Wednesday 10 July 2019
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Universal Health Coverage
I beg to move,
That this House has considered universal health coverage.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Robertson, and to be here in Westminster Hall. I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words about universal health coverage.
Let me begin with one or two words of thanks. First, I thank Alison Stiby-Harris and, through her, all at Save the Children, which prompted me to seek the debate. I also thank all the colleagues who supported the effort to secure it, and the various agencies and supporters who have contributed to it through their briefings. Secondly, I thank the Library for its briefing pack, which of course is distributed far and wide—far beyond our boundaries. I thank Tim Robinson, Jon Lunn and Philip Brien for their contributions to it.
I also thank my former colleagues at the Department for International Development, who I know will have prepared the Minister for the torrid time he can expect this morning, and with whom I worked so joyfully before Brexit intervened. I thank them and all those they represent, here and around the world, for the immense contribution they make, not only to this area but to all other aspects of aid and development delivery. As I frequently told them and Foreign and Commonwealth Office colleagues around the world, life may be very difficult in some of the spots where they work, but without them things would be just that bit more difficult.
I will first set out the themes of universal healthcare and why I think it is so important, and then offer a few sobering facts and figures about where the world is, and point the way, with reference to what is being done, towards opportunities for the UK to continue to lead in this field, as I hope and believe it can. It is such a vast field that I cannot cover everything.
It is rather nice to start a debate, rather than to have the eight or 10 minutes at the end and have to respond to a veritable volley of questions from Front Benchers and others—not least the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who we heard with great sadness will not be with us in the next Parliament. No doubt there will be plenty of opportunities to thank him for the contribution he has made. It is nice to have the opportunity to kick off a debate, but I will try to ensure that I do not abuse that privilege by going on until at least half-past 10, as I would love to.
Universal health coverage means that
“all people and communities can use the promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”
That is the World Health Organisation definition, which embodies three related objectives. The first is equity in access to health services. Everyone who needs services, not only those who can afford to pay for them, should get them. Secondly, the quality of health services should be good enough to improve the health of those receiving services. Thirdly, people should be protected against financial risk, ensuring that the cost of using services does not put people at risk of financial harm. Universal health coverage cuts across all the health-related sustainable development goals, particularly SDG 3, and brings hope of better health and protection for the world’s poorest.
I am sure it is not difficult for us to explain to the British public why this topic has such resonance. Health is fundamental. Our nation’s commitment to a national health service, free at the point of delivery, is now such a staple of our lives that its principle needs little further emphasis. So it is around the world.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on all he has done in the positions he has held, but it is good to see him leading a debate in Westminster Hall. Tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest infectious disease, killing more people each year than HIV and malaria combined. It affects the most vulnerable and marginalised—those with less money—and both the disease and the treatment have long-lasting consequences. Does he agree that it is imperative that we prevent rather than treat TB, since the latter leads to the emergence and spread of drug resistance, which is a real danger to individuals—especially the vulnerable—and to public health more broadly?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is a noble champion of many health causes, and of the rights of people across the world. TB is indeed a key part of the delivery of universal health coverage. I will cover it later in relation to our contribution to the Global Fund, but it is absolutely right that some of the diseases that we have begun effectively to marginalise in the United Kingdom are still a risk in many parts of the world, particularly for the poorest.
A healthy society is one in which children can fulfil their potential, mothers can give birth safely and the cruellest of preventable diseases, such as TB, can be tackled, with life and nation-changing impact, but to do this effectively, the world needs to tackle it collectively. Colleagues will know how important I hold collective multilateral activity by the world’s nations to be. As multilateralism seems under relentless threat from many quarters, universal health coverage reminds us that a common issue or threat is dealt with not by even the best-intentioned individual or bilateral action, but by pooling sovereignty and making collective effort, whether that is in vaccination, in the fight against HIV/AIDS, or in combating anti-microbial resistance. Collective effort also means creating partnerships between the public, private, and charitable and voluntary sectors, which all have a place. Efforts to exclude, or to advocate exclusivity for, one or other of those sectors need examining very carefully.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being most generous. On collective responses, the UN’s high-level meeting on universal health coverage must build on the success of last year’s UN high-level meeting on TB and reaffirm the commitment to diagnose and treat 40 million people with TB by 2022. Does he agree that though our commitment to the Global Fund is a great first step by this Government and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we need others to give the same commitment?
Indeed. Once again, the hon. Gentleman anticipates something I will come to later. Our 16% uplift in relation to the Global Fund is remarkable in itself, but of course it should be an example to others.
Efforts to build sustainability and to encourage and work towards health system strengthening around the world are really important. Although there will always be a need to respond to outbreaks or emergencies, basic healthcare and steady improvement are achieved not by continual external intervention, but by dedicated work to build, train and equip those who take national responsibility for their nation’s health. A DFID brief puts it as follows:
“Countries need strong health systems if they are to achieve Global Goal 3, and ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages’”—
that is SDG 3—
“and the target of UHC aimed at reaching the most excluded and living in the most remote locations, leaving ‘no one behind’.”
That determination to ensure that responsibility for health is rightly taken by a nation itself, and our view that our role is to enable such a transition in health to take place, helps us to explain in this country why UK aid and development assistance works, and why our commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income is so important. Few question the role the UK plays in immunising millions of children around the world, including some 8 million victims of the war in Syria.
Something like 5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict are in camps in the countries around Syria. Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the impact on the physical and mental health of people of all ages, particularly the 1.5 million children, of being in camps, rather than in settled communities, often for many years?
We could spend another 20 minutes reflecting deeply on that. Like others in the Chamber, I have had the good fortune to visit refugees in various locations. Some are in camps. The majority in Lebanon, for example, where a quarter of the population are Syrian refugees, live on the outskirts of other communities. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct.
Although, understandably, there used to be a concentration on the basic needs—shelter, food and water—there is now a clear recognition of the damage that is done, particularly but not exclusively to children, over a longer period. Of course, one area of concern is education. It is reckoned that perhaps a third of refugee children lose primary education, and perhaps two thirds lose secondary education. There are also the limitations on their action and the impact of that on mental health. Some time ago, the UK and DFID stopped seeing mental health as a nice add-on to support and saw it as essential. We have put money, effort and support into putting workers in to protect against mental health problems.
Of course, if the wars were not occurring, such problems would not be there. That encourages us to redouble our efforts in conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the areas most at risk.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that more than 5.6 million children under the age of five die from preventable diseases every year? Does he agree that immunisation is a critical backbone of any universal health strategy?
Alongside the health and mental health issues of young people, there is grave concern in many countries about the trafficking of children and young people in camps and outside. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree—I am sure he will—that that also needs to be addressed?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is correct. When I was in the main camp in Cox’s Bazar—colleagues will have visited it—with those who had been there a year, protected from the atrocities in Burma, I asked, “What happens next?”. I was told the biggest worries on the camp were: boredom and lack of things to do; education for the children; domestic abuse in the camp; and trafficking. That is a signal to all of us that just keeping people in a camp, protecting them from one thing but leaving them exposed to another, is a further tragedy.
Let us look at the state of the world’s health, concentrating on three areas in particular. The first is children’s health, where the picture is not all gloomy. Each day, 17,000 fewer children die than did in 1990, but more than 5 million children still die before their fifth birthday each year. Since 2000, measles vaccines have averted nearly 15.6 million deaths. Despite determined global progress, an increasing proportion of child deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia; four out of five deaths of children under five occur in those regions. Children born into poverty are almost twice as likely to die before the age of five as those from wealthier families.
Secondly, let us look at maternal health. Maternal mortality has fallen by 37% since 2000. In eastern Asia, northern Africa and southern Asia, it has declined by about two thirds, but the maternal mortality ratio—the proportion of mothers who do not survive childbirth—in developing regions is still 14 times that of developed regions. The need for family planning is slowly being met for more women, but demand is increasing rapidly. Again, we see that in the camps, where women who, in the countries they come from, had been excluded from reproductive health advice, perhaps for religious reasons, gain rapid access to it in the camps. That again is a lesson for the future.
Thirdly, I turn to HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. In 2017, 36.9 million people globally were living with HIV, and 21.7 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy, but 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV and 940,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in that year. TB remains the leading cause of death among people living with HIV, accounting for about one in three AIDS-related deaths. Globally, adolescent girls and young women face gender-based inequalities, exclusion, discrimination and violence, which puts them at increased risk of acquiring HIV. It is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide, and now the leading cause of death among adolescents in Africa, and the second most common cause of death among adolescents globally.
More than 6.2 million malaria deaths were averted between 2000 and 2015, primarily of children under five years of age in sub-Saharan Africa. The global incidence of malaria has fallen by an estimated 37% and mortality by 58%.
What is DFID doing in these areas, and where are we going? The UK’s significant boost to the Global Fund, the combined effort to combat AIDS, TB and malaria, was announced by Prime Minister at the recent Japan summit. The 16% increase to our already generous contribution sets a new standard for others to follow, and I thank the Minister and all those behind him who worked on that over a long period. My friends at STOPAIDS and ONE and many others welcomed the achievement. ONE said:
“This is global Britain in action.”
There’s a phrase! It continued:
“It is fantastic to see the UK reaffirming its position as global health leader, working in partnership with other donors, countries affected by the diseases, the private sector and philanthropy to make the world a safe, and healthier place”.
However, we must ask the Minister how he plans to ensure that others follow. Will he outline any changes or developments in transition strategies, as nations take on more of their own responsibilities and work towards what, in such areas, is often a difficult process?
Let me say a few words about vaccination. Gavi, created in 2000, is a global vaccine alliance bringing together the public and private sectors with the shared goal of creating equal access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries. From 2016 to 2020, the UK is providing a quarter of Gavi’s funds. We are its largest donor, and have supported it since its inception. Gavi’s first replenishment conference was hosted by David Cameron in London in 2011.
As well as providing direct funding to Gavi, the UK was also instrumental in creating the international finance facility for immunisation, which raises funds for Gavi by issuing vaccine bonds on international capital markets. The UK also helped create the advanced market commitment for pneumococcal vaccines, which have helped protect millions of children in developing countries against the leading cause of pneumonia, as well as the matching fund, which encourages funding from the private and philanthropic sectors by doubling donations. That is my point about partnerships. It is always tempting to think that this work can be done by one sector or another alone. My experience is that that is not the case. Partnerships can contribute to the whole, but they need to be handled carefully.
Let me mention polio. As we know, it has decreased by over 99% since 1988, but transmission has never stopped in three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. There remains a risk of failure. We must thank the development and health workers who are responsible for vaccination. In particular, we recognise that in some countries they face genuine physical threats and loss of life.
In other countries, vaccination faces a threat from anti-vaccination campaigns, which are run for all sorts of reasons. It is essential that anti-science is combated by evidence of science and evidence of success. As far as I am aware, vaccination is about Edward Jenner and smallpox in the United Kingdom, and about Pasteur and others worldwide. It is not about big pharma trying to sell vaccines; it is a proven method of saving countless millions of lives. As we have learned to our cost, we might find a good argument lost for want of it not being made regularly. Let that not happen with vaccination.
Finally on polio, I must mention rotary. I am an honorary member of the Sandy rotary club—my father has been a member of the Bedford rotary club and Bury rotary club for many years—and we recognise that rotary has helped vaccinate 2.5 billion people in 122 different countries and given more than £1.8 billion over 30 years. I have met Judith Diment, the national representative, a number of times. We thank those in rotary up and down the country and abroad for their efforts and voluntary work.
Finally, on behalf of Save the Children and others who have written to me on this issue, I turn briefly to the high-level meeting. The first ever high-level meeting on universal health coverage will take place in September at the UN General Assembly. It is a critical opportunity to galvanise global momentum behind healthcare.
“The theme…is ‘Universal Health Coverage: Moving Together to Build a Healthier World.’ This…will be the last chance before 2023, the mid-point of the SDGs, to mobilise the highest political support to package the entire health agenda under the umbrella of UHC, and sustain health investments in a harmonised manner.”
I am shamefully reading out the briefing from Save the Children. I am not pretending to claim authorship of this; I am acknowledging the support we get from our remarkable partners. The high-level meeting has the potential to be a transformational moment for children everywhere, but countries need to step up their efforts to tackle the biggest challenges in global health today, from ending the scourge of preventable diseases to reigniting action on stalled global immunisation rates, for the reasons I mentioned.
I know the Minister will have been presented with a series of challenges for the high-level meeting. Perhaps I could outline them. We hope that the Secretary of State will attend the high-level meeting. The UK should champion free-at-the-point-of-use health and nutrition provision, helping to deliver on the “leave no one behind” agenda and to ensure that we reach those furthest behind; it should signal its support for domestic resource mobilisation, which is essential for encouraging more countries to work on strengthening their systems; it should champion the full integration of nutrition and immunisation into national universal health coverage plans; and it should fund UHC2030 as the main institution that can make a difference in driving the UHC agenda and on accountability, with a focus on meaningful civil society participation.
I could mention much more. Sexual and reproductive health is vital. At the 2017 summit, we announced £250 million of support over the next four years. Access to sexual and reproductive health services is under increasing threat from some developed nations that ought to know better. It is essential that the United Kingdom follows its independent path, and is not browbeaten by any of its larger partners or friends into offering restrictive reproductive health facilities just because somebody else does not like them, for questionable reasons.
We must continue the work on neglected tropical diseases. We are protecting some 200 million people from 2017 to 2022 with support of £360 million. I have not mentioned anti-microbial resistance and the work of Sally Davies. She moves on from her post relatively soon, and we should thank her warmly for all the vital work she has been able to do. Ultimately, it will protect us all; if we cannot find answers, that threatens us all. I thank those involved in the collaborative work that we now do internationally with the Department of Health and Social Care, and I hope the Minister will be able to take that work further.
I could mention the contribution of water sanitation and hygiene—the foundation for good health. I have seen remarkable projects that the United Kingdom is doing around the world on that. There is no point having a global health system or a national health system if there is no effective sanitation. It makes a particular difference to young women at important stages in their lives. It is absolutely essential. Nutrition, one of my favourite subjects in the Department, is much underrated. It is really vital to ensure that nutrition is correctly promoted. There is a difference between feeding people and feeding them nutritiously, as I learned in my first week in DFID.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and speaks with great experience. A child may be physically alive, but the weaker a child becomes through lack of nutrition, or through existing on the barest rations, the more prone they are to disease, and the harder it is to ensure that preventive measures work. That is absolutely correct.
I wonder whether the Minister wants to venture an opinion on the Department for International Development remaining a stand-alone Department. It might be slightly unfair to expect an answer from him on that, but I hope that this debate will leave him in no doubt of the value that we see in an independent-minded DFID. It is always part of the Government, as I occasionally had to remind officials, but it very much has its own stand- alone processes.
I hope others will cover all those points, and that I have helped to lay the ground, and made it clear how important this House feels universal health coverage is, and how proud we are of the United Kingdom’s previous contribution and its determination to keep that up. There is a clear sense that we are a world leader, through the work of our hard-working experts. The Minister should know that he has the full backing of the House in his determination to make sure that this issue remains as important to him as it has been to me and all my predecessors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I draw your attention to a relevant entry in the register—I visited Liberia in 2017 with the fantastic organisation, RESULTS UK, to look at Liberia’s efforts to rebuild a public health system after the Ebola crisis. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate and on his fantastic work as a Minister, and the passion and commitment that he has demonstrated once again today.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the third of the sustainable development goals commits the world to achieving universal health coverage for all by 2030. It seeks to ensure access to a full range of essential health services based on need, not on the ability to pay. Before I became Chair of the Select Committee on International Development, in 2014 the Committee published a report, “Strengthening Health Systems in Developing Countries”, which concluded that universal health coverage cannot be achieved without properly functioning health systems. At that time—five years ago—the Committee urged the Department for International Development to grasp the opportunity and demonstrate genuine global leadership worthy of its health systems expertise.
In recent years, we have seen some serious progress, and it is worth reminding ourselves of the progress that the world has made. For example, incidences of malaria and the number of new cases of HIV have each fallen by around a third since the turn of the century and the adoption of the millennium development goals. The global child mortality rate has been cut in half since 1990. Nevertheless, half of the world’s population lacks access to essential healthcare services and, every year, around100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty because of the cost of healthcare.
Let me say a few words about Ebola. In 2014, we saw the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history—the first to hit epidemic levels. Three years ago, the Committee published an inquiry report on that. We said that a major factor in the Ebola outbreak reaching an unprecedented scale was the weak state of health systems in the affected countries. It is extremely concerning to see what is happening in eastern DRC at the moment, where there have been more than 2,400 Ebola cases. The International Development Secretary, on a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo this weekend, called for the World Health Organisation to declare the outbreak an emergency. It is crucial that the international system redoubles its efforts in response to the emergency. Health-system strengthening must surely form a core part of recovery efforts in the DRC. DFID has an opportunity to play a leading role in supporting that work.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, we are at a critical moment with this September’s high-level meeting. Here in the UK, we have the finest system of universal health coverage anywhere in the world, with our national health service. That gives us the expertise, knowledge and capacity to make a lasting impact on the global debate and to be a powerful voice in it. I support what the right hon. Gentleman said about high-level UK representation at September’s meeting, and on supporting other countries to increase domestic resource mobilisation, ideally to see their health spending rising to 5% of gross national income. We can share policy expertise from our NHS to support other countries to increase their own domestic investment in health.
