do that by shifting people from gas to electricity heating, but electricity generation is only about 35% efficient, whereas I understand that for geothermal the figure is 75% or 80%, so the loss during production, transmission and distribution is much less. Geothermal would, therefore, be a much better route to pursue to hit our carbon targets. Some 40% of our carbon emissions are produced by fuel for heating, so if we decarbonised a quarter of the country there would be a reduction in our carbon emissions of 10%. That would be fantastic. It represents a really large reduction that is really worth having, and it would give us more flexibility in other areas of life.

There are considerable other policy advantages of using the mines in this way. First, this source of energy would improve energy security. Geothermal energy is not intermittent, unlike wind and solar, and it would reduce our dependency on unstable foreign regimes.

I do not know if my hon. Friend sees Iceland as an unstable foreign regime, but another idea is to have an interconnector through to that country, which gains enormous power from geothermal energy. Would my hon. Friend say that that fits into her debate in some way?

My hon. Friend has just inserted it into the debate, so it obviously fits. Yes, that is a country that is already using the resource, as are others, and I will come on to that in a moment.

As I said at the outset, there is significant fuel poverty in some parts of the country and using geothermal energy is a way of tackling that. The sector could also be a source of jobs, especially in the former coalfield communities, which still suffer economic decline and need regeneration—in 2004, the Department of Trade and Industry estimated that it could create a million jobs. That is a very big number, and it might not be as many as that. If we compare it, however, with the 300,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector, we can see that it is obviously a significant number of jobs. Moreover, the skills and supply chains used in the oil and gas sector would be similar to what is required for geothermal. It would provide a useful transition for those businesses as the North sea declines.

Fourthly, geothermal could help to improve food security. That warm water would facilitate horticulture in parts of the country where it does not currently exist. Fifthly, mines can be used to store heat and therefore to balance power across the grid. We would be developing an industry that could be a source of exports. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) suggests importing heat from Iceland. I do not know whether an interconnector across the very deep waters of the north Atlantic is feasible, but I know that in many areas of renewables, this country has done a lot of innovation and research and then not seen through the development. In the case of wind, we did a lot of the basic science and initial work, but the industry has flourished more in Denmark, Norway and Germany than it has here. We must stop making that mistake. We need a different approach for geothermal, because we could be exporting engineering services for geothermal.

Another advantage is that there is no nuclear waste with geothermal, which compares well with some of the other power projects being promoted. It also does not produce the environmental damage that fracking produces, yet in the Government’s 160-page clean growth strategy, there is not a mention of geothermal. I want to understand why that is. The strategy says that the Government wish to ensure that they can

“deliver affordable energy for households…decarbonising ‘harder to reach’ parts of the UK economy”,

particularly heating. The strategy says that it is important to have “concerted joined up working” across Departments. It wants to see innovation to minimise costs. I agree with all those things, and geothermal is a policy area where they could be put into practice.

I know the Minister well. When she puts her mind to something, she is a very effective operator. She is a formidable figure. Officials in her Department have told me that they have found her leadership on renewables inspirational. I know she is not a paper shuffler. I want her to pick up the baton and run with it, because I have confidence that if she wanted to, she could make a difference here. The time to do that is now, using the skills and know-how of the petroleum industry. I am going to give her a few practical suggestions as to what I would expect to see in a policy for geothermal.

First, the basic science is strong, but we need more demonstration projects. The Coal Authority needs more resources to do those, as well as to provide advice for commercial actors.

Secondly, in the medium term we should probably have regulation and a licensing system that would bring in money for the taxpayer. For now, it would be sensible to extend the contract for difference to heat. At the moment, it operates just for electricity. In the Netherlands, the Government introduced a form of risk insurance. In five years, the scale of their geothermal sector has doubled.

Thirdly and finally, my concern is that we should see reform to planning and building regulations. The resource is being lost and opportunities are being wasted. One of the studies that Durham University did was into some old mine workings in Spennymoor in my constituency. It found that it would be feasible to have a district heating system for a new development of 300 houses. The local authority had no powers to require the house builder to consider, let alone implement, sustainability factors or renewable energy sources.

We all know that the large national house builders want to minimise risk and maximise profits, which, on being interpreted, means that they are lazy and greedy. They are not going to innovate unless they are required to do so. It has been suggested to me that we need a return to code 6 for sustainable homes. That gave us targets for achieving carbon neutrality in house building. Just as with the transition from oil and gas, the time to reform the building regulations is now. We are trying to build a lot of houses, so now is the time to raise the standards.

Everybody knows that retrofitting is more costly, so this is the moment to raise the quality of the housing stock for the next 100 years. We are in danger of making exactly the same mistake that was made after world war two, when a lot of prefabricated buildings were built. If we are going to build a lot, we need to build high-quality buildings for the long term, not the slums of the future. I suggest to the Minister that she organises a seminar for the national house builders and experts in the field to educate them. Will she write to or meet her colleague, the Minister for Housing, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), to persuade him that he needs to incorporate the changes into the building regulations? He is going to make big changes to the building regulations, so he may as well do a proper, comprehensive job.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this debate. On the issue of asking the Minister to try to convene a seminar, does she agree that in doing that, it would be an idea to have mapped out the most productive areas and the likely benefit to be derived? That would act as a harbinger for extracting the maximum amount of benefit for the minimum amount of input.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need two maps. We need the map of the geological possibilities and the map of the former coalfields. The Coal Authority has done a lot of work on that. I am sure it has shared that with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but we need to give these things more currency than they have at the moment. It is also important that we have a national scheme. We do not want a system where builders are required to explore the possibility in, for the sake of argument, Derbyshire, but not in Norfolk. That will mean that they are encouraged to go and build in Norfolk, but not in Derbyshire. That is why we need a national approach. We need to go beyond a strategy to having a plan.

I thank Jeremy Crooks from the Coal Authority and members of the Durham Energy Institute and Durham County Council’s planning department. They have all helped me understand this important issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on bringing forward this important debate. She brings incredible energy and enthusiasm to any subject matter, whether it is here in Westminster Hall or the Chamber, and I thank her for that.

To digress slightly, hailing from Strangford and having lived there for all but four years of my life, my initial interest in this subject began with the sight of the UK’s first SeaGen tide turbine, which harnessed nature’s resources. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred to that with regard to geothermal resources, but in a passing way I want to explain why the first SeaGen tide turbine was interesting to me. I live on the edge of Strangford lough. At the entrance of the lough, at the narrows, the tides rush with an almost nervous but very strong force. The SeaGen project was able to harness that energy. My interest in that came about when I was wearing my former hat, a long time ago, on Ards and North Down Borough Council.

The world’s first commercial-scale tidal turbine was commissioned in Northern Ireland’s Strangford lough in July 2008. The project had two 600 kW turbines and required a total investment of £12 million. The energy produced equalled the power required by 1,500 households annually. That milestone indicated the completion of the demonstration phase of the project. We recognised that if natural resources were there, we could generate energy from them.

The subject of today’s debate—geothermal resources—is clearly slightly different, but the SeaGen project, right on my doorstep, gave me a real interest in this area. I was, and am, passionate about that project because I saw its potential. That interest led me to enjoy the research for today’s debate and learning that in Iceland—some hon. Members have intervened along these lines—geothermal energy provides around two-thirds of the country’s primary energy demand. I am not sure about running a pipe from Iceland to here, or whatever the proposal may be. Nothing in this world is impossible, but whether it is cost effective is the issue. However, Iceland’s achievement is incredible and less reliance on fossil fuels can be only a good thing.

It is time that we started to look at those things. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has generated the core of interest in the debate to enable us to focus on it and give the Minister time to prepare a detailed and comprehensive response, which I am sure the Minister and her staff are doing at this moment. We can then rely less on insecure middle-eastern trade and influence, and stand on our own two feet.

If someone drives a car or lives in the countryside their petrol and diesel bills will be bigger than most. Some people heat their house with oil. We do not have to worry about that much at this time of year, but at other times we do, and the price of oil is extreme. The countries that resource and supply oil will have a meeting this week, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, and there is some indication that the price may be reduced. The fact is that we are experiencing the highest oil prices for some four years. When I go to fill up with diesel on a Saturday morning at 131.9p per litre, that gives me an idea of it. Not too long ago, it was under 107.9p, so that is quite an increase.

The Library briefing paper indicated that the geothermal potential of the UK was investigated by a programme funded by the UK Government and the European Commission that ran from 1977-94. It identified the key heat flow areas of potential in the UK and, in May 2012, a paper by consultants Sinclair Knight Merz in association with the Renewable Energy Association, an industry trade body, argued that geothermal power could provide 20% of the UK’s electricity and all of the UK’s heat demand. Subsequent reports may have put the figures lower, but the common theme is that there is scope for further investigation of how we can harness geothermal potential in a cost-effective way.

I understand that in Northern Ireland we have some potential for geothermal interest—perhaps in North Antrim and Mid Ulster. There was also talk at one time of potential for development along South Down. I understand that this is not directly the Minister’s responsibility, but has any contact been made with the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is unfortunately not working at the moment in the way that it should, to see what part Northern Ireland can play in the strategic policy for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

In 2017, a study estimated that the UK theoretically had enough resource available to surpass easily all UK energy demand in 2015. However, the amount that was technically available was much smaller than the theoretical resource, and recovery would depend on depths drilled and areas targeted. Although there might be some potential there, the costs of extraction might be such that doing so would not be financially feasible. Can the Minister throw any light on how we can play our part in Northern Ireland?

I am not an engineer—far from it. If a hammer cannot sort something out, I do not know what can, but that is just me being the DIY man around our house. When it comes to doing simple things, if it is easy and a hammer can do it, I am your man. When it comes to the concerns highlighted in today’s debate, it is our duty to commission reports from those who have the ability, who are experts and who know what they are talking about. I believe that renewable energy resources are very much worthy of investigation. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland is really saying, “Let’s look at that—let’s see what we can do.” Is it possible to provide 20% of the electricity needs of the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? If we can, it will be time well spent, and I support the hon. Lady in trying to achieve that goal.

I support the Government and the Minister in their pledge of £300 million to invest in district heat networks over the next few years as an important way of ascertaining the best way towards a self-sustaining ability to harness a power source that can address the entire UK’s needs. The £300 million seems like a lot, but when spread across the United Kingdom it might not be as much as we would think. However, if it initiates interest in the subject, it is something we should try to do.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland on introducing the debate. I look forward to the speech of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), and to the Minister’s response. We in Northern Ireland want to be part of the strategy, and are keen to see how we can play our part to make that happen. I am keen to see how we can take advantage of nature’s best, and perhaps nature’s worst, for energy provision. If we can do that, I think it will be time well spent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans—with your strong and long Welsh history, I hope you may even know the community that I will talk about today.

Geothermal energy has tremendous potential, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing the debate. It was very interesting to hear her informed view on why such projects can be of huge benefit to Durham, and to the whole of the UK. I will focus my remarks mainly on the Caerau project in my constituency.

