Tuesday 5 February 2019
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
GWR and Network Performance
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Great Western Rail (GWR) delays and performance across the network.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for generously accepting my application for this urgently needed debate on the Great Western rail franchise, and the many colleagues from across the House who supported it. It is good to see so many colleagues from across the network in the Chamber; they will represent the concerns of passengers from across the network and the difficulties that they face. It is clear that the deteriorating GWR service affects many hon. Members and their constituents.
I also thank those who shared their stories and frustrations about GWR’s failures on the RailUK Forums and the Great Western passengers forum, and my constituents who did so on Facebook and Twitter. I thank the Parliamentary Digital Service for its outreach work in support of this debate, and the House of Commons Library and my office for helping to compile a list of some of those concerns.
Carmel, who commented on one of the forums, summed up the situation:
“Terrible customer experience with travel and website use. Cannot rely on the train service to get me to work on time despite my rail fare going up year on year. Cancelled trains, delayed trains, high cost...Hopeless and frustrating journeys day after day. Poor Wifi, ridiculous paper filling out to get a refund on tickets. Makes life very stressful for commuters.”
Those are some of the issues that I will touch on.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he is leading this very important debate. On that point, my constituents who have contacted me say they want to use the train service more often and not drive to work, but they cannot, due to the issues that my hon. Friend identifies—particularly those relating to reliability. Does he agree that that is simply not acceptable any more?
Absolutely. I concur with that point. It is a great tragedy that the service problems are turning many potential rail users on to the roads. We do not want that to happen, particularly in the south Wales corridor.
As the Library helpfully summarised for Members in the debate briefing, Great Western Railway is currently run by FirstGroup under a direct award that is due to expire in March 2019. The Department for Transport decided to exercise its option to extend the direct award until April 2020, and we understand that it plans to negotiate another direct award for two years until April 2022. It took that questionable decision despite the fact that, as the Library outlined, Great Western’s performance has seriously deteriorated of late. That is reflected in the declining levels of passenger satisfaction on its part of the network. The autumn 2018 national rail passenger survey revealed that passenger satisfaction was just 78%, and had declined from 84% when the survey was conducted three years earlier. Even more shockingly, only two thirds of GWR passengers were satisfied with the reliability of trains, and only 40% were satisfied with the way GWR handled delays.
The Great Western route is unusual in that it is hugely wide geographically. It stretches right along the historical south Wales and west country main line, famously developed by Brunel, and serves the M4 corridor and the commuter lines into the Thames valley. Crucially, it also goes down to the south-west, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. It is a lifeline for many communities. People rely on it for commuting between those regions and travelling to and from London.
There have been substantial problems on the network for the past few years, a variety of which have hit the headlines. The bulk relate to the delayed and altered electrification programmes, the responsibility for which lies with the DFT and Network Rail, and to the introduction of the new trains. Surprisingly, the Department extended the franchise without adequate consultation or consideration. The problems include serious delays, poor service, delays in processing compensation claims and other concerns about performance include catering issues, failures relating to reservations and the management of rail replacement services at crucial periods.
On the point about new trains, does my hon. Friend find it staggering that the trains that have been commissioned for use on the line are in some cases worse than the old 125s, which were introduced in the 1970s? People cannot even walk the entire length of the trains that have been bought, so they can be stuck at one end of the train with no catering services. Even if there is a perfectly adequate trolley on the train, it may not be able to get to them because the train is split into two units.
Indeed. In fact, I had that experience myself on the last Great Western train that I took. There was hot water in only half of the train—there was no hot water in the toilets or for the catering services. The staff simply shrugged their shoulders and said, “We see this problem all the time.”
I met Hitachi yesterday to discuss some of those concerns. I have to say that it has been very frank and forthcoming about the issues it has experienced with engineering the new trains. Unfortunately, that is what happens if a new fleet is rushed into service without adequate testing and operation time, and without redundancy and additional rolling stock. Great Western’s old HST fleet was sold off to Scotland before enough of the new trains were ready and functioning. That is why many of the problems have happened.
I am disappointed that, despite the many meetings that Members from both sides of the House have had with Great Western management, a blame culture seems to have developed among GWR, Network Rail, the Department for Transport and in some cases the developer of the new rolling stock, Hitachi. As I said, Hitachi has been frank and honest about the problems it has faced and what it is doing to deal with them, but the net result for passengers is poor service. I am sorry to say that the managing director of GWR, Mark Hopwood appears out of touch in relation to some of the problems, and unwilling or unable to get a grip on the litany of failure over the past few years.
Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that, despite the litany of complaints about service, GWR’s franchise keeps getting renewed? The Government do not seem remotely interested in performance and passenger satisfaction levels.
I completely agree with my constituency neighbour. The reality is that the service was underperforming and declining, and yet GWR was given an extension, and could be given another one. Most passengers would find that extraordinary.
Our railways are a vital public service for all our constituents. I want to cover the price hikes, the delays, the new rolling stock, compensation and the electrification problems. Trains are increasingly overcrowded. Many constituents have contacted me and have even sent pictures of the overcrowding on Great Western services, particularly on the London-Reading leg, where the service is very disappointing.
Research released this week by Transport Focus, using results from the national rail passenger survey, which focused on 1,458 GWR passengers, shows that overall satisfaction has gone down and sits at a poor 78%. Only 49% of the group felt that the GWR services provided value for money. Meanwhile, season tickets prices continue to skyrocket. They have gone up by 20% since 2010, and some tickets have gone up by 30%. More fare increases were announced at the start of this year. It is good to see the Chair of the Transport Committee in the Chamber. She made that very clear in her comments in November. She said:
“After the year passengers have had, any increase in rail fares is going to be unwelcome. But 3.1 per cent—the largest increase we’ve seen since January 2013—represents a real kick in the teeth.”
That is what my constituents and others who have posted comments on the forums are telling me.
One of my constituents, Mark, spoke about the Cardiff-Portsmouth service, specifically through Trowbridge and Fareham. He said that, until December, he was able to book in advance and get a return for about £20, but since the new year the same journey, departing and arriving at the same time, has almost doubled in price, and yet the service is poorer. His words say it all: the trains are “always packed” and “often delayed”.
Others have shared similar experiences. Azriel said that GWR’s prices were “outrageous”, and that trains were always “very full”, and echoed other comments that point to the frustration that many of us have about the south Wales corridor and the fact that the electrification, which has been delayed and complicated, will stop in Cardiff. It will not even go to Swansea, as was promised.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. A standard return rail ticket to London from my constituency, Cardiff Central, costs £242. For the same price, passengers could fly from our Welsh Labour Government-owned Cardiff airport to Barcelona and back three times, and they would still have change for a taxi home. Is it any wonder that my constituents are giving up on using GWR? Does my hon. Friend agree with them?
I completely agree with them. My hon. Friend’s constituency neighbours mine; they are either side of Cardiff Central station. If someone goes out the front, they end up in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and if they go out the back, they end up in my constituency. I hear the same stories all the time. Many people have told me that they are turning to driving, instead of using trains. They have called train travel on GWR trains “unbearable” and “awful”. One said:
“Since the new rolling stock was introduced on long distance services, I have driven long-distance more as the new trains are (for me and my partner) unbearable.”
My hon. Friend is making a very compelling case on behalf of his constituents. When the Minister replies, he will no doubt say that the Government are investing record amounts in our rail network, and of course he is right, but the problem is that, due to the fragmented nature of our system and the lack of co-ordination, that investment is not leading to the improved services that passengers expect. They understandably feel very angry about having to pay higher fares when they are not seeing an improvement in service. Until that is fixed, there will not be the trust in the rail industry that we want.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who chairs the Transport Committee. Later in my speech, I will come to some of my own views on that, which have been known for a long time. We should have a co-operative, publicly owned service, and a different model for our railways in which we bring the different parts of the system together.
Since 2010, Wales has received 1.6% of investment for 5% of the population and 11% of the railway network. Over a longer period, it has been only 1%. That is fatal under-investment in Wales. There has not been a lot of investment and we need more.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. What a contrast with the new investment announced by the Welsh Labour Government for the services for which they are responsible. The new Transport for Wales services have recently encountered many difficulties, but I am absolutely convinced that with new rolling stock, the new services will be hugely improved. The Welsh Government are investing in those services.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making a well-informed speech to represent his constituents, as he always does.
On the Welsh Government’s investment, does he agree that it is ironic that over a number of years we have seen little to no investment in stations—including in my constituency, in Pencoed, Tondu and Maesteg—yet that remains the responsibility of the UK Government? If it were not for the Welsh Government finding avenues to bring about station improvements, we would see very limited changes. The Welsh Secretary says, “I want to extend the line all the way beyond Carmarthen,” yet the Department for Transport does not invest in the infrastructure to achieve what is supposedly his grand design for rail infrastructure in Wales.
Indeed; aspects of the process, including which services are covered and where the investment goes, can be confusing for passengers and for our constituents.
I will come back to train delays and cancellations, which are one of the primary concerns that my constituents contact me about. Claire told me,
“At least I've been able to take my booked trains this year. Last year 50% of the trains on which I'd booked a seat were cancelled.”
“Appalling, over-priced service. For nearly 2 months in October and November 2018 I travelled between Frome and Bristol 4 times a week…and it was ON TIME just 3 times! The carriages are dirty, too cold in the winter and in the summer trains were cancelled for being too hot.”
The House of Commons Library briefing that I mentioned absolutely confirms that performance has seriously deteriorated. It says that in the last four quarters, fewer than 85% of GWR services have arrived at their final destination within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time.
Research by Which?—interestingly, it just opened a support office in my constituency—ranked GWR 20th out of 30 UK train companies for commuter rail services, with an overall customer score of just 47%. It received just two stars for punctuality and value for money, which are both critical aspects of train travel. When ranked for leisure rail services, GWR also ranked 20th out of 30, and achieved a slightly higher—although not very good—customer score of 56%.
The latest statistics from GWR’s own website, for 9 December to 5 January, show that only 90.7% of trains were punctual within their five minutes on-time allowance—below GWR’s own target for punctuality. That is extraordinary. The reasons for those delays—based on my investigations and conversations with different stakeholders—appear to be a series of problems, including delays and overruns of electrification works; staff shortages and aspects of staff training, to which inadequate time is dedicated; failures of new rolling stock, with the DFT introducing new trains without an adequate testing period; and delays in delivery while old stock was transferred early to Scotland, which left no contingency.
There is also another series of issues to do with communication and confusion among the different parts of this convoluted system, between which a blame game has developed. GWR will blame Network Rail and the Department for Transport; Hitachi will blame the Department and GWR; Network Rail will say, “It’s not us, guv, it’s the GWR franchise owners and the Department for Transport.” That is simply not good enough. In a tweet, the Welsh Labour leader of Newport City Council said to me that the high fares, such as a £200 return from Newport to London, are
“outrageous, especially when you have to stand all the way to Swindon on the return journey.”
She also mentioned the delays and cancellations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being extremely generous with his time. His point about customers’ and constituents’ frustration about the delays is an important one. In my patch in the west midlands, where GWR also operates, those frustrations are often driven by a lack of staff. That causes frustration to the extent that, when they have a choice, some of my constituents drive up to 45 minutes to use an alternative railway line. Does he agree that that does that not make sense for my constituents and is disturbing for them, and does not make sense for the company either?
Indeed—nor does it make sense for the environment and reducing carbon emission, which we all know is crucial. I feel quite sorry for the GWR staff at times, because they do an incredible job and work very hard. When speaking off the record, they are often just as frustrated about the lack of training and support that they are given. They often have to deal with complex problems, such as failures of the new rolling stock, when they have not been given adequate support to do so.
I will mention some of those particular problems. On the new trains, there have been door failures. We get frequent complaints about the seats, which are supposedly ergonomically designed but are some of the most uncomfortable seats someone could ever sit on. As for catering, we were told that they were going to get rid of the buffet cars on the London to Cardiff services, but that was not what passengers wanted. Often, a trolley with no hot water comes through, and it will only go through half of the train—that is if it can get through the train because, of course, if the train is overcrowded, it cannot. There have been issues with train safety systems failing, with the reservations system simply not working, as well as generator problems caused by the fact that bi-modal diesel and electric trains are running more on diesel because of delays to electrification. As a result, the engines sooted up and failure rates rose.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration about the announcement —one sometimes hears it over the tannoy—that there is not a train crew available to drive the train? Does he share my concern that there seems to be a lack of planning, as well as potential skimping on preparing sufficient resources to crew the trains?
Indeed; I have experienced that, particularly with services departing from Paddington, which should be one of the easiest places to have train crews available, as well as relief train crews if there is a problem.
As a result of all that, GWR has had the third largest increase in complaints rates in the country—behind Northern and Grand Central—with complaints rising in the last quarter. Like Grand Central, a reason for the increased volume of complaints is the quality of the train, as well as delays and cancellations.
My hon. Friend has not yet mentioned the problems faced by people with disabilities and mobility issues when travelling on trains. I was at a recent meeting with a group people who were mostly wheelchair users or had other mobility issues, and they have problems with ramps not arriving, the wheelchair space being blocked, and not being able to get through the train because it is so packed. Does he share those concerns?
I certainly do—I have seen aspects of that with my own eyes. People with disabilities and, interestingly, people with bicycles who want to travel with them on board, complain about the lack of access on such services. We are supposed to be making the railways as accessible as possible to people, whether they cycle in, use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues. We are simply not doing well enough.
Claiming compensation is another serious issue. Which? research from last year revealed that train companies, including GWR, were providing misleading advice to passengers about their rights by making blanket statements that they were not liable for consequential losses. Hon. Members may be aware that Great Western currently offers only delay repay 30 to London Thames Valley route customers. Other passengers are eligible for delay repay 60. I have been delayed for 40 to 50 minutes many times, but was not eligible for any compensation. The number of people choosing to pursue a claim is relatively low in comparison to the number of people eligible. That is partly due to the failures of the compensation system, which is very complex to navigate. According to Which?, only 51% of people said that they would know how to find information about claiming compensation. Clearly, there is a gap.
One figure reveals all: how can it possibly be acceptable that GWR has had to pay out £22.6 million in compensation for delays between 2015 and 2017? That raises a very serious question for the Minister about whether the franchise should be extended or renewed in any way.
We have also seen problems with electrification, and the National Audit Office made a critical report about that—how it had been managed, the overall cost increases and delivery delays. I accept that that is not GWR’s fault; it is an issue for the Department for Transport and for Network Rail. Again, however, the seeming lack of communication at various points between GWR, the train manufacturers, the DFT and Network Rail has resulted in more problems, with trains having to operate in a way that they were not designed for and needing expensive overhauls and modifications to cope, let alone the huge disappointment about the cancellation of electrification to Swansea and other locations across the network.
Station management has been touched on, in particular at Paddington, and although Cardiff Central, where we see confusion, is managed by Transport for Wales, a lot of GWR services go through it. Other issues include accessibility of toilets, for disabled customers in particular, or toilet facilities not even being available; ticket barriers not working; the failure of rail replacement services, notably over Christmas, with no co-ordination of buses and trains, and many people being delayed even further; and of course the provision of information to passengers.
My view of what is to blame has been clear for many years. It is the separation of track from trains brought about by privatisation, the fragmentation of network and franchises, and the consistent lack of political leadership and oversight—epitomised in extremis by the current Transport Secretary, I am sorry to say. It is time to take back control of our railways and to return them to public ownership or, even better, in my view as a Co-operative MP, to move them to a public co-operative or mutual model, in some combination that brings together the best of a passenger or consumer and staff-led service, where everyone has a stake, and fragmentation in the system is simply reduced.
Many commentators and experts have written important works on how to run our railways in future. Back in 2011, Christian Wolmar did a report for the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, and in 2012 an ASLEF and Co-operative party report by Professor Paul Salveson looked at issues in Wales. The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), have made clear their support for a “people’s railway”, which would deal with many of the issues.
I have three simple questions which I hope that the Minister will address in his response. What are the DFT doing to hold GWR to its franchise commitments, and does he agree that the issues raised today are unacceptable? What justification did his Department have for extending the franchise, and is he considering further extensions? Why has the DFT set such unrealistic targets for the new rolling stock, and does his Department take responsibility for any delays?
Seven Back Benchers wish to speak, which gives about six minutes each. That is a guideline, rather than set a time limit.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this much needed debate on Great Western Railway. It allows me to talk about performance and delay problems in south-east Wales, including cross-border ones, and the service to Cardiff. One of the issues that I receive most correspondence on, in particular now the Severn bridge tolls have gone, is the poor quality of cross-border GWR services between Newport, Severn Tunnel Junction and Bristol.
Over recent years, the railway network in our area of south-east Wales has been plagued by chronic overcrowding and unreliable services, which have simply not adapted to growing demand. It is worth emphasising that over the past two decades, Severn Tunnel Junction alone has experienced a staggering 297% increase in station entries and exits, which will only keep growing. More people are moving to our area to commute to Bristol—we have some of the fastest-rising house prices in the UK—and it is estimated that the station’s catchment area will include more than 65,000 within the next decade.
In the past year, passengers on key commuter services between Bristol and Severn Tunnel Junction have endured regular incidents of short-forming, cancellations and delays, compounded of course by the unprecedented level of engineering works on the network in 2018. Statistics from GWR show that weekday closures were up by 66% on 2017, and weekend and overnight work up by 145%. Clearly, work to repair, modernise and improve the tracks and the service offered to passengers is welcome, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said, there is little good feeling among passengers that what they are getting is good value for money for the increasing costs of their commutes, especially compared with many other areas in Europe.
Since 2010, the cost of a season ticket between Newport and Bristol Temple Meads has risen by 38%, and between Newport and Cardiff by an eye-watering 45%. No wonder commuters are feeling fed up. As my hon. Friend said, that is reflected in the most recent Transport Focus rail passenger satisfaction survey, which showed overall satisfaction with GWR services at its lowest level in more than four years. The survey also showed that between 2017 and 2018, passenger satisfaction with GWR’s punctuality and reliability fell by 4%, and passenger satisfaction with levels of crowding fell by 6%.
I have expressed concerns about overcrowding and reliability directly to the managing director of GWR, and he has met constituents. I am grateful that he has been attentive to the problems. He has stated frankly that services were not good enough in 2018 and that customers had every right to feel frustrated. He assures me that we can expect some tangible improvements this year, given that the programme of training for drivers on new or improved rolling stock is nearing completion, and given progress on the switch to a newer fleet of local trains.
Over the next few months, however, GWR is still due to be working with a transitioning fleet of trains, which limits flexibility and has the potential to lead to delays. It is therefore important for the operator to redouble its efforts to ensure that any disruption to passengers is minimised. Communication with passengers is key—it is key for people to know what is going on over the next few months.
Locally, I am pleased that the peak Cardiff to Portsmouth GWR services, which are used by commuters to Bristol boarding at Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction, will be permanently upgraded to five carriages by the end of year. That is long overdue, and the sooner in 2019 that change can be delivered the better. The service has been nicknamed the “Sardine Express”. People have been left on platforms and told to travel in toilets, people have fainted, and people have suffered many other incidents of chronic overcrowding just trying to get to work. I understand that GWR is also working on plans to increase morning and evening peak services between Cardiff and London Paddington. That is much needed, and we need further details soon.
It is important that we see what time savings are possible from the trains and electrified lines once they are in place, although it would be far preferable for us to have a proper electrified line from London to Swansea. The Government’s decision to cancel the full electrification of the main line remains a strategic blunder, and an unforgivable snub to the people of south Wales.
While I am on the subject of where the UK Government have failed our Welsh train lines, I look forward to the Williams rail review addressing UK rail investment in Wales. As many hon. Members have said, despite Network Rail’s routes in Wales accounting for 11% of the route length, 11% of the stations and 20% of the level crossings in England and Wales, since 2011 an average of only about 2% of money spent on network enhancements in England and Wales has been spent in Wales. We should have received far more than that.
To conclude, the promise of improved services in 2019 is welcome, but we will continue to hold GWR and the Government to account on cross-border rail services. My constituents have endured a poor quality of service for far too long. Ultimately, the best way to keep fares down and to ensure that services are run in the interests of passengers rather than profit is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said, to bring our railways back into public ownership.
I am glad to be able to speak in this debate. Thank you for giving me the opportunity take part, Mr Betts. In this place, we often speak about things that we do not have personal experience of. However, as the MP for Penzance, the furthest south-west part of the country, I can claim that I have experience when it comes to railways, and Great Western Railway in particular, because I live so far away.
I want my tone to be positive, but it is true that I have seen delays. One time, about 12 Conservative MPs took about 12 hours to get just from Devon to London, missing several votes. That could have been dealt with better by Great Western Railway. However, that was some time ago, and we have not seen a repeat lately. It is also true that far too often the washbasins have no water, which is important for basic hygiene, let alone anything else. Furthermore, the refund experience for delays has not been good enough. From speaking to Great Western Railway, I understand that it gave that job to another company, but it did not go so well. I believe it has been improved.
It is very easy to complain; if we use trains a lot, we can always find reason to moan about something. Obviously, we want value for money, but the truth is that on our rail network, not just in the south-west but across the country, there has been enormous growth in passenger numbers. Since 2010, in Cornwall and the south-west, the number has grown far more than anyone ever expected. There are infrastructure problems right the way down the south-west, but the figures provided by the Library show that there are only 79 complaints for every 100,000 journeys. I represent about 100,000 people across my constituency. I would be quite glad to receive just 79 complaints. I imagine many other industries and sectors have a higher rate of complaints.
Many comments were made about price. It is a fair point that people who pay the maximum to go down to Cornwall spend huge amounts of money. However, when I came up on Monday, my advance single was just £19. That will please those who look closely at my expenses. I want to take a more positive tone, but that may change, because from 17 February, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) knows, there will be major disruption on the network because of Network Rail’s tunnel improvements. I am not yet sure how I will get here.
I want to talk briefly about my constituents right at the end of the line in Penzance, who have seen 36 brand-new inter-city express trains. That is over and above what the Government ordered. Many of them are specifically to service the route in Devon and Cornwall. I do not recognise many of the concerns raised today about those trains. I do not hear from constituents the complaints about the new trains that have been expressed in the debate. Far from selling all its old rolling stock, Great Western Railway has retained 11 trains purely to serve the Cornish economy and is beginning a half-hourly service. In the near future, passengers will be able to go a platform anywhere in Cornwall and get a train within half an hour. That is a significant connectivity improvement for those living in the very rural south-west part of the country.
Great Western Railway has worked with councils and others to invest more than £22 million in a train care centre in Penzance—a massive piece of infrastructure. Often, Cornwall is a poor cousin when it comes to big schemes such as that, so we are delighted to have new skilled jobs, apprenticeship opportunities and huge investment in the heart of Penzance. The sleeper carriages have been completely refurbished. Those who use the sleeper will see a dramatic improvement from the carriages that served for many decades to the plush new carriages. I am not sure whether they are four or five star, but they are certainly very comfortable. I recommend that the Minister and others come right down to Penzance; people are reluctant to do so, but the sleeper service is excellent.