The coming year provides an unparalleled set of opportunities, with the various replenishments to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I look forward to the Minister appearing before the International Development Committee this afternoon, as we will have an opportunity to address some of the issues in more detail. I hugely welcome the £1.4 billion pledged by the Government to the Global Fund. It is genuinely excellent news that that commitment has been made and that it has been made early. That has lessons for replenishments in other areas, such as education, but that is for another day.
Let me endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about Gavi. The United Kingdom hosts the replenishment of Gavi next year. The Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, and I have written to the Prime Minister, bidding for Liverpool to host Gavi’s replenishment, not least because of the presence of the School of Tropical Medicine in our city. Let me also support what the right hon. Gentleman said about polio—I welcome his focus on that. As he said, we have seen remarkable progress since the establishment of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, with a 99% reduction in incidents since 1988, but it is still endemic in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative strategy states:
“Full implementation and financing of the GPEI Polio Endgame Strategy 2019-2023 will result in a world where no child will ever again be paralysed by any poliovirus anywhere”.
We are close to a world free of polio, but this will require one last push to end polio once and for all. I pay tribute to the groups that have come together to form the One Last Push campaign. It was a pleasure to join them at a fantastic event in Birmingham in April, which was also attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). We heard from campaigners from a range of non-governmental organisations, as well as British people living with polio. I learned a lot about some of the challenges facing British people living with polio in this country, and about the challenge of one last push to end polio globally.
The polio initiative is vaccinating the hardest-to-reach children. Our country can be proud that we have provided £1.3 billion to GPEI since its creation. I hope we will be able to show commitment once again to a polio-free world—we have done so with the Global Fund—with a generous financial pledge ahead of the GPEI’s upcoming replenishment in November.
Let me finish by echoing strongly what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of multilateralism and our standing up for values. I will perhaps be a bit more explicit than he was. The Trump Administration are clearly standing in the way of many of the things that he talked about—not least on sexual and reproductive health. Those global health multilaterals have consistently been shown to deliver high-quality, effective channels for UK aid. The Department’s multilateral development review three years ago demonstrated that once again. Those multilaterals have at their heart the Department’s strategic objectives of reducing poverty and promoting global prosperity. That makes moral sense, which we rightly focus on, and it also makes economic sense. For every dollar invested in immunisation, it is calculated that around $16 is returned directly in reductions in healthcare costs, avoiding lost wages and lost productivity due to illness and death.
Over the next two years, let us grasp these key opportunities to make progress on health outcomes and work together towards the goal of achieving universal health coverage for all. The UK has been central to this endeavour over the past two decades, and I hope very much that we can continue to lead efforts to achieve a world where everyone can get access to healthcare based on their needs, not on their ability to pay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing this important debate. I recognise that he was a great champion of these causes during his time as a Minister, and he has continued that valuable work from the Back Benches.
A key part of progress towards worldwide universal health coverage is tackling the world’s major health challenges. Only once those are under control can developing nations achieve sustainable healthcare systems and move towards universal health coverage. I am pleased that the United Kingdom is a world leader in supporting the Global Fund to tackle AIDS-related illnesses, tuberculosis and malaria, which kill around 2.5 million people a year.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing this debate and opening it so well.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that TB is a perfect example of the need for universal health coverage, and that if we invest well in TB programmes with universal health care in mind, it will make a real difference to developing countries across the world?
I absolutely agree, which is why the UK’s role in tackling TB is so important.
As a country, we will pledge up to £1.4 billion to the latest round of the Global Fund, which will help to provide life-saving antiretroviral therapy for more than 3.3 million people living with HIV, support treatment for 2.3 million people living with tuberculosis, and distribute 92 million mosquito nets to protect children and families from malaria. The UK is the second largest donor to health aid, having contributed $5 billion over the past 30 years. I believe that is something that we as a nation should celebrate.
This global effort, which is being led by the United Kingdom, is changing the world. Child survival rates are one of the greatest success stories, with child mortality levels more than halving since 1990. However, there is still a huge distance to go. Although access to healthcare is improving globally in both developed and developing nations, progress is slow and the gap between countries with the best and worst access to healthcare shows little sign of closing. We need to address that, which is why I support calls from Save the Children for the UK to champion a universal health coverage approach at the UN’s high-level meeting on universal health coverage in September—something my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has already raised.
This is not about dictating to other nations how they should manage public finances. It is about explaining the benefits of investment in healthcare—not only in improving the health of local populations, but in facilitating improvements in education, poverty and long-term economic development. The UK should champion the principle of healthcare being free at the point of use, and support Governments to increase health spending to 5% of GDP and integrate nutrition and immunisation into national healthcare plans.
Access to universal health coverage needs to be as broad a principle as possible. In some areas, a little investment can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Cerebral Palsy Africa is a charity based in Duns in Berwickshire in my constituency, and it provides support to enable children to attend school in Ghana and other African countries. It was set up by physiotherapist Archie Hinchcliffe, after she saw what rehabilitation could do for young cerebral palsy sufferers—the condition was simply not seen as a priority in many African nations. That is despite early intervention making a huge difference to the lives of sufferers. DFID’s small charities challenge fund recently awarded the charity £50,000, which is being used to train special needs teachers and specialist physiotherapists in Africa. We should all welcome that, and it demonstrates how funding from the United Kingdom Government can have a real impact on UK-based charities working in other parts of the world.
Does my hon. Friend agree that DFID’s small charities fund is an excellent innovation? In fact, we should see far more resources from DFID channelled through that to support all those great initiatives in our constituencies. They often offer the best value for money.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. All of these are very good examples of where UK money is invested locally but the benefits are felt all around the world. Very often, it is volunteers from the UK who ensure that funds are spent to best effect.
Although we absolutely must lead the fight against worldwide killers such as HIV and TB, supporting treatment and therapy for rarer conditions has to be part of the move towards universal healthcare coverage. Again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire on securing this important debate and allowing hon. Members to highlight the great work that the United Kingdom is doing around the world to improve the lives of so many people.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Robertson. I declare an interest in this subject, as I travelled to Ethiopia with RESULTS UK and saw the impact of setting up vaccination services as the initial building blocks towards universal healthcare. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for opening this debate and for his work as a DFID Minister. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccination, and I really welcome the commitment he showed in giving evidence to our inquiry on the next decade of vaccines. Our report was published in January, and I thank the team he worked with at the time.
As the right hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, universal health coverage is the idea that everyone should have access to quality healthcare without ending up in financial hardship. Half the world’s population simply does not have that, while 100 million people are thrown into extreme poverty when trying to access healthcare.
The UK has absolutely been a leader in this sphere. It is the No. 1 funder of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, which helps to provide affordable vaccines to low-income countries, and also helps those countries to develop their own systems to deliver vaccines. I particularly welcome the £1.4 billion commitment to the Global Fund and the fact that it was made in advance of the replenishment date. The replenishment of the polio eradication initiative is coming up this November, and the UK making a pledge in advance helps to put pressure on other countries to make similar commitments. The Global Fund is particularly involved in tuberculosis, HIV and malaria, which shows that this about not just a single thing, but a combination of vaccinations, antiretroviral drugs and malaria nets. Underneath all that, there is the need for clean water, among other things.
Vaccination itself has saved 20 million lives in the last decade. In 1988, when the polio eradication team came together, there were 350,000 cases of polio a year. Last year, there were 33 cases, in a difficult area on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is no treatment for polio. One problem when people talk “anti-vax” and say, “I don’t believe in vaccination” is that they do not remember what these illnesses look like. When I was in Ethiopia, we pulled into a garage to get petrol, and I saw a young man of about 30 standing there with the obvious deformity of flaccid paralysis from polio. The last time that I saw someone in that situation, it hit me like a boot in the face.
On Monday, we held an event in the House for polio survivors, and I thank those hon. Members who attended to hear their stories. Many of the older polio sufferers now use wheelchairs and are not therefore as recognisable as the children with polio, who used callipers or crutches. People are complacent and have forgotten the harm that polio can do and is doing elsewhere.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has done an incredible job using oral drops, which are critical because the gut protection a child gains from an oral vaccine protects against the further spread of the virus. The injectable form we use here protects the individual, but they can still spread the disease. It is therefore crucial that we eradicate it.
The problem is that, previously, we talked as though we would achieve eradication—obviously, we had hoped to achieve it by next year—and then look at transition. However, much of the infrastructure, staff and funding used to eradicate polio is also holding up the basic vaccination systems in low-income countries. In fact, people are now reluctant to take the oral vaccine. Some of that is because they say, “Here you are again, back in our village with your drops, but I can’t get my baby treated for another condition. We don’t have clean water. My children aren’t even fully immunised.” That is why we need the transition. Universal health coverage is now critical to achieving the eradication of polio; if there are outbreaks in Nigeria or elsewhere, it is because the routine levels of immunisation are simply not high enough.
Seth Berkley, the head of Gavi, pointed out a shocking figure to us when we set up the APPG. He said that although we think we are doing a great job, 85% of children in low-income countries are vaccinated only with DTP3—one of the very basic vaccines—and we put a tick next to them. However, only 7% of children in those countries are fully vaccinated and receive all 11 vaccines recommended by the WHO. More than 90% of children are still vulnerable to disease, and 15% have had no vaccinations at all, so we still have a lot of work to do.
I commend the UK for the 0.7% commitment to aid, which must be maintained. DFID must be maintained as a separate Department, not just for its function, but to show that commitment and drive. If our constituents say, “Charity begins at home, so why on earth are we bothering to spend money miles and miles away?” we should remember the Ebola outbreak and the fear over people arriving at Heathrow and having their temperatures taken. With air travel, the world is now a very small place, so infectious diseases threaten everyone. Vaccines will be critical to preventing antibiotic resistance, which threatens us all.
We should see our commitment both as a way to help those countries to invest in their children’s health, which helps them to develop economically and—a little selfishly—as a way to protect ourselves. Vaccination on its own will not be enough unless it is part of a system of universal health coverage that improves the health of all people, particularly the future generations of developing countries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for securing the debate.
When our NHS was created, it was the first time in history that healthcare was made available on the basis of citizenship rather than insurance or payment. We are all proud, across parties, of that achievement. The prioritisation of public health has been the bedrock of our country’s success ever since, with a healthcare system that treats all of its patients as equals, not as potential customers. As a frontline nurse for almost 15 years, I was really proud to be part of delivering that healthcare —I still miss it today.
After a decade of underfunding and privatisation, however, our NHS now delivers a postcode lottery health service. Even in my constituency, the healthcare afforded to those in the centre of Lincoln is different from that afforded to those in the village of Skellingthorpe. The compression of the budgets afforded to clinical commissioning groups means CCGs have to make difficult choices that can, in some cases, result in the centralisation of service provisions to ensure that the quality of healthcare is maintained. I understand that rationale, as it prioritises patient care, but it degrades the ability of our constituents to reap the benefits of our NHS, as their access to care is restricted and they can no longer rely on local services. That is particularly striking in my constituency, where some healthcare facilities have been forced to shut, and local hospitals need considerable funding and support.
Last July, the chief inspector of hospitals recommended that United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust remain in special measures. The trust has missed its A&E waiting time target by 32%, has not met the national standard since September 2014, and has an estimated deficit of £80 million. As an ex-member of staff, I know that that has nothing to do with the dedication, commitment and hard work of the staff there.
The pressures at regional level are being passed on to local healthcare in Lincoln. The doctor’s surgery in Skellingthorpe, run by the Glebe Practice, has announced that it intends to close because of recruitment issues. That will be consulted on, but services will be centralised in Saxilby, 4.3 miles away. That does not sound far, but it is very difficult to get to. The doctor’s surgery serves a majority of the community and is highly regarded by local residents. Some 82% of patients who responded to the national patient survey felt that their overall experience was good or very good, so this is not a reflection on the GPs at the practice. If the surgery closes, my constituents’ access to care will be downgraded and their right to free care at the point of need will be undermined.
In June, I held a public meeting in Skellingthorpe, to listen to local residents’ concerns. As it is such a sleepy little village, I thought, “We might get six people, or we might get 26.” We actually saw 80 people over three hours—it was a really busy and lively meeting. They all had the same concerns. There are infrequent public transport links, and not everyone can access the new location by car—either they have not got a car or they are too old or ill to drive. They talked about age, illness and poor mobility—if they take the bus, it does not go near the the GP surgery. Surely, all my constituents should be able to see a GP without worrying about a long or expensive journey; that is the last thing they need when they are ill.
I completely acknowledge that the Glebe Practice is struggling to recruit clinicians in a rural Lincolnshire village. That reflects the national picture, as the NHS is short of more than 100,000 staff, including 41,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors. I was at a meeting yesterday, and the withdrawal of the nursing bursary has contributed hugely to the fact that we are so short of staff in the NHS.
What concerns me most of all is that, in places such as Lincoln, which are suffering from the Government’s mismanagement, the situation does not seem to be improving; instead, it is getting worse. As the co-authored report from the Nuffield Trust, the King’s Fund and the Health Foundation found, the NHS could be short of 7,000 GPs within five years. Rural areas are already suffering from undertraining and underfunding. I urge the Minister to assess the implications of closing Skellingthorpe health centre for the health provision of my constituents, and to implement an effective national programme to incentivise GP recruitment in rural areas. We can all talk about the problems of recruiting GPs, but, come on, the Government have had nine years to get this sorted out—they should have been looking at this. We should be supporting GPs such as those at the Glebe Practice, not punishing the public by reducing their access to healthcare.
Before I sit down, I want to say something about the comments we’ve heard about nutrition and healthcare. As a nurse, I obviously appreciate the links between nutrition and healthcare—I remember the dieticians coming on the ward—but, in a country with the wealth that we have, to see food banks at the level we have is appalling. When we talk about healthcare in this country, we ought to ask whether people really should have to access food banks because they are starving and that is the only way to get food.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing this important debate and pay tribute to him. In my experience—even though I have been here only two years––he was one of the most thoughtful members of the Government, and it is a pity to see him on the Back Benches.
The debate is timely, given the year of opportunity ahead of us, with the high-level meeting in September and the various health financing moments between now and the end of 2020. The concept of universal health coverage is so valuable because it recognises how all health interventions interlink.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said, a strong immune system can only be developed with good nutrition. Without a strong immune system, vaccines and medicines are far less effective, and people are more vulnerable to disease. People living with diseases such as HIV or diabetes are more susceptible to developing other diseases, such as tuberculosis. At this juncture, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It was a pleasure to join my hon. Friend out in Geneva last month.
I will focus the majority of my remarks on nutrition, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nutrition for growth. I will reflect on our recent visit to agencies of the Geneva-based World Health Organisation and the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation to discuss universal health coverage and the various challenges faced by Governments and civil society in achieving it. It was fascinating to see the steps being taken to achieve universal health coverage, but I was struck by the number of challenges.
One significant challenge to overcome is political ownership of health interventions. Here in the UK—the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) touched on this—where parties jostle and compete at election time to express their support for and admiration of the NHS, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the world healthcare remains politically sensitive. Even more politically sensitive are investments in preventive measures such as nutrition, which, if done right, reduce the burden on health systems and so, in the long run, the funding that they require.
Despite that, the deputy director-general of the World Health Organisation told us that 95% to 97% of health budgets are still spent on institutions such as hospitals. Through the high-level meeting, the UK Government have an opportunity to encourage Governments around the world to invest more and smarter in preventive health measures such as nutrition. Will the Minister do what he can to ensure that strong wording to that effect is woven through the political declaration of the high-level meeting?
Another challenge is the siloed approach to healthcare that we see even in this Chamber, with different Members, including me, focusing on different areas of interest. A degree of siloing is perhaps inevitable, but the Government can help to break down the silos in a number of ways. First, DFID should use its position of leadership at various health multilaterals, such as Gavi, the Global Fund and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, to encourage organisations to work together and to add nutrition elements to their programmes. DFID should also take steps to embed nutrition more effectively across its portfolio. Nutrition elements should be woven into the fabric of all DFID’s health programmes in order to gain maximum impact from each intervention. Lastly, the UK Government should apply that holistic view of healthcare to their own investments.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, there will be multiple health financing moments over the course of the next year. Politically, it is vital at the moment, despite the turmoil and a lot of changes, that every single Member of this House gets behind that, so that health does not become a political football. I hope that it does not.
Globally co-ordinated initiatives such as Nutrition for Growth, and multilaterals such as the Global Fund, Gavi and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, are proven to be highly effective, and they offer value for money for the UK taxpayer. All those investments complement each other, and are the building blocks to achieving universal health coverage. Likewise, failure to invest in any one block compromises the effectiveness of the others. DFID should invest ambitiously and equitably as each of those moments comes up—as it already has done for the Global Fund—and encourage others to do likewise.
As the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) said, the UK is well respected as a major donor when it comes to global health, and it should not shy away from wielding that influence to encourage others to step up in the campaign for universal health coverage. I hope that the Minister will take on board my recommendations, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for securing this debate, for his great work as a Minister, and for championing the need for a separate Department for International Development.
Sustainable development goal 3 aims to
“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”,
and target 3.8 looks to “Achieve universal health coverage”, which is something that all of us in this House and across these islands have taken for granted since the establishment of the NHS in the 1940s. Everyone here already knows that implementing universal health coverage ensures that everyone receives quality healthcare without financial cost. We know that that reduces the risk of people being pushed into poverty, drives inclusive growth, builds more trust in health systems, and is more sustainable than simply responding to global health security threats.
