Wednesday 12 December 2018
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
UK Fishing Industry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK fishing industry.
I felt it was important to hold this debate in the run-up to the last Fisheries Council that the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), will attend and have a voice in. We have heard lots of debates in this place about what will happen to fisheries policy once we leave the European Union in March 2019. As is normal, we should have a debate about what the Fisheries Council will decide this year.
Before I move on to the Fisheries Council, I would like to set the record straight. We have heard many people in recent times quote the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, implying that it welcomes the deal that is on the table. I want to quote the federation’s chief executive, Bertie Armstrong:
“We have made it very clear since the referendum in 2016 that anything other than full, unfettered sovereignty over our own waters would be crossing a red line for the fishing industry.
Despite the stated wishes of French president Emmanuel Macron, which we know are shared by the other large fishing nations, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, we should give a clear and resounding ‘Non!’ to the idea of guaranteeing continued access.
Access and quotas must be negotiated…not carved up in advance.”
I do not think those words describe some of the things we have heard attributed to Bertie Armstrong in the main Chamber in recent times, and I wanted to set the record straight.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this debate. Bertie Armstrong also said, when giving evidence to the Fisheries Bill Committee last week, that the fisheries were put into the transitional arrangements because there were four or five countries that would have blocked a transitional deal otherwise. He was probably right about that, but the question for him, and—indeed, for the Minister and Prime Minister—is, if that was the attitude to the transition, what will be different come the final deal?
I completely agree. I think Bertie’s words have been taken out of context and misquoted. He went on to say:
“The link between access and trade breaches all international norms and practice and is simply unacceptable.”
When the European Union negotiated our terms of entry, it was very keen to get access to the United Kingdom’s then 12-mile limit—it was not until 1976 that we had a 200-mile limit—but that must end. The weak words I have heard about us negotiating with our European partners are completely wrong, because under international law we have control. We should decide how much surplus our fisherman, other member states and other nations—it is not just member states of the European Union—are allowed to take. British fishermen must be treated fairly.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she accept that Bertie Armstrong and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation do not speak for the whole of the Scottish fishing fleet and the Scottish fishing industry? The industry is multifaceted, particularly in my constituency on the west coast of Scotland, where fishermen entirely depend on getting unfettered access to their live catch and getting that on to European tables.
I completely agree with and respect the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has specifically been used by various people in the main Chamber as a way of backing up their point, and has thus been misquoted. I felt it was right to put on record that what has been attributed to it in the past was not the full story.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We both talk a lot to Bertie Armstrong—I spoke to him on Monday. In the quote she repeated, she is absolutely correct about what Bertie Armstrong and other members of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation have said: nobody is taking anything for granted, and we must continue to fight our case in future negotiations. Bertie Armstrong and others have come out in support of the withdrawal agreement, but only in as much as it gets us to that next phase. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do not accept that. Having spoken to him myself, I know he has not said that he respects the withdrawal agreement completely. That is why I wanted to put on record that what we are hearing in the main Chamber is not the whole statement.
I do not want to focus on subjects that we can discuss in other debates, so I want to address the Council of Ministers, which is due to meet later next week—the Minister might correct me on that. We need to realise that this is a very significant Council of Ministers meeting, because it is the last time our Fisheries Minister will actually have a voice at the table. Even if there is an implementation period, although he will attend future meetings, he will not have a voice. It is extremely important that we all realise that.
Secondly, from 1 January next year, the landing obligation comes into force. There are conflicting regulations as far as that is concerned, because it opens up the whole question of choke species. In recent weeks, bass, which is not really subject to quota, but is subject to a bycatch limit, has affected the small boats in south-east Cornwall, many of which fish from the constituency of my friend, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). Because of EU regulations, these fishermen have to discard bass—a very high value fish—at sea, where it does not survive. That goes completely against the grain of sustainability and conservation. Once we take back control of our waters, the Minister will have the flexibility to make changes to UK legislation so that the rules fit what fishermen are actually catching.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point. In Brixham, in my constituency, fishermen are very worried about choke species with cod, which they cannot avoid catching. I wonder whether she feels the same about cod fisheries?
Absolutely. I wanted to point out what Bertie Armstrong had said, wholly and solely because, off the south-west coast, in areas VIId and VIIe—or VIIb to VIIk, actually, which is the whole of the south coast—UK fishermen have a tiny proportion of the EU total allowable catch. They get something like 8% of that quota, compared with 80% for our French counterparts. That is what causes the concern and the problems, because if there is cod on the ground, fishermen cannot stop the cod swimming into their nets, and many have to be discarded. What happens when fishermen catch a net full of cod? They cannot land it, but they cannot throw it away either. That is a good illustration of the problem with the landing obligation under the top-heavy bureaucratic common fisheries policy.
I have mentioned the south-west and area VIIe, but I want to point out to the Minister some of the proposals that are on the table for the North sea stocks. I understand from the National Federation of Fishermens Organisations that the proposals are for a 22% reduction in whiting, a 33% reduction in cod and a 31% reduction in haddock. What will the Minister do to rebalance that?
If all the fish, using zonal attachment, were available for the British fishing fleet to catch and land from when we leave the European Union—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said that we will leave the common fisheries policy on March 29 2019 at 11 o’clock in the evening—it would certainly benefit the United Kingdom and our economy. We should look to redress the imbalance that has been heaped on the industry for more than 40 years.
Other hon. Members want to speak, and we have only a short time for the debate, so, in summary, I wish to hear what the Minister will do at the Council. Will he send a message to our European partners that when the United Kingdom leaves on March 29 2019, we will honour our obligations under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea and the United Nations fish stocks agreement—particularly article 62—and set quotas in a sustainable way, as is our obligation, but make available to other nations only the surplus of fish that the UK fleet cannot catch? It will be interesting to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say at the end of the debate. I will finish now, because I promised other hon. Members who want to contribute that I would speak only for a short time.
I, again, congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this extremely important debate. Had it not been for events elsewhere, which I fear have conspired against us, it could have made the front pages tomorrow morning.
All hon. Members who represent fishing communities know the importance of the industry—not just to those directly involved in the catching and processing side of the business, but to the overall economic wellbeing of our coastal communities. The fishing industry in my constituency has undergone great changes in the last few years and would be almost unrecognisable to someone who fished the waters of the west coast of Scotland a few decades ago. Back then, herring was the mainstay of the local industry, but changes to technology and a focus on new species has seen a move away from herring towards prawn and scallop fishing.
Today, freshly caught high-quality Argyll and Bute seafood is in demand across the world, particularly in Europe, as I said earlier. I am delighted that the fishing industry remains a mainstay of our local economy. Of course, in Argyll and Bute we also have a thriving fish farming industry, which includes award-winning halibut producers on Gigha and salmon from Argyll, which boasts the prestigious Label Rouge, awarded under the most stringent criteria by the French Ministry of Agriculture.
As well as praising and promoting the excellent produce, I want to highlight some of the issues and challenges facing boat owners, skippers and producers on Scotland’s west coast. What I am about to say will come as no great surprise to attentive hon. Members, because I said it last year—and, I believe, the year before that.
Despite being raised by MPs representing the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland for many years, the issue of access to crew persists. It is a problem that only the UK Government can fix, but they have chosen not to. Once again, I ask the Government to relax the rule and allow non-European economic area crew to work on fishing vessels that operate inside the 12-mile limit on the west coast. One look at a map of the west coast of Scotland shows that the 12-mile limit extends vast distances into the Atlantic. Few inshore vessels can or will travel that distance, but they are told repeatedly that they cannot recruit professional international seafarers from countries such as the Philippines or Ghana, and can use only UK or EU nationals to crew their vessels.
Last year, I highlighted the case of Jonathan McAllister, a skipper from Oban who was struggling to find suitable crew. He eventually found a crew of EU nationals from Latvia, who worked so well as share fishermen that they were invited back this year. In May, Mr McAllister contacted me again to say that one of the Latvian crew members had been refused entry to the UK and had been detained and questioned about the non-filing of a tax return.
Those allegations turned out to be utterly baseless, but on that basis, the crew member was detained at the Dungavel detention centre, pending his deportation to Latvia. That EU national, an experienced professional seafarer who had come to work legally in Scotland, was detained for seven days before being released without charge. He was then able to join his shipmates in Oban freely, but at what cost to Mr McAllister’s business?
The entire crew have already said to Mr McAllister that, regardless of the political situation in the UK, they will not return in 2019, so he will have to find yet another crew. Even when our skippers jump through the hoops the Home Office set for them, they are still penalised. It is little wonder that so many are totally scunnered and are seeking a way out of the industry.
Access to crew is just one issue affecting the west coast fishing industry. Last week, I met the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, which represents 65 boats, including mobile and static vessels. We met principally to discuss the Fisheries Bill, but we also spoke generally about the health of the industry on the west coast of Scotland. Naturally, Brexit and anything that would adversely affect the association’s ability to export directly into Europe was a huge concern, as over almost four decades our west coast fishermen have perfected getting their catch out of the water and delivering it fresh to some of the best restaurants in Europe in a matter of hours. Reports of six months of disruption at the ports post Brexit would be absolutely catastrophic for its members.
Another area of huge concern on the west coast is the possibility of having to work within a different regulatory framework from colleagues in Northern Ireland, who, because of the backstop protocol, would essentially retain unfettered access to the single market and the customs union. It is worth remembering that Northern Ireland is just 12 miles from my constituency, so we fish in the same waters for the same catch. Indeed, on a clear day, I reckon I could see the house of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) from the edge of my constituency.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not alone in having that.
My constituents, who voted overwhelmingly to reject Brexit in the referendum, could face economic ruin by being placed at a severe competitive disadvantage to their Northern Irish colleagues. That is completely unacceptable. If the UK Government can arrange for one part of the United Kingdom to remain in the single market and customs union, they can do it for Scotland. It is utterly essential that the health of the west coast of Scotland’s fishing industry is not sacrificed by Brexit.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the catastrophic implications of our crashing out with no deal and no transition, particularly because of the extreme friction that would cause at the borders? It would certainly affect my fishermen and I wonder whether he feels the same.
The effects of crashing out are absolutely unthinkable. However, I have to say that being put at a competitive disadvantage by the current withdrawal deal would be equally catastrophic, although it might be a slightly slower catastrophe. That is why a deal that, ideally, keeps us in the European Union, but at least keeps us in the customs union and single market, is absolutely essential for the future wellbeing of the industry in my constituency.
I expect that we will hear much about the common fisheries policy during this debate. It is a ridiculous argument to say that anyone who opposes Brexit or who would choose to remain in the EU is automatically a diehard supporter of the CFP as it is currently constituted. I would say most forcibly that the UK fishing industry never required the upheaval of Brexit; all it required was for a Government of whatever hue at any point in the last 40 years to stand up for it and not cede to Europe everything that Europe asked for, simply to gain an advantage elsewhere in negotiations.
I am really shocked to hear that. Despite being personally involved in the fishing industry for the last 40 years, I have not been able to find a single fisherman who supports the CFP. However, what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that he wants to stay in the CFP by staying in the European Union. Does he agree? If he does not, he needs to put that on the record now. The two go hand in hand.
If that is the hon. Lady’s argument, then she is saying something about Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative party. Ruth Davidson said on 1 October:
“I voted to remain. I fought for remain. If there was another vote tomorrow, I would still vote remain.”
The extension of the hon. Lady’s argument is that Ruth Davidson is a supporter of the CFP, which I think Ruth Davidson herself would argue with. There is nothing to say that remaining and seeking to reform the CFP are mutually exclusive: they are not mutually exclusive. We can remain in the European Union and we can fight to reform the CFP.
I will return to the hon. Lady in a minute.
All that would have been required was for some UK Government in the last 40 years not to throw the fishing industry under a bus, but the UK Government have had no cognisance of the importance of the fishing industry. Now, the CFP is regarded as some sort of totem that people can coalesce around.
I suggest that the hon. Lady has a look at Hansard, because it is actually quite difficult, until the very recent past, to find a Conservative politician arguing against the CFP.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain to us why the previous leader of the Scottish National party, who was formerly the Member for Gordon and before that the Member for Banff and Buchan, actually put a Bill before the House to withdraw from the CFP. If what the hon. Gentleman is saying is absolutely correct, he is disagreeing with his former leader.
I remind all Members here in Westminster Hall that in our 2017 manifesto we committed to either fundamental reform of the CFP or its complete scrapping. And it was in 2004 that the former party leader, who I think was the Member for Banff and Buchan at that time, introduced a private Member’s Bill calling for the scrapping of the CFP.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Since the 1970s, it has been the Scottish National party that has opposed the CFP. We have opposed it; we have sought its reform; and any record in Hansard will show that that is the case.
The fishing communities across the UK did not need Brexit to thrive and survive; they needed a Government who cared and put their interests first. I look forward, with certainty, to the day when that Government is an independent Scottish Government, who will look after the interests of all our fishermen and not throw them under a bus at the first opportunity, as has been the case in the United Kingdom throughout the years of the CFP.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I will try to be as quick as I can.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this debate, which is about a subject that I know is very close to her own heart as well as being a key industry in her constituency.
Fishing at least has been, if it is not now, the lifeblood of constituencies represented by hon. Members around this Chamber today. Under the European Union’s common fisheries policy, we have seen many smaller fishing constituencies—and, in some cases, not so small fishing communities—reduced to a mere shadow of their former glory. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that, regardless of how else we might feel about Brexit, the CFP is a discredit to our coastal communities that we must take every possible opportunity to redress.
My own constituency of Banff and Buchan has fared relatively well in the last few decades, Peterhead being the largest whitefish port in Europe and Fraserburgh the largest port in Europe for nephrops. Although those ports survive, overall activities are not what they once were. As we look forward to a “sea of opportunity”, it is not only those brave fishermen who go out to sea to catch the fish who stand to benefit. We must also see an expansion in our capacity to process the product. We need to improve infrastructure and transport links, and perhaps invest in chiller facilities at one of the Scottish airports to help facilitate the export of fish to countries further afield than the EU, such as in north America and the far east.
An expansion in our ability to catch more of our fish in our waters will also see a benefit to those services and industries that support the fishing sector: boat building, maintenance and servicing are just a few examples. One local fisherman told me recently that when his boat is in for annual maintenance and he berths it in dry dock, he provides work for around 40 different contractors, mostly from around the local community and certainly from around north-east Scotland. The more fishing opportunities that we have, the more active our fishing boats will be, and the better things will be for the wider coastal communities and the economy.
I think that the figure produced by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is that something in the region of 40% of the fish in our waters are caught by the UK fleet. I think the hon. Gentleman is a supporter of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement and deal. What share does he expect the UK fleet will have at the end of the day if that agreement is implemented?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, there is nothing in the withdrawal agreement that specifically states that any shares will be given up. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall said earlier, we should start from the default position of, “We have full access and that is our access to negotiate in the annual negotiations going forward.”
I will move on. The Scottish demersal sector has performed reasonably well during 2018, but the prognosis for 2019 is less buoyant, given the reduction in total allowable catches for some of our key commercial stocks, such as North sea haddock and cod. The TACs for the jointly managed stocks with Norway, which were set as a result of negotiations that have been concluded, have already been listed by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall.
The TACs for stocks such as anglerfish, hake and so on are due to be set at the December Fisheries Council. Such reductions, at a time when the landing obligation is due to come fully into force, could be problematic to say the least. The reduction in North sea cod could make it a choke species for the fleet. The landing obligation is explicit in the demand that catches of all regulated species must be landed ashore. Once the quota of North sea cod is exhausted, the fleet will be required to stop fishing for the other major species, such as haddock, whiting, saithe, hake and anglerfish.
There is a significant and real risk that tens of millions of pounds of fish could go uncaught as a result. I ask the Minister to give some clarity today about the action he will take to avoid early closure of our fisheries. What discussions has he had with the devolved Administrations on this matter?
There is real concern about the number of non-UK vessels operating in the Scottish sector, mostly in the waters around Shetland, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) will appreciate. A recent analysis carried out by the industry set the numbers of vessels catching whitefish as follows: 19 UK- based but foreign-flagged vessels; 12 Spanish vessels; 33 Norwegian vessels; eight German vessels; 27 French vessels; and 23 Danish vessels—a total of 122 vessels. To provide some scale, the Scottish fleet has only about 85 vessels targeting whitefish. Does the Minister agree that an influx of foreign vessels at this level is unsustainable for stocks and clearly unfair to our fishermen? What does he plan to do to protect our stocks from being plundered by foreign vessels?
Finally, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) mentioned, access to non-EEA crew continues to be an issue for a number of our vessels, given that they are prohibited from operating within 12 nautical miles of the shore. Non-EEA workers enter the country to work on a fishing vessel using a transit visa, the current definition of which allows vessels to operate out of the UK without entering a foreign port, so long as they stay outside of 12 miles while fishing. The skipper of a vessel is required to demonstrate to the overseas British embassy that his vessel has operated for the previous three months outside of 12 miles; only then will the fisherman be granted his visa.
The situation has led to a number of vessels being sold due to crew shortages, particularly on the west coast of Scotland. We have made several representations on a cross-party basis to the UK Immigration Minister for the 12-mile restriction to be removed, so that every segment of our fleet can get access to the same pool of labour. There are currently 4,900 full-time fishermen in Scotland, of which over 800 are non-EEA. Given the current plight of our vessels when it comes to finding suitable crew, I ask the Minister to push for that 12-mile restriction to be lifted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Sir Henry, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing what has become a useful annual fixture in the calendar, ahead of the Fisheries Council that the Minister is now very familiar with. I will take this opportunity to remember and commemorate all of those who go out and fish for the benefit of their communities and the whole country. Those people are in what is still the riskiest occupation in the whole of the country, and they deserve our thoughts and our thanks for the work they do, as does the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I notice that a small situation occurred off the coast of the hon. Lady’s constituency in recent days, when the RNLI was required to go out and rescue a French vessel that broke down. It is not just those directly involved in the fishing industry, but all those associated with maritime activities, who deserve our thanks.
I wholeheartedly support what the hon. Lady has said. Will she also recognise the work of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, which provides support not only for UK fishermen, but also for those from other member states who find themselves in trouble or hardship off the coast of the United Kingdom?
Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and she is right to recognise the work of that organisation. I will also take this opportunity to remember our colleague and former Member of this House, Margaret Curran, who has been very unwell. She used to make valuable contributions when she was an elected Member, and we are the poorer for her no longer being in this House.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall was assiduous in pointing out how important this Fisheries Council is going to be: this will be its final meeting, and will set the tone for all our future fishing relationships. The general nature of fishing lends itself to becoming quickly adversarial over territorial and quota disputes, but there is an enormous amount of room for generating good relations with those countries that have traditionally fished alongside UK vessels. We might not like it, and the fishing industry of the UK might not like it, but even if we eventually are in the driving seat, taking back control of our waters—that is language that I do not like to use, but that is what is hoped for within the industry—so that we can decide who fishes, where they fish and how much they fish for, we will still require good relations in the future, because we do not want to see any conflict or aggression over borders or quotas. I cannot see how this House could possibly wish to encourage any kind of negativity or conflict over those issues, which is why it is all the more important that the Minister sets the tone and the boundaries of expectations going forward.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) said that successive Governments have failed on the CFP, and have not taken a strong enough stand. I suspect that the Minister may wish to dispute that, given his endeavours in recent years, but it seems that the selling out of the UK fishing industry in the withdrawal agreement is history repeating itself a little bit. There is no guarantee in the withdrawal agreement that anything will change: the Minister has said that for the next two years, he does not expect a great deal to change, and beyond that, we really do not know. The withdrawal agreement is wholly unsatisfactory to an industry that is looking for more certainty, and for a redress—a rebalance—of the inherent unfairness that they see as having been inflicted on them for a number of years.