Bridgend County Borough Council, which serves two thirds of my constituency, has commissioned a survey to ascertain whether water held in the former Caerau colliery, in the Llynfi valley, could provide a sufficient heat source for a project. If the survey results are positive, there are proposals for a geothermal energy project to generate energy for nearly 1,000 homes across the Llynfi valley. That could provide safe, reliable and cost-effective heat and build a green energy industry in the heart of the south Wales coalfields.

If the project is successful, that will catapult Caerau to the forefront of the UK’s energy revolution. The project is a clear example of effective collaborative working, and I pay tribute to the Labour leadership of Bridgend County Borough Council, including Councillor Huw David, the leader, and the Welsh Labour Government. They have worked tirelessly with the private sector to secure the necessary EU funding for the scheme to get the go-ahead.

At its core, this is about moving towards a clean energy mix that the UK can rely on, but it is about much more than that in my opinion. Across the coalfields, many communities are still feeling the effects of the end of the mining industry. At its peak, the Caerau colliery once employed more than 2,400 workers. ln the village, the working-age population today is just over 4,000. The end of the industry was disastrous for that community. Even today, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly above the national average. Those communities need funding, employment and industry. Geothermal energy projects can provide that much needed injection.

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for coalfield communities and the representative of one of Wales’s most prominent coalfield areas, and this is an issue that I care deeply about. Geothermal energy is an opportunity to help regenerate our coalfields, and we must grasp that opportunity to build on the history and tradition of our collieries with a new industry that is clean, safe, and can provide energy and jobs where they are needed.

Of course, such projects have their benefits, but we must take care to listen to those who live close to the collieries and ensure that they have as much support from local residents as possible. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland has already said, we must ensure that local residents get the potentially lucrative benefits of the projects, and reap part of the economic and social rewards the developments bring, whether that be through employment opportunities, community funding or receiving a benefit through their energy bills.

I know from speaking to residents in Caerau that there is a lot of optimism and promise for the project, but there is some concern too. It is vital that residents are informed as much as possible about the positives that such projects can bring. Through the design, construction and maintenance process, they must be fully engaged and represented. Their opinions should take priority and it is they who should be the focus of such projects.

Needless to say, geothermal energy is not the silver bullet for solving our energy insecurity as a whole and can only form a part of our future energy mix. It will come as no surprise to the Minister if I take the opportunity to mention the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon as part of that energy mix within Wales and across the United Kingdom. While I am delighted to see the Welsh Government, local government and other authorities supporting projects such as the tidal lagoon, it is for the UK Government to come forward with a long-term proposal that gives us energy security. In my opinion, which again will come as no surprise to the Minister, that should include the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.

Juggling the trilemma of meeting our climate change targets, improving our energy security and keeping tariffs down for consumers is a difficult task. I accept that, but I would like to stress that we need effective and radical action from the UK Government to address baseline power alongside our work to advance local renewable sources of energy. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland that the Minister is not a paper-pusher; she is a proactive Minister. I would like to believe sincerely that she will do all she can to deliver energy security for the UK using mixed sources, including geothermal energy and the tidal lagoon. I still have faith that the Government will deliver that.

Geothermal energy is a unique opportunity to build industry in communities where it is often missed most, by many people who still remember with great pride serving in collieries and who still face the cycle of unemployment two or three generations after the closure of those heavy industries. Of course, we should take caution and understand that that alone it is not the solution to all of our energy woes—but it is a hugely positive opportunity for our coalfield communities, and for building a future energy mix based on renewable energy. It is one we must give serious consideration to.

I end with an invitation to the Minister. I appreciate that some energy policy is devolved to the Welsh Government, but if she would like to see the Caerau project, I would very much welcome her to my constituency to see in action the innovative work that Bridgend County Borough Council is doing, along with Cardiff University and the Welsh Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I apologise for my late arrival to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this debate. I was lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate on geothermal injury in my constituency in Clackmannanshire a few weeks ago on 4 June. The Minister was very generous in her response then and I hope she will be even more so today.

Geothermal is a fantastic opportunity and, as we have heard from different Members today, it could breathe new life into areas that have been without a key industry and key employment opportunities for a long time. It is important that as part of the industrial strategy, which looks at the entire United Kingdom, we use the powers in this place—energy is of course reserved—to make sure that every part of the United Kingdom benefits from geothermal initiatives and that the United Kingdom remains a leader in renewable energy and shows the way, as we have in other areas, such as wind. As I said in that earlier debate, there are a number of international partners and friendly countries that are already far ahead of us, such as El Salvador and Costa Rica, which already bring in 15% of their energy from geothermal sources. We are leading the way on wind and we want to lead the way on geothermal too.

Energy is a reserved function. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is now not in his place, mentioned the district heating fund—obviously heating is devolved in different parts of the United Kingdom, and that is £300 million. I hope the Minister and the Treasury could apply a little flexibility on how that fund is applied for, especially when it is linking to geothermal energy projects across the United Kingdom, so that all parts of the United Kingdom can benefit.

My Adjournment debate was very much about Clackmannanshire, an important part of my constituency. It has a long history of mining and milling. We have mines filled with water that is sitting at around 40° C. Geothermal energy enables us to use technology to tap some of that warm water to help with heating and to generate power. That could help not only build new homes, but slash energy bills. In my constituency, in Clackmannanshire, about one in three suffer from fuel poverty. Introducing a new form of energy could help tackle that, as well as slashing up to 50% off the energy bills of the local council. As we know, every council in the country faces funding challenges and that would be very welcome.

Geothermal is not a total solution, but it is an important part of our future energy mix. The leadership that the Government have shown through the industrial strategy highlights the fantastic opportunity we have. We have grasped that with both hands with wind, but we can lead in geothermal energy throughout the United Kingdom. I hope that through this debate and the Minister’s support we will be able to move that agenda forward and deliver for our constituents.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for securing this debate. Many interesting points have already been made on geothermal energy; it has been quite an education. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland enlightened me that we have an MP in our midst who delivered projects on geothermal energy and I will make reference to that later on. Her points on disused coalmines are absolutely relevant, as were those raised by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) about the coalmines in Clackmannanshire.

My ears pricked up when the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned fracking. I would inform those here today that the Scottish Government have won their fracking case. The Court of Session has today rejected a petition by Ineos Upstream Limited and Reach Coal Seam Gas Limited that sought to challenge the Scottish Government’s action in relation to unconventional oil and gas. I am absolutely delighted by that.

I can handle anything at all, but I want to get on with what we are talking about, which is extremely important. With the demise of coalfields, the potential for communities to benefit from new energy possibilities is endless. My home town of Denny in Falkirk is built on coalfields. The whole Falkirk area is built on coalfields and the potential that we have there should be realised. I hope that will happen over time.

As has been mentioned, geothermal energy is the heat stored in the Earth’s crust. The term brings to mind large geothermal energy plants exploiting volcanic sources of heat, such as those found in Iceland. As we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), geothermal energy satisfies around two thirds of Iceland’s needs. To add to that mix, there is also a vast non-volcanic geothermal heat resource—the top 10 to 15 metres of the Earth’s surface act as a heat sink, trapping the sun’s heat.

As we have heard, estimates of the UK’s geothermal power potential vary. There are credible estimates that we could supply 4% to 20% of the UK’s electricity demands, and all of its heat, which is indeed good news, especially if the energy were used to combat fuel poverty. Why people in this energy-rich country suffer from fuel poverty totally escapes me and probably everybody else here. Given the huge potential of this fully renewable resource, why is it not being widely deployed? Will the Minister tell me if any geothermal projects have been awarded to contracts for difference during either of the allocation rounds to date?

There are mature geothermal renewable technologies providing heat and electricity that should and must play their part in the decarbonisation of our energy networks. Then there are ground source heat pumps, where water is pumped through pipes laid within the top 10 to 15 meters of the earth. The pipes absorb heat from the soil, which is then extracted to provide heat. They are cheap to run and are typically small installations, servicing homes, individual buildings or small-scale industry. Ground and water source heat pumps accounted for 6% of non-domestic accredited installations and 15% of domestic accredited installations under the renewable heat initiative between 2011 and April 2018. We surely need to be more ambitious than that.

Deep geothermal plants draw heat from rocks or aquifers heated by the earth’s core, and the UK certainly has geological features suitable for that, especially in Cornwall, northern England, the English midlands and Scotland. As the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said in a geothermal energy debate on 4 June, there are only nine geothermal energy projects in operation or being planned in the UK: four in Cornwall, two in the north-east of England, one in Southampton and three in Scotland. That is hardly the uptake we would expect for a reliable form of renewable energy that poses few big engineering challenges.

The UK has a poor track record of supporting deep geothermal projects. The UK first showed interest in mapping the country’s geothermal potential during the 1970s oil crisis, but funding was withdrawn as oil prices fell. The practice of short-termism and lack of vision had begun. The first commercial deep geothermal project in the UK started life as a Department of Energy research and development project in 1980 in Southampton, as has been mentioned. The Department of Energy abandoned it as being not economically viable. With a lot more vision than the Department of Energy—perhaps thanks to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead)—Southampton City Council took over the project and developed it into a commercial district heating system, supplying more than 1,000 residential properties as well as hospitals and commercial and civic buildings. I applaud the council for taking that forward and for its courage and vision.

The UK deep geothermal energy challenge fund was set up in 2009 and £4 million was allocated to projects in 2009-10. However, the then Department for Energy and Climate Change halved that in 2010-11. What was it playing at? An early-day motion was lodged by a cross-party group of MPs expressing regret about the decision and 46 MPs signed it. Will the Minister tell us whether I am right in thinking that no further funding has been provided by the fund? I look forward to her answer.

In 2013, the Government withdrew a £6 million grant allocated to the United Downs geothermal power station project in Cornwall on the basis that the project could not attract enough private investment. However, the project went ahead in 2017 after the company was able to crowdsource nearly £4.5 million in private investment using debentures sold by the renewable energy and crowdsourcing specialist Abundance Investment. There seem to be an unending series of obstacles facing projects because of the Government.

The UK’s regulatory landscape and renewable heat initiative create structural barriers to investment in geothermal energy. There is no joined-up approach to licensing geothermal energy in the UK. Developers must navigate the planning system plus a number of environmental permits and consents, and a lengthy, complex process involving local planning authorities, the Environment Agency, English Heritage and other bodies. Unlike a licensing system, a system of permits cannot secure investment in the geothermal sector. As far as I am aware, there is nothing to prevent another developer drilling next door to an existing development once a company has demonstrated a successful well. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?

Arrangements for geothermal energy under the RHI actually prevent investment. Asset-based lenders and finance companies do not regard future RHI revenues to be security against lending risks as they would in the case of physical assets. The physical assets of a geothermal energy project have poor portability, since so much of them are stuck in the ground. Asset-based lenders and finance companies do not view the assets as security because they are difficult, if not impossible, to liquidate. Projects cannot lock in to an RHI tariff at the pre-accreditation stage, which adds uncertainty, particularly for projects with long lead-in times. RHI asset ownership rules are complex and prevent companies using an operating lease model, since under the present arrangements the asset finance provider would have to be the applicant receiving the RHI revenues.