Globally, it is important to note that access to healthcare has been increasing fairly steadily over the past 35 years. The healthcare access and quality index shows that almost all countries have seen at least some improvement during that time. However, we still have a long way to go if we are to meet sustainable development goal 3 by 2030. While access to healthcare has been increasing, the countries with the worst healthcare are still a long way behind those with the best, and that gap shows little sign of closing.
At least half the world’s population still do not have full coverage of essential health services, with one in eight people in the world spending at least 10% of their household budgets to pay for healthcare. As a result, about 100 million people are still being pushed into extreme poverty because they have to pay for their healthcare. Furthermore, the World Bank has identified that low-income developing countries are starting to face the challenges of ageing populations, and of increases in chronic, non-communicable diseases. That will only exacerbate the funding gap between what those countries have and what they need to provide universal health care. Aid spending on health is just as important now as it has ever been.
To turn my attention to the UK’s impact on universal health coverage, it is important to remind ourselves that of the $58 billion spent on health aid between 1990 and 2017, the UK spent $5 billion, and is the second largest national donor after the US—something we should all be proud of. Is it not ironic that the birthplace of national healthcare is second to a country that does not provide that for its citizens? Indeed, regressive attempts have been made by the US Administration to roll back the progress made under Obamacare.
The Department for International Development states that it is committed to supporting progress towards sustainable development goal 3, and aid spending on health is generally higher now than in previous years, representing 10.5% of all bilateral aid. That has to be welcomed. Last month, the UK increased its pledge to the Global Fund by 16%, in advance of the time of replenishment. That is a total of £1.4 billion.
We cannot be complacent about our past or current successes. The pathway to universal health coverage will be long and winding with no quick fixes, and the UK Government need to maintain their commitments in that area. All hon. Members in the debate have shown they are fully committed to that. However, there are possible changes ahead. In two weeks’ time we will have a new Prime Minister. The leading candidate has stated:
“We could make sure that 0.7 % is spent more in line with Britain’s political commercial and diplomatic interests”.
Let me be crystal clear: the SNP is unequivocal about the fact that trade and development are two different areas and must not be forced together at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable. Will we respond to an Ebola outbreak only if that is in the UK’s commercial interest? Who will judge if it is in our political interest to distribute mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria? Will children be vaccinated only in countries with whom the UK is on good diplomatic terms? Those questions may need to be answered. We should consider seriously the comments that have been made—they should send a shiver down our spines.
The same lead candidate has said:
“We can’t keep spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO. The present system is leading to inevitable waste as money is shoved out of the door in order to meet the 0.7 per cent target”.
Let us examine that ludicrous statement. Of course, the UK is not some independent Scandinavian NGO, but one of the largest economies in the world. It has both a legal and moral duty to commit to 0.7% aid spending, and to assist in the fight against the diseases we have heard about in the debate. That is not inevitable waste or shoving money out the door; it is exactly what the UK should spend its money on while meeting the 0.7% target.
Let us look at an alternative approach in these islands. Ben Macpherson, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, has given the following pledge for the Scottish Government:
“international development should be in the national interests of our partner countries and not in Scotland’s national interest.”
We should all agree that that is what international development means. We firmly believe that spending that must be focused on helping the poorest and most vulnerable, and on alleviating global poverty.
The SNP Scottish Government are playing their part in tackling global challenges, including epidemics and health inequalities. For example, as part of Scotland’s global goals partnership agreement with Malawi, the Scottish Government have pledged to strengthen the prevention and management of infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The Scottish Government respond to humanitarian crises through the humanitarian emergency fund, which includes provision to ensure the containment of diseases at times of crisis. While the challenges are fewer at home than abroad, the SNP is committed to defending the NHS, and to ensuring access to universal healthcare domestically; health spending is £185 higher per person in Scotland than in England.
To deliver universal health coverage, all countries must strive to provide quality healthcare at home. Those who are able to do that have a responsibility to support the same abroad. With a Department committed to international development and a 0.7% aid target, the UK already plays a significant role in doing so, and should never lose sight of that. The likely next Prime Minister talks about the UK walking away from its aid commitments, but it is imperative that the UK instead uses the opportunity of the universal healthcare agreement, which is due to be signed at the UN General Assembly in September, to refocus and renew efforts, for many years to come, to ensure universal health coverage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I thank the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for securing this debate, and for his work in his previous role at the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; I know he is well respected by the whole House for his contributions and openness. He spoke compellingly about the importance of universal health coverage, and passionately about the strides made. He coined the term “Global Britain in action” in respect of our commitment to the Global Fund. He referenced, as many Members did, the high-level meeting in September on universal health coverage, and the UK’s role in that and our ongoing commitments. Finally, he made the point that DFID should remain a stand-alone Department.
As chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has made a vast contribution, and it will be a huge loss when he leaves that role. I thank him for raising the serious concerns about Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Secretary of State’s declaration of an emergency. He spoke passionately about the One Last Push campaign to end polio globally.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) spoke of the small charities fund in the UK, and the impact it can have in supporting DFID’s work. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), chair of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, spoke of how vaccinations have saved 20 million lives, but that must be in the context of access to universal health coverage. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) talked about the importance of incorporating nutrition in UHC.
Last week, the national health service celebrated its 71st birthday. The NHS has rightly become nothing short of a national treasure in the UK. It has allowed us all to access quality healthcare free at the point of use, regardless of our income. But for too many people across the world, their right to quality healthcare is far from realised. Despite the global commitment to sustainable development goal 3—to
“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all”—
some 3.6 billion people do not receive the most essential health services they need, and 100 million are pushed into poverty from paying out-of-pocket for health services. It is right that securing health for all is a top priority for our international development work. It is essential that we take seriously this year’s UN high-level meeting in September, at which a universal health coverage agreement will be declared. I am delighted that this debate has been called, so that we can discuss how to achieve healthcare for all and what needs to be included in that declaration.
I will use my short time to cover four priority areas, starting with the need for public health systems. I mentioned the NHS; we know from our own experience that having a publicly provided universal health system, funded through progressive taxation and free at the point of delivery, is crucial to ensuring everyone can access the healthcare they need. It is only through putting people, rather than profit, at the heart of the agenda that we will ensure truly universal access to healthcare and meet the SDGs. After all, universal health coverage is about the social contract between the state and the population.
Country Governments are accountable to their population for delivering the right to healthcare. The NHS has provided us with a wealth of experience and expertise in universal health systems. That means the UK is well positioned to work with Governments, civil society groups and other stakeholders across the world to support the development of public health systems. Labour has committed to establishing, when it comes into government, a new dedicated unit for public services in DFID for that very purpose. We know that is crucial to gender equality. Women bear a greater burden of unpaid care work, so when a fully functioning health system is in place, women are freed up to engage in paid work opportunities, political decision making, education and other aspects of life.
Rather than strengthening public health systems, this Government have too often undermined them through their support for privatised forms of healthcare. Promoting public-private partnerships and private health facilities is not the way to achieve health for all. Health should never be commodified and turned into a profitable commercial venture, because that is a recipe for leaving the poorest without healthcare. Will the Minister inform us of the steps he is taking to ensure that we strengthen, not weaken, public health systems across the global south? Will the Government ensure that a strong focus on public health systems is included in the UN declaration?
Secondly, let me talk about health financing. Researchers at the World Health Organisation have estimated that the annual cost to poor countries of meeting the SDG target on healthcare for all by 2030 would be $112 per person. That is a significant increase on previous estimates, and would leave low-income countries facing an annual funding gap of up to $35 billion. The WHO estimates that poor countries will need to spend up to 20% of GDP on health to bridge that gap—clearly an impossible ask. If low-income countries are to have any chance of making up even part of the shortfall, Governments of rich countries and international institutions urgently need to address their role in creating global poverty and inequality, including through enabling unjust global tax and trade rules, demanding unsustainable debt repayments, failing to regulate their corporations properly, and imposing costs on poor countries through their contributions to climate change. I hope the Government will use their leadership position at the UN meeting in September to ensure that there is honest recognition of their responsibilities and the reasons why many poor countries do not have the domestic resources necessary to fund public health systems.
My third point is on access to medicines. We will never achieve healthcare for all without access to affordable medicines, vaccines and diagnostics. According to the STOPAIDS coalition, the price of new medicines worldwide is rising year on year. Due to a lack of transparency in drug pricing, too often we are left in the dark by pharmaceutical companies, which are free to set their own prices. As a result, treating a number of diseases remains unaffordable for both individuals and national health systems. Will the Minister ensure that improved affordability and access to medicines is championed in the declaration agreed at the UN meeting in September?
Fourthly and finally, I raise an important point about the “leave no one behind” agenda. At the launch of the SDGs, the Government pledged to ensure that
“every person counts and will be counted”,
and that the
“people who are furthest behind, who have the least opportunity and who are the most excluded, will be prioritised.”
Five years on from the SDGs being agreed, too often the most marginalised are still being left behind. An important piece of research by the UN’s population fund, and the UK non-governmental organisations Health Poverty Action and the Minority Rights Group, found that women from indigenous and ethnic minority communities experience far worse maternal health outcomes than the majority population in all 16 countries that they studied.
In the light of this evidence, do the Government agree that including data on ethnicity is a vital part of ensuring that we can keep track of inclusion in health systems? Will the Minister explain why ethnicity continues to be neglected in DFID’s inclusive data charter action plan? When do the Government intend to meet their commitment under the SDGs by disaggregating data by ethnicity? Can the Minister assure us that the most marginalised ethnic groups will be counted and included in the high-level discussions in September?
I conclude by saying a few words about the Government’s record on universal health coverage to date. It has been five years since the International Development Committee urged the Government to formulate a strategy for its approach to health systems strengthening. The Government accepted this recommendation, yet nearly five years on, there is still no sign of the strategy. It is true that there have been promises of imminent publication, most recently last December, but there is still nothing. I hope the Government will tell us why there has been such a delay to this most important document. After all, strengthening public health and health systems is the most important step we can take towards achieving health for all.
I congratulate all involved today on an excellent debate. It is timely because on 23 September we will be discussing universal health coverage at the high-level meeting in New York.
I am pleased to have heard almost universal praise from across the House for the advance declaration that the UK has made in relation to the Global Fund. I am proud of that, and I hope everybody here is proud of it too. Not only is it a significant sum of money and an uplift to what we were spending before, but when taken with the other Global Funds, it propels us to the top of the league table of international development, particularly relating to healthcare.
It is more important still because it is advance notification. The whole point is to encourage others to pledge and commit—the two are slightly different—generous funds aimed at dealing with the healthcare issues we all struggle with, because we are all in this together, particularly in relation to infectious disease. That point has been made by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, because infectious diseases respect no borders.
Having started on a positive note, may I introduce an element of gloom? Strategic development goal 3 and the 17 development goals related to it are not on track to be successfully rolled out. Universal health coverage is an aspiration, but it is not secure; the glass is indeed half empty.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). It is ironic that I am here potentially answering for decisions that he made in Government.
I was about to say that I am really comfortable to do so, because the decisions he made, and those he is associated with vicariously, are good ones. I am happy to have inherited his portfolio, but he is a difficult act to follow, that is for sure.
My right hon. Friend identified all the issues in his contribution, as I would expect him to do. He started by highlighting universal health coverage and its contribution to SDG 3, but he also made the point that universal health coverage touches on the other SDGs as well. In advance of the high-level meeting on 23 September, he was right to ask about the aims and ambitions the UK Government have for that meeting. They are encapsulated in getting more money—obviously—and getting better quality and integrated healthcare. That is something many of the contributions have touched on one way or another. I have been struck by the level of support for an holistic approach to delivering universal healthcare.
We have talked about immunisation and about the mistake we would be making if we simply imagined that going around the world offering people vaccinations and inoculations would be “job done”. It really would not be. Those interventions would be treated with a great deal of suspicion by communities, as they are at the moment, if that were all we were offering. It has to be much more than that; it truly has to be integrated. I look forward to making this point loud and clear in September in New York.
On a broader theme, as I have gone around the world, I have been struck by the roll-out of healthcare systems. Very often, there is a temptation for politicians to roll out shiny things that they can demonstrate to their constituents. That generally means hospitals, and hospitals are great things, but they may not be the right thing in low and middle-income countries.
In the four health systems across the UK, we are trying to address our obsession with hospitals and tertiary centres, realising we have not got enough resources in primary care, and certainly not in prevention. We need to share that knowledge with developing countries.
I agree with the hon. Lady. In the context of low and middle-income countries, my focus would be on primary healthcare and public healthcare, by which I understand something slightly different from public healthcare in the context introduced by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), who speaks for the Opposition, and I will come to that in a minute. The focus needs to be on prevention and on things that deal with the problems that the poor are exposed to, first and foremost. The difficulty with shiny stuff—electorally obliging though that might be—is that it risks exacerbating health inequality; shiny things tend to be in urban centres and accessed more easily by the better-off, rather than the poor, and particularly the rural poor. We need to be very careful about that.
We need to introduce the notion that countries themselves must grow their healthcare systems, and a number of contributions touched on that. That means addressing unpleasant things such as taxation. In addressing universal health coverage, we need to ensure that we encourage Governments to establish proper mechanisms for raising taxation, so that countries can ultimately stand on their own feet. I am pleased that the UK has introduced some trailblazers in that respect—the four in Africa are Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana and Uganda, and the other is Pakistan—where we will be assisting Governments to build structures that will make their healthcare systems sustainable in the longer term.
A number of contributions touched on polio. I know that will be the subject of my grilling later by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—I will say lots of nice things about him in anticipation that he will give me an easy ride this afternoon. I am sorry that he is standing down; it will be a great loss to the House, and I urge him to think again. Polio is on the cusp of being defeated. There were 33 cases last years, from only three countries—only two countries, really. We must make sure the boot remains on the carotid, because there is a real risk that, if we are tempted to divert funds from this, we will be back to square one. That would be a tragedy because of the lives that would be lost, and because, at some point, we would have to pick up the pieces. It makes no sense, in raw economic terms, to relieve the pressure on that particular nasty at this point. I hope we will make sure in September that the pressure stays on that particular one of the “Captains of the Men of Death”.
I appreciated the comments made by right hon. and hon. Members about nutrition; they were absolutely right. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) rightly said in an intervention that there is no point vaccinating people if they are undernourished. It is nonsense epidemiologically and in public health terms to do so, and we must adopt an integrated, holistic approach to universal health coverage. If we can get that across to people in New York in September, we will have done the world a great service.
I am proud to be a member of a Government who are fully committed to not just the Global Fund but other funds that require replenishment. Our leadership has been salutary over many years—not just under the present Government, although I am pleased about the commitment they have made to the Global Fund—and I am confident, whoever wins in two weeks’ time, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), that that process will continue.
It is a pleasure to briefly conclude the debate and to thank all those who took part for the contributions they made in a variety of ways. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) and for Dundee West (Chris Law), speaking from the Front Bench, ensured that I was not far wrong when I spoke about the Minister having a torrid time. Theirs were thoughtful contributions that will remind the Minister that his post is not an easy wicket all the time. There are serious questions to be asked about development, and they were well asked, as always. My right hon. Friend responded very well. I thank him for his generous remarks and his response to the debate. We can all feel that the matter is in good hands.
I thank colleagues—the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford)—for the variety of contributions they made. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire always speaks with great authority in such debates, and she reminded us about complacency and how things that we take for granted can easily be lost. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) reminded us of the efficacy of small charities, and he was ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who is quite a champion of their work in many parts of the world. He speaks with great knowledge about that.
We shall miss the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is a thoughtful critic. He is always good at supporting the good things that the United Kingdom does, but keen to press the point where things are not right and to move us in the right direction. He has made a significant contribution, and his reputation across the House and beyond is well deserved. However long we are all here, I know he will continue to add to that.
I want to say a brief word about the conundrum that is the United States. On the one hand, it is the most extraordinarily generous contributor to the world—billions of dollars flow from it. There is a great risk of confusing the United States in general with elements of the Administration, and that would be unfair. We all work with colleagues in America who are the most generous and gifted of individuals. There will be the odd clash with an Administration of any sort, particularly at the moment. We have to be careful. The American Government are themselves a significant donor. There is a conundrum, and there are areas where we will challenge, but we must be careful that that does not tip over into unwarranted criticism.
In relation to partnerships that need to be created—I noticed the emphasis placed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston on public systems—medicine and health cannot work without a partnership between the private, the public and philanthropy. With the sheer scale of what is available, and the ability of the private sector to make a contribution, the skill is to use that effectively to ensure that the poorest, and those in the most difficult locations and with neglected conditions, are still brought in. That is where political skills can be exercised. We have a role to play.
The gist of the debate was about focusing on what is meant by universal health coverage and about looking ahead to the meeting in September. If there is any part of my former role that I miss, it is UNGA week. I did 60 engagements in four days; that was my best. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be well used and well worked. It is an opportunity for him to see all the people involved and to make the contributions he needs to, and for the UK to lead by example. Because he represents DFID, he will find, as I did, that he is received everywhere he goes—he will be standing on the shoulders of all those who work for DFID—in a way that would warm anyone’s heart.
This is about a partnership, with people in the UK working hard for something that DFID and Ministers deliver at top level. As we head towards the high-level meeting, I know the Minister will be determined to ensure that the global leadership continues, and that the example is set. We will all do our best to contribute to the good things, to mount challenges when that is needed, and to give praise when it is deserved. We need to stay in the forefront in relation to what the world needs. We know that the problems are not going away, and that the challenge, and the need for determination, will continue for some time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered universal health coverage.