I recognise that other hon. Members want to contribute to this debate, so I will just touch on the east coast specifically. We have traditionally had a very different industry from that of the south-west or Scotland: we were a deep-sea area, with deep-sea fisheries that were going into Atlantic waters—although the people of Whitby and Bridlington will no doubt say otherwise, because their fleets were much more inshore and smaller. The instrumental thing for Grimsby, about which I cannot get a satisfactory answer from the Government, is our relationships with Iceland and Norway. We will still want access to those waters, so what will be the impact of the European economic area and European Free Trade Association agreements that Norway and Iceland have with the EU? How will that affect the UK once we have left the EU? That is if we actually leave—it is all looking decidedly ropey today. How will that affect those agreements? That is why I urge the Minister to continue those good relations, because we will still need good relations with those countries and with the EU if we are to continue the relationship that we have at the moment.
I am going over time—sorry, Sir Henry. I will just say that to some of those larger fleets, as UK Fisheries Limited has said, for the east coast of England, Brexit means that
“UK fishing opportunities, including access and quota, will only be traded if there is a reciprocal benefit to the UK and that there will be a fairer share of the fish in UK waters allocated to UK fishermen. This has the potential to correct the current situation where fishing vessels from the East Coast are prevented from going to sea due to lack of quota, while those from other countries can continue to fish. There are, however, a number of threats that are particular to the fleet based in the area.”
I will write to the Minister with more detail, if that is okay, to allow colleagues to make their contributions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this debate. I also congratulate hon. Members on the way in which we have worked together to give everyone an opportunity to speak. I will do what I can to stick to the time I have.
It is good to be able to discuss this issue before next week’s Fisheries Council, and there are a few things about the European Commission that I would like to raise on behalf of fishermen in and around west Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. First, bass has been a contentious subject for a few years now. As has been said before, bass is not the biggest share of the fish we catch, but it is a premium fish that is part of all aspects of fishing in west Cornwall. Will the Minister provide some clarity on measures to manage the recovery of bass stock? Have they been effective? Where are we today? What does he expect going forward?
The Commission’s recommendations for next year appear to plan to increase the take for bass for those that target bass, but to continue to restrict the landing of dead bass caught as bycatch. That makes no sense to me. When I have had the opportunity, I have argued that if bass is caught as bycatch and is dead, it makes no sense to discard it, particularly when the Commission wants to fully introduce the discard ban next year. What can anglers expect in and around west Cornwall? What can the inshore fleet and the over-10s expect for bass next year and going forward when we hopefully have more control over how we manage that species?
The Commission’s intention is to fully introduce the discard ban or landing obligation from 1 January. Is that still the commitment? Can that be achieved? Is our fleet prepared for that? It has been a tricky thing to do in recent years. We are throwing away fish that we are not legally allowed to land. What happens if that continues? Fisherman cannot avoid fish that are caught when targeting something else.
Moving on from the Commission, I want to do some blue-sky thinking for the inshore fleet. In Cornwall and my constituency, we have a number of small ports. Newlyn is the fourth biggest port for fishing in the UK, but the small ports and communities rely heavily on the inshore fleet. When we are free of the common fisheries policy and the London fisheries convention, there is a real opportunity to look at how the inshore fleet can help to revive coastal communities and sustain a supply of good-quality fish in the local community. We can also supply a training opportunity and training ground to bring fresh blood into the industry. We have heard how difficult it is to attract new people into fishing. They see no future in it, yet the inshore fleet provides a real opportunity to train safely, learn the craft and move on to a bigger vessel, if that is what they want.
It would be good to talk openly about what can be done for the inshore fleet. Because of the restrictions they already face with the weather and the size of their vessels, people are restrained in how often they can catch and what they can catch. There is a real opportunity to look away from quotas and look at how the inshore fleet can revive communities and the sector.
UK fishing is complex. We have heard today how diverse it is, but we have four key areas. In my constituency, we have the over-10s; the under-10s and the inshore fleet; a mixed fishery—bycatch and discards are a real challenge, because they catch what they never targeted—and sea angling, which is a significant part of our local economy. As we move beyond the common fisheries policy, there is good reason to respond to the asks of the industry. In Cornwall, the fish producers have asked the Government to set up a formal advisory council to guide policy and promote collaboration from Government, devolved Administrations, regions and the industry. It is imperative that the industry sits around that table.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) discussed the challenges of dispute resolution. The fishing community in my community and across Cornwall has asked the Government to set up a dispute resolution mechanism to address differences across the regions, the devolved Administrations and international fisheries so that we do not have years and years of problematic disputes that prevent people from fishing for a living and from providing good nutritious food. Will the Minister give some indication as to whether those two requests—the advisory committee and the dispute resolution mechanism—are being considered seriously?
I thank the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who spoke, as she often does, with authority and with knowledge and experience of the fishing sector. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to participate in this debate and for going ahead with it—by the way, that is not something we can trust in any longer with the business of the House. The fact of the matter is that we are discussing this issue because it is of such importance. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions this morning, and I look forward in particular to the responses of the Minister and also the shadow Minister, who has deep knowledge of the issue.
I represent the fishing village of Portavogie. It is the second largest fishing village in the whole of Northern Ireland. It used to have 130 boats in the harbour. A person used to be able to cross the harbour without touching the water, just by walking across the decks of the boats. That is no longer possible, as the number of boats has reduced to 75. Why is that? It is due to EU bureaucracy and red tape. There are other key issues, including crew. The fishermen and fisherwomen of Portavogie look forward to leaving the EU and to being unfettered and free. Boy, we cannot wait. We look forward to that occasion.
Leaving aside the fact that this will be the last EU Fisheries Council at which the United Kingdom plays a full role, it is far from business as usual. Previous EU decisions dictate that fish stocks will be managed, by 2020 at the latest, according to the principle of maximum sustainable yield. The Minister knows the issue well. Importantly, the EU’s landing obligation, or discard ban, will be fully implemented from 1 January 2019.
With those factors in mind, the landscape for this December’s negotiations in Brussels will be complicated enough, even without Brexit in the background. In the Irish sea, fishermen will always contend that there is room for improvement with fisheries science. We need to put on record the commitment of Northern Ireland fishermen to that science. Discussions are ongoing to utilise the industry’s assets to expand acoustic surveys of the demersal species in the area, which have been valuable in changing the perception of Irish sea herring in particular. We are working with nature, and sometimes what goes up comes down. That is a flaw in the concept of maximum sustainable yield, which argues that all stocks can be maintained at a maximum level. Nature just does not work like that. It is not straightforward by any means.
The industry has accepted the scientific advice for the most economically important fishery in the Irish sea for Northern Ireland, which is nephrops—prawns. Portavogie prawns are renowned the world over. They are exported across Europe. They are a brand name, and it is important to put that on the record. Any change to the total allowable catch should reflect the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which includes scientific assumptions on survivability.
To be specific, our aim should be for a TAC that reflects the landing figure plus dead discards. That principle has been accepted for other species with high survival rates. The result should mean a percentage reduction in TAC that is in the low 20s, not the 32% advocated by Brussels. Again, I express some concern. We met the Minister last week, which was most constructive and helpful, and I thank him for that. We met the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). I look to the Minister to address the discrepancy and make a commitment on that.
The TAC for whiting is the top priority for the Irish sea in 2019. Of all the TAC issues, Irish sea whiting has some rather unique issues and is a priority. The Commission has proposed a TAC of 612 tonnes for next year, solely to cover the bycatch in the nephrop fishery. The fishing of the nephrop fishery by the UK fleet outstrips that of the Republic of Ireland by a factor of four to one, which again underlines its importance. That approach is unlikely to win support from the Republic of Ireland. Its application of the Hague preference would see it secure more than half of the quota in a fishery where it takes about 20% of the catch. We do not share the faith that some have that the Republic of Ireland would be willing to apportion the Union quota on the grounds of need without using it as a swap currency to extract other quota species from the UK. The conclusion is that we need to aim for Irish sea whiting to be treated uniquely, by making it a temporary prohibited stock—in other words, removing it from the list of TAC species.
The imposition by Ireland of the Hague preference mechanism continues to hang over quota allocations. As the United Kingdom leaves the common fisheries policy, the Hague preference will no longer apply to Irish sea stocks. That outdated quota distribution methodology will fall, and at the very least UK fishermen in the Irish sea will immediately recover the one third of their quotas for cod, whiting and plaice that they have annually handed to the Republic of Ireland, and which the Republic of Ireland has gratefully accepted, despite its feigned economic and social concern for the community in Northern Ireland.
That feigned concern extends to the hard sea border that the Dublin Government have erected and maintained against fishermen from Northern Ireland. The Minister knows the voisinage agreement very well, and I do not need to go into the issue in any detail. It was among the issues highlighted in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The recommendation was clear: encourage the Dublin Government to resolve their side of the reciprocal agreement, or face the UK’s withdrawal from that agreement. Interested parties in the Republic of Ireland talk about the noise coming from Northern Ireland on the issue, and they have every right to acknowledge it. However, they should not forget that about 40% of the fish and shellfish captured by the Irish fishing fleet come from UK waters.
It should be left to the United Kingdom’s fisheries administrations to decide how quotas are allocated. Quotas are a massive issue within each jurisdiction, reflecting the different nature of the fishing fleets in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are better together; let us work together on this matter as well. The Fishing (Access to Territorial Waters) Bill recognises the principle of equal access by UK-registered fishing fleets to all UK waters.
Increased TACs, be they as a result of decisions made at the December Fisheries Council or of a new fisheries agreement with the UK, will be pointless unless we have the ability to catch the fish. That comes back to the key issue of crews, which the Minister and Members know about. Filipino crews are consistently dependable. They come to work, do the business and commit themselves totally to it. We spoke to the Minister about that last week, and I know he shares our concerns, as does the shadow Minister. We look forward to some help in persuading the Home Office to put those fishermen into the skilled category, thus enabling them to become part of what we want for our fishing fleets across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As the Minister prepares to wish his EU opposite numbers “bon voyage” at the end of next week’s Fisheries Council, we send him good wishes in his endeavours. He has proven himself to be a friend of the industry in Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom. His judgment, and that of his officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and the Departments in Scotland and Wales, is fundamental to securing a deal that is in the national interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. We look forward to a sustainable result.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing the debate, but observe in passing that it is somewhat unsatisfactory that we are in Westminster Hall and limited to 90 minutes on a Wednesday morning. This debate was traditionally part of Chamber business, and happened in Government time. I understand the reasons why it was taken out of Government time, which I think were sound. However, it was always the understanding that time would be available, and for us to have to rely on a ballot for the annual fishing debate is unsatisfactory. I hope the Minister will make representations to those in charge of business management within Government to ensure that we are not put in this situation again.
As I listened to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) talk about Alex Salmond’s Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill, I reflected on the fact that it was when the hon. Member for South East Cornwall was here lobbying on behalf of that enterprise that I first met her. It is worth reflecting on the fact—I say this as the last man standing who was a sponsor of that Bill—that the argument advanced by the Conservatives who supported Alex Salmond’s Bill was that it was perfectly possible to come out of the common fisheries policy while remaining in the European Union.
Times change, and arguments of a different nature seem to be advanced these days, but it is worth putting those historical accuracies on the record. Also on a point of historical accuracy, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said that Alex Salmond wanted to abolish the common fisheries policy. That was a tweak that I introduced; originally, Alex Salmond’s Bill was for withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. Personally, I was never persuaded that that was possible, but it is all largely academic and of historical interest these days.
The Fisheries Council, to which the Minister will travel next week, is the last that we will know in the current set-up. It will be interesting to see what we are able do this time next year if we are out of the European Union but still part of the common fisheries policy, as the transitional arrangements would suggest. It will not be an easy Council. The Minister is aware that the scientific advice, especially in relation to North sea cod, is challenging, and that will produce a difficult outcome. I am sure he will argue with some force and vigour that the interests of our fleet should be maintained. I wish him well in that enterprise. I would be interested to hear how he anticipates advancing that argument this time next year, when we will not be at the table. As the hon. Member for South East Cornwall said, we will not have a voice.
Ahead of that, there is, today and tomorrow, the EU-Faroes bilateral in relation to pelagic stocks. The apportionment allows the Faroese fleet access to 30% of the mackerel in EU waters—something of a misnomer, because they are essentially Shetlands waters. We have been burdened with an exceptionally bad deal. It allows us access to 30% of the stocks in their waters, but frankly 30% of quite a lot can hardly be compared with 30% of very little, which is essentially what we get out of the deal. Will the Minister tell me what he has done to influence the progress of the talks and to ensure that the interests of the pelagic fleet in Shetland in particular are better treated than they have been in the past, and how he anticipates such an arrangement will work in the future?
Other hon. Members spoke about the need for visas for non-EEA nationals. I led an Adjournment debate on that on 11 July. The Immigration Minister told me that she accepted that it was something that needed
“work as a joined-up Government.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 1084.]
I wonder how that work as a joined-up Government has been going; it does not look particularly joined-up from where I see it today. However, it is of enormous importance. As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said, it particularly affects the inshore fleet, but it also has a serious effect in relation to the bigger boats in the whitefish and the pelagic sectors.
Essentially, to get round the lack of proper working visas, fishing crews are having to come in on transit visas. The welfare issues surrounding that are well documented. The real difficulty is that it leaves fishing skippers having to fish where visa regulations allow them to, not where they know they will find fish. Eventually that will have an impact on safety—we all know that. That is why the issue cannot be kicked down the road any more. The subject commands attention on behalf of fishing communities represented on both sides of the House. I have been on delegations with the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As we come to the end of the year, I say to the Minister that if he is genuinely part of a joined-up Government, we need to see a resolution to this issue.
I have had my six minutes, Sir Henry—I could talk for an awful lot longer. I leave a minute, which I hope might be given to the Minister, if the Front Benchers can maintain good discipline, so that we all have an opportunity to intervene on him when he speaks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Henry. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), whose long-standing commitment to the cause of fishing safety is a badge of honour and who is commendably tireless in her pursuit of a safer environment for people who work in the industry. She clearly has a very personal knowledge of the fishing industry; her personal loss means that she speaks with profound understanding of what is so often at stake for so many of the crews who go out to bring back fish. I cannot imagine what it takes to continue to campaign, as she does, for a better situation for them.
I speak from a less personal standpoint, but I absolutely acknowledge the nature of the task that the fleets face on each trip out to sea. I also recognise the unrelenting nature of the job and the difficult economic circumstances that face the fleets and the communities that depend on them. The uncertainties attached to working in the industry, onshore as well as offshore, must only be heightened by the chaos that dogs the Brexit process. I have to say that things are a little calmer in this Chamber today than they have been in the main Chamber over the past couple of days. Staid and sober consideration of the issues before us is certainly a better way to proceed.
I commend the hon. Lady for what she said about the comments quoted from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. She made the important point that those words have been taken out of context and misquoted; I commend her honesty, and I hope that when hon. Members discuss these matters in the future, they will hear her wise words. She and other hon. Members also spoke about the Fisheries Council meeting next week—the last time the Minister has a voice at the table. A very important point arising from the flawed deal that the Prime Minister may or may not have negotiated is that the fishing industry will have lost the opportunity to influence and guide decisions made at that Council. The hon. Lady made a doughty challenge at the end of her speech for the Minister to provide clarity on the issue, particularly on aspects that relate to her constituency and its interests. Her points were well made and I look forward to the Minister’s response, as I am sure we all do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) shared stories about the difficulty that the hostile environment approach to immigration has caused for access to crew, a point made by hon. Members across the Chamber. He also raised vital concerns about the advantages to be enjoyed by Northern Ireland under the arrangements in the current withdrawal deal and gave us some spirited discussion about the vexed issue of the CFP. I am sure that that spirited discussion will continue long into the future.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) reiterated my hon. Friend’s call to relax the tight restrictions on non-EEA crew members, which are causing big problems. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) called for the maintenance of good relations with other countries—a really important point that I appreciate her making and heartily endorse. She also noted that there is no guarantee that anything will change under the current deal or that it will address the inherent unfairness that fishers see in the current system.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) called for clarity about the details of the deal that may be negotiated as a last roll of the dice at the Fisheries Council—possibly the last deal of its kind to be struck with the EU. He also spoke about the potential for inshore fishing, although I would argue that that could be done under a willing Government whether or not the UK retains its EU membership. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as always, spoke up for his constituents and raised some specific questions for the Minister, who will be very busy in his reply; I had better be as brief as possible, so that there is time for those questions to be answered.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for his helpful clarification of the circumstances surrounding the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill. He also raised the issue of future deals for pelagic species and asked what the Government will do about the growing crisis in the availability of fishing crews, the resulting restrictions and their impact on safety.
It has been noted that the variety of our fleets and the differentiation around the shores and across species make it difficult to describe the industry as a single entity. Each part of it has different priorities. Scotland’s creel fisher-folk, for example, tell us that their product has to get to market alive, so one of the biggest threats to their continued profitability is congestion at border control. The industry could die along with the catch if the M26 becomes a lorry park. Those concerns have to be sorted out in advance of Brexit day.
Access to the EU market is essential for Scottish fleets, which should not be in a less advantageous situation than any other part of the UK. We will be losing access advantages as it is, since we will no longer have automatic barrier-free access to the world’s biggest marketplace in the world’s most affluent continent. There are something like 1,800 shellfish boats in the Scottish fleets; it is a significant source of employment offshore and has significant onshore economic impact.
The concerns of pelagic and whitefish fleets may be slightly different but they, too, require open markets. Around three quarters of the fish and seafood landed is exported, while around two thirds of the fish and seafood we eat is imported. Trade with the EU is essential for the fishing industry. We should probably see whether there is some kind of organisation that we can join that would allow us free access to those markets and keep food imports at a reasonable price—if only we could think of one.
There is a cruelty for our fishing fleets in the fact that they will be trapped in the CFP after we leave the EU and will therefore still have to comply with the rules after we have lost the ability to influence them. So much of what we heard before the referendum was simply untrue, but that is one of the cruellest tricks of all.
A host of other questions about Brexit and fishing are still unanswered, not the least of which is how the European maritime and fisheries fund will be replaced. The development of the fishing industries around these islands may be hampered if we do not have a replacement ready to go. The improvements to the boats, including health and safety improvements, that such schemes fund are important, but so are the shore-based improvements, and the environmental spend is of incalculable value.
We also need to know about access to the labour market for the industry. Like agriculture, the work of onshore fisheries in Scotland depends to a large extent on EU migrant workers, so closing us off from them will damage the profitability of the industry. I know that some Members of Parliament are dead set on ending freedom of movement, but the argument is about what to replace it with.
Some have argued that we should look at the Australian system; if I can don my outback hat for a while, I reckon that there is a new Australian scheme that might just fit the bill. The Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs says that his Government
“is working to improve our immigration program to better match the needs of specific locations”.
The Northern Territory and south-west Victoria will have immigration schemes that allow in agricultural workers and hospitality workers to service the industries that desperately need them. The schemes, known as designated area migration agreements, will allow permanent residency in those areas, provided that people are willing to remain there for at least three years. I suggest that such a scheme would be helpful to the food production industries in Scotland and should be considered by any Government who value the contribution that those industries make.
We may or may not be leaving the EU soon, and we may or may not be getting a vote on it at some point, but it is high time we had a serious chat about how we want to protect our fishing communities and how we enhance them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank my neighbour from the far south-west, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), for introducing the debate so well.
I join in the tributes to all those fishers who have lost their lives since our last annual fisheries debate. Since I was elected last year, we in Plymouth have lost two trawlers at sea, with a death on each boat. I pay tribute to all those who risk their lives in the most dangerous peacetime activity in Britain to catch the fish that we have on our dinner plates. I also pay tribute to those who keep our fishers safe and supported: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, HM Coastguard, the Fishermen’s Mission, the Royal Navy and a group that is so often overlooked—the family and friends of fishers, who provide the support network, encouragement and understanding, and without whom the industry would not work.
I speak not only as shadow Fisheries Minister, but as an MP who represents Plymouth—a proud and historic coastal community with 1,000 jobs in fishing, both in catching and in processing. We have not said much about processing today, but it is a vital part of our fishing industry.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The question we need to ask about processing is where the fish will come from in the future. We need to ensure that fish can be imported and exported with the added value that comes from processing, creating more processing jobs in the UK rather than putting the jobs we have at risk.
