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Westminster Hall

Volume 647: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2018

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 October 2018

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Local Government Reform: Greater London

Before we start, you can see that we are not oversubscribed. I would like the summing up to start in an hour’s time. Say everything you need to say, but please do not feel that you need to take all the time if it is not appropriate. I call Andrew Rosindell to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered local government reform in Greater London.

Thank you very much, Mr Hosie, and good morning to all. I am grateful for this opportunity to open what I hope will be a wide-ranging debate on the structure and responsibilities of local government across London and the need to embrace the need for fundamental reform that will better serve the people of this great capital of our nation in the decades to come. I wish to begin a conversation involving both sides of the House with the constituents that we represent.

Our United Kingdom capital of London comprises an amazing patchwork of counties, cities, boroughs, royal boroughs, towns, communities, villages, hamlets and estates. I say “London” because that is the name of our national capital—in truth, in 2018, the lines of where London begins and ends are rather blurred. There is in fact much confusion between London as the capital of the United Kingdom, where Parliament and Government sit; London as Greater London, which was how our predecessors decided to construct the shape and boundaries of the city in the 1960s; and London as a wider region that includes what many people still call the home counties.

It is time to reassess whether Greater London, as created in 1964 with the formation of London boroughs, or the particular form of London government that was created in 1998 with a Mayor and Assembly, are fit for purpose in the years to come. We have reached a point where serious reform is needed. I hope all Members agree that we should not dismiss change as too difficult to tackle. We have a duty to look at how we can evolve London government to better suit the needs of Londoners and the wider region around our capital. Let us not be afraid to reconfigure how London government works and to embrace reform and renewal—in doing so, let us return power to local communities, where it belongs, and restore local identities that are rooted in English history but are now in danger of being lost.

As colleagues will know only too well, I am deeply proud of being the Member of Parliament for my wonderful home town of Romford, a traditional Essex market town that has existed since medieval times. Since 1964, it has fallen under the remit of the London borough of Havering, the borough on the most eastern side of what is now called Greater London. Let me tell the House that, despite more than 50 years of being a so-called London borough, Romford, and Havering generally, is still very much part of Essex. Whatever local government structures and boundaries are imposed by Whitehall, the true identity of local people has never been lost and never will be. People in my borough are Essex through and through, and they are proud of their heritage—indeed, becoming a London borough did not mean that Romford and Havering stopped being part of Essex.

Essex is a real place that has evolved over many centuries. It is a historic county with its own identity and distinct culture, combined with religious, social, sporting and business networks. Our postal address is “Romford, Essex”. We cheer for the Essex county cricket team. Our local regiment is the Essex Regiment, which has been awarded the freedom of Havering. Our Church of England parishes fall within the diocese of Chelmsford. Our identity is defined by geography, not by local government structures, which change regularly, depending on Government policy at the time and ever-moving electoral boundaries. A change in the administration of local services in the 1960s did not end our town or borough’s connection with the county of Essex. Today we fall under a London-wide authority, but my constituents continue to cherish their Essex identity. Good for them—I feel exactly the same.

This is not unique to Essex or any other part of Greater London—people from Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire and indeed Middlesex also value their county identities. London boroughs may no longer fall under the remit of county councils, but we are still very much part of what are known as the traditional or proper counties of England. These are real places with historical, geographical and social identities that have existed throughout the ages and that should be fully recognised as integral to the identities of our towns and boroughs today, irrespective of local government structures at any given point. These structures have come and gone in London over the years, with the London County Council, the Greater London Council, the Greater London Authority, and now the Mayor of London—just as Havering was once under the Essex County Council, followed by the GLC and then the GLA. I hope hon. Members agree that none of those changes should be allowed to erode true local identities.

I raise that issue because it forms the basis of my next argument. Local government in London should be just that: local. It should be as localised as possible, so that local people are able to control what happens in their communities and towns or on their doorstep. Remote and centralised regional government that fails to understand local identities and that rules from the centre, forgetting about the needs of the wider areas of the London region, is never going to be popular. Just like the GLC before it, I fear that the GLA is heading in the same direction. The Greater London Authority and Mayor of London are failing to serve all areas within Greater London effectively. It is clear that the project has expanded too far, grown too powerful, and has become too interfering, too centralised, too bureaucratic, too costly and utterly remote from the needs of the real people, particularly in areas such as Romford and other parts of outer London.

Since the creation of a directly elected Mayor and an Assembly in 2000 provided for a so-called strong mayor model, there has been a clear contrast between the powers of the Mayor and those of the Assembly. The subsequent Greater London Authority Act 2007 accorded the Mayor even greater powers in respect of functions, spanning across planning, housing, large developments, skills and training. While it is true that the Assembly’s powers were also strengthened in 2007, the provisions were too little and too late to provide a proper check on the mayoralty. A comparative analysis of our friends across the pond in New York and of other cities such as Tokyo and Berlin show that their councils enjoy actual powers of scrutiny, which ours in London do not.

It is time to reform the whole structure of local government. I shall set out what the Government and we in the House should consider as a basis for reform. First, the powers of the Mayor should be strictly limited to what borough councils cannot do effectively for themselves. The so-called London plan should be dumped completely, and the power to decide how best to plan and develop our communities and boroughs should rest with the people who are elected to do that job. The Government can help by allowing the development of new towns beyond London, but councils must also play their part in ensuring we build the homes that are needed. Let us give boroughs back the power and trust them to make true local decisions in their local communities.

Why do we need a second tier for planning, when what is required is a more effective means to make local decisions in the interest of local communities, with a faster turnaround, so we can build the homes we need across the region? I accept that there is a need for co-ordination across the entire London region on things such as transport and major infrastructure projects, but the Mayor should be a facilitator or an organiser who brings together local authorities and public bodies to make things happen. Funding for projects should go directly to the boroughs, bypassing the bureaucracy at City Hall.

Secondly, policing should go back to being truly local. Each borough should have its own borough commander, and the tri-borough system should be ended or reformed. The leader of each council or their deputy should have the political responsibility for policing within that borough. Powers currently centralised in City Hall should come back to the town hall. I believe that leaders of boroughs are better placed to respond to the needs of their communities and to work with a dedicated police force, which knows and understands its patch better than anyone else.

Thirdly, the London Assembly should be replaced with something like a council of London, comprised of elected council leaders from the region. I say “the region”, because this goes way beyond the now outdated boundaries of the 1960s model of Greater London. Transport affects the people of a much wider area—I would call it “the UK capital region”. The slimmed-down, London-wide authority should primarily focus on transport, which clearly must be considered regionally as it goes way beyond the London boroughs. The M25 extends way beyond Greater London, and motorways, A roads and an expanding road network lead into London. The London Underground stretches from Amersham to Epping, neither of which falls within the Greater London boundaries, yet they have underground stations. Trains bring in commuters from across the south-east and other parts of the region. Airports stretch from London Heathrow to London Southend, and include London Luton, London Stansted and London Gatwick, most of which are not in Greater London. There needs to be a serious rethink of transport in the entire region, and that is what I believe should be the focus of the newly restructured authority for the London region. It is no longer relevant to think of transport just in the context of Greater London. That outdated model needs to go.

The new council of democratically elected leaders would have real authority to speak up for their areas, and they would cost a lot less than the current Assembly. They would understand what is required locally because they would be elected locally and would have an incentive to make things work for their boroughs. With a much stronger hand, they would also be empowered to scrutinise the Mayor—or the first leader, as I would rename the role—to ensure that everything they do is for the purpose of facilitating services rather than becoming an alternative centre of political power away from local communities.

We must also respect and appreciate the distinctiveness of London’s areas. It is ludicrous that the Mayor of London has such an expansive and supreme authority over a vast swathe of southern England. The City of Westminster, with all its grandeur, has very little in common with boroughs such as Havering, Hillingdon, Bromley or Enfield. Across our region are districts with totally different needs, but as power has become more centralised, local needs have become more neglected. It is time for reform.

The unfair allocation of funds is also a major issue in boroughs such as mine—the London Borough of Havering has been scandalously impacted by inadequate funding settlements over the decades due to flaws in the current formula and funding system. The Minister may not be aware that Havering is the lowest-funded east London borough per head of population. Some London boroughs receive more than twice as much per head. How can that be right? That is despite Havering’s having the highest proportion of elderly people across London, many of whom are deeply reliant on social care provision. That dire funding shortfall has forced my council drastically to reduce spending or increase council tax just to stay afloat, yet we send £400 a year per head of population to City Hall. The result is that council tax on a £4.5 million property in Westminster is substantially less than it is on a £365,000 property in Havering. How can that be right? That huge disparity must be addressed. It punishes lifelong residents of the borough and leaves many pensioners—it particularly affects elderly people—struggling to get by.

Devolving power back to local councils is exactly what a Conservative Government should be aiming to do. Why should councils not have the ability to come together to take on the management of public services in the area for which they are responsible? If Havering Council wishes to take over the management of the NHS, why should it not be given the opportunity to do so? If it prepared a business case, worked out the finances and submitted a bid to the Government, and if—and only if—the bid stacked up, why should it not be able to manage health services in the borough?

It is unlikely that one council could do that alone, but a group of councils could. For instance, if Havering formed a group with Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge, with Brentwood and Epping—the boroughs on the Essex side of my constituency—or with whatever other grouping came together, and put in a bid for an integrated service to operate the NHS, an adult college or some other public body, would that not be the obvious way to devolve power back to our local communities? That would give real democratic control over large areas of the state and allow many different models to be developed. Let us think out of the box and embrace such new ideas. I believe we must empower local boroughs in London to take back control—they know what their local communities need best—and end the never-ending centralisation of power in City Hall or Whitehall.

London, as the UK’s capital, needs clearly defined boundaries. The City of London has always been the heart of our capital for trade and finance, with the City of Westminster as the centre of Parliament and Government, but our capital is wider than that. It includes some or all other central areas—boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea, and parts of Camden, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and so on. That is the central capital area. It is simply not right to say that the entirety of Greater London is the capital of the UK—that is a big confusion. Very few people living in towns such as Romford, Sutton, Enfield, Bexley, Croydon or Ruislip consider themselves to be living in the capital. Greater London is not the capital; the central area is the capital. It is time we properly defined where the capital actually starts and ends. It should be the central area that I have described. It should include the central areas where special measures for policing, security, transport and development are required to suit the needs of a global city. Beyond that, different priorities are needed for the wider London region beyond the actual capital. I urge the Government to take powers away from City Hall and restore them for towns and boroughs beyond the central London area.

Finally, I believe that it is also time to review the boundaries and names of London boroughs. So many anomalies divide communities because old boundaries have not been reviewed for decades. They are no longer relevant and it is time they were reviewed to suit local communities. To give examples from my own area, Rush Green, where I was born, is divided between Havering and Barking and Dagenham—it is a ludicrous boundary that runs down a road and divides a community. Those areas are all part of Romford, but we stick to these old boundaries from years ago that are no longer relevant. Another example is Chadwell Heath, another part of Romford that is not in my borough but divided between the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and the London Borough of Redbridge. I know hon. Members representing constituencies across London can come up with lots of examples of similar situations in which pointless divisions exist. Those should be resolved with local consultation to ensure that boroughs fit local communities and meet the needs of local people.

I believe that restoring local identities as well as renaming boroughs where local people wish to do so should be on the reform agenda. Shepway District Council in Kent was quite sensibly renamed as Folkestone and Hythe District Council, dumping the pointless, artificial name that had no resonance with people. A borough such as Havering—that is the nice name of a small country village in my constituency, but a name that does not represent the communities of that London borough—could be renamed the London Borough of Romford and Hornchurch, which is more representative of the borough’s two major towns. We should have a general review of names that match local towns’ identities to those of local people, so that they can feel pride in their boroughs.

I can talk about other boroughs but I am hesitant to do so because MPs representing those boroughs are not here. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has a completely artificial name—a bit of Walthamstow and a bit of Epping Forest—while the area of Redbridge is actually Ilford, and Hounslow is Chiswick and Brentford. We need to go back to sensible names so that people identify with the communities that they live in. Those 1960s names need to be reviewed and it would be incredibly popular if the Government led a review and gave local people the chance to decide their boundaries and restore traditional names. Who knows, Minister? Perhaps names like Hampstead, Paddington, Stoke Newington, Wembley or Finsbury could be restored. Replacing the names of boroughs that do not resonate with the history and identity of their communities would be extremely popular.

I have floated many new ideas for a reform of London government, some of which I hope hon. Members and the Minister will consider seriously. Whatever our views, let us begin a debate on and work towards the change that will bring about better government across the whole of the London region, the capital of our United Kingdom, and, I believe, the greatest city on earth.

Thank you, Mr Hosie. I have debated matters of English local government in this room on several occasions, and I remark now, as I remarked then, that I quite often feel as though I have gatecrashed someone else’s party. On this occasion, I feel as though people have got the wrong date for the party; I have never been to a debate in this Chamber that has been so sparsely attended, and it feels really weird to be called to reply to the debate when only the mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), has spoken. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to make some remarks.

Although I may not have been invited to the party, I sense that the music is very similar to that which we hear north of the border. Some of people’s concerns and desires for reform of local government administration in London and, indeed, throughout England are motivated by feelings very similar to those that drove the cause for Scottish devolution and that are now driving the cause for Scottish independence. They are feelings of remoteness, of not being in charge of the place in which you live, and of not having a shared sense of identity with others who live in that place. I am therefore sympathetic to such debates, and I would say that they are actually all part of one grand debate about how we reform the antiquated structure that is the United Kingdom, in order to create governance on these islands that is more fit for the 21st century.

That said, there is a world of difference between the devolution of legislative authority to a nation within a political union, and the decentralisation of administration within the largest country of that political union, which is England. I want to speak as an observer in the debate.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to express the Scottish Government’s view on the devolution of powers that are currently held in Holyrood to towns and cities of Scotland. I am sure the people there would like to take control of their lives and have proper devolution from Holyrood to other areas of Scotland—

The Minister’s intervention was perhaps tangential, but I do not mind replying to it. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of the Scottish Government, but from what I observe, over the last 11 years they have driven the idea of putting power in the hands of local communities, through their work in the highlands and islands of Scotland; through their work to relax controls on local authorities; and, in particular, through their work on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the community land fund, which gives local communities the ability to get together, without reference to their local authority, and take over derelict parts of land or buildings to bring them into community use. There is lots of good stuff going on in Scotland.

I will not prolong matters, because this is not the most subscribed debate that I have taken part in, but let me make three brief observations for the record. The first is that I believe, just as I believe that governance of Scotland should be a matter for the people who live there, that the governance of London should be a matter for those who live there—that principle needs to be established. I remember the dangers of doing things without popular consent. I was a London councillor in Hackney from 1986-1993—I represented the Defoe ward in Stoke Newington—and even then, in the mid-1980s, there was a genuine sense of grievance among many people about the fact that the borough of Stoke Newington had been abolished 20 years before. They identified much more with that area, as the hon. Member for Romford said, than with the new borough council that was created in 1964.

I understand the need for local identity, and I think it is vital that, as the debate continues, attempts are made to engage with the people of London about the various options that are available for the governance of this great city. I know not what the plans of the Mayor, the GLA, or the London boroughs are, but I hope and would welcome any initiatives that look towards engaging the public through a “People’s Assembly” or through a commission that will look at particular structures for the future.

Secondly, we ought to define the principles on which reform should take place as well as the criteria and the objectives that we are trying to achieve. Central to that must be the notion of equality and fairness across this great city. To that end, I think we ought to address the elephant in the room that no one has yet talked about: the City of London Corporation, which operates almost like a reverse-Bantustan in the City and commands a great and disproportionate amount of power and wealth in the capital. Any reform that does not look at how that can be distributed more fairly across the city is probably not worth undertaking.

My final point, which refers to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Romford, is that in these debates—I think that this is true in Scotland, England, and throughout every advanced democracy—it is important to make a distinction between democratic political control by communities and the administration of services. Too often, we get the two confused. That means, for example, that we end up saying, “It’s impossible to run a certain service on too local a level, and therefore we won’t bother letting local people have control of that”, or, “We won’t bother decentralising and setting up structures that allow people to govern a local area, because they cannot control or manage a service on that basis; it’s completely uneconomic.”

In a model whereby an agency provides a service in a public interest framework across a wider area, however—the police are an apt example—but within which local communities and local councils are able to act as the client for that service and to say what they want from the agency, there is a way of giving people democratic control over what is happening in their area without them having to be the managers of the individual service. The same is true for pretty much any major service. In fact, the same is now true for a lot of back-room services, such as information technology or administration, which would probably be much better organised on a larger scale to service a wide range of authorities beneath them that command and direct what needs to be done.

If we do that, we begin to open new possibilities for new, much more localised and decentralised structures that relate to local communities. Such structures would allow people to get much more involved than they are, and at the same time to retain services in a public interest framework and in public ownership. If we were to do that—London might be the place to start—we could play catch-up with much of the rest of Europe, where we can find much more democratic local decision making and, crucially, much greater levels of participation in local affairs and elections than we have in this country. At the end of the day, that is the thing that we all need to address: no matter where we are in the United Kingdom, it is rare for the majority of people to take part in an election for their local council. That is surely something that we need to change.

I am glad that this debate is getting things started—I hope—and next time perhaps we can attract a few more people, in particular Members of Parliament from the capital city, to engage in it. We can take matters forward at that point.

This is a really interesting debate, which is broader than London. It could be argued that if we develop a real settlement that pushes power down to communities, that ought to benefit every community in England. That will be the spirit in which I approach my response to some of the points that have been made.

A lot of the devolution debate and discussion, certainly over the past five or six years, has been about trying to get power from Westminster down to the next level, wherever that might be; in London, it is the capital, but elsewhere it will be metro areas or even some county deals in which counties have come together. That has been necessary because we are still a very centralised country, and too much power is contained not in this place—people who work here who believe that they are powerful are seriously deluded—but in Whitehall, where it still sits. We want to wrestle as much power as possible from civil servants, who are disconnected from the communities that are affected by the decisions that they make, and give that power back to local people.

That has to be at the most appropriate level, because the organisation of services is complex. Some are absolutely rooted in a localised geography, but in other cases it will make far more sense for a service to be decided and delivered at a different level—whether it is a district, a metropolitan or London borough, London itself, or a regional grouping—but it has to be right for that circumstance and for the decision that is being devolved down. The assumption should always be local.

If any power is devolved, a test should be in place to ask the question: where is it best to place this new power that is being devolved? For example, in places where we see devolution of the adult education budget, there has not really been a conversation about whether a combined authority or even a Greater London arrangement is the best place for that budget to sit, versus a local authority. That is odd, because that debate is taking place in other areas—such as Greater Manchester, which has the most advanced health devolution settlement in England; that settlement is devolved to the 10 local authorities, not to the combined authority or to the Mayor.

This move that we are taking as a nation is interesting, but it is not neat, it is not pretty and it is massively confusing for a lot of people. That does not mean that it is not necessary. We need to prove concept and prove that devolution can be made to work. We need to prove that to people who do not believe that devolution can work, and who believe that to get fairness and equity across the country, we should organise from the capital so that everyone gets the same. They are the people we need to convince.

The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of good points, and we agree on many things. Does he accept that an area such as mine, right on the edge of Greater London, is totally different from places such as Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, or Islington? More powers should be given back to us in our area so that we can work with the Essex councils; that is where we are. Does he agree that centralising everything in London is not the way forward? A central area is obviously needed as our capital, but the wider London region has different needs and priorities. That should be much more decentralised.