Great Western Railway is expanding depots at Exeter and elsewhere to allow for the half-hourly service. There are positive things to be said about what is happening on our rail network right down to Penzance. If someone were to drive down to Penzance today, they would find a whole load of roadworks in St Erth, which is the last major junction before Penzance. I do not want to discourage anyone from going on holiday, but they should take the train. The roadworks are happening because of the huge investment in the station, which will boost our economy and tourism. People will be able to get to the train station, park their car and get on the railway to go to all corners of the network—Penzance, St Ives and elsewhere. That is a real boost for tourism and a real opportunity to provide much-needed improvements to infrastructure. There was more investment in infrastructure last year than in any year since Brunel built the railway. It is no surprise that there will be some disruption to our journeys. I am confident that there will be better performance, better trains, better capacity and a better timetable.
We are getting to the five-year anniversary of when the railway washed into the sea at Dawlish. Those images are permanently fixed in the minds of those of us who live down there and were cut off for several weeks. People around the world saw the intense damage to that section of the railway. There is no way that Great Western Railway can be held responsible for the delays in getting a solution. The solution has not yet been absolutely confirmed, and I take the opportunity to say to the Minister that we must make progress. We will not be forgiven if there is another catastrophe such as that, with no progress to improve that part of the infrastructure.
There has been major transformation and increased demand, and we should expect teething and growing pains. Mr Betts, I wonder whether you could give me some advice. When our children grow, they go through teething, which can be a very stressful process for them and their parents. They then develop into puberty, which again can be a stressful and difficult process. Is it your suggestion that we hand our children over to the state, or that we continue to work with them and enable them to grow, flourish and make the contribution to society that we want them to? As Great Western grows and develops and the network improves, and we go through growing and teething pains, I suggest that we stick with the commitment to improve infrastructure, to support our industry and to get the services we deserve in the far south-west.
All the advice I can give is for Members to stick to six minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate. Great Western needs to answer questions not just on the Welsh lines, but on the service to the far south-west. It was good to hear from the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) about Great Western’s service to the far south-west, but I am afraid I am not drinking the Kool-Aid in the way that he is. We need huge improvements.
Today marks five years since Dawlish was washed away. We all remember the hanging Peruvian rope bridge images. Five years on, there have been sound bites aplenty, and we have had press releases and promises coming out of our ears. If we could lay those press releases next to each other to form a railway, we would have the best train line in the world, but we cannot; we need the money. I really hoped that there would have been a funding announcement to coincide with the five-year anniversary, to show that Ministers get it. Instead, we seem to have half-cancelled visits, planning applications submitted without the funding to go along with them and a lack of understanding about when the money will come.
The far south-west needs and wants its fair share of rail funding. The programme for which Network Rail has submitted a planning application seems to be a good step forward, which would improve not only Great Western services but CrossCountry services that use that piece of track. We need the Minister or the Secretary of State to announce the money. They do not need to come to Devon to do that; they could make their announcement in Whitehall, or the Minister could make it today. All we need is confirmation that the money will come. To date, we have not had that, and the lack of funding for our train line grates on people in the far south-west.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned half-cancelled visits in reference to me. I know there was a media story about that yesterday. I have never been scheduled to visit Devon; I am afraid that that is just incorrect. I am very happy to ensure he does not inadvertently mislead the House.
I thank the Minister for doing so. If he has not planned to visit, I encourage him to do so, so that he can see the problems we are having at Dawlish.
Did the hon. Gentleman just tell me not to bother visiting, but say in the next sentence that I should visit? I look forward to a visit, but I ask that he be consistent.
I think the Minister is confused. I would like him to visit, and to reach into his pockets and give us the funding we deserve. I would like the Government of which he is a part not to have spent five years presiding over promises of jam tomorrow, but no funding. I am happy to have this back and forth, but people in the far south-west just want a train line that works, so that Great Western and CrossCountry services will not be cut off.
Five years on, the situation is not good enough, and we need that announcement today. If the Secretary of State visits the west country in two weeks’ time—I hope he does—I hope he will realise that he should have made that announcement months if not years ago, so that we would not be in the situation we are in today.
The anger that people in the far south-west feel is similar to that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. Yesterday I asked people on Facebook, and they told me about their decisions to drive from the far south-west to Bristol or London because it is cheaper and faster. People mentioned problems with accessing trains as a result of the high cost, which people on disability living allowance cannot afford. I agree with my hon. Friend that the staff who work for Great Western Railway do a good job, but they are let down by a system that does not give them the focus they need.
Some things, however, have changed. On timetable changes, the half-hourly GWR service from Plymouth to Cornwall was supposed to start in December last year, but because of the timetabling chaos presided over by the Government, it has been delayed until December this year. Can the Minister reassure us that that service will start in December this year, and that passengers will not have to wait any longer for it?
I am grateful that we have new trains in the far south-west. They are a different model from those used in the service to Wales, and I would like the Minister to inject an element of transparency into any problems with the new trains along the Dawlish sea wall. I hope that the new trains will not encounter the same problems as the Voyagers do on the CrossCountry service, but if they do encounter problems, the best thing that the Minister and Great Western Railway can do is to be transparent and open about those problems rather than hiding them away. We need honesty in the far south-west about our funding and services. I agree with the hon. Member for St Ives that the sleeper service is better than it was, but we need that level of improvement right across our network.
The key point about the train service in the west country concerns whether someone can afford to get a train. The high price of train tickets is deeply disturbing, especially in Plymouth, which has a low-wage economy. Not everyone can afford the cost of train tickets to London, Bristol or other parts of the network. We need a train service that is resilient and has a long-term investment plan. This is not just about people getting the train. For us in Plymouth a decent, fast and resilient train service is totemic to our identity as a region. It tells a story about whether our region is open for business, and about whether Ministers will put their money where their mouth is and fund that train line properly. I hope that when he concludes the debate, the Minister will announce that there will be money. I fear that we will get more promises of jam tomorrow with no funding announcement, but I hope the Minister will prove me wrong.
The train line between Cheltenham and London is critical—I have likened it in the past to an artery, because it is responsible for nourishing so much of Cheltenham’s prosperity. That has never been truer than it is today, because Cheltenham has exciting prospects with things such as the cyber-park, which will allow start-up businesses in that crucial sector to grow and develop, and will bring prosperity and opportunity to people from all walks of life. However, there is no doubt that the service provided by Great Western Railway is not at the level we need it to be.
Last summer we had a really concerning situation because, as I said to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), there were insufficient train crews. When I raised the issue with GWR, it said, “Well, some people are training and so on”, and although that was terribly interesting, it was not a satisfactory explanation. To be fair, GWR recognises that it needs to improve, but even if it does I have a lingering concern about one crucial factor: the cost. Even for somewhere such as Cheltenham, which has a higher per capita income than the national average, the cost of a walk-up ticket is completely prohibitive. Again, it is not a complete answer to say that people must book in advance. If we want an agile economy in which people need to get on a train and go to London, it is not appropriate to say simply that that option is effectively not available to people because of the cost.
What is so invidious is that the cost per mile from Cheltenham to London is so much higher than in other parts of the country. The reasons for that seem opaque and are lost in the mists of time; they are linked to the structure that prevailed at the time of British Rail. That has got to change, particularly because although the cost per mile from Cheltenham is so much higher than it is elsewhere, the speed is slower. For example, a train journey from Exeter to London—200 miles—is quicker than one from Cheltenham to London, which is less than half the distance.
It is important to place this issue in a wider context, because it has not been all bad. GWR has been responsible for significant investment in Cheltenham Spa station, and we look forward to the opening of the car park in due course, with more than 80 additional spaces and an improved forecourt. The Swindon to Kemble line has been redoubled, and we look forward to sub-two-hour trains to London later this year. Those important service improvements cannot come soon enough, however, because the risk is of a modal shift away from trains as my constituents decide that instead of getting on a train at Cheltenham they will drive to Swindon, Kingham, Kemble or elsewhere—the point about pollution and so on has already been made.
Where does that lead us in terms of public policy? The drumbeat for renationalisation is growing louder—one can hear that from those on the Opposition Benches—but I respectfully counsel against it, because it is not the solution that a lot of people hope it might be. First, it would be extremely expensive to renationalise the railways, and that would mean taking precious resources away from other sectors. Secondly, my real concern is that were the railways to be nationalised, if it came to a bidding war between the NHS and railways, the NHS would win. If it came to a bidding war between schools and railways, schools would win. If it came to a bidding war with any other precious public service, railways would be likely to come off second best.
I am just about old enough to remember the state of British Rail. It was atrocious: old, dirty, clunky rolling stock, and unspeakably awful food. Although I have some sympathy with the idea of renationalisation—there can be limits to privatisation, particularly when dealing with public goods that have a natural monopoly—we should be careful what we wish for.
The hon. Gentleman makes interesting points about public spending. Does he agree that the current Government are already making a significant investment in High Speed 2? Surely, any Government would balance their investments and spending on a number of different projects. In addition, the current franchise system is hugely costly and is using large amounts of public money very badly.
It is true that the system uses public money, but it comes down to how much public money, and what is the proper balance. I simply make the point that although it is easy in the abstract to suggest that if the railways come into public ownership, fares will come down and quality will go up, I suspect that is unlikely in reality. If I am looking for additional funding for my local oncology centre, compared with more rolling stock, I think I know which one I and many colleagues would prioritise.
If train operating companies want to enjoy public support—they do not enjoy enough public support because they are the author of their own misfortune in many circumstances—they must raise their game in two particulars. First, they must be more reliable, and secondly they must be more competitive in their pricing structure. Otherwise, the people of Cheltenham, who I represent, will feel that they are getting a raw deal. Public services must be for the people, and GWR needs to raise its game.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to speak on behalf of our constituents. Every delayed journey has a personal story, whether that is a missed connection for a holiday, or being late for a crucial job interview or hospital appointment. For all the promises we have been given, as we have heard, the figures remain poor.
I wish to talk about the increase in delays and the level of compensation offered to GWR customers, compared with those of other train operators. First, however, I will touch on the promised electrification. The delays and disruption to our current service have been significantly affected by the failings and mismanagement of the electrification programme by the Government and Network Rail. The electrification programme offered much in the south-west. We were promised increased capacity, improved reliability and a better passenger experience, but it was so poorly managed that costs rose by £1.2 billion in 2015 alone. I was on the Public Accounts Committee at the time, and our report into electrification called the situation “staggering and unacceptable”.
I recall the decision, in 2016, to defer the electrification project for the key sections between Bath Spa, Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads. At one evidence-taking sitting of the Committee I asked Department for Transport leaders whether they had looked at the devastating effects that that would have on the local economy around Bristol South. I was told by the then permanent secretary that the impact would not be “perceptible”. That attitude reinforces the need for more local control over decisions that affect the city’s infrastructure. They should not be left to civil servants in Whitehall with no understanding of local economic needs.
To add insult to injury, the complete mess that was made of the electrification project in our area was spun as a positive thing for passengers. We were told that the pausing of the programme meant that it would be possible instead to embark on customer improvements and to offer passengers benefits that newer trains with more capacity would provide, without the requirement for “costly and disruptive” electrification works. We were promised sleek new Hitachi trains, with more seats, more leg room and better wi-fi. Views differ about the trains. Personally, I quite like the seats. However, the catering is totally pot luck, and the split trains make boarding a nightmare. As to the quiet carriage—there is no indication that it is one. We certainly do not feel that the quality of the experience has improved. The issue remains. The Government made promises to us about electrification and investment in the infrastructure of our city, which is a net contributor to the Exchequer, and which is struggling with air pollution and would like the promises fulfilled.
Despite the lofty promises of 2016, the statistics today speak for themselves. Problems are on the rise, as has been set out in the very good Library briefing for the debate. Most critically, in each quarter of 2017-18 the proportion of trains cancelled or significantly late was greater than in the previous quarter—a trend that accounts for the decline in passenger satisfaction across the network. I understand that GWR’s response has been that improvements to the service have caused short-term disruption, but I expect we would all like to know how long the short term can go on. My constituents have suffered long enough at the hands of the chaos between the Department for Transport, Network Rail and Great Western Railway.
That brings me on to the issue of compensation. There is gross inequality in the amount of compensation being offered to passengers by the different rail operators across the country. The extent of the anomaly was first brought to my attention in July by a constituent who was suffering perpetual delays in her daily commute, with all the negative knock-on effects that that can bring. I wrote to the Secretary of State and argued that it cannot be fair that some train operating companies offer refunds for delays of over 15 minutes, whereas others offer them for delays of over 30 minutes—including, bizarrely, GWR on its Thames valley route. However, GWR does not offer refunds on 30-minute delays on the route serving my constituents. I also highlighted the discrepancy between the levels of refund paid by GWR for 60-minute delays. On local routes serving Bristol it is 50%, and yet on high-speed trains it is 100%. I urged the Secretary of State to seek amendments to the national rail conditions of travel, to reflect best practice in the industry, and to define 15 minutes as the new criterion for being late.
Three months later, the then Rail Minister replied and explained that the national rail conditions of travel was a national standard, setting out minimum standards, and that most train operating companies offered more than the minimum required. That is not an awful lot of good to my constituents. The reply also set out details of the Government’s Delay Repay scheme, which compensates passengers for significant delays and cancellations based on the fare paid, with 50% for delays of 30 to 59 minutes and 100% for delays of over 60 minutes. I am pleased about the new scheme, but, as the Library briefing highlights, previous initiatives have shown that it can take many years to bring about such changes. Based on previous initiatives, the Library estimates that the new version of the scheme would not be rolled out until the mid to late 2020s. That means years more injustice for my constituents who suffer poor service that is unacceptable. However, I try to remain hopeful. The letter informed me that the Department has requested GWR to implement the scheme before the current contract expires. The managing director of GWR also told me that the operator is engaged in discussions with the Department and that it would like to introduce the scheme, although it has not yet been finalised. That was some three months ago.
I want to ask the Minister today what the outcome of those discussions was. Will he confirm that GWR will indeed introduce the Delay Repay scheme in 2019, as previously indicated, so that I can reassure my constituents and they will no longer be caught in the bad-tempered arguments now going on between the train operator, the track operator, and the Government?
Briefly, we are, in the first instance, talking about problems with the trains. On the new trains there are problems with the toilets. When someone washes their hands in the sink, water goes all over the floor, and in fact water starts to seep out of the back of the toilet; that is to do with the way they are manufactured. There are fewer toilets and some carriages do not have them. I do not mean to be preoccupied with toilets, but some trains have arrived at Bristol without any carriage with a toilet.
There are issues with wi-fi not working, and with plug sockets between the seats. I found myself in a situation where there was a sleeping woman in the neighbouring seat, and fiddling around to plug a device in can be slightly embarrassing. There is no buffet car and the buffet trolley cannot get down. There are problems of cost, punctuality and cancelled trains. There were eight carriages in the old trains, and now there are two lots of five. Sometimes one of the fives is cancelled at short notice, so that people who have booked particular seats are affected. Families cannot sit together and people with disabilities have to stand up. Those are appalling standards for customers.
As to more strategic issues, as I mentioned earlier, Wales has 5% of the population, about 1.5% of the investment and 11% of the track, so we have been grotesquely underfunded. Since 2011 we have had about £198 million and we should have had £600 million. Electrification to Swansea was cancelled—that was another £700 million; and Network Rail cancelled a further £1 billion. The chronic under-investment has meant that standards simply are not up to scratch. The service to Swansea from Paddington is often only hourly, and it takes three hours. On High Speed 2, people will be able to get to Manchester within an hour. I could compare the Leeds and Manchester area with the Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea area—which is 3 million people. We get two trains per hour on the Bristol to Cardiff bit, and fewer to Swansea, as I have said. In the Leeds and Manchester area there are six trains per hour, and of course an investment of £3 billion is being made in the trans-Pennine upgrade—on top of the £52 billion for HS2. We are grotesquely underfunded, and our economy suffers massively.
Trains run at 125 mph in England, but when they get to Wales their speed goes down to 60, 70 or 80 mph, because we have not had the investment in the track. That is not a western powerhouse, but more of a 19th century infrastructure. After years of under-investment it is time for change and investment. What we do not need is the Secretary of State for Wales coming along with his penny-farthing idea of an extra little Swansea parkway station, hoping that he can pat us on the head and give us a Brexit bung so that we will vote the right way.
We need investment in a Swansea metro, strategic infrastructure and connectivity between the Bristol conurbation, Cardiff and Swansea, so that we can grow a regional hub for the future. I hope that some of the leadership for that can be taken by Transport for Wales—the UK Government obviously have other things to think about—and that with the right money and the right governance we will get the right result. As we approach the appalling disaster of Brexit, we need investment in our infrastructure now, to give us a fighting chance of building prosperity in south Wales. That requires investment, planning and UK money, and it requires the Welsh Government to be given the steering wheel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. A number of excellent points have been made with which I want to associate myself, particularly in the speeches of my hon. Friends who represent seats in south Wales—there were several, so I will not mention them all by name—and of my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth).
Obviously, fast and efficient rail services are hugely important to commuters and businesses in my area. Reading has more inward commuters from other parts of Berkshire and nearby areas than people commuting to London. The railway is a crucial part of the economic infrastructure across the Thames valley towards Bristol and, indeed, to south Wales. The importance of the growth strategy for south Wales and towards nearby parts of England has just been described by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies).
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) enjoyed sitting in the seats in the new Great Western trains. I rarely get a seat. This morning was a typical example; I was standing up all the way from Reading, which was manageable but certainly not ideal. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West is absolutely right about the quality of the trains. Although it is good to see new investment—we obviously want that—there has been quite serious mismanagement of it. The internal fitting of the new trains leaves a lot to be desired. The lack of a buffet car, the issues with toilets and a number of other practical issues seriously affect people. That can begin to wear down those who are commuting every day, and is deeply frustrating for many people, not least thousands of my constituents.
As if on cue, I was delayed by 10 minutes this morning and last night I had to put up with half an hour of chaotic mismanagement by First Great Western, which was perfectly timed for this debate, as though it was waiting to help us make our point.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue. There has been an average 3% fare rise on First Great Western services since the start of the year, with similar hikes throughout the UK, but at the same time there are talks of a reduced service. Does he agree that at some stage this House and this Minister must underline in a real and meaningful way that the profit margin is not the final consideration? The No. 1 consideration is that the service is viable, that a service is provided to those who need it most and, if the service is not there, that there is compensation. Those three things are necessary and must be in place before we go forward.
The hon. Gentleman draws on several points that I and colleagues are due to make or have made.
I come back to the issue of delays and quite how frustrating they are for daily commuters in towns like Reading and Slough, in addition to the sensible points made earlier. It is deeply frustrating to have to deal with delays on a daily basis. It has a huge impact on family life and on people’s desire to work in London or to commute into Reading, Slough, Swindon or other business centres along the line. I am sure that applies to the other towns and cities represented here today. It is a deeply frustrating daily occurrence for hundreds and thousands of people in this region, which is a crucial part of our railway network.
I have a series of questions for the Minister about the performance of GWR and the Department for Transport. I will address both infrastructure investment and the management of the railway. First and foremost, why on earth did the Government delay electrification along this line? We have heard about the benefits that south Wales would have had if it had been properly managed. We have also had delays to our rail services because of the lengthening of the roll-out of electrification. The installation of the gantries was hugely delayed and on a number of the local lines that feed out from Reading, such as the lines to Basingstoke, Southampton, Oxford and Gatwick, we do not have that level of investment. Commuters using those lines, including many of my constituents and others in neighbouring constituencies, are suffering and would like to see more electrification, not less. It is a huge issue.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on that very important point. In Bath, where we suffer from massive air pollution, electrification has been stopped. That should certainly be a priority, particularly looking at air pollution. Why has the electrification through Bath not continued?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point about pollution. There are three aspects of pollution that are deeply challenging in my area. The first is air pollution from soot and nitrous oxide. The second is the effect on global warming. Electrifying the railways should be the low-hanging fruit in tackling global warming, as it is obviously going to take carbon out of the atmosphere. It is a huge disappointment to many people that the Government have not seen it as a key priority.
The third point, which may affect colleagues in other urban centres, is that as part of the botched electrification, the train maintenance depot in Reading was moved. I believe that that has happened in other areas. We now have diesel locomotives, which should have been taken out of service, revving their engines at 5 o’clock in the morning outside terraced houses in Reading, because the maintenance depot was moved as part of the works. That is completely unacceptable and there is an ongoing legal dispute between Reading Borough Council and First Great Western, so I will not go into further detail. Noise pollution is a substantial additional problem as well as air pollution and carbon dioxide pollution, which all seriously affect towns and cities along the line and the lives of people who live near the railway.
My second question for the Minister, which is also blunt, is, why has First Great Western’s franchise been repeatedly extended, given all the poor performance issues? I hope that as a new Minister, he will investigate that.
Time is pressing, but I would like to point out that I disagree with the Government’s policy of large increases in season ticket prices. That has a direct impact on people in my constituency and along the line, as we heard earlier. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that commuters are already having their salaries squeezed. Many residents in Reading and Woodley commute to London, or to nearby towns. They live in an area with high house prices and rocketing private rental prices, and at the same time their season tickets are going up by very large sums. That means that families, couples and single people are facing large cuts to their disposable income, which has a significant impact on their ability to enjoy life, especially family life. The Minister should address that and rethink this problem.
The railway is a vital public service that could—and should—be run much better. Investment is a key driver for jobs and growth in the Thames valley and along the whole railway corridor. However, as we have heard, there is a clear contrast between the poor performance of the current Government and a much more sensible long-term strategy. Colleagues have mentioned the importance of bringing the railway back into public ownership.
I will highlight that contrast in three simple points. I have mentioned the Government’s poor management of electrification, and that areas such as Reading, Wales and others have suffered severely. There are other aspects of mismanagement, including the cost to passengers of high fares and delays. In contrast, the Labour Government paid for the vast majority of the rebuilding of Reading station, which is a huge asset to our town and to travellers up and down the network. An incoming Labour Government would invest in electrification, and, most importantly, bring the railways back into public ownership. I believe that that would dramatically improve the quality of life for rail travellers and for businesses that are reliant on the railways.
In my opinion, rail is a vital public service, and the evidence clearly shows that. It brings economic benefit to our region. Given that the Minister is new in this post, I ask him to rethink the Government’s policy and to look again at the dogma and failed economic views that have led to mismanagement, to the chaos of the franchising system, and to the lack of investment in capital infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Betts, for yet another crucial debate about our railways.