Fishing was the poster child of the leave campaign. It is one of the few industries in the entire UK—if not the only industry—that could be better on day one of Brexit than before it, but only if tariff-free access and frictionless trade can be achieved, in terms of making sure that we can export to our important export markets. I am no fan of the common fisheries policy—that has been briefly discussed here—and it needs to change and reform, but whether we are in it, or without it, we need to make sure that our fishing is more sustainable, both economically and environmentally, for UK fishers.
There are big challenges for fishing, which have been discussed today. The Fisheries Bill currently in Committee smacks of legislation that has been hurried out to reach the exit deadline. It needs many amendments. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke passionately about the advisory council and dispute resolution mechanisms, and I am grateful for that. I can see why the Whips kept him off the Fisheries Bill Committee, because, sadly, the Conservatives on the Committee voted down an amendment on the dispute resolution mechanism yesterday. More lobbying of the Minister to encourage him to bring back amendments at Lords stages will be gratefully received.
We have seen that fisheries is a fraught sector, particularly with devolved Administrations now potentially having to come to a common arrangement. Does my hon. Friend share my dismay that in Committee yesterday both the Scottish National party and the Tories voted down or abstained on the crucial amendment on having a dispute reconciliation measure?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I think it is best to create a dispute resolution mechanism before there is a dispute. We should have such a principle in the Fisheries Bill and I hope the Minister will reflect on that as the Bill progresses through its various stages.
Big promises were made to fishing by the Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—a key Brexiteer—during the referendum. They have not been matched by delivery. There is an inherent risk behind many speeches from hon. Members here: the fear is that fishing will be further betrayed in the withdrawal agreement and what follows after. We only have to look at the promises made by Ministers, right up until they U-turned, on removing fishing from the transition period, to find good evidence on why fishing has every right to be concerned about the promises it is receiving at the moment.
I fear that decisions above the Fishing Minister’s pay grade will betray fishing further as the negotiation continues. I wish him the best of luck in steeling the nerve of those people further up the Government food chain, to make sure that fishing is not further betrayed. Labour has tabled a significant number of amendments to the Fisheries Bill to make real the promises from the leave campaign and seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start afresh and create truly world-class, sustainable fisheries, following our exit from the CFP.
I turn briefly to the issue of quota, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned, including my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), the hon. Member for St Ives and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Under the existing system, ownership of quota has become increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few.
I anticipate that the hon. Gentleman will move on to fixed quota allocations; before he does, I hope he will acknowledge that those allocations were introduced under a previous Labour Fisheries Minister. Another mess also created under the same Minister is the reason why the under-10-metre fleet finds itself in the position it does today. I will name the Fisheries Minister at the time—it was Elliot Morley.
I am always grateful for interventions from my neighbour. I suggest she reads the memo from the Fisheries Minister in Committee yesterday that said that this is about looking forwards, not back. Frankly, there are enough reasons to say that fishing was screwed over by a Conservative Government; I do not think it is appropriate to go into—
Okay, I withdraw that—I beg your pardon, Sir Henry. Fishing may have been betrayed by Conservative Governments in the past. Let us look forward, not back.
Labour wants smaller boats to be given a greater share of quota after Brexit. Small boats are the backbone of our fishing industry. They are the small and medium-sized enterprises of the sector. If this were any other sector, we would be talking about SMEs and multinationals, but we do not do that in fishing—we simply do not apply that phraseology. If we did, I think the tone of the debate around our fishing sector would be very different. Let us back the SMEs in the fishing sector. Let us make sure that the small-scale fleet, which generally uses low-impact gear, has a better environmental impact and, importantly, employs more people, gets a greater share of quota: 6% of quota and 49% of the workforce at the moment is not an equitable share.
In addition, we also need to make sure that more fish is landed in UK ports. Labour wants a requirement that at least 50% of fish caught under a British quota is landed in British ports, supporting the coastal communities—be they in the far south-west, the east coast or up to Scotland—and making sure that we can get the additional jobs that come with landing, processing and selling that fish, whether for consumption in the UK or for export. We want to make sure that we have more of it. It is a travesty that, at the moment, so much fish caught under a UK quota is exported immediately to foreign countries and not landed. We need to preserve that economic link.
I want to spend a moment on marine safety; we have an opportunity to talk more about that. Fishing is the most dangerous peacetime activity in the UK. We need to make sure that in any redistribution or reallocation of quota that may come from leaving the European Union, high standards of marine safety are embedded in every single quota allocation. That is precisely why we need to do more to make sure that EU and UK fishers obey the same high safety levels. Sadly, that is again something that the Minister decided to vote against in Committee yesterday.
We also need to do more to spread the best practice we already have. In Plymouth, a lifejacket scheme gives fishers better equipped lifejackets, to enable them to do manual handling in front, with a personal locator beacon. When someone goes overboard and the personal locator beacon is activated, it takes the “search” out of search and rescue. That is really important, and will help save lives when boats capsize or when people go over the side. When the worst happens, it will help with the retrieval of a body so that the family can bury that fisher. We need to be aware of just how dangerous fishing is. The Minister and I have had lots of conversations about the PLB and the lifejacket scheme and I will continue to have conversations with the Department for Transport to make sure that it happens.
I echo the comments from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who was passionate and correct in the view that this debate should be held in Government time. He heard me make that point yesterday, and he made it with much more force than I did in Committee. There is cross-party agreement that this annual debate should be held in Government time and in the main Chamber to give it the prominence and importance that it deserves—not only to our coastal communities, but to our politics. In many cases, fishing is about politics and identity just as much as it is about our coastal communities.
There is a great opportunity to create a better system for fishing—more economically and environmentally sustainable, safer for those people who are fishing, and adapted to the changing nature of our marine environment, especially with the effects of climate change. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. I pledge to the Minister that if he wants to work constructively, in a co-operative, cross-party way to improve the Fisheries Bill, which needs improving, the Opposition stand ready.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his dynamic speech. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) has indicated to me that she does not want time for a wind-up speech, so that leaves the Minister with 12 minutes. I call the Minister.
Thank you, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on introducing our annual fisheries debate.
A number of us in this room spent a full day in Committee yesterday debating the Fisheries Bill. Immediately after this debate, at 11 o’clock, I am giving evidence on fisheries to the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. This afternoon, at half-past two, I am giving evidence on fisheries to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and tomorrow we have another day of debate on the Bill. So it is very much a diet of fish for me this week, and rightly so. For our fishing industry, this is a critical time of year, when fishing opportunities are set.
Our fishing, aquaculture and processing industries are worth around £1.5 billion a year to our economy. They employ 33,000 people and have incredible significance to many of our coastal communities, not least, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said, those where much of our processing is done.
Fishing is also, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) pointed out, one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The risks that fishermen take to put food on our table are something that we must always acknowledge. I am sad to say that, during 2018, six fishermen from this country lost their lives in the course of their work. I am sure we all send our condolences to the families involved.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has campaigned on safety issues for a long time, alongside his constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who herself was affected by a personal tragedy in this area. Partly due to my hon. Friend’s lobbying, there was an announcement in this year’s Budget that a new fund would be created to invest in safety equipment to improve the safety of our fishing vessels. That is an important step forward, but we must remain constantly vigilant.
The focus of today’s debate is predominantly on the December Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which is taking place next week, and that is what I want to focus most of my comments on, although I recognise that it is taking place in a wider context. This is the last December Council for which the UK will be a member of the European Union. There is a live debate about the nature of the withdrawal agreement and any implementation period as we depart from the European Union. As I mentioned earlier, the Fisheries Bill is going through Parliament at the moment. The Committee debate began yesterday, and we have another day ahead of us tomorrow. The Bill sets out all the powers the Government need in order to take back control of our exclusive economic zone, to license foreign vessels, to prohibit them from entering our waters to fish in the absence of a licence, and to set fishing opportunities and quotas. As we leave the European Union, we will become an independent coastal state again. We will represent ourselves in negotiations with our neighbours, including the Faroes, Iceland, Norway and the rest of the European Union.
I return to this year’s annual negotiations. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, this year, in most of our waters, the position is undoubtedly more challenging as far as the science is concerned—in the North sea, in particular. The EU-Norway deal has now concluded, but the science was very challenging on a number of key stocks. There have been some significant reductions in the EU-Norway deal, with whiting down by 22%, cod down by 33% and haddock down by 31%. It is important to recognise that, over the past three years, there have been significant rises in those stocks, as the science was positive. Just as we will increase the fishing opportunities when the science allows it, we must be willing to take the difficult decision to reduce fishing opportunities when the science demands it.
It is not all bad news. There has been an increase in saithe, which is up by 18%, and plaice, which is up by 11%. The proposal for anglerfish in the North sea is plus 25%, western hake is plus 27%, and megrim in the wider area is up by 47%. There are some positive notes this year, but the overall background is challenging.
This year’s Council will be dominated by one issue: the problem of choke species, which I want to spend most of my comments reflecting on. We are in the final year of the introduction of the landing obligation. That means that, next year, every species must be covered by the landing obligation. That presents major challenges for parts of our fleet, notably cod in the Celtic sea, for which the recommendation is for a zero total allowable catch; west of Scotland cod and whiting; and Irish sea whiting, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned.
The problem we have had with the landing obligation is that, although progress has been made, lots of species have been put on and the working groups have identified survivability exemptions and other approaches, the most difficult issues of all have been left till last, for understandable reasons. We are now confronted with those difficult decisions. There have been a number of problems with the roll-out of the landing obligation. First, the original plan was to have interspecies flexibility, so if someone ran out of quota for one stock, they could use another. In practice, that can be done only when species are within safe biological limits. Paradoxically, when people most need to use interspecies flexibility, they are least able to because of that requirement.
Secondly, although the working groups have made progress, not every member state is as enthusiastic about this approach as we are. We have not made as much progress as we would have liked. For instance, the UK argued that we should have cameras on boats. Other member states frustrated that, which has made it difficult to get reliable information about the discard uplift.
Finally, the discard uplift in the quotas for the species under the landing obligation has continued to be allocated along relative stability lines, and that has been a major problem for us. The discard uplift has not been allocated to the sections of the fleet that had the greatest problem with discards; it has been allocated along relative stability lines. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out, relative stability gives the UK a very unfair share of fishing opportunities, and means that the problem of choke species is particularly acute for some of our fleet.
The UK Government set out in our White Paper and the Bill a new approach to tackling the issue of the landing obligation and discards, with the idea of the creation of a national reserve of quota that would underpin a system in which we would charge a super-levy on over-quota stocks and fish that vessels would land. There would be the maximum possible financial disincentive on fishermen to avoid those stocks, but if they could not avoid them, there would be a means that allowed them to land that catch, subject to a levy.
In around March or April this year, we recognised that the working groups were not going to make sufficient progress in identifying solutions to the problem of choke. I met Commissioner Vella in July, and we set out some early proposals, and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been working with Commission officials ever since. The Commission has now proposed something akin to the British idea set out in our Bill. It calls it a “Union pool”, and it is similar to our national reserve idea. It is modelled along British thinking and will create a pool of quota that can be used to support a bycatch provision on problematic stocks, particularly those with zero TACs.
My hon. Friend will understand that that is a live discussion. Some countries believe that it should still be along the lines of relative stability. We do not believe it should be, since that compounds the problem.
The alternative solution is to put more stocks on what is called the prohibited list. People are not allowed to target or catch them, but if they accidently catch them, they can be discarded. For understandable reasons, the Commission is reluctant to do that. It would be preferable to find an alternative solution using bycatch provision.
I turn now to the points raised by other hon. Members. A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and the hon. Members for Strangford and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), raised the issue of non-European economic area labour, which is important to crew some of these vessels. They will understand that that is an issue for the Home Office, so if they are talking to Home Office Ministers, they are talking to the right people. I undertake to talk to my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office again after this debate to see whether we can make some progress on this issue.
As I said, I undertake to talk to my ministerial colleagues about that.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made the important point that, although we are leaving the European Union, we will still have annual fisheries negotiations with all our neighbours, just as Norway, Iceland and the Faroes do now. We will want to maintain good relations, and will rejoin the regional fisheries management organisations as an independent coastal state. I know that trade is very important for her constituency, but there is often a misunderstanding here. Although Iceland and Norway are in the EEA, the EEA agreement itself does not cover fisheries trade. Fisheries is outside the EEA trade agreement, but there are a number of separate preferential free trade agreements and what are called autonomous tariff rate quotas to allow tariff-free fish from Iceland and Norway, and even from the Barents sea and places such as Russia, to enter the UK. We are confident that we will be able to roll those preferential trade agreements forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) raised the important issue of bass. We have led the discussions on it for a number of years. Last year, we argued against the overly restrictive bycatch provision for trawlers, and for some provision for the recreational sector. We believe that the science has moved our way on that, and we will be arguing that again. The idea of an advisory committee is interesting. We already work with the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, and we are looking at whether we can involve the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities in some of our thinking ahead of the December Council.
Finally, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) raised the issue of the EU-Faroes deal. I can tell him that when we leave the EU, it will be a UK-Faroes deal, and we will not have the problem of British interests being traded away for other EU countries’ interests.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK fishing industry.
Blue Belt Programme: South Sandwich Islands
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s blue belt programme and the South Sandwich islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. Oceans cover about 71% of the earth’s surface, and around 90% of the earth’s biosphere. They contain about a quarter of a million different known species—and likely vastly more, given that so little of our oceans has been properly explored or understood. Today, I will speak about the tragedy of what is happening to our oceans and about what we need to do to protect them.
There was a time when our oceans were absolutely brimming with life. In 1497, the explorer John Cabot complained that his ship’s progress had been hampered by the sheer volume of cod off the coast of Newfoundland. He wrote a message to his sponsor, King Henry VII, in which he said that his men
“took so many fish that this kingdom will no longer have need of Iceland, from which country there is an immense trade in the fish”.
As we now know, industrial fishing quickly put an end to that. In 1968, the registered catch was 800,000 tonnes; by 1994, the catch was just 1,700 tonnes. In Victorian England, one could have seen large pods of orcas and blue whales off the coast of Cornwall. Professor Callum Roberts has reminded us that in 1836, a shoal of sardines extended, in a single compact body, from Fowey to Land’s End—a distance of around 100 miles. He notes that today, people pay serious money to travel thousands of miles to witness such scenes.
Today, we face an unprecedented loss of species in our oceans, comparable to the mass extinctions of past millennia. A year ago, the Zoological Society of London and the World Wide Fund for Nature issued a report stating that there is only half the amount of wildlife in the sea today as there was in 1970, just a few years before I was born. Between 70% and 80% of the world’s marine fish stocks have either been fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or are recovering from depletion. Of the 17 largest fisheries in the world, 15 are now so heavily depleted that future catches cannot be guaranteed.
A scientific paper published in Nature reports that we have lost 90% of the world’s big predatory fish, such as tunas and sharks. Only 5% of coral reefs are considered pristine. Despite serving as breeding grounds for 85% of commercial fish, a third of the world’s mangroves have been destroyed since 1990. That annihilation is happening across the world, and is not only an unforgivable biodiversity tragedy, but a human tragedy.
About 200 million people depend directly on the fishing industry for their livelihoods. For more than 1 billion people, fish is the primary source of protein. If the fishing industry collapses, the effects will be disastrous, especially for the world’s poorest people. One has only to look at what happened in Somalia a couple of decades ago: years of overfishing—mostly by vast foreign fleets—decimated the coastal economy when fish stocks ran out. Legal fishing gave way to piracy, and millions were plunged into poverty, with criminality taking over.
There are numerous causes of this loss and numerous things that we need to do to put things right, but the biggest—and the focus of the debate—is simply protection. Marine protected areas represent a broad spectrum, with everything from absolute no-take zones to areas open only to sustainable fishing. We know that they work because we can literally measure the results of protection.
When commercial fishing in the Atlantic ocean and North sea had to be stopped during world war two, there was an immediate spike in fish populations. In New Zealand’s Leigh marine reserve, common predatory fish are now six times more abundant in the reserve than outside, while in its Tāwharanui marine reserve, there are 60% more species in the reserve than out. Spain has suffered massively from overfishing, but catches close to the Tabarca marine reserve were 85% higher than elsewhere after just six years of protection. The list goes on, all around the world.
There is a level of agreement about the scale of the problem, but the response—an international commitment to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020—is far below what is needed. To make matters much worse, we are nowhere near achieving that. The British Government get it: we have committed to pushing for the protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, and despite being a relatively small nation we are in a good position to take the lead. We are, after all, custodians of the fifth largest marine estate in the world, thanks to our extensive overseas territories, which contain, incidentally, over 94% of the UK’s unique biodiversity. They are scattered across the world and home to countless rare and threatened species.
In the context of our overseas territories, Blue Belt is an incredibly ambitious policy. Does my hon. Friend agree that we will be judged on its success only in terms of how we support different marine protections around different archipelagos and islands? Ascension Island is a key one: people are waiting to see whether the Government are willing to pledge the means to ensure that the marine protection area there is a success, so that we can have confidence in what we are doing globally.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his intervention, and I agree with him 100%. I put on the record my thanks to him and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), who led the campaign in Parliament and can take a lot of credit for the Government’s current position.
May I ask my hon. Friend to hold off for a second? I know what he is going to ask me.
The overseas territories are enormously important breeding grounds for endangered turtles, a third of the world’s albatrosses, a quarter of the world’s penguins, and the world’s largest coral atoll. In what remains to this day, I think, the biggest conservation commitment ever made by any Government ever, our Government pledged to protect over 4 million square kilometres across those overseas territories by 2020. Altogether, that is an area bigger than India. That commitment makes us world leaders in ocean protection, and it is hard to think of a better illustration of global Britain.
I remind the House that, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I visited South Georgia at the expense of the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands last year.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the Government’s announcement this morning that, partly as a result of his pressure, they are to extend the no-take boundaries around South Georgia from 12 to 31 miles; that they will extend the marine protected area around the whole of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands maritime zone, meaning that 173,000 square kilometres will now be entirely protected from commercial fishing; and that they intend to close the South Sandwich Islands trench region—the most important bit—to all commercial fisheries? I hope he welcomes that announcement.
Of course, I hugely welcome that announcement. I will come to that in a few moments, but my speech will first canter through some of the overseas territories and some of the work that we are doing and need to do. The move that my hon. Friend referred to puts to rest a lot of the arguments against full protection, but I will come to that, and we will no doubt have an argument in due course.
I have described a great commitment of which we can be proud, but alone it is not enough. We need to make good on it, properly, and we need go further. Before I go into detail on the Blue Belt, I hope that the Minister will confirm that funding for the Blue Belt will be assured beyond 2020. It stands at £4.8 million per year and given what we get for that, it is spectacularly good value for money.
I want to look more broadly at the actual Blue Belt commitments. In some areas where we have made promises, we have delivered spectacularly. The Pitcairn islands in the Pacific ocean, for example, are surrounded by the most pristine marine environment anywhere on earth. It is just magnificent that the Government have permanently closed those waters, which cover around 840,000 square kilometres, to commercial fishing. It is one of the largest protected areas in the world.
Tristan da Cunha, a tiny island in the south Atlantic, has waters with vast populations of seals, southern right whales and blue sharks, as well as being home to great numbers of seabirds and rockhopper penguins. The Government have committed to protecting the full 750,000 sq km of Tristan’s waters by 2020. I hope that the Minister will confirm that we will make good on that commitment and that we will help the tiny local population by protecting the area from illegal fishing.
In 2016, the Government committed to a marine protected area of 450,000 sq km around St Helena in the south Atlantic ocean. It is an area bigger than Germany and has more than 40 endemic species, including whale sharks, turtles and humpback whales. The aspiration is to develop a sustainable one-by-one—one hook to catch one fish at a time—tuna fishery in its own marine protected area. At this stage, however, St Helena has yet to ban industrial long-lining from its waters. The Government clearly need to work with the local population to put that right, as a matter of urgency.