I agree with that point. If the assumption is devolution, the bar to sending something up to a higher level should be high. There should be a proper and rigorous test in place. A danger in the development of new structures or institutions of local government in city regions—perhaps this is more of a danger outside London than in it—is that if real power is not devolved from Westminster and Whitehall to those regions, they will, by the nature of government and politics, take up power to justify their existence.

To me, the responsibility for that lies with local politicians who must ensure that they are absolutely clear about what a devolved settlement looks like for their neighbourhoods and communities. There is, however, also pressure on the Government to prove that they can really devolve power and responsibility down. In a lot of the country, people do not believe that the Government are listening to what they say. I shall not stray from the subject of the debate, but anyone who speaks to people in Lancashire at the moment will find that they are massively frustrated that their local decision to reject fracking was overturned by a Government hundreds of miles away. If we are serious about devolving power, it has to be the power that people are asking for: the power to determine what type of place they want to live in and their families to grow up in.

That is different from identity and people’s sense of belonging. I feel strongly that that is a complex debate—we could have a debate for an hour and a half on what identity is and means, because it is complex. Devolution so far has not been about trying to rewrite people’s historical and rooted identity, or about changing the entrance signs to places where people live to names that they do not recognise. That is very different from the 1974 reorganisation outside London, which tried to do just that.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point. That is exactly the problem we face. A “Welcome to Essex” sign has been placed on the boundary between Romford and Brentwood. Suddenly, we have been told that we are no longer Essex, because Essex County Council will only put the sign on the boundary of its area. That is nonsense. The traditional identity of the counties is being lost because of a failure by local government bureaucrats to understand true local identities. I would understand if the sign read, “You are now entering the Essex County Council area”, or whatever they want to call it, but instead it reads, “Welcome to Essex”. In my area, we are Essex, and a lot of people resent that identity being removed because of a failure to put signage in the correct location.

Perhaps I may prove my credentials. When I became the leader of Oldham Council, it stood out to me just how frustrated people were about their historical identities being challenged by a local authority that was artificially created in 1974. It did not work for either party: Oldhamers were frustrated that people in the surrounding district seemed to have an angst about them, because of this issue; and people in the district were frustrated because they did not feel that their identity was valued by the local authority. One of the first things I did on taking control of the council, therefore, was to change all the boundary signs back to reflect the district crest and the local identities of those places, which I believe are important.

That is sometimes a cause of confusion. The lines we draw on maps for administrative convenience—basically, we are talking about the most efficient administrative area for delivering and organising our public services—are often adopted to create a new brand identity for a place. I see that happening where I am. Oldham, as a place, has one foot in Lancashire and one foot in the west riding of Yorkshire. Some people think they are Mancunian and others think they are Oldhamers, but identities travel even beyond that. It is true of every community in England, including every borough and town in London and Essex, that people do not stay in one place. They travel to work. Their relationships with places, communities, neighbouring towns and the heart of the capital, which the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) referred to, are complicated.

Let me make some practical suggestions. Power has been given to communities through the neighbourhood planning process. Communities can self-organise and decide what physical developments take place in their area, and they get some sense of being able to control what their community looks like at the end of that process. We do not do the same for revenue spend in local government. Think about the scrutiny we give to capital investment. When a capital project is initiated, it has to go through a number of gateways to get sign-off and be approved, and it then goes through evaluation and monitoring. We do not do that for revenue spend. We spend billions of pounds of public money every year, but we do not make the same assessment of whether it is invested in the right place or have a clear view of what return on investment we should expect. Equally, communities generally are not involved in organising that.

There is no reason why people at neighbourhood level—whether that is a ward or a collection of wards that make up a town’s identity, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned—could not organise a community plan to corral all the public services in their area and decide where the local GP practice ought to be or how the police ought to organise. Local people should be able to decide how public servants work together to ensure that services are delivered in the right context for that place.

Clearly, there will always be a role for local authorities, and for strategic authorities that cover issues that naturally transcend local boundaries. We have already heard about transport, but policing now transcends those boundaries, too. Policing is far more complicated than it was before the 1960s, when we had local police forces with their own identities. We need a police force that can meet the challenges of cyber-crime, terrorism, cross-border crime and many other issues, but not at the exclusion of neighbourhood policing.

In some places, because of austerity—let us be clear that it costs money to do this well—and the demands of terrorism, cyber-crime and all the other new crimes that are really stretching the police force, resources have been transferred from neighbourhood level to the centre so the police can meet significant cost demands. People see that, because of austerity, public services are becoming more and more removed from the communities in which they live, and that hugely affects the connection they feel. We should look at that.

We need a clearly articulated devolution framework for the whole of England—London would be a beneficiary of that—rather than ad hoc deals that are agreed behind closed doors. We should not pit one place against another but have a comprehensive settlement—a framework for power to be devolved. We should start at the grassroots and work upwards, with an assumption in favour of devolution. That should be supported by fair funding to meet need and demand in local areas.

That at least would allow us to test the ideas we are debating and to see whether one framework for the whole of England works. Without that, we will always be looking in the rear-view mirror at the consequences of what has been agreed. We need to get organised. We need a plan. This offer has been made before, but Labour Members are willing to work across party lines on the issues that are not party political. Much of this is not party political—it is about people and place.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this debate, which is both hugely important for his constituents and nationally important in the wider framework of devolution. It is very timely and deeply appropriate given the situation we find ourselves in.

The debate has been about the future, but let me dwell for a moment on the history of local government reform in London, which to some extent put us in this situation. I do not have to tell my hon. Friend, who is proud to have been born and bred in Essex, about the 1960 Herbert commission, but it is worth focusing briefly on the Greater London Council years. We can learn a lot from our history. During those years, when the current shadow Chancellor was chairman of the finance committee, what we used to refer to as “loony left” politics came to the fore. Of course, that is now mainstream Labour politics. As someone from the city of Liverpool, I was interested to see the Labour party, at its conference in that city, move back to endorsing the views of Derek Hatton: that councils should set illegal budgets and that there should be a general strike.

I suppose I ought to intervene, given that I was more or less invited to by that comment. To be absolutely clear—this came from the leadership of the Labour party a couple of years ago, so it is not a new response: we do not support the illegal setting of council budgets. We think councils have been given a rotten settlement, and in many places they struggle to meet their legal obligations.

The question for the Government is how they can provide the resources councils need to be confident that they can set a legal budget that provides security for the people who need it, particularly in adult social care and children’s safeguarding. The failure is not on the part of council leaders. No one proposes setting an illegal budget in any local authority in the country, but there are leaders who say, “We don’t think we can meet our legal obligations if this carries on.” So far, the Government have failed to provide a convincing response.

Order. Now the politics are out of the way, I am sure we will get back to local government reform in Greater London.

Well, of course the GLC was in league, through the Militant movement, with Derek Hatton’s Liverpool Labour party. It is worth focusing on the GLC. The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) parades the veneer of a gentle left—of herbivorous, lentil-munching, north London lefties—but the people of Liverpool and those who lived under the GLC know what the hard-left Labour party is really like. Labour councillors went around Liverpool handing out 30,000 redundancy notices to the people who worked in that city. As someone from Liverpool, let me take the opportunity to say that we will never forget that we could not get our bodies buried or our bins emptied. That is what the hard left of Militant and Momentum does to cities.

I will in a moment. It is all very well the hon. Gentleman saying that that is not the view of his party, but for a shadow Minister to endorse that view on the main platform on the first day of the conference was an absolute disgrace. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, which will afford him the opportunity to apologise for that, and to apologise to the people of Liverpool for the devastation both there and under the GLC.

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, let me say that I want us to get back to local government reform in London very quickly.

My response is simple: what on earth does that have to do with local government reorganisation in London? The Minister has an opportunity to lay out something that has been absent during his tenure. What will the Government do to push real power down to local authorities—not just to newly created institutions through deals done behind closed doors? We need a genuine framework that pushes power down to people, communities and neighbourhoods and addresses the issues raised in the debate. That is what we are here to discuss, and we look forward to hearing his reply.

I will take your guidance, Mr Hosie, and segue neatly from history to geography, which was always my favourite subject at school, but let me say briefly that the Labour party does not like the fact that the mask slipped. We should take every opportunity to inform the public in London and in our wider United Kingdom what lies behind that mask.

I move on to the geography of the Greater London Authority. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has noted that, in fact, the GLA and the Mayor have had some notable success since their establishment. I am sure that he, like me, celebrates the London Olympics hosted by the former Mayor of London, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson).

The Minister ought to be aware that the so-called London Olympics took place in Stratford, which is a traditional part of Essex. I do not object to its being called the London Olympics, but it is a perfect example of a national event in the London region, even though the reality is that the town of Stratford is traditionally part of Essex. There was no mention at all of the county of Essex. That is an example of where things have gone wrong.

Perhaps I should have stuck to history, which may be a slightly safer subject for me to talk about. My hon. Friend may think that it should have been called the Essex Olympics, but I am not sure that that would have had the same international cut-through as the London Olympics. It was a significant event, not just for London—and Essex, where it took place in the traditional Essex town of Stratford—but for our entire nation.

Those Olympics, which were thanks in no small part to the late, great Baroness Jowell and the Mayor of London at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, showed how the GLA and London can be at their best. Another previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, introduced the congestion charge, which was extremely well implemented and significantly reduced traffic levels in the city. The Oyster card is also hugely popular, which the GLA and the Mayor were responsible for.

My hon. Friend said that today should be the start of the debate about the future shape of mayoralty and local government in London. He will understand that starting the debate for change will be hard; it will be a long road and probably require primary legislation. Most importantly of all, it will require consensus. From the Government’s point of view, we hope any changes would come from a ground-up movement rather than a central diktat from Whitehall. That plays very well with my hon. Friend’s desire for his constituents to have more control of their lives.

We must not forget that the Conservative party is the party of English devolution. We did not create the Mayor of London but we have successfully created six Metro Mayors, who were elected in May 2017. Since that date, a Mayor of Sheffield has been elected and, subject to the consent of the House, next Monday we will finalise the creation of a Mayor north of the Tyne, in Newcastle. Those elections have brought the biggest single transfer of power from Whitehall back to the people of England since the first world war. As Conservatives, we should celebrate that and be deeply proud of it. All those mayoral devolution deals have been about transferring power.

The first world war. Does that take into account the power that has been removed from local authorities, particularly on housing and education?

I assume the shadow Minister is talking about the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the transfer of power up from local authorities to the Mayor across the country. In areas of devolution, it has been done by consensus; he was a leader of one of those local authorities that are now part of the combined authorities, so I guess he would support that.

This debate is very important when looked at in the wider context of English devolution. The Government will shortly publicise their devolution framework, in which we will talk about what devolution should look like in the rest of England and give a clear roadmap for devolution across England, in compliance with a Conservative party manifesto commitment.

In London, there is an opportunity to talk about how we might improve the scrutiny and accountability of the Mayor of London and of Mayors in general. For inspiration, my hon. Friend could look to the mayoral model put in place by our Government in Manchester, where rather than having an additional tier of GLA governance, it is a combined authority, with representatives—the leaders of those borough councils—working with the Mayor in a collaborative partnership, but with a strong voice for their borough in that relationship. London should look at new solutions like that, on the proviso that they are always ground-up and locally supported.

I am delighted by what the Minister has just said, because that is exactly what I said earlier: it would be far better to have an assembly or council of leaders from each borough who have a genuine understanding of what is needed in their local communities. I am afraid I do not think that the London Assembly fulfils that task in the way that is needed.

In the London Borough of Havering, the legitimacy of the Mayor and the GLA is hanging by a thread. If there were a referendum in my borough to opt out of the GLA and become a unitary authority, in my view there would be an overwhelming vote to exit—as it has been termed—the GLA. Most people would overwhelmingly want a separation and to restore control to our local communities. An area such as Havering feeds money into central London and pays far more for services from which we do not benefit; at the same time, the Mayor is able to interfere with our local area and override the council on planning. I hope that the Government will take this seriously and look at what reforms can be brought forward.

The Government take this issue absolutely seriously. My hon. Friend made a brilliant speech that has been widely supported, in which he made the argument very well. To be clear, it is not the Government’s position that the GLA should be abolished, replaced or reformed; the Government welcome the discussion that my hon. Friend has led. If there is a drumbeat or a clarion call from his borough to look at reform of the GLA, he is quite right that he and his council should lead that debate, and on a ground-up basis come to Government and have that discussion with other boroughs. Our door is open for those discussions, but they must come from the ground-up, be locally supported and have consensus because it is his long-term political ambition to seek reform.

I thank the Minister for that invitation. Is he therefore willing to meet the newly elected leader of Havering Council, Councillor Damian White, who is the youngest Conservative leader of any council in the country, and me, to talk about how a borough such as Havering can change in a way that benefits our local community, with the support of our Government?

Yes, I am. I hope that is helpful, and I congratulate my hon. Friend’s new council leader on winning the election.

Another reason why it is appropriate for boroughs to lead the conversation about whether the existing GLA boundaries and structures are appropriate is simply that they have not changed since the 1960s. Our world has changed very much since the 1960s. A lot of the debate about English devolution is driven by a wider debate about the future of our country after Brexit. There is an ambition and desire out there for what I refer to as “double devolution”—taking a very European idea of subsidiarity and embedding that in the relationship between local government and national government.

The Government have committed to come forward with the devolution framework to try to stimulate the debate about what devolution should look like across England. As we start with year zero of creating a new, ambitious, globally competitive country, what part can the constituent local authorities—in some cases, parish councils and unitary authorities in our local government family—play in driving forward our nation’s ambition?

I will touch on some of the specific points made by my hon. Friend in his excellent speech. When he started speaking, I wrote at the top of my piece of paper that the people of Essex want to take back control, although he got round to saying that himself. That plays into a much wider debate we should be having about people’s identity. As a proud Member of Parliament representing Lancashire, I am aware of the strength of the Lancashire identity, which in many ways was undermined in local government reform when we lost the city of Liverpool, the city of Manchester and large parts of Greater Manchester. There is a real role for Members of Parliament and local councils in reinforcing those historic county boundaries.

My hon. Friend spoke passionately about his identity as someone born in Essex and representing Essex but having been sucked into the London agglomeration in some way. I feel similarly about Lancashire. Of course, Lancashire is one of the few county palatine boroughs in our United Kingdom, having been awarded the status by the King for protecting England from marauding Scots—something we occasionally see today. We in Lancashire are deeply proud of that county palatine status. We love our friends north of the border, with whom we have a great relationship, but we also like to be cognisant of our history.

My hon. Friend was edging towards saying, without realising it, that the GLA may be better represented or reformed with a Manchester model: a combined authority with a strong voice for the boroughs. The late, great Tony Wilson, of Manchester music industry fame, said:

“This is Manchester—we do things differently here.”

Where Manchester leads, many parts of the country can follow. The GLA was set up in 2000, and the debate has simply moved on. That is why the Government, and I as a constituency Member of Parliament, see this as a welcome time to debate the future of the GLA.

The nearest equivalent organisation is London Councils, where council leaders across the Greater London area come together. Could that organisation be given combined authority status, with powers similar to Greater Manchester’s and the Mayor possibly taking the chair? Is that where Government thinking is leading?

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks, he would have heard me say that the Government are not suggesting that the GLA should be abolished, and we are not suggesting the creation of a combined authority. That is because the Conservatives, the party of English devolution, believe that devolution works best in England when it is ground-up and locally led. It is not for Whitehall to dictate what devolution should look like in Manchester, as he will appreciate, or to dictate what the changes—if any—that come forward for the GLA should be. It is for local politicians, led by Members of Parliament having this debate, to come forward to Government with ground-up proposals that the Government will look at, as we do with all such proposals.

I am sure the leaders of Yorkshire will be delighted with the spirit of that. Does that mean that we are heading towards a one Yorkshire devolution deal?

I think the leaders of Yorkshire are always delighted when they hear me talk about devolution. As the hon. Gentleman knows—I do not want to be drawn too far from the subject of the debate—the Government have been clear: we remain committed to the implementation of the south Yorkshire city region deal, known as the Sheffield city region deal.

As someone who has lived in Sheffield, I am keen to see the near-£1 billion of Government money go into that economy. In that city there is the bizarre situation where four Labour authority leaders cannot agree collectively about what power they should have to release that money. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the challenges faced by boroughs across England in local government spending, and it strikes me as a little bit odd that when the Government are saying to four Labour boroughs, “Here is £30 million a year that we would like to give you to invest in growing your economy,” those Labour boroughs are more interested in fighting each other than in drawing that money down. However, we are straying.

I will not, because we are straying a long way from the subject of the debate and I want to conclude my remarks.

This has been an interesting debate. I welcome the lead role that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford is taking in driving the debate on the future of the GLA and the mayoralty, and the relationship between the two. There has been no change since the 1960s. Although we cannot guarantee that any change will come, if he can command a broad coalition of boroughs across London who would like to talk to the Government about what change could look like, we will welcome those discussions.

This has been a worthwhile debate. I hope that colleagues who represent London constituencies will take the time to read some of the interesting, useful arguments put forward on a range of topics and that they, too, will think about how London should develop.

I have thought deeply about this. I have lived in London/Essex my entire life and I care about our great UK capital city, which I want to be a success as a global city that attracts investment, trade and tourism. However, I also want this region of the UK to be seen as a place where people live, based on communities in towns and villages. The identities of those areas are really important to local people. I welcome the Minister’s offer to have a meeting to talk about how we can take this agenda forward. I hope we can organise that soon.

I urge the Government to take this issue seriously. My fear is that if we do not push for change, sit together and work out a new model for how London can be governed, nothing will change, and in years’ time this will be seen as another debate where nothing really changed. I hope this is the start of that debate where we can come together and find solutions, recognising—this is the crux of my argument—that London is not just the central part. What the capital is should be defined, but there is London way beyond Greater London and the existing boundaries. That is what we must focus on. It has all changed since the ’60s, and we cannot carry on any longer with the existing structure.

Let us be radical but also consistent with what local people truly desire for their local towns, local communities and local boroughs in our great capital.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered local government reform in Greater London.

Sitting suspended.

GP Extended Access Services: Privatisation

I beg to move,

That this House has considered privatisation of GP extended access services in Stockton, Hartlepool and Darlington.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, as we explore the important issue of the privatisation of local health services. Before I begin, may I bring to your attention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I have worked in the local extended access service. I have been employed as a GP since my election to Parliament, and before that I was chief executive of Hartlepool & Stockton Health, which is a GP federation established by all local GPs as a non-profit-making venture to allow collaboration between practices and other parts of the NHS. I resigned my position when I was elected, and I served my notice. My partner, Vicky, is a nurse in the local NHS and she derives some income from the GP federation.

As the Minister will know, the Government’s ambition is for all patients to be able to access evening and weekend GP appointments, which is a good thing. It is difficult for each individual GP practice in any area to open every evening and weekend, but it is achievable if GPs work together. In Stockton South in April 2017, Hartlepool & Stockton Health started to deliver extended access appointments between 6.30 pm and 8 pm on weekday evenings, for three hours on a Saturday, and for two hours on a Sunday. Local GPs did that as a collective through their federation.

The federation was set up as a private company—there is as yet no NHS GP federation organisation that it can belong to—but it was designed as a not-for-profit organisation because local GPs insisted on it. They did not want to make any profit out of collaboration. All the money earned by the organisation is reinvested into local primary care—I know the detail of that because it was my job before I came into Parliament to set up and run the organisation.

Evening and weekend GP services have now run for 18 months and they have been a success by all measures. Patients like it:

“Every aspect of my visit was excellent…it was prompt and professional…a lovely experience”

are three of the many comments received as feedback. During the past year, there have been 26,000 extra GP and nurse appointments for routine care. That has not just been good for patients; it has also reduced pressure on local practices. Teesside has one of the highest patient-to-GP ratios—we are an under-doctored area.