Over the last few months it feels like I have been taking a tour of our nation, as I have felt the pain of passengers who have been badly let down by the way in which our rail service has been run. We have seen cases of incompetence in governance under the Secretary of State, how the whole franchise system is broken, and the cost of that failure to passengers. We have also heard loud and clear the cry for one integrated rail service, in public ownership. It will be a new model of public ownership—unlike the myths peddled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)—that moves the debate forward into a new era of rail. I say to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) that it is 25 years since the Railway Act 1993, so it is clear that the broken model has gone through its growing pains and that it is time for change.
The model that we are promoting will address many of the issues and concerns that hon. Members have raised in the debate, not least those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), when she talked about the cross-border issues that are hampering the connectivity that we need. We are ambitious, but we are real; we are radical, but we will work within the parameters of the possible. Yet again, I put on record my thanks to industry, individual experts, the travelling public, trade unions and staff, for their engagement in building a plan for a modern integrated transport system, with rail at its heart.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) opened the debate eloquently, not only speaking powerfully on behalf of his constituents, but advocating innovatively for reform. I know the Welsh Government have sought to bring about reform of the railways in Wales, but they have had their hands tied by the centralist approach of our Government and the Secretary of State for Transport himself. Perhaps that was most noticeable, as we have heard today, when the Secretary of State, without consideration for improving connectivity, reliability and economic opportunity for people in Wales, with the stroke of a pen cancelled the rail electrification programme beyond Cardiff. That shameful act denied some of the poorest parts of the UK the economic opportunity to reach their full potential.
I would like the Minister to explain to me how the cost of the electrification upgrade ran out of control. The project was costed at £1 billion when the work was first identified under a Labour Government for the full 216 miles of the route; the cost rose to £1.7 billion in 2014, to £2.8 billion under the Hendy review, and now to a staggering £5.58 billion. The cost ran away with itself under the coalition and Tory Governments. I further ask why, when the economic chances of passengers in Wales and of Wales itself were cut, the Welsh Government were not able to access the £700,000 to invest in improvements to their public transport system. That would have been an obvious response, especially given the under-investment in transport in Wales, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) highlighted.
Instead of moving things forward, the Secretary of State announced that passengers beyond Cardiff would need to travel not on the new electric trains—we have heard about the multitude of problems with those—but on bi-modes. We have heard even more scandal about how the bi-modes just do not work. Those trains will still bellow out dirty diesel; they are heavier, more expensive to run and more demanding on the infrastructure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) highlighted, there have been further problems with the new rolling stock. We have certainly heard that it has not addressed the real issues of congestion; we heard about the “Sardine Express”, and other hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) have highlighted how hard it is to get a seat on the trains.
Sadly, that is what we have come to expect from the Secretary of State. Thank goodness we have creative and forthright Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friends, who truly speak up for our whole population in Wales and the south-west on these matters and have put forward, yet again, a real case for urgency in bringing forward the transition to a modern railway system.
My hon. Friend is making some strong points. Would she agree that the innovation shown by the Welsh Government is in stark contrast to the DFT? For example, in my constituency, they are working with a local business partnership involving Investec, Nigel and Andrew Roberts and others to develop a new St Mellons Parkway station in the east of the constituency, which is currently under-served by rail stations. That is an innovative approach, with Government working with the private sector to see that development go ahead.
What the Welsh Government have been able to demonstrate is that rail is not an entity in itself, but is fully integrated into the economy and connected with other transport routes. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that point into the debate.
The most powerful arguments I have heard in this debate have come from the voices of passengers, which hon. Members have reflected. We have heard their pain and their stories of woe. The fact that passengers across this line are paying 20% more but getting a worse service is frankly unacceptable.
We have heard about innovations that are needed to upgrade stations and making them safe. My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) both highlighted how disabled people need a proper service, not only at stations, but on the trains themselves, which has not been delivered even with the new rolling stock. There is a catalogue of problems that must be resolved. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) gave the most powerful of speeches in making the case that, five years on from seeing the railway at Dawlish washed into the sea, the Government have yet to drive forward a programme to protect the whole of that vital south-west economy. We must see peninsula rail moving forward at pace now to protect the economy there.
Of course, we have the route itself, which is crying out for focus and proper governance. We have heard how the Delay Repay 15 system has not been introduced in an expedient way, yet this is a line that has had three direct awards, which will shortly total nine years, when it only had a franchise for seven years. Surely the Government can set the terms to protect the interests of passengers, but they have failed to do so. I would like more accountability from the Minister when he responds on why they keep issuing direct awards, which clearly shows that the franchise system is completely broken and does not enable the state to demonstrate that it can run the railways far more efficiently.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, because of time. As frustrations have grown, we have seen satisfaction plummet; we have heard how vexed and unsatisfied passengers are with the poor service on that line.
It was last year’s timetable fiasco that really brought all those issues into focus. Staff themselves, as some hon. Members have highlighted today, have been professional and incredibly patient in their dealings with the public, and have received a quantum of abuse in trying to keep people safe through this time. It is not their fault, after all, that the Secretary of State meddled in the planned timetabling process by changing his mind over the projects he was cutting. It is not their fault that the private companies could not get their act together to have the trains delivered and up and running on time, with proper testing of the system. It was the Secretary of State who failed to hold the companies to account. It is not the staff’s fault that Network Rail, which is accountable to—guess who?—the Secretary of State, failed to deliver the infrastructure on time.
Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?
I do not have time, I am afraid.
The Secretary of State, who treats this vital public service as if it were his own personal train set, is culpable for the pain experienced by customers. It demonstrates the weakness of this Prime Minister that he is still in post. Those who have sought recompense for their loss have clearly seen an inequitable response in terms of the compensation they can access; we have heard today that half of passengers do not even know how to access the compensation system, and that the network itself has paid out £22.6 million in compensation over a period of just two years.
This Government, as my hon. Friends have highlighted, have made promises to passengers time and again, and have let them down badly. Let us get Britain moving again, as our Labour Government will when we come to power. We have a plan; we just need the power.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I will start by thanking everybody who has contributed to the debate, and congratulating the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing it in the first place. Many issues have been raised, and I will try to address as many as I can in the short time allowed, so I must press on fast.
The question has been asked, “Are the Government investing in railways?” The answer is yes, of course; we are investing a record amount to deliver more reliable, more comfortable and safer journeys for our rail network. Alongside our investment in infrastructure, we have delivered new, more reliable trains on the Great Western main line. There has been a change, however, in the way we approach investment in the next funding period. In the past, we focused very much on enhancements, but we are now focusing more of our £48 billion budget on reliability, and particularly on repairing and replacing the worn-out parts of our network to increase reliability and punctuality.
Will the Minister give way?
Oh, crikey—go on. I am always generous about giving way.
The Minister mentioned reliability; I sat with Hitachi, the manufacturers of the new trains on the Great Western service yesterday, and they took me through their own reliability stats, which they admit have not been good, particularly with the introduction of the new trains. Basic things were missed, such as fitting them with filters to deal with pollen and seeds in summer, which meant record breakdown levels last year, during the hottest summer on record since the 1970s. Surely there was some problem with the commissioning of those trains in the first place?
With interventions that long we will really have to scamper. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument. New rolling stock often brings with it some kind of teething period, as we have seen throughout the history of our rail network, but the bottom line is that we are seeing new trains deliver a better service.
The modernisation of the Great Western main line will improve more than 100 million passenger journeys each year and will stimulate economic growth from London, through the Thames valley, certainly through Cheltenham, to the Cotswolds, the west country and south Wales. I fully recognise how vital this service is in not only connecting people but driving the economy.
I also recognise that GWR’s performance last year was not good enough and fell well short of passenger expectations. As a result, GWR worked with partners across the industry and put in place a performance improvement plan, which, although there is of course still more to do, has seen GWR move from delivering 72% of trains between south Wales and Paddington on time six months ago to more than 90% today.
The December timetable change was successfully introduced. The industry significantly reduced planned timetable changes to minimise the risk of severe disruption, which has served to stabilise services and to improve timetable efficiency. In the future, we will stage timetable changes, rather than having one big-bang approach.
I am clear that I expect GWR to do everything it can to minimise cancellations and other disruptions to services. It agreed to and implemented a contractual performance improvement plan, which includes a wide variety of activities across the whole franchise area to improve performance for passengers, including matters under the control of Network Rail.
The Minister is right that there is nothing MPs like more than a bit of railway or GWR-bashing every now and again. However, we need to acknowledge some of the positives. My patch will have a new station, the Worcestershire Parkway station, which will be of huge benefit to my constituents. I just need to make sure that the trains run through it on time.
Well done for getting that one on the record.
Talking about new stations, will the Minister meet me, colleagues and staff from GWR and Network Rail to talk about a new station in Grove in my constituency, which could be part of a network of two or three stations connecting Oxford and Bristol? As more houses are built in the south-east and south-west, local connectivity, alongside inter-city connectivity, is vital.
I most happily agree to meet my right hon. Friend.
Questions were raised earlier about how the industry is held to account. The answer is through the Office of Rail and Road, the industry regulator, which holds Network Rail to account for its performance and takes enforcement action in the event of unacceptable performance. The Government will hold franchise holders to account when things go wrong by enforcing their franchise agreements, with contraventions dealt with under the terms of those agreements and in accordance with the Department’s general management compliance process. Evidence of that can be seen in the recent action taken against Govia Thameslink Railway.
Passenger satisfaction is obviously critical and will remain an absolute focus for me as an incoming Minister. Colleagues raised questions about the governance of the area, and I am pleased to see that Network Rail has joined forces with the regional train companies, GWR and Heathrow Express, to create a new joint supervisory board to drive improvements. This is the latest stage of the companies’ commitment to working closer together to improve the passenger experience.
Investment in transport infrastructure has been a long-standing problem across the UK. We have not invested enough in our transport infrastructure over decades, which applies to Governments of all colours. However, I do not think that that accusation can be made against this Government. We are investing £48 billion in our rail network in the next control period.
Will the Minister give way?
I am running out of time. There will also be more electrification works in this period. The electrification to Newbury and to Bristol Parkway was introduced this year, and we are working to complete the electrification to Cardiff later this year. When all that is complete, we will see benefits including journey time improvements of 15 minutes, which is a significant change.
Fares were mentioned. I remind colleagues that we are in the sixth year of capping regulated fares in line with inflation. We have introduced a railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds, and the industry has introduced a railcard for 26 to 30-year-olds, so basically everybody under 30 will be able to access discounted rail fares. It might also be worth reminding Opposition Members that, in its last year in office, the Labour party gave passengers a 10% fare increase, and that, where Labour now has the capacity to run the railways, through the devolved Administrations, we have also seen fares increase in line with inflation. I gently say to those colleagues that they have been saying one thing but doing another.
Perhaps it is worth further reminding colleagues how many miles of the Great Western main line Labour electrified when it was in office—zero. How much new inter-city rolling stock did Labour introduce when in office? Absolute zero. I understand the comments from Opposition Members, but it feels rather like the arsonists complaining about the amount of time it has taken the fire brigade to arrive.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
No; we are out of time.
Several colleagues raised Delay Repay 15, which will be standard in all new franchise agreements. We are also working very hard to make mid-term contract changes to existing franchises, and we are very close to getting that agreed. I will keep colleagues informed of the progress.
We are about to run out of time. I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. We have covered a wide range of issues, although I am quite sure that we have not been able to cover every single point. I recognise the work taking place at Dawlish, to which we have committed £15 million, and I look forward to going down there. Protecting that line is a national priority, and we will continue to invest in it and to develop solutions to improve its resilience.
I look forward to seeing many areas of the route transformed by December this year, with the new services and new trains that I mentioned. We will continue to introduce improvements during the franchise continuation period. I hope that 2019 brings a further improved service for our constituents and others served by this franchise who are constituents of Members who were not able to be with us today. I assure everybody that the Government are working hard to ensure that the rail industry delivers the service that our constituents rightly expect.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I very much appreciate the number of colleagues from constituencies across the Great Western network who have come to take part, including those from the other side of the House. They made their points with eloquence and seriousness on behalf of their constituents. I am deeply disappointed that the Minister chose to respond in the tone and with the lack of detail that he did. These are serious issues, and it is simply not good enough to gloss over them with a bunch of statistics, warm words and rhetoric. Passengers deserve better.
There is clear evidence that the services are not good enough. GWR admits that they are not good enough, the independent assessors admit they are not good enough and the House of Commons Library shows that they are not good enough. Reliability is not increasing, and is actually getting worse in some cases. Overall passenger journey satisfaction on GWR services is going down, not up. It is frankly time that the Government, the Secretary of State and this Minister got a grip and took some interest in what is actually going on at GWR, rather than simply glossing over the circumstances, and responded to the serious points that have been raised. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position. The reality is that he has not answered a single question put to him today by Members from across the House and has not engaged with the issues in a serious way, instead simply glossing over them with statistics. He has not answered the serious concerns that have been put. This is very disappointing from the Minister and his Department, but it is what we have come to expect.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Great Western Rail (GWR) delays and performance across the network.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered independent accountability of the BBC commissioning process.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to have this Minister replying to the debate, as she has done on previous occasions. I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the lack of transparency at the BBC. There are major concerns about BBC Northern Ireland’s use of public money. I am unaware of the situation in other regions, but if other regions operate on a similar basis to that which I will outline in the next few minutes, there is a problem on a national scale.
I will focus on transparency in Northern Ireland, because BBC NI has not done so. The BBC’s key aim is
“to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value.”
Yes, there are many programmes in which the BBC’s mission is adhered to, but when it comes to the financing and contracting of those programmes, there is a lack of transparency that should not be the case. The programmes are made only as a result of the outdated licence fee, which our constituents are forced to pay if they receive television services. That is public money, but, after many protracted discussions, meetings and correspondence, the brick wall remains—although it can and will be broken down.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is one that he has been involved with for a long time, and today’s debate in Westminster Hall is his opportunity to highlight it. Does he agree that the growing number of people who refuse to pay for a TV licence, understanding that that means that they will not be able to watch any BBC programme, either live or on catch-up, indicates that although people are happy to pay £50 a month for Sky or Virgin services, they are not prepared to give the BBC £12 a month? Does he agree that that disenfranchisement is not to do with the cost of the licence, but to do with the nature of programming, with many people grossly unhappy with the BBC bias, which has become the norm but remains unacceptable? Does he further agree that independent regulation is only the first step needed if there is to be any salvation whatever for the BBC?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The compulsory nature of the licence fee has been raised on previous occasions, and I am glad that he has raised it again today.
Troubling questions remain on the issue of independent accountability. Independent media companies in Northern Ireland have approached me. They are concerned that they do not get a fair deal because of the lack of transparency. I intend to go into that in a little detail, Mr Betts.
I first raised concerns about the BBC Northern Ireland commissioning process back in November 2016—two years and four months ago—when I asked a series of questions of the BBC. Some hon. Members will recall that I raised similar matters in the House in September 2017; I was forced down this route after BBC Northern Ireland kept stonewalling.
Initially, I raised the question of how contracts were awarded. I raised that with senior BBC management and with some who were BBC presenters and had benefited from contracts. Answers were not forthcoming. As a result of the lack of accountability and openness, I took the matter to the office of the BBC director-general, Lord Tony Hall, in April 2018, my questions still not having had satisfactory responses. My concern then focused on a single contract that I was aware of relating to a company called Third Street Studios. There are three points to ponder in relation to Third Street Studios. First, the contract was awarded to a company that did not exist at the time of broadcast, the contract having already been paid. Secondly, this particular company has repeatedly received contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Thirdly—this is the irony—the company had no office and the postal address on its website took anyone who investigated to a taxi rank in Belfast city centre. The lack of independent accountability for these significant sums is staggering.
By August 2018, I still was not getting answers. I then went to the National Audit Office here in London to try to obtain satisfaction about taxpayers’ money, those who were, if I can put it like this, on the inside track in the BBC and how they did not account for their expenditure. I met the National Audit Office, and the meeting was good and constructive. The National Audit Office was then helpful in writing to me to confirm that although it does not normally investigate this type of contractual expenditure, an investigation would be opened up into a number of areas concerning the BBC Northern Ireland commissioning process. I want to concentrate on this for a few moments, just to show the significance of it. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the National Audit Office of the United Kingdom has found grounds to investigate BBC Northern Ireland on a contract of this nature. “Unprecedented” would be an appropriate word to describe this.
Let us just remember the guidelines that the BBC operates under. I will quote them briefly. On “Editorial Integrity and Independence”, the statement is as follows:
“The BBC is independent of outside interests and arrangements that could undermine our editorial integrity. Our audiences should be confident that our decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests.”
On “Fairness”, the BBC states:
“Our output will be based on fairness, openness, honesty and straight dealing.”
On “Transparency”, it states:
“We will be transparent about the nature and provenance of the content we offer online. Where appropriate, we will identify who has created it and will use labelling to help online users make informed decisions about the suitability of content for themselves and their children.”
Lastly, on “Accountability”, it states:
“We are accountable to our audiences and will deal fairly and openly with them. Their continuing trust in the BBC is a crucial part of our relationship with them. We will be open in acknowledging mistakes when they are made and encourage a culture of willingness to learn from them.”
Given that last year I was the only Labour MP to join with most members of the Democratic Unionist party in defending press freedom when there was the chance of a state-appointed press regulator, will the hon. Gentleman recognise that investigations such as that into the renewable heat incentive by BBC Northern Ireland are in the long tradition of fearless investigative journalism by both the BBC and UTV that has served Northern Ireland well during the last 50 years, in both good times and bad?
Yes, I unequivocally agree with that. The only addendum I would make is that the BBC is not exempt from scrutiny itself—that is the point.
It is an appalling reflection on BBC Northern Ireland’s management that a Member of Parliament who has taken a keen interest in these issues both in Parliament and outside has had to take the steps that I have over many months to escalate concerns to the National Audit Office.
May I support the case that the hon. Gentleman is making? When we did the BBC charter review, we were keen to get independent regulation of the BBC through Ofcom and to open up the BBC’s books to the National Audit Office, which it resisted. The BBC can be opaque and not transparent. That said, does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it does not advance the argument for accountability and transparency simply to accuse the BBC, as some hon. Members have done, of bias? I think it tries very hard to present a balanced picture.
I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I invite him to look at more of the BBC’s content. Perhaps then he will reflect on his view. I am sure we will have another debate on that in the coming months.
I will now move on to the specific example I have raised. Third Street Studios has a director who is also a prominent BBC Northern Ireland presenter: Mr Stephen Nolan. The BBC claims that Mr Nolan’s company is an average, independent production company. That is patent nonsense. Mr Nolan quite regularly advertises the television programmes made by his company on his BBC radio show, which is part of his £450,000-a-year job, funded by the licence fee. This is a clear and unfair advantage over other independent production companies, which cannot promote their programmes in the same way.
If an independent production company gets a contract from the BBC, it has to go away, make the programme, supply it to the BBC and hope that the quality of the production will shine through. However, in this instance, as I have outlined, someone who works in the BBC—who has the inside track and knows how it works—can get a contract and then advertise on the BBC for his so-called independent production company, which won the contract from the BBC. That is clearly an unfair advantage.
Since the BBC is effectively funded through the public purse, it must adhere to the same standards as are demanded in other areas of public life. The contract was from 2014—five years ago. I have been asking questions about it for two years, and yet I still do not know basic details about the contract, which we all pay for through the licence fee. The public have paid for it, and therefore they have the right to know the details of how it was awarded and how the expenditure was accounted for. At the moment, we do not know the answers. Why should a contract that was awarded five years ago remain secret? Why not publish all documentation relevant to that series, after five years have passed, unless there is something to hide? That is why the National Audit Office is digging—digging deep, I hope—into the BBC.
The irony is that BBC Northern Ireland programmes continue to investigate the use of public money by Government, as outlined by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), and they are quite right to do that. No one should misunderstand the nature of this debate. The BBC and others are right to conduct such investigations, but we are equally right to hold it to the standard that it holds others to. The BBC is not, and must not be, exempt.
As many will know, the concerns that I and others have do not just stretch to the process of commissioning programmes. I have long campaigned for maximum transparency in relation to pay. We now know that there exists a gender pay gap, but it took a decade for the BBC to come to the point of publishing the salaries of presenters who earned more than £150,000 per year. Does the BBC hope that if it strings people along on the issue of commissioning contracts, the pay issue might disappear? Does the BBC think that just as it dragged its feet on transparency around salaries, it can drag its feet on this? The BBC must think again. It seems to feel as though it can pose questions, but it does not have to answer them; apparently, answering questions is only for the little people. The BBC must—and will—answer these questions.
The National Audit Office sent me a letter dated 30 January 2019. Coincidentally, that was the day after this debate was announced; I will leave people to draw their own conclusions. In that letter, the NAO said,
“the BBC centrally decided to carry out a targeted review of the commissioning process in BBC Northern Ireland.”
The NAO added:
“We are currently reviewing information collected as part of this review and are following up with some specific questions.”
The National Audit Office has confirmed that it will provide answers by the end of February to the questions that were originally asked of the BBC in 2016. In trying to protect and defend those involved, the BBC has further undermined trust in the organisation.
I look forward to the completion of the National Audit Office investigation. I understand that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will visit Northern Ireland next month, as he said in his answer to my parliamentary question last week, and I hope he will take the opportunity to get questions answered by the BBC in Northern Ireland. In the past, the Minister has been responsive and helpful in answering questions. I hope that she will deal with this issue in any discussions that she may have with the BBC in the run-up to the mid-term charter review, which will take place in the next two years.
I hope that my worst fears are not confirmed, but the information I have gleaned to date does not fill me with hope, and neither do all the stonewalling, all the delaying or all the attempts to avoid answering questions. I hope the National Audit Office will get to the truth of these matters. If there are serious questions to answer about the lack of transparency not just in BBC Northern Ireland, but across the nation as a whole, it will be a national scandal and there will have to be serious consequences for the entire BBC hierarchy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on securing this debate on the accountability of the BBC and its commissioning activity. I value his long-standing knowledge, interest and work in this important area.
Before I address the important issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I want to speak briefly about the importance of the BBC as a collaborative partner in the UK’s vibrant creative industries. The BBC is one of the UK’s most admired institutions across the world, and I am very proud of the example it sets as a world-leading public service broadcaster. The BBC has provided some of the most memorable moments across television, radio and online services in recent times. From “Planet Earth” to “Les Misérables”, and the “Today” programme to “Killing Eve”, the BBC is at the centre of conversations in homes and workplaces across the country. All of those moments—and those programmes—depend on the BBC working in partnership with a diverse range of organisations across the creative economy. We have seen examples of how these partnerships deliver high quality and distinctive programming.