It is interesting that a third of the operations are in Scotland, where there is consistency of support. Following a feasibility study of the potential of geothermal energy to provide a renewable source of heat in Scotland, published in 2012-13, the Scottish Government set up their geothermal energy challenge fund. In 2015, the fund invested nearly £250,000 in five feasibility studies. The projects are an important step towards demonstrating how geothermal energy could cut the estimated £2.6 billion a year spent on heating by householders and the non-domestic sector. They are in the Aberdeen Exhibition Centre; Guardbridge in Fife; Polkemmet in West Lothian; Hartwood in North Lanarkshire; and Hill of Banchory in Aberdeenshire. A small investment returns very large benefits.

A further four proposed projects were invited to contact the Scottish Government’s low carbon infrastructure transition programme team to discuss possible early development support to help them in their proposals. Scotland’s first deep geothermal heating system, the HALO 2 km deep borehole being drilled near Kilmarnock, received a £1.8 million grant and is under way as we speak. The Scottish Government’s investment in renewables is underpinned by a coherent decarbonisation strategy and is in turn underpinned by an all-party agreement. The political certainty, and the consistent political and financial support for that and for renewable energy as a whole, sends a message to businesses that the Scottish Government and Parliament are a friendly environment for investment in geothermal technologies.

Today Scotland may have a third of the UK’s planned or operational geothermal energy plants, but it seems that proportion will increase steeply in the near future. As with onshore wind and wave energy, the UK Government could learn much from the Scottish Government’s approach to supporting geothermal energy development. We are at a privileged moment in time developing renewable energy. The Scottish Government and Parliament are realising that ambition on behalf of all our communities.

Finally, I have been clear that any threat to Scotland’s distinctive and ambitious approach to environmental standards and climate change is completely unacceptable. The best way to ensure our environmental ambitions is to ensure that Scotland’s devolved powers continue to be respected.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this important debate and on putting her case with such clarity and precision. After what she found out about geothermal during her research for this debate, I am sure she will agree with me that it is indeed Britain’s forgotten renewable. It is not forgotten because it is not feasible or because it does not bring tremendous benefits. It is forgotten simply because no one has done much about it, even though that resource is under our feet in many parts of the country and is relatively easy to access. When that resource is accessed and developed, it provides potential free heat and power, probably for 100 to 150 years, as a result of a single borehole drilled down into the ground to unleash it.

Why it should be forgotten is a source of puzzlement to me, because it is a universal and beneficial renewable. Some people may regard deep geothermal as not quite renewable, in that if there is drilling into a deep geothermal aquifer, the aquifer, in theory, depletes over time. However, if water is being raised from the aquifer at the typical temperature level in the UK of about 73° or 74° Celsius, that resource will deplete at only 1° in heat per 100 years. Yes, it depletes a bit, but it is not exactly calamitous—unlike, one might say, drilling a fracking well, where the well depletes after about eight years.

No, it is a very factual debate—that is the difference.

The geothermal potential of the country is enormous, and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) set out what the potential would be, in electricity and heat, for the UK were we to proceed seriously with geothermal energy. Perhaps a limiting factor is the fact that geothermal energy is not available everywhere in the country. We need to be clear about the fact that deep geothermal is available on the basis of three different kinds of site. Basins with very ancient water at the bottom are one kind of site. Another kind, which require slightly different technology, are areas with radiothermal granite batholiths. I believe that the Minister, as a first-rate geographer in her time, will know all about batholiths and lopoliths and various other things. We have quite a lot of radiothermal batholiths in the UK, with naturally occurring radioactive-based heat coming from deep within the earth’s crust. Another kind of site relies on the availability of technology to release heat by putting water down one pipe and up another, giving geothermal as a result.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned, lower-temperature geothermal resources arise from abandoned mine workings. With heat-concentration techniques that is not a problem, in terms of concentrating the heat to get into production either for heat distribution or, indeed, for making steam to generate electricity.

As hon. Members have kindly mentioned, I have an interest in the debate because I think I can claim to be the only sitting Member of Parliament who has directly set up a geothermal energy scheme. I know a little, therefore, about how it all works. That scheme is based, as has been mentioned, in the middle of Southampton in a not particularly prepossessing shed, with a small wellhead in the carpark of the former Toys R Us store. That unprepossessing setting hides a well, drilled to about 1,800 metres. Water comes up at just over 70° Celsius and is converted into the material for a district heating scheme by a heat exchanger and concentrator. Now Southampton has a city centre district heating scheme with some 17 km of pipes, covering the university, the civic centre, the country’s only geothermally heated hypermarket and a five-star hotel. In other words, there is a complete city centre arrangement, heated substantially by geothermal energy. Not only that, but it has been heated in that way on an untroubled basis since 1987, and will continue to be so until 2087 on present estimates of what may be available. That is the potential, in practice, for geothermal energy.

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great knowledge, and I pay tribute to his work promoting geothermal power in his constituency. What are his thoughts on the potential for geothermal power in more rural areas, where there is great reliance on oil central heating, often at great cost and with a high carbon footprint? Does he believe that more could be done to incentivise and encourage developers in rural areas to look at geothermal power for new developments and homes?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he is the only Member present for the debate who does not have a geothermal resource under his constituency. I have mentioned the different types of geothermal resource, and the large Mesozoic basins are in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, around the whole Wessex area, in Southampton and Worcester, and in Cheshire. The radiothermal batholiths are in the eastern highlands, across the north-east and north-west of England, and in Cornwall. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will be delighted to know that about half of Northern Ireland is covered by two Mesozoic basins, giving most areas a strong resource.

The problem is, first, that that resource is not available everywhere and, secondly, that because of the capital cost of the borehole, geothermal energy is probably best suited to larger district schemes. One of the key issues is that because of the immediate availability of the resource, if an area—particularly a rural area—is capable of receiving it, it can be used for relatively small district heating schemes, or for local plant producing electricity in the area with a combination of a relatively small heat take-off. There is considerable potential, but I am sorry to tell the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) that drilling under his constituency at the moment would be fruitless, as far as I am aware. However, it is possible to do it in some rural constituencies where the resource is more available.

A number of new, larger homes—particularly barn conversions, which are very popular in Suffolk—have invested in the technology as a means of heating. My question is more about how we can do more to incentivise developers on small-scale developments, perhaps on the edge of rural villages and towns, to look at similar schemes, and what suggestions the hon. Gentleman may have to bring forward those incentives.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to vertical hole shallow geothermal ground source heat installations. They are perfect for rural homes, as he described. They will provide sufficient heat, from a relatively shallow penetration into the earth, for heat exchangers to heat a home to a regular temperature of 60°-plus. Although I do not think that that is an essential part of this afternoon’s debate—it is more to do with ground source heat pumps—the hon. Gentleman is right. It is a technology that I would strongly recommend for off-grid properties in which, in the past, the alternative heating might have been oil. It can absolutely reliably replace that form of heating. I join the hon. Gentleman in recommending to the Minister and the Government that efforts to secure the installation of ground source heat pumps for off-grid properties in rural areas would bear considerable fruit and ought to be strongly supported—rather more strongly supported, I suggest, under the renewable heat initiative than is currently the case.

I hope that I have set out the potential for geothermal energy, and stated how it can be done in practice and what its benefits are. I was leader of Southampton City Council at the time that the scheme I described was initiated, but provided that it had the resource, almost any local authority in the country could pilot and undertake such a scheme relatively easily. The main issue is how to raise the initial capital funding up front to get the scheme under way.

Let me say one or two words about what the Government ought to be doing—in addition to the constructive and sensible suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland—to start using this resource. Capital grants will be required up front for the essential drilling of the well. The Government have underwritten several such schemes in various parts of the country to the tune of about £2 million a time, and we should extend the availability of those initial grants. Currently, the money available through the non-domestic renewable heat incentive is not sufficient to get those schemes under way from a capital point of view. As far as deep geothermal is concerned, the RHI currently provides 5.38p per kWh. That does not compare favourably with funding for ground source heat pumps, which comes out at 9.36p.

At the moment, the incentives to get such a scheme going properly in any area are not sufficient. That is particularly unfortunate; geothermal energy ought to be considered a different form of renewable energy, because of its known longevity. When we invest in a geothermal energy plant, we are investing in a capacity that will give us free energy for 120 years—we cannot say that about pretty much any other renewable energy source, except possibly the Swansea tidal lagoon. I therefore think that the criteria under which geothermal energy is considered should be based on that kind of payback and that kind of timeframe.

My hon. Friend tempts me down a path that will be familiar to many colleagues. His point raises the question of whether it is appropriate to use the same Treasury discount rate for something that is so long-run as we would for a project that would last for 25 years. That would be another way of squaring the circle.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point—that might be her seventh recommendation for the Minister this afternoon.

In conclusion, all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate have made clear their support for the potential of this form of renewable energy, and they have given examples from various parts of the UK. I particularly applaud the Scottish Government’s initiative to bring forward real funding for geothermal schemes, and I hope that in the not-too-distant future Southampton will no longer be the only geothermal plant in the entire United Kingdom that operates in the way I described. There are glimpses of progress here and there, but it is by no means continuous or anywhere near to fulfilling the enormous potential that geothermal energy offers.

My request and suggestion to the Minister is that she might like to come to Southampton and have a look at the little wellhead in the Toys R Us carpark and the shed in which the scheme is housed, so that she can see for herself just how much comes from that little site, how much good it has done for a whole community and city, and how much good it will do for many years to come. We should consider geothermal energy in that way, and if we do, we will go a long way towards understanding how good it could be for the UK. I hope that we will then put our resources where our hopes are and ensure that geothermal energy has a bright future in the UK, just as it already does in other countries.

The hon. Member for Falkirk said that 66% of Iceland’s overall energy requirements come from geothermal energy. Indeed, a project called IceLink is currently considering the possibility of an interconnector between Iceland and the UK, in partnership with National Grid and Landsvirkjun, the state-owned generator in Iceland. That is a real possibility for the future. We could be in the position of having home-grown geothermal energy and bringing into the country someone else’s geothermal energy to complement that, so that together we would have a completely carbon-free source of energy that would last the UK for a century. I think that is a prize to be worked for.