Down the road in Darlington, Primary Healthcare Darlington has run an extended access service in the evenings and weekends since 2015 when it received Prime Minister’s Challenge funding. According to all the reports I have received, it has run an equally good service for the people of Darlington. So far, so good. However, in September this year the local clinical commissioning group launched an invitation to tender with two lots—one to run an extended access service in Darlington, and the other in Hartlepool and Stockton. The tender documents requested that organisations bid to run one and a half hours of general practice each evening and a bit longer at the weekends. The bidding process is under way and I am sure the Minister will not want to say anything that might prejudice the process.

I have initiated this debate to ask some big questions. Biggest of all is this: how does privatising this service benefit local patients—the acid test for any NHS change? When local GPs work together to deliver this service, and when the local NHS has all partners collaborating so well, how can it possibly be right to bring in a new private sector provider?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, my next-door neighbour, on securing this debate. One thing that concerns me is the potential loss of good will from GPs across the Tees valley who are currently delivering the service. Does that concern him too?

I will come later in my remarks to some of the reasons why the system works well at the moment, and to some of the potential threats that could arise from introducing a private sector provider.

Before I expand my point, let me establish my position so that there can be no confusion or misinterpretation. As I said, extended access services are a good thing. I worked hard before my election to establish them, and they are good for patients and for the NHS. I congratulate Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees CCG and Darlington CCG on delivering extra GP services for local patients over the past few years in Darlington and for the past 18 months in Stockton. They have done a good job. I also know that most GP practices are technically private organisations with a contract with the NHS, but there is an important difference between a local GP who is doing the work and making money from that, and a private corporation whose shareholders profit from the NHS.

Having said that, I am on the record as having said that GPs should be employed by the NHS, and I believe that the time has come for the NHS to set up community providers to integrate GPs, community nursing, social care and community health services. GPs should be offered employment in those organisations. The farce that I am describing today makes the case for that type of organisation stronger.

While setting out my credentials, I am also pragmatic and not dogmatic about private and voluntary sector provision within the NHS. Our local counselling services in Stockton are better for having multiple providers. Patients like getting hearing tests on the high street at Specsavers instead of going to the hospital audiology department. What I am describing today, however, is privatisation for privatisation’s sake. It is privatisation because the “rules” say privatise, and not because anyone thinks that privatisation is good for patients. It is probably even privatisation by accident.

For me, the most important test of any change in the NHS is: how does this benefit patients? The NHS is there to improve health. I have huge respect for all the staff who work in our NHS, and I thank everyone for their efforts, but fundamentally local health services must meet the needs of local patients. How could bringing in a private GP company for an hour and a half each day possibly make things better for patients in my constituency? If there were a list of 101 things to do to improve the NHS in Stockton South, finding a new provider for GP extended access would not be one of them.

Children’s mental health services are in crisis and health inequalities in Stockton are the most stark in the whole country. Our local authority is struggling to deliver effective public health services because of the cuts, and waiting times for autism diagnosis for children have been four years, even though our health and wellbeing board, council and CCG have good plans to reduce that. For general practice, in some parts of Stockton South patients tell me they have to wait four weeks for a GP appointment. Fixing those things should be the priority for our CCG, not being forced to spend time and money on an unnecessary privatisation.

GP extended access is one part of the local NHS that is working well. The model has energised local GPs and, to an extent, local nurses. Eighty-five doctors and 25 nurses have worked in the service. Three years ago, before I was in Parliament, I led a workshop for GPs, and the No. 1 thing they asked me not to introduce was an extended access service. However, working together with the CCG, a model was created that people wanted to work for—one that works for staff and patients. Since GPs own the organisation that they work for, the things that matter are prioritised. The GP federation has a culture lead—an employee of the federation whose job it is to promote a happy, healthy working environment and reduce the pressure on frontline GPs. GPs working in that service are not motivated by profit. They are working as a collective and taking responsibility.

Extended access has also allowed new models of care to be tried, and pharmacist, physiotherapist and counsellor appointments are directly bookable at the weekend. The scheme is popular with patients—96% of GP and 70% of nurse appointments have been used. In short, the service works well. Although most people said at the start that it would not work, the service is popular with patients and well led. Why privatise it? What on earth could be gained? One and a half hours a day of private general practice—it is ridiculous.

More good collaborative things are happening in Hartlepool and Stockton. The local GPs are already working in partnership with the local hospital and the local ambulance service to run the local urgent care centre. Local services are integrated, everyone is talking to each other and most people are happy. Most areas would be delighted to have such a level of engagement and co-operation and such leadership. The service has been put out to tender simply because of the law. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 mandates competitive tender for certain contracts worth more than £615,000 a year.

In this case, I contend that the law is not working. It does not work for patients, it will not work for doctors or NHS leaders and I suspect it is probably not even what the Minister wants. There is hypocrisy here—a fundamental difference between what the Government are saying and what they are doing. I will quote from NHS England’s “Next steps on the NHS Five Year Forward View” document, published in March 2017, which says that it will:

“Encourage practices to work together in ‘hubs’ or networks. Most GP surgeries will increasingly work together in primary care…hubs. This is because a combined patient population of at least 30,000-50,000 allows practices to share community nursing, mental health, and clinical pharmacy teams, expand diagnostic facilities, and pool responsibility for urgent care and extended access.”

That is what the NHS five-year forward view says will happen: GPs will work together to pool responsibility, which is exactly what is happening in my area. If private companies are invited to competitive tender for that, every GP has something to fear from the collaboration. They will do the work of setting up the services and somebody else will then come in and run them.

The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), recently gave evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee inquiry into integration in the NHS. When he was asked about privatisation, he said that

“there are a number of checks and balances in the system in the requirement for CCGs to consult their local populations, their health and wellbeing boards and their oversight and scrutiny committees. On top of that, there are safeguards at a national level of CCGs going through the integrated support and assurance process. Actually, there are a lot of checks and balances as to the fact that this is not privatisation.”

I ask where the checks and balances were to stop the CCG having to put these services out to tender. Why did the Minister not intervene, when it is plain to everybody that it is a ridiculous idea to bring a private company in for an hour and a half each day?

What concerns me is that this tender document sounds as though it will lead to a reduction in service, and the working people who access those extra clinics and appointments will not have the same level of service that they currently do. The Minister must intervene to ensure that we at least have the level of service that we have now.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the potential risks to local patients. This is not about defending the interests of the staff who work in the service, however important they are; it is about ensuring that it is the best service for local patients.

Finally, I quote from the 2017 Conservative election manifesto; I am afraid I do not keep my own copy, but it is still available online. It says:

“We expect GPs to come together to provide greater access”.

It also says:

“If the current legislative landscape is either slowing implementation or preventing clear national or local accountability, we will consult and make the necessary legislative changes. This includes the NHS’s own internal market, which can fail to act in the interests of patients and creates costly bureaucracy. So we will review the operation of the internal market and, in time for the start of the 2018 financial year, we will make non-legislative changes to remove barriers to the integration of care.”

I ask, then, what the Minster has done and how he has acted to remove barriers to integration of care in Stockton.

GPs in the NHS in Darlington and in Hartlepool and Stockton are doing everything they have been asked to do by this Government and the NHS. They have organised themselves into collectives, and together they are delivering social prescribing and pharmacists in practices, promoting nursing in general practice, introducing new technologies, helping physicians’ associates and training. Those are all good things that I am sure the Minster would support. Integration works. Integration is the right strategy: collaboration, not competition.

Why privatise now, and what is the risk of a private company running this service? The tender encourages competition on price. The lower an organisation’s bid, the more likely it is to win the contract. Cutting costs means less money to pay for things such as the culture lead I mentioned, so the kindness, the looking after staff, the encouragement and the “thank you” cards go, and with them much of the goodwill they bring, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) talked about.

Would local doctors and nurses want to work for a private organisation motivated by profit? Remember, I said that most local GPs were opposed to extended access only three years ago. Their participation has been carefully nurtured; they have ownership of the organisation delivering the service and they now really care about making it a success. How will the tender process take account of that? Today, we have doctors and nurses working in a service motivated by patient care. How can a for-profit company answerable to remote shareholders recreate that ethos? We have seen this Government’s privatisation failures over and over again, with Circle, Serco and Carillion. This Government are saying one thing about NHS collaboration, but doing another.

I have three questions for the Minister, and I will give him plenty of time to respond. First, why did he let this happen and why did he not intervene to stop it? Secondly, what is he going to do to stop this happening again in other parts of the country? What changes to the law does the Minister think would be helpful? Thirdly, how can he expect the public to trust the Tories on their new integrated care system idea if he cannot guarantee that these new multi-million pound contracts to run all the local health services will not be put out to tender in exactly the same way?

In the Minister’s response, I ask him to either defend this ridiculous privatisation of 1.5 hours of GP services a day, risking a great service being taken away from local GPs and given to a private company, or perhaps to concede that this type of privatisation—a consequence of the Conservatives’ 2012 Act—does not help patients and runs counter to the aims expressed in his party’s election manifesto, the stated aims of his ministerial colleagues and the strategy of NHS England. Maybe he will agree that the law needs to be changed. I look forward to his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie—it is the first time we have done this. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams), who I always enjoy listening to, on securing this debate on an important issue for him as both a Member of Parliament and member of the important Health and Social Care Committee, and—as I think he is still—a practising GP.

We know that primary care literally, by definition, comes first. It has always been and always will be the bedrock of the national health service. The Secretary of State and I have made that absolutely clear, and the long-term plan, when it is published later this year, will make it even clearer. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says—I think there is unanimity—we are committed to ensuring that everyone can see their GP at a convenient time by increasing the availability of routine evening and weekend appointments. Millions of patients have already benefited thanks to our investment of some £2.4 billion into general practice by 2021. I join him in paying tribute to his colleagues for making the leap and making that available to his constituents.

We have asked all clinical commissioning groups to ensure by March next year that patients have extended access to general practice across the whole of their registered population. That includes ensuring that access is available during peak times of demand such as bank holidays, and across the Easter, Christmas and new year periods. We have made great strides in delivering extended access, with the vast majority of England now offering weekend and evening appointments. Apologies to you, Mr Hosie—this of course is a devolved matter and we are talking about the English health service. That extended access will, as the hon. Member for Stockton South rightly says, help to reduce the pressures on general practice—it is not all squeezed into the original sessions—and, importantly, to reduce pressures across the wider NHS ahead of winter, which is creeping up on us.

Good access is key to improving quality and is not just access for access’s sake. Problems with access make it harder for people to get the right care from the right person at the right time. It is a publicly funded health service and it is there for the public, and that is what the public say they want. However, for us improving access is not simply about all GPs working seven days a week or doing more of the same. There was certainly a comms failure with the 2012 Act, in that it was allowed to be presented as saying that we just wanted GPs to just do more and to work seven days a week. Many people work seven days a week—all MPs certainly do—but improving access was not just about asking GPs to do more of the same. It can be and often is about practices coming together to offer services to a larger population—I have seen it most recently at the brilliant Granta surgery in Cambridge, which does it very well—using technology in different ways to make it easier for patients to access services, and broadening the skills mix. The hon. Gentleman and I have talked about the multidisciplinary team many times. It is also about working smarter in greater partnership across the health and social care system. The Secretary of State was at Granta just last week.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and asked in effect why we do not just do away with the requirement in that Act—the section 75 rules—so that CCGs are, as he says, no longer required to tender for contracts. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman and you, Mr Hosie, that any fears of privatisation of our NHS are, we think, completely groundless. I do not accept the title of the debate on the Order Paper. The Government are fully committed to the NHS as a public service that is free at the point of need, as it has been since day one in 1948—70 years ago this year, of course—whether care is provided by NHS organisations, as the vast majority is, or by the private, voluntary or social enterprise sectors. That guiding principle remains absolutely the case today. The mechanisms for deciding who provides what service may vary, but the basic structure of our NHS remains exactly the same. The key question is, and will remain, the pragmatic one: how do we best secure the outcomes that we want for patients and the best possible value for the taxpayer? I completely respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman started his speech by saying exactly that. He is spot on, of course.

We should avoid the blanket assumption that one form or other of provision is always the best or worst, as the evidence does not support that sort of sweeping conclusion, which the hon. Gentleman understands. As long as patients receive care that is high quality, timely and free at the point of use, the status of the provider is of little if any significance. That has been the policy of successive Governments for many years. It was certainly the policy of the last Labour Government and was what Tony Blair believed when he was in office. I know that many Opposition Back Benchers do not share the ideology of those on their current Front Bench, which is to make those sweeping conclusions that one form of provision is bad and one good. Where healthcare is free at the point of use, people are not as concerned about who provides the care as we think and often hear in the House. The British social attitudes survey showed that 43% of people had no preference whatever between a private provider, an NHS provider and a not-for-profit organisation.

A clear framework for public sector procurement is both necessary and, we think, desirable, just as it has been since it was introduced in 2006, under a previous Government, to implement the EU procurement directive. It is necessary to ensure that where a local, clinically led CCG decides that it is in the interests of patients and taxpayers to look at a range of potential providers for a service, it is able to do so. That is in the best interests of patients and taxpayers. Securing the best possible treatment for a patient is what we all want to achieve, but we also have to use NHS resources for the good of all patients. Achieving value for money is not just about making the numbers add up. It is about how we ensure that everyone gets the quality of treatment that they deserve.

The Minister has said that the CCG puts things out to procurement when it decides that that is in the interest of patients. Do I understand from his words that the local CCG had the option within the law of not going out to procurement on this service?

I might have to send the hon. Gentleman a note on that, but I will repeat what I said, just for the purposes of accuracy—I know he is seeing the relevant people later this week. Where the clinically led CCG decides that it is in the interests of patients and taxpayers to look at a range of potential providers for a service, it is able to do so. Those are the words I have for him. What we need and have is a sensible, proportionate framework that effectively balances the need of commissioners to secure the best-quality service at the best price with their need to ensure the security and sustainability of supply. It has worked that way and worked well for the past 12 years.

I wish to push this point. I know the Minister said that he might have to send my hon. Friend a note, but in putting the service out to tender, the CCG either is acting within the law or is not. Did it have the option within the law not to put this particular service out to tender? We need a very clear understanding of that.

Let me repeat that the local, clinically led CCG absolutely decided that it was in the interests of patients and taxpayers to look at a range of potential providers for the service that they wanted to be provided. That is the process that it is going through. The hon. Member for Stockton South rightly said that he would not expect me to wade into the middle of the procurement process. I cannot do that, but I will say that sensible, dynamic commissioning will be central to the NHS meeting the challenges that it faces today and in the future despite the commitment to increase the funding by £20.5 billion a year. That is vital to ensure that the NHS delivers on our triple aim of improving quality of care, cost control and population health which, as I am the Public Health Minister and absolutely focused on prevention, is one of my and the new Secretary of State’s key priorities. It is central. To achieve that triple aim, NHS commissioning will need to continue to develop as it has done since its inception. NHS England has designed a new commissioning capability programme to support commissioning systems. The programme provides tailored support delivered through place-based solutions to equip NHS commissioners with the skills they need to deliver on the challenges of today and the future.

Let me stress one of the fundamental principles of the 2012 reforms of the NHS—I served for many weeks on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. That principle is delegating power away from Whitehall and Ministers such as me, who come and go with political cycles, to local clinical commissioning groups. They are led by fantastic GPs and other local health experts, who are best placed to make the important decisions that matter to local people. Darlington CCG and the Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees CCG are rightly making the decisions about how best to ensure that people in their areas have access to a GP when it suits them. Bids for local extended access GP services are currently being closely assessed with a view to the contract starting in April 2019. I have faith that those local commissioners will award this contract in a way that, as I have set out, improves access and quality for patients. Let me say that very clearly: I have faith that those local commissioners will award the contract in a way that I think the hon. Member for Stockton South will find satisfactory.

If the Minister had been asked for his advice as the Minister with responsibility for primary care by the CCG about whether it should put this out to tender, what would his response have been?

My response would have been that the CCG needs to act in accordance with the law, with the Act, and I believe it is doing that.

Let me close by saying that I know the hon. Gentleman, and possibly his neighbour, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), are meeting regional representatives of NHS England later this week—probably on Friday, when they get back to their constituencies. Ultimately, these decisions are for the local NHS, not for Ministers. We merely set the legislative framework. They are absolutely the best people to discuss the concerns of the hon. Member for Stockton South. As I said, I have faith that the local commissioners will award this contract in such a way that he will be happy that it improves access and quality for local patients, as I have set out.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

East Coast Main Line Investment

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered East Coast Mainline investment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, not least because I have attempted to secure a debate on this issue for some time in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line. I also represent one of the constituencies served by this vital route.

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for attending this debate during an important Opposition day debate in the main Chamber on universal credit and social care funding, to which I would ordinarily want to contribute. Newcastle has been particularly hard hit by the roll-out of universal credit, for which it was a pilot area, and by the social care crisis. Sadly, the reality is that none of us can be in two places at once. I declare an interest: like many hon. Members, I use the east coast main line on a weekly basis, so I can personally testify to the pressing and increasing need for investment in the route.

I am proud of the pivotal role that Newcastle and the wider north-east have played in the development of rail travel through George Stephenson, the father of the railways, who was married at Newburn church in my constituency, and his son Robert and others, who pioneered their world-leading technology from our region through the industrial revolution. Whether it was the Stockton and Darlington railway, the Stephenson gauge, Locomotion No. 1 and the Rocket, which were both built at Stephenson’s Forth Street works in Newcastle or William Hedley’s earlier Puffing Billy, the world’s oldest surviving steam engine that ran between Wylam in Northumberland and Lemington in my constituency, the north-east’s contribution to Britain’s railways has been second to none.

That impressive history was celebrated this summer during the Great Exhibition of the North, which was held across the region and included the sadly temporary return of Stephenson’s Rocket to the region.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her excellent opening, which focuses on our proud history in transport and particularly in railways. As she said, it is unfortunate that Stephenson’s Rocket apparently had to return to London. Stephenson’s notebooks were recently found in York. Does she agree that there is now an excellent opportunity to bring them back to the city that she proudly celebrates?

That is off-point with regard to the east coast main line, but it is an excellent suggestion that we should pursue. I am sure that there would be a lot of support for bringing home—back to Newcastle and the north-east—more of what is rightly ours when it comes to our contribution to engineering and railway history in Britain.

We are extremely proud of our railway heritage, particularly in Stockton, from where the first passenger train left on its journey to Darlington. Across the country, people are bringing heritage lines back into use, but we do not need that on Teesside, because our trains and lines are so decrepit, old and run-down that they ought to be confined to history. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we desperately need more investment in the north-east line, we also need to cover the branch lines so that the people of Teesside and beyond have proper services to get to the main line?

I absolutely agree. I will make the case that investment is not only about the infrastructure of the vital east coast spine that runs up and down our country, but about the major impact that that would have on all the contributing branch lines and communities that rely on that infrastructure and the infrastructure that connects to it.

I represent Lincoln, which was promised six extra train services. We have one train to London in the morning at half seven, and one train back at six minutes past seven in the evening. Other than that, everybody has to change at Newark—it is a nightmare; I park at Newark.

I have heard through the grapevine—even though I am the MP—that we are not now getting those extra trains. Apparently there is a problem with the trains and the timetables. Does my hon. Friend agree that I should have been properly informed about that, along with other people, and that a formal announcement should be made?