Ascension Island, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned, has 450,000 sq km of ocean and the second-largest green turtle breeding population in the Atlantic. It is a hotspot for sharks, tuna and swordfish. The Government are committed to protecting at least 50% of the area by 2019, but nothing stops them from going further and protecting the whole area. I understand that the island’s Council is itself minded to back 100% protection, but they are looking for assurances from the Government that they will not then be saddled with the costs of satellite monitoring for effective enforcement. They calculate, incidentally, that it would be cheaper to protect the whole area, rather than half, so that should not be a barrier. I hope that the Minister will address that point.
Viewers of the extraordinary “Blue Planet II” series will know that the greatest gift that the Government can give the oceans lies further south in, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) has just referenced, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. That is why the title of this debate names the area specifically. Those tiny, uninhabited islands are a near-pristine global biodiversity hotspot. A full quarter of the global population of penguins live here, alongside recovering populations of whales and seals, and unique marine habitats.
The local Government designated the whole 1 million sq km around the islands as an MPA in 2012. However, although the fisheries around South Georgia are without doubt managed to a high standard, until this morning only 2% of the total waters were fully protected. I understand from the news today that that area has been increased from 2% to 23%, which is fantastic news, but the remaining 77% is still technically open to fishing, and that could easily change. There is a huge groundswell of opinion among scientists, non-governmental organisations and colleagues in this House behind the campaign fully to protect the waters around the South Sandwich Islands in particular, which is about 500,000 sq km, roughly half of the whole MPA.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The designation of those waters is an important step, but does he agree that we should not confuse designation with protection, and that we should encourage the Government to be bolder in protecting more of our fragile ocean environment, especially where the UK has involvement?
I very much take the hon. Gentleman’s point; in fact, he takes the words out of my mouth.
The remaining half of the waters—not the 500,000 sq km that need full protection—would still be open to well-managed fisheries. Colleagues will have seen the case for protection powerfully made by a broad coalition in an open letter to the Foreign Secretary. It was published, I think, in the Telegraph last week, and went wild on social media. That is a genuine win-win proposal. The South Sandwich Islands have not been fished commercially in 25 years, so no fishing at all would be displaced. Upgrading the existing MPA to give full protection can be achieved within existing budgets and existing legislation. Politically, it would demonstrate the UK’s willingness to lead by example.
My hon. Friend is most generous in giving way. The point he makes is that there has been no commercial fishing in this area for 25 years. However, there is no prospect that there will be in the next 25 years, so what he is proposing and campaigning for is tokenistic in the extreme. Will he not simply take this opportunity to welcome the fact that the Government have now protected the krill fisheries for an extra two months, banned HFO—heavy fuel oil—vessels from the area and taken a variety of other environmental steps to protect it in the way that he wants? Merely calling for more and more protection in a tokenistic and campaigning way achieves nothing but the alienation of local people.
To suggest that we should not protect an area because it has not yet been destroyed is madness; the same argument could equally have been used against pretty much any one of the world’s nature reserves, including the national parks that are a source of pride in this country. The fact that the area has not been exploited and that an industry has not yet been able to develop there is precisely why it needs protection. Were a fishing industry to emerge and develop in that area, the prospect of removing it would become inconceivable—vastly expensive, hugely disruptive and politically difficult —and so not happen. Because the area has not been fished and is pretty much pristine, it requires the protection for which the campaigners are rightly asking.
Politically, as I said, such a move would demonstrate the UK’s willingness to lead by example, but I would go further than that. If we are not willing to protect that pristine, unfished, global biodiversity gem, how could anyone take seriously our commitment to support the protection of 30% of the world’s oceans? One cannot be achieved without committing to the other. Despite great leadership on that issue, the Foreign Office seems to have hit the buffers somewhat. Those involved, on the inside and on the outside, are, frankly, scratching their heads. Whatever the block, I strongly urge Ministers to be decisive, to be bold and just to get on with it.
I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for securing this debate. As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and a well-regarded champion of the recent illegal wildlife trade conference, he takes a close interest in conservation and the environment.
The UK has long understood that, as custodians of the world’s fifth largest marine estate, we and our overseas territories have a responsibility—indeed, a duty—to manage and protect our marine environment. The general public are increasingly aware of the importance of caring for our oceans, in many cases thanks to last year’s excellent “Blue Planet II” series, and understandably they are demanding action. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to update the House on developments in respect of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands marine protected area and on wider progress on the Blue Belt initiative.
This morning, I was delighted to welcome the announcement by the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands of a suite of environmental enhancements, including additional marine protected area measures. The announced protections are based on the recommendations of the first five-year review of the territory’s MPA, which has recently concluded. That review was conducted by a panel which included scientists, as well as representatives from the fishing and tourism industries, and environmental groups. The panel’s conclusions were made public on 7 November. It found that the current MPA is achieving its objectives, while also making a series of recommendations further to strengthen protection of the territory’s waters.
Based on those recommendations and other recent scientific work, the Commissioner today announced an expansion of the MPA to cover the territory’s entire maritime zone; an extension of the seasonal closure of the krill fishery, to provide further protection for breeding wildlife; an increase of the marine areas fully closed to commercial fishing activities, to up to 23% of the maritime zone; and the banning of all commercial mineral resource extraction activities, along with prohibitions on the transport of heavy fuel oil, in line with the restrictions that apply in Antarctic waters. The measures are based on precautionary scientific advice and take into account the UK’s rights and responsibilities under the convention for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, known as CCAMLR. Taken together, the measures will help to ensure that the UK’s stewardship of the islands remains exemplary.
We welcome the engagement that we have had over the past year with many who have an interest in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, in particular those environmental organisations, including WWF—the World Wide Fund for Nature—and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which have supported scientific work in the territory. We do, however, recognise that some may continue to press us to go further.
As I explained to the House in a similar debate at about this time last year, although on the face of it a simple proposal to close much of that area to all commercial fishing might seem to be a complete no-brainer—not least because there has been no intensive commercial fishing around the South Sandwich Islands for more than 25 years—a variety of scientific and diplomatic factors are in play, all of which need to be considered carefully. Furthermore, the recent MPA review did not reach consensus on whether a full no-take marine reserve around the South Sandwich Islands would deliver any conservation benefits.
Of course, the commissioner’s announcement today is not the end of the story. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands continue to change dramatically as a result of regional climate change. In partnership with the commissioner’s team and the Government’s Blue Belt programme, scientists will undertake further studies in the new year.
The Minister mentioned the diplomatic barriers that still exist. I wonder whether he will elaborate on that. In the light of today’s news about the protection of up to 23% of the area, it seems that the arguments against full protection—displacement activity, dealing with neighbouring states and so on—are exactly the same as those against protecting 23%. Will he elaborate on what those barriers are?
No, I think they become more complicated. I ask my hon. Friend to appreciate that we genuinely would do absolutely everything we could, but we have to look at the diplomatic consequences of sovereignty claims, or whatever one calls them, which complicate doing straightforward things unilaterally. I will say a little more about that in the context of CCAMLR in a second.
To continue what I was saying about the Blue Belt programme, that work will further inform the management of what is a unique and precious territory, as well as contributing to an international krill survey project to gather data to inform international discussions about the future distribution of the krill fishery at CCAMLR.
I am very grateful. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will push back at scientists to ensure that they embrace the latest scientific understanding of the power of krill to sequester carbon? That may require them to change their modelling. A really high biomass of krill has a fantastic ability to lock up carbon on the seabed. I hope he pushes scientific advisers to ensure that they understand and embrace that emerging scientific understanding.
I think I am known in the Foreign Office for challenging officials very robustly, and on the issue of science I undertake to do exactly that. There is no point in using old science if there is newer, better-informed science available. We really want to set the highest possible scientific standards. In return, I hope that my right hon. Friend accepts that where there is a scientific conclusion, that is what should guide us.
I would like to take this opportunity briefly to update the House on other recent progress through the wider Blue Belt programme. As many colleagues who take a close interest in the programme will be aware, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park said, the UK has to date declared marine protected areas across around 3 million sq km—more than 40%—of British waters. I am pleased to confirm that we remain on course to increase that to 4 million sq km, or around 60% of our waters, by 2020. I hope the House agrees that that will be a remarkable achievement.
As for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, designation of protected areas is not the end of the story. Our overseas territories are working closely with our two main Blue Belt delivery partners—the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation—to ensure that each marine protection regime is well designed, well managed, monitored and enforced.
Members may have seen the Blue Belt programme annual update for 2017-18, copies of which were placed in the Libraries of both Houses in July. I will highlight a couple of examples of work that demonstrate the UK’s commitment to the marine protection of our overseas territories. First, the Government’s National Maritime Information Centre provides technical support to monitor and enforce protected areas around our territories, which in turn supports the global fight against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Secondly, a number of scientific expeditions have been undertaken around the overseas territories to assess biodiversity. That is crucial to ensure that we protect the right areas and the most vulnerable species or habitats.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) asked about Ascension. A commitment was made in 2016 to designate a no-take MPA across half of Ascension’s waters, and considerable work has been undertaken in the territory to identify the best location for the MPA based on robust scientific understanding of those waters. It is for the Ascension Island Government to consider the options for an MPA based on the evidence available, and they are currently undertaking a consultation on a range of options, one of which may include designating Ascension as an entire maritime area. In respect of Tristan da Cunha, I can confirm that it is committed to designating marine measures across its maritime zone by 2020. We should all be pleased that so many parliamentary colleagues have recognised and engaged with the ambitious policy direction we have set through the Blue Belt programme.
I am trying to resist intervening too much, but before we move on from Ascension, my understanding is that the Island Council is willing to go for 100% protection but is looking for some kind of assurance from the British Government that it will not be lumbered with the costs. Has my right hon. Friend looked at that, and is he willing to give that assurance?
I cannot give my hon. Friend an absolutely clear answer, because I have not engaged with Ascension on the issue of costs nor, as a Foreign Office Minister, can I make the sort of funding promises he asked for a moment ago. However, I undertake to look into that and to consult him personally to see whether the issue of costs can be properly addressed and understood in order to introduce the maximum possible certainty to reach the objectives we all share.
The announcement today by the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is further testament to our commitment to ensuring that the UK remains a world leader on marine protection. Simply banning all fishing activity might seem a simple and obvious conservation solution, but I ask the House to appreciate that the reality is a bit more complicated. The Government will continue to work on the basis of science and evidence to deliver tangible marine protection to contribute to the health of the global ocean, while also taking into account the specific circumstances and needs of each of our overseas territories. I hope that all of us in the House from all parties can work together to do our best for the marine environment.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS reorganisation.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It is my pleasure to open this debate on our NHS as we near the end of the year marking its 70th birthday. In debating its reorganisation, we should not lose sight of what a great credit the NHS and its staff are to our country. Its foundation represents arguably the greatest achievement of this House. It is for precisely that reason that its reorganisation matters so greatly.
Let me set the context. Eight years of cuts and the biggest financial squeeze in its history have pushed the NHS to the brink. On all key performance measures, it is struggling to keep up with demand—A&E performance hit a record low this year, more than 4 million people are stuck on a waiting list, and cancer targets are repeatedly missed. In a speech last year, the chief executive of NHS England warned:
“On the current funding outlook, the NHS waiting list will rise to 5 million people by 2021. That is an extra 1 million people on the waiting list. One in 10 of us waiting for an operation. The highest number ever.”
As the NHS is pressurised to do more with less, it is imperative that Parliament properly scrutinises the ongoing process of its reorganisation. We should not allow the Government’s shambolic handling of the Brexit negotiations to distract us from reforms that are critical to the livelihoods of millions in this country.
I acknowledge that this subject is wide-ranging and complex, so I intend to focus on a few key issues: clinical commissioning groups; sustainability and transformation plans and partnerships; integrated care partnerships; health and social care integration; and healthcare infrastructure.
Let me start with the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and CCGs. Six years on from the coalition Government’s top-down reorganisation of the NHS, it is clear that that initiative has been as much of a disaster as Labour warned it would be. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) rightly described those reforms as having put in place
“a siloed, market-based approach that created statutory barriers to integration.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 176WH.]
The 2012 Act removed regional health planning by abolishing strategic health authorities and creating a complex and fragmented system of clinical commissioning groups. Strategic health authorities helped co-ordinate the provision of healthcare across an area. Subsequent NHS reorganisations have often felt like partial attempts to reverse the damage done by the 2012 Act. It is therefore unsurprising that little effort has been made to keep the public informed of those changes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He touches on the reorganisation way back in 2012. Clinical commissioning groups were created, but they are not accountable to the public—we have problems trying to find out what their budgets are and so forth. We have the same problem with NHS England, which is another very difficult organisation to deal with. As a result of all this reorganisation, we have organisations that are not really accountable to the public, and the public do not get their voices heard.
My hon. Friend touched on staff salaries. If we worked it out, we would probably find that they have had an 8% real-terms cut in wages over the past seven or eight years, on top of which they have to pay car parking charges for the privilege of serving the public. Does he agree that that cannot be right?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I totally agree with him, and I will come to that point later.
The Health Secretary has not even put out a press release about his most recent set of NHS reforms. I wonder when that will happen. Despite not being locally accountable, CCGs hold more public money than local authorities. That lack of accountability is particularly concerning given the large sums CCGs handle and the potential for vested interests to benefit in ways that do not best serve local populations. For example, although GPs acting as both commissioners and providers of care are allowed to sit on local NHS boards, elected and accountable local officials are not. It is alarming that current arrangements allow for such potentially significant conflicts of interest while resisting local democratic oversight.
I turn to sustainability and transformation partnerships. Since the 2012 Act, we have seen the launch of 44 STPs, covering all aspects of NHS spending in England. That process has been characterised by Government secrecy, with little or no engagement with staff, patients, unions or the public before the publication of plans. Despite being asked by the Government to deliver changes to local health services, STPs were given no statutory status, and their meetings are held in private. In the majority of cases, councils have not been included at all, and a number have passed motions or issued statements condemning the process. Under this Government, changes have been initiated with no proper consultation or engagement locally with the public, patients or staff. Without accountability to local democracy, we cannot ensure that health and care systems are relevant to the people and places they are intended to serve.
STPs’ lack of accountability is even more significant given their role in administering spending reductions. Analysis by the Nuffield Trust found that some STPs are targeting up to 30% reductions in areas of hospital activity, including out-patient care, A&E attendances and emergency in-patient care, over the next four years. Those reductions are being planned in the face of steady growth in all areas of hospital activity. Too often, such initiatives encourage short-term savings, to the long-term detriment and overall cost of the NHS.
We should not forget that hard-working frontline staff bear the brunt of these pressures. It is sadly unsurprising that hospitals report growing shortages of doctors, nurses, midwives and therapists, while these bureaucratic bodies flourish.
My hon. Friend is quite right. One of the things that would help, particularly among women, is reintroducing the education maintenance allowance so we can bring forward student nurses and so forth. I will give a very quick example—I know you have been a bit lenient, Mr Gapes. In Coventry, a certain facility is starting to be moved to Birmingham. That is 16 miles away, so people are going to have to travel quite a distance. We still have difficulties getting through to NHS England, which arbitrarily comes along and says, “This is going to happen.” It looks as though it might happen unless we can find some alternative. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is no way to run a national health service?
Order. I remind hon. Members that they should not make lengthy speeches in interventions. I would be grateful if all Members bear that in mind in future. I will not be very kind if I get the sense that we are getting three or four speeches from one Member.
Thank you, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree with him to some extent, but I think his microphone was not working, and it was very difficult to hear what he was saying. That needs to be looked at.
The Warrington and Cheshire STP is completely unworkable. It has the second largest footprint of the 44 STPs, covering 2.5 million people, 12 CCGs and 20 NHS provider organisations. There are so many bodies involved that the STP has been almost impossible to co-ordinate. It required £755 million in capital funding to be deliverable. Against a backdrop of cuts to NHS capital budgets it is unsurprising that the STP has made little progress.
Integrated care providers represent the latest iteration of the changes. Although ICPs could drastically change health and social care provision if adopted, their implementation is taking place without a vote or a debate. The details setting out what an ICP will do were published during the summer recess, with very little publicity. An ICP can be awarded a contract to deliver a general practice for up to 10 years. Significantly, these contracts can also be awarded to private companies. One of the criteria used to assess bids will be
“whether they are able to deliver value for money,”
moving away from an emphasis on quality and choice. Does the Minister believe that these changes should be made without parliamentary consent?
Mr Gapes, forgive me for using these confusing and seemingly never-ending abbreviations. The communication of the changes has been another major flaw in the process. Indeed, I echo the criticisms in the seventh report of the Health and Social Care Committee, published earlier this year, which noted:
“Understanding of these changes has been hampered by poor communication and a confusing acronym spaghetti of changing titles and terminology, poorly understood even by those working within the system. This has fuelled a climate of suspicion about the underlying purpose of the proposals and missed opportunities to build goodwill for the co-design of local systems that work more effectively in the best interests of those who depend on services.”
This unnecessary use of abbreviations and complex terminology has shut out the public and excluded them from the debate over the future of the NHS. The Government have a clear a responsibility to make the debate around NHS reorganisation far more accountable and accessible to the public.
Moving on to health and social care integration, there is broad consensus that if the NHS is to maintain levels of service provision while making the efficiency gains demanded of it, the integration of services across health and social care is vital. Demands on the NHS are becoming increasingly complex, and long-term integrated care has the potential to transform the lives of millions of patients, as well as improving the patient experience. It has huge potential to save money by cutting down on costly emergency hospital admissions and delayed discharges. However, a recent report on health and social care funding by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed:
“Social care is facing high growth in demand pressures, which are projected to rise by around £18 billion by 2033-34, at an annual rate of 3.9%.”
This is not something that can be done on the cheap.
For patients, the lack of integration of health and social care can be a maddening experience. I am sure many Members have heard complaints from constituents about having to constantly repeat their story to any number of different health and social care professionals. In my constituency, a community-led healthcare non-governmental organisation passed on the following patient comment, which sums up the problem well:
“When I get on a plane, there is a lounge, passport control, security, air traffic controllers—lots of separate organisations. But what I experience is a trip from A to B. In health and social care what most people experience is A to Z, B to Z etc. having to repeat their stories each time.”
This confusion is the outcome to be expected from the unnecessary complexity and fragmentation that has characterised NHS reorganisation for several years. The fear is that the next NHS reorganisation will not take into account or optimise the 80% of individuals’ wellbeing impacted by the wider determinants of health—housing, employment and connectedness to the local community.
In my constituency, Warrington Together offers a potential way forward as a locally appropriate, collaborative model of care. Its rationale is a return to the principles of the NHS when it was established in 1948: a single taxpayer-funded organisation working to a single integrated plan; promoting healthy lifestyles; utilising doctors and hospitals, as well as community care, social care and mental healthcare; and striving to keep an entire population well in the most efficient way possible, with enhanced stewardship by those who are locally democratically elected.
Warrington Together offers the opportunity to stimulate a social movement to ensure that changes to healthcare are more accountable to the local population. It has established a third sector health and social care alliance, which is an umbrella group made up of 12 local voluntary health and care providers, who can act with one voice and be contracted as a single entity. That will enable a broad range of providers to come together, offering such diverse care as housing and home repairs, mental health support, and links to local leisure and cultural opportunities. While that is not without its challenges, it represents something we should try to achieve on a national scale: involving local stakeholders to provide integrated health and social care services.
My last topic is healthcare infrastructure. NHS reorganisations need to be informed by infrastructure needs. Buildings need to be more efficient and cost-effective. It is estimated that one third of GP surgeries are conversions of former Victorian terraces, 1960s bungalows or former offices. They are often unfit for purpose and cause significant waste. Innovative and modern infrastructure helps to reduce energy and utilities costs to our NHS, while also protecting our environment. The less money we spend on the maintenance of outdated NHS infrastructure, the more money we can spend on long-term care.