Drone Users: Registration
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a registration scheme for drone users.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I recognise that it may appear to be something of a specialist subject, but I was rather swamped—or perhaps I should say swarmed—with a barrage of emails and letters from drone-operating constituents in May and June. That coincided with the Civil Aviation Authority’s consultation document on the charge proposal for a drone registration scheme. The consultation closed on 7 June and the Government’s response is awaited. It would be useful to hear from the Minister when a response is likely, given that the intention was that the registration scheme should open on 1 October, a date that is not far away.
I suspect that many other hon. Members will have been approached about the CAA proposals, because the activity in question is quite big. I have met a number of constituents who are involved, and I had not appreciated the magnitude of involvement in operating drones and model aircraft. There are an estimated 170,000 operators in the UK, including 600,000 model aircraft operated by 40,000 members of the four main UK model flying associations, the British Model Flying Association, the Large Model Association, the Scottish Aeromodellers Association and FPV UK—the association for radio-controlled model and drone flying. I fear we may get lost in acronyms as we continue. As I have said, it is a big activity, and the numbers involved compare with just 20,000 manned aircraft on the UK aircraft register. A lot more people fly model aircraft than real ones, and the figure is likely to grow.
The number of drones has risen exponentially because of the greater availability and easier affordability of multi-rotor drones over the past six years or so. You and I, Mr Robertson, can go into high street shops and buy one of those craft for under £100. Whether we would know how to operate the thing is another matter—which is what I want to come on to discuss.
The activity generally has a good safety record and largely responsible memberships affiliated to the various clubs; indeed, the most recent fatal accident involving a model aircraft occurred way back in 2003. The evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee on 26 June by Andy Sage of NATS, who categorised drone operators as “clueless, careless and criminal”, was unfair, inaccurate and insulting. I am pleased that he subsequently apologised for those comments. This is a growing and legitimate activity, and we need to be able to accommodate it. However, at the same time, I think we all recognise that it brings with it criminal or potentially damaging and intrusive opportunities, of which a small minority will take advantage, and are doing so.
The most high-profile issues around drone usage arose last year, in my neck of the woods at Gatwick airport, which was shut down for several days before Christmas because of sightings of drones that might have interfered with passenger aircraft. It remains something of a mystery as to exactly what drones were involved; nobody was prosecuted. More recently, we have heard from direct action groups such as Extinction Rebellion, which I have to say I get on well with in my constituency, about using drones to disrupt flights. I certainly condemn that, but it is an issue that we have to take into account.
There is a growing problem of drones flying drugs and other illicit goods into prisons, and just last week we heard that Wimbledon has had to team up with a technology company to prevent drones from flying overhead and disrupting play, which is becoming a common challenge for many other major sporting events. There is also potentially a nuisance problem of certain drones invading people’s privacy in residential areas, creating noise and flying dangerously close to crowds.
Drones are subject to existing laws, such the Air Navigation Order 2016, but there are few prosecutions. I think that most people acknowledge the need to bring in more robust rules to regulate the use of drones, but how should those rules work? They need to be fair and proportionate, which is why many of my constituents quite rightly have concerns, and I share those concerns.
I am grateful, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On those concerns, does he agree with my constituent, a model airplane enthusiast who is concerned that, while the regulation around drone usage and the problems it can cause should be tackled, people who fly model airplanes should not be caught up in this and are now being asked to pay £16 a year? Perhaps we should look at an exemption for model airplane use.
To build on that point, people who fly radio-controlled model airplanes feel that the way this has been handled has ignored them, and that they were only brought in at the last moment. I hope the hon. Gentleman will talk about why they should be handled very delicately, because they have never been involved in any criminal activity but almost feel that they have been criminalised.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will come on to precisely that if he hangs around.
As I say, I think most people acknowledge that we need more robust rules. Back in 2018, the Government decided to mandate a drone registration and education scheme in the UK, to strengthen the accountability of drone users and their awareness of how to fly their drones safely and responsibly. Fortunately, it was agreed—after different thinking originally—that the scheme should register the operator, not every individual aircraft or drone, which could have made it a much more bureaucratic exercise. To that end, the Government propose that everyone in the UK operating drones or model aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kg in weight must register by the end of November this year and take an online safety test, or face a fine.
The scheme will be run by the Civil Aviation Authority which, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said, proposes an annual £16.50 charge per operator, supposedly to cover the cost of running the scheme. That is based on an estimated 170,000 assumed registrations, which would raise something like £2.8 million —not a small sum. The CAA claims that it needs to cover the costs of the IT service hosting the system, IT security packages, a major national drone safety and registration requirement campaign, variable costs linked to user volumes and the ongoing upgrade of drone registration services, although there is not a lot of detail on those ongoing costs and why such a large amount of money is required.
I agree with the hon. Lady. One of my constituents’ main concerns is why the charge is £16.50, and why it is levied every year. Why not just an up-front registration fee, without the need to re-register? The United States scheme costs just $5 for three years, in Ireland it is €5 for three years, and France brought in a free scheme, so £16.50 seems disproportionate, given the experiences of comparable countries. Why is it is as much as £16.50? Why not a one-off fee? What are the ongoing costs? Will it go up from £16.50? These things have a curious habit of going up but never going down when schemes begin. Is it fair to charge a teenager £16.50 for using a drone when Amazon, which in years to come will probably operate fleets of hundreds of drones to deliver goodies to everybody, will also be charged £16.50? Those are my first questions to the Minister.
The hon. Gentleman is most kind. I congratulate him on introducing the debate. He, I and others in the Chamber recognise that drone use has led to contraband being taken into prisons; it comes up in Justice Questions nearly every month. Does he recognise the real need to register and approve all drone users to stop contraband going into prisons? It is important that we deal with criminality and those who use drones for criminal purposes.
I completely agree, which is why I said I think we all agree that we need more robust regulations and a registration scheme. I think most users do not dispute that but they do dispute the proportionality and cost. The scheme needs to be effective, because there is criminal activity in prisons—terrorism and other things, as I mentioned. How it will do anything to deter people who use drones to drop drugs and other illicit goods into prisons is not clear. A small minority misuse drone technology, and if we are going to operate a scheme it should not penalise the vast majority who operate legitimately but should be quite clear about how it will clamp down on criminals using drones for completely illegitimate activities.
What does registration actually offer to the operator, other than a confirmation of compliance? Membership of the British Model Flying Association, through the various recognised clubs, usually includes public liability insurance cover and proper training and oversight from qualified instructors, and clubs tend to police their own members because they want everybody to operate responsibly and within the law. Why is the CAA effectively trying to reinvent the wheel when the current membership scheme works well in the existing clubs? It could just oblige all operators to register through a club, rather than through the CAA-run scheme.
The scheme could also be operated by the police, who could choose to contract it out to local clubs, when clubs prepared to take that on are available. Where they are not available, the police could operate it themselves, or through somebody else. That is how they do driving awareness classes and similar schemes in various parts of the country. The model is already there.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of considerable importance to a relatively small number of people. All Members have constituents who are highly reputable model aircraft operators who have carried out their hobby for years and years without any problems whatsoever. We now face a completely different animal, the drone, which he rightly says is used for commercial as well as nefarious purposes. There surely has to be some way of separating those two. My gut feeling, as I think is his, is that members of reputable clubs ought to have some kind of different treatment.
I have some sympathy with that and it is the thrust of what I am coming to. The scheme as it stands will put everybody in the same pot, treat everybody in the same way, when actually the activity is already policing itself, with existing members of model clubs, very well. How can we expand that expertise and build on what we already have, rather than trying to come up with something completely new? That is the thrust of my argument.
Under European Aviation Safety Agency rules in France, for example, there are powers to delegate registration and regulation to recognised local model flying clubs. We would likely want to go down the same route in a few years’ time, so why not start on that basis now? Surely we should be running a complementary scheme to that of other European countries. In the UK, the CAA already delegates powers to the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, the Light Aircraft Association and the British Gliding Association, among others, so there are already precedents.
The various flying associations had been working constructively with the CAA and the Department for Transport, but they now claim that they have been rather stonewalled, as they put it, by both those parties, particularly since the beginning of this year and post the Gatwick episode. That is unfortunate. They believe, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, that the model flying community is being unfairly vilified for the actions of a small handful of unlawful drone operators. It is easy to see why they believe that; I have a great deal of sympathy with that view.
Other concerns have been raised. The online test is a simple, multiple-choice static test. It is not really a competence test, whereas if it were carried out by clubs, they could ensure that it was a proper test. They could be there in person to see that the operators really did know what they were doing. There are many grey areas in the law about flying over private property or public land and about enforcement of the law about flying too close to crowds. Again, proper instruction and tips and recommendations from flying clubs seem to be a good way of ensuring that we have responsible operators.
Should there be differentiation between commercial operators and private hobby operators? As I have said, Amazon is likely to be operating loads of drones commercially in future. Surely it should be subject to a higher and more expensive level of regulation. I recently saw the first unmanned air taxi being trialled in Dubai. I am sure that use of such vehicles will become the norm before long. It looks a little scary at the moment, but anyway, that is the speed at which technology is advancing.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter. In 2017, I led a debate in this place on drones and airprox incidents with drones, which had risen from three in 2015 to about 70 in 2017. Can my hon. Friend confirm that those were nothing to do with model aircraft, but were all to do with drones? The safety record of model aircraft is completely different and therefore they should be put in a different category or, as he says, dealt with through the reputable clubs, of which my constituents are also members.
To an extent. The exact statistics are that out of 55 airprox incidents—near misses—in the six months to May 2019 in the consolidated drone, balloon and model category, drones accounted for 49, unknown objects—Martians or whatever else—for five, and balloons for one, so model aircraft were not anywhere near the level that drones were at. It is therefore clear why most model aircraft flyers, who do not class themselves as drone operators but will be caught up in the new system, feel particularly aggrieved.
There are concerns about STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—education, because model flying and drone flying can be the gateway to STEM skills, providing a bottom rung to aviation by which young people can be inspired to pursue technical careers. I have been round many schools, and in my constituency I have Shoreham airport, which is working with schools on some of the skills in relation to aircraft, model aircraft and so on. We want to encourage that.
There is some inconsistency in relation to age criteria for licences for various activities. In this country, people have to be 16 to get a motorcycle racing licence, only eight to get a level 1 powerboat licence, and 14 to be a solo glider. It is unclear how the 18 limit originally suggested in this case will work. Who will be responsible for a minor if damage is caused when they are operating a drone uninsured, for example?
There is quite a debate in the industry about the potential impact of a single drone colliding with a passenger aircraft—that is a different debate for another day—and the various options of interfering with radio signals for potential terrorist activity and so on.
There is the issue of geofencing, which means having a capability to receive and transmit a GPS signal to show where a drone is, so that it would appear on the radar of anyone seeking to detect illicit drone use. However, the mass technology is not available on a viable commercial basis for that just yet. The issue is whether the new scheme is proportionate, affordable and effective in supporting the legitimate model aircraft and drone operating community, while isolating and facilitating better policing against a small number of unlawful drone operators and those determined to use drones for various forms of criminal activity.
There still seems to be a divide between that view and the CAA and the Department. A letter—curiously, it was not signed, but was written by “The Drones Team” from the Department for Transport—sent in reply to one of my constituents, who made many of the points that I have made, said that
“the principle that the Government set out in our January consultation response still stands. Any alternative approach for model flyers must be achieved without imposing undue burden on the state and the taxpayer, whilst also being efficient and enforceable, without compromising the integrity of the policy. A blanket exemption from registration and competency tests or having the associations register their members into the registration system, as suggested in many of the consultation responses submitted by model fliers, will not meet these criteria.”
That is unfortunate because certainly the industry will say that it can meet those criteria and it is prepared to be flexible.
The chief executive of the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, whom I met earlier this week, has said:
“We support registration, e-conspicuity and the requirement for airspace management…This will become increasingly important over the coming years as the use of drone technology increases and it is embedded into roles across multiple sectors. Drones will be acknowledged as delivering substantial benefits in the emergency services, environmental services and the commercial environment as well as providing a great recreational pastime enjoyed by many thousands of users.
The issues we have are not with the concept of Registration but the quality, cost and therefore value for money that the current registration proposal appears to deliver to government and to the users required to register.”
I agree with that. It does seem that the DFT and the CAA are trying to reinvent the wheel and failing to harness the huge experience and network capability of existing legitimate, respected and experienced model flying aircraft operators. It seems a no-brainer to me that they should be talking with them much more closely and using what is there already, rather than coming up with a completely new and, on the face of it, rather bureaucratic and disproportionate and costly scheme.
I have posed several questions to the Minister. I hope that we can come up with a proportionate and workable system, so that this legitimate activity can continue safely. I hope that, while respecting the rights and safety record of those legitimately involved, a new system can show how it will be easier to clamp down on just the sorts of criminals that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned and others who would use technology with malign intent. We should not let the illegitimate activities of the very few spoil what has become a widespread and enjoyable recreation and a technological advance that many people will be using for good in years to come.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate about the registration scheme for drone users. The registration scheme will be open to operators of all unmanned aircraft between a very light 250 grams and 20 kg. That will include drones and model aircraft.
Let me say this at the outset. Drones are expected to bring significant benefits—I accept that—to the United Kingdom’s economy in the coming years. Drones are good things. Like many good things, they can be used badly, and I will come to that. But PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that by 2030—just 10 or 11 years from now—the UK’s drone industry will be worth no less than £42 billion and will contribute 628,000 jobs. That is a significant advance in an important developing industry.
Our police, fire, and search and rescue services regularly use drones in emergency situations to help save lives. A few years ago, Northamptonshire police showed me a drone that it uses with its fire and rescue service to good effect. Drones are used to inspect and maintain important national infrastructure, reducing the risk of accidents, and driving productivity and efficiency. I acknowledge that the members of model aircraft clubs are law-abiding and upstanding individuals. I am grateful for their work with schools, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and their other engagements in public service.
The increase in availability of drones at all price ranges has meant greater enjoyment for people of all ages, and for a wider range of leisure users and hobbyists. The Government are committed to harnessing the positive impacts of drones, and to supporting the industry in growing. This Government support industry, business and our communities. However, the number of drones is increasing dramatically. As the technology evolves, drones are able to fly faster, for longer and at higher altitudes. This increases the risk of drones being flown too close to aircraft, buildings, including strategically important buildings, and people, whether accidentally or deliberately.
We know drones are used for criminal purposes, such as smuggling drugs into prisons. That matter is regularly raised with the Ministry of Justice. In extreme cases, they can be used for terrorism. Those risks to safety and security apply to all unmanned aircraft, including drones and model aircraft, so it is essential that the regulatory framework in the UK enables the responsible use of drones in a way that protects the safety and security of people, other aircraft and sensitive sites.
In 2016, the Government consulted on how to make the most of the emerging drone sector. We are not doing this unilaterally, but consulted on it some time ago. We want the UK to continue to maintain its world-class aviation safety record, which is admired around the world. We also sought views on how to address the security and privacy concerns associated with increasing drone use.
In 2018, the Government consulted further on next steps to ensure the safety, security and accountability of the drone industry, while harnessing the benefits that drones, used in a safe way, can bring to the UK economy. Ensuring that airspace is shared safely between manned and unmanned aircraft, and that security and people’s safety is protected, must be at the forefront of any regulatory regime. That is the case for our maritime and road regimes, and it must be the case for unmanned aircraft.
That is why the Government took forward a package of measures, following the 2016 consultation, at the heart of which was accountability on the part of the operator of the unmanned aircraft. Those include: a requirement for all operators of unmanned aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kg to register themselves with the Civil Aviation Authority; mandatory competency testing for remote pilots of unmanned aircraft between 250 grams and 20 kg; tighter rules on where unmanned aircraft can be flown, which include a flight restriction zone around airports; and further restrictions on flying small unmanned aircraft above 400 feet without permission from the CAA. Those measures were legislated for through an amendment to the Air Navigation Order in 2018.
The disruption caused at Gatwick and Heathrow airports by drone incursions in December 2018 highlighted the need for better protection around aerodromes. Flying drones near an airport is a serious criminal offence. Using drones deliberately to put people’s safety at risk carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Following the 2018 consultation, the Government legislated earlier this year to extend the flight restriction zone around aerodromes, to better protect, in particular, aircraft on approach and take-off.
In the limited time remaining, I want to focus on the requirements for unmanned aircraft operators to register with the CAA, and for remote pilots to undertake a competency test. The requirements for registration and competency testing will come into force on 30 November 2019. These requirements will make unmanned aircraft users within UK airspace more accountable for their activity.
The CAA is setting up an unmanned aircraft registration and education service, which is expected to go live in October 2019, ahead of the legal requirements coming into force. That will include a competency test and a registration scheme. The test aims to ensure that remote pilots understand how to fly their unmanned aircraft responsibly and are aware of the rules. It will cover subjects such as air safety, airspace restrictions, general knowledge about unmanned aircraft, limitations to human performance, and relevant privacy and security considerations.
The registration scheme will ensure that unmanned aircraft operators are easily identifiable, and that aircraft are traceable back to their operator in the event of an accident. I do not think that is an unreasonable requirement. We need to be able to trace operators where an offence has been committed, as we do with other modes of transport. The development of the registration scheme and competency test is well under way. The CAA is testing it with users throughout the process to make it as user-friendly as possible.