My hon. Friend has put her concerns firmly on the record. The Minister may wish to refer to them at the end of the debate. Otherwise, I am sure that she will make her concerns about the issue known again.

As well as celebrating our railway of the past, this debate is about our railway of the future. The north-east can celebrate its proud role in that too, including through the manufacture of the new Azuma trains at Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe plant. That is the east coast main line of tomorrow, which is what we must focus on today.

The east coast main line is a critical piece of our national rail infrastructure. It is one of the country’s most strategically important transport routes and enables more than 80 million passenger journeys a year, according to Network Rail. Between Berwick-upon-Tweed and London, the east coast main line carries more than 58 million tonnes of freight annually, equivalent to 6.9 million lorry loads. The Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities has estimated that the local area served by the route contributes £300 billion to the UK economy every year—and that figure doubles if London is factored in to the calculation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate. Does she not think it ironic that we have those new Hitachi trains, but they cannot go at their maximum speed because the lines are decades old? We are getting new trains, but the lines do not match them.

I would go further than my hon. Friend and say that it is not only ironic but completely unacceptable. That is part of the case that I want to make to the Minister.

The east coast main line is a significant employer in its own right, as more than 3,000 people work for London North Eastern Railway. Trains that use the east coast main line operate as far north as Inverness and as far south as London, and one third of the UK’s population live within 20 minutes of the east coast main line, so the quality of the service and the capacity of the route has a real impact across the country.

The east coast main line is the fastest and most environmentally sustainable way to connect many of those locations, and enables cities in the north of England—or the northern powerhouse, to use the Government’s terminology—to do business elsewhere in the country and with one another. When the railway works, its key city centre to city centre journey times compare favourably with air travel, which allows slots at airports to be reserved for connectivity into international economies. The east coast main line should always win hands down against road travel as an attractive alternative to slow-moving traffic and motorway driving, with all the air quality issues that they bring.

The line does not just facilitate the famous Anglo-Scottish trains of past and present that travel to and from London, but a multiplicity of other journeys that utilise every part of the route, such as Edinburgh to Leeds, Newcastle to Birmingham, Darlington to Bristol, Middlesbrough to Manchester and Stansted airport to Leicester. The east coast main line and this debate are important not just to the grand cathedral stations of King’s Cross, Edinburgh, York and Newcastle, but to the other stations that serve commuter towns and larger villages across the route. When all those connecting lines are taken into account, that includes a far bigger swathe of the country than just those places immediately near the east coast main line.

For all those reasons, the east coast main line is a national asset to be prized and nurtured, not taken for granted. That is why I established the all-party parliamentary group to focus on the issue earlier this year, so hon. Members from both Houses could campaign together to secure investment in the route for an improved passenger experience, for capacity and reliability, and for shorter journey times.

The APPG is also looking at the economic growth that could be unlocked in the areas served by the east coast main line if those improvements are delivered, and at the future operation of the route, which has been beset by significant problems over the past decade. Given that the APPG’s vice chairs are the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), there is clearly strong cross-party and cross-country interest in this issue.

Of course, the Minister here today is well aware of the APPG’s existence, having attended one of our meetings back in June, for which we are grateful, and having corresponded with me since. I am quite sure that we will remain in contact in the months ahead.

I am acutely aware that the performance issues facing east coast main line passengers do not come close to the frankly catastrophic service issues faced by people who had the misfortune of having to use a number of other lines over the summer, including Arriva’s Northern Rail passengers and those on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern routes.

However, there are also real problems on the east coast main line. The latest performance measures published by Network Rail indicate that in the year to 15 September, just 75.2% of trains on the east coast main line, under the former franchise and the current operator, arrived within 10 minutes of their scheduled time. That is well short of the national figure of 86% and even further adrift of the target figure, which is 88%.

Over the same period, almost 9% of east coast main line trains were cancelled or classed as being “significantly late”, against an England and Wales performance of 4.6%. Of course, this issue is most serious for those communities not directly served by the line—for them, reliability is absolutely crucial if connections to adjoining routes are actually going to work.

Although passenger satisfaction data for LNER is not yet available, the spring 2018 figures from the independent transport user watchdog, Transport Focus, found an “overall satisfaction with the journey” rating for Virgin Trains East Coast of 87%—the worst score on the east coast main line route for five years. It will be very interesting to see what happens to that figure when Transport Focus publishes its autumn 2018 results, which will incorporate LNER’s performance for the first time.

I am seriously concerned that the quality of the service currently being provided simply does not “sell” the line, or the local communities that it is supposed to serve. Why would anyone from overseas or from elsewhere in the UK want to come back to places they have visited on the route, or do business or invest there, if they have had a poor travel experience, as is far too often the case? Similarly, how can we possibly persuade more people to stop using their cars, to reduce congestion and improve poor air quality, if they simply cannot rely on the railway to get them from A to B on time and at a reasonable price, whether it is for business or leisure?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. She is championing people along the line. Across the line and the area, there is very poor access for disabled people—particularly at Billingham, where they cannot get on to a train at all. Will she join me in encouraging the Minister to back the application for a grant to give disabled people in the Billingham area proper access to rail services, from Teesside to Darlington and beyond?

My hon. Friend makes a vital point very well. I absolutely support that call—indeed, I support the call for such improvements to be made right up and down the line. That is something we should all focus on.

I am sure that many hon. Members will want to raise such concerns directly with LNER at the drop-in briefing that I will host next month, and that they will wish to update colleagues on their plans. That briefing is also an opportunity to put to LNER the case for some of the improvements that we would like to work together to secure.

It would be wrong to lay all of the problems that I have outlined today at the door of LNER, or indeed that of Virgin, given that the latest performance figures published by Network Rail show that some 58% of the delays and cancellations on the route over the last year were caused by Network Rail itself. Those figures are a clear reflection of the east coast main line’s ageing and unreliable infrastructure. I suggest again to the Minister, as I have done at the APPG meeting that he attended and in writing, that that infrastructure is in urgent need of improvement or replacement, including of track, signalling and overhead power lines on the electrified sections. Also, far greater resilience is required in bad weather, which the rail networks of many other countries that have far more challenging climatic conditions than we do appear able to cope with.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is making a powerful argument, and I agree about the need to improve the infrastructure. There is a lot of talk about overhead cables and track, but does she agree that, given the new rolling stock, we should also look to invest in new digital technology, such as in-cab signalling? The Government have talked about bringing that forward, but there is no timetable for doing so. Does she agree that we should be looking at a timetable for that digital technology?

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman has put that clearly on the record, and it would be good if the Minister referred to it in his response to the debate. Indeed, it is also an issue that the APPG can take up as part of the wider call to ensure that on the east coast main line we have the railway for the future and the investment that is required to deliver it.

Of course, the infrastructure-related poor performance on the east coast main line is not really surprising, given that the last significant large-scale improvement on the route was electrification to Edinburgh, which was completed back in 1991. To some of us, that feels like yesterday, but it is almost three decades ago.

In contrast, the west coast main line benefited from a major upgrade in the period between 1998 and 2009, at a cost of £9 billion in today’s prices, accelerating journey times and offering greater passenger and freight capacity. That has resulted in at least 20% more passengers on the west coast main line, which is evidence that investment in existing rail infrastructure works.

So it is clear that the east coast main line, with its creaking infrastructure, is not currently fit for purpose and the demands that are already being made on it, but what about the demands of the future? Even without High Speed 2, forecasts predict that passenger demand on long-distance services will increase dramatically in the coming decades. For example, it has been estimated that between 2012 and 2043 there will be growth in demand of up to 175% for London to Edinburgh journeys, up to 145% for London to Leeds journeys and up to 62% for Leeds to Newcastle journeys. Therefore, increased capacity and, crucially, increased reliability will be vital for the east coast main line in the coming years, requiring short to medium-term investment regardless of any plans for HS2.

However, it is crucial to highlight that HS2 does not remove the need for longer-term investment in the east coast main line, as the benefits of HS2 phase 2b will be fully realised only if there is an associated investment in the east coast main line. Also, as I am sure the Minister is well aware, the northern part of the line needs improvement so that HS2 trains can operate on it at high speeds. The east coast main line needs to be fast, reliable and resilient, day in and day out, as HS2, which aims to achieve Japanese-style timekeeping at a level that the east coast main line does not even aspire to yet, comes into use. Passengers must experience the same service when HS2 runs on the east coast main line as they do on the rest of the HS2 route. Of course, the far northern, central and southern parts of the east coast main line, which will not be served by HS2, also need such longer-term investment, so that they do not become more remote in terms of connectivity and prosperity.

However, the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities has made it very clear to me that the Department for Transport’s current proposals are insufficient to ensure that the east coast main line is HS2-ready by 2033, which is the point when the link between HS2 and the east coast main line is intended to be in place.

I know that on 23 July the Prime Minister made a somewhat unexpected announcement to

“confirm an investment of up to £780 million for major upgrades to the East Coast Main Line from 2019, to be completed in the early 2020s”,

which would give passengers

“more seats and faster, more frequent journeys”.

My hon. Friend is making a passionate case on behalf of her constituents, and indeed on behalf of all the constituencies that rely on the east coast main line.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that over a long period the Government have not invested sufficiently in the rail infrastructure of the north-east? For example, we know that in 2016-17 transport spending per head in the north-east was just £291 per person, compared with £944 per head in London. However, what is more concerning is that even if we project forward and look at the figures for the future, as the Institute for Public Policy Research North has done, the north-east will remain in second place among the regions and far behind places such as London.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I have huge respect for her grasp of detail as Chair of the Select Committee on Transport. I thank her for her support in this debate. She has highlighted some of the issues specific to the north-east, whereas I have been working hard to speak for the whole east coast main line route and make the case for it as national infrastructure, but I agree with what she has said and I am grateful to her for putting on the record some stark figures that need to be addressed by the Government.

Going back to the Government’s surprise announcement of £780 million of investment, somebody considerably more cynical than me might suggest that the timing and content of that pledge was more to do with the Cabinet’s visit to the north-east that day and the pressing need to announce something north-east-friendly. Indeed, they do need more north-east-friendly announcements; my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) has pointed out the disparity in the investment that goes into the region. That concern is possibly backed up by the fact that it took several days for the Department for Transport to confirm what the funding would be used for. However, as was eventually confirmed in writing following the Minister’s attendance at the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line, it is intended that this control period 6 investment will include power supply upgrades between Doncaster and Edinburgh, a new junction near Peterborough, a new platform at Stevenage, and track layout improvements at King’s Cross—improvements that are mainly paid for by necessary maintenance and renewal expenditure.

Let me be clear: any investment in the east coast main line is welcome, given the scale and nature of the improvements required. However, the Minister will also know that Network Rail published its east coast main line route study covering the section from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which contained a long list of potential investment projects or investment opportunities that would deliver much-needed improvements to the east coast main line. Most have been known about for some time and have been mooted repeatedly, including some that have not been delivered in Network Rail’s control period 5, 2014 to 2019. The Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities estimates that the route requires at least £3 billion of investment to fulfil Network Rail’s proposals, but there is no indication of where the remainder of the funding to pay for these projects will come from, either via Government funding or third-party investment. Meanwhile, Network Rail’s renewal and maintenance fund for control period 6, 2019 to 2024, is barely enough to stand still, replacing items on a like-for-like basis.

I acknowledge that, as is made clear in Network Rail’s route study, “recent rail industry developments” have seen a shift away from the historical model of railway infrastructure improvements being provided and funded centrally, via national Governments and Network Rail raising capital against its asset base. However, as a reclassified publicly funded body, Network Rail can longer finance enhancements through financial markets. A welcome devolution of funding and decision making on transport infrastructure means that more local, regional or sub-national bodies—such as LEPs, combined authorities, and Transport for the North—have been tasked with defining the railway needs in their area and applying for Government funding or attracting third-party investment. However, the Network Rail east coast main line route study states:

“Overall, this means that improvements in rail infrastructure should not be seen as an automatic pipeline of upgrades awaiting delivery; rather, they are choices that may or may not be taken forward depending on whether they meet the needs of rail users, provide a value for money investment, and are affordable.”

I understand that could mean the Treasury taking final decisions on individual rail improvements in England on a case-by-case basis. I fear that does not bode well for the comprehensive, coherent programme of infrastructure improvements that I and others believe is required for the east coast main line route. To that end, it would be helpful to hear what the Minister’s plans are for working with the Scottish Government to secure that investment right across the line.

I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with her time, and for the points that she is making. Specifically regarding the way in which the Treasury assesses opportunities for investment in north-east infrastructure, we have heard how discriminated against that region has historically been. Will the Minister look at the definition under which that assessment is made, taking into account the economic value of infrastructure investment in the north-east region and how it contributes to delivering a less unequal society?

Again, I echo my hon. Friend’s comments, and I thank her for putting on record some of the specific requirements of the north-east as part of the wider east coast main line infrastructure demands that we are making.

My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. Is she aware that the Transport Committee’s report into rail infrastructure investment called on the Government to do more to reflect the fact that the way they deal with business cases disadvantages places like the north-east that are in need of economic regeneration? Does she share my disappointment that the Government’s response to that report does not take on board the Committee’s recommendations, which might help to ensure that such places get their fair share of transport funding?

Absolutely, because apart from the other issues that have been raised, businesses need certainty about infrastructure and the quality of any improvements on a route before they will bring new investment and jobs to communities that depend on that line. It is not clear how that will be delivered under the current system, or whether we can expect a series of unexpected announcements from Government Ministers, such as the announcement that was made over the summer. Although that announcement was welcome, I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes that the issues now arising with the long-awaited Azuma trains, which have been 10 years in the planning, reflect this piecemeal, seemingly un-strategic and ad hoc approach to investment in the east coast main line’s infrastructure. Last month, it was reported that ageing track-side equipment on the line north of York meant that the electro-diesel trains would have to operate only on diesel on that part of the route, travelling much more slowly than their promised speed, with all the air quality issues that would create. In Hitachi’s words,

“There are a number of 30-year old signalling systems on the East Coast line which require modifying to operate with modern electric trains”.

I am acutely aware that there are myriad issues affecting the east coast main line that I have not touched on today, including the never-ending franchising sagas that were covered so well in the Transport Committee’s recent excellent report; the future operation of the route; the Government’s ongoing proposals for a new east coast partnership, which the Transport Committee has described as an experiment; and how any of this fits into the root and branch rail review announced by the Secretary of State last month and re-announced by the Secretary of State last week. However, I hope I have made it clear that the east coast main line, one of the country’s most important transport routes, is in urgent need of a significant, coherent programme of investment for the short, medium and long term if it is to be fit for purpose now and into the future.

Such an investment programme would include improving the resilience and reliability of the east coast main line. It would include improving signalling, power supply and tracks, so that the Azumas can run at their full speed, offering faster train journeys and better connections. It would include improving capacity, particularly between York and Newcastle, for the east coast main line, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Ideally, it would ensure that HS2 services can continue north from Newcastle to Edinburgh, both from the start of phase 2b and in the longer term as an upgraded route north of Newcastle. Such an investment programme would deliver real returns for the whole country. Independent research undertaken on behalf of the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities estimates that the scale of investment required and subsequent improvements to passenger services could generate more than £5 billion in extra GDP, or an additional £9 billion per year when combined with HS2 phase 2 and the link to the east coast main line in the York area.

I look forward to the Minister’s response, and to hearing what he believes to be the main issues that the east coast main line faces and, therefore, what his future priorities might be in terms of investment. I would like to hear what additional money for investing in the route could, and will, be made available for devolved bodies to bid for, and at what point the Government will enter into meaningful dialogue involving Network Rail and key stakeholders along the route to develop a series of interventions to ensure that the east coast main line is fit for purpose, both now and in the future. Crucially, I would like to hear how he intends to ensure that a significant, coherent programme of east coast main line investment is delivered.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this timely and important debate. Sadly, my constituency does not lie on the direct route of the east coast main line, but it is heavily reliant on it, as am I. Looking around, most of the Members in the Chamber will be very familiar with LNER, as it now is, as we go to and from our constituencies. As the hon. Lady rightly said, the east coast main line is vital to the economies of the eastern spine of the country, but it is also important to those communities that lie off the main line. Quite simply, I cannot get home without using the east coast main line, but sadly I then have to use TransPennine. It is perfectly fine—the only problem is that it takes 65 minutes to do 50 miles, which is not exactly what we expect in the 21st century.

The hon. Lady rightly focused on the history of Darlington and the north-east in the development of the railways. My constituency includes Immingham, which along with Grimsby is part of the largest port complex in the UK by tonnage. The ports of Immingham and Grimsby were developed by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, or the MS&LR. It was affectionately known as “Mucky, Slow and Late”. Nowadays we get much cleaner trains, but they are not much faster. To be fair, they are usually on time, but they are not exactly express.

If the Minister was visiting Immingham, I would suspect that happens, as with most ministerial visits, I would get a call saying, “Can you meet me at Doncaster?” That is because they appreciate how difficult it is to get to the east-coast communities from the main line. The same applies to Scunthorpe, Skegness, Boston and other towns. The coastal communities are vital. They need revitalising and new industry. To get that, they need good transport connections. I suspect that if the Minister was coming to Immingham tomorrow, even in his Department people would not know that Habrough station is two miles from the port of Immingham. I would again get the call asking to meet at Doncaster.

We have recently secured for my constituency the Greater Grimsby town deal, which has great potential to revitalise a fairly left-behind coastal community. Returning to the point I made a moment or two ago, to do that it is vital that we have transport connections. Most importantly, we need a direct train service to King’s Cross.

I regret that I was unable to be here for the beginning of the debate, but I support everything the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said. I have made a number of specific suggestions for upgrading and improving the east coast main line, particularly the southern half of it, that would make possible the restoration of direct fast services from King’s Cross to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Should the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) not be demanding that as of now?

The hon. Gentleman regularly comes to the all-party parliamentary group on rail, which I chair. I am very familiar with the proposals that he has been championing for a number of years. I am demanding now and have been demanding ever since I arrived here that more investment goes into the routes that serve not only my constituency, but other routes off the main lines.

I was rather disappointed to hear what the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) said. She said she was lucky to have one direct train. We have got no direct trains, and we have not had any since British Rail ended them in 1992. I was rather disappointed to hear that the expected increase in trains through to Lincoln is in some doubt.

I am very disappointed to hear that. I put three alternatives that the Minister could consider in my notes, and one of them was to extend one or two of those new services to Lincoln through to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Given what the hon. Lady is saying, it might not be possible.

The Minister will be aware that an open-access operator has shown an interest and has previously been in negotiations with the Office of Road and Rail about direct services. That is yet again on hold. I understand that a review is taking place on access charges for open-access operators. I can understand the logic of that, but it creates further delay. Earlier this year, Grand Central was intending to put an application in to run four direct services from King’s Cross through to Cleethorpes via Doncaster and Scunthorpe, but that is now on hold.

Although the hon. Gentleman is outlining some of the difficulties he has in getting direct services to his constituency, I am pleased that the new publicly run LNER has just announced that it will extend direct services to Harrogate, which would increase the number of trains stopping in my constituency from one a day to six a day. That clearly shows that publicly run rail can deliver.

I was not intending to embark on a pro or anti-nationalisation debate, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that since privatisation—I cannot remember, and the Minister can probably give the exact figure—hundreds of millions of pounds from the private sector has been invested in the rail network. The simple reality is that if we nationalise the rail network, which I sincerely hope we do not, British Rail or whatever we choose to call it would be very low down on the list of demands on the Treasury. Do we want money for the health service, schools and 1,001 other things? The simple fact is that there would be a spiralling down, just as there was in the 1970s and 1980s.