Such dynamic and innovative collaboration is crucial to the BBC’s success and must be embedded into the BBC’s everyday work with a broad spectrum of independent producers. After all, some of the highest quality and most popular BBC programmes come from those independent producers. Where would we have been, for example, without the excellent “Bodyguard” on our screens last year, or—one of my personal favourites—“Line of Duty”? Both of these excellent programmes were produced by Jed Mercurio and World Productions. They are just two of the brilliant programmes brought to us by independent producers in partnership with the BBC each year.
The BBC is rightly independent of Government, and it is the BBC Trust’s responsibility to ensure that the BBC delivers on its commissioning obligations. It would therefore not be right for Government to intervene in these matters, but later in my speech I will come back to the influence that we can have.
Collaboration was a key theme of the last BBC charter review. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on his role, when he was a Minister of State in my Department, in securing the new BBC charter review and the important remit now given to Ofcom, which he mentioned in his intervention. It is vital that the new charter requires—as it does now—the BBC to work collaboratively to support the wider sector as a creative partner, using its unique position in the creative industries to deliver the best possible public value.
The charter also requires the BBC to open up content production over time to allow non-BBC producers to compete for BBC projects and further stimulate the independent production market. By the end of the charter in 2027, 100% of BBC television and 60% of BBC radio will be fully open to competition, which will bring a diverse range of stories to the BBC. However, we recognise that how commissioning decisions are made is crucial, which is why we have also required the BBC to commission programmes in a fair, reasonable, non-discriminatory and transparent way.
I listened with interest to the case raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, which has caused me some disquiet. I was not aware of that matter until this debate. He has raised important issues and he deserves answers, which I trust he will get from the National Audit Office in due course. He will no doubt raise those issues with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on his visit to Northern Ireland next month.
I expect the BBC to be one of the best partners to work with in the UK. We have established the new framework to ensure that BBC content comes from a range of voices that represents the diverse communities of the UK nations and regions. I am pleased to see the BBC taking action to deliver on those important goals. It has set out a clear commissioning process framework and code of practice that govern the commissioning of TV content from independent producers.
The BBC is also making strides towards full competition for its content. Indeed, I am aware that it recently achieved the first of its requirements to open up 40% of drama, entertainment, comedy and factual production to competition. They are important areas, and I expect the BBC to take its charter obligations seriously, given that it has a unique position in the sector and is the recipient of substantial licence fee income. [Interruption.] As hon. Members remind me from a sedentary position, that is vital. When we hold the BBC to account, we should never forget that that is public money.
It is also important that, when the BBC gets things wrong, it takes swift action to resolve those issues. To support that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage reminded us, the Government established Ofcom as the strong independent regulator to hold the BBC to account on its duties and responsibilities and to ensure that it does not have an adverse impact on fair and effective competition. If hon. Members are interested, Ofcom delivered a report at the end of last year that found that the BBC is complying with all the priorities set for it in the process. It is Ofcom’s responsibility to ensure that the BBC delivers on the requirements, and that it does so in the spirit of openness and transparency that we embedded in the charter.
Ofcom recently consulted on whether further regulation might be required to ensure that the BBC fulfils its commissioning requirements. The hon. Member for East Londonderry is nodding—perhaps he had the opportunity to make his views known during that process. I gather that Ofcom will publish the report shortly, at least by way of a statement, and I look forward to receiving it with added interest owing to this debate.
The BBC’s charter obligations, together with Ofcom’s regulatory responsibilities, ensure that the BBC is held to the highest standards and delivers the best outcomes for licence fee payers. I look forward with interest to Ofcom’s commissioning statement and to seeing the BBC’s continued progress on collaboration and competition. I hope that the hon. Member for East Londonderry gets satisfaction regarding his inquiry and concerns in due course.
The Minister has focused on the BBC, but given that the debate is about the BBC and the media in Northern Ireland, it is worth mentioning how successful Northern Ireland has been in supporting the creative industries, thanks to the great tax credits that the Minister oversees. The making of “Game of Thrones” and many others have transformed the Northern Irish economy.
I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, and I am glad that he has made that important point. We enjoy an ecosystem of fine creative talent in Northern Ireland. He rightly praises “Game of Thrones”, which has been an amazing global success, but is far from the only one. I wish the creative industries in Northern Ireland every continued success.
Question put and agreed to.
Economic Growth: South-west
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered economic growth in the South West.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve under your distinguished and experienced chairmanship.
It is a delight to see the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) in his place. Today it is my intention, and I think that of my colleagues, to build on the debate we had about two and a half years ago regarding the successes and challenges of our great region—the south-west—and to reiterate the requests that we make of the Government to make our area even better than it is at the moment.
I am a great believer in summaries, partly because I only ever read the executive summary of any report. At any event, a summary of my speech would be: our region is doing well, many businesses and sectors are flourishing, and we are grateful for the commitments that the Government have made to us, especially regarding infrastructure, but we want 2019 to be the year of delivery.
I have been in the House for 26 years.
Not very long.
Not long enough, I know. Thirteen of those years have been under a Conservative Government and 13 under a Labour Government, and the reality is that there has been under-investment in our region’s vital infrastructure for the entirety of those 26 years. At last we have a Government who are listening, and now we need to see delivery to our ambitious region.
First of all, I will just say a few words about what our region actually is. I suppose that the best way of describing it is variable geometry. For some purposes, it is the seven counties that are in the European region—dare I use that expression in the company of some of my hon. Friends? For some of us, it is the two counties of Devon and Cornwall. Increasingly, however, we can talk about the four counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset working together. There are four counties and three local enterprise partnerships working together to make the peninsula—
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that Cheltenham is a proud part of the south-west? It is the gateway to the south-west and, in fact, the jewel of the south-west. Does he agree?
All of those things are true, of course, but I did say that “for some” the south-west is the seven counties, including even Gloucestershire, which Cheltenham is in. I understand that Cheltenham itself is a small market town somewhere to the north-east.
I will describe that which is going well, what we welcome from the Government already and what we still want to see. First, what is going well? Of course, our natural assets are still there and they remain unrivalled: the sea, the coast, the moor, the areas of outstanding natural beauty, the stunning landscapes and the beautiful towns and villages. The south-west is a region like no other.
I am delighted to say that tourism is flourishing. We have more quality places to stay, and better visitor destinations and tourist attractions. Mr Owen, you might be interested to know that I will make the case that we are not just a tourist region—far from it—but 311,000 people were employed in the hospitality sector in 2017 and it provides roughly 11% of the overall regional employment. So tourism remains significant and it is doing well, thanks partly to the fact that we had some wonderful weather last year and the roads were full all the time.
The second thing that is going well is the collaboration between our local enterprise partnerships, and our local authorities and national parks. That collaboration is the closest and most effective since records began, and in all my time in this House I have certainly never seen our various component parts working together as they are today. There is also a close working relationship with the private sector. Some colleagues in Westminster Hall today will recall the “Back The South West” campaign that we launched in 2016, with the charter—the south-west growth charter—that I will refer to shortly. All of that is driven by private sector companies that are ambitious for our region and determined to deliver.
At the 2016 Exeter conference, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government came down and made a great and passionate speech, and told us to speak with a single voice in the south-west. We have done that; we are more joined-up than ever before, and I think it is beginning to make its mark upon Government.
Far from being just a tourist area, our region boasts some wonderful companies. For example, Princess Yachts in Plymouth employs 3,000 people and Babcock employs 4,500 people in the dockyard and naval base. That is to name but two; there are many other companies and I am sure that colleagues will mention some of the high-performing companies in their constituencies.
I will single out just two companies from the south-west that are doing particularly well. First, there is the Pennon Group. Brilliantly led by Chris Loughlin, it includes South West Water, which is a leading national water and sewerage company that will make £1 billion worth of investment in our region by 2025. Its business plan has been fast-tracked by Ofwat for the second time in a row, which I think is unique among the water companies. Pennon Group also includes Viridor, which is the UK’s largest recycling company, so we have this successful and ambitious green company that employs over 5,000 people UK-wide. It is a company that our region is rightly proud of and it generates over 6,000 jobs in our region alone through direct and indirect employment. We thank the Pennon Group for all it does for our region.
The second company is Thales, which is a major global defence contractor that employs over 1,100 people in the wider south-west, including in Cheltenham. Thales stated recently that it sees huge potential for its business in the south-west and the region as a whole:
“There is the opportunity to put the region on the map in the digital technology and maritime space and with the support of Government we think the region can go from strength to strength.”
The Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership has a focus on the marine environment and in Taunton Deane we have the UK Hydrographic Office, which is the global leader on marine data. It is putting in a bid for a geospatial hub in Taunton, as well as an innovation centre. Does my hon. Friend agree that building on that will help the whole of the south-west to really up this sector, which will bring with it untold economic opportunities for the whole region?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. That is one of the areas of development for our region that makes it very exciting indeed, and I am very happy to add my support to her excellent support for that project and opportunity.
I will just go back to Thales briefly. It recently opened a Maritime Autonomy Centre at Turnchapel Wharf in my constituency, which I know the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has visited. That work includes capital investment of over £1 million, which represents the company’s commitment to its future in the south-west as a place where it can invest in digitally transformative maritime technologies—not a phrase to say after a glass or two of wine. This facility will act as the key maritime integration, test and evaluation centre for the combined United Kingdom and French maritime mine countermeasures programme. It is very impressive.
Our region therefore has substantial companies operating throughout it and is not just a place for people to come for their cream tea, although of course, Mr Owen, you would be very welcome to come down next summer and enjoy one.
Our universities are also doing well—
As I am from the north of England, like the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is the spokesperson for the Opposition, I wonder whether my hon. Friend could just clarify an issue, because I think it is interesting. Can he clarify whether someone should have jam or cream on a scone and, if it is both, in what order they should be put on? [Laughter.]
The Minister will be interested to know that there are colleagues here from Devon and Cornwall, so he will get two different answers. I will continue something that I have made a pastime of in my 26-year career to date, which is to sit firmly on the fence.
The cream is put on first.
My hon. Friend says the cream is put on first; I will go with him.
As I was saying, our universities are doing well. Exeter, of course, is a world-renowned university and part of the Russell Group. Plymouth University is also making great strides as a university and it is really transforming the city of Plymouth, so I pay tribute to the work that it has done, particularly in the marine engineering and science departments. However, let us not forget Plymouth Marjon University—the colleges of St Mark and St John. It has experienced significant growth over the last two years, bucking the current trend and producing ever-greater results for its students. Intellectual capital in our region is powerfully underpinned by excellent places of learning.
The south-west is also home to one of the largest engineering projects in Europe, at Hinkley C, which represents a massive investment in our region and is producing many skilled jobs.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Chair has Wylfa Newydd in his constituency, with which we have had problems, may I just put some figures on this? We will create 25,000 jobs and more than 1,000 apprenticeships; we have just finished the National College for Nuclear, which is fantastic; our Inspire programme has now reached 15,000 schoolchildren; and 64% of the total build at Hinkley is going to UK companies. My hon. Friend has made such powerful comments on that. If it helps Devon, it helps Cornwall, it helps Dorset and it helps Somerset. I know he is celebrating that, and I thank him for his thoughts.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do celebrate that tremendous project and success story. He is right that it is something for the entire region, not just for the county of Somerset, and we are pleased to be supporting it.
All of what I have said so far is about the things that are going well in our region. What we have welcomed from the Government in the past 12 months or so includes some of the things that were mentioned in the Budget. The transforming cities fund is hopefully of great benefit to Plymouth, and perhaps the Minister will say something about the timescales for decisions on that. The freezing of cider duty was well received by the apple producers of Somerset and, indeed, throughout the region. We have seen the improvements to the Dawlish seawall get under way in the past few months, and I will come on to talk about the major announcement that we anticipate. We welcome the new Great Western Railway trains, which are having a gradual impact on our crucial Penzance to Paddington link—a very pleasant travel experience. We welcome the £10 million for fisheries innovation, to help local fishers.
In January 2019, planning permission for the north Devon link road was given, and I pay tribute to the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones). When he started talking about the link road, we all thought, “That can never happen. There is no money in the jam jar for that. He is just off on ‘a frolic of his own’, as Lord Denning once said”. Well, his frolic is bearing fruit, and well done to him for being such an incredible campaigner for his constituents.
We welcome and celebrate the major work to tackle flooding at Cowley, east of Exeter. We all remember the red sausage, or the balloon, that was in evidence some two or three years ago. That should now be a thing of the past, thanks to Network Rail’s investment.
We welcome the Government’s industrial strategy and the fact that our local enterprise partnerships are working hard with officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to develop a local industrial strategy, looking especially at productivity, which I know will be music to the Minister’s ears.
Finally, we must not forget our farmers. We have excellent farmers throughout the region and they welcome the fact that the Government are listening to them and helping to shape our UK-wide agriculture policy post Brexit. I have said two words that I know some of my friends will be very, very pleased to hear.
What do we now need from the Government? I will focus on that for a few minutes, and I will then conclude and let others have a say. We await, of course, the major Dawlish announcement. Today is the fifth anniversary of those extraordinary images of the railway line waving in mid-air and everything beneath being washed away by the winds and waves of that winter’s storms. I will never forget the journey we have been on since then, via Downing Street, the Peninsula Rail Task Force, the 20-year plan and the negotiating with Government. Of course such things take time but, even though the announcement will, I hope, come next week, and even though I think it will be a good and fully funded one that we will all welcome, for me, it has taken at least 12 months too long. The region has become impatient. It will be fine, provided we get what we are looking for, and perhaps the Minister can say something about that.
Although we look forward with anxious trepidation, but hopeful expectation, to what might happen next week, does my hon. Friend at least feel encouraged by yesterday’s announcement that there is now an application for planning for the work that will happen along the Dawlish station wall? That is something very concrete that we can celebrate.
Yes, I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It was good to see that announcement. It could perhaps have been better dovetailed in with the Government’s announcement, so that we had one and not two. Perhaps that was because of a planning time cycle—I am not sure. I hope that by the end of next week, we will have received all the news we have been waiting and fighting for for five long years. We cannot allow our region to be cut off from the rest of the country just because of adverse weather conditions.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way to my hon. Friend from London.
Chair, you probably wonder why, as the Member of Parliament for Hendon, I am standing in a debate on the south-west. Not only did I grow up in Cornwall; I undertook my PhD in economic development on Cornwall, so I thought I would come along and have a listen. My hon. Friend is entirely correct that the county of Devon in particular is cut off. A major component of Cornwall’s economic development programmes of the 1990s and 2000s was the Actnow project, which was to bring superfast broadband to the whole county. Does he agree that connections are not only physical but include electronic communications, which are able to reduce the peripherality of a county like Cornwall, bringing the markets to the consumers and, indeed, the consumers to the marketplace through technology?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. If I may say so, I think he summarises the situation wonderfully well. Many of us in this Chamber have often said that our biggest challenge in the west country and the south-west is peripherality and that the answer is connectivity. When I started my political career in 1992, connectivity meant road and rail, but these days it most certainly means digital connectivity, which is probably more important—[Interruption.] Or as important; that is absolutely right. Cornwall has benefited from the programme my hon. Friend talks about. I will come on to say that we want to see the roll-out of superfast broadband speeded up and that we must have 5G in our region. I am getting towards the end because I know so many colleagues want to speak.
First, there is the rail announcement next week—fingers crossed it is what we have been waiting for. It is so important to our region and we look forward to it.
Secondly, there is the A303. I am grateful to the Government for the commitment to dualling it to Taunton and am glad that the work at Stonehenge has started, but we really need to see spades in the ground at our end of the A303 so that that very important project can get under way and be concluded as quickly as possible. The M5 is now snarled up every Friday and Saturday from May until September, particularly from Taunton to Bristol. I do not think there is a plan on the table to consider that, but the Minister may know more than I do. We desperately need a new second major arterial route coming into our region—a dual carriageway at least—that can cope with the flow of traffic at peak times. That is another critical aspect of infrastructure delivery that the region is waiting to see.
Coming on to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) mentioned, digital connectivity is absolutely essential in our region. Possibly the roll-out of superfast broadband has been too slow. We have had the hiccough with BT internet in Devon and Somerset, and we now have Gigaclear. I hope that all the targets will be met in the next couple of years. That is critical.
What we are seeing now, and perhaps other regions have seen this before us, is that bright young things are coming to our universities and, instead of returning from whence they came, more and more of them are staying locally and inventing their internet-based businesses—in their bedrooms probably—and planting a business in our region. That is really encouraging, and it is transforming the bottom-up business and economy of our region. It can happen because of digital connectivity. We can do almost anything from almost anywhere if we are online and connected, and that is a game-changer for our region. We are desperate to see the roll-out of all the superfast broadband, including 5G.
Finally, on the issue of marrying together physical transport infrastructure—the trains—and digital connectivity, we must have the capability for people to be online all the time while they are travelling on our trains. That is what the business community has demanded: it is even more important than shaving five or 10 minutes off the journey time from Penzance to Paddington. We must have connectivity, and I know that the Government are working on that. Of course, that responsibility is a cross-departmental one, but I say to the Minister that it is a huge priority for our region.
To conclude, when we last discussed this matter in 2016, we all mentioned the south-west growth charter. The first headline ask from the region was for a new Government partnership with the south-west, which is starting to take shape. The second was for investment in digital connectivity and high-speed business: some progress has been made in that area, but we would like to see a bit more. The third was for investment in energy connectivity—switching on to opportunity—on which, again, there has been some progress, but there is further to go. The fourth was for investment in transport connectivity and getting business moving, on which there has been some progress, but that is still our big ask. We say to Government that our demand is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure, and may 2019 be the year of delivery, delivery, delivery.
Seven Back Benchers are indicating that they wish to speak. I will call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm, which leaves about six minutes each. That gives Members some indication that they should keep the debate flowing.
It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter). I believe I was just 13 years old—probably causing as much nuisance then as I do now—when he was first elected, and it seems as though some of the issues that affected our region in the 1980s and 1990s were similar to the ones that we face today. There is still a lack of investment in our strategic infrastructure, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to signal road and rail as areas in which we need investment. We also need skills and investment in education, delivering benefits for all young people right across the region, so they can stay in our region and create jobs and future prosperity.
Similarly to the hon. Member for South West Devon, I want to distinguish between the south-west and the far south-west. When I talk about the far south-west, I mean Devon and Cornwall, because there is sometimes a temptation for Ministers to lump together improvements in Swindon and in Bournemouth as part of the overall benefit to the south-west. We need to break down the larger region and focus on where some of the benefits can best be felt, particularly around the peninsula of Devon and Cornwall, as well as further up in Somerset and Dorset.
As a region, we have a lot to be proud of. We are a region of immense beauty, immense skill and talent, real professionalism, and huge potential for job creation. However, we do not always talk enough about how good we are as a region. That is certainly true of Plymouth, but I realise it can be true of our wider region: we hide our light under a bushel, and then we hide the bushel. We are not always as good at talking ourselves up as we need to be. If we are to get our fair share from Government, we need to be bolder about our ambition, clearer and more relentless about where we need help, and prouder about the areas in which we do so much and excel. That unfairness is one of the reasons why I first thought about going into politics, because as a young lad growing up in Devon, I saw other parts of the country getting stuff that we were not getting. My friends in other parts of the country seemed to have more opportunities than were being afforded to young people in the south-west, and that did not seem fair.
Whether a person lives in Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall, or anywhere else around the country, they should have the same opportunities, but sometimes our peripherality seems to restrict our opportunities in that respect. To engage with those opportunities, we need a structural, long-term, cross-party plan, and I hope that today’s debate will help to put pressure on Ministers to create such a plan, because our region needs a turning point. As the only Labour Back Bencher in this debate, with my regional Tory colleagues sitting opposite me, I feel as though I am up against a very tough job interview—the question is whether I would like the job at the end of it, if it involves working with that employer. I know that the other Labour MPs who represent the region—my colleagues from Bristol and Stroud—would echo this point; sadly, the Whips have timed statutory instrument Committees very well in order to avoid their being present here. However, if we are to succeed as a region, fairness and cross-party working are important, and my Labour colleagues would like me to emphasise the benefits that come from working together in order to achieve that.
We know that as a region, we have been starved of investment for far too long. We know that our education, health and transport spending per head is well below the national average. We know that those structural problems have affected our region, not just since 2010 but for decades prior to that, and we know that we need to change that. I am mindful of the fact that, with the Government’s entire majority sitting opposite me, we have a power and a voice that we should be using more. The sooner our region starts standing together across parties, and being louder and more determined about our key asks, the more likely it is that Ministers will listen to Members from the far south-west. It should not be only the Democratic Unionist party and its 10 Members of Parliament who hold sway in this House. The DUP received about 300,000 votes at the last general election, but 260,000 people live in Plymouth, and we need to start evening out our influence as a region, because there are still some problems that we need to address.
There are also some opportunities, which I will briefly dwell on. The hon. Member for South West Devon spoke about Dawlish. I honestly wonder what went through the minds of Ministers in the Department for Transport when they decided, knowing that today was the fifth anniversary of Dawlish being washed away, to park the announcement on funding until two weeks hence. I cannot understand why that has happened. Equally, at the end of the funding—I anticipate that it will come in a couple of weeks’ time; if it does not, I hope there is an almighty stink about it—we will still only have a train line at Dawlish that closes slightly less than it does at the moment. That funding will not deal with the structural inequality and slowness of our service, or its capacity.
The superb Peninsula Rail Task Force report, which I recommend to the Minister and to all colleagues who have not apprised themselves of it recently, talked about our long-term investment from Penzance at one end of the region to Paddington and other destinations. Some £8 billion of investment over 20 years could transform our economy. Just imagine the transformation if an average journey of three hours and 30 minutes from Plymouth to London could be reduced to two hours and 15 minutes, as the PRTF suggests. Imagine the potential for job creation, greater investment, more tourism and greater connectivity, and the broader horizons for our young people that that transformation could create. I realise that the Minister is not a Transport Minister, but any nudges and winks that he could give to his colleagues in the DFT to encourage them to push out the announcement we know is sitting in their press office, waiting to be announced in a couple of weeks’ time, would be greatly appreciated. It is not just rail that we need to improve: we need to extend the M5 from Exeter to the Tamar bridge, and we also need to be bold in some of our vision.
Finally, I will mention the huge potential that our natural environment presents to the region and our economy. I want Plymouth sound to be designated as the UK’s first national marine park. That project has the support of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the University of Plymouth, the Marine Biological Association and many of the genuinely world-class institutions that just happen to be based in Plymouth. Being able to protect and value our coastal waters is incredibly powerful, and I know that there are people on both sides of the House who recognise the importance of protecting our coastal waters and valuing them more.
Having the UK’s first national marine park in Plymouth sound could send a strong message that Plymouth is open for business not only for marine sites, marine engineering jobs and fishing, but for marine conservation. It could send a message that our wider region is open to the job creation potential that could flow from greater investment in our marine sector, in terms of both science and the exciting element of marine autonomy, keeping our Royal Navy jobs and the marine refit jobs that accompany them in the city of Plymouth. It is an exciting project, and I hope that Government Members will join the increasingly large numbers of individuals who are getting behind this campaign on a cross-party basis. If it works for Plymouth sound, it could work for coastal waters right around our peninsula, and indeed around our country. It could be really quite exciting.