I have a number of questions for the Minister to answer. How can he justify the creation of ICPs without a parliamentary vote or debate? Does he acknowledge that ICPs are moving away from an emphasis on quality and choice by allowing bids to be assessed based on whether they are able to deliver value for money? How can he explain the Government’s decision to keep accountable, elected local officials out of the NHS’s decision-making process? Without accountability to local democracy, how can he ensure that health and social care systems are relevant to the people and places they are intended to serve? Will he now acknowledge that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 has been a disaster for the NHS, creating a fragmented and overcomplicated system that fails to meet patients’ needs?
The 2012 reforms have been likened by one commentator to
“a football team reorganised in such a way that the defenders, midfielders and forwards have to contract formally with one another for a certain number of tackles, saves, passes and goals, according to a general plan laid out by the manager, even though all the money comes from the same source: the club, and ultimately the fans. To make things more complicated, on match days, fans are encouraged to swap their tickets for another game, at another stadium, with other teams.”
Is that not an effective summary of these reforms? Finally, does the Minister agree that the unnecessary use of abbreviations and complex terminology has functioned to shut out the public and exclude them from the debate over the future of the NHS?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes; I love saying that, particularly to our current Chair. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) for securing this important debate.
I am here today to put on record the wild west of the NHS in south-west London, which will be well known to the Minister. It is a branch of the NHS that has spent the past two decades desperately trying to close the A&E and maternity unit at St Helier hospital on the border of my constituency and move those services to leafy, wealthy Belmont in Sutton. I will describe the geography for any hon. Members unfamiliar with my constituency. St Helier hospital is based in the deprived area of Rose Hill. Further south is the Royal Marsden in the wealthy area of Belmont, and seven miles west is Epsom hospital. The local CCGs are proposing to move all their acute services to just one of those sites.
This is about accountability. Over the past 20 years a staggering £50 million has been wasted on almost identical consultations to reach the obvious conclusion: acute health services must be placed in the area where people are most deprived and most in need, and have the greatest health issues. They must be placed at St Helier hospital’s current site. It does not matter how many brands or names the local NHS gives these proposals or how many marketing consultants are hired. Moving these health services would be catastrophic for my constituents, and catastrophic for south-west London.
What my local NHS fails to consider is this: if St Helier hospital loses acute services, my constituents will not turn to Belmont. The Minister will know Lavender, Cricket Green, Figges Marsh and Mitcham town centre. They will turn north to St George’s or east to Croydon, both hospitals that are already under extraordinary pressure. I told the Prime Minister only today of the case of my constituent who had to queue outside St George’s hospital last Monday because the A&E was simply full. Two weeks ago, St George’s was on black alert. It had no beds. The managers had to cancel all meetings and walk around wards, attempting to get people discharged. Those pressures exist even before the winter bad weather starts and before the flu epidemic that we are anticipating.
I could not possibly have emphasised any more strongly to my local NHS that its statistics and suggestions that people will move from London and parts of my constituency to Belmont are simply not going to happen. In all the years I have been fighting this, nobody in the NHS has ever said anything publicly to support my view, until the week before last. I could not believe it when the chair of St George’s NHS trust wrote a letter that argued:
“There is no formal requirement to take account of the impact”
of its proposals on other providers.
Let me make this clear. Moving acute hospital services from St Helier to Sutton could bring St George’s hospital to the point of collapse, yet those consulting on these proposals were not even taking the inevitable impact on other hospitals into account. Is there a code of guidance on consultation in the NHS? It does not seem that people in south-west London have read it. Take last year, when the same consultation was run, this time by the hospital trust itself, and was called “public engagement”. To the public, the trust portrays a neutral stance and says a suitable site will be selected across south-west London for its services. To the stakeholders in Sutton, it confesses its desire to move the services to their wealthy area. To me, it pretends that the consultation will genuinely seek the views of the public, before it happens to ignore the fact that the consultation receives six times as many negative responses as positive ones.
I was not surprised, given that—this is hard to believe—Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust delivered the consultation document to most parts of Sutton and most parts of Epsom, but not a single street in my constituency; and that is called a consultation. I ask the Minister whether he thinks it is appropriate for an NHS body to run a consultation or an engagement and simply exclude part of the catchment area. Better to deliver no leaflets at all than not to include everybody.
Fast-forward to the latest attempt, where flawed consultation documents are created so that boxes can be ticked and the process can move along more and more quickly. The latest versions argue that Belmont is the deprived area locally, but, staggeringly, the same documents suggest that Pollards Hill is outside the catchment area for the Epsom and St Helier trust—something that will come as news to Wide Way, the largest GP surgery in Pollards Hill, which sends 35% of its patients to St Helier hospital. The trust claims to be neutral about sites, but when I secured £267 million from the Department of Health and the Treasury under both the Labour Government and the coalition Government to rebuild St Helier, guess what happened? The local NHS sent the money back; it did not want to use it.
It seems that every step forward comes up with a new consultation involving closed meetings that unswervingly fails to take account of health inequalities, which I understand is a legal requirement for the NHS. The trust ignores access to the site, public transport and percentage of car ownership, and we make no progress. For me, the last 20 years as the MP for Mitcham and Morden has been like being in the film “Groundhog Day”. Every month there is something, and we can absolutely rely on the fact that every July some bit of the south-west London NHS will want to come up with a consultation to move acute services from St Helier hospital. I simply want to put a stop to it. I want the staff at St Helier to know they have a future, and I want my constituents not to be worried about how they will access an A&E.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) for bringing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). The Minister will not be able to answer all my questions because, as everyone knows, health is devolved to Northern Ireland. However, I will illustrate the issues with NHS reorganisation with some stories from the Province. The Minister has a close parliamentary aide from Northern Ireland, so he knows a wee bit about Northern Ireland.
I thank the House of Commons Library for the help it always gives us. Sometimes its information is enormously helpful, and today is one of those days. I have listened with great interest to the contributions so far; it is clear that, no matter the make-up of the constituency—whether Strangford in Northern Ireland, Mitcham and Morden, Warrington South or constituencies in Glasgow, Cardiff or wherever—there are issues. The NHS is struggling UK-wide, and either the pressure goes or its ability to treat will go. We are caught betwixt those two.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to spending £20 billion extra on the NHS, which is a credit to them. My constituency is on the seaside, and lots of people head that way to retire; I suspect things are the same in many constituencies. Our elderly population is growing, and the future demand on healthcare will be enormous. That is why the £20 billion that the Government have set aside is so helpful—because it gives a golden opportunity to plan ahead. The hon. Member for Warrington South was clear about where that should go.
The Library briefing—I am sure that the Minister has had chance to read it; I know that other Members have—contains six simple lessons from the Nuffield Trust, which are very helpful.
“Lesson 1: Avoid the temptations of a grand plan”.
This refers to the complex and heterogeneous nature of healthcare. We all know that it is complex; that is the very nature of healthcare. There are no one-size-fits-all policies that can address the issues. There has to be more than that.
“Lesson 2: Listen to the public—and don’t pretend you will if you won’t”.
As elected representatives, we know how these things work. When constituents come to us and tell us a problem, we listen intently and respond accordingly. This debate will hopefully be an occasion when we can do just that.
“Lesson 3: Don’t treat the workforce as an afterthought”.
It is very important that the workforce are part of a focused reorganisation plan. With the input of the workforce, there is a way forward.
“Lesson 4: Make sure the funding follows the plan”.
If funding commitments are made, they should be in there.
“Lesson 5: Don’t overrate structural reorganisation”.
In other words, it will not be sufficient to add more to the system that is operating on its own without building that structure up.
“Lesson 6: You need a plan your staff can follow”.
Create a policy and strategy that staff can get behind and support. The best way of doing that is to make sure that staff are involved in the creation of the plan, with staff values reflected in targets. All those things are vastly important, and I know that the Minister, who is a compassionate man and understands the issues well, will be able to respond even to the very generic terms that I put that in.
For Hansard and for the record, I will highlight an issue that I know is important across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: GP out-of-hours services. I emphasise the importance of that service, but we have particular problems with it in my constituency of Strangford. Part of any strategy or plan for NHS reorganisation should look at that.
My local health board is the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust—clearly, not the responsibility of the Minister—which covers my entire constituency. On selected days just last month, the GP out-of-hours service in the main town in my constituency, Newtownards, had to close because it was understaffed, and there are particular reasons for that. People could either follow the advice and go to the nearest South Eastern Trust facility in Downpatrick, some 40 minutes away from Ards—for those who dare to live in Portavogie in the Ards peninsula, not that far from me, it is an hour and 20 minutes—or they could go to the A&E department, which was standing room only. The choice puts massive undue burden on an already drowning service.
I suggest to the Minister—as I have suggested at home; I think it would be helpful—that, whenever GPs commit themselves to operating an out-of-hours service, there may need to be another method of addressing the issues of those who use the service. For instance, why not have a staff nurse to treat minor ailments, taking pressure off the GPs? There are ways of doing things. There does not always have to be a GP there. GPs are predominantly overburdened; they certainly are in my constituency, and I suspect they are everywhere else as well.
I will give the example of my parliamentary aide from just last week, which I believe, unfortunately, is the tip of the iceberg. Her daughter, who has just turned three, is treated in an asthma clinic. She had an extremely high temperature that would not come down to the normal range and which had been going on for nearly two weeks. Her little body fought so hard to control the infection that it was going through that her breathing rate was double what it should have been. The out-of-hours service was rung, and four hours later the call was returned—a long time when the mother and family are getting panicky. The child was lifted out of sleep and brought to a waiting room full of other children who were equally unwell.
Had the service not been able to sound out her lungs, she would have had to travel to the Ulster Hospital, which she ultimately had to do the following week, as her ear infection burst an ear drum. Unfortunately, she is one of many. My aide met doctors who were harassed—not because they were nasty people, but because of their workload—but doing the best they could. When she asked whether there is insufficient funding to pay for out-of-hours care she was told that there is insufficient desire. How do we inspire doctors to be part of the out-of-hours service, which can only function with GPs who want to be part of it?
The new remuneration system came into operation in Northern Ireland in 2003. Although the system was designed to give GP practices much more flexibility on how they deliver services, allowing them to choose how to organise patient care and rewarding them for the quality of that care, the introduction of the new general medical services contract also allowed GPs to opt out of providing out-of-hours services, leaving the system essentially on its knees.
The fact is that the A&E in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald simply cannot cope without the service. The fact is that nursing homes that rely on GPs coming out to drivers into patients who are in agony and pain, or to call time of death, need the service, as do parents who need someone to sound out the chest of their asthmatic child without being subjected to a four-hour wait in a room with ill, injured and drunk people in the middle of a cold winter’s night.
The service is vital. I read a report in July this year that referred to Wales as having similar circumstances and similar difficulties with their GP service. I am interested to know whether the shadow Minister or the Minister are aware of similar circumstances across the UK mainland. I suspect any MP in touch with their constituents, as we all are, will be able to replicate the stories that I am telling.
I very much respect GPs and the hard work that they do and their right to a social life. No longer do we expect the village doctor to be on call every day and night, but we need them to be available. There are no longer enforceable contracts, and I believe that, in any new NHS reorganisation or strategy, we must find another way of operating the out-of-hours service that gives the care that our constituents want at the times that they need it, which is usually out-of-hours or whenever they are under pressure.
I spoke very recently to a recently retired GP. He had been doing the night shift four nights a week, but realised that that was too much and pulled out. Perhaps if he had been asked to do only one or two nights, he would have stayed. Too much has been asked of too few people. We need to ensure that funding and people are available.
I know he will be mortified, but I am going to name one local GP, because he is a very popular and well liked GP in my constituency. Dr Doyle has his own practice and can be found a lot more than is right, and than is probably his duty, in the out-of-hours surgery. He makes time to help his patients by writing support letters for personal independence payment and employment and support allowance applications and he genuinely cares. I am not saying that others do not care; I am picking out this man as a representative of what happens. I look at Dr Doyle and wonder how much longer he and others like him can possibly continue. We need to spread the burden through the area.
I would urge the Health and Social Care Committee here to look at what is happening with the out-of-hours service, see the good that it does and perhaps look at a different way in which the out-of-hours provision could work. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, on which I serve as one of the members from my party, is doing inquiries into many things, and one of them is health. People from Northern Ireland with a knowledge of and interest in health are coming here to make presentations to the Committee. And one thing that crops up is the out-of-hours service.
The question is how we adjust to the demands on the health service for the future. I started my comments by saying how much I genuinely welcome the £20 billion that the Government have set aside. We will get some of that through the Barnett consequential, so we are very pleased, but I see the needs in my constituency among the elderly population. I am also very keen that there should be early diagnosis and that preventive steps should be taken in delivering a health service for the future. If we do that, we will be doing the right thing. We must not just react all the time. Let us have a strategy that looks forward and aims to prevent things happening.
I am a type 2 diabetic, and many in the House are, as it turns out. Our Prime Minister is a type 1 diabetic. We all live with our particular ailments. But how much better would it have been if I had known about my condition earlier. I suspect that I was a diabetic for perhaps a year before I was diagnosed as one. I did not know at the time what the issue was. It was only when I went for a check-up with a doctor that I suddenly realised when he told me what was wrong. That makes me wonder whether there are steps that we can take for education, awareness and prevention. That is what we should be doing.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will come to a conclusion in our inquiry on the health service in Northern Ireland, but I will conclude my speech today with this point for the Minister. The problems that I have referred to are specific in some cases to Northern Ireland and to my constituency in particular, but I believe that problems exist UK-wide and therefore that the response must be UK-wide as well.
Thank you, Mr Gapes. I am sure hon. Members will be keen to return for the remainder of my speech, however long that turns out to be. It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) on securing this extremely important debate. It is also very timely as we eagerly await the NHS long-term plan. He made a powerful case about the weaknesses in the Government’s approach and the disgraceful lack of parliamentary oversight of very significant changes to local and national services. I agree that the creation of the NHS was one of the great achievements of this House and this country.
My hon. Friend was right in his analysis of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. He highlighted his concern about accountability in CCGs and the potential for conflicts of interest in them. He also highlighted the lack of transparency that has characterised the STP process since its inception, and he summed up the benefits, from the patient’s perspective, of good integration —of course, no one wants to have to repeat their story on multiple occasions.
My hon. Friend talked about the challenges that the NHS faces with its infrastructure. He will know that those challenges have been exacerbated by the continual capital raids on budgets. His analogy about a football team was amusing—sadly, my own team appears to be taking things rather too seriously at the moment—but it did sum up a lot of the confusion and the illogical approach that we have to healthcare in this country. He was of course right to say that the hard-working staff of the NHS bear the brunt of these many pressures. He also made the point that many of the changes that we have been talking about have not been made in the most open way.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). She followed up her question to the Prime Minister with a much more detailed, and devastating, critique of the proposals that affect her constituency. I was staggered to hear that £50 million has been spent on consultation so far. It was also disturbing to hear how bad things are at her accident and emergency department now, before we enter the real depths of winter. I was staggered to hear about the approach to consultation there. I am sure the Minister will want to address that. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before we were interrupted by important business in the Chamber, I was referring to contributions from other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave his perspective from Northern Ireland, and set out clearly what a proper consultation should look like—a standard that, as we have heard, is not really being reached by the NHS at the moment. He also raised issues with the GP out-of-hours service. That is slightly beyond the scope of the debate, but he is right to say that the issue covers the whole United Kingdom. Indeed, recently there have been numerous newspaper reports about people having to wait for many weeks to get a GP appointment.
Looking at current NHS performance, it is clear that, on all key performance measures, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South said, the NHS is struggling to keep up with demand. A&E performance is at a record low this year. More than 4 million people are stuck on waiting lists, and cancer targets are being repeatedly missed. This has led to the Government effectively giving up on trying to meet the NHS’s constitutional targets. As my hon. Friend said earlier, waiting lists for operations are likely to hit 5 million people within the next three years. While the eight years of a financial plan that has failed to keep up with demand have clearly been a driver of that failure, it is also clear that the 2012 top-down reorganisation has exacerbated the issues that the NHS faces.
We have been left with a fragmented, marketised system, which prevents the kind of transformation and integration of services that we would all like to see. At a time when everyone is calling for various parts of the health and social care sector to work together, we remain bound by legislation. As my hon. Friend said, it is this legislation that enforces a siloed, market-based approach, which imposes statutory barriers to integration.
Against this backdrop we have seen a whole series of acronyms encapsulating a range of reorganisations to health services, including STPs, ACOs, ACSs, ICPs, ICSs and so on—all part of what the Health and Social Care Committee has described as a culture of
“changing titles and terminology, poorly understood even by those working within the system.”
It is all clearly an attempt by NHS leadership to reverse the impact of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 by any means that do not require primary legislation or parliamentary oversight. These reforms could have wide-ranging impacts, from causing walk-in centres, cottage hospitals, maternity centres and A&Es to relocate or close altogether, to introducing a new form of 10-year contract, which raises the spectre of private companies once again running our local health services.
I know the Government are not particularly fond at the moment of testing the will of the House, but something as fundamental as transforming our most treasured asset clearly should not be taking place without parliamentary consent. Ministers and NHS leaders are tiptoeing around the 2012 Act, but if we are to have meaningful proposals and an effective integration process, we need an admission that that legislation has had its day. To all intents and purposes, the 2012 Act is no more; it has expired and gone to meet its maker. Yet the Government refuse to acknowledge that central fact.
The initial STP process was imposed from the top and was based around 44 geographical areas that were determined very quickly without recourse to the public. Although some of the areas that emerged after that initial consideration had well-established networks of co-operation, in others a vast and unwieldy network of commissioners and providers with completely different approaches was put together at very short notice. The only beneficiaries of that process seem to be the private consultants who were drafted in to complete these hastily arranged plans. Professor Chris Ham has pointed out that
“most STPs got to the finishing line of October 2016, submitted their plans and breathed a huge sigh of relief. No further work has been done on those STPs.”
Despite the fact that plans were designed to cover the period from October 2016 to March 2021, NHS England and NHS Improvement said in a letter to local leaders last month that sustainability and transformation partnerships and integrated care systems will be expected to develop and agree their plans during the first half of 2019-20. Will the Minister update us as to how many of the 44 STPs developed as part of this process have, as NHS Providers puts it, had no further work done? What was the cost of developing those plans? Can the Minister justify forcing the entire health and social care sector to stop what it was doing and embark again on a hasty and expensive process to come up with new five-year plans, only to be asked to do the same again a few years later? In the few local areas that have proceeded to the next stages of integration, there is understandable concern among patients and staff about precisely what that will mean.
The accountable care organisation—now rebranded as integrated care provider—process has the potential to radically alter the entire health and social care landscape, but, again, it is continuing without any parliamentary legislation. One of the primary concerns about that new model is that it would be compulsory to advertise the contracts to the market, and commissioners are forbidden from discriminating between NHS and non-NHS bidders. Bids can be made by a group of organisations, so an NHS trust or a group of GPs could partner with a private company. Previous high-profile attempts to do this kind of thing in Staffordshire and Cambridge collapsed spectacularly with millions of pounds wasted. As my hon. Friend said, it is also deeply worrying that one of the criteria used to assess bids will be whether they are able to deliver value for money. That marks a significant change to the status quo, and one that I do not believe should be countenanced without new legislation.
I have heard Ministers speak on several occasions to assure those of us who have concerns that this will not see mass privatisation. However, during the debate on integration in September, the previous Health Minister, now the latest Brexit Secretary, was asked four times by Conservative, Scottish National party and Labour Members to expressly rule out new organisations being run by the private sector. He failed to do so on every occasion he was asked. Is the Minister now prepared to give that kind of assurance, and if not, why not?