To conclude, I urge the Minister to meet me to discuss further how we can get over the immediate problems and look forward to a direct service along the east coast main line serving my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of Grimsby. I ask him not to say, as many other Ministers have over the past few years, “When we get HS2, there will be more capacity on the east coast main line, so you will be able to get a service through to Cleethorpes.” I am afraid that that timescale is simply not acceptable, even if it is 2033 or thereabouts when HS2 comes along. If a week is a long time in politics, 15 years must be generations. I urge the Minister to look again at the economic arguments for the regeneration of an area that has just been granted a unique town deal status by the Government. We need improved road and rail networks. I am fully supportive of improvements to the east coast main line, but only if they can in addition provide direct services to Cleethorpes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I repeat my earlier comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who managed to secure this extremely necessary and timely debate. At the outset, I give big thanks to the staff of the east coast main line, which we all use regularly, for their hard and excellent work and courtesy at all times.

Like many of my colleagues, Members from other parties and Members of the other place, I am a regular traveller on east coast rail. We travel regularly with each other. Our constituents also use the line to go to work or to visit friends or family to keep in contact. The one thing we have in common—I am convinced about this—is that we believe the east coast rail line and the trains on it should be in public hands. It is in desperate need of investment.

Reference has already been made to the Cabinet meeting held in July, which was nothing but a gimmick. Reference was made to the advantages of privatisation, and we laughed when the Cabinet could not get back to London on time because the trains were delayed because of the chaos on the east coast rail line.

Privatisation is a joke. Three times in recent history, certainly since I have been in Parliament, the line has been in the hands of the private sector and has failed. Its only successful time was from 2009 to 2015 when Labour nationalised it and it returned £1 billion to the public coffers in the Treasury. On numerous occasions, both the Transport Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have criticised the services, but Ministers have unfortunately ignored the criticisms. The clear message from taxpayers and passengers and from this House and its Committees is that privatisation is bad for our rail system.

There is a broader argument for investment in the east coast rail line. Everybody agrees that this country is running an imbalanced economy. It is too focused on London and the south-east at the expense of the north-east. The east coast rail line could be a solution. It could be used as a driver to boost economic growth. House of Commons figures show that under 3% of Government transport funding has been spent in the north-east since 2012. As has already been pointed out, that is the lowest of all the English regions by far. For rail spending it is even worse, with over 15 times more being spent in London compared with the whole north-east.

Research has shown that an investment of only £3 billion over the next decade could boost the north-east economy by £9 billion if that investment went into the east coast rail line. Why do we not do that? Ideology has taken over the Government rather than practical measures to try to improve the north-east.

I hope the Minister will address a couple of questions when he replies to the debate. First, following the 2013 announcement of the proposed privatisation that took place just before the general election in 2015, Ministers boasted of the benefits of privatisation and how it would lead to increased investment. Do they now admit that that was wrong? Secondly, fares have been put up year after year under privatisation with the promise of improvements. Where are the improvements? I travel on the line weekly, as lots of people do, and we have not seen the improvements. Thirdly, the Government continually state that they are undertaking the biggest investment in rail since Victorian times. Well, it is certainly not happening in the north-east of England or on the east coast main line. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I had not intended to speak, Mr Owen, but I am inspired by the speeches and by the mover of the motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). She spoke with great passion and clarity about how much the line means to our national economy, our culture and our society.

It thrills the blood to be on an east coast main line train and to arrive, for example, at the tremendous station in the great historic city of York on race day, or at Leeds—I am sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel)—with its shops and culture and its new cathedral of a station, with lots of investment to come. It will uniquely house the main line station, HS2 and HS3 as well. It will perhaps be the premier station in the whole of the country when that happens.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn). Regardless of the ideology of privatisation, the line has had a sorry history. GNER, National Express and Virgin-Stagecoach all failed, despite the amount of money that went into the franchises and despite the lawyers. Then they were taken back. I have a few questions for the Minister, and just an appeal, really.

Before my hon. Friend goes on to ask questions, does he agree with me that it is important to remember that today is the anniversary of the accident at Hatfield, which occurred when the infrastructure was privatised under Railtrack? As a result of that accident, the infrastructure was brought back into the public sector under Network Rail. Should we not remember that on 17 October 2000, four people lost their lives and 70 were injured? We saw then the dangers of putting ideology and profits ahead of running a safe railway.

We should certainly remember that anniversary. Regardless of ideology, one achievement of Network Rail over the intervening period, under all parties, has been to put a much higher emphasis on safety on our railways, and we should never lose that again.

On my questions for the Minister, is there not a strong case for a period of stability on the east coast main line? As we have heard, we have a promise of some investment from the Government, but we really need a period of stability so that people know where they stand. Ministers have mentioned the east coast partnership, but have given very little detail. We have no idea who will be involved in that partnership. Will Network Rail be involved? Will it be a privatised operator?

For the period of this Parliament, should it last until 2022, it would be welcome if the Government were to say that the service will be run as it is now: a directly run state-operated company with Network Rail. The Minister should be very cautious about disrupting the system yet again. There are other operators on the east coast main line who write to me to ask whether they will be involved in the partnership; there are other franchisees and open-access operators and so on.

Civil servants might put the next possible option in front of the Minister when the best possible option is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow mentioned, what happened in the period between 2009 and 2015. During that sustained period, the line was run for public service in the public sector. The stats went up, reliability went up and £1 billion was paid into the public coffers. The line could be a public sector comparator. From the Government’s point of view, it would be a good thing over the next five years to look at evidence-based policy.

We have heard a little about extra trains to Harrogate and Lincoln. Are they happening or not? Extra trains to Middlesbrough were promised. Seven a day to Bradford from next May were promised. Will those trains definitely run? Can I put in my diary for 1 May next year that I shall be there watching as seven trains from Bradford, rather than the one, go on that line?

Can the Minister tell us a little more about the Azuma trains? We have heard about the problems of electromagnetic interference with signals—it sounds like science fiction. Are Ministers getting a grip of that? When will that problem be solved? Will the Minister be able to say a little more on that this side of Christmas or in the new year?

I do not want to speak for long, but I want to say that the Labour party looks forward to government. We look forward to the main franchisee, the east coast main line, being run in the public sector with Network Rail, with all the co-ordination and efficiency that that will bring. From time to time, I raise the question of open-access operators with shadow Ministers, because there are open-access operators on the east coast main line. Hull Trains and Grand Central have re-linked towns such as Halifax to the east coast main line, and First is planning to bring in an open-access operator in 2021 to Edinburgh.

We can afford to be magnanimous as a new Labour Government. We should also recognise that just as the BBC is a great public service broadcaster but benefits from challenge from Channel 4 and the commercial sector, at the margin we should be confident in our belief in public sector efficiency, and still allow challenge in a 98% or 99% publicly owned sector.

I used to represent Selby, where Hull Trains identified a gap in the market and provided a service. A big national operator will not always be quite as fleet of foot as we might want. In thinking about how to change the railways we must give more of a role to local authorities, for example. However, there should not just be one decision maker in Whitehall deciding on routes. I hope for assurances on that matter from the Labour Front Bench.

Order. I remind hon. Members that I shall call the Front-Bench speakers promptly at 3.30. The Minister may want to leave time at the end for the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I, too, want to start by thanking the hard-working staff on the east coast main line. They are always friendly and as helpful as they can be. They take a lot of stick, because it is not a very good service, and they deal with that in a positive way. I aim no criticism at them at all.

Like many of my constituents, I rely on the east coast main line, which connects Lincoln to the rest of the UK. Along with those people, I have been greatly concerned that it has once again come to be in a position of such uncertainty. Since June, the east coast main line has been temporarily run under the publicly-owned LNER, after Virgin-Stagecoach overbid for the contracts and defaulted on its contractual obligations. The latest contract failure is the third time in 10 years that a private train operator has failed to see out its contract on the east coast main line. To break the cycle, we must overhaul a deregulated system that enables companies to make reckless bids, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will bail them out.

The most pressing concern for people and businesses in Lincoln is that further uncertainty casts doubt on Virgin’s promise of increased direct trains between Lincoln and London from May 2019. Additional services would provide a huge boost to the local economy. Tourism is a big deal in Lincoln. There would be benefits to residents, businesses and Lincoln’s industry in general. For months, I have been fighting to ensure that Lincoln gets the extra services that have long been promised. My constituents should not have to suffer because of the Government’s mismanagement of the rail travel system. Neither should businesses.

I have sought assurances from Network Rail, local stakeholders and Ministers. On 24 May in the Chamber, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport to make a “firm commitment” that the pledged extra services would be delivered. He responded by giving

“all Members who are waiting for these new services an assurance that I will make sure that they are delivered.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2018; Vol. 641, c. 978.]

Contrary to those assurances, I now understand that the extended services will not be going ahead as planned. There has been no formal announcement; I have that second hand from other stakeholders. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the point. Will he also reassure people and businesses in my constituency by giving a clear, unequivocal commitment that at some point Lincoln will indeed get the increase in the provision of direct trains that we have for so long been promised? If he can give me that assurance, when will we get them?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. As other hon. Members have done, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate, and I commend her for the work that she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line.

The hon. Lady’s speech covered history and looked forward. As to the history, we heard about Stephenson and the Rocket, and the development of the original engines in Newcastle. That was interesting to me, and it made me feel I should mention some of my constituency’s rail history. The oldest remaining railway viaduct in the world, the Laigh Milton viaduct, is in my constituency. The town of Kilmarnock has a proud heritage of building railway locomotives. There are still two companies active in Kilmarnock involved in the manufacture and refurbishment of rail rolling stock: Wabtec and Brodie Engineering. QTS, which is located just outside my constituency, employs many of my constituents and is involved in the ongoing maintenance of rail infrastructure up and down the UK. It is a company that helps to keep trains running.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North clearly highlighted some of the issues affecting the east coast main line. As to punctuality, I noted the figure of 80%, against an 86% average in England and Wales. It is worth mentioning that the ScotRail franchise in Scotland operates at nearly 90% punctuality, and even that gets quite a bit of criticism, which shows what the level of performance on the east coast main line really is. However, it is not just a matter of statistics: the statistics mirror passenger experience, and it is important to point that out. If there is an intention to increase passenger or visitor numbers, and to get people to return to the railways, clearly there is a need for an enjoyable rail experience. That is tied in with punctuality and reliability. The issue underpins the whole argument about investment on the east coast main line. I support those calls, because the route is a cross-border one.

The £780 million package that magically appeared at the time of the Cabinet visit to the north in July was interesting. Obviously, it was welcome, but it made me think. I hope the Minister can explain. A surprise announcement kind of makes a mockery of the whole asset management system—the approach to managing infrastructure and going about long-term planning and investment—because suddenly, from nowhere, there is an announcement of a £780 million investment. It would be good if the Minister could explain the rationale for that and how it was prioritised in relation to other things that are still needed—either investment for the east coast main line, or other rail investment called for by Members in the surrounding area.

I have my own experience and memories of travelling on the east coast main line, which was the service of choice when going from the west coast of Scotland to London. At one time, the east coast main line had a much better service than the west coast main line, even though the journey was longer. It is clear that upgrades to the west coast main line have changed that dynamic and resulted in a shifting of the passenger balance, with more now using the west coast main line. That underpins the need for upgrades to the east coast main line. However, there are some parallels, looking forward; some upgrades will be made to the west coast main line to facilitate High Speed 2, but they will leave other areas of the rail network further behind. Some passengers will end up with an even poorer second-class system, while other areas of the network will get upgrades to facilitate High Speed 2.

The valid point has been made that the Treasury can spike projects or control the final release of money. We need to move away from that. Surely the Department for Transport should make the final decisions on investment.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made another of his repeated requests for upgrades in the Cleethorpes and Grimsby area. I have heard those requests many times, in the main Chamber and here, so it might be thought that at some point Ministers would hear his requests and act on them. It would be good to hear the Minister’s response. An ongoing issue that the hon. Gentleman touched on was the theory that privatisation brought in a lot more investment from the private sector. What it did was to allow private companies to borrow money at a higher rate than the UK Government can, against, effectively, the guarantee that taxpayers and rail users will pick up the tab. It is not free money or magic money. It is a different way of hiding the Government’s borrowing. That is my issue with privatisation and the argument that it has brought in all this extra investment. It is actually just another way of hiding the borrowing.

That took us neatly on to the speech of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn), who responded by saying that privatisation is a joke. I think that the hon. Gentleman will gather that I agree with his sentiments—certainly, as to how the matter is presented. He rightly pointed out that between 2009 and 2015, the state-operated rail company generated £1 billion in track fees and £42 million operating profit. Of course, that profit did not go to shareholders but was invested straight back into the railway, again showing the merits of public sector involvement in the operation of the railways.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the fact that the UK runs an unbalanced economy with a focus on London and the south-east, which he said was to the detriment of north-east England. I observe, however, that a Labour Government were in power from 1997 to 2010, and surely they should have done something about that imbalance and invested in the east coast main line up to the north-east.

Do not forget the neglect that we in that Labour Government inherited. We turned around the imbalance in hospitals and schools, and we spent a fortune on raising standards to give working-class people a better chance in life.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the mess that was inherited, but I still think something could have been done about the east coast main line. When the west coast main line was being done, it would have made sense to have a long-term plan for upgrading the spines along the west and east coasts, to see how that could generate growth and connectivity with cities and regions across the UK.

I can exclusively reveal that any speech in Westminster Hall by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) starts with, “I wasn’t going to speak, but I was inspired and now feel obliged to do so.” I agree completely with his comments about franchises and the fact that lawyers suck a lot of money out of the system. Cost consultants also suck a lot of money out of the system, and the money that we are paying for lawyers, cost consultants and management is money that could be used for investment and to drive growth in the railways.

Relevant points were raised about the Hatfield disaster, and about how ideology led to the privatisation of the rail infrastructure. That reminded me of a recent statement on the railways by the Transport Secretary, in which he spoke about the forthcoming rail review and kept referring to the fact that some failures of the existing system were due to what he called the “nationalised” part of the railway system. For me, that had bad undertones of future privatisation, which is why I challenged him on that point. Thankfully, he said on the record that there are no plans to privatise Network Rail, and we must certainly never go back to the disaster of the Railtrack venture.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) made a plea for the improved services that have apparently been promised for Lincoln, and it would be good to hear the Minister’s response to that. She correctly pointed out problems with the existing franchise system, and the fact that tenderers are allowed to over-promise, under-deliver and walk away. There is something fundamentally and morally wrong with the fact that Virgin Trains East Coast was able to walk away owing the taxpayer £2 billion. The Secretary of State always says—the Minister probably does as well—that the £2 billion was not a bail-out, but if I let somebody who owed me £2 billion walk away from me, that would effectively be a £2 billion bail-out. Vtec had an IOU for £2 billion, and it was able to wrap it up and walk away. That is a bail-out, in layman’s language, and that money could have been invested in the railway. We have an investment of £780 million, but with £2 billion coming from track fees, that is old money being invested in rolling stock. I understand that the new operation will still generate track fees, but no private company should be able to walk away and still be involved in other franchise bids. It makes no sense.

I agree with the comments made about the franchise system, and I welcome the review into that. We must, however, move away from short-termism and towards longer-term plans for investment in the east coast main line. I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about the need for the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government on cross-border planning and investment. The Scottish Government funded the reopening of the Waverley line down to the borders, which was the biggest new rail project in the UK for something like 100 years. We want that to extend further and become a proper cross-border connection again, and I ask the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government on that in the long term.

I cannot finish a speech on the railways without saying that the SNP wants Network Rail to be devolved to Scotland. The Transport Secretary keeps saying that Network Rail is such a problem, so why do the Tory Government not allow that part of Network Rail in Scotland to be devolved and become the responsibility of the Scottish Government, along with other operations in Scotland? That would perhaps help the efficiency of the east coast main line. It would save money spent on Network Rail, and any money saved could be reinvested. I will now conclude my remarks, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Owen, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate with many pertinent points, as well as going over the heritage of our railways. I am pleased to say that the Rocket will end up residing at the National Railway Museum in York where it will have a good home. Our city can certainly boast its share of rail heritage.

I represent York, which is the mid-point on the east coast main line and a significant railway hub that brings many networks together. I therefore have a constituency interest to ensure that we get the right upgrade—as we have heard, it is well overdue. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) about the significance of good connectivity through to London—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and other hon. Members also mentioned connectivity. We must ensure that we get right that connectivity to the main line, and keep those flows moving through. Although we are talking about the east coast main line, this debate is also about routes that feed into that line and are being brought into the modern age, so that they are not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North described, a kind of heritage rail service. We must ensure that control period 6 considers the continuum of a journey as opposed to the segregation of different routes.

Too often with transportation not only are road, rail and other forms of transport segregated, but separate segments of our fragmented rail system go to different places. Instead, we need to understand the power of connectivity and bring that forward. One of our biggest frustrations in the north is the fact that the Government have downgraded the trans-Pennine opportunity—Crossrail for the north—which would create connectivity between Liverpool, Manchester, through to Leeds, York and Hull, stretching north and south and, importantly, feeding into Sheffield and getting that connectivity right. We must connect up the powerhouse of the northern cities and drive the economy forward. Without that we have linear routes as opposed to the rail consolidation we need—that point was made powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North.

This is not just about rail; it is about economic growth. The tremendous site of York Central sits adjacent to the main line. We want investment, and upgrading the east coast main line is one opportunity to drive that forward. Connectivity to the ports and across the trans-Pennine route will enhance that, as will heading north to Newcastle and Scotland.

We unquestionably need more capacity and speed, and we certainly need fewer delays—that is the real frustration faced by many passengers. It was shocking to learn this week that stations in York had the second highest number of delays in the country. The measure was just one minute, but that still leads to the stark realisation that we need great improvement across our rail networks.

The lack of investment in control period 5 has brought that into sharp focus. There are bottlenecks. There are overhead power line failures around, I think, the Retford area, which cause constant delays there. There are problems with old-fashioned fencing, through which animals come on to the tracks with great frequency. If animals can get on to the tracks, so can people, which creates a safety risk. The numerous level crossings along that route snarl up different conurbations. We need to ensure that the power needed to drive our railway into the future is available.

We also all know about the issues with our old infrastructure and rolling stock. That brings me on to the new Azuma trains, which have been put on pause by the Office of Rail and Road. Will the Minister tell us more about that? We understand that ORR has put the pause on because it requires Hitachi to resolve some safety issues, yet it has not withdrawn trains elsewhere on the network that have the same problems, including the Pendolino trains. There seems to be inconsistency in the safety features of those new trains and we need to understand why. I sat down with representatives from LNER last week who were also scratching their heads about that inconsistency, as were those from Network Rail. We therefore look to control period 6 to deliver a railway for the future.

Engineers say that one of their biggest frustrations is that they are brought in to find the best way to generate the most efficient and cost-effective rail enhancements at the wrong stage of the process. We need to ensure that, when engineering takes place, it is of the highest spec possible, because this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the east coast main line. We do not want to have to keep going back and tinkering with and tweaking the spec. We want that investment at the forefront. Why have we seen a downgrade in the money? LNER and Network Rail told me that more resource is needed to bring the enhancement and opportunity to the east coast main line that we need, so I want to know why that spec has been reduced.

Tracks are being upgraded, which we recognise the need for, as is the overhead line equipment between Peterborough and Doncaster—I mentioned Retford—and the power supply for digital signalling. Anyone who has the opportunity to visit the Rail Operating Centre in York will see the absolutely mind-blowing things that digital signalling can achieve. We will also have welcome upgrades of fencing and bridge-strike prevention planning. I talked to engineers in my constituency from Low & Bonar about their using laser technology to look at the strength of bridges and the opportunity that that provides. They can use digitalisation to engineer infrastructure, and to work with train designers as they do so. Level crossing closures are also needed. However, the opening up of Kings Cross will also be a real enhancement to the line.