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I also give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) for having secured this debate and for his inspiring leadership, driving us to continue to bang the drum for the great south-west.
To take Members a few hundred miles further west, if that is okay, my constituency—which covers St Ives, west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly—and the Duchy of Cornwall more generally is a brilliant and unique part of the UK, with a thriving culture that contributes much to the UK as a whole. Our tourism industry is a great success, which increasingly attracts visitors from across the globe—so many, in fact, that Visit Cornwall decided to turn them away in the summer, and made that point to the media.
We also have a proud story to tell about supporting and hosting renewable energy platforms and about environmental protections, but the fact remains that distinct economic challenges exist that hold us back from achieving our potential. Handouts are not needed, but Government policy, support and investment are needed to create a thriving and prosperous economy that leaves no one behind in Cornwall. I want to use the opportunity today to flag up the moral case for ensuring that Cornwall and other parts of the south-west receive adequate and appropriate support and funding from Whitehall. Gross value added per head is £17,634, which is 35% below the UK average. Wages are 20% lower than in the rest of the UK. House prices do not reflect that reduced income and are roughly the same as in the rest of the UK. One can imagine that for a family starting out and working on the average wage, the cost of getting a home and having a stake in their area is prohibitive.
Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is the only local enterprise partnership area in the whole of England that is currently classified as less developed. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate to remind the House that work and effort is needed to change Cornwall’s economic development. The Government have made it clear that a shared prosperity fund will replace European funding streams once we have left the EU. In response to that opportunity, I set up a jobs and growth roundtable bringing together business owners, Cornwall Council, local elected representatives and members of the voluntary sector. We meet every quarter to focus on how shared prosperity funds could address the problem of low wages and sustained deprivation in west Cornwall. That is something that European funds have not successfully addressed.
I was grateful that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury attended our inaugural jobs and growth roundtable and was clearly engaged in the issues we raised. She asked us to set out the barriers to growth in west Cornwall. In response, we said that there were many barriers in the way of ambitious young people seeking a good career in west Cornwall. That results in a skills drain, with young people moving out of the area to find a career. The colleges confirm that the biggest challenge in west Cornwall is providing young people with good employment opportunities. The Government must support employment and apprenticeships and stop messing around with further education curriculums, which are currently not fit for purpose for small companies that are keen to take on apprentices.
The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, a significant employer in the constituency, state that its biggest issue is attracting skilled staff, including marine crew and aircraft engineers. Other companies say they have to send staff to other parts of the country for training. Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station is having similar problems, and it has to recruit out of county and find means to attract people to Cornwall.
Despite changes to business rates, the charge is having a crippling effect on our town centres. Public transport is not suitable for getting to and from work, and our road and rail network can no longer meet current demand. There has been a historic lack of investment in west Cornwall. Much will be said in this debate about the need for investment in infrastructure, and that is true of the whole south-west. The Minister will be acutely aware of the various priorities I have raised repeatedly in this place. In addition, we absolutely need to smash the problem of low wages, and we must invest in people. Investment is needed in providing skilled apprenticeships and training schemes to support employment, ambition and the futures of our children and grandchildren. Investment is needed to make Cornwall a more attractive economic hub. Transport infrastructure is central to that.
There is no denying that Cornwall is a wonderful place to live, with beautiful scenery and the best culture in the land, but we must ensure our economy matches the thriving local culture. I was delighted to support the launch of the “Great South West” initiative last year. Cornwall’s future prosperity cannot be addressed in isolation, and Cornwall is an enthusiastic partner of the “Great South West” initiative. I echo its calls to promote the south-west’s opportunities, to develop shared propositions to attract investment and boost productivity, to work on areas of common interest, and to drive opportunities through the work of local leaders, businesses, schools and authorities.
In conclusion, one area offers great opportunities, skilled jobs and a sustainable future—Cornwall has a specific tale to share in the area—and that is our response to global warming, and the need to care for our environment and leave to our children a planet that is in better shape than we found it. There is a renewed ambition in Cornwall to reduce harmful emissions and increase renewable energy supplies. Cornwall is working together to set up a clear plan on how that can be delivered by 2030. I would like Government funding to dramatically improve our fuel-poor homes, which are some of the leakiest in Europe; to empower greater development and installation of all forms of renewable energy; and to use the latest smart technology to improve the A30. All that will ensure our houses are warmer and cheaper to keep, our air is cleaner, our energy is cheaper and our harmful imprint on Earth is reduced. That is a sure way to create jobs, increase wages, reduce the cost of living and create prosperity.
It is a pleasure to follow my fellow Cornish Member, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) for securing this debate. We have already had discussion about where the south-west actually is. For those of us in Cornwall, we kind of think that anything past Taunton is the midlands. We very much see the south-west from our perspective, which is looking from the far end of it, but there is no doubt that Cornwall in particular faces a number of unique economic challenges, and those are largely down to our geography. I do not think enough reference is made to the fact that being a peninsula creates a number of unique challenges that nowhere else in the UK faces. That is shown by the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives commented on. GVA is 35% below the rest of the country, and our wages reflect that. There is a desperate need to address that productivity gap to grow the Cornish economy and create better paid jobs so that we can start to see the Cornish economy catching up with the rest of the country. Much of that is because our economy is based on traditional sectors that have been low paid, particularly tourism, agriculture and food.
Cornwall has a rich history and heritage of being an industrial heartland. Many of the great advancements in industry and technology started in Cornwall. The invention of the steam engine by Trevithick sparked the industrial revolution. In more recent times, Marconi sent the first transatlantic telegram from Cornwall. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned Goonhilly, which received the first transatlantic satellite TV signals. Cornwall has always been at the heart of industrial and technological advancement. My great hope is that Cornwall can once again recover some of that history and put itself on the map as a place for great advancement in technology and industry.
There are some opportunities before us that I want briefly to touch on. It is good to see the chief exec of our Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership in the Public Gallery. I commend its production of an excellent publication called “10 Opportunities”, which lays out the opportunities before us for Cornwall’s economy. I will touch on three. The first is the space sector, which is well known. I am sure my hon. Friends will be sick to death of me talking about the potential of the space port coming to Newquay, but it would remiss of me not to mention it again. We need to see it delivered. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon said in opening the debate, this has to be the year of delivery. If we can get the space port to Cornwall, it will unlock huge potential for investment and new jobs.
The second is lithium. We are all aware of the growth in demand for batteries. Cornwall is rich in lithium deposits. Only yesterday, I met the Cornish company Cornish Lithium and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) to see how Government can support the extraction of lithium. Various figures are quoted, but we are talking tens of billions of pounds of precious metal in Cornwall that would revive our mining industry. No longer will it be “Poldark” tin and copper; it will be a new generation of precious metal extracted for battery production.
The third is renewable energy. My focus is particularly on geothermal. The Minister will know, as I have been working with him on this for some time, that we are already digging our first geothermal well in Cornwall, but there is potential for much more. Cornwall has a unique landscape and is the only place in the UK where geothermal energy is possible. It could unlock some great potential for our economy.
We need the Government to support the Cornish economy in the development of those new sectors. Part of that has to be the replacement of the European regional development programme. I am a huge supporter of leaving the EU, but Cornwall has been the biggest beneficiary of economic support through the EU. I never say “from” the EU, because it is UK taxpayers’ money that it recycles and gives back to us with a whole load of strings attached. The fact is that the programme has failed, because Cornwall is still reliant on it. If the programme had been successful after its three rounds, we would not need it any more. We still need it, therefore I believe we can do better with our own UK-based programme. Will the Minister update us on the shared prosperity fund, which will be absolutely essential for supporting the Cornish economy going forward? I know that there have been delays in the consultation, but perhaps he will use his offices to try to push it forward. Those of us who work in Cornwall on the future of our economy need some certainty about what the programme will be so that we can start to work towards it, and any further delay will hinder progress.
I very much believe that there are great days ahead for the Cornish economy. The opportunities before us are substantial. There is an absolute appetite in Cornwall to unlock potential and see things come to pass, but we need the backing and support of the Government. I acknowledge that in my time in this place we have seen a Government who are hugely supportive of the Cornish economy. We have touched on the investment that we have seen in our infrastructure—our roads and railways and the Government’s support for our air connection from Newquay to London. The recent announcement that that connection will be switched to Heathrow will be hugely welcomed. We need the support to continue, the shared prosperity fund put in place as quickly as possible, and Cornwall’s potential opportunities unlocked. I simply ask the Minister to do all that he can to make progress on the spaceport, support for lithium mining, and the shared prosperity fund as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) for initiating the debate. As we speak here in Westminster Hall, in the main Chamber there is a debate on the police grant report. It is welcome to see the extra grant for the police forces across the country. It is very much needed.
The south-west is a great place to live, work and do business, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon has said, but more needs to be done to attract and retain the high-skilled jobs that we need to boost wage growth and offer opportunities for young people. Hinkley Point will play a useful role in that. The availability of labour and skills continues to be a significant challenge to many south-west businesses affected by factors such as transport, housing affordability and an ageing population. It is great that we have several speakers here from Cornwall, but I remind them that they have to go through Devon, Somerset and many other counties before they can get to Cornwall. I remind the Minister that we are debating what has happened in the south-west peninsula. Bristol is a great city, but there is an awful lot of land between Bristol and Penzance. We want our fair share of resources, which we are getting more of, but we need even more.
In areas such as agriculture, hospitality and tourism, we continue to rely on a high proportion of migrant labour. We need a system in which we have control over migrant labour and have enough migrant workers in future. As we leave the EU, not only do we need to ensure that we can still get access to EU migrant labour to fill the jobs but we need to devise a south-west strategy to retain graduates and skilled labour, boost investment in our infrastructure and grow business in our region.
Improving transport in the region and around the south-west is vital. There are two strategic transport corridors for rail and road into the peninsula, which means that the south-west lacks resilience. We welcome the development of the A303, but it will be dualled all the way to Ilminster and then out through the A358 to Taunton. A little bit of the A303 from Ilminster to Honiton needs a little bit more done to it. Much as I welcome and support what is happening to the north Devon link road, we also need that last little bit of road to make sure that we get a second arterial road.
We are improving resilience on the Dawlish railway line. Not only have we got the mainline from Paddington to Penzance but we have a great line from Waterloo to Exeter, which goes through the south of my constituency and runs through the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire). We could do a lot more to invest in loops and other things to make sure that we get more trains through the second route. It is essential to have a second railway link into the south-west. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), I am interested in the Devon Metro coming through Somerset and creating more resilience on our existing lines so that we can have smaller trains as well as the large commuter trains. That will be a great improvement.
Improving transport will improve education accessibility, so that students can choose whether to do A-levels, apprenticeships or technical education. Not only do we have the great universities of Exeter and Plymouth, and of course Bristol, but we have Petroc, Axe Valley and many other colleges across our region. Apprenticeships are so useful because not everybody wants to go to university, and it is a great bonus to have that provision.
Improving transport will mean that tourists can get around the whole of the south-west, from the Jurassic coast to Exeter Cathedral, and even down to Cornwall, as well as to great towns such as Seaton, Axminster and many others in my constituency.
Broadband and mobile connection is hugely important. As many colleagues have said, it is a huge driver of the economy. Superfast broadband is absolutely essential.
A recent report by the South West Rural Productivity Commission said that improving digital connectivity was a game changer for rural businesses. Also, it is one of the key things in the Somerset Chamber’s report and is its businesses’ most important factor in upping productivity in our region. Will my hon. Friend join me in a campaign to get the Treasury to extend state aid so that Connecting Devon and Somerset can bring about the final rollout of the superfast broadband that we so urgently need in our two constituencies to deliver for our businesses?
I very much support my hon. Friend, who is a neighbour on the Somerset border. We have worked together not only on delivering in the Blackdowns but across our constituencies. State aid will be essential to keep the money flowing. Also, I look forward to Gigaclear really getting its act together and getting more investment in, which will help us to deliver broadband overall in a combination of state, council and private sector funding.
With everything online now, from tax returns to farming administration and farm payments, and from online shopping to school homework, it is imperative that we get the improvements to broadband and mobile coverage that we need. In some areas the mobile system will deliver broadband to some of the very hardest-to-reach areas. Mobile and broadband speeds might not be such a problem here in Westminster, but in the south-west it is a constant handicap for many farm families and businesses. In my own farmhouse there is very little connectivity. Sometimes it can be a blessing when the Whips are trying to get hold of me; I can be completely unconnectable and off the page.
Despite the best efforts of colleagues here today, we still have some of the worst mobile coverage of any region apart from Wales. It is getting better, but we need to do more. We have to make sure that the mobile companies do not keep the masts all to themselves; they must share them more. Joining everything together will make things work better with the same resource. Delays to broadband in the Devon and Somerset area have been extremely disappointing, mainly because we know how transformational superfast broadband will be to our rural economy and home lives once it is delivered. We need the Treasury to provide state aid.
Finally, I want to touch on the importance of farming to our rural economy and the south-west economy as a whole. The UK’s food and farming industry generates more than £110 billion and employs one in eight people in the UK. Farming is a driver for the local economy as it brings money to the south-west, which is then spent in the south-west. However, I cannot get through a whole speech on the economy without mentioning the B word: Brexit is both an opportunity and a threat to our rural economy. We need more fish for our fishermen. We might see greater opportunities for deep-sea anglers, more fish for our processors, and much needed regeneration of our coastal communities. We also need to ensure that we produce good food so that our food processors—our largest manufacturing industry—continue to thrive. Brexit offers us the opportunity to reposition agriculture and the wider rural economy as a powerhouse in its own right. It needs to be recognised across Government, and not just in DEFRA. I hope that the Minister will today recognise the vital multiplier effect of farming businesses in the rural economy, along with tourism in the south-west, and will do everything possible to protect and help farmers as we leave the EU.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on securing the debate. I am sure that all of us here believe passionately in the south-west. The region is already an economic powerhouse, which can rival the northern powerhouse or the midlands engine. We now have a network of professional organisations whose job it is to promote aspects of economic growth in the region. I pay tribute to the local enterprise partnerships—especially the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP, my local one. Mark Duddridge and his team have a clear vision:
“By 2030, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly will be the place where businesses thrive and people enjoy an outstanding quality of life.”
Those few words really sum up the joy and opportunity of living in the south-west.
I was born and bred in my constituency, and we all know what a brilliant quality of life people can have in south-east Cornwall. Apparently the rest of the south-west region is not that bad, either, apart from the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) insists on putting the cream and jam on to scones the wrong way. However, that amazing quality of life is no good unless it is built on a strong economic foundation. We need profitable, expanding, forward-looking businesses, to create value that earns profits and pays taxes. To support those businesses we need to be able to provide smart investment funds where they are most needed.
The LEP does a great job, but there are headwinds. For example, when we leave the European Union we can redirect the shared prosperity fund. I, like others, am keen to hear details of how that will be spent in a way that is tailored to suit the needs of Cornwall, instead of dictated by the European Commission. The most important thing is for funds to be directed to where they can most affect productivity. If productivity in the south-west matched current levels in the south-east, the region would add about £18 billion a year to the UK economy. In that regard I want to mention the farming industry, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton will be pleased about. It is one of the most productive sectors in the south-west. Farming brings a lot of money into the region, most of which stays in the local economy. It is vital that farming should be given prominence in the industrial strategy.
My hon. Friend is making a good case. Does she agree that if we combined agriculture with the food manufacturing and processing industries that would represent the largest economy in the south-west region? We could make a good case for its being a major plank of the industrial strategy. I see that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) is in the Chamber, so perhaps he and the Minister who is responding to the debate will take notes.
I completely concur with my hon. Friend.
As hon. Members know, I am passionate about our highly professional fishing industry and determined that our fishermen should reap the benefits of Brexit. I urge the Government to do everything they can to protect fishermen and ensure that British fishermen get the best from our highly productive fishing grounds. We all know that infrastructure investment is key to the region’s success. We have some superb schemes well under way. The Looe flood protection project will protect the fishing industry’s future and stimulate the local economy and tourism in the area surrounding the town.
Improvements to the A38 are vital. Thousands of people use it every day, and 1.2 million vehicle hours are wasted every year due to delays. Think of the environmental impact. We all know about the safety concerns. Finally, a few improvements to the railway line could make a big impact. I, too, am looking forward to next week’s announcement. I would like more frequent services, a move towards clock-face timetables, early adoption of a free 5G network for travellers and, of course, better integration with local bus services—especially in rural constituencies such as mine.
I could go on with a shopping list of superb investment opportunities, but I will simply reiterate what a fantastic quality of life we have in south-east Cornwall and the rest of the south-west. Let us see what we can do to create the economic growth that is needed to support that quality of life.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on securing the debate and publicly congratulate him—I think this is the first time I have been able to do so—on his well deserved knighthood.
I know that several organisations in the south-west are watching our debate with keen interest. My hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who is also a south-west MP, is also with us. I think that he is one of the longest-serving farming Ministers ever, and we are grateful to have him sitting in on these deliberations. I am sure that my hon. Friends will have enjoyed reading the briefings from the National Farmers Union, the Devon chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, which conveyed a passion for expanding the region’s potential.
The key question is how we can attract high-value, non-seasonally dependent jobs, enhance our productivity and secure clean economic growth for the region. Admittedly, we have perhaps grown too accustomed to using terms such as “productivity”, “growth” and “connectivity”. A notable example is the Government’s flagship industrial strategy. Its four grand challenges put the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future: artificial intelligence and data, ageing society, clean growth, and the future of mobility. As many hon. Members would no doubt agree, its comprehensive scope marks out the Conservatives as the party with the long-term plan for our country. No Government or multinational corporation is free from the risk of descending into obfuscation when talking about economic growth, but let us step out of Whitehall-speak and the lexicon of glossy masterplans. When we talk to our constituents in our email bulletins, meeting halls, surgeries and correspondence, we must tell them how investment will increase the number of jobs and improve living standards.
I recently had the pleasure of another visit to the Exeter science park in my constituency. The science park helps innovative science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine companies in a campus-style setting. It covers sectors such as cyber-security and renewable energy. The site is on track to grow, so that 200 to 700 jobs in 2020 will rise to 2,100 by 2027. The wider region is well connected, with immediate access to the M5, the nearby Exeter international airport and Exeter itself. I represent two wards in Exeter—St Loyes and Topsham—and I am pleased to say it will be one of the UK’s fastest growing cities over the next three years. A practical example of that outstanding growth is Luminous, a start-up that is designing, developing and exporting state-of-the-art special effects hardware for the global entertainment industry. Its rate of jobs growth—from one person to eight people in a mere 12 months—is a trademark of the technology industry. Yet it is not in tech-savvy Shoreditch but in the heart of our region. That is what economic growth looks like on the ground: it is new consumers, new careers, and a better quality of life.
The case for Exeter science park is strong, as it seeks to add more buildings and expand its capacity. I speak not purely as the Member for East Devon but, I am sure, on behalf of my colleagues in the south-west, who would like it to expand and thrive. That is why I urge the Minister and other interested parties who are watching today to get behind Exeter science park so that it can fulfil its potential.
The main impediment to the business growth of Exeter science park is the fact that it has to repay loans on its science park centre. The science park had to take out loans of £6.5 million—mainly from the local enterprise partnership, at a commercial rate—because grants were unavailable during its start-up phase in 2013. Private sector loans were not available because Exeter science park had no assets; they were held in trust by a local authority. Given the vast resources going to the part of the world with which the Minister—he is responsible for the northern powerhouse—deals, he might find that extraordinary set of circumstances difficult to recognise, but it is yet another example of how we in the south-west feel slightly discriminated against.
My first request—this is the Minister’s road to rehabilitation—is to consider how we can use Government capital infrastructure spending to reduce, or ideally erase, those debts. Secondly, how can the Government assist in encouraging Government-backed technology and projects to locate to the science park? If the Minister were able to assist with both those matters, it would provide a huge endorsement for our often-overlooked region. Why, for instance, would an engineering giant such as Rolls-Royce, or a defence contractor such as Babcock—it is already strong in Plymouth, as we have heard—not expand alongside the innovative tech start-ups that are already located there?
Members often lament how our neglected south-west gets limited airtime compared with other UK regions. Local authorities, LEPs and businesses up and down the land compete vociferously for a pool of Government investment. However, we should talk up areas where our regional economy is doing well, and talk practically about how we can do even better. That is surely the way to sell the benefits of economic growth to the public, and attract new jobs and companies to our south-west.
I call Peter Heaton-Jones. There are approximately eight minutes remaining and two Members who wish to speak.
Thank you, Mr Owen, I shall not take up too much time, because I want my hon. Friend from that south-west central city of Cheltenham to get in—
Oh, it is a town—well, there we are; even less of a reason.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to speak in this debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter). I thank him for his kind words about the campaign to get funds for the north Devon link road. Yes, that is something I have gone on about. As a relatively new Member, my name popped up on the Order Paper to ask a question of the Prime Minister. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, approached me in the Lobby and said, “I bet you’re going to bang on about the north Devon link road.” I said, “Absolutely, Prime Minister, I am.” When he said that to me, I thought, “Well, we’ve won this battle, and I am proud to be banging on about it.” We made that happen with the success that comes with £83 million of Government funding, plus £10 million from Devon County Council. The north Devon link road is a vital bit of our infrastructure and part of the connectivity that my hon. Friend and other colleagues so correctly identified.
Connectivity is a vital driver of the economy not only in north Devon, but in the entire south-west. That includes roads such as the A361, the A303, the A30 and the A358, but it is also about railways, which have been mentioned at some length. I echo what has been said to the Minister. This is not his Department, but perhaps he could have a quiet word in the ears of his hon. Friends in the Department for Transport and ensure that when we have an announcement, it will be the news that we need about long-overdue investment in the resilience of the vital route that connects the south-west peninsula with the rest of the country. I look forward to that happening; I hope it will be in the next couple of weeks.
I also wish to mention the railway line in my constituency, and I declare an interest because I am proud to be the honorary president of the Tarka Rail Association—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. It is one of the roles that I am proudest to hold, because that organisation has done much to promote the need for investment in the line that links Exeter and Barnstaple, and will continue so to do.
In 2019, connectivity also means digital connectivity. I have had numerous meetings with Connecting Devon and Somerset, British Telecom, and Airband, which unlike in the rest of our region—it is not Gigaclear—is the contract holder to provide fast and superfast broadband in north Devon. I have had a number of meetings with Airband to try to push that agenda forward. It is vital that that continues, because although a lot of good work has been done so far, we need to do more.