As a statutory body, the CAA is required to recover its cost from those it regulates, meaning that the unmanned aircraft operator registration and education system, which is required under statute, must not impose an undue burden on the state and the taxpayer. The CAA’s consultation on charging for the scheme, which ran from 26 April to 7 June 2019, committed to keeping the charge for registration as low as possible, while ensuring that the scheme funds itself from 1 October 2019. It would not be fair for the public to fund the scheme through the CAA. The CAA is analysing the responses, which will inform its final decision on the cost. It is important to highlight that, whatever the final cost, the charge will be per operator. This means that one operator may register several unmanned aircraft at no additional cost. Amazon and similar commercial operations will have additional, more stringent requirements and costs.
I want to emphasise that the Government recognise that the majority of unmanned aircraft users already fly responsibly and within the law. We are particularly aware of the strong safety culture fostered by the majority of model aircraft flyers and clubs, and the Government support their hobby. However, all unmanned aircraft have the potential to pose a safety and security threat, either deliberately or accidentally. There have been instances of model aircraft being flown illegally, for example within restricted areas around airports. The registration and education scheme must reflect the reality of the risk by including all users.
Other countries have different schemes and regulations, which may operate more centrally. We have a system under the CAA, which is a statutory body and is regulated in such a way that it is under a duty to recover its reasonable costs. Many model aircraft and drones cost a substantial sum of money. The £16.50 cost is not unreasonable in those circumstances.
In summary, this Government are committed to maximising the benefits of emerging technologies, such as drones, to the UK’s economy and to individuals for industrial, commercial and leisure use, but we must do so in a way that protects people’s safety, security and privacy. The unmanned aircraft registration and education requirements are an essential element of our programme to do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered a registration scheme for drone users.
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the development of a retail strategy for the future.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Sir David. Nearly a quarter of jobs in my constituency are in retail, so it is important to me that the retail sector is strong and vibrant. The fact that it provides 8,000 jobs, or 23% of the total—the highest in any constituency—is perhaps hardly surprising, given that Blaydon has Metrocentre, which is still the largest indoor shopping centre in the UK. However, there are also many local high streets in villages, towns and communities across my constituency, with small businesses that have to face huge challenges to survive, particularly given the closure of bank branches and the loss of footfall that that brings.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech. Does she agree that, with online banking, online retail and edge-of-town and out-of-town shopping, the high street has seen a radical transformation in the past few years, and not for good? We need a comprehensive strategy to save the high street in the next five to 10 years; otherwise, we will all be the worse, including future generations.
I most certainly agree that we are seeing a radical transformation and that we need a vision for the future. Our strategy must do more than just deal with short-term problems; it must look at the longer term. That will the burden of my speech.
Since I became the Member of Parliament for Blaydon just over two years ago, it has been my sad lot to visit stores and talk to too many staff who face store closures, including at Toys R Us, Homebase and House of Fraser. Thankfully, some of those stores, such as the House of Fraser store in Metrocentre, have had a respite, but their future remains uncertain.
I am happy my hon. Friend has secured this important debate, and I congratulate her on doing so; she is making an excellent case. Some 74,000 retail jobs were lost in 2018, and the town centre vacancy rate in April 2019 was 10.2%—the highest ever. Does she agree that the UK retail industry is in crisis and needs immediate, comprehensive and radical action?
I most certainly agree that radical action is needed so that we can stop the situation teetering into crisis and think of a plan that will allow the sector to remain vibrant and become stronger. As my hon. Friend points out, there are some really challenging facts.
I have visited larger stores and talked to staff, but I know—because people tell me when I go on social media —that many other stores, which may be smaller or less high-profile, have had to give up the struggle, although I did not know about them until later, which is very sad. I am keen to do all I can to support the retail sector in my constituency.
Part of the solution has to be business rates; that is what is fed back to me in my community. We have had grand talk and some baby steps forward from the Government, but is it not now time for radical reform to bring in investment and protect enterprise?
Business rates certainly feature strongly in the study by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, of which I was a member until recently, and in submissions to me by organisations such as the British Retail Consortium and by individual stores. We certainly need to look at that issue, which I will return to.
As I said, I have visited different places, and there are more closures that I do not know about. It is not just about jobs, although they are hugely important, and nor is it just about empty shops; it is about the impact on our local communities, especially those such as Blaydon that are made up of several smaller towns. Shops are such a central part of our high streets; from Crawcrook to Chopwell, from Birtley to Blaydon, and everywhere else in my constituency, they are a really important part of making our high streets vibrant.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a shop in Birtley called High Street Quilting—a real Aladdin’s cave that stocks every imaginable thread, fabric, tool and design for quilters and embroiderers. People in one of the back rooms were getting guidance on developing their dressmaking and upholstery skills, and the shop was due the very next day to have an embroidery class, which was hugely well subscribed. Such shops create real variety and focus for our high street, but the owner told me about the difficulties she faces as a small business owner in making ends meet, even with the small business rates relief, and in ensuring that she can continue to employ people and move forward. We must not forget the small businesses when we talk about the bigger picture.
We face a changing external environment as a result of online shopping and of failures in strategy that have led to venture capital taking over stores, with scant regard for retail. The British Home Stores closures happened before my time as a Member of Parliament, but I know from talking on the doorstep to people who worked for BHS what a traumatic experience that was.
Nationally, retail employs 3 million people, with an additional 1.5 million jobs dependent on the success of the retail industry. Retail produces 11% of the UK’s economic output and approximately £7 billion in business rates, which is far higher than any other industry. It is the largest private sector employer in the UK and the second largest contributor of tax. The British Retail Consortium estimates that 74,000 retail jobs were lost in 2018, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) noted. Sadly, that trend is expected to increase in future years. We should remember that the workforce are predominantly women, and many of their jobs are part-time, so the situation has a disproportionate effect on some of our constituents.
I am disappointed that the Government’s industrial strategy has so little to say about the retail sector. Given that 9% of jobs across the country are in retail, it is really disappointing to see the sector being given such scant focus.
Like many hon. Members present, I have seen my main retail high street, Fishergate in Preston city centre, lose many top brands. They are being replaced by charity shops, betting shops, tattoo parlours and vaping shops. I recently met the leader of Preston City Council and impressed on him the need for a retail strategy in Preston. That needs to happen in councils up and down the country; as my hon. Friend points out, the Government are not going to do it for them. I really fear for the future of our towns and centres and for their ability to retain retail.
Indeed. One of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s findings was that local authorities have an important part to play in ensuring the future of our high streets. I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s engagement with his local authority to ensure that it takes measures to improve what will be a changing high street, but a lively one.
Returning to the industrial strategy, I do not believe that retail has been given enough focus. I am aware that the Retail Sector Council has been set up, with representatives from the industry liaising with the Government, and that a number of workstreams have been drawn up and are already producing work. However, I fear that what we are doing in those workstreams is looking at the detail of current problems, rather than doing what we need to do, which is to produce a longer term strategy and vision to build and strengthen the retail sector, addressing the challenges we know about and those that may yet come, which we need to scan the horizon for.
There have been some examinations recently of the situation faced by high streets in particular—of course, high streets are one part of the retail sector, but not the whole part. I have already referred to the report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which is called “High streets and town centres in 2030”. As we have heard today, many such reports have identified the current business rates system as a real problem and noted the huge disparity in costs between online businesses and shops, including the rents that shops pay. Clearly, that is not the only issue, but when many of us heard about the online tax in the Chancellor’s last Budget statement, we thought it would be a means of addressing this problem of the disparity between online businesses and physically present businesses and shops.
Yes, indeed. I was going on to say that I was really pleased that USDAW, the shop workers’ union, launched its industrial strategy for retail last month to a packed room. I was really impressed by the work that had gone into developing that strategy and by the outcomes it wants to achieve, which are presented under three helpful headings: “Economy and Community”, “People and Productivity” and “Changing Perceptions—Retail Jobs are Real Jobs”. Even in the opening speech of a debate, where I am not so restricted for time as other speakers might be, I do not have enough time to cover all the detail in those three areas of the report. However, I certainly commend it to the Minister, if she has not seen it already; she should look at it, because it has a wealth of positive points and positive ways forward.
What is USDAW calling for? Under the “Economy and Community” heading, it is calling, as others have, for a fundamental reform of business rates; a review of town/city centre parking charges and other transport issues; reform of the tax laws to ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax—for example, by preventing the avoidance of corporation tax—and to create more of a level playing field between online and bricks-and-mortar retailers, which I have already touched on; closing the pay gap between chief executive officers and the lowest paid workers; stronger corporate governance rules to curb asset stripping, which has been one of the issues the retail sector has faced; ensuring that business failure cannot be rewarded with excessive bonuses and pay-outs, as was the case with British Home Stores; and a review of the role and functions of the Competition and Markets Authority, in light of the increase in proposed mergers within the sector—USDAW is really encouraging us to consider the CMA’s role to see whether it reflects the changing retail environment.
Under the heading “People and Productivity”, USDAW is calling for a minimum pay rate of £10 per hour for all workers, irrespective of age; the introduction of legislation to tackle underemployment and insecure work by providing a minimum contract of 16 hours a week for those who want to work that long; contracts that reflect the actual hours that people work and not the hours on their paper contract, which are often exceeded; and legislation to ensure that workers have guaranteed seats on the boards of large companies, with the same duties and responsibilities as other directors, and with measures put in place to ensure that those in such seats reflect the gender breakdown of staff across the company.
The third area is “Changing Perceptions—Retail Jobs are Real Jobs”. That is something that is really close to my heart, having met so many shop workers over the years; in fact, my mum was a shop worker for many years, so it really is dear to my heart. USDAW is calling for an increased focus on retail across Government policy and decision-making mechanisms, to reflect the importance of the sector; promotion and recognition of the benefits of working in retail, to help to develop talent and increase retention levels, because retail offers employees greater flexibility than most sectors, and often allows them to work around their family/caring commitments or studies; and a challenge to the overt perception that women simply work in retail for “pin money”, or that retail is just a stopgap.
A key part of challenging those perceptions is the skills agenda, which means recognising that retail jobs are not just jobs that anyone can do. Dealing with customers day in, day out is a hugely important skill. First, it is a contribution to the social environment that all of us live in; indeed, for many people, it may be the only contact they have with another person. Also, it is a huge skill to deal politely and kindly with other people, and that needs to be recognised. However, further skills will also need to be developed in the future. As we have heard, retail is changing, and different skills are needed, for example in IT and other areas. Therefore, there needs to be some kind of clear path for career progression, to increase both productivity and job satisfaction. I was going off the USDAW script a bit there, but I feel very strongly about that.
I will return to the Government’s industrial strategy. I have already said it is lacking in detail, given the size and importance of the retail sector. The Retail Sector Council brings together Government and industry to
“seek to encourage growth and positive change in the sector as it adapts to rapidly changing consumer habits”.
The workstreams for the Retail Sector Council include business costs; skills and lifelong learning, which I have just touched on; the industrial strategy; employment; the circular economy, which I am told is the environment, wrapping and things such as that; and consumer protection. From the council’s website, I understand that its work will feed into the work of Government Departments, where appropriate, to contribute to and inspire initiatives that support the council’s objectives. It will work, for example, with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government around high streets and communities.
One thing I would stress, as members of the British Retail Consortium have already stressed, is the need for much greater co-ordination between Government Departments, to ensure that when a decision is made by one Department, the knock-on effects are not felt by another. The kind of petty example I refer to quite often is the need, when we talk about, and perhaps reform, business rates, to consider the impact on local government. We must seek to ensure that that longer-term issue is not just passed to someone else.
However, there are other issues to consider as well. Clearly, there are issues about benefits, and particularly in-work benefits, which will also affect the economy, as well as decisions by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We all know that it is complex to achieve such co-ordination, but it needs to happen. We also need a retail sector deal, to put retail on a par with other sectors that have already launched such initiatives. As I say, with 11% of the workforce in retail, we really need that deal.
I have a couple of specific things to ask of the Minister. The first is to urge her to look at USDAW’s industrial strategy for retail. It contains a huge amount of detail—I have just touched on some of it—and looks at the growth and development of the retail sector in the future. I very much hope that she and her officials will meet USDAW to go through its report, which is an important document, and will look at its proposals. Secondly, the Minister should look to establish a real vision for retail, not just by tackling known problems, but by developing a vision for the future and setting up a retail sector deal to give retail its due importance alongside other sectors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). She has highlighted the structural changes that are occurring in our high streets. She is right to point out that the retail sector employs a lot of people and is therefore extremely important. It is also fair to point out that rent and rates play their part.
I want to stress the structural changes, which the hon. Lady hinted at, and the move away from face-to-face to online shopping, which we are all doing. In those circumstances, a retail strategy is very difficult to bottom out. It is very difficult to come to a view on how an overall strategy should be managed, because the decline that is occurring takes place in different ways in different businesses. I will illustrate that in a moment.
I want to make some general points about things that might help. To start with, I welcome the future high streets fund. It is a much better way of facing the future, rather than harking back to the past and “how things always were”. If we look around the country, there are a number of different councils that are doing things in different ways. Great Yarmouth, for example, is developing cultural quarters as a way of encouraging businesses and people into the centre of town. It is all about the creation of place. Others, including Henley, see themselves more as events destinations; the Henley regatta has just finished. It is interesting to note that shopkeepers in Henley always have a difficult view on the regatta; they claim that when it is on, they lose business because young people are all tied up in the regatta and cannot go shopping.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that city centres have to look at other offers as well as retail to help enliven them. Preston has tried to do that through leisure. Unfortunately, the major business interest that was driving the leisure offer has just gone bankrupt. On the future high streets fund, Preston, a city that is much in need, has just had its bid rejected. That is not good enough. These little pots of money are put there to act as sticking plaster for town centres.
The future high streets fund is looking at how high streets can be transformed for the future, not harking back to how things were done in the past. It is looking at imaginative schemes to take things forward. Two things that the future high streets fund grants funding for are improving transport access to town centres, which is absolutely crucial—if people cannot get in and out, the town centre is likely to die—and increasing vehicle and pedestrian flows, which follows on from that. That is a major improvement for the functioning of our town centres.
I have two examples of different types of business that are handled in different ways. The first is pubs. The reduction in the number of pubs has been going on for a number of years, for many reasons—we all seem to want to reduce our alcohol consumption for health reasons; there are the changes in the law on smoking, although they have largely worked their way out; there is a case for saying that many pubs have not got over the recession and are still struggling; and there is also the pricing of alcohol, which means it is often much cheaper to drink at home than in the pub. Alongside that, however, employment in pubs and bars has remained quite steady, and has even increased slightly, which needs to be considered in parallel.
My second example is banks. The decline in banks has been going on for 30 years. It is even more significant now with the rise in online banking. I have probably not visited a bank in two or three years—I do all my banking online because it is much more convenient to do that.
My final point is about the integration of housing in the mix. It is important to try to get people to live in the centre of our towns again, so that there is a mix of retail and living accommodation. In my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, I will give an example. The town of Thame had about 700 houses earmarked in its neighbourhood plan. It deliberately chose to spread them around the outskirts of the city rather than to have a big development at one end of the town, which would have meant creating a new area and a new shopping area. The reason it spread that housing all round the town was to increase the flow into the centre of town. That is a very good example, which I would endorse, to everyone who is looking to sort out how their towns are organised for the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on opening the debate this afternoon. I declare an interest as chair of the USDAW group of Members of Parliament and as a member of USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. I am particularly pleased to take part in this debate. It is very important to send a message to the Minister that we think that the retail sector is an important contributor to the UK economy. It employs millions of people and is key to the regeneration of our local towns and communities, and also key to the employment across the country of many people. Three million people are directly employed in retail; 1.5 million work in related activity that depends on the success of our high streets. Our high streets are the fabric of our communities and we need to look at what we can do to protect them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) have raised some of the challenges on our high streets at the moment. Disposable income is falling for many people. There are real challenges in the economy as a whole, which means less money is spent locally. The issue of online sales is a particularly big challenge. I have bought things online, as everybody else in this House will have done. It is important to look at the context behind that and consider what that challenge poses.
It is not only the impact on the shopping centres; there are also the centres in the outlying districts where there is a major impact. Coming back to the point that the hon. Member for Henley made, a lot of banks and even cashpoints are closing down; banks are shedding a lot of labour these days and that has an impact on people in cities.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.
Disposable income is one of the big issues. Online sales are also a big issue. The cost of shops and rent and business rates is certainly another, as is the impact of out-of-town shopping, which employs many people in my constituency. Many of my constituents work at Cheshire Oaks in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), but that does not hide the fact that big, out-of-town shopping centres are dragging people away from smaller towns. In many towns, the loss of Government offices such as the local DWP office or the local post office and doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries stop the footfall going through towns, which presents a challenge.
This year, we have seen a 2.4% fall in the number of staff employed in the retail sector. That does not sound like a great deal, but 74,000 people who were employed at the beginning of the year are now not employed in the retail sector. Vacancy levels in town centres are now at 10%, the highest for four years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon mentioned, some big key employers in many of our areas are folding. I want the Government to recognise that shops are a generator of economic value, so we need to look at what we can do to support them. My hon. Friend mentioned the USDAW’s “Industrial Strategy for Retail”, a blueprint of ideas that are worth discussion. I hope the Minister will focus on some of those ideas, and see whether they are applicable to Government and the devolved Administrations.