We need to make sure that we have the full benefit of digital rail on the east coast main line, because that is where the future of our rail network sits. That upgrade is therefore important—it is a passion of the route operator of the east coast main line. It is certainly also one of mine and will be one of any future Labour Government. We will take those strides into the future, not into the past.

We know what needs to be done on the railways and do not need another year-long review. The power of bringing operations back under public control has been shown, with an increase in LNER patronage since it took over the east coast main line franchise. There is no appetite for a fourth franchising process. However, we need to bring track and train together in the public sector to bring the connectivity together. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that we absolutely believe that we should invest in new routes and new opportunities, and that we can do that under a national rail service. That is certainly what we want to do. It will not be a big, centralised body, as in the British Rail days. We are looking for a new model of public ownership that very much listens the voice of the passenger at the local level when devising what to do. He will have to hold his breath before seeing the details. We have been working with the industry, and it is very excited about the model we are putting forward.

We also need to ensure that we see a return for the passenger as well as the state, and we believe that our model will deliver that. We have rightly heard of VTEC’s £2 billion scandal. It robbed that money from passengers and got away with it, and passengers are now paying more and more for tickets.

There is without doubt great opportunity for the future of the network. Journey times will be down. We also have to think of the opportunity for growth. Some 80 million passengers travel on that route each year. We want a modal shift, with people having confidence in the reliability of rail and moving out of their cars. Since 22 May, people up and down the country have lost confidence in rail because of the timetabling chaos. Our model will make sure that that can never be repeated. Putting responsibility for operations and infrastructure in one place will mitigate against such disasters as those we have seen on the Government’s watch.

We want to make sure that rail is focused on the passenger, with good environments for passengers from stations through to trains, making sure that it is a public service in which people can once again have confidence. That requires good investment, which is what we want from the Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate and on giving us the opportunity to discuss investment on the east coast main line. She is the chair of the APPG which, as she mentioned, I was pleased to attend a meeting of earlier in the year. She takes great pride in the railway and its contribution to her region of the north-east. The Government very much want to build on that heritage and ensure that we leave a railway that is stronger for future generations.

As the hon. Lady says, the east coast main line is a great national asset. Its sheer scope makes its huge importance to the national economy absolutely inevitable. It runs from London, through the east midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, north-east England and reaches Scotland. The scope of the line speaks for itself. The extent of that scope creates wonderful opportunities for communities that depend on the line to access many other parts of the country, such as the region so well represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers).

That said, the route is not without areas that need investment. The Government are committed to ensuring that we provide the money, time and resources that those areas require. I will take a few moments to describe to right hon. and hon. Members some of the investments that we are making in the east coast main line. However, before doing that, I will quickly respond to some of the more general points made about the distribution of transport infrastructure spending across the country, which is obviously a subject of great importance to Members for understandable reasons.

The chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), criticised the Government’s appraisal methods when deciding where to spend transport infrastructure funds. We do not accept that our methods do not provide regions with a fair share. As her Committee acknowledged, it is difficult to assign benefits specifically to one region from spending in that region when we have a national system such as the rail system. Benefits often spread beyond the area in which a specific investment is geographically located.

However, the Government have long acknowledged that the economy is imbalanced and needs rebalancing, and that changing the distribution of transport infrastructure spending to redress past patterns of underinvestment is an important part of what we need to do as an economy. We will therefore invest significantly in the north of England over the next few years. For example, between now and 2021, we will invest £13 billion in transport infrastructure in the north of England. Some of our biggest transport infrastructure items will be in the north of England, such as the trans-Pennine upgrade, which has been allocated £2.9 billion for the next five-year spending period from 2019 to 2024.

It is often asserted, seemingly without challenge, that the south gets more planned transport infrastructure spending from central Government than the north, but analysis by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority suggests otherwise: for the next four years, it reckons that the three northern regions will receive more per head than southern regions.

Let me focus on what the Government have been doing to ensure that the east coast main line continues to play an important role in our national economy. Hon. Members will be aware of the £5.7 billion Government-led intercity express programme—the new trains to which hon. Members have referred. The programme will provide the east coast and Great Western routes with a completely new fleet of trains equipped with the latest technology. The trains are being built at Hitachi’s County Durham factory, which is home to more than 700 permanent staff and supports thousands more in the national supply chain. Up to 70% of the train parts will be incorporated from sources in the UK. The full roll-out should be complete by 2020, as planned. As part of the programme, Hitachi has invested in a new state-of-the-art maintenance facility at Doncaster and has enhanced other ageing depots along the length of the line.

As I informed the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North in my letter last month, and as she mentioned in her speech, the Prime Minister has announced funding of up to £780 million in control period 6—the next five-year planning period—for the east coast enhancements programme. The programme will provide funding for important works, some of which the hon. Lady mentioned; they include power supply upgrades between Doncaster and Edinburgh, a new rail junction at Peterborough, modifications at Stevenage station to allow turn-back, and track remodelling at King’s Cross station. Together, those works will reduce congestion and enable more services to operate.

Will the Minister explain why there has been a reduction in the amount made available to provide the upgrade when £900 million was requested?

First of all, I would point out that this money represents a very significant increase in spending on the east coast main line. In control period 5, from 2014 to 2019, we spent about £400 million on upgrades to the line. In control period 6, that amount will increase to £780 million—it will almost double. To cast that increase as a reduction does an injustice to the Government’s ambition for this section of our network. That spending will be coupled with a £5.7 billion programme of investment in the new rolling stock, a significant proportion of which will result in increased capacity and more comfortable journeys for passengers along the east coast main line—that cannot be described as a reduction.

Of course, there will always be bids for further Government spending on all bits of the transport network. They cannot all be accommodated at the same time, but as and when business cases develop for specific pieces of work, they can be considered as part of our enhancement programme.

May I deal with a specific point raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) about the trains and the line? He questioned whether they would operate at their potential. The top line speed on the east coast main line is 125 mph, and the new Hitachi Azuma trains will run at that speed. Passengers will benefit from journey time improvements delivered as a result of the trains’ improved acceleration and reduced dwell times in comparison with the existing fleet. Some of the passenger benefits from saved journey times are striking: journeys will be 10 minutes quicker between London and Newcastle, 15 minutes quicker between London and Edinburgh, and so on up and down the line. Those time savings should be celebrated.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned issues with electromagnetic interference on IEP trains. Hitachi and Network Rail are working together to resolve those electromagnetic compatibility issues and ensure that new trains can operate in electric mode when they enter service as soon as possible.

I was referring to the cabling of the trains and to the fact that passengers or members of the public could climb up on the roof. There was an electrocution on a Pendolino train because of that design, yet those trains are still running on the Great Western route, even though the Office of Rail and Road has stopped them running on the east coast.

Order. I remind the Minister of the time constraints, especially if he wishes to allow the mover of the debate to wind up.

Thank you, Mr Owen. I will move rapidly on. The hon. Lady’s question is a matter for the ORR, which undertakes safety reviews of all equipment operating on the network.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) asked about the digital railway and the east coast main line. Network Rail is developing proposals for deploying digital railway technology on the southern part of the line, which would have benefits for the entire route. Decisions about progressing the project depend on that important development work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes raised several important points relating to his coastal constituency. I congratulate him on all his campaigning to get the town deal for Greater Grimsby and Cleethorpes—a hugely important £67 million deal that will generate almost 9,000 new jobs and help to create 10,000 new homes. Plans for a direct service to Cleethorpes are not being developed at present, but TransPennine Express, which serves the area directly, will be getting new trains from December 2019, with more seats and faster journeys.

The scope of investment in the east coast main line extends beyond just the infrastructure and the rolling stock running on it. Hon. Members will note that further time and money has been spent to improve stations, such as Lincoln’s listed building.

I am just coming to the hon. Lady’s points about Lincoln. I want to address directly her important questions about the introduction of new services.

We have accepted the industry’s recommendation to significantly reduce the extent of the timetable change planned for this coming December. The industry is also reviewing proposed changes to the May 2019 timetable as part of a new and strengthened process to ensure that everything is ready before improvements are introduced and avoid the unacceptable disruption that passengers experienced in parts of the country this summer. That process is ongoing for the whole industry, but at this stage LNER has taken the decision to introduce improvements more gradually than was previously planned. The hon. Lady will get her services at Lincoln, and the rail industry intends to provide an update on plans for the May 2019 timetable across the country in the coming months.

I will end my remarks there to give time for the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North to wind up the debate.

I thank the Minister for his response. He has been very good at engaging with the all-party group—let him be in no doubt that we will continue to engage. As much as he tried to present a rosy picture of Government investment in the east coast main line, we all know that it has serious challenges. It needs investment. We need to work together to ensure that we get that investment up and down the line where it is most required, and that the Government get this right. Railway investment is not an end in itself. It is about investing in the communities that rely on it.

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

Prison Education and Employment Strategy

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered prisons education and employment strategy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to raise this issue. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is an incredibly important topic. It has at its heart the issue of recidivism—or reoffending, as it is more commonly known. The issue costs our society more than £15 billion every year, about twice the budget of the Ministry of Justice. I am sure that we would all agree that that is a big problem, which creates an additional burden on the prisons estate, and on taxpayers.

The prison population projections for England and Wales detail an expected rise in the prisoner population, with more than 90,000 expected by the end of June 2020. With that in mind, the importance of reducing reoffending is crystal clear, especially as reoffenders are one of the largest groups contributing to prisoner numbers. I note that the Minister has made reducing reoffending a central plank of his philosophy and strategy on prisoners and prisons.

There are some things that we can do better, and education in prison and employment after release are key. All too often, people with criminal convictions face significant barriers and prejudices on their release, which often prevent them from getting a job after they leave prison. As such, education and training is incredibly important, because it leads to jobs after release, which reduces reoffending.

In recent years, unfortunately, education participation in prisons has declined and prisoners have continued to have trouble getting a job after release. Reoffending is too high as a result.

I warmly welcome the education and employment strategy presented to Parliament by the Minister; it is a good strategy with a compelling vision that I wholeheartedly support. I want to consider the three main parts of the strategy: education in prisons, prison work, and employment after release. I thank the Minister very much for responding to this debate.

Does the hon. Lady agree that, although it is essential that inmates have access to gym and sporting equipment, which is very important, it is equally important that there should be access to skills training and basic level education? Half of Britain’s inmates are functionally illiterate. Courses such as cookery—how to cook on a budget—are very important as well, as is skills training in order to get a job. Those are essential basic skills, which need funding.

No Westminster Hall debate would be complete without the hon. Gentleman in his place. I agree with his point. Sport is a central part of the whole strategy, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s points. My speech does not contain a lot of references to sport, but the hon. Gentleman has made an eloquent point. We discussed the issue recently in the all-party parliamentary group for running, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). We are all planning to run the marathon together, which may be foolish, but we want to use that opportunity to highlight the importance of sport in prisons and in wider society.

Although only 1% of the population of young people has been in care, 25% of the prison population has. They have particular challenges with regard to their education, given the chaotic lifestyle of their youth. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a particular issue?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point. No doubt he is drawing on his vast experience of housing and local government. I thank him for raising that point; he is absolutely right.

I come on to other factors that lead to prisoners coming into the system. Many prisoners are without basic qualifications—many do not have English and maths skills beyond those of an 11-year-old. That is quite a shocking statistic and highlights the need for change, which is why it is at the centre of the strategy. I am pleased that the Government are taking steps to address the problem.

We want individuals to be given the skills they need to unlock their potential, based on their strengths. That is a profoundly Conservative value. We want to help individuals get a job as soon as they can after release because that is the chance they have to rebuild their lives. I know the Minister believes that as well. The strategy echoes that vision by setting out several steps to improve the provision of education in prisons. I want to focus on one or two of those steps—the empowerment of prison governors and the establishment of a prisoner apprenticeship pathway. Those two steps in particular will help address the future challenges we face. They will not only help address reoffending, but help to do that in the context of a changing prison population.

Many prisoners have low literacy rates, but there is also an increasing number of higher-educated prisoners, as a result of the increased prosecution of fraud, IT and sexual offences, which are often committed by a slightly different demographic. Although it might benefit one prison to be offered basic education services or more practical education courses, it might benefit another to have a greater choice of education options—including, potentially, higher education. By empowering prison governors and giving them the authority to set strategy, they can do what is right for their prison. I understand that the strategy is already in action. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how it is going and where he sees it going in the future.

No doubt many prisons would choose the Open University as a provider of higher education. I put on the record my respect for the OU, which has long been trying to reduce the burden of reoffending; it has provided higher education courses to prisoners since 1972. More than 1,000 prisoners have studied with the OU in the past year. There is clearly an appetite for self-improvement in prisons. Let us make the most of it.

Unfortunately, too many prisoners still do not engage with any education service while they are in prison. Education is a key opportunity for rehabilitation of what is quite literally a captive audience; this is an opportunity that the Government cannot and should not miss.

The prisoner apprenticeship pathway is an excellent example of how the strategy will help to increase the uptake of education and training programmes in prisons. It is a superb tool that makes good use of the time people spend in prison. Offenders will train in prison and then put that knowledge to good use in a guaranteed job on release. The scheme guarantees a prisoner a fresh start after release. Surely that is what we all want in our society—people to be given a fresh start to rebuild their lives, which is exceptionally important when it comes to reoffending. Education leads to jobs, which lead to an income, which leads to responsibilities and a lower likelihood of reoffending in future. A job can help someone who has lost their way to successfully transition back into society and normality. In the Conservative Government, we certainly all believe—as I believe others do across the House—that work is the primary way of rebuilding dignity and releasing human potential.

With that in mind, there is no reason why a prisoner should not have a job while they are in prison. I am so pleased that work in prisons is being encouraged by this Government. I note that more than 11,000 prisoners were working in prisons in the year 2016-17. That is giving purposeful activity, structure and meaning to a prisoner’s day, which contributes to a more stable prison environment and reduces costs on taxpayers, because prisoners undertake essential services themselves. More importantly, work in prison helps offenders develop many of the skills and attributes needed on release. About two thirds of prisoners are unemployed before entering custody and so may not have good employment records to recommend them to employers on release. Prison has a vital role to play in developing the skills and work ethic that employers are looking for.

Offenders who found employment in the 12 months after release from prison had one-year reoffending rates nearly 10 percentage points lower than similar offenders who did not find employment. That is a truly wonderful and life-enhancing statistic, where the value of work in prisons is clear. Employment really does help with a successful transition into society. Of course, that statistic highlights that more can be done, too.

There is benefit in exploring what more can be done to better use temporary release to facilitate smoother transitions into the workplace. For whatever reason, the use of temporary release has fallen, but work placements with employers outside prison walls would give prisoners the chance to apply their skills and to prove that they are hard-working and trustworthy, just as we all hope our young people will have a chance to do work experience while they are at school. Such placements would give prisoners a taste of work and a chance to readjust to life outside prison. I will be keen to hear what the Minister thinks about releasing more prisoners on temporary licence.

I note that the education and employment strategy recognises the importance of prisoners proving themselves to an employer. Although better education can help ex-offenders overcome some of the barriers to gaining employment on release, it cannot help overcome others; I am thinking particularly of the issue of prejudice. I welcome the strategy’s focus on supporting the offender after release by engaging with employers on issues such as prejudice. Understandably, many employers are reluctant to hire an ex-offender, and prisoners face stigma. I have come across this in my life experience—I was an employer before I came into Parliament. There is a notable lack of understanding about what prisoners can contribute to a workplace, and there are natural concerns for the other people who work there. I am glad that there will be some practical suggestions in the strategy to help overcome some of those barriers.

Employers sometimes express concerns that they might find ex-offenders difficult to trust, or they expect them to be unreliable. However, people who have employed ex-offenders have told me that, with effective rehabilitation, some ex-offenders demonstrate that potential employers’ prejudices are unfounded. Once someone has had a chance to show what they can do and to prove themselves, they can sometimes become the most trustworthy member of a team or organisation. That is to be warmly welcomed.

The education and employment strategy sets out a number of steps for improving the employment prospects of ex-offenders, and that is really encouraging. I note that one aspect of the strategy is the introduction of the New Futures Network, which will engage with employers by educating them about the changes that the strategy will bring to prison education and training and by persuading them to take on ex-offenders. I am pleased to see the civil service leading by example by employing ex-offenders—it is obviously in a position to lead and to shine a light on other employers.

Challenges remain, of course. Many employers are still at best sceptical about recruiting ex-prisoners at the end of their sentences. A YouGov study recently revealed that 50% of employers would not even consider employing an ex-offender—that is a great shame, because at the moment there are many vacancies that companies are unable to fill. Ex-offenders are a valuable pool of resource, and we ought to be able to give people an opportunity to rebuild their lives. I hope to hear from the Minister about what more can be done.

I am pleased that I have been able to raise this important issue in the debate. Of course, we need as a society to see prisons fulfilling their role: to punish offenders. That is absolutely right, that is what the taxpayer demands, and that is justice—its primary purpose. They should also be places of discipline, hard work and self-improvement. It is right that prisoners get the help they need to turn their lives around.

Prisons can do more, and I am pleased that the Government have introduced a very positive and constructive strategy that seeks to address that issue. In recent months, we have seen the Minister on our television screens, making many comments about the strategy—that is to be applauded, because we have to put it at the front and centre of our policies as a progressive and compassionate Conservative Government.

If we get this right, that will be wholly positive. Prison is an opportunity for rehabilitation, which has clear benefits for society: it leads to less reoffending and a lighter burden on the taxpayer and on society. I warmly welcome the education and employment strategy. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks, and I thank him for coming to the debate.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for making a powerful speech and for securing a debate on such an important subject. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), both of whom have been strong supporters of the entire project of engaging with prisoners and offender reform in many debates in Westminster Hall and in the Chamber.

In essence, we are dealing with a classic issue of public policy—something where the objective or target really is a big prize. If we can get prisoners into education, and through education into employment, they are less likely to offend and there will be fewer victims. The public will be safer, and the prisoners’ lives will be turned around. The problem is that it is also a classic issue of public policy because it is easy to talk about but difficult to do much about.

The problem with this debate is that at almost any time in the past 175 years, Ministers would have stood up and talked about prison reform. Despite 175 years of Ministers talking about prison reform and about investing in education in prisons, we are still in a situation where only 20% of prisoners get a job on release—that has been pretty static for decades. About one fifth of the people coming into prison have a job and about one fifth of the people leaving prison have a job.

What is the answer to this problem? Clearly, it is not a question of silver bullets. In 1898, Herbert Gladstone stood up and gave a great speech in the House. In language that I cannot hope to emulate, he said that prison

“discipline and treatment should be more effectually designed to maintain, stimulate, or awaken the higher susceptibilities of prisoners, to develop their moral instincts, to train them in orderly and industrial habits, and, whenever possible, to turn them out of prison better men and women, both physically and morally, than when they came in.”—[Official Report, 24 March 1898; Vol. 55, c. 858.]

That is over 120 years ago—it is very difficult to disagree with the basic expression of what we have been trying to do in this country for a very long time.

What are the problems? The first problem was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North: many prisoners come from very difficult backgrounds. As we have heard, perhaps a quarter of them come out of care. Nearly a third of prisoners have serious alcohol addiction issues, and another third have serious drug addiction issues. Perhaps half of prisoners have a reading age of under 11 and a significant number have a reading age of under 6. Nearly 40% of our prisoners have been excluded from school at one time or another.