Those who put together the south-west growth strategy reckon that properly investing in our region’s connectivity could produce gross value added economic benefits of more than £41 billion and create 22,000 jobs—that is how important it is to get connectivity right. Colleagues have also mentioned agriculture, which is extraordinarily important in north Devon and the greater south-west, and a great contributor to economic growth. There are excellent farming businesses in my local economy, and it is well documented that they can help to close the productivity gap.
Let me acknowledge David Ralph, who is in the Public Gallery. He is head of the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, and it is good to see so much support for the region as a whole. According to the excellent report by the South West Rural Productivity Commission, our rural local authority areas account for 60% of all workforce jobs—far above the figures for elsewhere in England—which shows how important it is to get growth right in our rural areas.
Let me raise a couple of other issues that I think are important. We have placed a bid for a south-west institute of technology in our area, which is vital. Petroc College and other institutions in my constituency are really pushing hard for that, and part of it will be based in Barnstaple. That could be a real driver as far as the Government’s economic and industrial strategies are concerned. I see that time is running away, so I will end with pretty much the same phrase as the one with which I ended another debate on this subject, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon about 18 months ago. We hear a great deal about the midlands engine and the northern powerhouse, and of course they are important. In the south-west, however, we are like a coiled spring. We have so much potential ready to be unleashed, so I say to the northern powerhouse, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
I call another coiled spring, Mr Chalk, who has three minutes left.
In the three minutes available, may I say that although we rightly talk about economic growth, we need to step back and ask what we mean by that and why it matters? It matters, because it is all very well for us to say that we believe in social mobility—I dare say we all do, across the House—but we should also believe that economic growth provides opportunities for people from all walks of life, and allows people who come from deprived communities to go as far as their talents will take them. I therefore think it is incredibly important to focus on that issue, and we have a moral duty to do so.
When I was elected in Cheltenham in 2015, a lot of Members might have assumed that it was an area of great affluence, which to some extent it is. However, we also have pockets of genuine and grinding deprivation. Importantly, when I looked at the growth figures, I saw that Cheltenham’s growth rate was less than the national average. It seems to me that increasing economic growth is an important way to tackle those areas of deprivation, and I feel that very passionately. There are two elements to this. First, we must ensure that we have a supremely well-educated workforce. That is why I welcome the increased emphasis on fair funding. We have not yet completed the task, and although Cheltenham’s secondary schools get £1.2 million more a year than they did before, we need to increase that. We also need great job opportunities for people once they leave school.
I want to focus on Cheltenham’s cyber future. In November 2015, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, came to GCHQ and said that an arc of cyber-prosperity could extend from Cheltenham all the way down through the south-west. That critical sector will generate £20 billion a year for the UK economy and, crucially, we can be part of that by leveraging some of our state expertise in facilities such as GCHQ to improve our local economy. There is so much more to talk about, including the A417 missing link, and I am delighted that the Government are investing more than £400 million in improving that road, because doing so will unlock that corridor of prosperity. This is a moral duty. If we want to achieve social mobility, economic prosperity and a plan for growth must be at its heart.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to all Back-Benchers for their restraint. I will now call the Front Bench spokespeople, who I am sure will leave a few minutes for Mr Streeter to wind up. I call Chi Onwurah.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on leading this important debate.
There is no hiding under a bushel the importance of the south-west. Its economy is bigger than that of Greater Manchester and twice that of Birmingham, contributing £127 billion per year to the UK economy. It is a diverse region, with great cities such as Exeter, Bristol and Plymouth, great agriculture and one of the highest rates of tourism outside London. However, as the hon. Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) emphasised, the benefits of that are not shared equally by all.
The south-west evokes cream teas and coastline pleasures. Rodda’s renowned clotted cream, with the jam above or below it, is of course manufactured in Cornwall, along with Ginsters famous pasties. However, we must not forget the industrial heritage that the region shares with the north-east. It was Dartmouth’s Thomas Newcomen who invented the steam engine, perfected by Richard Trevithick, although it took a Geordie, George Stephenson, to bring about the first commercial train journeys. Happily, we can take joint credit for the renowned Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, who was born in Newcastle but went to school in west Bristol.
The bedrock of industry in the south-west lies in food, farming, fisheries and tourism—sectors that are due to be disproportionately affected by Brexit. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Torbay and Devon are all in the top 20 areas where people work in tourism for their first or second job. Some 32% of marine fishing occurs in the south-west, meaning that, if a bad Brexit deal affects the Budget promise of £10 million for fisheries, that will be of great significance to the area.
The Government’s strategy on Brexit does nothing to protect small-scale farmers in Devon and Somerset against the massive American agro-industrial machine. May I ask the Minister how the Government expect those small farmers to compete with American wheat farms the size of small counties and pig farms the size of small towns, without ruining the glorious beauty of the south-west countryside?
Bristol is home to the largest aerospace cluster in the UK, with firms such as Airbus and Rolls-Royce having to stockpile parts in the face of Brexit uncertainty. In the last month, Airbus has warned once again of the impact of a no-deal Brexit. Its supply chain crosses the channel several times, meaning that any friction at the border will cause substantial problems for the company, which employs 3,000 people in Filton in high-skilled, high-paid jobs that are key to future economic growth. How does the Minister plan to protect those jobs?
I apologise for not being present earlier; I have been on a Delegated Legislation Committee—some of us spend a lot of time on those. Does my hon. Friend accept that Airbus is to the south-west, particularly my part of the south-west, what Nissan is to the north-east?
I thank my hon. Friend for emphasising the importance of Airbus to the south-west; I absolutely accept that point. The warnings of industry leaders and companies such as Airbus and Nissan need to be taken seriously by the Government, and listened to.
As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) emphasised, the south-west has one of the highest skills gaps in the UK, with a third of all small and medium-sized businesses having difficulty hiring people with specialist skills. That will only worsen after Brexit, if the Government press ahead with plans to slash so-called low-skilled immigration. Businesses will be even harder pressed to find and retain labour, as we have heard.
More than that, the south-west has been a major beneficiary of EU funding, receiving the second largest share of regional development funding and social funding. The key economic hubs of Bristol and Swindon are among the largest UK recipients of Horizon 2020 research grants, from which we get more back than we put in. After the UK leaves the EU, that hole will be filled by the Government, but the existing institutions exhibit the kind of south-eastern bias that means that, for example, the south-west receives half the per-capita UK Research and Innovation funding that London got in 2016-17. How will the Government ensure that funding is replaced in a way that does not exacerbate regional inequalities?
At the heart of all those challenges is the need for a strong, positive industrial strategy, capable of building and rebuilding the economy to meet the challenges of the future and of Brexit. Unfortunately, we have seen no evidence of one. Labour has the answer. [Laughter.] Hon. Members should listen. We are committed to raising spending on research and development to 3% of GDP by 2030—an additional £1.3 billion in public investment. That will get us part of the way, and will certainly benefit the region’s burgeoning tech industry, which grew 47% from 2014 to 2016.
Much of that additional spend will draw on our industrial strategy, which is about investing in areas such as nuclear power as part of our commitment to low-carbon energy, ensuring that we have the skills for Somerset’s Hinkley Point.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am afraid I will not; I simply do not have time.
We will improve digital infrastructure, as part of our commitment to an innovation nation. That will be complemented by the £250 billion national transformation fund, which will enable the growth of the infrastructure needed to increase productivity and investment.
Successive Tory Governments have refused to invest in transport. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) highlighted that today is the fifth anniversary of the Dawlish railway line being washed away. Labour has only two Members of Parliament in the far south-west and seven in the region as a whole, yet we have committed to fund the Peninsula Rail Task Force’s recommendations. Why can the Minister not match our commitment?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am afraid I will not give way.
Regional disparities and the unique issues facing the south-west are the reason we need the £250 billion national investment bank. [Interruption.] May I just point out that we have heard much more from Government Members than Opposition Members so far?
Many Members mentioned the need for regional investment. Our network of regional development funds will ensure that regional needs are put first and that local decision makers decide what is right for their area. The future of the south-west, and of our country, depends on a real industrial strategy that lays a path for a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity region. The Government should follow Labour’s example in crafting a visionary, vigorous and viable industrial strategy.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
If the hon. Gentleman insists, I will give way briefly.
Labour has obviously announced many spending commitments. Perhaps the hon. Lady could explain to the House where Labour will get an additional £1 billion to invest in water quality in the south-west when it has nationalised South West Water?
I would love to give the hon. Gentleman a basic lesson in economics and explain that the Tory Government’s economics of austerity have failed entirely to produce the productivity and rising wages that can deliver the tax base for such investments. I hope to hear from the Minister how he will address that.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on securing this important debate. It is not about Brexit, but if I were channelling a famous son of Devon—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—I would say that Conservative Members believe that Brexit is full of opportunities, while the Opposition have already shot the albatross and hung it round the neck of every business in this country, because they see Brexit only as a risk.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said that Labour has a real industrial strategy. As Minister for local growth, I must tell her that I visit businesses all over the United Kingdom and they tell me that they have one thing on their risk register at the moment: not Brexit, but a Labour Government. Industrial strategies are not created by political parties that believe in the appropriation and removal of businesses from their owners. It is a Labour Prime Minister, not Brexit, that is the real risk.
Order. I am sure that this intervention will be on the subject of the debate.
It relates to something that the Minister has just said.
No, you are not listening. We are debating the motion before the Chamber. It has been a good-hearted debate and you have made several interventions, but they have to relate to the subject matter.
My intervention relates to the south-west. Colleagues have made a strong case for upping the productivity in the south-west region, but under this Government a great deal of funding has come to the south-west—far more than ever before. We simply want to build on that.
That is why we have heard from 10 Conservative colleagues, but only one Opposition Back Bencher. It is a sign that we are a Government who listen to colleagues in the south-west and ensure that economic growth in the south-west is at the heart of our approach.
We have had an interesting debate that has focused on three areas. The first is infrastructure, which we have to accept is one of the building blocks of any vibrant economy outside the capital. We have described this year as the year of delivery for digital, road and rail infrastructure, so it is important that our debate has addressed how we can ensure that we continue to deliver for everyone living in the south-west of England, particularly after years of under-investment. That is the real similarity between the north of England, where we have the northern powerhouse, and the south-west region: for far too long, under different Governments, the country has focused on infrastructure and industrial growth in London and its surrounding hinterland. It is about time we moved beyond that.
We have heard some good speeches today about human capital, in relation both to education and productivity. It is right to focus on how we can drive opportunity to people young and old across the south-west for a more varied educational picture, whether that is through the brilliant universities that have been mentioned or the great businesses that drive productivity. There are huge opportunities for productivity in cyber-security, spaceports, civil and nuclear developments in Hinkley, tourism, agriculture and our maritime economy.
I applaud the south-west local enterprise partnerships for their creation of the Heart of the South West economic co-operation and growth area. I hope that that combined effort will be reflected in their local industrial strategy, because this year needs to be the year of our regions, not just of our capital city. As Minister for local growth, I firmly believe that our biggest opportunity after leaving the European Union will be regional, and that is what the Government should be measured on.
In the limited time available, I will attempt to deal with the questions raised by hon. Members. First, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon spoke about tourism’s value to the economy. The Government continue to invest in tourism, particularly through the “Great” campaign to attract overseas visitors to this country. I encourage him and his LEP to engage with BEIS to discuss the developing potential of the tourism sector deal and pursue the idea of putting natural capital—the beauty that exists across the whole south-west—at the heart of their local industrial strategy.
Many hon. Members raised transport, particularly the Dawlish line. Colleagues will acknowledge that the Government have already invested £70 million in the line to date. I have heard the calls from Members across the parties to use whatever influence I may have over the Department for Transport to get it to fast-track its announcement about the line and ensure that we complete our commitment to making sure that it remains a robust and reliable connection for their constituents.
Hon. Members also raised the transforming cities fund, which we announced in the Budget. Some of that £2.5 billion fund has already been devolved to areas with Mayors, such as the Bristol city region, and the remaining £1.2 billion in the pot is subject to the competitive bidding process. The results of that process will be announced after the assessment of the bids; the Department for Transport tells me that that announcement will be made shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) raised geothermal energy, which the Government recognise as a large opportunity. I encourage her to ensure that clean growth continues to be a priority, not just for the Government but for her area’s local industrial strategy.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who made the only speech from the Opposition Back Benches, spoke with real passion and in a very non-partisan way about the opportunity for a marine park in Plymouth Sound, which takes me back to the point that we need to ensure that local industrial strategies and our national industrial strategy accurately reflect the value of natural capital. When we talk about things like productivity, it is all too easy to ignore what may be on our doorstep.
I hope that in 2018, when the landscapes review undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consulted on whether the current network of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty should extend out to sea, partners in Plymouth and Devonport made a strong case for that marine park. There is no update from DEFRA yet, but I will continue to watch developments with interest because the marine park is an important idea that could be rolled out across the country—not least in your Anglesey constituency of Ynys Môn, Mr Owen. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is right that we need to be bold and clear about our passion to grow the south-west’s economy; his speech made that point very well.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke well about the UK shared prosperity fund. He will be aware of the Government commitment to ensure that the current round of EU structural funding has the benefit of a Treasury guarantee until March 2021, but our specific aim in introducing the UK shared prosperity fund is to provide a single domestic local growth fund without the bureaucracy of EU funds. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) noted, we need to ensure that our UK growth funds concentrate on what we need to grow in this country. That is one of the opportunities that leaving the European Union will bring.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) spoke about the desired growth of the Cornish economy. Of course the spaceport has already received funding of £2 million from the Government, and the Space Industry Act 2018 will enable spaceships—I guess—to take off by 2020.
I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon an opportunity to wind up, so I do not have time to answer all the questions asked by hon. Members, but I will write to them about any outstanding issues. This has been a wonderful debate. This is the year of regional growth, and the south-west must be at the heart of it.
I thank the Minister for his speech. It is good to know that the Government are listening, that they are supportive and that they are committed to regional growth, especially in the south-west.
I thank all colleagues for taking part in this debate; we have heard some very powerful speeches today. Collectively, we are a good team for our region—we are all committed to working across the parties and to doing the best for our constituents. We already represent a wonderful region. If we can just get our infrastructure right, my firm hope and belief is that our best is yet to come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered economic growth in the South West.
Order. Would those who are inexplicably not staying to hear about the Red Arrows please be kind enough to leave quickly and quietly?
RAF Scampton and the Red Arrows
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closure of RAF Scampton and the location of the Red Arrows.
There are strong historical, social, economic and human factors at play in the closure of RAF Scampton. It is more than 100 years old; it was founded in 1916 as Home Defence Flight Station Brattleby, and renamed to Scampton a year later. With the expansion of the Royal Air Force throughout the 1930s, the base at Scampton played its part in developing the skills and training that was to prove vital just years later. After the outbreak of war, it became one of the central air stations for Bomber Command and is most well-known for the Dambuster squadron, led by Guy Gibson, which inflicted a serious blow against the Nazis with the famous raid. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, RAF Scampton’s third, and his insensitively named dog is still buried at the base today.
Across the second world war, RAF Scampton saw a loss of 551 aircrew and 266 aircraft. The bomber legacy was continued after the war, housing Canberras and Vulcans in the 1950s. It was then that the runway was extended, forcing the old Roman road of Ermine Street, the A15, to curve in compensation. That was recognised on the station’s official badge, with the curved longbow representing the new layout of the old Roman road from London to York, and the arrow had the same north-easterly orientation as the runway. The Central Flying School came to Scampton in the 1980s, as did the ever popular Red Arrows, in 1983.
It is not just historical considerations but practicalities that matter. In the 1990s, RAF Scampton was mothballed and the Red Arrows were moved to RAF Cranwell. What looked a good decision on paper proved a very bad one in practice. Cranwell proved far too crowded a base for the Red Arrows, which had to share it with the RAF College, a flying school, several training squadrons and a naval air squadron. One air enthusiast wrote to me to point out one incident that proved what a bad idea it was to base the Red Arrows at Cranwell. One day a flight faced a landing gear malfunction and had to land with its wheels up, or pancake as the flyers call it. The fuselage of the Hawk aircraft hurtled across the apron of the runway at great speed, passed through a car park and ended up wedged against the control tower and the duty operations Land Rover, damaging a number of cars en route. Clearly, it was not just the uncrowded skies of Scampton that had proved so useful. That is a very important point in terms of avionics and the Red Arrows—uncrowded skies.
In early 2000, the RAF realised the foolishness of the move and re-opened Scampton to house the Red Arrows again. The proposal now makes the same mistake twice. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I was the MP when they mothballed Scampton the first time and our arguments were not listened to then. Lessons need to be learned from the recent past.
The last time that this happened, it was apparently found that the land at Scampton needed a lot of remediation. I tried to find out if the land might actually be sold at a loss because of the remedial work needed, but I have been denied access to the impact assessments. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that information needs to be made public?
Obviously, we have to hear from the Minister about land values and regeneration, which is an important part of the debate.
In all our dealings with defence, we must learn that we need the flexibility to deal with changing situations and unexpected threats. That applies as much to keeping HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, with their amphibious assault capabilities, which I am glad the Government have committed to continuing, as it does to keeping RAF Scampton open. The situation we are in today may change rapidly and we need the ability to respond to that effectively. So, too, may the threats we face. Relations between the UK and Russia, while far from war-like, are not quite friendly either. Russian aircraft test our air defences frequently, as NATO aircraft likewise test Russia’s. Scampton is not, of course, a frontline fighter base at the moment. It is not unimaginable that we would need to deal with a scenario in which things heat up over the North sea. As one of my constituents pointed out, if somehow RAF Coningsby was taken out of action, RAF Scampton could be very quickly converted into a frontline role with quick reaction alert capability. If the base is permanently shut and redeveloped, that option, and the flexibility it provides, is off the table. Obviously, if we lose a runway, it is lost.
There are strong economic worries, given the hit that the local secondary economy will take. We need to consider the needs of local enterprise and businesses that are involved directly or indirectly with RAF Scampton.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I was blessed to visit RAF Scampton during my time in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and to see Vasco, who looked after us. My colleague, the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) participated also. I noted the tremendous integration between the local community and the base, and the fact that many depend on the base for their livelihood. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that community must be a material consideration in any decision, and that the Ministry of Defence owes that community a duty of care that it must fulfil?
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a very valuable point. I entirely agree with him.
Let me mention Hawker Hunter Aviation. Its land and buildings are privately owned, but it fulfils contracts for the Ministry of Defence and its suppliers. Its business depends on the continuing existence of the airstrip at Scampton, which is far from guaranteed. If the base is redeveloped, we will also need to know what ground has been contaminated by defence use and what the cost of clean-up will be—a very important point. There are many stories to the effect that when the MOD re-routed the A15 to curve around the extended runway, it gave a guarantee that if the base was shut it would restore the original route of that ancient Roman road. Will the Minister comment on that point?
Talking of the Minister, I thank him personally for the gracious way in which he has tried to keep me informed at all times, including coming to my office two months before the decision was announced in public, with several of his officials, to explain what he was doing. I objected then to the closure, as he knows, and I keep objecting, but at least he has been very gracious in trying to keep us all informed. As we all know, he is a quite excellent Minister.
Of course, it is all very well for Ministers and civil servants to find savings—I encourage it—but I fear that they have made a decision to close RAF Scampton without being in full knowledge of the facts, and the changing facts.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, I was also lucky enough to visit RAF Scampton with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme last year and to meet the Red Arrows and to hear of the wonderful work that they do. They also told us of the very specific piece of airspace that they have secured above Scampton, which is very difficult to replicate elsewhere in the UK. It is both high and wide, giving them plenty of room to practise their clever manoeuvres. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a very important consideration?
That is an absolutely essential point. The decision, although signed off by Ministers, is really taken by air marshals, avionics experts and all the rest of it. Scampton is unique in having this very high, wide, clean airspace. This is not just about RAF Scampton. It is about what is good for the Red Arrows and what is good for Lincolnshire. We want to keep them in Lincolnshire, not have them moved to Yorkshire, for very good reasons. This is not about sentiment. There are very good reasons to do with the clear blue skies in Lincolnshire.
It may be less expensive to keep Scampton open for defence purposes than to bear a huge clean-up cost to make it marketable to private sector development. There are four hangars at Scampton in various states of disrepair; the Minister may want to comment on that. At least one is in a relatively bad state of repair. Of course, the one that has the Red Arrows is in a superb state of repair—you could eat your breakfast off it. The others, particularly the one behind Guy Gibson’s office, is not so good. The MOD cannot do what it has done in the past—just clear out and leave these huge hangars there, with a massive clear-up bill. It must make sure before it leaves the site that the hangars are fully repaired. It cannot walk out once again and neglect its responsibilities.
I know that West Lindsey District Council and Lincolnshire County Council are already making preparations with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that any transition is done sensitively and takes on board the needs of the community. Unfortunately, we have seen the Ministry dispose of such sites very badly in the past—particularly at Hemswell and Binbrook in my constituency—and lessons need to be learnt.
Ex-MOD communities in West Lindsey have witnessed a variety of problems. They are often geographically remote or separate from other communities. Housing stock is disposed of in various ways, lessening the chances of developing cohesive, resilient communities who can establish links with other communities. Large structures that are poorly suited for conversion to civilian use are left to fall to pieces, making them more expensive to refurbish or demolish. The closure of MOD assets such as shops and social clubs has a profound effect, leaving communities with few amenities and dependent on travel by car or insufficient bus services. Roads have been poorly maintained, sometimes to the extent that they are deemed unfit for use. Heavy fencing and barriers, which are useless once the MOD assets that they protected are gone, are often left unmoved. Access to utilities such as gas mains has been an issue—not to mention broadband connectivity.
I echo the concerns of West Lindsey District Council and agree that if closure goes ahead, which we oppose, a robust and adequately funded exit strategy will be needed if the MOD is going to do the job properly. Ministers will have to tell us whether the full financial impact has been costed. There is also the superb RAF Scampton Heritage Centre, which provides free admission to the general public. One needs to pre-book in order to visit it, which is understandable because it is on a functioning military base. Can the MOD guarantee that the Heritage Centre will be allowed to continue? West Lindsey District Council and Lincolnshire County Council do not have the funding to take it up.
Can the Minister guarantee that the history of this important site will not be simply destroyed or neglected? The history of Bomber Command is no less important than our maritime history, which is so well funded in, say, Portsmouth. This is not a matter of just handing over control and saying, “Here—it’s your problem now.” We are lucky to have a wonderful group called Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire, which is a partnership between the county council, the military, the commercial sector and volunteer heritage centres and museums, spread across 19 sites. The groups and entities that combine as members of Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire do an amazing job of preserving this important aspect of our county’s history—bomber county—and provide incredible value for money. Ministers should tell us how they can better facilitate the work of these groups, especially the Heritage Centre at Scampton. If the MOD is serious about ensuring a proper, sympathetic and ethical transition for RAF Scampton, this should include a funding formula for preserving the history of the base.