I have a couple of points that I want to throw into the mix. First, we need to look at how we can support the maintenance of key drivers of footfall in town centres. That means the Government need to look at supporting post offices, Government businesses and doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries in town centres. They need to ensure that we have an offer in town centres that brings people in because, as has been said, town centres have to be places of destination as well as places of shopping. We can do that by anchoring key Government facilities in town centres and by adding value to town centres through local council and local government support. For example, we can improve the built environment and plant trees and bushes. If shops are empty, finding ways in which the local council and others can use exhibition and display space to bring people in to make them places of venture is particularly important.
Like the hon. Member for Henley, I want to see integrated issues on planning and look at whether we can find ways to bring houses as well as shops into town centres. When I was honoured to be a Minister in Northern Ireland, I oversaw a scheme whereby we used space above shops for single people and newly married couples to live, ensuring they could use the town centre while also filling empty premises.
The USDAW strategy suggests looking at the online shopping tax. Tesco’s chief executive has indicated he wants to look at the potential for a shop tax. An online tax might be a 1% or 2% levy on online transactions, which could help to balance the initiative towards people buying in retail. I do not want to put the cost up for consumers, but it is worthy of consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon mentioned car parking and transport links, which are extremely important, as is the issue of business rates. In my part of the world in Wales, we have a small business rate relief scheme that provides rate relief for businesses up to £6,000 of rateable value with 100% relief, and we have a high street relief scheme that supplies £23.6 million of rate relief for shops in town centres. That helps anchor and keep businesses in those town centres.
Finally, I will give some examples. In Holywell in my constituency, we recently lost all of the banks bar one, but, with the help of a company called Square, we had some potential in the town centre, where we enabled people to use machines for online transactions. That was provided free by Square to help support retailers in the town. We have had support through a range of activities, festivals, theatre and art groups trying to bring footfall into the towns. All of that is part of a retail strategy. It requires not just the shops but local councils, Government and private sector organisations trying to support a focus on retail, and not a drawing away from retail. I commend USDAW’s industrial strategy and recommend that the Minister look at some of the ideas. I look forward to her comments on things that have been raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this very important debate.
Any retail strategy for the future must focus on re-energising our town centres. I accept that the retail footprint will inevitably reduce with changing shopping trends and a changing retail landscape, but the challenge is to manage that change. Empty premises sadly prevail in towns throughout the UK. Online competition—in 2018, almost a fifth of all retail sales were online—crushing business rates and taxes, traffic management systems and parking charges, or a combination of the above, have influenced or played a part in the decline of high street retail.
Many accept, as I do, that there is a place for online shopping, and that is evidenced by the steady increase in internet transactions year on year. Online shopping can assist those with disabilities or who are housebound; others may simply be seeking to exercise their freedom of choice. In the not-too-distant future, our communities might be buzzing not with retail activity, but with drone deliveries of internet shopping. However, online shopping must co-exist with high street retail, and not be a replacement for it. The demise of high street shops could lead to further isolation for the elderly, not all of whom—I might include myself in this—are internet-comfortable when it comes to financial transactions, although I suspect going forward the situation will resolve itself.
On a positive note, eateries in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock are a great success. It is an element of retail that is really successful. In our area and many areas throughout the UK, that sector uses locally produced goods. It is interesting to note that the towns and villages where shops appear to thrive are those where a variety of small, quality, niche retail businesses are intertwined, as has been mentioned, with the residences and professional offices that are integral to the retail provision, and where traffic management systems are minimal and parking charges are zero or at least reasonable. Sometimes there might be a smaller version of one of the larger well-known food retailers, acting as an anchor store and preventing the drift of custom. However, as residents and as a society, we need to stop and ask ourselves whether we could support high street retail, because we the citizens have a part to play.
Shopping should and can be a pleasurable and social experience; as my wife will remind me, we need a bit of retail therapy from time to time. That applies equally to those providing the service and those receiving it.
I agree on the point about quality. There should be a race to the top. Sometimes quality costs, so quality might mean better pay. Paddy Lillis, the general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, is my constituent; I recently had a conversation with him, and there is a campaign to raise the living wage to £10 an hour. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?
As someone whose mother worked in the pit canteen and made beds at Butlin’s on a Saturday, I fully agree that those who provide such services deserve better pay. We need to recognise those in hospitality and eateries, and the value of those who prepare and serve the food. As a nation, for decades and generations we have undervalued those people, so I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the price has to be passed on to the consumer.
Employees—dare I say the next line? The hon. Gentleman must have been looking over my shoulder—should receive fair pay for work undertaken, and should have security of tenure in their job. Customers should feel involved in the purchase, and should engage with the sales assistant. It should not be a beat-the-clock exercise, in which people have to hurry to return to their vehicle before they receive a fine for overstaying their welcome. Nor should there be an additional cost burden on retailers if their staff wish to park in the vicinity of their place of work; in certain cities, retailers are being asked for £500 or thereabouts per annum per member of staff who wishes to do that.
Recently it has been announced that in Glasgow city centre, parking restrictions and charges will now apply on the Sabbath—on Sundays. Business representatives have already taken to the media to express their concern that the move will lead to shoppers deserting the city centre on a Sunday in favour of large out-of-town shopping centres, which, as we are all aware, generally have free parking. As a business person once said, “When you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sail”. We should manage the change. We need to encourage a steady footfall for the future, and stop what appears to be a stampeding exodus of high street shoppers to out-of-town retail centres or online facilities. In Scotland, that may mean the Scottish Government and councils working together, and reconsidering their planning and roads legislation, and policies that affect town centres.
Certainly, in my constituency the main towns are, for want of a better word, hurting. They have not hurt as much in their whole existence, and in many cases they have lost their dignity, which they richly deserve to have returned to them. However, the centre of Cumnock is an exception, as a small town that has recently been sympathetically revitalised by the introduction of a small new build retail facility that blends into the streetscape. The principal occupier, a prominent food retailer, appears to complement the existing, varied retailers—so well done to East Ayrshire Council. Local chambers of commerce and industry, such as the Ayrshire chamber of commerce, are to be commended for their encouragement of local enterprise and excellence.
Inevitably some businesses in the UK will, regrettably, fail, for one or more of the reasons I have indicated. The Government need to consider taking appropriate measures to ensure that the auditing of retail businesses is robust; that any asset stripping, particularly by big businesses, will be better regulated in the future, for the protection of employees and shareholders; and that a review—and, if it is deemed appropriate, reform—is carried out with respect to company voluntary arrangements. There is also a need to look at business rates and taxes.
Our future is created by what we do while we are living for today, so I hope that as a result of the contributions to the debate, the Minister will be encouraged to reflect on the Government’s planning for tomorrow. We need more practical measures like the future high streets fund, which was introduced in the 2018 Budget. It is an excellent boost to high streets, despite the failures mentioned earlier. Hopefully those who reapply will be successful next time. I ask the Minister to bring forward further measures to secure our local retail trade and help to re-energise high streets throughout the UK, while remembering that high streets are no longer a cash cow to be financially milked by an outdated business rating system that needs grassroots reform.
I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for obtaining the debate and introducing it so well, and to the other hon. Members who have taken part. I shall probably echo their comments, although obviously I will give mine a flavour of Northern Ireland, because I always do—or, specifically, of my constituency’s main town of Newtownards.
At a time when it is easier and quicker to buy online, I am thankful that the high street in Newtownards is bucking the trend and thriving. That is due in large part to a council that wants to be involved and helpful. It co-operates with the local chamber of trade, which is forward thinking and absolutely invested in the future of the high street. Rather than staying the same and trying to hold on to what is there, it is focused on moving with the times. The benefits are clear. I had the opportunity of a meeting with the chamber of trade about six weeks ago. The members have an interesting vision for the high street; it is about the shopping experience. It is more than just shopping online as some people do, but it is also more than just going to the high street.
In my constituency, those over 55 have a certain level of disposable income, so the high street and traditional shops are well utilised; but the chamber of trade vision is that there should, at the same time, be a shopping experience for families. The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) mentioned that idea. The vision is about having somewhere for the children to go, green and attractive areas in the town, and a bit of coffee culture. All those things make the experience of going shopping more than it would have been in the past, in my younger days. What is exciting is that the chamber of trade and Ards and North Down Borough Council have the same vision. It is important to encourage that when we can.
There are shops that have a face on the high street and an online service as well. We must look at different ways of doing things. An advantage for some of the shops on my high street is that they do probably 60% of their trade on the high street and 40% online. They do business online across the whole world—in the United States, the far east, Canada and Africa. Their products are attractive in those places, and they find avenues to sell and be promoted there.
People have busy lives. My parliamentary aide works until 5, collects her children and brings them home to begin to make their dinner at 5.30. They eat their dinner, have story time and their bath, and then they are in bed for 7.30. She then is faced with the dilemma of whether to go to the shopping centre and run into Asda, or to sit in the comfort of her home and order things online. Late-night opening in shopping centres used to be busy, but now people have an option. Local businesses miss out when busy people go for the easy option of shopping online and ordering from Tesco or Asda. All those shops now do home deliveries.
The easy option may not be safest option. As the debate on electrical safety yesterday highlighted, online retailers do not have the same safety scrutiny as physical shops. That should be a consideration in any retail strategy, as was emphasised in the half-hour debate yesterday led by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). We need to remind people that going down to the high street on Saturday can be much more fulfilling than scrolling down an online list. As trade changes, with more online sales, it is great to see the plans for our local high street to adapt. I have invited the Minister—I think we are waiting for a date to be confirmed—to come and see all the good things I have been telling her about Newtownards. We look forward to meeting the hon. Lady on that day.
What does the shop in the high street need? It is important to have a better and quicker planning system for improvements, and to support fresh looks and entice more people. We are fortunate as we have had a Saturday market for 20 or 30 years, which attracts many people to Newtownards and its traditional shops. Newtownards is one of the better towns in Northern Ireland when it comes to choice, variety and cost—and all the things that are important in shopping. A mix of shopping and accommodation would be helpful for the evening and coffee culture. Indeed, in the past we had a scheme, the living over the shop scheme, that supported the provision of accommodation on the high street. The right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned it; I did not know he had been the Minister responsible, but I am pleased that it was his initiative, and I am deeply grateful to him. I promoted it over and over in my time on the council and on the Assembly—and only today do I know that he was the man who brought it forward. I thank him on behalf of my constituency. It is so important that empty space is used in a good way, and that was a way to utilise it very well.
The business rates have to be revised. Many stores in the town need assistance, as their rates are truly a significant part of their bills. The ministerial visit will enable the shopkeepers in the town of Ards to highlight the wonderful things that are being done, and to make some input into how Government can restore the high street and encourage online businesses to have a face on the high street. We are indeed fortunate in Ards that the centre of town has wide variety, with many different types of businesses from clothes and shoes to opticians and solicitors. There are areas of redevelopment such as the South Street Precinct, which is providing approximately 100 jobs. That is among the things I would like the Minister to see.
Many stores in our town centre are doing a great trade online. Ards is holding its own, but now is the time to take steps forward and to secure the future of the town by adapting and moving with the times. Retail strategy needs to include all of the things I have outlined. I believe that we are on the precipice of greatness, with many high street businesses wanting to keep their footprint, but moving online. Now is the time to make some input into the situation, with a fit-for-purpose UK-wide retail strategy.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this important debate. We have already heard powerful contributions on both sides of the Chamber about how the Government’s lack of a clear, coherent and holistic retail strategy is damaging our high streets and shopping centres, not to mention the livelihoods of those trying to make a living in the sector.
I will begin by recounting a couple of conversations I had with business owners in Batley and Spen. A couple of months ago in Batley, I called into a restaurant called Mi Nonnas. It is a really nice coffee shop and lunch destination. The owner showed me painful statistics demonstrating the fall in his revenue due to the controversial changes to our bus routes, which have completely decimated his restaurant’s footfall. He told me that he has not taken a wage, and that the situation is really stressful for him and his family. His is not the only local business affected by those changes. Sadly, since 2010, we have lost 3,000 bus routes nationally, and central Government cuts have seemingly little regard for the wider consequences for retailers.
The second conversation I had was at a lovely needlework and wool shop in Heckmondwike. The owner told me that footfall had really reduced because the last bank had left the community. The people who use her shop are often older people who knit and sew. They are less likely to take a longer journey to go to a bank, so they take their business elsewhere; considering that the UK has lost almost two thirds of its banks and building societies over the past 30 years, that will not change any time soon. A fifth of the population are 2 miles adrift from their nearest branch, likely with a substandard bus route to boot.
The massive hike in business rates announced last year is another issue that constituents mention to me regularly. In an age when people shop online, our local independent retailers need a leg up. They need vision and creative thinking. They are hamstrung by antiquated rates systems, which price too many independent retailers out of the market. Although I welcome the short-term rate relief for some businesses announced in last year’s Budget, it is nothing more than a sticking plaster. While our high streets are increasingly dotted with vacant shops, the big supermarkets get a cut in rates and online giants such as Amazon pay a fraction of their multibillion-pound turnover. That does not make sense to me. With the collapse of big brands such as Toys R Us, which had a store at Centre 27 retail park in my constituency, it is clear that these issues go way beyond our high streets.
The retail sector accounts for more than 3 million jobs in the UK, yet it is often overlooked. The British Retail Consortium warns that 74,000 jobs were lost last year, and that up to 900,000 will be lost by 2025. That would be a staggering blow to the sector. We need a clear retail strategy. The fact that the Government’s industrial strategy, which was unveiled almost two years ago, has yet to create a sector deal for retail speaks volumes. The Government’s Retail Sector Council, which was designed to address key challenges facing the sector, meets a paltry three times a year. That is not good enough. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), who is no longer in his place, local authorities have to bid against one another for money from the future high streets fund. There is no guarantee of success, and the fund goes nowhere near far enough to address the myriad issues that have been raised in the debate.
How do we move forward? Let us start with the basics. We need to ensure that people can access our businesses. Public transport is crucial. We need to invest in buses and trains to end this downward spiral. We must not have communities where there are no banks left. I applaud NatWest, which has a pilot scheme to bring a number of banks under one roof and offer a limited service to businesses. We need to escalate such opportunities, and perhaps Government should drive them.
I am delighted that the Labour party recently committed to introducing a network of post banks based in post offices in the hearts of our communities. It is really important for older people in particular to be able to access their money, and that business owners do not to have to travel too far with cash in their pockets, or put their workforce at risk by asking them to carry large amounts of money around on buses and elsewhere. Our business rates system also needs fixing. Nothing but a comprehensive review and overhaul of the system will suffice, so I am pleased that the Labour party is committed to doing exactly that, along with taxing online retailers, implementing free wi-fi and banning ATM charges. Like colleagues, I commend USDAW’s brilliant Save Our Shops campaign, which focuses on levelling the playing field between traditional and online retailers, improving pay and conditions, and changing perceptions of retail jobs.
We are just not having the conversations that matter with policy makers. It is down to us as Members of Parliament, and to trade unions, to try to get those conversations going. I do not think policy makers understand the myriad challenges for villages such as Birstall, or bigger communities such as Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike. Having short-term fixes and Departments working in silos certainly is not cutting it.
A clear retail strategy that looks at the whole picture is overdue. We need great ideas for making our high streets more community focused, tackling loneliness and introducing flexible workplaces and leisure opportunities, and for bringing culture—buskers, art and so on—to our high streets and greening them. We need to ensure that our retail survives and can transform our towns and villages, bringing us a sense of place and home, and making our communities great places to live and work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate about a topic that is vital to the survival of our high streets, as evidenced again by the number of Members present. I say “again” because this is not the first time we have gathered to discuss the causes of town centre decline and what we should do about it. Indeed, I took part in a debate on urban regeneration shortly after being elected to this place four years ago.
Very little has changed since then. In fact, things have probably got worse. In 2018, nearly 85,000 retail jobs were lost in the UK as businesses continued to go bust. In the past 18 months alone, the following big chains have gone into administration: Greenwoods, HMV, Berketex, Crawshaw, Evans Cycles, American Golf, Orla Kiely, Poundworld, House of Fraser, Gaucho, Warren Evans, East, Carpetright, Toys R Us, Maplin, Mothercare, Homebase, and L. K. Bennett. Many household names; many long-standing companies. It is a crisis.
The British Retail Consortium’s monthly footfall tracker showed that store visits hit a six-year low in May this year, with declines experienced in every region and across high streets, retail parks and shopping centres. According to a new report, online shopping will account for more than 50% of retail sales within the next 10 years. The report states that that growth will be powered by three primary factors: the changing demographics of the UK adult population; the development of faster, cheaper home deliveries; and fewer physical stores.
Our high streets and small business owners will continue to be hit by those changes in shopping habits. The Centre For Towns showed that the decline of our high streets has picked up pace in the past 10 years as consumers shop online rather than visiting the high street. The Office for National Statistics reported that the number of retail businesses and the number of high street retail jobs fell in every region of England except London between 2012 and 2017.