To fast-forward from the rhetoric around education to the reality, one needs to imagine oneself in Pentonville—I was there today. Imagine a small classroom in midsummer. It is very hot and five men are sitting there with a single teacher. These are people who have never found it easy to go to school. They have never found it easy to listen to a teacher. Those five men will be at very different educational levels. One will be unable to read and write, and another one will be bored because he is in prison for theft but he can already read and write and does not understand why he is in the class. There will be a general sense that everyone is rotating through—on an average day at Pentonville, 45 to 50 new prisoners turn up and a similar number are released. It is very difficult to deal with that.

Solving the problem is not a question of making grand statements about the human soul—Mr Gladstone made much better statements about that in 1898 than I am able to make today. It is about understanding exactly what is going wrong in that prisoner’s journey, step by step. The first thing is to recognise the type of prison that that prisoner is in. Is it a reception prison that they are coming into for a short period, straight out of the courts from remand? If it is a prison where they are likely to spend six months, 12 months or two years of their life, a very different kind of education provision can be delivered.

Secondly, are the kind of qualifications offered in prison A the same as the qualifications offered in prisons B, C and D? A prisoner could move to four prisons in the course of their career. Too often, as a prisoner follows that course, they pursue a City & Guilds qualification in prison A, but it is not available in prison B. Even more fundamentally, the core common curriculum might not be available, so they might not be able to study English, maths and information and communications technology. In addition, governors frequently do not feel genuinely empowered to control the prisoner’s life. They do not feel that they have the leverage or flexibility to say to the education provider, “What really matters in this area is bricklaying,” or, “We have a real shortage of people in scaffolding. I want you to provide scaffolding training.” They do not feel they would get rewarded or promoted for that.

We are trying to deal with those kinds of practical issues in the education and employment strategy. The first thing we did was introduce a common core curriculum, which will ensure that, right the way through the prison service, every single prison, regardless of where it is, which part of the country it is in and how long the prisoner is there, will deliver the core curriculum of English, maths, ICT and English as a foreign language for people who do not speak English.

Secondly, we are ensuring that the qualifications in prisons are the same. A lot of this sounds pretty simple, but the complex and strange world of Government procurement means that we have ended up having a series of conversations about dynamic purchasing systems. We have ended up with 12 preferred suppliers for the core common curriculum and 300 suppliers for the additional work. We have 17 core groups bidding in, with a selected shortlist of five for each area.

What does that mean? Imagine that you are the prisons group director for Yorkshire, Mr Betts. You get your six prisons together and you have five people on a shortlist—it could include Milton Keynes college or Novus. Eighty per cent. of the score is based on your judgment, with your prison governors, of which will provide the best quality of education, and the other 20% is based on the cost of the provision.

I welcome what the Minister is saying. It is heartening to hear how much progress has been made. Will he enlighten us about the role of volunteers who go into prisons and offer their time freely because they believe in the cause of helping prisoners to rebuild their lives? For example, my son is an English literature student and he went to a nearby prison and taught prisoners Shakespeare. He said it was the most profound experience he had ever had. The feedback was that the prisoners got something out of it too. Clearly, there is a vast spectrum of that sort of activity. I very much hope that what he did does not crowd out the kind of activity that the Minister is describing. Will he enlighten us about that?

Absolutely. To put this in context, if you were the Yorkshire prison group director, Mr Betts, you would get your governors together to look at your list of five. You would choose the supplier that you think will provide the best quality for your core common curriculum, and then you would adjust for your area. How do you do that? Humber, which is a training prison, is currently offering coding, upholstery and design services to other prisons. Lindholme—again in Yorkshire—will be focusing on construction skills. Then, as my hon. Friend pointed out, you need to be open to bolting on to that the incredible education offerings of other types of volunteers. I taught Shakespeare in prisons when I was an undergraduate, so I can relate to what my hon. Friend’s son has been doing. The governor needs to provide space for those voluntary organisations to come into the prison, and they need to get the regime right for the core common prison day so they can get the prisoners into the classroom.

In the Minister’s response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), he referred to the educational quality of the providers he is looking at. Everything he said is right, but some prisoners need daily living skills, budgeting skills and how-to-live skills. How do we incorporate those sorts of skills into the very basics of their lives?

The core of the answer is that we must give governors the freedom to adjust to the prisoners. They must take responsibility for that. One of the big changes in this framework is that we have taken power out of the centre and given it to governors so they can do exactly that. How are governors doing that? Increasingly, numeracy, literacy and budgeting skills are taught through the upholstery, carpentry and construction courses. The best way to get people to learn those things is often to focus on the practical vocational skills, and attach life skills to them.

In Yorkshire—I want to pursue this example a bit further—the New Futures Network gets people with the prisons group director to connect directly to employers. It reaches out to employers’ boards and ensures that employers understand what is on offer in the prison. I pay tribute not just to Paul Foweather, the prisons group director in Yorkshire, but to organisations such as Tempus Novo. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch asked about voluntary organisations. Tempus Novo is a charity run by two terrific ex-prison officers who have spent 25 years working on the landings. They left as band 4 officers—not governing-grade officers—and set up that organisation. They walk with employers into the prison, introduce them to the prisoners, reassure them about what is involved in employing offenders, and go into the workplace with the offender for the first interview. If any problems emerge in the workplace, Tempus Novo follows them up.

In the end, education and employment for prisoners is not about big ideas or fancy strategies. It is about doing 50 or 60 things well and looking carefully at the quality of what we are delivering. It is about speaking to prison governors and prisoners and saying, “What is going wrong with the curriculum? How many hours a day are you able to spend in the classroom? Is the fan working in the classroom? Are the teachers actually turning up? Is the qualification you got of any use in the outside world? Yes, you are beginning to go on an apprenticeship scheme, but are you able to connect it to the Government system? Yes, you are learning how to abseil, but are you getting the health and safety support to be able to turn that into being a window cleaner on a high-altitude building? What are we doing with release on temporary licence”—that is a question from my hon. Friend—“to make sure we give people the chance to spend time in an employer’s workplace before they leave prison formally?” Changing that is about changing a dozen small rules. We must ensure there is not a statutory lie-down period in each new prison, so that if a person is released on temporary licence in one prison and moves to another prison, they do not suddenly have to sit back in the prison and lose touch with their workplace.

If we get all those things right—it will be hard yards—we can make a difference. At the moment, only 20% of prisoners who leave prison get a job. If we can get it up to 25% or 30%, it would be fantastic and would change nearly 40 years of stagnation. Those do not sound like big numbers, but nearly 200,000 people circle through our criminal justice system every year. Every one of those people we get into a job is 7% less likely to reoffend. That translates not just into tens of thousands of families with an income and somebody at home with a job, but into thousands fewer crimes and thousands fewer victims of crime. It leads to a society that is healthier and safer.

At the core of this is our belief in the capacity for humans to change, and in our incredibly hard-working prison officers, governors and prisons group directors who are driving through this change. Employers such as Timpson take a huge risk, but they put a lot of energy into understanding prisoners, their needs and the skills they need to stand eight hours a day on the shop floor dealing with customers. If we get all those things right, we can be proud not just of our criminal justice system and our education strategy but of our society.

Question put and agreed to.

Mental Health: Absence from Work

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the financial effect of absence from work due to mental health problems.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. World Mental Health Day took place a week ago, and I am pleased to have secured this debate on such an important issue so close to the marking of that day. It is hugely encouraging that in the last couple of years the world has woken up to the realities of mental illness. According to the mental health charity Mind, in the UK alone, one in six workers is affected.

The issues and challenges surrounding those suffering and recovering from mental ill health have become better understood and, as a result, its prominence as a public policy issue has grown considerably. NHS England’s five year forward view dashboard provides statistical evidence of the Government’s investment in mental health services, with a total planned spend of £11.9 billion in this financial year. Encouragingly, over the last two years, there has been a total real-terms increase of 3.7%. However, despite that investment, the Government’s landmark independent review of mental health and employers last year showed that 300,000 people in the UK lose their jobs every year as a result of long-term mental health issues, and that nearly 13% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to a mental health condition.

The workplace needs to be at the forefront of better policy to secure better outcomes for sufferers. Today, I intend to focus on the financial effect that absence from work because of mental health has on the individual, their employer and, in turn, the economy. Eighteen months ago, I led a debate in this very Chamber on employers’ role in improving work outcomes for people with long-term health problems. One of the most telling pieces of information that I discovered was from the research at that time by the Mental Health Foundation, which found that 45% of working people with a diagnosed mental health problem had not disclosed it to their employer in the past five years. Of those who had felt able to tell their employer, only half reported mainly positive consequences. Someone who took part in the research concisely summed up the reality in a single line, which I am sure rings true with people here today. They said

“no one is able to say, ‘I have a mental health problem and I can’t come to work today’.”

At the time I was encouraged to hear of the review carried out by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, entitled “Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers”. On publication, the report set out a mental health vision for our country by 2027. The report proposed that all organisations

“whatever their size, will be equipped with the awareness and tools to not only address but prevent mental ill health caused or worsened by work”;

that they would be

“equipped to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive, from recruitment and throughout the organisation”;

and that they would also be

“aware of how to get access to timely help to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill health”.

It is well documented that one in four people is affected by a mental health problem—the effects of which are wide-ranging—at some point in their life. Those problems can affect an individual’s physical health, their relationships, their financial resilience and their work life. Mental health problems are also linked to other illnesses and fluctuate significantly. Often, people suffering from mental ill health find themselves needing to take a period away from work to recover, which may lead to a significant reduction in income. That reduction often means that people fall behind on their bills, rely increasingly on credit or run down their savings, which can also have the effect of prolonging their illness further.

Not only is supporting those affected by mental health issues the right thing to do, but it makes total economic sense. A joint study soon to be published by Mind and the Chartered Insurance Institute puts the annual cost of mental ill health to employers in the UK at as much as £42 billion, with the total cost to the UK economy estimated to be £99 billion. Those costs come from presenteeism—when individuals are at work but significantly less productive because of their condition—as well as from sickness absence and staff turnover. With such a significant impact, it stands to reason that if we are to improve the mental health outcomes of our society, we need to focus on supporting the workplace to help drive that.

The Stevenson-Farmer review highlighted the fact that the average return on investment of workplace mental health interventions is £4.20 for every pound spent. Clearly, we need to look at ways in which companies can develop preventive strategies to secure the right work-life balance and develop a holistic understanding of wellness, while also encouraging staff to look after both their physical and mental wellbeing. It is reassuring to see therefore that a range of tools are already available to assist employers. Training managers and empowering HR professionals, who can then give line managers the support they need, should be a priority for employers large and small across the country. A critical point to return to is that if employees do not feel able to disclose a health problem, employers cannot hope to put in the right support for them. The earlier open and supportive conversations take place between an employer and an employee, the more effective the support will be.

As a former insurance professional and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for insurance and financial services, I emphasise the role that health and protection insurance benefits can play to support employers in identifying the solutions that work best for their workforce. From my ongoing conversations with all parts of the insurance industry, it is clear to me that it is constantly working to improve understanding of medical conditions, as well as the availability of existing and new treatments, while helping customers manage the financial risks of their medical condition. The growth in resources offered by insurance companies to support firms and workers experiencing mental health difficulties is testament to how seriously those issues are taken by the industry. As an example, AXA PPP healthcare has teamed up with a health tech start-up, BioBeats, to help employees manage stress and fatigue through wearable technology.

We need to remember that for many of us, the workplace is where we spend most of our time. Employers of all sizes and from all sectors should be prepared to support their staff through periods of crisis when they are unable to work as a result of mental ill health, by providing preventive measures and access to early rehabilitation, and offering them a financial safety net if they need to be off for longer periods of time. Insurance products such as income protection can—and do—help with that, producing results than benefit employees as well as employers. However, there remains a need to raise awareness among employers and the workforce about the need for, and availability of, insurance solutions in the workplace. To aid that, there needs to be a conversation with Government about how we can incentivise employers to take up covers such as income protection for their workforce. The new Single Financial Guidance Body should be at the forefront of that as it has the potential to place a significant focus on improving greater financial resilience as well as improving awareness of protection.

Our mind is our most valuable asset, and like any asset, we need to make sure that it is properly taken care of. As the Government’s review demonstrated, the UK can ill afford the productivity cost of poor mental health. Moreover, the cost to individuals is difficult to calculate. While the insurance industry has made progress in helping to support its customers and employees through mental health struggles, that will work only if people feel supported enough to seek the help that they need while at work.

There is a huge incentive for employers, for the Government and for the industry to work together to better improve policy, minimise the financial impact of sickness absence because of mental health problems, promote sustainable recovery and, in turn, improve productivity. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions and the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak, Mr Betts.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) on securing the debate. His introduction was excellent. The subject is important and topical, and one that I am aware of primarily through my constituents, as will be the case for others who participate in the debate. I hope that the Minister will give us some answers.

Recently, I read an interesting article in the Safety and Health Practitioner about this very issue. The crux of the matter is clear: with great respect, we are doing a disservice to those suffering from mental health issues if we make no changes. That is why this debate in Westminster Hall is important, even though many other things are happening in the House at the same time.

We are all aware of the massive impact that mental health issues have on our physical wellbeing, our mental acumen and our ability to cope with work relationships, home life and, simply, life in general. As an elected representative, I am into my 34th year, whether as a councillor, an Assembly Member or, now, an MP. Over all those years I have been very aware of those with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and the impact that all that has on their life, work, income and whole lifestyle. The issue is so important.

The article is worth reading—it would be time well spent—but I do not have the time to repeat it verbatim in full:

“In the workplace, mental health issues can have a serious impact on both the morale of employees, those suffering from mental health issues and their colleagues who then pick up the additional workload.”

If an individual is under pressure to work but is not able to cope and is doing less, who knows who else will have to do more? That is one of the reasons why I want to highlight the issue.

The article goes on:

“It can also impact an organisation’s productivity and profitability through overtime costs, recruitment of temporary or permanent cover—absence from work due to mental health issues is thought to cost the UK economy £26 billion per annum.”

That assesses the magnitude of the issue financially, but it only tells a small part of the story. Each one of us, as elected representatives, will have individual cases with which to illustrate matters. Furthermore:

“Mental health issues can appear as the result of experiences in both our personal and working lives.”

Sometimes people’s personal life spills over into their working life, and sometimes their working life spills over into their private life. The person who is always happy and jolly in the workplace might not be a happy or jolly person when he or she gets home.

The Health and Safety Executive’s draft health and work strategy for work-related stress identifies that 1.5% of the working population suffers from mental health issues, a figure that resulted in 11.7 million lost working days in 2015-16. That is another indication of how, if we improve the health ability of our workforce, we can save working days and thereby turn around the profitability of a company. Compare that figure with self-reported injuries: 4.9 million working days lost—the scale of workplace mental ill health is almost two and a half times the physical impact of unsafe workplaces and working practices. Clearly, something needs to be done. Perhaps the job of the Minister and his Department is to lead the way. Furthermore, it is suspected that at least a third of injuries go unreported, and the same is likely to be true for work-related stress.

The initiative “Mates in Mind” has identified that the suicide rate in the construction industry could be 10 times more than the rate for construction fatalities. If that estimation is true, we have a massive problem that needs to be addressed. I am pleased that the Government created a suicide prevention Minister—that is a direction we need to be moving in. That Minister is not present, but perhaps the Minister responding to this debate will also comment on that initiative.

In 2011, the then coalition Government developed “No Health Without Mental Health”, a cross-Government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages. It was a great idea, but it has not stopped the rise in the numbers of those with mental health issues. The document states how the Government want people to recognise mental health in the same way as they view physical and biological health.

The strategy also set out the aspiration of improved services for people with mental health issues. However, only an extra £15 million is expected to be pledged for creating places of safety and, with respect to the Minister, that amounts to only about £23,000 per parliamentary constituency. That is not a terrible lot per constituency—mine has a population of 79,000; I am not sure about the Minister’s constituency, but the average one has about 70,000, 75,000 or 80,000. If that is the case, that is about £3 per person, which does not really go anywhere towards addressing the issue.

According to the Centre for Mental Health, the financial cost to British business of mental ill health is an estimated £26 billion per annum, but positive steps to improve the management of mental health in the workplace can enable employers to save at least 30% of the cost of lost production and staff turnover. We are looking not only for the Government to do something but for companies to. It is important for companies to accept their responsibility—clearly, if they cut down on days lost to mental stress by making some changes, they thereby help themselves. If they can indeed save at least 30% of the cost of lost production and staff turnover, I say gently that it is an open-door policy and one that should be adopted right away.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any year. A common misconception is that mental health problems are only caused by issues at home—no, they are not—so some employers feel that it is not appropriate, or their responsibility, to intervene and provide support to employees. More commonly, the cause of an employee’s mental health problems is a combination of issues relating to both work and private lives.

To conclude, what I have sought today is not only to show in a small way support for the hon. Member for North Warwickshire but to seek Government intervention and help, and to raise company awareness. Companies have a clear role to play and one that they cannot ignore or not take responsibility for. I believe that the hon. Gentleman intended to demonstrate in his introduction to the debate that it is more cost-effective to take small steps to promote good mental health in the workplace, rather than having members of staff feeling like they cannot cope and going on the sick. We want to prevent that if possible.

I believe that enforced lunch breaks away from desks are an essential component, for example. It is all too easy for people to stay at their desks—my staff do it all the time. I was thinking about this before the debate: sometimes we ought to say to our staff, “Girls, go on down to the wee café there and take half an hour, 45 minutes or an hour, whatever it may be, away from the office”, because if they stay to eat their lunch, they also answer the phone. If someone comes in, they speak to them. I am not saying that they should not do that, but I am saying that the two—work and breaks—need to be divorced from each other.

I do not have all the answers but I do believe that we must do more—not because that is good for business, but for the sake of our one in four who are struggling with their mental health and who simply need help.

We are going to have a Division imminently, so it is sensible to suspend the sitting now for 15 minutes. We can go to vote and then come back to resume the debate.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) on securing this debate and on speaking so passionately and eloquently, and with such knowledge of this subject.

I have been in the position of being off work long term with stress, which is a mental health issue. I was in the fortunate position of being on full pay. A colleague of mine—a fellow college lecturer—was also off long term with stress but she did not want to admit to her employer the real reason why she was off sick long term. It still requires a great deal of courage for someone to admit that they have a mental health issue. As usual, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave us a very good picture of what is going on in Northern Ireland, and concentrated on the economic case for dealing well with this issue. Employers have a part to play.

Hon. Members would not expect me to do anything but talk about Scotland—that is my role here, because there is some good work going on in Scotland on this issue. I am sure the Minister knows of some of it, and I would like to draw it to his attention. In the workplace, mental health issues can have a serious impact on the morale of employees: those suffering from the mental health issues, and their colleagues who pick up the additional workload. They can have an impact on an organisation’s productivity and profitability, through overtime costs and recruitment of temporary or permanent cover. Absence from work due to mental health issues is thought to cost the UK economy £35 billion per annum. We can play with those numbers but it is still a huge amount of money. A total of 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health problems. The scale of workplace mental ill health is almost 2.5 times the physical impact of unsafe workplaces and working practices.

In January 2016, the Conservative Prime Minister pledged to

“tackle the stigma around mental health problems.”

I am sure she really meant it. She also pledged an extra £50 million, expected to be used to create places of safety, which, as was mentioned, is about £23,000 per parliamentary constituency—not nearly enough. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said in September that it was “sceptical” about the Government’s attempt to improve mental health services without a significant amount of extra cash.