We have to think about the future. A young constituent wrote to me to say that growing up and seeing the Red Arrows at Scampton was
“one of the main reasons that I am now studying aerospace engineering at university.”
If the RAF leaves, she suggests that we consider turning Scampton into a large-scale aviation attraction. She writes:
“It is vital that young people are encouraged into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers, and a STEM zone should be incorporated into the museum to help inspire the next generation of pilots and engineers.”
She suggests that the recent announcement that Retford Gamston Airport in nearby Nottinghamshire is to close means that there will be strong demand for an airfield devoted to general aviation. Scampton’s runway is nearly 9,000 feet long and gives a fantastic strategic advantage to air shows and heritage aviation, as we have seen in recent years. By comparison, the Imperial War Museum in Duxford has a runway of only 5,000 feet.
More broadly, we need to know how many jobs will be lost. How many roles will be transferred elsewhere, and what will be the impact on the local secondary economy? The Ministry of Defence does not exist in a bubble; in Lincolnshire, we fund it with taxpayers’ money. If its savings will mean losses to the wider community, the MOD needs to outline realistic plans to compensate for those losses and soften the impact of shutting down Scampton. If the base is to shut, the MOD needs to consult all key stakeholders who know Scampton well and have creative ideas that unleash the full potential of the site.
West Lindsey is under constant pressure from the Government to build more houses. Given the size of our schools, the location of our medical practices and the state of our local road network, that is easier said than done. There is great resistance to any more large-scale housing in the villages north of Lincoln, including places such as Cherry Willingham, Nettleham, Saxby and Welton. Should the base close, which we oppose, there will be an opportunity for relocating projected or desired housing numbers from existing villages to a large, new village in Scampton. In order for that to work, proper facilities will have to be created and the surrounding roads upgraded. The MOD must play its part and pledge—today or soon—to do that.
In addition to the historic, economic and social impact, there is a human consideration. Many people in the Royal Air Force community have made Scampton their home over the past century, and many ex-service personnel continue to live all across Lincolnshire. RAF Scampton is not just a facility; it has been a home and community where people have formed bonds and where memories persist. Lives have been lived at Scampton, and many lives have been lost in serving the nation. I would particularly like to remember Corporal Jonathan Bayliss, whose step-brother contacted me in advance of this debate. Corporal Bayliss was the engineer with the Red Arrows who died tragically last year in an accident. He is memorialised at Scampton just outside the offices of the Red Arrows, alongside the two pilots who died in 2011. The bar has been renamed JB’s Bar in Coporal Bayliss’ memory.
Last year, second world war veteran John “Snogger” Watkins volunteered to grab a rifle and stand guard at RAF Scampton in order to keep the base open. He is 94 years old and was seconded to the Dambusters squadron in 1943, just in time for its famous raid. There is so much to celebrate at RAF Scampton—the services that have been rendered and the sacrifices that have been there. There is a strong case for keeping this base open and in operation. The last review was done only a few years ago and concluded that it was well worth completely resurfacing the runway. It also concluded that Scampton was the best place to keep the Red Arrows. What has changed?
To the bureaucrats, shutting Scampton looks great on paper. Perhaps closure would be an acceptable argument if this was only about reducing costs and saving money, but there is so much more involved. In terms of serving the local community in Scampton and Lincolnshire and maintaining our flexibility in the defence of our realm, the best option is to keep the base open.
The debate can last until 4.30 pm, so the Minister has just over 12 minutes to perform loop-the-loops, barrel rolls or whatever he chooses.
I will do my best to impress, Mr Hollobone. As is normal practice in these debates, I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for his very kind words in recognising the issues I have to deal with—providing the news and dealing with the real estate—and for his courtesy in our discourse about this very delicate matter.
I also take this opportunity to welcome back the Tornado pilots who have returned from their duties in Iraq and Syria for the last time. The Tornado is an incredible aircraft, which came into service in 1979. It has now returned to RAF Marham and will be replaced by the F35 and the Typhoon. That demonstrates the advancement of our incredible capabilities, which were reflected across the nation in the 100th anniversary last year. I think that was a welcome reminder to the nation of just how important our armed forces are. We as a nation step forward when perhaps other countries do not. That is part of our desire and appetite to help to shape the world around us, as a force for good. The RAF has played, and continues to play, an important role in that.
Before I discuss RAF Scampton in detail, I want to put into context the wider picture of defence real estate optimisation that we face. My right hon. Friend touched on that a number of times in his speech. We must recognise that a base or a garrison is not just an operational locality; it is also a place for families and friends, where children grow up. It is part of a community and forms a bond with the society in which it is embedded.
We must also recognise that because of decades—indeed, centuries—of development of the armed forces real estate, the country is peppered with little localities, from Dad’s Army operations to huge bases. Some 3% of the UK is MOD land. Owing to the reduction in the size of all three services, some of that is surplus to requirement, and that means that we must make tough decisions.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the presence of the Red Arrows makes Scampton more important, because they are such an iconic institution in the United Kingdom. We associate them with the commemoration of important events and anniversaries, and particularly the 100th anniversary of the RAF. We have an important event coming up on 29 March this year. Does the Minister think it might be possible to arrange for the Red Arrows to fly over Parliament so we can properly celebrate that important historic event?
I am tempted to say so many things. My hon. Friend, for whom I have huge respect, knows that we were on different sides of the argument. To be clear, where we are is not where I would want to be. However, I am committed to democracy and I recognise the process that we have undergone, so I respect the fact that, if there is a deal, we will depart from the European Union on 29 March. I hope he will forgive me for saying that although 17 million people may be shouting for joy on that day and may demand that the Red Arrows participate, the nation as a whole—43 million voters—must come together, put aside their polarised views and the gridlock we have faced, and move forward.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough touched on the challenges we face, including what Russia is doing. China is tasking us in another void. We must work with our European partners to meet the threats and challenges we face in a diverse, very complex, changing and threatening world. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) will understand if I do not jump at the opportunity to stand with him on the point that he made.
I return to the subject of the debate. To conclude my point about the defence real estate optimisation programme, we must reduce the size of the footprint of the estate and drive down the running costs.
Will the Minister give way?
I will finish this point.
We must invest heavily in the core sites where our personnel will be based. That is the focal point. As we reduce the size of all three services of our armed forces, we are building up super-garrisons where we can invest in the long term to improve the accommodation and training facilities, but that means that we must take difficult decisions to close bases.
Has the MOD had any discussions with other Departments about whether it should be funding the cost of the Red Arrows, given that their great value is not to war fighting and defence, but to UK plc’s influence around the globe? Scampton is now a historic education centre, and that is not the MOD’s core business.
No. We are jumping into discussing one of the assets that is based at RAF Scampton. Given the time, I might as well throw away my speech and just go for it, because I will not be able to get through the points. The RAF Red Arrows are critical to our capabilities in a number of ways. They allow our pilots to develop skillsets that they would not get in any other forums. They do much to promote Britain’s activity, soft power and so forth. They do outreach—for example, at Scampton and the Bournemouth air show. They reach out to youngsters and invigorate them to think about potentially serving in the armed forces, or at least to support and have reverence and respect for what our armed forces do.
There is no threat to the Red Arrows, but we must ask two questions. First, where can they be based? The RAF itself must make a judgment call on that operational decision.
Will the Minister give way?
I will finish this point, if I may.
Secondly, where do the Red Arrows train? They spend some of their time training, and some of their time doing display work. The training area is not necessarily right on the doorstep of where they are based, but the training must be done with the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority, so there are many factors that must be taken into account when allocating where the Red Arrows will be. The Red Arrows have moved regularly since they were created. They have never been in one place for any huge length of time.
My understanding is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, the Red Arrows have been in Lincolnshire since 1983. I was a hospital doctor before I came to Parliament, and I remember the joy that many local patients would get from watching the Red Arrows practise outside the window.
I wonder whether the Minister has given consideration to a couple of points. First, RAF Cranwell will soon have a special G-force training facility, which the RAF Red Arrows will use—they are, obviously, local. Secondly, has he had any discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about contributing to the Red Arrows?
My hon. Friend is eating into my time. Will she expedite her question?
Thirdly, what discussions has the Minister had with the Civil Aviation Authority about the special piece of airspace that the Red Arrows have for practising in? My understanding is that that is terribly difficult to replicate elsewhere.
I will not answer those questions here because, with respect, this is the debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) with the answers.
On the Red Arrows and Lincolnshire, I have had the good fortune to visit many of the bases. I was in RAF Marham on Thursday, which is to be the home of the new 617 Squadron in tribute to the Dambusters, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough mentioned. Lincolnshire does incredibly well, given that ever fewer runways and airbases from the second world war survive. It is the home of the RAF. I have mentioned Marham, and Coningsby is also based there, with our quick reaction force. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned Cranwell, where officer training takes place. She is right that there is a new state-of-the-art facility there for F-35 training, which involves a simulator that allows pilots to experience not just taking off and landing, but other moves; it gives them the exact experience of being in the aircraft. Then there is Digby, and not least Waddington, where our star capability is. As a county, Lincolnshire does incredibly well.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way again. I literally have two and a half minutes left, and I am on page 2 of my speech. I might as well give up.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, some of the assets at RAF Scampton—the bases and buildings—are exactly the same as they were in the second world war. We have not invested in the site for some time. The runway itself requires huge investment because of the weight of the aircraft, the distance and the runway systems. The cost of bringing all that up to the standards we expect would be prohibitive. There is huge recognition of the history of that important site, given the role of the Dambusters, which my right hon. Friend touched on. We do not want to lose sight of that. I am pleased to hear that the museum is going well. In our private conversations, I have said that I would like to speak to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see what more we can to do invest in that site.
I make it very clear that we do not take these decisions lightly. Through the full scoping of the RAF real estate, we must make tough judgments about where we will invest in the long term. I am very sorry that Scampton was not one of the sites chosen, but we need to work with those who will be based there to ensure that, as the relocation takes place, they and their families are looked after.
Ultimately, this is an operational decision made by the RAF itself. I promise my right hon. Friend that Lincolnshire will continue to play the most significant part in the air contribution to our military capability.
I thank the Minister for meeting me about the future of the assets at RAF Kirton in Lindsey. I hope he will ensure, as he deals with the transfer at Scampton, that there continues to be proper engagement with local people in relation to the assets at Kirton in Lindsey.
In conclusion, I simply say that I understand hon. Members’ passion. It is important that MPs come here to support their communities and recognise the value that RAF personnel and their families bring. I recognise that, and I recognise the difficult decisions that must be made. I stand here as a pilot and as somebody who served in the armed forces. It is important, given the complexities and challenges we face, that the RAF continues to advance. We will continue to invest in the people, the real estate, the training and the airbases.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Unpaid Work Trials
Before we begin the debate, I advise hon. Members that we are expecting a Division in the House within the next 10 minutes, upon which this debate will be suspended for 15 minutes to enable hon. Members to vote. I call Stewart Malcolm McDonald.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of unpaid work trials at the outset of employment.
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone; it is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair. Hon. Members will know of my longstanding interest in this issue, having introduced a private Member’s Bill on it after the 2017 election: the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill. Unfortunately, and I hate to start on a sour note, my Bill was talked out by the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), when he was in post. I am an optimist, however, and I am optimistic that the new Minister will drive us in a different direction, see the gravity of the problem, and bring forward the necessary legislation to prevent that exploitation from continuing.
There are many people—not just in this House, but outside it as well—whom I should thank for their input during my preparations for that Bill and for this debate, and during my long campaigning on the issue, but I will single out one campaign for mention: Unite’s “Better Than Zero” campaign. It has been at the forefront of not only challenging the use of unpaid work trials, but putting forward a credible alternative to exploitative work practices, with a particular focus on the hospitality sector. I encourage all hon. Members to support that campaign, particularly its hospitality charter.
I will outline exactly what is going on and why it is a problem that needs fixing. Unpaid work trials—the period between applying for a job and being given the formal job offer—are at the heart of what I want the Government to fix. I want them to fix the fact that that part of employment law is entirely unregulated, although I am sure the Minister will dispute that when she gets to her feet. There is a deficiency in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, for which, in fairness, I do not blame Labour. Nobody saw it as an issue then and has not for the last 20 years, but it is a deficiency that needs to be fixed.
During my research for this debate and the preparations for my private Member’s Bill, many hundreds of people got in touch to give me their personal experiences of what it is like to take part in an unpaid trial shift. I myself did it when I was younger, as, I am sure, did many other hon. Members. Unpaid trials range from perhaps a couple of hours in a coffee shop or a hotel, for example, right up to the extreme end, with the most extreme that I have come across being a 40-hour working week, where people tried out for a job that they would not be paid for and had no guarantee of securing permanently.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he has done to bring this important issue to the public’s attention. More than half of people know someone who has experienced an unpaid work trial or have done one themselves. Does he agree that that shows the scale of the problem and the abuse of workers that is taking place?
Indeed. Although there are no Government or trade union statistics on that, it is a problem that everyone knows exists, because we have either done it ourselves or know somebody who has.
Not only do people work—as in the case that I mentioned—for up to 40 hours without pay when trying out for a job, but we have the vicious situation of people being offered work trials for jobs that do not even exist. That can take the form of a job being advertised so a business can get itself through a busy period such as Christmas, or the wedding season in the spring time if the employer is a hotel. It can also be used to cover staff sicknesses. People are being taken advantage of when they are asked to come in and try out for jobs that there is absolutely no chance of them getting, because all the employer wants to do is cover shortages in their own rota.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. He talks about some of the more extreme examples. He may be shocked to hear the experience of a constituent of mine. She had a seven-day unpaid work trial, but was also told that if she was subsequently employed and left within the first year of employment, she would have to repay the company for the cost of her training and her Disclosure and Barring Service check.
Rather unusually, I am blown away and have no words. I have never before heard of that kind of thing happening, but it does not surprise me at all. Imagine how dispirited and depressed that kind of situation leaves an applicant feeling, particularly if they have applied for job after job and have got nowhere, often with no feedback from those from whom they hoped to secure employment.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly outlined some worrying issues. I do not think anybody present would support somebody not being paid for a one-week work trial if that is how it is badged. There are also legitimate concerns that, as part of the interview process, people may be asked to perform certain work tasks to see whether they are suitable for the role. How would he differentiate between the unethical practices that he outlines and genuine job interview and job selection processes?
My Bill deals with the very scenarios that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I want to make it clear that I am not against trying people out for a job. The Bill is quite clear on that, too. I am against the use of unpaid trials to exploit people. Later in my speech, I will mention a business that has changed its practices as a result of this debate approaching, which might address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
Some employers know that the practice is wrong but are indulging in it. I know that they know it is wrong, because they changed their practices when my Bill was introduced last year. I will give two examples. The first, believe it or not, is the BBC. I had been told that the BBC was taking advantage of young freelancers; abusing their time, talent and energy; involving them in the production of programmes; and doing so through the guise of an unpaid trial period. I wrote to the BBC about the matter and, as a result, it has stopped that practice. Why? It knows that it is exploitative.
Aldi has changed the way that it interviews and recruits people. It has taken away what might have been thought of as the interview element, whereby someone carried out a work task. Instead, it now has a shorter interview period that involves shadowing someone around the store to see exactly how the business works and, crucially, so that the applicant can determine whether the job is for them. That is a better way to recruit people.
My Bill would also have given some of the cards to the applicant who, it strikes me, holds very few in the entire process. My Bill would have made it clear that employers offering a trial shift had to be doing so for a job that actually existed; that when the trial period started and finished had to be stipulated in black and white; and that applicants knew that, however they got on during the trial, the employer would give them proper feedback as to whether they had got the job. My Bill was all about empowering applicants and making it clear to them that the law is on their side, rather than it being deficient and too often working against them.
When I introduced my Bill, the Government were of the view that the law was not deficient and dealt with these matters as it was. In fairness to the new Minister, she has brought forward guidelines on the use of unpaid work trials. That is welcome—I get that change often happens in small steps—but I am afraid that it is not enough. She is, I am sure, unsurprised to hear me say that. We know that millions of people up and down the UK are crying out for proper legislative change that will back them when they go for a job. At the minute, the law absolutely does not do that. That can be evidenced by the fact that there has never been a single fine—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Hon. Members will be glad to know I am bringing my remarks to a close, to allow the debate to begin properly.
It is my understanding that the Government believe the current law is sufficient, presumably with the addition of their recently published guidelines. However, the evidence suggests that it is not: there has not been one fine, prosecution or even public shaming of a company or employer that has used unpaid trial shifts, particularly in the most pernicious and exploitative fashion, in the history of the National Minimum Wage Act.
I am sure many Members will wish to share the experiences of their constituents; I would like to share just one. A mother whose son had gone through an unpaid work trial said:
“My son was asked to do a trial shift in our local restaurant. The manager who was on shift did not even speak to him when he was in! He was left in the bar with no direction and when he tried to help the others he was told to get back behind the bar! He wasn’t paid a penny for his time. The same restaurant had already done the same thing to a friend of mine’s son except it was for a kitchen porter and he did 4 hours, no pay and again at end of his shift he just left, waited over a week with no job offered.”
I cannot expect the Government to legislate against obnoxious behaviour, which surely that example represents, but they can legislate to prevent unpaid trail shifts being used in such an obnoxious fashion.
Some may say that I am being partisan, but I think I make an accurate observation: this Government are utterly out of ideas. I am offering them a free idea at a time when we are asked to believe that the Prime Minister wants to improve and enhance workers’ rights in one fashion or another. Assuming there is no general election between now and the upcoming Queen’s Speech in June, I plead with the Minister to do everything she can to ensure legislation is brought forward in one form or another, either in this Session or in the Queen’s Speech later this year, to ensure that we end the use of unpaid work trials.
When I was lucky enough to be picked in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, inevitably I was bombarded by outside interests saying what they would like a Bill to achieve. Obviously, any Member who finds themselves in that position wants to bring in a Bill that can genuinely make a difference to people’s lives. There are millions of people, particularly young people, up and down this country who have fallen victim to this practice day after day for many years. Even with the new guidelines, millions more will fall victim to it.
Knowing what we know, it would be an utter dereliction of duty for this Parliament and this Government not to act. I do not look to this Parliament to solve many problems—hon. Members understand my political view of it—but it can solve this problem. I ask the Government to get serious and start solving it.
Order. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespersons no later than 5.23 pm. The guidelines give five minutes to the SNP, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Stewart Malcolm McDonald will be allowed a couple of minutes at the end to make concluding remarks. Five Back-Bench Members wish to contribute, so I will impose a four-minute limit on each speaker.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing the debate and on the way he introduced the subject.
As we have heard, unpaid work trials are becoming a widespread practice. I, too, have heard about many cases, predominantly from young people desperate to get a foot on the employment ladder, who have been given false hope of employment and been cheated—yes, cheated—out of a day or more’s pay. They are used to provide free labour, to cover staff shortages or to reduce costs, with the final insult of not being hired for the job they applied for in the first place.
Sadly, it does not surprise me that Unite the Union—I declare for the record that I am a member—has heard from many of its members in the hospitality sector, who believe that these trials are in fact a crude ruse that will allow companies to get away with not paying people a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It is clear that some companies are offering shifts with no intention of giving somebody a job, and others, who may actually give a job to someone, want to see how many shifts they can squeeze out of them first for no pay at all, or at a lower rate. It is nothing short of scandalous and should concern us all that Unite says that the use of unpaid trial shifts has increased exponentially in recent years.
The sad reality is that we are having this debate today because both the law and culture in this country place little emphasis on workplace protection and do not support or respect it. We give far too little attention in this place to the reality of the world of work. Far too many people experience insecurity, uncertainty and exploitation, and until this place resolves to do something about that, the kind of injustices we have heard about today will continue.
The blunt truth is that unpaid work trials are a scam. They are a means for employers to increase their profits at the expense of the workers, and are part of a wider problem across society whereby workers, especially young people, are seen as a disposable commodity. In an ideal world, all employers would act like the majority of decent and responsible employers out there, who pay their trial workers, and we would not need legislation to tell them to pay people fairly for the work they do. We do not live in an ideal world, and some people need to be told what is unacceptable. We should all stand four-square behind the principle that if you work, you should be paid for it.
I welcome the publication of the new guidance from the Department, but the proof will be in the pudding. The guidance says that it will ultimately be up to enforcement officers, courts and tribunals to decide whether there has been a breach of minimum wage regulations, but how realistic will that approach be? How many people will resort to litigation, waiting many months with an uncertain outcome, possibly facing experienced lawyers, just for a day’s pay? How much enforcement will actually take place? The International Labour Organisation has a benchmark of one labour market inspector for every 10,000 workers, but in the UK we have only one for every 20,000 workers.
Would it be easier to put a legal presumption in place? If you are working for a minimum wage it should apply, whether it is a trial shift or not. It is open to employers to have a robust interview process and seek references, and thanks to the weak employment laws in this country, they can sack workers with impunity anyway, if it does not work out in the early stages. If there is any need for trial shifts at all, there is certainly no justification for them without pay.
I am angry at this systematic, cynical and avaricious exploitation, but I am also sad that many young people think that unpaid work trials are just the way things are. Do they not deserve more respect than that and more protection? Can the Minister set out what more she can do to increase awareness among young people? In 20 years of the minimum wage, there have been only 14 prosecutions. Unless rights are enforced, they will never be truly worthwhile. The Government need to step up to the plate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on bringing this forward. It is a pertinent issue and one that I firmly believe in.
I am also a firm believer in hard work—that is a fact. I was raised that way and raised my boys in the same way. If people want a new car, they must work hard and save hard, and keep the old banger as long as they can. If they want their own house, they must work hard and save for longer. That has always been the motto in our family. I understand that it is harder now for young people to get into the housing market, no matter how much work they carry out, but that is a debate for a different day.
The debate today is clear. As I said to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) before the debate started, I can well remember my dad hiring people, watching them for the day and then saying at the end of the day, “Here is your pay; I don't think you are actually cut out for this job.” By and large, the person understood and accepted that. I can never imagine him getting someone to work for the day and then saying that they did not pass the test. That is for a very simple reason: it is simply not fair to expect someone to work for a day and not pay them—not ever. That is the way it is. If that were true in my dad's time, it is certainly every bit as true today. The principles of decency and rightness dictate that we treat people how we would like to be treated—with dignity and respect. That is what the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred to in his introductory speech—dignity, respect and fairness.
I fully understand those who wish to trial employees. Do they have the customer skills? Can they think on their feet and use logic? Can they handle the work? People can or cannot—a trial will ascertain that. I am all for trial periods or probation, but I believe they must be of a short duration and for a specific purpose, and most of all they must be paid. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to entrenching the right to be paid for work. I am glad that it allows people to come for an interview that includes work experience time. The six tests that the Government outline and how they expect the law to be interpreted are very clear. I want to quote them here, to have them on record.