It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. We have had a brilliant and fascinating debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for an extremely thoughtful, excellent, fact-filled and numerical brief. It is always music to my ears to hear about net present values, particularly when they involve a £7 billion greater turnover for an industry, and the opportunity to create billions of pounds of gross value added and provide many jobs. I thank her for putting the debate in that context. I also thank, as she did, the Coal Authority and Durham University for providing an excellent backdrop to the debate.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, 25% of housing stock in her constituency sits on top of coal workings, which were dug out at exceptional, personal cost by men working in the most horrific conditions, with heat often being one of the worst things they had to deal with. It should therefore come as no surprise that the areas that have been allowed to flood are hot areas, and it would be great to think that at the Durham miners’ gala on 14 July, the topic might be how the legacy that was so painfully won by the shovels and picks of so many men could be used to create something positive for our low-carbon future.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) is always good at explaining these issues. I will not run through the batholiths argument again, but we have a long history of exploiting our various deep-geothermal sources. Like many other places, Bath, which is close to my constituency, was built on the thermal springs that were a happy by-product of those hot-spots. It was a pleasure to hear the hon. Gentleman describe the scheme in the city of Southampton, which was the first of its kind in the UK. The important thing about that example is that it shows when it works. This sort of heating works well when there is year-round take-up. One of the issues with such schemes is that they do not work terribly well when people need heating at just one time of the year, because the economics are not attractive. The hon. Gentleman said that an entire ecosystem was constructed around that heat, so that is a really good example. Of course, the water is 76°, so it comes up pretty hot. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland knows, the Eastgate renewable energy village, near her constituency, is the first eco-village in the UK. It was funded as way to explore this technology, and it provides heat from geothermal sources.

This is an incredibly exciting time to come together to talk about this issue. In 2013, we commissioned a review of the opportunities for geothermal, both heat and energy—I will talk about the distinction in a moment—and we mapped out the relevant parts of the UK. We have to pick through the issue of geothermal for energy and heat carefully. Iceland sits on the spot where the mid-Atlantic ridge breaks apart, which is not necessarily the most geologically stable place to be, so massive amounts of geothermal energy come to the surface, and islands are created overnight. I am very interested in the Icelandic interconnector project, which has the opportunity to create jobs in a cable factory where the interconnector makes landfall, and is a very interesting opportunity to bring in power generated by high levels of geothermal energy.

Unlike Iceland, we have relatively few opportunities to generate geothermal energy easily and cost effectively. The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) asked whether any projects have received a CFD, but none have bid in. Given what has happened to the cost of renewables—we have led the world in developing an offshore wind industry, and we are buying renewable energy at low prices that we could not have imagined even a few years ago—it is difficult for geothermal electricity to compete for CFDs. Arguably, the opportunities for heat are much more local and interesting.

Hon. Members have talked about the challenge of shallow geothermal, and we think that the most promising area is the low-temperature applications, such as district heating schemes. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, the water in her constituency is 30° C and shallow, so we do not need an incredibly difficult boring process to get it. We have heard from all parts of the UK, which is refreshing, about the opportunities for such heat schemes. I found the hon. Lady’s point about creating an export industry fascinating, because of course it was the mining industry that created the beam engine. The newcomer Watt engines, which pumped water out of the mines, led directly to the industrial revolution and our global leadership in technology. It is fascinating to think about how we can extract heat from those mines and create export industries across the UK.

The British Geological Survey, which is a marvellous institution, has surveyed the UK. We know about the opportunities both for deep geothermal heat and for shallow geothermal heat extraction, which is very widely distributed. Every investment we make has to pass a triple test: it has to deliver decarbonisation, it has to be deliverable at the right cost for consumers, and it has to create economic value added, as the hon. Lady expounded eloquently. That is the filter through which we review these schemes.

The hon. Member for Falkirk asked me several questions, which I shall try to answer. One was about the CFD—hopefully he is satisfied with my answer. Secondly, he said that the Government are not doing anything, but I am afraid I have to reject that. Heat is a devolved matter in Scotland, as he knows, but that has not prevented the UK Government from providing £4.5 million for the deep geothermal challenge scheme. The £250,000 he referred to was a welcome addition, but most of the funding was provided by UK-wide taxpayers. He talked about the HALO project, which I believe has been funded to the tune of £1.8 million by the Scottish Government and £3.5 million by the UK Government. I do not like to make political points; I find it much better to talk about investing in our UK-wide resources for the benefit of UK consumers and taxpayers. We have to go through the technological process and ensure these projects are economically effective so we do not burden taxpayers and bill payers unnecessarily, and we have to innovate.

Most houses—although not in rural areas—are on the gas grid, so when we invest we have to think hard about the cost trajectory vis-à-vis the fully costed position of being on gas heating. On the issue of rural homes, I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) here because, like him, I represent a very rural constituency, in which more than 40,000 homes, including mine, are not on grid. The challenge of decarbonising those homes and reducing our dependency on heating oil, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, is live. In our clean growth strategy, we set out our intention to ensure that no new buildings in rural areas use fossil fuel sources of heat by 2025. We are determined to get to that level and to encourage innovation of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich talked about.

How do we innovate, drive down the cost of extraction and use that heat to the maximum effect to ensure that these projects are economically viable? We are working with the Natural Environmental Research Council and the BGS, and are funding a £9 million geothermal research facility—the UK geoenergy observatory—to study low-temperature geothermal energy in former mines in Glasgow. We also have a number of other innovation programmes and are working with the industry.

I want to flag up a possible route to funding, because I want to ensure that some of these schemes are developed. Phase 7 of the industrial strategy challenge fund, with £10 million of funding, is open for bids. The launch event for it is on 4 July. It would be great to see whether we can create a bid for an innovative scheme to produce a working, cost-effective scheme. As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said, we have the heat networks investment project, with more than £300 million of funding. I commend the Welsh Government, Bridgend County Borough Council and the hon. Gentleman’s efforts in creating that scheme, which has bid into the heat networks scheme. Although this is a devolved matter in Wales, as always I think we are better when we work together. This is an opportunity to bring forward innovation and create a scheme that can be incorporated into heat networks. I would be absolutely delighted to meet the Coal Authority or anybody else who is willing to help us think about how we can pull such a scheme together, because I want to see innovation proceed. Given the constituency interest of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, perhaps she is the person to lead that delegation.

We have the innovation route to market and the heat networks scheme. I have been given a number of “go away and look at them” actions, including looking at risk insurance and planning. As I said about the clean growth strategy, our building regulations must ensure that we do not put up new builds in off-grid areas that are dependent on current forms of fossil fuel heating.

We have an opportunity to make this very large latent resource, which was won so painfully over many years, part of our low-carbon future. We have spent tens of millions of pounds in this area. The UK is in a fortunate situation, because our renewables industry is powering ahead. Other countries look with envy at what we have delivered through other renewable sources of energy. We are one of two countries in the world doing enough to meet even a 2° rise in climate, due to what we have done in our energy industry. The opportunity to decarbonise heat, create local productivity and resource, and generate innovation that we can export elsewhere in the world is incredibly interesting.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland on securing this debate. I thank all other Members who spoke—we had a marvellous conversation about the opportunities in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham). This is a very opportune time: there are routes to innovation, such as the heat networks investment, and I am in the lucky position of being able to make investment. I would like to see some of this innovation coming forward.

I am pleased that we have had this debate, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part, because the subject is extremely worthwhile and important. I am grateful to the Minister for her positive attitude to geothermal. She does not need to worry: we shall come back to her and pursue this, because geothermal is important and could be very productive for this country.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered potential for geothermal energy resources in the UK.

Sitting suspended.

Mortgage Interest

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for mortgage interest.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone.

When people develop disability during their working life, it can disrupt those lives in profound ways, often making it impossible for them to work. Disability will not always take a person’s life plans into account, and the Government have a responsibility to stabilise people’s lives in new circumstances. Recent changes to the Government support for mortgage interest scheme mean that the safety net to help such people to keep their homes is being eroded.

Taking out a mortgage over several decades is of course always a risk. Most people would never dream, on signing those papers, that a disability might one day affect their ability to pay the mortgage. Yet with about 170,000 claims for support for mortgage interest as of 2016, the issue is clearly widespread and affects a significant percentage of home-owning families in the UK.

Until 5 April 2018 the Government had offered support for mortgage interest as a benefit to homeowners in hardship. That covered only the interest payments on their mortgage. The amount borrowed, insurance policies and arrears were to be paid by the homeowner, but for disabled claimants that in practice would mean scraping the money together from their employment support allowance and personnel independence payments.

Since April, the Government have stopped mortgage interest support, instead offering a loan to be paid back with interest. It is repaid when the home is sold, ownership is transferred or the homeowner dies, making the sale of the house more costly and difficult for the claimant or members of the family. Many people are wary of taking out a loan due to that aspect of the policy, and the effect it might have on a future house sale.

Figures contained in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s “Economic and fiscal outlook” reveal that although all existing claimants have been contacted about the change, only about 10,000 have so far agreed to take up the loan. According to the document, that is

“90 per cent short of the 100,000 expected by the end of 2018-19.”

Many constituents have also approached me about the fact the loans will be delivered by Serco, a company exposed in the Paradise papers as having

“a history of problems, failures, fatal errors and overcharging”.

Problems with the policy may cause many people to sell their unaffordable homes and move into the private rented sector. In doing so, many would be eligible for housing benefit, but that would in fact create additional expense for the taxpayer: the average support for mortgage interest claimant under the pre-April rules received about £1,800 per year, whereas the average housing benefit claimant receives about £5,000 per year.

The Government have labelled the change a cost-saving exercise, and claim that it is done in the name of fairness. The Minister stated in a letter that

“the Government believes that it is right that, when they can, homeowners should repay this financial help they receive from taxpayers to accrue an asset, which may increase in value over time,”

However, it comes at the cost of forcing people to take on repayment of a new and unforeseen loan. At the same time, housing benefit can be paid to private landlords, who are able to pay their mortgages from taxpayer money given to tenants in receipt of housing benefit, without any of the associated requirements to repay. Even the Government and the Minister may agree that that is slightly hypocritical—it is not in keeping with the new term, the loan. The change in policy is causing extreme stress to already vulnerable individuals, in addition to forcing them to pay interest out of benefits that are designed to cover basic costs of living.

That was the case for my constituent, Alistair Dickson from Stonebyres, who was in receipt of the support for mortgage interest benefit. Mr Dickson was registered as blind at work and, as a result, had to leave his job. He receives employment support allowance and disability living allowance, and has been paying his mortgage and home insurance from those payments. As a result, his household budgets are extremely tight, and it is very important to him to be able to stay in his own home. This is where he has adapted to his new circumstances as a blind person, and where he feels safe. My constituent is unable to leave the house as often as he used to as a result of his disability, so that is where he feels most comfortable. He is aware that, financially, it would be easier for him to move into rented accommodation, but that would not offer the same security, comfort or familiarity as his own home. That is therefore not an option for him. I do not believe he is alone.

Tens of thousands of disabled people, people with long-term illnesses, and pensioners who had previously claimed support for mortgage interest but who have declined to take up a loan, are in the same position. They do not know where they will scrape together the money for their mortgages. They do not know if they should pack up their homes, downsize or go into rented accommodation. They do not know whether their only option is to take out a questionable Government loan. All they do know is that that terrible policy decision has been made, putting into jeopardy their ability to maintain their own home. On their behalf, therefore, I ask the Government to pause and reconsider an ill-designed policy change to ensure that they do not penalise homeowners.

My hon. Friend gives an excellent constituent example. Does she agree that many constituents across the UK found themselves getting a surprise letter from Serco, which caused fear and alarm across the board in people affected by this policy?