Those trends are reflected in the two main towns in my constituency: Ellesmere Port and Neston. Both have a retail offer significantly smaller than it was five years ago, due to the dramatic changes we have heard about. The town centre in Neston has lost all its banks, which has had a negative impact on both customers and retail businesses. A lot of retail units are in private ownership, many of them too large for what retailers are looking for nowadays, and shops in Ellesmere Port are closing regularly, and are not being replaced. When banks close branches, they undergo what I consider to be a cursory consultation that changes nothing and does not require them to think about their wider responsibilities for the vitality of our town centres.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather confusing to look at the ownership of some of those banks? Of course, we stepped in some time ago—they were bailed out to the tune of billions of pounds—so there is ownership there, but where is the control? It is as though the referee has just walked off the pitch. Do we require Government intervention?
My hon. Friend and neighbour makes an excellent point. Indeed, the power that central Government have through procurement and their control over many of those private enterprises should be used for the wider benefit of communities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) mentioned, post offices are a great example of where we have lost control of an organisation. A number of the post offices on high streets in my constituency are closing, without any regard for the wider community impact. We really must begin to take back control, to coin a phrase.
Most of all, it is our town centres that are in need of a retail strategy. They are the heart of our communities, and their importance must not be underplayed. A new approach that regenerates our town centres is vital if we are to preserve their character, restore civic pride and give people a positive reason to visit their high streets. Local authorities have the knowledge and tools to tackle this, but they cannot do so without significant financial support. However, local authority funding has been cut like never before and the money needed for a true transformative approach to regenerate our town centres simply is not there.
As my hon. Friend Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) said, we need to be much more joined up in how we approach these things. The move to electric vehicles is one such example. It is not entirely clear who is in charge of the charging infrastructure, but it would be great if there were joined-up thinking, with charging points located in town centres used to encourage people to use the town centre facilities while they charge up.
As we have heard, unfortunately the Government’s plan to address the crisis is to pit towns against one another in a competitive bidding process known as the future high streets fund. Only a lucky few get a slice of the pie. I learned this week that despite putting in an excellent bid for Ellesmere Port, my local authority was not successful in the process. What does that say to the people of Ellesmere Port about the importance of their town, compared with others? What will the Government do to support Ellesmere Port town centre? Will there be a second round of funding? Will there be other initiatives, or will we have a rerun of the 1980s policy of managed decline for parts of the north?
My local council is doing what it can, but the multifaceted challenges we have heard about in the era of austerity cannot fall entirely on its shoulders. The trends are there for all of us to see. The evidence is clear that the capacity to meet such challenges has been hollowed out after a decade of cuts. It will take sustained, focused and locally driven but nationally supported investment. It will take imagination, requiring a change from the old way of doing things. It will take central Government to realise that one of the reasons why so many people feel disengaged and disenfranchised is that when they go to their town centre and see empty shops—
I will, Sir David. When people see the household names going, the banks closing and the public sector shrinking, they have a stark reminder of how the growth of the economy has not been evenly distributed. Civic pride, community identity, jobs and opportunities all suffer when the high streets are in decline. We owe it to the people in our communities to do much better and reverse the decline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate on a matter that is not raised often enough in this place. As a former retailer, I have seen many of these issues over the years, and I am delighted that she has been able to bring the debate to Westminster Hall. As we will get into online retail, I bring the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The hon. Lady talked about the effects on people, communities and indeed companies. She brought up the spectre of the BHS closures, which was deeply hurtful to many people involved. She also talked about the work of local authorities and the possibility of them getting involved, and correctly called for a longer-term strategy and vision from the UK Government.
The hon. Lady talked about the business rate system in England, which is a key issue. I will come on to the Scottish context. She also mentioned the requirement for proper pay for people working in retail. She will be glad to know that in Scotland the real living wage—not the pretendy one—is being promoted by the Scottish Government, which indeed is a real living wage employer. Almost just at this moment, the 1,500th private real living wage employer in Scotland has been unveiled: Johnstons of Elgin, the menswear retailer. It was congratulated by the fair work Minister, Jamie Hepburn MSP. Congratulations to Johnstons; it is a really good example.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about changes to banking and rural communities. I disagree about everyone being able to go on to online banking. Many people with disabilities and people in rural areas need banking facilities in the heart of their communities. In particular, those who are vulnerable need access to cash in a way that cannot be done online. The hon. Gentleman did, however, make an interesting point about town planning, which people should consider carefully.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) discussed retail’s important contribution to the UK economy and employment. Indeed, in Scotland, retail is the largest private sector employer, accounting for 250,300 jobs. Retailers are kind-hearted, having donated £10 million to good causes in Scotland, and retail accounted for 13% of all new businesses formed in Scotland in 2016. It also accounts for a fifth of all business rates in Scotland.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about out-of-town versus city centre. There is much debate about how we marry the two so that everyone can benefit, because they are realities. That is one for greater consideration. He also mentioned the loss of UK Government offices, which I have seen in the highlands, with the tax offices, Department for Work and Pensions offices, local passport offices and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency offices all coming out of communities and affecting people and local businesses, particularly retail.
The right hon. Gentleman brought up another subject close to my heart: support for post offices. These people desperately need a better deal so they can secure a living wage. As the Minister will acknowledge, there are people in post offices struggling to make a living. The right hon. Gentleman also made many suggestions to the Minister in a very good speech.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) talked about regenerating town centres, accepting the online issue. I still get a bit of a shiver when thinking about this future of deliveries by drones, with all these drones whizzing about. The temptation to bat them out of the way might be too strong, but we should be aware that that may come in the future. He talked, quite rightly, about the danger of isolation for the elderly and those who are not internet-savvy—I think he included himself—with different ways to shop. He said that people deserved better, and he talked about the real living wage, so I am sure he will join me in congratulating Johnstons of Elgin.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly said that local authorities and the Scottish Government should work together. He will be glad to welcome the work that the Scottish Government are doing with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on town centres. As well as providing the best business rates in the UK, the SNP Scottish Government have put together a business rates relief package worth more than £75 million. Ninety per cent. of businesses in Scotland will pay a lower poundage than they would anywhere else in the UK. The Scottish Government have launched a £50 million town centres fund in partnership with COSLA, with local authorities allocating the funds. That goes a long way in promoting the work between Government and the local authorities.
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is trying to punt a line that is not the fact. Through the small business bonus, 100,000 businesses in Scotland pay no rates at all, and those are mainly businesses in rural areas that do not come up to the level for being taxed.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) correctly talked about public transport and its impact on retail. She gave the example of the fall in revenue for one of her constituents due to a change in bus routes. That brings us back to town planning. People must plan for the unintended outcomes as well as those they want in the future. She also mentioned banks and building societies, the importance of business rates and the need to tax big online retailers.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as ever, did a great job of promoting his own constituency. He talked about the chamber of trade and, importantly, the need for a shopping experience. Green areas, coffee culture and all those things need to be thought out in planning for the future. He talked about the mix of online and physical, which is what we used to call—
I will try, but there is a lot to say.
Unfortunately I cannot discuss the speech of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who made a number of important points. I will finish with something that is important to me and my constituents: the unfair situation on delivery charges. As we move to a culture of more online deliveries, consumers in Scotland are having to pay a disproportionate amount more because of a postcode system used by retailers to charge them extra for deliveries. That is unfair, and the Scottish Government have done a lot of work on that issue. My colleague, Richard Lochhead MSP, and I have worked very hard over the years to make changes, and have made significant breakthroughs with individual retailers. However, it is time for this UK Government to step up to the mark and do something to ensure fair delivery charges for people across Scotland, particularly in rural areas of the highlands and elsewhere.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate and on an excellent speech. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and my hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Ellesmere and Neston (Justin Madders), who all advocated for their constituencies and spoke strongly on this issue. They touched on the importance of a retail sector agreement and referred to the USDAW proposals for an industrial strategy for retail; as a member of USDAW, I declare an interest in that matter.
My wife and I decided to buy a dishwasher, and searched online for a local retailer. We found that Smiths TV, in Formby in my constituency, sold dishwashers. Its website was well designed, and when we went to the store, the layout was attractive and the staff were friendly and helpful, so we bought from them. It is a local independent retailer that is clearly doing well, with four stores in Sefton and west Lancashire. Meanwhile, Aintree retail park and Aintree Racecourse retail park, which are next to each other, are both thriving, packed shopping centres where footfall is strong.
In my constituency and across the country, there are success stories in retail, including independent retailers that combine a strong online presence with excellent in-store customer service, and shopping centres where the management and stores combine to present an attractive offer that ensures that customers come and visit. To return to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, what can high streets learn from successful out-of-town shopping centres? I have mentioned the success stories in my constituency, and it is important that we all do so, because there are plenty more.
However, as is the case with everyone else who has spoken in the debate, the trend across my constituency is far from positive. There have been high-profile closures such as Maplin, Comet and the other names that have been mentioned. In the high streets of my constituency—in Formby, Maghull and Crosby—we have the tattoo parlours, betting shops and tanning salons that others have mentioned, where once we had household names or good local retailers. Many retailers in my constituency, like everywhere else, find trading tough. That is why it is disappointing that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee had to report that
“the Industrial Strategy promised to work with low productivity sectors, such as retail and hospitality, with the potential for even small productivity gains across people-heavy sectors having a significant beneficial impact on the UK’s overall productivity. Yet we found that so far neither the retail nor hospitality sector has been able to make significant progress on securing a sector deal of their own”.
The retail industry is a key part of our economy; it employs 3 million people and, according to USDAW, contributes 11% of UK economic output. Many people have their first experience of work in retail. In smaller towns and villages, shops are often the heart of the community, and retail is a fundamental part of how we all go about our day-to-day life. However, 74,000 jobs were lost in 2018 alone, with many more job losses predicted. There is a long-term decline in retail, which is a cause of great concern in many high streets and has a profound impact on communities, workers and the whole country.
However, as I have shown through the local examples I have given, there is much in the industry and high streets and town centres that tells us that this crisis can be addressed. Businesses can still thrive, and good, higher skilled, better paid jobs can be available if we improve skills and use technology to drive productivity, with a strong strategy and the proper partnership between national and local government, businesses and the wider community.
A successful retail strategy should put in place support for businesses to harness the power of the internet and to benefit from a combination of online and offline shopping. Smiths TV in Formby shows how that can work, but such good practice needs far greater promotion and support. Labour’s plans for business support will maximise the benefits of technology to help business, deliver the well-paid jobs of the future and help communities as well. As was said earlier, high pay means there is more for businesses too, as well-paid workers are able to buy more goods and services from them. The good use of technology, allied to equipping staff with the technical and interpersonal skills that I experienced at Smiths, offers a vision of a successful retail future.
The challenges in retail, especially in our high streets, have been analysed by a number of organisations. The Government must listen to the British Retail Consortium, to Bill Grimsey and Mary Portas, to USDAW, and to others who have written excellent reports. All have produced reviews with evidence-informed recommendations to address the high costs of business rates; the lack of footfall and public transport; bank and post office closures; the need in town centres for work space and housing, as well as for good-quality leisure facilities such as bars, cafes and restaurants; and the opportunity to re-establish public services with lots of staff near where shopkeepers can benefit from their spending power—services such as doctors and dentists, whose patients are also potential retail customers.
Retail is an industry of national importance. We are a nation of shopkeepers, but we are in danger of becoming a nation of shuttered shops. That is why Labour’s plan—a bold and comprehensive offer that would bring customers and workers to town centres, reform the crippling system of business rates and preserve the essential heart of communities—is so necessary. In it, we have addressed the need to have decent bus services—services that are free for under-25s and that have free wi-fi; to keep banks open; to address the digital exclusion of the too many who cannot go online to bank, those who need to use cash to buy and those businesses that rely on cash; to retain cash machines for the same reason, for consumers and businesses alike; to have a register of landlords to address the challenge of empty shops; and to overhaul business rates and consider the alternatives, such as an online sales tax. All those ideas are designed to help address requests made by businesses and shoppers. How about electric vehicle charging points to attract shoppers, while at the same time nudging behaviour on climate action?
A retail council that meets three times a year and whose recommendations go nowhere is a talking shop, and is no substitute for a retail industry strategy; £150,000 for a study of a limited number of high streets is no strategy either. When the majority of high streets have been excluded from the high street fund, it starts to look like window dressing, rather than the basis of a strategy that could transform the prospects of retail and communities. A lack of a detailed plan simply will not save retail jobs, or reinvigorate high streets or communities. There are deep-seated problems in areas of deprivation, which will take much greater intervention than in more prosperous areas.
We must recognise the realities of shopping habits, including online shopping, and not give up on our shops and their staff. Working in a warehouse fulfilling orders cannot be the limit of our aspiration for millions of workers, an nor will online shopping be the answer in all cases. Creating an attractive experience that balances online and physical shopping will provide an opportunity for businesses, consumers and workers, as long as we have the right strategy. Human interaction is important in life; that is as true in retail as anywhere else, and online cannot replicate that experience.
Smiths TV in Formby shows what is possible. If it can succeed as an independent retailer, so can many more. However, retailers cannot do it alone, which is why it is now time for the Government to take action. We must have a proper retail strategy, working with the industry to preserve jobs and reinvigorate communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing today’s important debate. Like her, I have a family history in retail and shopkeeping: my great-grandmother ran a corner grocery store, my great-grandfather was a bootmaker and my father used to run a DIY shop.It is interesting that we are having this debate, because he closed that DIY shop after the retail sector changed. The likes of B&Q finished off some of our small, independent DIY shops. I hope I have been able to bring some direct understanding to my role as a Minister in this area.
As the hon. Lady and other Members have pointed out, the retail sector employs more than 3 million people and contributed £94 billion of gross value added to the UK economy in 2018. The retail sector is at the heart of our communities and our country. I reassure Members that I am extremely passionate and determined about the retail sector and that I care vehemently about it, much as everyone who sits in the House of Commons—not just those in the Government—cares very much about it and values it, the jobs it creates and the value it delivers to our communities.
Retail has always evolved to meet changing consumer demands, and it will continue to do so. Indeed, it is already thriving in many areas. For example, we have the most developed e-commerce market in Europe, with 48% of the estimated total of €198 billion in 2018. We recognise the high-profile pressures in the sector, but there are also businesses that are expanding and developing, as outlined by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) with his great plug for his local retailer Smiths TV. Amazon, Lidl, Aldi, Ocado and JD Sports are all companies investing in UK retail, which is a good sign for the future. Primark, which recently opened the world’s largest fashion retail store in Birmingham, is proving that a high street business can still be successful without a significant online presence. We have seen sales increase by 4% and increased profits. Organisations such as Pets at Home are taking on the challenge of changing consumer demand. In its stores, it is bringing in veterinary services and grooming services and investing in the workforce and apprenticeships. Many retailers are grasping the challenge of a changing retail sector and ensuring they are able to deliver services on the ground that consumers want.
We have heard examples from Members about local growth. It has been great to hear examples of local authorities working proactively with their high street forums and the opportunities available to them to try to grow and really focus on meeting the needs of the local community through the local retail offer. However, to continue to evolve, we need to innovate. I was therefore excited to see the UK Digital Retail Innovation Centre open in Gloucester in May this year, following a funding award of £400,000 from Gloucestershire’s local enterprise partnership. It will be a national centre for testing and developing disruptive digital innovations and will help shape and inform the future of cities with a special focus on retail.
Alongside those successes, we have seen some high-profile names struggle, including Woolworths, Toys R Us and, more recently, Debenhams and House of Fraser. We have been used to seeing those iconic names on our high streets, but in some cases they are no longer there. I do not underestimate the impact of those changes, which can be hugely difficult for the individuals and families involved and for communities. Indeed, I know the hon. Member for Blaydon met Toys R Us staff from the metro retail park when the store closed down. Some of them had been working there for 20 years, and I commend her for the support she showed to her constituents.
There is no doubt the sector is facing significant pressures, whether from uncertainty in the business environment or from changes in consumer expectations and preferences towards online shopping. Those challenges are reflected in retail across the world, not just in the UK. Our retail sector is still one of the best in the world, and we are well placed to deal with the challenges. Retail has a long history of responding successfully to change, of turning challenges into opportunities and of turning pressure into innovation. The Government are, and I personally am, absolutely committed to supporting the sector as it responds to change and strives to continue to serve the public so well, as it has in the past, and as it will in the future.
I am pleased, as part of my portfolio, to serve as the co-chair of the industry-led Retail Sector Council, alongside Richard Pennycook, the chairman of the British Retail Consortium. There has been confusion over the idea that the council does not meet very often and is just focused on the troubles of the past, rather than looking to the future, but I assure Members that we not only have Retail Sector Council meetings, but a number of sub-groups heading up the workstreams and meeting regularly. A lot of work goes on outside those meetings to reach targets. The workstreams are focused on future challenges and how we can drive the retail sector forward. It is not just a talking shop; if it were, I can assure Members I would want no part in it. I spent many a year before becoming an MP in talking shops, and I do not particularly want to do that as an elected Member of Parliament and especially not as a Minister.
I am glad the Minister has mentioned the Retail Sector Council. I am curious as to what it has achieved. Perhaps she can tell us, because if it is not a talking shop, it will have made a difference, and there will be some outcomes, deliverables and differences made.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. As he will know, when the Retail Sector Council was set up last year, we set its priorities. The six workstreams and the priority workstreams have been agreed. We are working for outcomes. The beauty of the Retail Sector Council is that it is the retail sector coming together with Government to find solutions to the future challenges. It includes not only the bricks-and-mortar retailers, but the online retailers and the small independent retailers. In the council, the sector is working with Government to move forward and bring forward plans and proposals that will benefit and aid the sector.