“Whether a ‘work trial’ is genuinely for recruitment purposes,”
and that is the crux of the matter,
“(if it is not, it will generally be considered to be work and the individual will be eligible to be paid the national minimum wage or the national living wage); whether the trial…exceeds the time that the employer would reasonably need to test the individual’s ability to carry out the job offered (in the Government’s view an individual conducting work in a trial lasting longer than one day is likely to be entitled to the national minimum wage);…the extent to which the individual is observed while carrying out the tasks; the nature of the tasks carried out by the individual and how closely these relate to the job offered (where the tasks are different from those which the job would involve…but rather to get the tasks carried out); whether the tasks carried out have a value to the employer beyond testing the individual…(this will normally indicate that they do not have such a value and that the individual is not ‘working’); whether trial periods are important (aside from recruiting) to the way the employer runs its business.”
There should be no other misunderstanding with employers or perspective employers. If someone is asked to work a day, they should be paid for that day. I recently read an article on the calling of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church. A massive part of his outreach was about better working conditions for mine and coal workers. While impressed with what he achieved a long time ago, it is sad that we are still having to say to people that it is not okay to expect something for nothing, from someone who wants nothing more than a job to pay the bills.
I am all for internships and apprenticeships, and I am also all for ensuring job suitability. If someone cannot do a job then they may lose that job. What I am not for is people being taken advantage of, and unfortunately that is what is happening. It must stop. Minister, we are seeking clarification of the law and assurance. We support the workers in their every attempt to ensure that those who work are paid, no matter how long or short that work is.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), not just on securing this debate but on the legislation he introduced under the private Member’s Bill process. It is an area of deep regret that that legislation has not been pursued. It highlights the absolute folly of the private Member’s Bill system in this place, but that is a debate for another day.
I rise to make similar points to those already made. We need action on this today. I think, “Okay, fine, great, guidelines,” but the reality is that we need this enshrined in law. In the time I have been in this House, I have already seen a number of areas of employment legislation and employment practice that do not do justice to our constituents, quite frankly. Some of it is about unpaid work trials, which I reckon will be even more of a thing after Brexit. The hospitality sector largely relies on EU nationals. When the drawbridge is brought up as a result of the Immigration Bill, the chances are that the hospitality sector is going to rely more on people in the local population working in those jobs. I would be very concerned if hotels and restaurants decided that they were going to deploy unpaid work trials.
The UK Government have said that they are of the view that unpaid work trials are permissible in legitimate recruitment processes. Does he agree with me that the problem is that nobody is monitoring what is permissible and what is legitimate?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point; that is something the Minister should consider. When we say that this place just does not deliver for workers’ rights, we look at the absolute lack of any action on zero-hours contracts. We look at, for example, the age discrimination in the national living wage, which is not applicable to those under 25. Those are areas where the Government have been told time and time again that Parliament wants action, but they sit back and say, “Oh well, we’ll do guidelines, or we’ll do consultations.” I certainly welcome consultations, but at this stage we need to see legislation.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) has made the point that, even though the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 is on the statute books, only 14 employers have been found in breach of the legislation since it came into force. I do not think that is helpful at all.
The point I would make, which people would expect to come from a Scottish Nationalist Member of Parliament, is that if Westminster is not willing to take action on better employment conditions, then surely it should look at devolving that legislation to the Scottish Parliament, where we have a track record of taking action. Take, for example, the business pledge, whereby companies make commitments to say that they are investing in youth, do not have zero-hours contracts and do not discriminate based on someone’s age. There is clearly action in Scotland that can and will be taken to provide better employment conditions for people.
I regret that a number of parties in this Parliament blocked the devolution of employment legislation. If hon. Members are going to stand up in this Chamber today and say that they want better employment rights for people, that is fine—I would like to see better employment rights for people across the UK—but I do not want to come to another debate and make this point again and be stonewalled by the Government. If the Government are not willing to do it, then the Scottish Government will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate and on his persistent and tenacious work in championing this long-standing issue. It is important, because in many ways his background is reflected in the priorities he brings to this House. I was thinking about the backgrounds of many MPs, and perhaps that is something we need to consider. Is this matter on their radar at all? Do they have even a basic understanding of how this sector operates? Have they ever had exposure to it? Have they ever understood how these exploitative employment practices work?
Like the hon. Gentleman, I share that background of having worked in similar environments. I reflect on my first job when I was at school: I went to work in a pizzeria in Glasgow called La Vita, which hon. Members might have heard of. There is one in George Square, one in Byres Road and one in Bishopbriggs Cross. I was hired on a zero-hours contract, but I also had to do an unpaid trial shift when I started there with my friend Ryan. I remember we were competing against each other for the same job, but they ended up taking us both on.
Often, we would go in during the week and work for maybe an hour, and then be sent home with a free pizza when we were expecting to work five or six hours. It was okay for me, because I was still living at home at the time, so it was pocket money, but I shudder to think about the people I worked alongside, who relied on that as income to live on and often to take care of children. While I was somewhat insulated from the full effects of that exploitative practice, I none the less realised that it was unfair and discriminatory. We also had our tips taken from us—a practice that was subsequently made illegal. That just shows that, even though we are operating at the margins, things that happened then to me and others are actually illegal now.
We are still dealing with the effects of casualised employment, zero-hours contracts and unpaid trial shifts, which remain to be tackled. I wonder why that is not a priority for this Government and why it is not a priority for more Members of this House, who might otherwise have been here. I think it is simply that they are not aware of it.
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that it does not seem to be a priority for this Government—unless, of course, the Minister is able to enlighten us and tell us what her Government might do. Does he agree, given that we all understand it is not a priority for this Government, that that is a powerful argument for devolving this power to the Scottish Government?
As a Labour Member of Parliament, my analysis is primarily driven by class. I have just as much interest in securing the employment rights of someone who lives in Liverpool as of someone in Glasgow. That is where I operate. I am saying that I want us to have unity of purpose for worker’s rights across the UK, and that is why I believe in the trade union movement and the labour movement. We can have respect for ideological difference on this, but that is my analysis, and it is as simple as that.
I want to increase trade union density, because there has historically been a significant casualisation and a low trade union density in the hospitality sector in this country. That is why the “Better Than Zero” campaign has been particularly effective in mobilising workers and making them aware of their power. I also commend the GMB for the excellent, ground-breaking agreement it achieved with Hermes, the courier firm, just yesterday, which secured holiday pay, guaranteed rates and collective negotiation under the GMB, with full recognition for those workers. That is a lesson for the rest of the gig economy and the hospitality sector that we can really achieve improvements, and a demonstration of a trade union working innovatively. What could we do for workers’ rights across the UK with the real force of law and legislation behind them? I feel that would be a real game-changer for our economy; it would improve average wages and improve the resilience of our economy, and that is the way we ought to proceed.
I have experienced exploitative employment practices, as have other Members of this House. It is time that this House woke up to the reality facing millions of young people and casualised workers across the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, start by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on both securing this debate and the work he undertook on the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill. When I first arrived at this House after the 2017 general election, I wore my Parcelforce shirt to remind me where I had come from and why I was elected by the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, whom I asked to send a working man to Parliament. They sent me here to fight for justice for workers, and that is why I call on the Government to end not just this scandal of unpaid trial shifts, but all employment practices that fail to treat people with dignity and respect.
I was truly disappointed that the Government chose to talk the Bill out, despite the support from hon. Members of all parties, the trade union movement and the public. The Government have allowed this scandalous situation, in which employers can ask someone to undertake an unpaid trial shift, to continue because of their actions. It is not isolated to one sector of the economy or one type of employer; it is a widespread practice in our economy, ranging from the hospitality sector to the creative industries. The practice is used not only by small, family-run businesses, but by multinational corporations that think it is normal. I am sure we can all agree that it is a practice which must come to an end.
I pay tribute to organisations, such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the National Union of Students, that are working tirelessly to highlight the injustices faced by those who are made to work unpaid trial shifts. I particularly commend the “Better Than Zero” campaign for the tremendous work it has done and continues to do to highlight some of the worst employment practices in Scotland and to educate, organise and mobilise young workers to fight for their rights. I have joined with the campaign on many occasions, and it was a pleasure to take action together.
It is time for us in this House to take real action on this question. There should be legal clarity for both workers and employers on what constitutes a trial shift. There should be a requirement for employers to outline the length, the criteria and the outcome of any trial shifts undertaken, and it should be made clear in the National Minimum Wage Act that a failure to pay individuals for working on a trial shift is illegal. It is time that the Government sent out that message.
Of course, unpaid trial shifts are just a symptom of the type of economy that the Government have created. It is an economy where many workers are not paid the living wage—I want to see that living wage, or even the national minimum wage, increased to £10 per hour. It is an economy where many workers find themselves with job insecurity, with the use of zero-hours contracts, but we are told that the unemployment rate has never been lower. It has never been lower because of zero-hours contracts; that is how that figure is justified. This is an economy where basic health and safety requirements such as breaks are viewed as optional or outright ignored by employers. It is an economy where workers find it increasingly difficult to organise and mobilise to defend their rights, terms and conditions, all because of this Government’s sustained attacks on the trade union movement. I say to any workers working in low-paid jobs, “Join a trade union today. You can make a difference.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), on securing the debate. I emphasise my support for his private Member’s Bill.
I am one of the Scottish National party signatories to that Bill, alongside my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for their support. Indeed, the Bill is supported by Members from every single political party represented in the House. You look surprised, Mr Hollobone, but there are Conservative Members who support my hon. Friend’s Bill.
Order. As Chairman, I have neither a surprised face nor any other kind of face. Mine is a neutral face. I am just listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest.
Thank you, Chair. All I will say is that I will play you at poker for money any time. We will move on.
The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South is supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Trades Union Congress. As my hon. Friend outlined, he has been assisted by both “Better Than Zero” and Unite the Union’s hospitality section, and I thank Bryan Simpson, a constituent of my hon. Friend’s, for sending us an excellent briefing for the debate. It highlights several issues that hon. Members have addressed, including Mooboo, which I will come on to, and Aldi, which has had to change its practices.
The briefing also includes the testimony of individuals who have been through unpaid work trials. Rachel from Bearsden said:
“I did two unpaid trials of 5-6 hours each for a local restaurant who then strung me along for weeks with the promise of shifts before ending contact.”
Nicole from Renfrew said:
“I went to one of these and it is actually slave labour. They use you to get the shop ready for opening time and get annoyed if you make any mistakes (even though you haven’t been trained to do the job). They just abandon you and come back moaning that you’ve not finished the million tasks to do. They then emailed me the next day saying I was unsuccessful and that they can’t provide feedback because of the volume of applicants.”
Those are just some of the cases studies that Unite supplied.
We know that not only are such cases fairly common, but particular employers use a string of people like that, giving only short shifts or a day or two of employment. Those employers use people simply to plug a gap in their staffing and never look to employ someone.
That is exactly what happens. It is a way for unscrupulous employers to cut their wage bill by essentially introducing unpaid labour. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South mentioned that some people have worked a 40-hour week in an unpaid work trial. They are then not given the job and another person is taken on to do an unpaid work trial for the same length of time.
The research and case studies provided to us by Unite are also supported by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed—IPSE—which has looked at the treatment of freelancers. Unpaid work trials are an issue not only in the hospitality sector, but in the creative sector and others. According to IPSE, this has led to an average loss of £5,000 per year for its members, with 20% of its members saying that that is standard practice within the sector.
There is huge public support for my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill. While in the Commons Chamber, several Members of Parliament from Scotland saw an advert on Twitter from Mooboo bubble tea, highlighting its unpaid work trial. We questioned Mooboo about that practice, and we found ourselves blocked on Twitter for having the temerity to question the company and its working practices. That led to a petition that surpassed 13,000 signatures. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South also wrote to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs concerning the practices of Mooboo stores.
Has the Minister been in contact with her friends in the Department for Work and Pensions? We know that individuals who refuse or leave a zero-hours contract job can face universal credit sanctions. If someone refuses the offer of an unpaid work trial, will they be subject to a universal credit sanction?
The fact is that the organisation leading the way on employment law is the European Union. The European Parliament is looking at radical alternatives to employment law, leading the way for workers in the gig economy, in stark contrast to the Government’s good work plan, which nibbles around the edges. As my hon. Friends have said, if Members of the Westminster Parliament will not tackle unfairness in the workplace, that job should be handed to the Scottish Parliament, and we will do it for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this important debate and for his excellent opening speech. Like him, I highlight the fantastic campaigns by trade unions, particularly the “Better Than Zero” campaign.
As several Members have set out, unpaid work trials have become a widespread practice in the hospitality, entertainment and retail sectors, but it is important that we place that development in the wider context of the so-called gig economy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) did. Characterised by increasingly exploitative working practices and conditions and insecure work, the gig economy affects millions who are struggling to make ends meet, making it harder for someone to say no to unreasonable and exploitative conditions set by employers.
That is the reality for so many, but it is being ignored, and even—dare I say it—encouraged by a Tory Government that represent only the wealthiest few. Everything about the current crisis of work is a consequence of an environment that is designed to reduce the burden on the employer at the expense of millions of workers.
In addition, more than £3 billion is lost in wages every year through unpaid work, with the continuing practice of unpaid work trials a key contributing factor. After a long campaign by the TUC and trade unions, and after attempts by Members—notably the hon. Member for Glasgow South—to introduce legislation have been repeatedly ignored, the Government attempted last December to set out when unpaid trial periods are acceptable. It was about time. As we have heard, a growing number of workers, particularly younger workers and those with learning disabilities, have been asked to work for free in recent years. Research by Unite has shown that, over the past three years, there has been a six-fold increase in complaints about unpaid shifts.
It is not only the trade unions and those who represent workers who say that the current system is not working. The Federation of Small Businesses has expressed concerns that unpaid trial shifts are shading into exploitation. Far too many employers have made people who are seeking work do a full-day trial shift, and in some cases employers have even demanded a full week of free work. That is not limited to small businesses; it includes large companies, as highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The TUC makes it clear that testing skills and abilities should be part of a structured recruitment process. Having worked in industry for 20 years before I came to Parliament, I support structured recruitment processes, which are far better than the old boys’ networks they often replace. However, there is absolutely no justification for employers demanding a period of free work as the price of entry into a job. In my view, and in the view of the TUC and other campaigners on this issue, employers who require candidates to do any productive work should be made to pay them at least the minimum wage—which, by the way, will be at least £10 an hour under a Labour Government. Why does the Minister think that productive work should go unpaid? Why will she not commit to a £10-per-hour minimum wage?
I realise that this is probably an unpopular point to mention in this place, because the practice is rife, but does the hon. Lady agree that we need to have a conversation about the use of unpaid internships in this building? Often, people will work for an MP for several weeks and there is a possibility that they might get taken on afterwards. It is not quite an unpaid work trial, but there is still a culture, in this building and in other Parliaments across the UK, of unpaid internships.
That is an excellent point, and I would welcome a debate on unpaid internships in this building. I myself offer living-wage paid internships. It also happens in other areas, such as the media, where the BBC and others offer unpaid internships. It is a barrier to entry into certain professions and a form of exploitation.
It is clearly bad employment practice to ask for real work and not pay for it. It also means that employers avoid paying taxes and making a relevant contribution. That leaves the taxpayer and the entire country out of pocket. Will the Minister commit to ending such tax avoidance by preventing unpaid trial shifts?
As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) emphasised, without strong enforcement the new guidance is not worth the paper it is written on, but the organisations tasked with enforcement have faced huge cuts since 2010. The employment agency standards inspectorate has lost half its budget. That is why a Labour Government will invest in enforcement through a new Minister of Labour. How will the Minister prevent companies from simply choosing to ignore what are, after all, just guidelines?
Employers who require candidates to do any productive work should be made to pay them the national minimum wage. Will the Minister commit to these basic requirements when it comes to trial periods, and if not, why not? Workers deserve more. Ending exploitative unpaid trial shifts is just one aspect of redressing the balance in favour of workers, and that is why we will set up a new Ministry of Labour. If the Minister cannot match that, she should at least commit to ending unpaid trial shifts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this important debate. I am proud to serve as the Minister responsible for the national living wage and workers’ rights, and I am pleased to be responding to the debate. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is wrong to exploit workers through unpaid work trials at the outset of their employment. Workers have the right to be paid the minimum wage when they are deemed to be working, and this must be upheld.
The Government are committed to building an economy that works for everyone through the national minimum wage and the national living wage. We will continue to ensure that the lowest paid in our society are rewarded fairly for their contribution to the economy. All businesses, irrespective of their size or sector, are responsible for paying the correct minimum wage to their staff. The vast majority of responsible employers ensure that they get it right.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members raised examples of constituents and others who had been disadvantaged. Having heard the details, I can say that it is highly likely that those practices were illegal. An individual’s entitlement to the minimum wage depends on whether they are deemed to be a worker. If they are a worker, their employment must pay at least the relevant national minimum or national living wage. Our legislation is clear on that.
Many individuals participating in work trials would be considered to be workers. Therefore, they are already protected under existing legislation and are eligible to be paid the minimum wage from the start of their employment. An employer may wish to test an individual’s skills using a range of kitchen knives in a restaurant kitchen. That would probably have little or no value in terms of work for the employer, so would not require payment at the relevant minimum wage rate.
Clearly, the circumstances of each particular case would need to be considered to confirm entitlement to the minimum wage. However, the case of the 40-hour unpaid trial is, in the view of my Department, likely to be excessive and, therefore, against the law. Similarly, new recruits who are required by their employers to spend time at the outset of their employment undertaking training are entitled to the minimum wage for that time.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South raised the issue of exploitative unpaid work trials in his private Member’s bill of March last year. The Government recognised that concerns had been expressed in the House and in the media. Therefore, we issued new guidance on unpaid work trials on 3 December last year, to provide further clarity for employers and workers. The guidance aims to ensure that workers, especially young people in the hospitality and retail sectors, are not exploited through unfair and excessive unpaid work trials. The guidance sets out a number of relevant factors that should be taken into account, such as the duration of the trial and whether the employee is deriving economic value from the activity.
The Government have clarified their view that work trials that are reasonable, not excessive and clearly part of a legitimate recruitment exercise do not require payment at the relevant minimum wage rate. For example, an employer may wish to test an individual’s skill in a restaurant kitchen through a short trial before hiring that person. That would probably have little or no economic value for the employer, so would not entitle the applicant, but it may well lead to a job offer for the individual. However, unpaid trials are not permitted if they are part of a genuine recruitment process, if they are excessive in length or if they are simply for the financial benefit of the employer.
I have no quarrel or disagreement with anything that the Minister has just outlined. The guidelines that she has produced are, no doubt, admirable. What is her objection to underpinning them in statute?
As I have already said, we have an enforcement system for the national minimum wage, which, with the guidance, is focusing on targeting the employers that we need to target. We need to recognise—I was going to come to this point later—that in 2017-18, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs investigated and took action against more than 1,000 employers, raising £15.6 million, and affecting over 200,000 workers. That shows that the enforcement work is taking place. HMRC will investigate every worker complaint.
I am glad that HMRC investigates, but how many of the cases that the Minister has mentioned, in which money has been clawed back by workers who have been deprived of money to which they were entitled, took place in a period that would be considered a work trial, as opposed to when the worker had formally signed a contract and started a new job?
As part of HMRC’s involvement and enforcement of the national minimum wage, it investigates a number of breaches, including unpaid trials. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that HMRC is currently actively investigating companies in which there is a suggestion of unpaid work trials. Obviously, those investigations are currently ongoing, on the back of the legislation and the guidance that we offered.
I will make some progress. I encourage any worker who has concerns about unpaid work trials to call ACAS for free confidential advice, or to contact HMRC via its online complaints form. ACAS advisors will explain the general position in terms of entitlement to the national minimum wage and advise an individual based on the circumstances of their case. If the caller then feels that they may have been entitled to the minimum wage, the ACAS advisor will explain their options for taking the matter forward, which include contacting HMRC about formal national minimum wage enforcement.
I will carry on, because I want to give the hon. Member for Glasgow South time to wind up at the end.
HMRC investigators consider work trials on a case-by-case basis. They explore the precise detail of the arrangements, including what the worker is being asked to do and for how long. Where they come to the view that the arrangements constitute work under national minimum wage regulations, they will require the employer to repay any arrears and will impose a fine. HMRC has taken enforcement action where workers were expected to complete an unpaid work trial.
The Government are actively taking steps to tackle non-compliance with the national minimum wage, and to respond robustly to employers who fail to pay their workers correctly. We have doubled our investment in enforcement since 2015-16 and we now spend more than £26 million every year to ensure that employers meet their legal responsibilities. Employers who are found to be underpaying their staff must repay arrears and pay a fine of up to 200% of the underpayment, and may be eligible to be publicly named by the Department.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned that there had been only 14 prosecutions. As I have already outlined, the figure is actually more than 1,000 businesses in one year. The stat is not 14 but 1,000 in one year.
On the issue of enforcement, does the Minister believe that the team in HMRC is adequately resourced?
From the feedback I get from business, and from some of the work that I know is going on, I would say absolutely yes. We are enforcing and doubling investment, and we are making sure that HMRC investigates the case of every worker who complains. As the Minister with responsibility for the national minimum wage, that is exactly what I would like to carry on seeing.
I want to answer some of the questions that have been put to me during the debate. I also want to reassure hon. Members that workers’ rights are a big priority for the Government and particularly for me. In the advent of the Taylor review and the good work plan, we have seen a step change in a generation in terms of workers’ rights. We have announced that we will ban tipping, which will come further down the line, and we have laid legislation to firm up workers’ rights.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South for securing the debate. It is essential that workers are paid the minimum wage. The Government have listened to concerns relating to work trials and issued new guidance, which, combined with robust enforcement, will help to ensure that workers are not exploited through unpaid work trials.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. We have a new Minister, but that was by and large the same speech we heard when my Bill was talked out last year. I want to address one issue that the Minister mentioned. I have no quarrel with the workers at HMRC—my partner is an employee, so I would know if I had a quarrel with workers there.
I am afraid that all the things the Minister outlined that people can do if they feel they are being exploited go partly to the heart of the problem. Why is the onus always on the person being exploited to run around and try to get somebody to take action, when the Government could do that in statute?
I am always grateful to hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As a DUP Member, he has greater access to the ears of the Government than I have, so as we approach the next Queen’s Speech, I plead with him to take the issue forward.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) questioned whether Ministers had any idea or experience of what we were talking about. Yes, they do; the Minister’s predecessor was guilty of offering unpaid work in his office.
It has been a good debate and there is clearly much that we agree on. There is even much that the Minister and I agree on, but I plead with her to do something meaningful and introduce legislation. Let us stop putting the onus on the person being exploited and, for once, give job applicants some of the cards to hold.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the use of unpaid work trials at the outset of employment.