The Government’s decision to have Serco institute this policy seems rather absurd given its recent bad press. Again, I must ask the Government to pause and reconsider this ill-designed policy change, and make sure that we do not penalise homeowners for changes to their circumstances that are beyond their control. Will the Government consider that?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) has raised the question of support for mortgage interest and I congratulate her on securing the debate. However, she seems to have developed a number of misapprehensions about the scheme, how it operates, and, in particular, how the system works.

It is worth restating the principles behind the change in the policy. Back in 1948 when the policy was introduced, the housing market was a different place and mortgage products were a different thing. In those days, it was unheard of for people to take mortgages into retirement, there was no such thing as an interest-only mortgage and the average house price was about £1,700. In the intervening decades, the housing market has changed significantly, yet this part of the benefits system remained unreformed and unchanged to reflect the reality we now face.

Back in 2015, when the reform was announced in the Budget, it was deemed to be appropriate and fair to reform the system to reflect the fact that there had been significant changes in the housing market and, as the hon. Lady outlined, to transfer this payment from a welfare payment in the benefits system to a loan. It was also decided that from a cosmetic point of view, as far as possible, there should be no change in how people see the scheme operate. It was recognised that the original scheme was designed to maintain people in their own homes and, exactly as the hon. Lady says, to ensure that they did not go into the private rental sector or lose their homes because of temporary unemployment. Back in 1948, this was meant to be something temporary for a few months or perhaps a couple of years, not the 20 years for which some people have been on it.

It was decided—we have carried this out in the execution of the scheme—that there should be as little disruption as possible to the recipients of these payments in the reformed new system. On a day-to-day basis, recipients of support for mortgage interest should see no difference between the old and new scheme.

The only difference is that when the property is sold or transferred at the end, perhaps even after the owners of the house have died, the amount of accumulated loan is recovered from that property. That is the only difference. On a day-to-day basis, the payments will still be made at exactly the same rate, with the same frequency, in the same way and with the same purpose of maintaining people in their own homes.

Let me cover some of the issues that the hon. Lady raises. On numbers, there is a significant acceleration in the number of people deciding either way. The bulk of people have now made a decision in principle. Large numbers of people are now in payment of the new support for their houses and quite a lot of people are in the process of getting through the system. The numbers are looking better and better. We expect to be on timetable for the transition to be complete later this year. We will publish statistics on SMI on a regular basis to keep the House updated.

Secondly, the hon. Lady raised Serco’s involvement. Let us be clear: Serco is not administering the loan. It was contracted only to provide information to individuals.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I was going through a number of the issues that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East raised about support for mortgage interest, and I had reached the involvement of Serco, about which she raised concerns. Let me be clear: Serco does not administer the loan scheme. Serco was contracted merely to provide some of the initial information about the scheme—the initial correspondence, the follow-up phone calls to give people information about it, and the booklet to inform people how it works.

Does the Minister not accept that the issue is with the timescales and the lack of notice? Have the Government learned no lessons from the changes to the state pension age? What assessment has been made of the number of women affected by those changes who are also affected by this change?

I do not accept that there has been a lack of communication. If anything, we have over-communicated about the scheme. We went out of our way as a Department to ensure that literally hundreds of thousands of letters were sent and hundreds of thousands of telephone calls were made. We are still trying to contact some people, given the lack of clarity about the data we need to make those contacts. We are taking this in a very steady and sensible way.

Everyone is given plenty of time to make a decision—everyone is given up to six weeks from the loan offer to decide whether they want the loan. Once the loan documents are issued and sent off and a loan offer is made, people get six weeks to make a decision. We signpost people to the Money Advice Service or Citizens Advice if they need any kind of financial advice, because neither Serco nor the Department for Work and Pensions can offer such advice. As I said, there is a communication phase, which Serco handles, and the execution and administration of the loan is done entirely by DWP operations.

Does the Minister accept, though, that six weeks is in real terms quite a short time in which to get the relevant and necessary financial advice? Relying on services such as Citizens Advice—voluntary, third sector services that are often financially strapped—to give people the necessary financial advice about their future seems a bit irresponsible on the Government’s part.

I do not accept that sending people to Citizens Advice or the Money Advice Service for advice is irresponsible. That is exactly what those organisations are there to do, and they do it very well on a daily basis. Do not forget that the six weeks are from the loan offer—the point at which someone says in principle that they would like to have a loan. They then have six weeks in which to decide, execute the documents and send them back. There is a whole period before that in which people gather information and discuss the matter with their financial advisers and, indeed, with Serco if they need more information on which to make a decision. Do not forget that the communication process started in July last year, so it has been ongoing for quite a while, and tens of thousands of people have successfully made a decision either way.

The Minister seems to indicate that affected individuals receive correspondence from his Department before the Serco letter. That is not what my constituents tell me, so will he place that correspondence in the Library for us to review?

No, people do not receive correspondence prior to the Serco letter. An initial letter and an information booklet are sent out by Serco to warm them up to the change that is coming, and there is then a variety of follow-up information. Once someone has had all the information and thinks they are in a position to make a decision, they are in effect handed over to the operations people in the Department, who proceed to execute the loan—or otherwise—and load them on to the system for payment. As I said, tens of thousands of people have successfully made the transition, and many people are now receiving payment of the new support for mortgage interest.

I want to move on to a couple of other issues. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East mentioned vulnerable recipients. We have taken particular care over those who are vulnerable and those who might not have the mental capacity to make financial decisions on their own. In those cases, the timeframe for execution, resolution and transition has been significantly extended. We are working with people either who we know are vulnerable or who were identified during the process as vulnerable to ensure that they have an appointed financial adviser, deputy or whatever it might be to make those financial decisions for them. That process is much longer; we are able to extend it to be pretty much as long as they need to make the position clear.

The hon. Lady raised a particular constituency case. I urge her to reassure her constituents that the new scheme is designed to maintain them in their home. On a day-to-day basis they will see absolutely no change whatsoever. They can stay in that home for as long as they like—for the rest of their natural life. The only change for them is if they sell that house or it is inherited by someone following their death and there is any equity in the house, the accumulated loan will be recovered from the proceeds. If there is no equity, we write the loan off. Do not forget that it is a very low-cost loan: the interest we charge is the same as that charged to the Government on their debt. It is in statute that it is a low-rate loan. We recognise that this is a disruption and change for people, but as we take the scheme forward we will try to make it as painless as possible.

We expect that a number of people will decide not to take the loan but to try to go it on their own, making their own mortgage payments. We are hearing anecdotally that people are either managing to make the rest of their mortgage payments or turning to family for assistance. However, if in three or four months’ time they do not think it is manageable, they think they have got themselves into trouble or they are in arrears on their mortgage because they have not been able to make payments, it is open to them to come back to us and reapply for SMI. If they are in trouble, we will be perfectly willing to backdate that to the date of change for them, to 6 or 7 April, to clear their arrears and ensure that we do not put anyone in a difficult position.

I stress that this change is about increasing sustainability and fairness, balancing the interests of the taxpayer against those of someone who is in extremis and needs assistance but nevertheless is in ownership of what could be a very valuable capital asset. In other parts of the benefit system, we do not necessarily allow people to accumulate capital assets. If someone applies for housing benefit, we look at their assets and if they have between £6,000 and £16,000 in cash in the bank, whatever it is that affects it. SMI is specifically about protecting people’s homes and ensuring that they are maintained in those homes for the long term.

Does the Minister accept that through housing benefit most people forced into the private rented sector are paying someone else’s mortgage? Is it not a tad hypocritical to say that someone in hardship or who will not otherwise be able to work again should not have their mortgage paid when those in the private sector, often renting from private landlords, are paying mortgages through housing benefit?

I do not accept the equation the hon. Lady is creating between the two. Those on housing benefit are being supported by us with a legally enforceable rental liability. It might be to a private landlord, a housing association or a council—who knows? They have a rental liability and we want to maintain them in their home, so we will support them in that through housing benefit.

Through SMI, if someone gets into extremis, we want to maintain them in their home and support them in their mortgage, subject to capital limits. All we are saying is that if someone stays on SMI for some time and therefore profit accumulates in their home, once they sell it some or all of that very low-interest, low-cost loan should be recovered so we can recycle that into support for other people in search of housing, in need of support and housing benefit or, indeed, in need of SMI. That seems only fair and reasonable.

We reckon that the overall saving for the taxpayer will be £150 million, plus or minus—we will see where we get to. Overall, in fairness, given how the housing market has changed and that SMI was only ever meant to be a temporary support—only for us to find people who have been on it for decades, and about half the people on SMI are pensioners, so there is likely to be significant equity locked into the property being supported—it seems reasonable that, when that house is sold, the taxpayer should recover some or all of the money advanced to maintain that person in their home.

Critical for us is that the scheme achieves exactly the same objective as the old benefit payments. People who need support for their mortgage can rely on the state to support them while they get back on their feet, or whatever it might be, and maintain them in their home. The hon. Lady’s constituent can be reassured that SMI should not change their status at all. If they take the loan, we will do our best to support them to stay in their home for the foreseeable future.

Question put and agreed to.

A120 Dualling

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposal to dual the A120.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. A line in my maiden speech to this House in 2015 was a request of the Government. I said that I would fight for the Government to

“help relieve congestion on the A120, a road so regularly and heavily congested that many drivers cut through Braintree in order to bypass the bypass.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1287.]

It got a chuckle at the time, if not today. The point was that much of the town of Braintree, after which my constituency is named, is regularly blighted by heavy congestion and long tailbacks. My commuters and residents experience frustration because the A120 is regularly backed up to both the east and west of Galley’s Corner, a major interchange. To the west, people trying to get to the major retail site at Freeport are often stuck in traffic, as are people coming home from work. To the east of that junction, a number of small villages that straddle the A120 are brought to a standstill because of the tailbacks.

For those who are unaware of the geography of the A120, the section we are speaking about starts just to the south of Braintree and stretches across to the junction with the A12. It is part of a major east-west arterial route in a significant part of the country in both cultural and economic potential terms. Stansted airport is on it, and at the other end is the seaport of Harwich. There is a natural flow from an airport to a seaport, yet in the middle—the section we are speaking about—it reduces to an unsegregated minor road with one lane in each direction.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty campaigner on this issue, on bringing the debate forward. Does he agree that the A120 is a road of national significance because our region is a net contributor to the Exchequer and that, if it wants that to remain the case, we need the infrastructure in East Anglia and the south-east that supports Essex, Suffolk and the whole region?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is right, and he invites me to come on to what I think is a credible pitch for why this road needs improvement. I am certain that my parliamentary colleagues who have constituencies along the route will enhance and reinforce some of the points that I will briskly make, to give time for others to speak.

I have already mentioned having a major airport and a major seaport at either end of this section of road, but ambitious plans have been discussed by local government at both district and county level to unlock the economic potential of this part of Essex and, in doing so, reinforce the economic potential of one of the few net contributory regions to the UK economy. The east of England is one of the net contributors to the UK economy. We want to contribute more, and we would be able to if we could unlock the entrepreneurialism and business acumen of the people who live and work in our part of the country.