It is also less clear what will happen in the event that an ICP ends up in deficit, particularly if a private sector organisation or a charity has won the contract. While the consultation document sets out that efforts will be made to ensure that ICPs are financially viable, the same assurances have been offered about the existing configurations, and almost half of all NHS providers were in deficit last year. That has led us to the disastrous situation where, according to the 2017-18 accounts published by NHS Improvement, NHS providers owed the Department of Health and Social Care more than £11 billion, up from £8.1 billion in the previous year. That sharp increase was a result of bail-outs given to trusts that ran into deficit as a result of underfunding. Borrowing from the Secretary of State now exceeds private finance initiative liabilities. In 2016-17, £1.3 billion was repaid from trusts to the Department, of which £161 million was interest. Can the Minister set out what will happen if an ICP reaches financial deficit or collapses?
One thing that is clear from the draft ICP contract is that if the annual budgets provided are not sufficient to deliver the current levels of service, the ICP will be responsible for “managing changes in demand.” While there are merits in a system that incentivises keeping people well, there is a clear danger that demand will be managed by rationing access to treatment. Will the Minister rule out unilateral rationing of services by ICPs if they cannot keep to their budgets? What safeguards are in place to prevent further rationing of services, and who will be accountable in the event that patients want to challenge such a situation? It is far from clear who will ultimately make these decisions and who will be accountable for them. Where the split between the legal commissioner and provider is technically maintained, it is impossible to see in practice how an ICP would not be taking on core commissioning functions.
All this raises the spectre of a new postcode lottery, where patient experiences are uneven depending on who was contracted by an unaccountable panel of commissioners. The whole approach is farcical, and none of this has come before the House for what could be described as a meaningful vote. Experts from across the health and social care sector, and even the chief executive of NHS England, have all acknowledged not only the desirability, but the inevitability of new legislation. Will the Minister commit as part of the NHS long-term plan to set out in full the direction of travel for NHS reorganisation, the Government’s objectives, the criteria that will be used to determine when those objectives have been achieved, and a timeline for the necessary primary legislation?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid). I am pleased that he secured this debate, and I agree with him that the NHS is a great credit to our country. I know that the Opposition spokesman will have heard me say yesterday—I will repeat it—that the Government and I, as Minister for Health, greatly value the staff who work in the NHS. It is our absolute intention to ensure that they recognise that and that we continue to show that.
I want to start with a few facts, because having listened to what the hon. Member for Warrington South described, I think there are other things that are worth pointing out. There are 11,000 more nurses in the NHS than there were in 2010. There are 18,200 more doctors than in 2010. Almost nine out of 10 patients are seen within four hours in an emergency department. We are committed to 5,000 training places for doctors in general practice—this year saw 10% more than we aimed to achieve. Of course, this is the highest level of funding that the NHS has had in its 70 years. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other issues, as did the Opposition spokesman, and I will try to respond to those in my speech.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a contribution. I have immense respect for her. Anyone who knows her knows that she always argues her case passionately and stands up for her constituents, and she did that again today. She and I have occasionally shared joint endeavours on St Helier Hospital. I think we both agree that there is a substantial case for keeping the acute services there. I think we would both agree—I say this in a constituency capacity—that the infrastructure needs upgrading, and I think we have had that discussion. She rightly points that we have had another consultation this year. As a Minister, I say that we expect any significant service changes to be subject to exactly the full public consultation she has described, if it is going to happen, and that the proposals must meet the Government’s four reconfiguration tests, which are support from GP commissioners; strengthened engagement with the public; clarity on the clinical evidence; and clarity and consistency with patients’ choice. She says that there have been rounds of consultations, as I certainly saw when I was on the council—I think she was already a Member of Parliament then—under Governments of all colours over the past 20 years.
It is the same with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I have had the pleasure of taking interventions from him in several debates. He is always a powerful advocate for his constituents. I listened carefully to his point about out-of-hours care, which may have been slightly out of the scope of the debate. Yesterday, I had the chance to visit the North Middlesex University Hospital. Some of its work on the integration of out-of-hours care and triaging in A&E moves along the lines that he discussed. I have seen that several times.
To address the crux of the debate, between 2016 and 2036, the UK population is expected to increase from 65.6 million to 71.8 million, which is a growth rate of about 10% in 20 years. In the same period, the number of people aged 75 and over is expected to grow by 64% from 5.3 million to 9 million. Those figures are clearly something to celebrate, showing that the NHS is doing exactly what we want it to, but they mean that more will need to be done to make sure that those years are quality years.
For the NHS to continue to deliver high-quality care in the next 20 years, as it has done for the last 70 years, we need to look at new models of care that promote more joined-up care across the NHS and social care. In the past few years, the Government have supported a number of pilots at local and national levels to test new models of care that bring together the NHS, local authorities and wider public services to develop new ways of ensuring that services are delivered in a more joined-up way. Those areas have seen some improvements in access to services, patient experience and moderating demand for acute services.
It is time for the NHS to move beyond those pilots and embrace wholesale transformational changes across the whole system in every part of the country. It is therefore developing a 10-year plan for its future, which is underpinned by a five-year funding offer. To support the NHS in delivering for patients across the country, the Government announced a new five-year budget settlement for the NHS, in which funding will grow on average by 3.4% each year to 2023-24. The hon. Member for Strangford, who has just left the Chamber, welcomed the fact that that means the NHS budget will increase by more than £20 billion compared with today, underpinning the 10-year plan to guarantee the future of the NHS.
The hon. Member for Warrington South remarked on sustainability and transformation partnerships, and commented on his own local STP. The Government are fully committed to NHS England’s vision of STPs transforming how care is delivered and putting the system on a sustainable footing for the future. We will back STPs where they are clinically led and locally supported.
The hon. Gentleman questioned some aspects of local democracy. Each partnership has to set out agreed priorities and say how they are going to be delivered, and have a strategic priority to work with partners in local authorities. The Cheshire and Merseyside STP is making some progress in building those relationships, but he is right to acknowledge—I acknowledge it as well—that it is an extremely large and diverse area.
Clearly, the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) will recognise that there are now nine local footprints, including Warrington Together. The idea is that they will develop some of the integration suggestions and plans, and the consultation with local authorities to which the hon. Member for Warrington South referred. The STP brings local areas together to tackle the challenges, and I think he would acknowledge that it makes sense to do that across a bigger area, so the smaller areas build into the larger area.
Last week, the Government announced that they were supporting the Cheshire and Merseyside STP with £11 million in capital spending for improving emergency department capacity at the St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals and for a 12-bed, tier-4 child and adolescent mental health services unit at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston challenged me on STPs, so I will say that, in their more mature form, they are integrated care systems that promote collaboration between NHS bodies, local government and local communities. The 10-year plan will set out how they will spread the integrated care models that have been developed and tested through the whole vanguard programme.
There was also a challenge about what were formerly known as accountable care organisations and are now called integrated care providers, with several questions about that. At a small number of sites, commissioners are looking at how contractual models can support more integrated care. To support that, NHS England has developed the draft integrated care provider contract which, if introduced, will give the NHS the option of having a single lead provider that is responsible for primary, community and hospital services, with the aim of integrating services across traditional silos.
If NHS England chooses to introduce a contract for the ICPs, Parliament will have a chance to debate the regulations. I recognise that the regulations are subject to the negative procedure, so there is not an automatic debate, but as the hon. Member for Warrington South will have spotted, in those circumstances, if Parliament decides, there will be an opportunity to have that debate. NHS England has recently concluded the public consultation on the draft ICP contract and we expect a response in due course.
I want to touch on the premise that the ICP contract is privatisation. It is completely misleading to suggest that an integrated provider model is a step towards privatising the health service. The NHS will always offer free healthcare at the point of use—that is not just the Government’s view. I am sure that the Library briefing that the hon. Member for Strangford challenged me to read notes the evidence from the Health and Social Care Committee, whose Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), said that the evidence received by the inquiry into integrated care—the report was published in July 2018—was that ICPs
“and other efforts to integrate health…and social care, will not extend the scope of NHS privatisation and may effectively do the opposite.”
That is quite powerful and I hope that the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston and for Warrington South take note.
I am not ruling out private providers from bidding, but it has been made clear, and I say again, that we expect any ICP contract to be won by NHS bodies. As I said, the evidence to the Select Committee inquiry tends to support that that is our view and that is what is likely to happen.
The Government have made it clear that the change is not about reorganising the NHS from the centre or adding more layers to an already complex system. As the Prime Minister reiterated in her speech in June, the Government should learn the lessons of the past and not try to impose change on the NHS. To achieve that, we firmly believe that any changes to the model of care for patients need to be locally led, informed by knowledge of the population and the population need, and supported by clinicians on ground.
That is why we have asked local leaders in STPs and integrated care systems to create five-year plans detailing how they will improve local services for patients and achieve financial sustainability. Of course, this is something that we may want, but it cannot just be wished into being, which is why the Government are supporting the NHS with £20 billion of additional funding.
Local plans will build on the work of the last three years to develop new ways of delivering services and enhance collective efforts to use that additional funding to improve people’s health and wellbeing. It is essential that that process proceeds in a spirit of genuine partnership and that all local partners, including local government, are fully involved from the outset.
For any significant system reconfiguration, we expect all parts of the system to be talking to the public regularly; it is vital that the public shape the future of their local services. That relates directly to the point that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden made earlier. To make it absolutely clear, no changes will take place without public consultation and engagement.
After all, the aim of integrating services is not an end in itself; it is to improve the patient experience and quality of care, so it is essential that the views of the public should be at the heart of local plans. Integrated care means a health and care system built around people’s needs, whereby physical, mental and social care needs can be addressed together, and patients should feel as if their care is being provided by one organisation.
Integration also gives us the means to avert ill health, preventing unnecessary hospital visits and supporting patients to have happier, healthier lives into old age, and taking the pressure off NHS staff. For example, in Thanet, the Margate Task Force is an integrated service that brings staff from 16 different agencies together in a single “street-level” team.
In conclusion, integrated care provides the best opportunity to ensure that the NHS continues to deliver the highest level of quality services to people and to meet the demands of the 21st century. The Government have supported the NHS to implement the five-year forward view and to develop new integrated ways of working to meet those demands. It is now time to drive those initiatives and spread them across the whole country. That is why we are committed to those plans and it is why we have committed to increase the NHS budget, to support the national move towards integrating care.
First, I thank all the Members who took part in this very important debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders); and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I also thank the Minister for giving some reassurances and the answers to some of my questions.
I will make a couple of points. I have heard time after time that there are more doctors and 11,000 more nurses than there were in 2010. Clearly, the demand has been even greater, which is why there are still shortages. We really need to invest in more doctors and more nurses, to cope with the demand for them, which is quite significantly higher than the numbers from 2010 to 2018 that the Minister cited. The numbers do not really make sense. The Minister also mentioned value for money. He said that there was no privatisation as such, but he is not ruling it out. At the same time, if value for money is the criterion, one will definitely think that privatisation will happen.
In conclusion, the NHS is a very precious institution for all of us; the Minister agreed with me about that. I urge him to look very carefully at reorganisation and to get everybody involved. Let us work together to make it happen for the people of this country in the long term.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered NHS reorganisation.
[Mr Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 100th anniversary of the HMY Iolaire disaster.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I am grateful to the House authorities for this opportunity to speak about the Iolaire and to pay our respects to the many men who lost their lives while they were returning to their home island of Lewis and Harris on Hogmanay 1918. Tragically, in the early hours of 1919, they lost their lives just a stone’s throw from their native island. I am also grateful to Poppyscotland for the creation of a badge that a number of us are wearing in Westminster Hall today: it has a poppy to mark the war and a bell to mark the Iolaire.
The Iolaire was the worst peacetime disaster at sea for the UK since the sinking of the Titanic and the worst peacetime loss in Scottish or British waters in all the 20th century; only the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and the Piper Alpha oilrig disaster a year later come close in scale to what happened with the Iolaire. What compounded the tragedy was that the appalling loss of life fell almost exclusively on the one small, defined population of Lewis and Harris, as John MacLeod noted in his excellent book, “When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire”, which was published in 2009.
About 284 men sailed on the Iolaire and it now seems that 201 of them were lost, following research for the excellent book by Malcolm Macdonald, “The Darkest Dawn”, which was published this year; the public inquiry of February 1919 had recorded 205 deaths. Regardless of the actual number, about 70% of the passengers and crew lost their lives that night, 20 yards from shore. Many bodies were never recovered and only 79 men survived.
Of course, what adds to the feelings of injustice, grief, annoyance and poignancy, in the mix of emotions that the Iolaire still conjures to this day, was that many of the men on board had already been through the grimmest of years in the grimmest of global conflicts. Indeed, only a year earlier one man on the Iolaire had survived the Halifax bay explosion in Nova Scotia. He came out of the war, only to lose his life at the doorstep of his own island. The 201 men who lost their lives had been fortunate to escape the horror of world war one, but tragically they lost their lives as they arrived home.
Lewis and Harris had already suffered badly in the war, losing many of its sons, fathers and husbands. Of a population of 29,000, 6,172 were in the service of the Crown: 3,500 were in the Royal Navy; and, interestingly, about 560 men from Lewis were serving the Crown in the forces of Canada.
The loyal Lewis roll of honour described the catastrophe as the crowning sorrow for Lewis from world war one. Reprinted on that roll of honour is the following:
“At 1.55am on 1st January 1919, a naval yacht carrying sailors home on leave ran aground on rocks near the village of Holm, a mere 20 yards from the shore of the Isle of Lewis and less than a mile from the safe harbour of Stornoway. HMY Iolaire was crowded with 280 men, mostly naval reservists returning to the safety and comfort of their homes after the horrors of the Great War. On this dark night of winter, a force ten gale was blowing from the south, hard onto the shore, and there was a heavy sea running. Men drowned as they jumped or slid into the sea from the pitching decks, were flung back into the angry foam from lifeboats awash and overloaded, were dashed against jagged rocks, or managed to swim and crawl ashore, only to die before they could reach shelter or aid. By the time the first New Year’s Day of peacetime dawned, 201 men had lost their lives, 181 of them on the very shores of the island they called home.
No one now alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st of January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of our bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their home under the most tragic of circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm on New Years morning has plunged every home and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable.”
I will come on to that unutterableness later. The roll continues:
“Language cannot express the desolation, the despair which this awful catastrophe has inflicted. One thinks of the wide circle of blood relations affected by the loss of even one of these gallant lads, and imagination sees these circles multiplied by the number of the dead, overlapping and overlapping each other till the whole island—every hearth and home in it—is shrouded in deepest gloom. All the island’s war losses in the past four cruel years—although these number fully four times the death roll of New Year’s Day morning—are not comparable to this unspeakable calamity. The black tragedy has not a redeeming feature.”
That was written by William Grant, the founder of the Stornoway Gazette, in January 1919, when the memory was of course very alive to the tragedy and its magnitude.
The Iolaire had come over specially from Stornoway to Kyle of Lochalsh to take men home for New Year. The admiralty had given English and Welsh servicemen a break for Christmas, and the Scots the new year, as was the developed custom and, indeed, the want at the time. The admiralty had known that there would be a bottleneck problem at Kyle to get the men across the Minch to Stornoway. The merchant seaman, Captain Colin Cameron, master of the MacBrayne mailboat, Sheila, knew that it could not accommodate all the extra naval reservists along with soldiers and passengers safely across the Minch, and he pressed, quite correctly, for a way to relieve the pressure of sheer numbers on the Sheila, and hence the Admiralty sent the Iolaire to Kyle. It was not a great start. When she arrived in Kyle at 4 pm, a miscalculation between the bridge and the engine room meant she hit the pier and sustained damage to 10 feet of her gunnel. That was a very inauspicious start.
For those who were to board that night, the journey to Kyle of Lochalsh involved crowded and slow railway journeys from Glasgow, first north to Inverness and then west through Dingwall to Kyle, with stoppages. The Glasgow to Kyle journey took about 13 and a half hours, arriving at Kyle at 6.15 pm on Hogmanay 1918. Many of those on board the Iolaire that night had travelled up from the south of England and had come through London before they went up to Glasgow and onwards with their cousins, neighbours, comrades and fellow islanders.
The second part of the train that had taken 13 and a half hours arrived at 7 o’clock, 45 minutes later, and the Iolaire set sail at 7.30 pm, with naval personnel from Lewis. Soldiers from Lewis who wanted to get on the Iolaire had been ordered off. They wanted to get on because friends, cousins and neighbours had been on it. It is worth pointing out, on the circle of overlap mentioned in the 1919 writing, that those who were the friends, cousins and neighbours could be the same person, such is the nice interlinked happenstance that islands tend to have. That is true to this day and it was certainly true in 1919.
As I have noted, at 1.55 am on New Year’s Day 1919, the Iolaire ran aground on the rocks at Holm—the Beasts of Holm. The weather had been blowing force eight to 10 on the shore, when she struck the rocks and listed to starboard at a 35° angle. Many of those on board thought she had hit a mine and about 50 to 60 jumped off or slid into the sea. From then on, she was hit by waves, strongly and regularly. Concern about the Iolaire’s course had been spotted by a nearby fishing boat that was sailing the route as well, the Spider. Given the time of year, alcohol was of course suspected, and disputed. What is not in dispute is the loss of life. There is so much to say and it is impossible to do it justice, other than to remember, be aware and think well of those people who lost their lives 100 years ago.
We are all delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate. Another thing that is not disputed is that John Macleod, who was my great-grand-uncle, swam ashore with a rope and probably managed to save 40 people’s lives. The real sadness is that so many people who got ashore never managed to get to a home, because nobody was expecting the ship to arrive. The misery for the families the next day—finding dead bodies on the beach—was just so total.
I am grateful for that intervention. I was just going to come on to John Finlay Macleod; I had not realised he was the great-grand-uncle of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I thank him for pointing that out.
Those who lost their lives might be people we may meet ourselves someday, depending on what happens after this life. Of the 79 who survived, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, 40 owe their lives to fellow crewman and passenger, experienced seaman and Royal Naval reservist, John Finlay MacLeod, from Port of Ness, who swam ashore with a rope after a couple of attempts. He was swept out at one point. Four followed behind him on the small rope he swam with, the heaving line, but they had the presence of mind to use that line to pull a six-inch hawser, and a further 35 were able to follow. The actions of the hon. Gentleman’s great-grand-uncle saved 40 of the 79 who survived. It was quite a remarkable achievement, although it is sad to note that some were swept off the rope or sucked off the rope by the swell, and lost their lives.
John Finlay MacLeod was said to be a very daring man and, for the lives he saved, many were glad he was. There were many other heroes that night, and it is impossible in the time available to do them any measure of justice. It is worth pondering the effects of the Iolaire on the island of Lewis and Harris, the third largest of the British Isles after the island of Britain and the island of Ireland. The excellent book by Malcolm Macdonald breaks it down into areas of Lewis, because it is a big island. In the parish of Barvas, Ness lost 23 men. It is striking as we look through the names that there are still people—friends of mine—who have much the same names, from those areas: John MacDonald, Murdo Campbell, John MacLeod, Angus MacDonald, Angus Morrison, Donald Morrison, Donald MacLeod, John Murray and Roderick Morrison. These names are as familiar today as they were then in that area.
The parish of Barvas—Borve to Shawbost—lost 28 men. Uig parish in the east lost nine men; in Uig parish in the west, 14 were lost. In Stornoway parish, North Tolsta, 11 men were lost; in Stornoway parish, Back to Tong, nine men were lost. In Lochs parish, North Lochs, 21 men were lost; in Lochs parish, Kinloch, four men were lost; in Lochs parish, Pairc, eight men were lost. In Stornoway parish, Point, 39 men were lost. In Stornoway borough and district, eight men were lost. On the Isle of Harris, four men were lost; and on the Isle of Scalpay, one man was lost—Finlay Morrison, Fionnlagh Dhomhnaill Fhionnlaigh. One of the things that should be noted in the excellent book is the patronymics of these people, which help people reading it today to know who their relations were. Finally, in the rest of the United Kingdom, 18 men were lost; they were the crew of the Iolaire, who perished.