Providing support for employees is very important for the individual concerned. There is a strong business case for getting it right on mental health at work. We must eliminate stigma and discrimination in work. That requires a joined-up approach and a genuine commitment to support staff and to make it okay to talk about mental health. The Scottish Government funds the “See Me in Work” programme, which aims to support organisations to improve the working lives of employees with mental health problems, to encourage an equal and clear recruiting process and to ensure that those returning to work following ill health are fully supported back into the workplace.

The Scottish Government are working with employers on how they can best act to protect and improve mental health, and to support employees experiencing poor mental health. That will help employers to identify and provide appropriate training opportunities. To support workplace mental health and wellbeing makes economic sense for businesses. The Scottish Government are exploring with others innovative ways of connecting mental health, disability and employment support in Scotland. That will allow individuals to more easily navigate the current fragmented and complex landscape of support, allowing them to find a way to support at an early enough stage to make a real difference to their ability to sustain or return quickly to paid work when they encounter problems.

When I had my experience, everyone around me knew that I had a problem; I was in the middle of it and did not know. We need to look after each other when we are in such a situation. People who develop poor mental health should receive support to stay in work, just as they would if they had physical health problems. The Scottish Government endorsed “Good Mental Health For All”, which was published by NHS Health Scotland in 2016.

Issues that can contribute to inequalities that can lead to poor mental health include low pay and working poverty. The Scottish Government believe in promoting fair work and the real living wage. The real living wage as defined by the Scottish Government is £8.75 an hour. The UK promotes a living wage, for over-25s only, of only £7.83. People who are in employment but who are not earning enough to sustain themselves and their families often find themselves with bad mental health, because of the sheer pressure on their daily lives due to low wage employment.

We need to look early at preventive mechanisms, so that subsequent generations will be able to enter and remain in work. As with most systemic problems, the earlier we can get to people to help them, the better for all concerned. Prevention and early intervention are key to minimising both the prevalence and incidence of poor mental health and the severity and lifetime impact of mental disorders and mental illnesses. Prevention and early intervention must be a focus of activity and funding. The Scottish Government are funding an improved provision of services to treat mental health problems among children and adolescents so that, when they grow older, they can cope better with their illnesses in the workplace. Teaching our children resilience from an early age will help with mental health issues over a whole lifetime.

In December 2017, the Scottish Government announced a £95,000 investment in a youth commission on mental health, which will be delivered in partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health and Young Scot. It launched formally in April. As reported by the mental welfare commission for Scotland in 2016, there has been an improvement—a lower incidence of young people being admitted to non-specialist wards—and we want to see that continue. Mental health really deserves parity of esteem with physical health.

Mental ill health accounts for the biggest cohort of people unable to work due to sickness, yet that cohort has the poorest outcomes from the Department for Work and Pensions-contracted Work programme. The Department’s own evaluation of the Work programme suggests that it is not leading to the provision of appropriate specialist support. Instead, people with more complex needs are often parked by providers. The activities that people are asked to do are often inappropriate, with their conditions not being taken into account. That leads to a higher turnover of staff and more days off. Both employers and employees are incurring costs from the UK Government’s Work programme, which in many cases is shambolic.

The UK Government should scrap their work capability assessments so that people with mental health problems are better able to enter the workforce in jobs suitable for their needs. The current isolated nature of the WCA means that it functions as an eligibility test for employment and support allowance but not an assessment of what support is needed.

No Government can ignore the financial effect of absence from work due to mental ill health. I look forward to the Minister’s response to some of the issues raised today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) for securing such an important and timely debate. Further, I thank him for his thoughtful speech. My friend the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who represents two places that she knows I am familiar with from my childhood, spoke incredibly bravely, which is no surprise, about her own battle with mental health in the workplace. Everyone in the Chamber will agree with her that prevention and early intervention must be the key when we are looking at all aspects of mental health.

As other cases that we have heard about have shown, for the one in four people who experience mental health issues there are serious consequences in all areas of their lives. Of course that includes work, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said is where we spend most of our time—I am sure hon. Members agree. Right now, it is estimated that up to 5 million workers are experiencing a mental health condition, although we all acknowledge that it is difficult to quantify such numbers when we are talking about millions of people. Many are frightened to come forward, for a variety of reasons.

The human cost of the mental health epidemic we face is incalculable, and every individual deserves the treatment they need. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, research from Mind and others has shown that we can put a number to the cost of failure to fund our mental health services adequately. Poor mental health at work is estimated to cost taxpayers between £24 billion and £27 billion a year in NHS costs, benefit costs and lost tax revenue.

The costs for British businesses are also significant. Research from the insurance sector shows that it costs small and medium-sized enterprises £30,000 to replace a staff member in recruitment costs, training time and lost productivity. When 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems are losing their jobs each year, that is no small problem. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire also alluded to that figure. The total annual cost to the UK economy from our mental health crisis is an eye-watering £99 billion.

There is also a flip side. As the TUC points out, UK workers with mental health problems, despite often suffering illness, contributed £226 billion to UK GDP in 2016. Their work supports our economy and our society must support them. However, in so many cases of poor mental health at work there is a direct, negative link to Government policies. Many of the worst-affected professions are in our public services, which have suffered under austerity. For example, the Office for National Statistics has found that health and social careworkers—including those who treat others for mental health conditions—are at an especially high risk of experiencing poor mental health. It also found that low-income workers who do not earn enough to make ends meet, sometimes receiving a top-up via universal credit, are more than twice as likely to experience poor mental health as other workers. Not being able to put food on the table and being forced to rely on the shambolic universal credit system is enough to affect anybody’s mental health.

What about people in precarious work? Under this Government we have seen an explosion in the number of insecure workers: staff on zero-hours, temporary or agency contracts and workers forced to be self-employed so that employers do not have to take responsibility for their rights. Research from the GMB union—I declare an interest as a proud member of it—showed that more than 60% of precarious workers had suffered stress or anxiety as a result of their work or had been to work while unwell for fear of losing their pay or their job. Over a third would also struggle to cope with an unexpected bill for £500, with all the anxieties and stresses that creates.

Those with barely any employment rights have three options when it comes to their mental health. They can take days off unpaid, lose their insecure work due to their condition or suffer in silence, continuing to work as things get worse and worse. Seventy-eight per cent of the workers the GMB spoke to had previously been in permanent employment. That is not flexible working; it is the new normal. The Prime Minister has declared that austerity is over and promised to tackle insecure work. The Budget will be the test of whether she means it.

Health Ministers have given us warm words but little action on mental health. The Farmer-Stevenson report made a number of recommendations on mental health and employers, which the Government claimed to support wholeheartedly. However, almost a year since its publication, how much action has there been? Several recommendations were addressed to the Government, including changes in the public sector and ensuring the NHS prioritises mental health. However, the NHS is crippled by cuts, and its own staff are suffering. For example, the GMB found that 39% of ambulance workers have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 12% took sick leave due to stress, anxiety, depression and related conditions in 2016-17, which totalled 80,000 sick days. Given that the chronic lack of funding for frontline mental health services has led to excessive waiting lists for even basic talking therapies, is it likely that those workers got timely and effective treatment as the Farmer-Stevenson report advocates?

The report also recommended an increased role for the Health and Safety Executive. However, instead of providing resources for its work, the Government have continued to cut its funding. In a particularly bitter irony, the HSE now has one of the highest levels of anxiety among its staff of any public service employer. Perhaps the Minister can tell us who will inspect the inspectors. What resources will go to the HSE and what progress has been made in implementing that specific recommendation?

One of the report’s key findings was that the stigma around mental health is still a barrier for employees seeking support. Other Members have alluded to that. The Conservative manifesto committed to

“extend Equalities Act protections against discrimination to mental health conditions that are episodic and fluctuating.”

That would protect people who have long-term mental conditions from discrimination, and people who have short-term episodes of poor mental health, such as those caused by bipolar disorder.

People with such life-changing conditions might be deemed by an employer not to meet the current Equality Act 2010 definition. In one case, a worker with bipolar disorder was stable on medication, but asked to start work a little later because of the effect of the medication. Their boss refused. Mental health charity Rethink advised the worker that they could take legal action, but they felt that would just cause more stress. With the stigma around complex conditions such as bipolar disorder, when will the Equality Act 2010 be extended so that people get the support they so desperately need?

Similarly, employers sometimes see making reasonable adjustments as doing someone a favour rather than meeting their legal obligations. I have heard this in my constituency surgeries—I suspect others have heard the same. Will the Minister tell us how the Department has been monitoring progress from employers on achieving their legal obligations and what it has done to ensure proper HR training and processes?

Given that people spend on average 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, the Government must ensure that employers prioritise health and wellbeing in their workplaces. The Government must also put their own house in order. Mental health services are still reeling from years of underfunding and we are all paying a price. It is high time this Government put their money where their mouth is.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) on securing this important debate and on putting his point across with such characteristic eloquence.

I was particularly struck by the recognition in the debate that employers and Government both have a stake in the nation’s mental health. The Government provide the necessary health support, offer a safety net when people are out of work and promote the right action in the workplace. However, employers are increasingly recognising that they have a crucial role to play in creating healthy workplaces to enable their employees to remain in work and thrive, providing a supportive environment in which their employees can discuss health issues, and helping people return to work promptly when they fall ill.

Mental health is a matter of national importance. It is particularly relevant this month, following World Mental Health Day on 10 October, during which the Prime Minister announced that the Government are providing £1.8 million over the next four years to cover the cost of calls to the Samaritans helpline. This will enable more people to receive support when they reach out for help.

The Prime Minister is personally committed to improving mental health services and addressing one of the most burning injustices in our society. As we have heard, the Government are backing that up by investing record levels in mental health, with annual spending reaching just under £12 billion last year. In addition, the Prime Minister announced a five-year funding settlement, which will see the NHS budget grow by more than £20 billion a year in real terms in the next five years. In return, she has asked the NHS to develop a long-term plan for the next 10 years. She has been clear that mental health needs to be a key element of that.

Financial difficulties can have a serious detrimental impact on mental health, but mental health problems can devastate our finances, too. As we heard from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), one in four people who suffer from mental health problems may have debt problems as well. Supporting people with their financial resilience is vital. We are committed to addressing issues faced by people who fall into problem debt. This year, the Government commissioned the Money Advice Service and spent just over £56 million to provide help to more than 530,000 people.

The NHS provides some services to people who may be experiencing the symptoms of debt problems or financial difficulties. Mental health services, including improving access to psychological therapies, may also signpost patients to debt advice services as part of their care. In our 2017 manifesto, we committed to developing a breathing space scheme for people in problem debt. We will publish a consultation shortly and lay before the House regulations on breathing space by the end of 2019. The Prime Minister has also announced a review of the practice of GPs charging patients to complete debt and mental health evidence forms. We are considering options to end the need for GPs to charge their patients to provide this information to their creditors, and I know that that will be welcomed.

We know that too many people with a mental health condition do not participate fully in key activities of society, including work. The figures are stark: people who are unemployed for more than 12 weeks are between four and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. That is why this Government are committed to supporting people with mental health conditions who are out of work, including through our Jobcentre Plus network. All work coaches across the network receive training on supporting people with health conditions and disabilities. In addition, the roll-out of the health and work conversation across the UK supports work coaches to continue to build engagement with claimants who have disabilities and health issues.

The Government also continue to invest in mental health-related trials and studies. These include doubling the number of employment advisers in IAPT services and launching a £4.2 million challenge fund to build the evidence base of what works to support people with mental health conditions, as well as musculoskeletal conditions.

The good news is that staying in or returning to work after a period of mental ill health can help mental health recovery. Good work supports our good health. It keeps us healthy, mentally and physically. It enables us to be economically independent and gives us more choices and opportunities to fulfil our other ambitions in life. Our Command Paper, “Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability”, which was published jointly by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions last November, sets out a comprehensive strategy for achieving the Government’s challenging target of ensuring that 1 million more disabled people are in work by 2027.

Given the scale of this ambition, a key part of our programme is to achieve transformational change by focusing action on three key areas: welfare, workplace and health. We have made good progress. Employment rates are at historic highs and the number of disabled people in work reached 3.5 million in 2017, having increased by nearly 600,000 since 2013. The Government recognise the crucial role of employers in creating mentally healthy workplaces. Too many people fall out of work because of their mental health. We are asking employers to do more to prevent that.

That is why, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, in January 2017 the Prime Minister commissioned Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, to conduct an independent review into how employers can better support all employees, including those with mental ill health or wellbeing issues. The review set out a compelling business case for action, with the central recommendation that all employers should adopt a set of six core mental health standards to encourage an open and transparent organisational culture that supports employees’ mental health. Those standards included developing mental health awareness among employees, encouraging open conversations about mental health and routinely monitoring employee mental health and wellbeing.

The review went further by recommending that all public sector employers, and private sector companies with more than 500 employees, deliver mental health enhanced standards, including increasing transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting. We have made progress with implementation and are developing with partners, including employers, a framework for voluntary reporting on mental health and disability. We will publish supporting guidance, including on the important issue of how to encourage employees to disclose health issues.

It will take time before we can call all of our workplaces truly healthy and inclusive, but we have been encouraged by the level of engagement and commitment to this agenda. Momentum is building around the challenge to all employers to adopt the core standards that lay the basic foundations for good workplace mental health, and to larger businesses to adopt the enhanced standards. Following the Prime Minister’s acceptance of the Stevenson-Farmer recommendations as they apply to the NHS and the civil service as major employers, both organisations are making progress.

Working in partnership is vital. The Government recognise the collaborative approach that has created the new mental health at work gateway, which is aimed at employers, senior management and line managers, to help them to support a colleague, challenge the stigma or learn more about mental health in the workplace. Looking at the wider system in which employers make decisions, the Government are committed to reforming the current system of statutory sick pay so that it supports more flexible working, which can help people to return to work after a period of sickness.

I will use this opportunity to take a moment to address some of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate. I will come on to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire shortly. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who gave a characteristically eloquent exposition of the issues, talked about employees sharing responsibility. I could not agree more, and nor could the Government. Employers have a key role to play in creating good working conditions and providing supportive line management so that people have the opportunity to speak out about issues and keep in contact with employees. I was encouraged by what he said about ensuring that his own staff took breaks and had some downtime during the working day.

It is also important that we keep in contact with employees who happen to go off sick. The Government have worked with Mind to produce a new website resource, and we are reviewing current obligations and incentives to see what we can do to encourage more good behaviour. The hon. Gentleman talked about suicide prevention; as hon. Members will be aware, on World Mental Health Day the Prime Minister announced not only the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) as Minister for suicide prevention, but, as I mentioned earlier, almost £2 million to cover the costs of calls to the Samaritans helpline, where there will be help for people who reach out.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about parity of esteem for mental and physical health. It was this Government who legislated for parity of esteem by making mental and physical health an equal responsibility for the NHS in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. We are also backing our commitment with a significant increase in funding.

We are all extremely delighted to see the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) in her place, and it was a genuine pleasure to hear from her. It takes enormous courage to admit that one has suffered mental health problems, so to hear that from the hon. Lady was incredibly moving, and it was a privilege to be in the Chamber for that moment. It is important that employers create the right supportive environment. One thing we are doing is investing to make sure that there are 1 million mental health first aiders in the workplace, which is crucial.

The hon. Lady talked about the impact of low wages, and I agree with her. That is why we introduced the national living wage and are providing in-work financial support through tax credits and now through universal credit. That also makes it easier for people to move in and out of work, removing difficult transitions. She mentioned work capability assessments; it is true that they are designed to determine benefit eligibility, but they should not be viewed in isolation. We provide personalised and tailored support through work coaches in our jobcentres.

Moving on to the remarks of the hon. Member for Dewsbury, I politely and gently remind her that the funding picture in the NHS is not quite so gloomy as she painted it. We are backing our commitments with some significant funding increases in this space. We have record levels of investment in mental health, with annual spending reaching just under £12 billion just last year. The Prime Minister, as I have mentioned, has announced a five-year funding settlement. That is not the picture that the hon. Lady paints.

How would the Minister respond to the professionals I speak to every single week, who tell me that mental health services—particularly child and adolescent services—are in crisis; that on some weekends there is not a single psychiatric bed available in the country; and that people are travelling up to 300 miles to get an inpatient psychiatric bed? Perhaps there are positives out there, but it is difficult to say that things are not so gloomy when that is what I hear every week.

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The need to travel hundreds of miles out of area, in some cases, for inpatient treatment is something that we desperately need to tackle, and we are tackling it. That is why we are putting in the investment. I gently remind her again of the additional £20 billion a year in real terms for the NHS over the next five years. Nobody is saying that this is a perfect situation, but we are matching our words with real-terms cash and investing a further £1.4 billion for mental health services for children and young people, which I am sure she would support.

We briefly mentioned the Stevenson-Farmer report, and I remind the hon. Lady that we responded in full through the “Improving Lives: the Future of Work, Health and Disability” Command Paper and fully supported all 40 recommendations of the Stevenson-Farmer review. Progress is being made, and has been made, on implementing those recommendations.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire raised the role that the insurance industry can play. We recognise the positive aspects of group income protection for helping to retain sick employees, in particular access to expert-led health services and the financial certainty it offers individuals. I am not entirely sure that the product is widely known out there in the business space; I have run businesses for the last 20-odd years and was not aware that such insurance products were available. I very much hope that my former colleagues are tuned in at this precise moment and will do some research on it.

GIP is clearly a product that works well for those employees who choose to buy it, and we encourage the industry to continue to promote its benefits. I am sure the Association of British Insurers is doing a good job of that. However, we believe that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, lack sufficient incentives to invest in GIP as it is currently structured, because they often choose not to offer sick pay for periods beyond statutory requirements. That is why we have been looking more broadly at incentives and obligations on employers. We will continue to engage with the industry, and I know that the ABI will play a big role in that as well. We are listening closely to employers’ views about the appropriate products that retain the positive aspects of GIP and that overcome the existing barriers to increasing take-up.

By working with our partners, including employers, the Government can continue to tackle poor mental health, ensuring that disabled people, and people with physical and mental health conditions, go as far as their talents can take them.

I thank every Member here for their contribution and for the general spirit of the debate. It has been conducted in the way that I hoped it would be. It is clear that we all want to see progress on this matter.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some excellent comments, as usual. His arguments complemented those that I put forward, particularly on the role that companies can play. However, it is important that we give companies the tools—whether through Government action, insurance products or whatever else—to allow them to play that role. He also mentioned a critical point about encouraging people to come forward and share their health issues.

I also thank the Opposition Front-Benchers for their comments—particularly the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who shared her experience. Only if people come forward and share their experiences will others understand that they are not the only ones to have such feelings. That can happen to us all, and such case studies are the best way to help us to progress. No strategy will work without people coming forward; it is a two-way street. I will particularly reflect on the hon. Lady’s comments about teaching resilience, particularly to younger people. That is important, not only in these matters but throughout their lives in general.

I also thank the Minister. We are all pleased to hear that good progress is being made and that good, positive steps are being taken. I appreciate as well as anybody that there is no quick fix to this issue, but the Government are taking it forward and driving it. Steps such as getting more people into work are critical to doing that. However, the more people in work, the greater the potential for people to suffer from these difficulties. It is important to recognise the issue and provide solutions and tools to enable business to combat it.

It is key that we, as Back-Bench Members, continue to push this issue and encourage the Government to keep it at the forefront of their thinking. At the end of the day, tackling it will bring a benefit not only to employers and the people affected but to the overall success of our economy and our country.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the financial effect of absence from work due to mental health problems.

Sitting adjourned.