Both at district and at county level, there are ambitious plans for business investment and housing investment. Housing is interwoven with the necessity for good quality infrastructure—transport infrastructure, as well as digital and water infrastructure, and social infrastructure such as schools and doctors’ surgeries. It is absolutely key. The road is currently well out of date; it is at best a 1950s or 1960s road, dealing with a 21st-century level of traffic. Improving and dualling this road, rerouting it and taking away the pinch point at Galley’s Corner will not just benefit my constituents in Braintree—although as their representative here that is what I am passionate about—but it will benefit the county as a whole and the country as a whole.

The reason I talk about residents, local government and businesses is that we speak with one voice on this issue. It has been incredibly important to us that local residents, local small businesses, local businesses, Members of Parliament, district council and county council are all on the same page. We are keen not to miss the chance to get funding from Government in the next few years to relieve the pressure on a congested and often dangerous road.

I conclude by saying to the Minister that at this time we need to ensure that the whole of the UK economy is optimised. We have a fantastic opportunity ahead of us. We are now talking about international trade really, for the first time in a generation. For a road in the home counties, with an airport and a seaport, to still be so under-resourced is no longer acceptable. I ask Government to look seriously and sympathetically at the route that Essex County Council has put forward as its favoured option, because if the Government are able to support it, we can help the Government to pay the bills.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my colleagues for securing this important debate. It is a debate that gives me déjà vu, as I have previously held and spoken in a number of debates on this very road and on strategic infrastructure in Essex over the last eight years, in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Once again, the walls of Westminster Hall are about to hear the economic case for the A120.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) has already outlined, the A120 is an economic corridor stretching from the international port of Harwich in the east, which has trade links across northern Europe and serves around 700,000 passengers a year, to Stansted airport in the west, an important international airport that is growing and expanding, and is a huge employer both in Essex and now also in parts of Hertfordshire.

The A120 is important to our economy; in my view and, I think, all our views, it is even more important to the United Kingdom because of the connectivity for the east of England. Research from the brilliant Essex chamber of commerce, a great champion of strategic infrastructure improvements across Essex that has campaigned and worked with the business community, has shown that 56% of Essex businesses that responded to its survey regularly use the A120. Only the A12 at 82% and the M25 at 72% were used more than the A120. However, the Government know, and have heard not just from me but from successive Members of Parliament from the east of England over the last decade and more, that the A120 is not fit for purpose. It needs investment to unlock future economic growth and jobs.

The A120 is also a dangerous road. I remember standing here in this Chamber in 2010, denouncing the A120 for being the 10th most dangerous road in the country. The number of fatalities and road accidents that take place on the A120 is simply appalling. In particular, the 12-mile stretch of carriageway between Braintree and Marks Tey has the greatest number of problems. This stretch of the road, which runs mostly through the Witham constituency, is one of the 10 most dangerous in the country. The accidents and fatalities are appalling. Figures produced in 2005 showed up to 25,000 vehicles using that stretch of the road every day, when single-carriage roads should usually carry up to around 20,000. Data published by the Department for Transport in 2010 on annual daily traffic flow suggested that 14% of vehicle movements on the A120 are accounted for by heavy goods vehicles, compared with an average of 6% across Essex. Too many people are getting hurt and injured on this road.

Likewise, too many businesses are haemorrhaging money while they are stuck in delayed traffic. The Minister will know—I do not think anyone in Government needs to be reminded—that Essex is an economic engine and the county of entrepreneurs. Since 2010 the number of entrepreneurs in the county has risen by 25%, from 52,000 to 64,000 and, as the county contributes £40 billion in gross value added to the economy, the economic case for investment in the A120 more than stacks up.

Back in 2008, proposals were put forward to dual the A120 so that we could meet new demands and sort out its dangerous nature; but as the last Labour Government trashed the economy they also spent a lot of time ignoring Essex, and the scheme was scrapped. Since then, colleagues and I have been campaigning with the Essex chambers of commerce, local businesses and the county council to get this back in the Government’s in-tray, so I was delighted when the Government and Essex County Council agreed a joint funding package to examine once again the feasibility of upgrading and dualling the A120.

Earlier this month, after route option selection, consultation and considerable analysis and assessment, Essex County Council announced its favoured route, known as route D. This route provides the best benefit to cost rate, at 3.75, of the options considered, and is less disruptive to the environment and existing settlements than other routes. It will also help to take traffic out of villages in my constituency, including Silver End and Bradwell, and could save travel time between Colchester and Braintree in the rush hour. Importantly, it will also be a safer route.

The proposal will bring the A120 from the location known as Galley’s Corner—we call it something else that I will not repeat here—through to a new junction with the A12 south of Kelvedon. I appreciate that the favoured route may still have its critics and that, as the proposals progress further, many other issues will need to be addressed, but our county has waited too long for road investment, for this road to be invested in, and for this strategic improvement to take place. We want to see clear action and leadership when it comes to investment in the A120. That means including the A120 in the second road investment strategy process, RIS2.

To make further progress, more work by Government and further work by Highways England is required. It will come as no surprise to our colleague the Minister that I will continue to press this case, as will all colleagues. While I appreciate that the Minister cannot prejudice the RIS2 process and the selection and prioritisation of routes for investment, the Department will have files, which I have no doubt are substantial, on the economic benefits of investment in the A120 and of the gross value added and the return from investing in Essex.

In discussions with the Treasury over the funding envelope of RIS2, it is fair to say that the Department for Transport can be confident in the economic case, which is part of a strong business case. The current cost estimate is around £555 million, which is an enormous sum. However, we do not speak enough about aggregate returns on investments, and we are talking about a strategic location that supports exports, trade and investment. Upgrading the A120 at the earliest opportunity will bring greater resilience to the economy, to the region and to our country.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when making the business case, it is important to look not only at Essex but at Suffolk? This road is vital to my constituency—connectivity is vital in attracting inward investment—and investing in it will very much help to attract investment to Suffolk, where significant plans are afoot for investment in the energy sector, both at Sizewell and in the offshore wind farms.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Delivering route D will provide £1.1 billion in GVA through new jobs, businesses and housing. It is important that, when looking at the work that we do on transport across our region—on rail, for example—we put forward a coherent business case to the Government for that very purpose. We are an attractive part of the country and we have different sectors that are expanding and growing.

To be up front about this, when we think about our trading options and the economic benefit to the eastern region post Brexit, investing in our roads will enormously benefit Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. That brings me to asking the Minister to look into not only the A120 but the widening scheme for the A12, which is linked to the A120—these roads cannot be seen in isolation. A failure of successive Governments in the past has been to look at transport and roads as a singular and not a plural, in terms of having an integrated transport strategy.

The Government have already committed to widening parts of the A12 in a three-lane carriageway scheme. Most of the first section to be upgraded—the stretch between the junction 19 Boreham interchange at Chelmsford and junction 25 at Marks Tey—runs through the Witham constituency and is parallel to the great eastern main line. That widening scheme was subject to a consultation by Highways England last year and we are expecting an announcement of the route and the sections to be re-routed.

However, Colchester Borough Council has unfortunately put a spanner in the works at the last minute, as part of its local plan process. I am mindful that I, other colleagues, Highways England and local councils put forward proposals for the A12 widening scheme—announced back in 2014—that would not be compromised by any work taking place with the local plans. We had that assurance from Highways England and the Department. That widening scheme needs to be re-established alongside the configuration with the A120, and all the councils must be clear with Highways England and the Department. We need to ensure that we again have an integrated approach to the development of our road transport links across Essex and to the facilitation of transport investment across the eastern region.

Essex needs the A120 to be upgraded and the A12 to be dualled. I hope that the Minister can answer fully today. As I said, her Department will have plenty of detailed engagement, work, correspondence and all the files from over the last decade on this, so there is no excuse for the Department not to put forward a coherent approach. The point to make today is that, when it comes to the A120, this is a huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use RIS2 to be much more strategic and to have an integrated roads strategy for the east of England and for Essex.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The A120 has long been in my heart as something needing improvement since well before I became involved in local or national politics.

Driving from my constituency—where we have wonderful beaches; it is a great tourist venue—and going westbound, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) said, it becomes completely blocked up at the section between Marks Tey and what we call cholesterol corner. I am sorry that I have to iterate that. Going from my constituency along the A120 has been a regular commute of mine. It sort of peters out beyond Bishop’s Stortford, where it goes back to being a two-way road, and then it peters out altogether in the middle of the countryside. The section between Stansted and Harwich is an absolute nightmare and has been for years.

We are now celebrating the decision on a preferred route, in which the A120 will be dualled between Braintree and Marks Tey—or south of Kelvedon, I should say. That is not ideal for me, but it is light years ahead of what we have to put up with now. I commend the application for RIS2 funding for this and I hope the Minister will take it further. It also should not be forgotten, as my hon. Friend mentioned, that the A120 is trans-European network route. It is a curious thing—all the major cities are supposed to be linked, east to west, from Moscow to Dublin. This section of the A120 is part of that, and it is a two-way road. It is nonsense. This is a major step towards realising that ambition.

I take this opportunity to call for further work, further down the line, to complete the A120 in an area that does not go through my constituency but that affects it hugely. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) knows all about it. It was built in the ’70s and it is now crumbling and beginning to fall apart. It needs a renewal, so why not get the whole thing done, from Harwich all the way to Stansted, and finish the job?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that part of the A120—from Horsley Cross to Parkeston— which is vital for the economy of north Essex and is crumbling, as he says. However, I believe the Government should be able to say something this afternoon about the Highways Agency activity on that bit of the road and the resources that will be committed to it in the short term, if not the long term.

My hon. Friend is right. I am delighted to hear that the Government can say something about that section, because it is still holding us up. Cars can still bowl along it at about 55 mph most of the time, but it is still a single lane on either side. It takes forever.

I look forward to our delivering a new, world-beating infrastructure across Britain, east to west, which we need now more than ever. We have not had that over the years. The A14 was improved many years ago, and it is about time the A120 was brought into line, so let us get that infrastructure in place. While I am standing here, I might as well mention that we ought to improve the railways in our area, too.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) and all hon. Members who have spoken.

It is timely that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has arrived, along with me, to underline that this is about not just Essex, or Suffolk, but the whole of East Anglia. The A120 is a critical road for the eastern region’s economy. As I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree, we are a net contributor to the economy, and if the Exchequer puts up a cheque for this road, it will get its money back and then some. That is critical to the case that we are all making.

I will just pick up on a few specific points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) made the point about the A12, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It would be good to get an update on that. The two roads have to be seen as an integrated project, not least because once trebling has occurred from Chelmsford to Colchester, the next stretch is in south Suffolk, where I can safely say we have possibly the worst junctions to be found in the United Kingdom. Drivers join a very sharp bend at national speed limit, probably in first gear. All I can say is that drivers should check that they have life insurance before they do so. I actually took the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), to see that, and he was struck by the danger it presented. I think we often underestimate the safety issue for all these projects. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree made that key point—this is dangerous; it is not just about the economics.