It is important that we remember those who were lost. Although the numbers do not seem huge, my hon. Friend will know from living in those islands that the numbers he has read out are almost an entire generation of young men. The devastation of those left behind is hard for us to comprehend. Being from a military family myself, I know the excitement that the families would have when sailors were returning from sea. To have those hopes dashed—the families left behind must have suffered a double blow, following the horrors of the first world war.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech about the unspeakable tragedy that happened to Lewis and Harris. I say it is unspeakable, but he is speaking very powerfully about this terrible tragedy. Perhaps it is hopeful that at the centenary we are able to speak and to teach the nation about the impact it had on that island community. It is the duty of this Parliament to safeguard the special cultural and historical interest of those island communities in our country, and to make sure that they are at the heart of our nation’s interests and are protected in the future.
I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that aspect. We have to remember the culture and the background that these guys came from: they were raised in difficult circumstances, in peat-smoke-filled rooms in small, dark houses. There were no amenities such as running water and electricity. They were a generation that had worked hard, and their parents had to work hard to raise them.
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the memory of those who lost their lives in the Iolaire disaster, and to the islanders themselves, who secured a memorial at Holm in 1958, 39 years after the tragedy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would explain to those gathered here how those islands recovered from the loss of a generation of young men, who gave so much during the first world war only to lose their lives a mile from the safety of their own homes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
To resume where we left off, I was asked a question by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) about how people recovered. From the Iolaire, 67 women were left widowed and 209 children had lost fathers. A women I met in her mid-90s who was known as Mòr Bhrù—her name was Marion MacLeod, née Smith—was asked by the author John MacLeod what her mother had said of that night years after it had happened. He wrote:
“‘We never spoke of it,’ says Mòr calmly. ‘I never once asked her.’”
That indicates the silence of which the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) spoke. The tragedy of the Iolaire in many ways is the pain and the silence, and people not wanting to relive that awful moment.
In finishing, I want to highlight a couple of things. This Friday, I will be in Stornoway in the Nicolson Institute for a dìleab event. It is a memory in song and poetry to the loss of the Iolaire and the men who were on it. It is worth highlighting that in Sheshader and Point, a former principal teacher of English—he was in the Nicolson Institute when I was there; he was also a principal teacher of rugby, incidentally—and local resident Mike Shailes are making a point of marking the Iolaire by going round and putting stones and marks in the 10 houses. There were 10 men from Sheshader on the Iolaire and all 10 drowned that day. The village had already lost 10 in world war one. There were 300 people living in Sheshader and Point. There are now 120. Incidentally, six were lost in world war two. The two people I mentioned have gone around and marked the ruins and houses where people lived. That is a commendable effort of memory.
Finally, I asked in my office yesterday whether anyone had a relative involved in the Iolaire. One of my staff, Cathy Macinnes, said that her uncle Malcolm MacLeod—Calum Mhurachaidh Phadraig Choinnich—was 18 when he was lost. Thinking back, I knew Cathy’s father quite well. He was active in the Scottish National party when I was not and was working for the BBC. It is notable that because of Malcolm’s young age, his family, like those of every other young servicemen who died, did not receive any war gratuity or compensation from the Ministry of Defence at the time. Times were hard and people were lost, but sometimes things were compounded further.
We do remember them. We think of them, and we think of the long shadow they have cast over Lewis in particular and Harris. All of us who have come into contact with or lived in Lewis have known about the Iolaire and what it caused. We cannot do it justice here, but we can remember them and think well of their lives and of them.
It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—I hope I pronounced that right. It is a poignant reminder, given what else is happening around the Palace today, of the extraordinary events that took place 100 years ago and how we should reflect on them.
In the past month or so, I think we all paused to pay gratitude to what a nation did 100 years ago. An entire nation stepped forward to defend our values and our way of life beyond our shores. It began and confirmed a trend for our nation to step forward in defence of the international standard of liberty and to make our mark and help influence the world around us as a force for good. In reflecting on what happened 100 years ago, we can get lost in the sheer scale of the event. The third battle of Ypres took place on what is now the location of Tyne Cot cemetery. In a period of just 100 days, there were 500,000 casualties—so many individuals, each of them with a name and a family. Many of them did not return.
What happened 100 years ago on the other side of new year and its impact— particularly as it took place after the war itself—are so tragic. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the matter so that we can reflect on the bravery of those returning home from service in the armed forces.
As the hon. Gentleman has touched on, His Majesty’s Yacht the Iolaire was so close to getting home those who had served. I will go through, as he has, some of the tragic events that took place on 1 January 1919. Just seven weeks after the end of the first world war, hundreds of servicemen from the highlands and islands of Scotland arrived on trains at the Kyle of Lochalsh. They were going home for the first new year of peace. HMY Iolaire set off expecting to arrive. In the early hours of new year’s day, as she approached Stornoway harbour, she foundered on the infamous rocks, the Beasts of Holm, within half a mile of Stornoway pier, where relatives were eagerly waiting to welcome their loved ones home from the war.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the numbers have now been updated. In all, 201 of the 284 men—mostly maritime reservists—onboard the Iolaire were lost. I join him and others in paying tribute to all those who tragically lost their lives that night. Of them, 174 were men from the Isle of Lewis who tragically drowned literally within sight of their home. A further seven were from the Isle of Harris. A further 18 crew and two passengers were also lost. The loss widowed 67 women, and at least 209 children lost their fathers. The loss of the ship is considered to be Britain’s worst peacetime disaster at sea since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the worst peacetime loss in British waters in the 20th century. No comparable event has fallen exclusively on one small population.
While a third of the bodies of those lost were never recovered, others were washed up on the shoreline and found by their families. The village of Leurbost, for example, with 51 houses, lost 32 men in the war with a further 11 lost on the Iolaire. There were 25 sets of brothers on board, and only one set survived without a loss. Although the first world war affected all communities, this was a devastating blow to the island community. The sailors had come through a global conflict, only to be washed up dead on their own island shore. There are so many deeply personal tragedies and stories to tell that I cannot recount them all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) for securing the debate—I am sorry that I missed the first couple of minutes of what was a powerful speech. I vividly remember first hearing about the Iolaire when I was 27 years old, which tells us something about the gaps in what we teach ourselves about the history of where we come from.
Does the Minister agree that, although the casualties of the Iolaire had survived the horrors of war, they and others who were killed in peacetime activities during a time of war deserve to be remembered in the same way as those who were killed in enemy action? In some cases, they died in the water 20 feet from shore. It was no comfort to their families to know that they died so close to home; the loss was just as great as it was for those who lost loved ones at Ypres, the Somme, or on other battlefields.
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. It is difficult for any of us to place ourselves in the shoes of the families who lost someone in the first world war, or indeed in any conflict. It is extremely painful to have survived a horrific war such as world war one, to be returning home and then to die literally within eyesight of one’s final destination.
I was just touching on the make-up of those who were onboard the vessel itself. Not all the maritime reservists served at sea; some served in the trenches on the western front in the Royal Naval division. Two friends who evaded capture in Holland went on to serve in the Mediterranean together, travelling back home on the Iolaire, only for one of them to be tragically lost.
One story that was particularly pertinent was that of 23-year-old John Macaskill from North Sandwick. His body was washed up by the cemetery wall. His home was on the other side of the cemetery itself, so after four years of conflict—four years of being away—the sea literally brought him home. It is only fitting that, leading up to the centenary of this tragic loss, we are taking the opportunity to remember those who lost their lives within sight of their home, their families and their island communities.
It is important to remember that the loss of the Iolaire is not only a significant matter for the communities on the isles of Lewis and Harris. It is also appropriate that we take the opportunity to highlight this tragic story to the nation. I understand that events to commemorate the loss will be held at the Kyle of Lochalsh and in Stornoway at the Iolaire memorial overlooking the site of the disaster, and a service will be held at sea, near the Beasts of Holm.
The Ministry of Defence has agreed to a significant level of naval support for those events in the form of the attendance of the flag officer of Scotland and Northern Ireland, a guard of honour and the Royal Marine band contingent. That is commensurate with the support given to other first world war commemorations in recent years. The Royal Marines band service and a Royal Navy guard will formally attend the commemoration ceremonies. The naval personnel selected to deliver that support will represent the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, ensuring that we pay due respect to those sailors who did not return home.
I recognise the significance of the loss of the Iolaire to the island communities, and I thank all those involved in the considerable work that has been undertaken to raise awareness of this tragic loss, and to ensure that there is a fitting commemoration of this centenary event. I thank the Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel for supporting those commemorations over the Christmas and new year period. I also thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar for bringing this matter to the attention of the Palace of Westminster and the House of Commons, as we reflect not only on what happened 100 years ago, but on the devastation to his community.
Question put and agreed to.
Thames Water Reservoir at Abingdon
I beg to move,
That this House has considered plans for a Thames Water reservoir at Abingdon.
I am grateful for the opportunity to appear before you, Mr Stringer, and to raise this important subject. Obviously, it is the perfect day for a Conservative MP to open a debate about digging a very large hole.
It may interest Members to learn that, for the last 20 or 25 years, there has been a proposal to build a large reservoir in my constituency. It is known as the Abingdon reservoir, which reflects the name of the constituency of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). However, it would be situated in my constituency, near the villages of Steventon, the Hanneys and Drayton. This is a very large piece of land—probably one of the largest pieces of open land in the south-east of England. There have been various thoughts about what might be built on that land, including, amazingly, an airport and a garden city. However, the reservoir has been the most enduring proposal.
I am neutral about whether the reservoir should be built. On the one hand, I am a nimby, and it would make my life a lot easier if a reservoir was not built in my constituency; on the other hand, I recognise that it is potentially a large and important piece of infrastructure for the south-east of England. One thing that I am firm about is that the reservoir should not go ahead unless the need for it has been properly examined. I was successful the last time construction of the reservoir came close to happening, in 2010. I called for a public inquiry, which we secured, and which rejected the need for a reservoir. For me, it is unarguable that there should be a second public inquiry if Thames Water, which is behind the proposal, comes up with a proposal for a reservoir.
At the moment, Thames Water is developing its statutory water resources management plan, which the regulator requires of water companies to allow them to put forward proposals that will ensure a secure water supply and protect the environment. The reservoir is being presented by Thames Water as a solution for long-term water shortages. I will rehearse some of the arguments for and against the reservoir, and then ask the Minister a number of questions.
I do not think anyone would disagree with Thames Water, or indeed other stakeholders, that there is severe pressure on water resources in the south-east. As I am sure many people in this room who are knowledgeable about this subject know, it is a great irony that we live in quite a rainy country but that we still have great pressure on water resources and do not have as much rainfall as required. Thames Water estimates that by 2045—in another quarter of a century—it will need to find an extra 350 million litres of water per day to supply the population in London and the south-east. It is working with other companies as part of the Water Resources in the South East group to look at the long-term needs of the wider region and the best options for strategic water supply. According to Thames Water, the reservoir option will improve its resilience and that of Affinity Water by creating a regional storage and transfer hub.
Thames Water bases its estimate of the extra 350 million litres a day on a population increase forecast of 2.1 million over the next 25 years, which translates into an extra 1.3 million houses, and on climate change projections—for the avoidance of doubt, I am not a climate change denier, and I accept that climate change will absolutely have an impact on water supply in the south-east. Thames Water forecasts that, by 2050, our summers may be an average of 3° hotter and 18% drier. The Environment Agency’s welcome tightening of regulatory oversight also makes it harder to extract water from rivers and underground sources.
There is perhaps a slight contradiction: on the one hand, there is great concern about a reservoir in my constituency, but on the other hand, my constituency is home to some of the chalk streams of south-east England, including Letcombe brook. I have two little-known facts for hon. Members about chalk streams. One is that 85% of the chalk streams in the world are in the south-east of England, while the other 15% are in Normandy because they are part of the same chalk ridge that was once fused together when we were members of the ice age version of the European Union. My other little-known fact is that somebody who is passionate about chalk streams is the former lead singer of the Undertones, Feargal Sharkey, whom I got to know when he was head of UK Music and I was the Culture Minister responsible for music. I spoke to Feargal this morning and he made a point that I will bring up in my conclusion: a reservoir has not been built in the south-east since 1976.
To make a wider and less reservoir-focused point, there has not been investment in water storage for some 40 years. Increases in housing and population, climate change and tighter environmental regulation will result in average daily consumption per person rising from 1,300 litres to roughly 1,400 in the next few years. I should also say that one of the arguments that came up when a reservoir was debated almost 10 years ago was the desire to see Thames Water do more to tackle leakage. London suffers from having Victorian infrastructure; we lose an enormous amount of water through leakage. I am pleased to see that Thames Water wants to reduce leakage by 15% by 2025 and 50% by 2050, but that will still not be enough to supplant the increase in demand for water.
Thames Water says that it has looked at several options, including water transfer from the River Severn; making more water available from the remaining power station at Didcot, where the coal-fired power station has been closed down; water transfer from the midlands via the Oxford canal; and a reuse scheme at the Deepham sewage works. However, it has reached the conclusion that the reservoir is the best option and that the site in my constituency is the best of the 50 sites it claims to have surveyed.
Obviously, Thames Water wants to emphasise some of the benefits that might come to my constituents, including nature conservation, new natural habitats, opportunities for recreation such as fishing and walking, and the opportunity to reduce abstraction and save our vulnerable chalk streams. It is also keen to lay to rest the accusation that it is undertaking this infrastructure scheme in order, frankly, to line its own pockets. Apparently, any reservoir would be constructed under the same financial arrangements as the Thames sewer, with a separate company and additional money on our bills for some 40 years until the construction cost has been paid off.
My constituents, particularly those local to the site, have certainly not taken Thames Water’s proposals lying down. I pay tribute to Brigadier Nick Thompson, who led the Group Against Reservoir Development in its first battle when there was a public inquiry, and to Derek Stork, who now leads GARD. Given that this is happening in my constituency, I am pleased to say that the average resident has quite a bit of ammo behind them; Derek is the former head of technology at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, so he is no slouch when it comes to looking at the issues with his colleagues.
GARD points out that filling the reservoir would take three years and cause immense damage to the local community, the landscape and archaeology. The reservoir would have walls 25 metres high and would take 30 days to drain in an emergency. Building it would be enormously disruptive to the local community and would take something like 10 years, with all the resulting lorry traffic and disruption.
My constituents have already been affected by the very serious matter of planning blight. For example, many landowners have not modernised their buildings in the past 20 or 30 years; their land is still being used mainly for farmland because the threat of a reservoir has been hanging over them. They require certainty. Last year, a constituent was unable to sell their home, and I had to bring Thames Water to the table to purchase it. Many others who live near the site find that it is having an impact on their house prices and the opportunity to sell, and some of them face negative equity.
What concerns my constituents is not just the building disruption, but whether the case has genuinely been made. They have taken on some of Thames Water’s assumptions: they think that its population forecast and usage projections per person are unrealistically high and, although they are certainly not climate change deniers, they challenge its forecast of the impact of climate change on water availability. The data shows that water availability in London has increased over the past 70 years by about 200 litres a day. My constituents are not necessarily making the case that there should never be a reservoir, but they certainly do not believe that one is needed now; in fact, they argue that if there is ever a case for one, it will not be needed until at least 2100.
Given what the right hon. Gentleman says about the degradation of the river system, especially the chalk rivers, the clock is ticking and there is an imminent crisis, as Feargal Sharkey would say. I do not want to bring the debate back to Europe, but it is 45 years since we have been in Europe and 42 years since we built a reservoir. Does the right hon. Gentleman not conclude that the clock is ticking for us to save our river system in the south of England, especially the chalk stream system?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. Obviously I am focusing on the specific proposal for a reservoir, but there is a lot more to say about managing water resources in the south-east. GARD is not saying that we should not build any more infrastructure to make more water resources available; it is saying that the Severn transfer option is viable and cheaper, and there is also the possibility of the Teddington abstraction scheme. Thames Water itself acknowledges that water transfer is an option, although it argues that it is not as good an option as a reservoir. It also claims to be looking at the Teddington scheme.
I want to give other hon. Members a chance to make the points that need to be made, but I want to ask the Minister about a number of points. I would be grateful for her insight into what work the Department has done with Thames Water to assess not just its proposal for a reservoir but its overall water resources management plan. Will she assure me and my constituents that, as this journey continues, Thames Water, her Department and other stakeholders, such as the Environment Agency, will fully involve my constituents in their deliberations and consultations? I hope she will support me, my constituents and Oxfordshire County Council in calling for a public inquiry to ensure this process is conducted in an open and proper manner.
I will draw my remarks to a conclusion by making the following points. When I sat firmly on the fence about the reservoir a decade ago, I must confess that I was not entirely confident that a public inquiry would lead to the reservoir being dismissed. I was pleasantly surprised that the inquiry concluded that a reservoir was unnecessary. It is sometimes easy to dismiss local campaign groups as nimbys or as people who will find almost any way to stop any kind of development near where they live, but, as it turned out, the campaign group defeated Thames Water in a sort of David and Goliath battle with the power of its arguments. The planning inspector found that Thames Water had not made its arguments effectively. I do not think that a lot has changed since 2010 or that the alternative options have been explored fully, and they need to be.
On the point the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) made about chalk streams and the environment, I have one other element of frustration, and it is partly directed at the Minister—her post, as opposed to her personally, because she is obviously a very good friend of mine. It seems slightly odd that Thames Water, a private company, is being left, to a certain extent, to its own devices to come up with a solution to a potential water crisis in the south-east over the next 10 or 20 years. It would be much better if this whole debate were led by the Government. They should say, “This is the need over the next 25 years. This is our best guess—made on all the available expertise, in a dispassionate fashion. These are the best ways to combat water shortage. They are about not just tackling leakage and more efficient home use, with water meters and the like, but realistic infrastructure that provides the best access to water resources with the minimum disruption to communities.”
I am delighted, at what I think is still quite an early stage in this process, to have had the opportunity to raise these issues at the highest level.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing this debate on an incredibly important local issue. Like him, I have had much correspondence from my constituents about it. Although the proposed reservoir lies in his constituency, my constituents— in and around south Abingdon, in particular—are understandably very interested in these proposals, and I hope to raise their concerns today.
I absolutely recognise the need to ensure a safe, secure water supply for the future, but as a local MP it is also my job to stand up and speak out on behalf of my constituents, who have justified worries about these proposals. Given the large size of the scheme, we have to make sure we take them with us if needed.
As has already been mentioned, we have been here before. In 2010, the community campaigners, led by GARD and supported by my Liberal Democrat colleagues, were successful in their campaign to the Planning Inspectorate, which determined that there was “no immediate need” for a reservoir on this scale. We have gone into the future since then, but not that far into the future. As the right hon. Gentleman asked at the end of his speech, what has changed so materially in those eight years?
I thank GARD for its longstanding campaign, hard work and tenacity. In many ways, it has brought the band back together to fight this again. I also thank Councillors Catherine and Richard Webber, who have been keeping me updated and involved in the fight.
In 2010, the project was the subject of a public inquiry, which found that Thames Water’s plan was not fit for purpose, as it had not properly evaluated the alternative options. That is critical. What has changed? The proposal is now 50% bigger. It is the size of Heathrow airport, and will hold 150 million tonnes of water. It has also been moved forward: the intention is to build it by 2037. This is not just the same campaign run again; it is a campaign looking at a proposal that is even bigger and therefore requires even more scrutiny than the first time round.
The objections in my postbag and email inbox have focused on whether there is a need for the reservoir at all, the plans themselves and—this is where the right hon. Gentleman and I are absolutely on the same page—the need for the public to have their say on the proposals. I will take each of those in turn.
On the need for the reservoir, I shall not build on the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, although I thank him for educating me about the lesser-known facts about chalk streams. I dare say I did not know that. Every day is a learning day, so I thank him very much. I am keen for this debate to be a chance to raise residents’ concerns. I will start with my colleague, Debby Hallett, councillor for Botley and Sunningwall and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats. She said that she would like to see the priority being given to fixing leaks elsewhere in the system. She speaks to residents, and they are all concerned that the water is not even for our area.