However, the business case will be about the economics, and while there is obviously an understandable focus on housing, we have to emphasise the extent to which the road can drive serious industry, exporting and services—not least with the airport. I do not want young people in my constituency just to get on a train to London to try to find a good job; I want them to have opportunity at home, in the local region. At the moment, to go from Sudbury, the biggest town in my constituency, to Stansted is just beyond commuting distance. If we improve the road, we can get it within commuting distance and the thousands of vacancies can be filled with people from the local workforce. I therefore endorse what has been said so far. The economic case is strong, and I urge the Government to consider it wholeheartedly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) on securing this debate on a hugely important topic—a stretch of road that is hugely important to so many of our constituencies across the eastern region.

The A120 does not, in fact, touch my constituency at all, yet it is hugely important to it and to its future prosperity. In the past few years, tens of thousands of homes have been built in Colchester, but without adequate or appropriate transport infrastructure to support them. We have had the housing but we have not had the roads, locally or regionally, to support that massive growth. In fact, ours has been the fastest-growing town in the country for some time.

My hon. Friend made a very valid point when he asked whether there could be another road in the country that links a growing international airport and an international port, which is also growing, by a road that is single track in some parts. It gets so congested that people can get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle and it can delay their journey by a considerable amount of time, and yet the road is of major strategic importance.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) made a valid point about the economic case. That is not in question. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk so eloquently made the point that the Government will see a return on this investment and then some. We know that because Essex and the eastern region are already powerhouses for the British economy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that not only will there be an economic return on investment in this road, but, because of the particular nature of the local and regional economy, the return on investment in the road will be greater and quicker than those on similar investments in other road projects around the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I could not agree more. I have touched on the international airport and the port, but there is so much more. Colchester, which is sandwiched between those two important infrastructure projects, is hugely important in terms of business growth. The University of Essex, which is just across in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) but hugely important to both our constituencies, is growing and contributing to huge amounts of business growth; it is attracting businesses to the area.

We know that this is coming. There are plans, as part of the garden settlement movement—that is a debate for another day—for a business park larger than the biggest business park, in Cambridge. If we get it right and if we get the transport infrastructure piece right, this will be a prosperity corridor, stretching from Stansted airport to the port of Harwich, and we can benefit from that.

Does my hon. Friend share my view that there is an opportunity through investment in the A120 but also our wider road network—and, in fact, our railway lines—when it comes to the wider transport and infrastructure approach, and that Departments should be working in a much more joined-up way? He has already touched on planning; this is a question of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Treasury and the Department for Transport working on a holistic and coherent case.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I could not agree more that we do not have a holistic approach at the moment and, as a result, people are not seeing the bigger picture and the prize that is on offer.

I thank my hon. Friend for letting me make this point. On joined-up thinking, does he agree that resolving the issues on the A12 is also part of the bigger-picture solution? Unlocking the issues on the A120 is key to unlocking the improvement on the A12, which we also need in order to ensure that Essex is better connected.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is almost as though she has read my mind, because in my response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham, I intended to make exactly the point that the A120 cannot be seen on its own, in isolation, as the panacea. It is not the whole answer, but it is part of an overall picture that includes the A12; that is why the extra lane is so important between Chelmsford and Colchester—and beyond, up into Suffolk. This is also about our rail line, and we need to get this right. We have a whole fleet of new trains starting to arrive next year on the Great Eastern main line. If we start to unlock the additional capacity that will come with the digital railway—if we start to see that investment from the Department for Transport via Network Rail in our rail line—all of a sudden we will become a real powerhouse, because through transport infrastructure we open up economic opportunities and business growth. In particular, Colchester, but also wider Essex and the eastern region, will be the place to invest and the place to relocate a business to. The size of the prize is so great—it is a huge opportunity—and the Government really should sit up and listen to us about it. If Departments work together on housing, transport infrastructure and beyond, and if they work with us, the opportunities are huge.

My final point is not just about the economic case, but about why this scheme is so important to the region. That is clear to see, because of the overwhelming and clear support from everybody—and I mean everybody. Borough, district and county councils, the local enterprise partnership, businesses and business groups—such as the chambers of commerce—are absolutely invested in it. They have been so invested in it that they have put in money, resource, time and effort. We all know from our postbags the number of people who contact their Member of Parliament about issues with the A120 and how keen they are to see those issues resolved.

Whether it is about the economic and business case, the social impact on our constituencies or just the fact that we need to connect a major international airport, a major international port and a very important town in the middle—Colchester—we have to ensure that the A120 scheme goes ahead. I encourage the Government to stump up the cash to make it happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank all hon. Members for their considered contributions to this important debate, and not least the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) for initiating it. I think we can agree that the case made by all hon. Members was very compelling. The link between the port and airport serving Essex is at the heart of the economic strategy presented today. The economic opportunity that such an enterprise corridor could deliver, in terms of real growth in the region, has been cited by some to be worth as much as £1.3 billion, I have read, and all for a cost of £555 million in its creation. It is clear that domiciliary development is occurring, and that brings an opportunity to see industrial investment to provide jobs for those communities as well as the wider economy. Clearly, where such development takes place, there has to be well developed transport infrastructure, but that certainly is not currently the case, especially at some of the pinch points on the A120 route where there is significant congestion.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not only industrial development—manufacturing and so on—that would benefit from this scheme and that there is a massive tourism offer? I am thinking of the wonderful beaches of the east coast. At Parkeston Quay, we have so many cruise ships that come in every year. It is a pity that the people who arrive there have to struggle with our dreadful infrastructure to get to other parts of the country such as London and across to the central midlands.

I agree that tourism is a really important consideration when we are looking at infrastructure investment. It should be at the heart of the wider discussions and seen as an economic piece all by itself.

The debate on how the A120 can be improved to alleviate much of the congestion has been a long time coming. Five options were originally presented. I appreciate that those have been whittled down to four, and option D has been favoured by Essex County Council as the preferred route for the new A120. I also note that option C, interestingly, would see approximately one third of the route bifurcating Bradwell quarry and therefore would relieve some of the environmental impact should that scheme go ahead. We must also note the importance of farmland and agribusiness. In the Government’s planning of development, whether rail or road, they should take on board the need to ensure fertile land is maintained for the purposes of growing our food. I know there is much debate on that point.

The second compelling case made by the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) was about road safety. With 53 fatalities and 325 serious injuries on this stretch, it is clear that not intervening would allow those risks to continue. That is a serious consideration.

It is worth saying, however, that we cannot look at road improvement without looking at intermodal and alternative modes of transport, and seeing the improvements that can be brought in from other schemes—particularly our rail, but also other forms of transport—in serving communities. While I understand that all hon. Members are trying to promote their local scheme for RIS2, I say to the Minister that we need to look at intermodal options before we look at road. It appears we have shifted to a road-first policy, as opposed to looking at public transport as the preferred option. Evidence from Newbury, Blackburn, Lincoln and other similar cases has shown how induced capacity is having a serious impact on their local economies, so we have to be careful as we make these decisions and look at them in an integrated-transport way.

Looking at alternative modes is a fair point, which I hear about all the time. The issue we have is lorries. In our modern economy, all our goods have to go through lorries, from Felixstowe or whatever port. It is coming down on HGVs. It is very hard to get that on to rail when it is at capacity, even though we have a good freight service. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is where there is a shortcoming in alternative forms of transport?

I agree, there is a challenge with the use of freight. It creates an opportunity, however, to put the focus back on putting freight on to rail. We are already 45,000 lorry drivers short in our economy. How we expand rail freight, therefore, is a serious consideration, in order to see that fast through-put of freight. That is something to which we have given much thought and attention.

Where there have been road-widening schemes, after 20 years we have seen induced capacity building congestion again, with an increase as high as 45%. Out of 25 projects only five have delivered the economic benefits that were promised. We need to ensure that everything is thoroughly tested before investment is made.

I apologise for the slight delay in jumping to my feet, but I was a little surprised by what I think the hon. Lady might have said. Did she say that under a future Labour Government, the A120 development would not go ahead?

I most definitely did not say that. The hon. Gentleman must have misheard me. I emphasised the focus we need to put on intermodal transport in particular, looking at issues such as increasing capacity on our rail networks, because we know other serious challenges are afoot across our freight industry. It is important we take those considerations on board.

I have campaigned for rail freight for many years. Is the hon. Lady aware that Chelmsford is the busiest two-platform train station in the country and there simply is not additional space to take additional freight down the great eastern main line in the timeframe involved? Digital networks may add a bit more, but we need to resolve the freight by mending this road and our road networks, not just by saying, “Let’s get it on the trains.”

There are choices to be made. I am saying that we invest either in road or in rail. Looking at investment is part of what is called for by the freight industry.

If I may, I will finish my point. The Rail Freight Group, which I meet with regularly, has identified how those east-west connections need serious investment. If we want to develop Harwich as a port and see Felixstowe thrive as well, in order to take freight from the east into the west, it is important that we do not dismiss those opportunities and see that proper investment.

The hon. Lady is being gracious in giving way. It is not a binary choice between rail and road. We can and must have investment in both. She said that intermodal schemes should be a priority over roads. This is not an intermodal scheme. Therefore, is she saying that the Labour party would not prioritise the dualling of the A120?

I have already answered the hon. Gentleman. I said that we would have an intermodal approach to all transport systems. It is crucial that we look at the opportunity that public transport can provide.

If I may move on a little, we will see what time there is left. It is important that our approach to strategically developing economic growth, transport planning and housing development brings all development and planning together. We have seen a piecemeal approach to planning, which has not looked at how to serve economic or residential communities and ensure that there are sufficient transport mechanisms to provide that support. We believe that truly sustainable economic and residential hubs need to work together with the integrated transport system in order to best serve communities. We know that in the developments that have taken place, 81% of people living in those areas drive to work, as opposed to having wider options and intermodal choices. That is what I am arguing today.

The hon. Lady said the Labour party would invest in either rail or road. This Government are committed to investing in both. Which is she planning to cut?

The hon. Lady is again taking my words and not using them in the way they were said. We will look at intermodal first and at the wider options of ensuring properly integrated transport. Any Government should do that, to ensure that we have the most sustainable and usable rail, bus, active travel and road system that there is. Intermodal integration will give us the best transportation system. Talk to anyone across the transport sector: they would agree with that approach, as do many Government Ministers, who say that they want to see an intermodal shift, too. I have heard such words many times from the Government. I am sure they would agree that is also important, if they are looking at proper economic and residential investment, such as is being suggested by the scheme presented today. That is the approach Labour would take.

We need to ensure that improvements made today do not call for further improvements and widening just a few years down the road, as has happened in many of these schemes. We need long-term solutions and investment put in place, to ensure there is not chaos in the future.

The hon. Lady is being gracious in giving way. Is she suggesting that people would give up taking their cars to their holiday destination? That is an essential part, in many cases, of a holiday in the UK, so that people can explore the countryside.

I am not suggesting that at all. I am talking about intermodal choice, which is important. Going forward, people need to have real options in how they travel, whether for work or leisure. We want to see those choices expanded. Many people at the moment, as I highlighted, have such limited choices that they have no option but to use the car. If we truly are to make the intermodal shift, we need to see more options being made available for commuters and people travelling for leisure.

Unfortunately, the hon. Lady has missed quite a fundamental point and I will reinforce it, if not for her benefit then for the ears of the Minister. This proposal is not about taking existing transport patterns and just making them happen on an improved road. What this proposal is about is unlocking residential and employment opportunities within the region, so that people are not forced to drive or take the train to London, for example, to get good-quality work. So the idea behind this proposal is to develop sustainable communities and sustainable economic activities in and around the region itself, reducing the need for long and polluting journeys, and increasing the opportunities for people to work close to where they live, where their children go to school and where they have amenities around them.

I fully understand the scheme; I have read it in much detail. That is why I am making the case that it is so important that we give people real choice.

In my closing remarks—

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. Will she just give an assurance that the Labour party supports the dualling of the A120 all the way from Colchester to Parkeston, which is a stretch of road that is long overdue for dualling?

I think I have made myself perfectly clear in today’s debate, with all due respect. What I have said is that we believe that we should have a fully integrated, intermodal approach to transportation, which, as I have—

I will not take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. [Interruption.] No, it is not a no.

As I have said—

As I have said in this debate, we need to look at that intermodal option and that has not been presented in the case that I have read. Clearly, we need to see investment across all our modes of transport, so that hon. Members’ constituents have real choice over how they travel and so they do not have to take the car if it is their preference to take a bus or train. That is what I am saying. We have got to see integrated—

May I finish my sentence? So that we can see an integrated approach to how we assess transport projects in the future, rather than looking at the silos of rail over here, and road over there, which is the approach taken at the moment, as we know, because the RIS process is completely segregated from the control period, and we want to see a real integrated approach. That is the point that I have made throughout the debate.

I see two hon. Members. If it is going to be a completely different point that will be made—[Interruption.] If it is not a completely different point, I will not give way. I will not keep repeating what I have said, so I will just bring my remarks to a close.

It is really important that we consider how we can build sustainability into the long-term future. That is why we want to put the resources and support behind a truly intermodal approach to transportation, but not just transportation in isolation. We want to integrate that across all planning, including economic and residential planning, so that all of our constituents have real choice as to how they travel to work and for leisure.

Mr Hollobone, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.

No doubt my colleagues have realised that I am not 6 feet 4 inches, so I am not the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who is the Minister with responsibility for roads. However, I will do my best to respond to all the questions put today and no doubt Department officials will write to answer any questions that are not responded to.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) on securing this debate about upgrading the A120 in Essex. He has made a strong case for the economic benefits of upgrading the A120. Other hon. Members, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), also spoke, about not only the economic benefits that would be opened up but the business case, the residential case and the case for tourism, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling).

We know that transport is a key driver of the economy and an improved network will provide better journeys and boost local growth, productivity and opportunities. I agree with all of the representations that have been made here today and no doubt the Department is listening very closely, especially to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham, who has been banging this drum for eight years—nearly a decade—and I do not doubt that there are reams of paper about the correspondence and meetings that she has had with the Department over those many long years.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way and for her support. Was she shocked, as we all were, that today the Labour party was unable to commit to supporting explicitly the dualling of the A120? Does she agree that we can talk about choice, but in the real world, where our constituents live, they do not have a choice? We cannot move goods, other than a small proportion, down rail; they will continue to be moved on HGVs for a long time. People may not like that, but that is the real world in which we have to plan our roads today.

It has been a very passionate debate and I was also slightly startled that the Labour party representative today, the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), could not bring herself to recognise that Essex is a gem of a county in economic development and somehow was taking away choice, by removing the opportunity to invest in road infrastructure, let alone in tourism, business, residential or economic development in the future. However, these debates sometimes bring out surprising results.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister could outline, in response to some of the comments made by the shadow Transport Minister, the urgency of this situation, because if this road is not in the next road investment scheme or RIS2, and goes back to the drawing board, how long would that set us back? More than that, does she think that that would be a slap in the face for all of those people who have worked so hard together, over years, to put this road scheme forward, and to promote it and push it? It would be a slap in the face for all those people to say, “Back to the drawing board—not good enough”.

My hon. Friend mentioned the phrase “slap in the face” a number of times; I am not sure how I can respond to that. However, the Labour party is not even putting this scheme on the drawing board; it will not even consider it. No doubt, that will be absolutely frightening for hon. Members’ constituents to hear.

I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the road investment strategy 2 process, but I hope that what I will go on to say later in the speech will provide some succour to the Members who are here today and their constituents. However, I was surprised just as much as my hon. Friend was that the Labour party will not even consider this scheme in the future.

In December 2014, the Government launched the first road investment strategy—RIS1—which outlines how £15.2 billion will be invested in our strategic roads between 2015 and 2021. This is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads in a generation. It includes the widening of the A12. Many Members said we need to approach this work holistically: my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham; and my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk, for Braintree, for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). They understood that both these schemes—for the A120 and the A12—need to be linked, so I will just touch on the A12 first.

The proposed work will include the widening of the A12 between junction 19 at Chelmsford and junction 25 at Marks Tey, where the A12 currently joins the A120. We have also provided funding for smaller scale safety improvements. On the A120 east of the A12, at the Hare Green junction with the A133 to Clacton, Highways England has commenced construction of a new £3 million roundabout to improve road safety. Work there is expected to be concluded by the end of this year.

The Government continue to invest in improvements to rail infrastructure in Essex and Department officials continue to work closely with local partners to identify local transport improvements. The South East local enterprise partnership, which includes Essex, has secured £590 million from the three rounds of the local growth fund, supporting projects, including transport schemes, that facilitate economic growth and housing. It has enabled key schemes in the county to be taken forward, such as an investment of £16 million towards improvements on the A127, and an investment of over £70 million towards the widening of the A13 in Thurrock. Both those routes are seen as key routes in Essex.

We recognise the importance of the A120 as a key part of the wider transport network, including all the other benefits that it brings, such as tourism, housing and business. The A120 is a key east-west route connecting areas across the region from the port of Harwich to Stansted airport. It links the east of England to the midlands and the north, so is of national as well as regional importance.

The single carriageway section between Braintree and the A12 near Colchester is currently a bottleneck on the route. Heavy traffic is a burden on the towns and villages that it passes through. That is why we have provided £4 million to Essex County Council as a contribution to the development work for the proposed improvement scheme. I am very grateful to the council for the excellent work it has done to develop these proposals and take them through a non-statutory public consultation on a range of options.

The proposed scheme would support the plans for new housing and growth in the area, in particular the proposed development at Marks Tey. This will boost the economy in Essex and beyond. It will complement the widening of the A12 between Chelmsford and Marks Tey, which we are currently developing as part of RIS1.

I thank the Minister for being very generous both in her remarks and in giving way. She touched on the A12 widening scheme, and I want to re-emphasise my earlier point on that. That road’s development has been put on hold because of the development of the local plan in Colchester. We were told that categorically about five weeks ago, having previously been told that all planning factors had been considered. I know that the Minister responding to the debate is not the Minister for roads, but perhaps her officials will take away that I would like a meeting with that Minister and with Highways England to find out what on earth is going on. It seems crazy to advance the A120 without the A12. We need to integrate much more this whole way of working, and I again make my plea that all three Departments I named earlier come together on the issue.

My right hon. Friend has been a strong campaigner for her constituency, particularly on this issue, and I do not doubt that her request for a meeting will be respected and taken forward. I understand that there was a delay and that the notification of it was made most recently.

The favoured option for the A120 scheme that the council announced on 8 June is supported by a strong analytical assessment and has gained support from both the public and the business community, providing a good case for its consideration as a candidate for inclusion in the second road investment strategy. I cannot comment enough on the strong representations made not only by those Members of Parliament here today but by others who have met repeatedly with the Department for Transport: my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch). Strong cases have been made, not only within this debate but behind the scenes, in lobbying the Department for Transport.

We are currently developing an affordable, deliverable investment plan for the strategic road network—the SRN—for the period 2020-25. The work draws on two years of research and public engagement. For example, Highways England has refreshed its 18 route strategies, which cover the whole of its network and present a high-level view of both performance and constraints on the existing road network. The route strategy for the east of England identified a number of capacity and safety issues on the A120, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned.

In December 2017, Highways England published its initial SRN report, which set out its proposed priorities for RIS2 and looked at the strategic road network as a whole rather than suggesting specific enhancements. The Department consulted on the document over the winter and we are using the responses to shape our thinking as we develop the next road investment strategy. Essex County Council’s work in developing the A120 scheme is also feeding into the process.

Our consultation on RIS2 has confirmed the considerable competition for the funding available for new schemes. A great deal of evidence arguing for a range of investments was received, including responses in favour of the A120 upgrade, among other things. There was also support for the schemes that were included in RIS1 for development for RIS2—the A12 Colchester bypass widening and the A12/M25 to Chelmsford improvement. All those proposals are being considered for inclusion in RIS2, alongside others from across the country. I cannot prejudice the process and the outcome, but the Government will announce their final decisions on RIS2 in 2019. Strong representations regarding the business case, as well as the cases in support of homes, the social environment and tourism, have been made today.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree and other Members are reassured that the Government understand the importance of the A120 scheme, both in the region and nationally, and that we see the need for investment in transport infrastructure to provide much needed economic growth. We will take that into account as we finalise our plans for the next road investment strategy.

I thank the Minister for her comments. What I take away is that although she was careful not to prejudice her Department’s decision, and we completely understand that she is duty bound to go no further than she has, I think I speak for all Members representing the A120 route and the region when I say that we are pleased to hear that, on behalf of the Department, she recognises the strategic importance of the road, the economic opportunity that improvements would unlock and, perhaps on a personal note, the passion of all of us in the room. Although it is always iniquitous to single out individuals, I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) have been fighting this fight for a very long time. If for nothing more than their sanity, I urge the Minister to take back the message to the Department that the passion overflows among regional MPs.

It is disappointing beyond belief that where we have geographical unanimity we seem not to have been able to get as reassuring a set of noises from the shadow Minister. To say that her response was lukewarm would be an exaggeration beyond my capabilities. Therefore, we rely on the good offices of the Minister and the Department to turn what I believe is a genuinely held recognition of the road’s problems—the congestion, the danger and the negative impact on the ability of businesses to maximise their potential in what is already a great part of the country to do business but which could be so much better—into a relatively modest investment in the A120.

I thank the Minister for listening intently and for what I know she will do next, which is to take the passion of the Members present back to the Department and reinforce the case that has been made by us, by local government at both district and county level, by local businesses and by groups such as the A120 campaign, to which we all subscribe and give our energies. If ultimately we are successful in securing the funding to improve the road, I give the Minister our collective guarantee that we will personally hand over the large bags of cash that will inevitably flow from the investment into Treasury coffers, to be deployed in the great work that public expenditure does around the country.

There have been no hold-ups or congestion today, and we are finishing within the scheduled time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the proposal to dual the A120.

Sitting adjourned.