That is echoed by another resident, who wrote to me ahead of this debate. I said in a tweet and on my Facebook group, “What do you think? We are raising this today.” She said:
“The water from the reservoir is not, in any case, for use within the area supplied by Thames Water, but is to be sold elsewhere for the profit of Thames Water. It will be paid for by the customers of Thames Water but they will not benefit from it.”
There is disquiet that the bill payers will be the ones funding the new reservoir, which will become a major asset on Thames Water’s balance sheet. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification about the nature of the company that might be set up. There is concern about who will pay, at least in monetary terms, and not least for building the thing in the first place. Many questioned the need for the development at all, and put forward alternatives including installing more desalination plants along the Thames, transferring raw water from the River Severn to the Thames, reducing water consumption, and addressing leakage.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s recent “Preparing for a drier future” report states that strategic inter-regional water transfers are needed, but water companies are failing to plan for them properly. As I understand it, Thames Water has pushed back the option of a Severn-Thames transfer until 2080, which is a very, very long way away and, frankly, ignores the current problems. Instead, it says that a reservoir is cheaper than a transfer, which is counter to what the National Infrastructure Commission said. There needs to be some joined-up thinking.
On the issue of leaks, is Thames Water doing enough elsewhere in the system, and are its targets for tackling leakages ambitious enough? One of GARD’s central arguments is that Thames Water, after discussions with Ofwat, will reduce its leakage by half by 2045, and has revised its population projections. The campaigners suggest that those two actions remove the need for the reservoir in the immediate term—that was the reason why it was rejected by the 2010 inquiry. They were surprised to see the proposal re-emerge with the earlier delivery date of 2037.
My first question to the Minister is: has the Department made an assessment of Thames Water’s plans, proposals and forecasts? If not, will she commit to doing so? Have there been any independent analyses of the costs to Thames Water of rectifying leakages and saving water loss in that way? Unfortunately, residents simply do not trust Thames Water on this issue, so we need some independence in the assessments. We need an evidence base on which to build the case to the public—not just about leakages, but about the whole thing: negatives and positives.
I did not receive only negatives in my inbox; some were a little optimistic. Rachel in Abingdon wrote to me to say that she
“supports the reservoir for future generations”,
and that she does not want the decision to keep being put off, but would rather just get on with it. She also made the very good point that developers—a lot of housing development is happening in Oxfordshire at the moment—need to look at greater use of grey water for the likes of toilet flushing. Has the Minister discussed that with colleagues in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government? As ever, cross-departmental working could help to solve the wider issues.
Rachel says that if the reservoir does go ahead,
“we need to make sure that Thames Water builds this reservoir with amenities and leisure, and not just an inaccessible reservoir.”
I completely agree with her, and it could well be a great opportunity for our area. I say that with an element of caution however, because of my experience of the £100 million Oxford flood alleviation scheme. We were promised leisure facilities such as a cycle path that would go all the way through and which, I am sorry to say, was omitted from the final plans. I therefore remain gently sceptical about some of the promises that might be made at this stage. As that is also in the Minister’s brief, will she continue to encourage Oxfordshire County Council and the Environment Agency to think again about that cycle path, which we had been promised at the outset of the plans?
That brings me to the plans and the sheer scale of the reservoir, which is going to be the size of Heathrow. If one took a map of the reservoir and overlaid it on a map of Abingdon, it covers it. That is extraordinarily large, and one of the biggest reasons why residents have raised concerns. Sharron wrote on my Facebook page to say she was concerned that this would not be a valley-type reservoir that could enhance the area and provide leisure and tourism facilities. Instead, she was worried that the design would end up like “a massive tank” and the
“tallest structure in the vale”.
We all love Didcot power station—don’t get me wrong. Big structures in our area can be a cause of love, but having said that, if the reservoir is as Sharron described, it would be a blight on what is otherwise an incredibly beautiful landscape.
The environment is equally important. Many residents who contacted me were seriously concerned about the displacement of species. As the RSPB parliamentary species champion for the skylark, it would be remiss of me not to raise concerns about the potential impact of the proposals on many bird species, including the skylark. David, who is involved with Abingdon Naturalists Society, says that he is particularly concerned about the destruction of an
“undisturbed area of countryside that presently hosts breeding curlew, lapwing, grey partridge, skylark, all of which are red listed species.”
Other terrestrial wildlife might also be eliminated.
Richard Harding, a trustee of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says:
“It will obviously have severe consequences to the environment and communities in Oxfordshire. The loss and damages to land, resources, heritage and communities would be substantial. The proposed area of flooding is a massive, hugely significant multi-period historical and archaeological landscape—the reality of what is there has not been grasped.”
That brings me to flooding which, I hope the Minister is aware, is a major concern for residents of the area. There were huge floods in Abingdon not very long ago. Marion wrote to me to ask for a second public inquiry into the proposals. She also raised the increased risk of flooding, particularly on the south Abingdon flood-relief land. Can the Minister indicate what assessments have been carried out on how the plans might affect the flood plain? There are schemes in place, but from what I understand, they were conceived after the first reservoir had been rejected. Do they now include space for the new reservoir?
My primary concern is to make sure that residents are heard. In Oxfordshire, where there is massive development going on everywhere, there are countless examples of residents from all over feeling that their voices have not been heard, not least on the elephantine Oxford to Cambridge expressway, from which they have felt totally frozen out. That is the main reason why we feel that we need a public inquiry now. I raised that with the Department and the response that I received from the Minister’s private secretary stated that
“it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct Thames Water to carry out further consultation on its water resources management plan”
until it responds to its latest consultation.
Will the Minister, as previous Governments have done, commit to insisting on a public inquiry on what will be a massive infrastructure project for our area?
We must be clear—local Liberal Democrats and I are absolutely clear—that we will fight for people to be able to have their say. People in Oxfordshire are reasonable; they will listen to the evidence. As my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Wantage, said, people simply want to know that the proposal is the only option left and that all others have been looked at. I believe that the residents of Abingdon and elsewhere would listen to evidence, but we need a public inquiry to ensure that we have all the facts to hand before we make any decisions.
I was not going to speak this afternoon; I came to listen. There is a little bit of time left so I will say a few words, but I will not take up too much of Conservative Members’ time: they obviously have urgent meetings on the Estate to get to over the next couple of hours, as their party disintegrates.
The two speeches that have been made were very thoughtful and contained nuanced arguments about the case for and concerns about the reservoir. I came to listen because, although this is primarily a local matter, it throws up a lot of issues about ways in which we can achieve new water; the supply, distribution and quality of new homes; the role of the water companies themselves; and patterns of regulation—to name but a few.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing the debate. I know something about it because of my interest in chalk streams. As I understand it, Thames Water announced its new plans to start construction on the reservoir in 2025. I totally understand the local concerns that have been registered about the proposal, because it was rejected in 2010 at the public inquiry. There is a general concern that, to satisfy growth in London and the south of England—another consultation is ongoing—the Thames Water plan for the reservoir suggests a storage and distribution hub for the south-east.
Objectively, it seems clear that we need new water and new infrastructure, including reservoirs. I accept, however, that there are other suggestions for bringing new water into the stressed south-east, including transfers from Wales and the River Severn, or water re-use and desalination. There are a whole number of other proposed remedies.
One point I want to flag up that has been mentioned in the debate but which is often overlooked in the case for any new supportive water infrastructure, is the degradation of the river systems in England—specifically, of the chalk streams. As the right hon. Member for Wantage mentioned in his speech, England has a unique concentration of chalk streams—160 of the 210 that exist globally—and they are disproportionately in the south of England. Yet they are in an appalling state; no water is moving in many of them and there is no flow. More generally, I recently saw data that estimated that only 14% of the rivers across England are considered to have reached good ecological standards. At the same time, demand for water, especially through new house building in the south of England, has dramatically increased.
Those two apparently separate issues are intrinsically related. A policy failure to provide new water means that our water companies extract water from our rivers, which cannot cope and subsequently die. At the same time, excess sewage is discharged into the rivers by those same companies, further undermining their quality and sustainability. Time and again, the water companies have been fined, but they take the hit—there are notorious cases of discharge by Thames Water. In effect, they free-ride their ecological responsibilities.
The situation has to be sorted out via public policy making because, as a consequence of all this, it has been 42 years since we have built a reservoir. The right hon. Gentleman, when introducing the debate, intimated that he was moving closer to Labour’s policy on water ownership and frustrations with the current system. Responsibility lies with a number of different authorities: the Environment Agency, the National Rivers Authority, the Government and the subject of today’s debate, Thames Water.
I repeat that I do not want to stray into local planning consultations, and I respect the contributions to the debate so far, which have made powerful cases, but an overall case needs to be made on consumer demand and preserving our unique English river systems, especially in the south of England: new infrastructure is needed. That does not mean that I am in the pocket of the water companies, but consequential environmental issues are involved, and the clock is ticking. New build, or the start of the build, in 2025 is being talked about, but any cursory look at the English river system tells us that we need urgent action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this debate, which is a superb opportunity to talk about how the voices of local residents must be heard when addressing the genuine water crisis that the UK faces. He mentioned that we live in a damp country, and indeed we do, but according to the Environment Agency, we are actually in the lower quartile globally of available water resources per capita, which means that we need to value every drop—much more than we do at the moment.
Climate change is real and happening to us here in Britain. No single measure can tackle it, but no single measure of water policy is mitigating it. That is why we need a number of separate buckets of action, including: action on leakage, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), to lower the amount of lost water, including the 30% lost on customers’ properties, not just on the public network; a focus on reducing per-person water usage from the national average of about 130 litres a day—some people use considerably more—and increasing grey water use, which was mentioned earlier and could contribute to that; building and supporting the construction of more water transfers; and the Severn option, which is important in this context. On that, we should focus on the use of canals as an option, instead of a big pipe, and the date that was mentioned, 2080, seems far too far away.
Other actions include a necessary look at how to build more water storage in areas of water stress. Although as a nation we have not built any new reservoirs, we have certainly provided additional water storage, sometimes using quarries and mines—nothing on the size and scale envisaged at Abingdon. Only then, at the very end of the scale, should we look at water desalinisation, which itself has a huge climate change effect.
The right hon. Member for Wantage talked about population change. When looking into the future, it is important for us to take a best guess at how many people will be using water. The latest statistics show that the south-east of England will have 4.1 million more people by 2045. To put that in a currency that we might all understand in this place, an additional 54 MPs would be required to represent that population. By 2080, that could be an extra 10 million, or 133 more MPs—heaven help us all! That will put pressure on an already water-stressed region.
With climate change, we have to recognise that we will not only have problems of water shortage at certain times of the year—we will also have problems with too much water at other times of the year. That issue was mentioned earlier in the debate.
I have to admit that I was not an expert in chalk rivers or streams before today, but I feel that I have learned an awful lot. The issue of over-abstraction from our watercourses and rivers is of importance because as our communities become more water-stressed and as the pressure to reduce per-capita consumption is applied, the temptation, sadly, is to abstract still more water from our precious river environments. We need to avoid that, to ensure that we preserve those fragile and precious natural wildlife habitats, whether of aquatic life, birds or mammals.
Before I was elected, I advised people on how to build controversial buildings, mainly skyscrapers and football stadiums. The same principle applies to reservoirs: the case must be clearly set out right from the start. To be honest, I do not think that Thames Water has put the argument for the Abingdon reservoir that well, and it needs to do better. Increasing supply, of course, has to be done alongside demand management, which also needs a conversation with water bill payers. If there is to be such huge investment, however—a carbon-intensive investment—the case must be put clearly.
The right hon. Gentleman said that it is important to be neutral in this debate, and that is how the Opposition come to it. We think, however, that a number of principles should apply in this case as we go forward, especially as the decision might well be taken out of the hands of local councillors and made at the national level through the NSIP—nationally significant infrastructure project—process. That is why genuine consultation and the voice of local people must be heard much more in the debate than perhaps it has been to date.
We need to ensure that the concerns about the new reservoir involve not only the size and scale but the construction, and the impact of that over many years, as well as the impact of many years of operation. Thames Water needs to make proposals, focused by genuine and intensive consultation. Such consultation should not just ask, “What do you think of our plans?”, but involve genuine engagement that listens to affected communities.
There is also a challenge for Government to look at what resources we need. At present, the water resource plan of each company sits as an island apart from the areas alongside. There is a clear case for joining up those plans into a national water resource plan so that we can understand the impacts, especially if we are to have more water transfer into areas of greater water stress. We need to understand the national picture.
I hope that Thames Water is listening to this carefully. If it is to make the case for the Abingdon reservoir, it needs to do so clearly, engaging local people and taking them with it. At the moment, my concern is that that conversation is not as full and as thorough as it could be.
It is a pleasure to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who secured the debate, and to the other Members who contributed.
Water is essential for everything we do. It is also essential for a healthy environment and a prosperous economy. A reliable water supply is taken for granted but, despite its reputation for rain, which has been mentioned many times, England risks water shortages, in particular in certain areas. Climate change and increasing population, especially in the drier south and east, as well as the need to protect the environment—including chalk streams—bring further challenges. A water company’s job is to take account of those factors and to provide a reliable supply of safe drinking water. The Government and the water regulator’s job is to check that they are doing that effectively.
Thames Water supplies water to about 10 million household customers and 215,000 businesses in London and across the Thames valley. Its existing plan shows a one-in-four chance over the next 25 years that large numbers of households and businesses will have water supplies cut off for extended periods because of drought. That is a lower protection than most other water companies provide. We must expect Thames Water to act on customers’ need for a more resilient supply, to manage other pressures of a growing population and changing climate, and to protect the environment that we treasure and on which we rely.
Thames Water has engaged with regulators, stakeholders and customers throughout the development of its draft water resources management plan. In February 2018, Thames Water published its draft plan for consultation, which explains how the company plans to provide a secure and sustainable supply of water for its customers for the next 80 years, from 2020 to 2100. In October and November this year, Thames Water provided a further opportunity for comment on the changes and revisions made to the draft plan as a result of the first consultation. That further consultation closed on 28 November. Thames Water sought stakeholder and customer views on its draft plan through a variety of channels, including public meetings, an online survey and written submissions.
I hope that my right hon. Friend appreciates that, as Thames Water has just completed its consultation process on the draft plan, it is now preparing its statement of response to the consultation, which the Environment Agency will assess in due course. It will provide advice to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the new year. That process is ongoing, so officials and Ministers at DEFRA have not yet had the opportunity to consider the advice from the Environment Agency. As such, the Government cannot comment on any proposals suggested through the water resources management plan process.
The Government and the water regulator issue detailed guidance to water companies that sets out the Government’s expectations that companies should: first, take a long-term strategic approach to protecting and enhancing resilient water supplies; secondly, consider every option to meet future public water supply needs; thirdly, protect and enhance our environment and act collaboratively; and, fourthly, promote efficient water use and reduce leakage.
If a water company forecasts a water supply deficit, it should appraise all the options available to it and should justify its preferred solution in its water resources management plan. The Environment Agency and Ofwat are both statutory consultees to the water resources management plans. As I mentioned, the Environment Agency will also advise the Secretary of State on the draft plan. As part of its current price review, Ofwat has set out clear measures to ensure that the proposals companies bring forward, and the costs of delivering them, are subject to appropriate scrutiny to protect customers’ interests in the long term.
In the business plan that Thames Water submitted to Ofwat, it proposed costs for work to develop the reservoir proposals further, rather than the infrastructure costs themselves. If the proposals go forward, the infrastructure costs will come forward in future plans, which will be scrutinised, possibly at the price review in 2024 if construction were to start in 2025 or 2026. In the plans as they stand, the reservoir is expected to come online for use in 2037. I hope hon. Members have been assured that there are processes in place to assess whether water company plans are robust.
Leakage and other options were mentioned. The National Infrastructure Commission estimates that by 2050, around an additional 3.5 billion litres of water per day will be required to maintain current levels of resilience to drought in England. At least a third of that—1 billion litres—needs to come from new infrastructure, and the other two thirds from water efficiency and leakage reduction. To put that in context, 3.5 billion litres per day is almost enough water to fill Wembley stadium every day. Thames Water’s proposed reservoir would provide about 300 million litres per day.
The Government recognise that to meet our future water needs, we require a twin-track approach that combines demand reduction, including leakage reduction, with long-term investment in supply infrastructure. With respect to leakage, the Government have made their view clear and the industry has responded. The water companies’ business plans are on track to meet Ofwat’s challenge to reduce leaks by at least 15% by 2025. Over the long term, the industry has committed to working to an ambitious target to reduce leaks by 50% by 2050. We will hold it to account on that.
The need for new infrastructure is set out in the draft national policy statement for water resources infrastructure, which was recently laid under the Planning Act 2008. That statement sets out that, alongside demand reduction and tackling leakage, a mix of water infrastructure schemes will be required to meet our future water supply needs, including reservoirs, water transfers, desalination and reuse. The statement applies to nationally significant infrastructure projects, and I expect that the proposed Abingdon scheme would qualify as such a project.
I assure my right hon. Friend that extensive pre-application consultation and engagement will need to be undertaken by applicants using the Planning Act 2008 regime. Members of the public can participate in the examination process by registering their interest, thus ensuring that local views can be heard. I think it is fair to say that the planning process will be different from last time, because in the past month Parliament has voted in favour of a new process for infrastructure projects that are deemed nationally significant. Consideration of a development consent order application at a public inquiry would start on the basis that the most appropriate option for meeting water supply needs had been selected through the resource management plans. As I pointed out, Ofwat will also scrutinise the proposed costs for the full project if they come forward in future plans.
Hon. Members asked whether the water would be used just for the Thames Water area. It is fair to say that Thames Water has been working with Water Resources in the South East—an alliance of the six south-east water companies—to ensure that a more collaborative approach is taken to water resources planning, and its reservoir proposals would benefit other companies in the south-east. The Government and regulators expect water companies to collaborate at a regional level with other companies and sectors to produce plans that work for that region. That allows water companies to consider the most efficient and economically, socially and environmentally beneficial solution for the whole region, allowing customers, business, society and the environment to benefit from economies of scale. We expect such collaboration to be reflected in companies’ water resources management plans.
The preferred programme that Thames Water has set out for full consultation includes water transfers. I believe considerations will be made for desalination, and there are elements of water trading, with things such as Didcot power station. I understand that Thames Water considered more than 50 sites for a new large reservoir and considered that only one of those sites was viable. As I said, other water companies may be involved. It has been brought to my attention that Affinity Water is considering and working alongside Thames Water on this matter.
On demand reduction, targets are already set for water companies. I hope hon. Members are aware that planning regulations require a target of 125 litres per day for new developments, but councils can, in planning permissions, reduce that to 110 litres per day if the development is in a water-stressed area.
On the flood alleviation scheme in Oxford, I say gently to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) that I recognise that people would like additional cycle paths and so on, but if the costs of the scheme have gone up, it is fundamental that taxpayers’ money needs to be spent on delivering the scheme. I am conscious that there may be other opportunities to develop the additional benefits to which she referred.
The good Feargal Sharkey is a friend of many people in Parliament. He used to be chief executive of UK Music, but now pushes passionately for chalk streams, to which the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) in particular referred. He also mentioned the pollution challenges at Thames Water. He will be aware that Thames Water received a record fine after being prosecuted by the Environment Agency. This is exactly the kind of project we need to reduce the pressure on other sources of water. Although I am conscious of the scale of this reservoir, it appears at least to be a viable option. However, it needs to be considered carefully.
I appreciate that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised a number of issues. I hope that I have been able to cover Members’ key questions. Overall, I really hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage sees that there are transparent and robust processes in place to ensure that water companies continue to provide reliable water supplies efficiently and economically, and that any plans that are put forward will be scrutinised appropriately and decided on objectively.
I am grateful for the chance to wind up the debate. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response to the points I made and to those made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and by our guest star, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas). I am not getting a rise out of him. That is very annoying. He is staring at me. I am being affectionate here.
This is the second time I have raised this very important issue in the House. I raised it last month in a Statutory Instrument Committee, and I will continue to raise it with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am glad to see that the Department has such a comprehensive overview.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered plans for a Thames Water reservoir at Abingdon.