Absolutely, but the hon. Lady will know that all the sector deals are being driven by the sectors themselves with the support of Government and with strong leadership and great ideas. My wider hope for the retail sector is that we will see that deal delivered by the Retail Sector Council as soon as possible.
Costs to business is another workstream, and a number of Members raised them. As part of that workstream, the co-chair and I are meeting the Financial Secretary to the Treasury next week to discuss some of the preliminary findings on costs to business in the retail sector. A large survey of the entire sector was carried out. That area is of big interest to me in terms of how we levy taxation in the future. The skills and lifelong learning workstream is running in parallel with the costs to business workstream. Some of the early work on that is being led by Amazon and a small working group, and that is proving useful.
Alongside the work of the retail sector, the Department regularly considers a wide range of policies. My officials are working across Whitehall on policies that affect the retail sector. A number of Members have mentioned support for our high streets. Members may know that the high streets Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), has recently taken on a joint portfolio with my Department. As I am the retail sector Minister, we work closely on joined-up thinking on retail and high streets. We have the £1.6 billion action plan for high streets, which includes the £675 million future high streets fund. We are seeing 50 organisations move to the next stage in the development of the plans, which will enable local authorities and local populations to drive the development of their towns. We have the taskforce, which will work with local authorities across the country to deliver help for those that need to increase their retail space.
I will sit down now, because I recognise that the hon. Member for Blaydon may want to come in. I am happy to have another meeting with her on the other questions she asked.
Economic Growth and Environmental Limits
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered economic growth and environmental limits.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate economic growth and environmental limits. It is, of course, a huge subject, covering why and how our current economic model, which puts GDP growth above everything else, must change fundamentally, fast. I will focus on the environmental imperatives for that, especially the climate and biodiversity crises, and set out practical steps that I hope the Treasury will adopt.
It is crucial to note, however, before going into the environmental detail, that the Treasury’s obsession with GDP growth is also undermining social and economic progress for the vast majority of UK citizens. GDP is an incredibly poor metric for measuring wellbeing or social cohesion. For example, people becoming unhealthy can actually have a positive effect overall on GDP, as revenue from associated healthcare boosts growth. Similarly, the extraction of oil and gas pushes GDP up, while pushing us closer to the precipice of climate breakdown.
I, of course, acknowledge that Government Departments have goals other than economic output. The Office for National Statistics in particular is doing some important work on wellbeing statistics as part of their “Beyond GDP” programme. There is also the ONS/Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs project that seeks to incorporate UK natural capital into the UK environmental accounts by 2020. All of that is welcome, but it is all at the margins. The ONS website is unequivocal about the priority. It says quite clearly:
“Gross domestic product (GDP) growth is the main indicator of economic performance.”
GDP therefore still trumps everything, remaining the primary objective across Government, especially for the Treasury.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing the debate, and on her hard work in this House on the environment and climate change. Although I certainly like to check on GDP and other financial aims, does she agree that the measure of success cannot be GDP alone? It must equally be based on the happiness and health of our constituents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and kind words. As he says, the purpose of Government should surely be to promote happiness and health, yet we have a perverse obsession with GDP growth, which can often go up even when happiness and health are going down. That obsession must end if we are to secure a safe space for humanity, and if we are to live within environmental limits, or planetary boundaries, to use an alternative term.
I will not be surprised if the Minister takes issue with me on that, arguing that the UK has embraced so-called green growth, perhaps citing the clean growth strategy. Leaving aside the fact that there is nothing clean or green about the Government’s support for rampant airport expansion, road building or fossil fuel subsidies, the essential point is that even so-called green growth rests on the assumption that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental harm fully and fast enough. I will make the case this afternoon that that is a false assumption.
Just yesterday, a new report from the European Environmental Bureau exploded the myth of absolute decoupling. The study looked at a range of factors—materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases and so on—and found that there is no empirical evidence for an absolute, permanent, global, substantial or sufficiently rapid decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures, either now or in the future. In other words, it is time to move from efficiency to sufficiency. As the report concludes,
“Although decoupling is useful and necessary, and has occurred at certain times and places, ‘green growth’ cannot reduce resource use on anywhere near the scale required to deal with global environmental breakdown and to keep global warming below the target of 1.5°C”.
The transgression of environmental limits has dangerous consequences for all humanity. That was pushed into the spotlight by the UN global assessment of nature—the so-called Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. If ever there was a mouthful that was designed to make it hard to know what anyone was talking about, that is it; we should call it a report on nature.
Regardless, it found that 75% of all land and almost half of all marine and water ecosystems have been seriously altered by human activity. It found that 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. That is a horrendous number—significantly greater than at any other time in human history—and poses a severe and direct threat to not only those species but human wellbeing in all regions of the world, especially those least responsible for the damage that is causing it.
The report identifies the growth of the global economy, and specifically the growth of material consumption in affluent nations, as one of the major driving forces behind those trends. It is unambiguous about the need to move away from endless consumption and GDP as a key measure of economic success, stating that we must steer
“away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth”
“shift beyond standard economic indicators such as gross domestic product”.
I am keen to emphasise that, although Greens have long been leading the political debate on the environmental and social case for ditching GDP growth as a measure of progress, that argument is finally moving into the mainstream. Cross-party collaboration is incredibly important too, and I am delighted that 20 MPs have signed my early-day motion on the report from the intergovernmental panel. My early-day motion calls on the Government to
“urgently show global leadership in developing and advocating alternatives to GDP and in the transition to economies that, rather than being divisive and degenerative by default, are distributive and regenerative by design.”
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and making many good points. I agree that we need to move beyond GDP. Is she aware that work has already been done on alternative methods of measurement? For instance, the University of Leeds, through the Sustainability Research Institute, has a consumption-based emissions model that would give us an alternative to GDP. We could calculate everything based on emissions, including at source, as well as those used in the UK or other developed countries. Should we not move to that sort of model, rather than a GDP-based model?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The work going on at the University of Leeds is incredibly exciting. It demonstrates that there is a lot of work going on, both in this country and internationally, into researching what alternative indicators might look like. I think what is lacking is a real commitment to move them into the mainstream. In the regular updates on the radio or in the Financial Times, when we hear about GDP growth and how we should be very happy that it has gone up, we could look at those indicators, which might well show that our wellbeing is being severely undermined by environmental damage.
Turning to the climate emergency, the primacy of GDP growth as the overarching priority for the economy is the elephant in the room. To quote Greta Thunberg,
“Our house is on fire”,
and the GDP growth obsession is the obstacle blocking the door to the emergency exit. In April, Greta visited Parliament and spoke about why she and millions of other young people were missing school to strike for the climate. She said very clearly that the way that we measure progress is absurd and archaic:
“People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at…We should no longer measure our wealth and success in the graph that shows economic growth, but in the curve that shows the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
That call to rewrite the economic rulebook is echoed by many others in the climate justice network, including many in the grassroots movements for a green new deal in the UK and the US, and a vastly growing number of academics and economists. The reaction to a tweet by the London Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, one week into the Extinction Rebellion protests was interesting; it illustrates that climate justice is inextricably linked to the transformation of the economic system. To be fair, I am sure he did it without thinking it through that much, but he tweeted:
“My message to all the climate change protestors today is clear: let London return to business as usual.”
That tweet went down so terribly because the new climate justice movement understands that business as usual is killing the planet and destroying our children’s future. The litmus test for adequate climate action is no longer what is considered politically feasible within the current system; it is whether we are transforming the economic system to fit with what is scientifically necessary to keep within 1.5° of global heating, and to reverse the unravelling of the Earth’s life support systems before our eyes.
I have immense sympathy with what the hon. Lady is saying, and I agree. She talked about political feasibility. All the proposals and politics that she is suggesting are difficult to achieve in an environment of gross inequality. Would it not be easier if we addressed equality, to make all these things more acceptable?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise intervention. Certainly, if we are not going to make the economy bigger by growing it and growing it—we simply cannot, within environmental limits—arguments about redistribution become absolutely central to the whole debate. Everything that I am saying is about social justice and environmental justice being inextricably linked. They must be, because we have to tackle them together. Although it is quite hard to find opportunities when the environmental data is so grim, there is an opportunity to get our social systems and inclusiveness right, and to get our inequality sorted, at the same time as taking serious steps towards making the way we organise our economy genuinely sustainable.
On climate, as on biodiversity, I believe strongly that we must look at the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report, entitled “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC”, says that we need
“rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change across all aspects of society”.
We have barely a decade to cut global emissions by half. As the co-chair of an IPCC working group put it,
“The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
The Treasury is doing a very good impression of ignoring the urgency of taking action. The Government boast about emission cuts and about legislating for a net zero emission goal to be reached in three decades’ time. However, the Committee on Climate Change said in its new report, which was published this morning, that the next 18 months are make or break, especially as the UK
“is lagging far behind what is needed, even to meet previous, less stringent, emissions targets.”
The UK’s carbon reduction statistics ignore consumption-based emissions. Our exported emissions are one factor that explains why global emissions continue to rise, and why we are still heading for a devastating 3° of warming, even if countries deliver on their Paris pledges.
This is all to say that the pursuit of economic growth is devouring our efforts to decarbonise. I will quote the work of Jason Hickel, a leading environmental economist at Goldsmiths. He has explained the situation by examining the IPCC’s trajectories on reaching net zero by mid-century. The IPCC is telling us that we have until 2050 to get to net zero, but the global economy is set to nearly triple in size during the same period, which means three times more production and consumption. It is hard enough to decarbonise the current economy in such a short time span. The idea that we will be able to do it three times over is, frankly, for the birds. However heroic our assumptions about the potential for decoupling, there is no evidence that it can be completed quickly enough in the timeframe that we have.
There is some hope, because the IPCC report contains one lifeline scenario that does not rely on speculative and harmful negative emissions technologies to keep global heating under 1.5°. That scenario is our emergency exit from climate breakdown. So what does it look like? Fundamentally, it is about scaling down material consumption by 20% globally, with rich countries such as the UK leading the way. As yesterday’s European Environmental Bureau report concluded,
“Policy-makers have to acknowledge the fact that addressing”
the climate and biodiversity crises
“may require a direct downscaling of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries.”
I should add, “among the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries,” because I take the point made by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins); equality and justice needs to be at the heart of this process.
As I say, the ONS work on wellbeing indicators beyond GDP and on natural capital is important and welcome, but it is clearly not the priority. It is not a primary consideration in Treasury decision making. Nor is the wellbeing work integrated with environmental considerations. Will the Minister commit to ensuring the ONS has the resources and the direction required to integrate environmental limits into its “Beyond GDP” work, including, as a priority, consumption-based carbon emissions? While I am making requests of the Minister, can he tell us what has happened to the latest release of those “Beyond GDP” statistics? If they are quarterly, as the ONS website states, the latest were due a couple of months ago, back in May.
I turn to the positive case for ousting GDP as a measure of progress, and to some of the alternatives that we could adopt. There is an extensive and expanding evidence base to suggest that ousting GDP as a measure of progress is essential to achieve both environmental and social justice. Transitioning away from the growth dogma is not about hurting people’s welfare—quite the opposite. It is about placing wellbeing centre stage, reducing inequalities, cutting out waste and inefficiencies, and prioritising quality of life over quantity of things.
There is a chorus of experts—academics, economists and campaigners—proposing concrete, credible alternatives to get us out of the GDP gulag. Many of them are members of the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance. I will briefly give four examples. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) will be very happy, because the first example I will give is from the University of Leeds, where researchers are exploring a
“good life for all within planetary boundaries.”
This shows that the UK and other wealthy nations are well past the tipping point at which
“using even more resources adds almost nothing to human well-being.”
The researchers explain that this means countries such as the UK could
“substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being.”
A second example comes in the shape of a doughnut. In her book, “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”, Kat Raworth sets out to replace the dominant image of the economy as a closed, self-generating loop with a picture of the economy that shows energy flowing in from the sun, and waste and heat flowing out. Her doughnut image requires us to recognise that all economic activity is embedded in the Earth’s living systems and in society. Instead of maximising GDP, we need to change our goals to meet
“the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet.”
Crucially, this model combines environmental limits with social factors such as housing, equity, political voice, education and income. The inner boundary of the doughnut is the social floor, below which wellbeing suffers. The outer boundary is an ecological ceiling, beyond which we overshoot the Earth’s support systems. The doughnut’s fundamental point, which the Treasury seems to have not yet grasped, is that the current economic system is failing on both human wellbeing and environmental health grounds.
A third example is a call from 238 academics for the EU and member states to plan for a post-growth future, in which human and ecological wellbeing are prioritised over GDP. They say:
“Growth is…becoming harder to achieve due to declining productivity gains, market saturation and ecological degradation. If current trends continue, there may be no growth at all in Europe within a decade. Right now the response is to try to fuel growth by issuing more debt, shredding environmental regulations, extending working hours, and cutting social protections. This aggressive pursuit of growth at all costs divides society, creates economic instability, and undermines democracy.”
The academics end by offering some measured and moderate practical next steps, including constituting
“a special commission on Post-Growth Futures”
in order to
“actively debate the future of growth, devise policy alternatives for post-growth futures, and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal.”
I would love to see citizens’ assemblies play a major part in that.
Secondly, the academics suggest prioritising alternative indicators over GDP in all economic decision making. Thirdly, they propose establishing a Ministry for economic transition, to drive the shift to a new economy that focuses directly on human and ecological wellbeing, and away from one that is structurally dependent on economic growth.
The fourth and final example is New Zealand, where the Treasury has conducted the world’s first wellbeing budget. Finance Minister Grant Robinson explained that GDP growth was simply not translating into higher standards or better opportunities. Instead, the wellbeing budget looks at spending on the basis of a project’s contribution to the wellbeing of the population, as measured through four dimensions: human capital, social capital, natural capital, and financial and physical capital. The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Gus O’Donnell, recently launched a report by the all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing economics that makes a similar case for wellbeing to replace growth as the main aim of UK spending in the forthcoming spending review. Those are just some examples.
The hon. Lady is giving a fantastic speech. She has mentioned the views of four different people on the limits of using GDP, what it is, what good it does in our economy, and what good growth does. Some 51 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy—hardly an economic radical; he was a Democrat—gave a speech on the limits of GDP. I add that because he is someone that I and many people across the political divide can respect. He was well ahead of the curve on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman is a very good friend and colleague, but he has just taken my final point; I was building up to that speech from Bobby Kennedy. I forgive him, because he is a good colleague and it was very good point.
I give a shout out to the all-party parliamentary group on economic wellbeing and the APPG on limits to growth, of which I am a co-chair, and which works closely with the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity under the leadership of Professor Tim Jackson, who does good work in this area.
I want to leave time for the Minister to respond, so I will conclude. The climate and biodiversity crisis means that urgency is becoming emergency, in terms of getting economic transformation going. I will skip most of my lovely Bobby Kennedy quote, but his words ring as true today as they ever did, so I will keep the last bit. He said that GDP
“measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
I have three requests of the Treasury to which I hope the Minister will respond. First, will he put rocket boosters behind the ONS “Beyond GDP” work, ensure that the environment is fully integrated alongside social factors, and commit to adopting those indicators and using them alongside or, even better, instead of GDP growth? I would even let him use them alongside GDP growth, as long as that were done regularly, so that we could see those indicators as a key measure of the nation’s progress.
Secondly, from this year on, will the Minister publish consumption-based carbon emissions, material throughput and wellbeing statistics alongside quarterly GDP figures? Thirdly, will he meet me and some of the leading economists, academics and practitioners working on this issue, to inform the forthcoming spending review?
As Kenneth Boulding said more than 50 years ago,
“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Thankfully, we now have a new generation of environmentally literate economists, and it is time that we listened to what they have to say.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for tabling this debate and other hon. Members who intervened or who came to listen to and support her. I am always partial to a good Robert Kennedy quote, so I am sorry to see that the hon. Lady’s thunder was stolen at the end of her speech, but I enjoyed it none the less.
As the hon. Lady eloquently set out, it is now more important than ever that the Government and institutions such as the Treasury, which is at the heart of this debate, confront head on the question of how we continue to grow the economy while protecting our environment and tackling climate change with all the vigour and urgency that she and others would like. I believe that the two can and will be done together, and can be mutually beneficial.
The UK is a world leader in this area, but I appreciate that many people—me included—would like us to go further. Between 1990 and 2016, the UK reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 42% while growing the economy by more than two thirds, demonstrating that environmental action need not come at the cost of economic prosperity.
The Government are determined to continue to build concern for the environment into our economic model. In a moment, I will explain some of the workstreams that we have already undertaken and where we could go further. We want to ensure that environmental policies are well considered and that the Treasury as an organisation is leading them, as I believe it is. The hon. Lady argued that it is time fundamentally to change economic models if we want to address the climate emergency. She questioned in particular whether GDP is a sensible measure of our economic wellbeing, so I will begin by addressing that.
GDP remains one of the most important economic indicators, but it is by no means the only one that is of concern to us or which is used by other major economies around the world. It is closely correlated with employment, incomes and tax receipts, which makes it perhaps the most useful indicator currently available to us. It is used by the Government, the Treasury, and the Bank of England to set economic policy and manage the public finances and, as the system of national accounts framework is set at UN level, GDP is easily comparable across countries and time periods, both historically and in the future. It is important that any changes in the economic modelling that we use are made internationally, and the UK needs to show leadership on that.
The Government recognise, however, that GDP undoubtedly has its limitations and should not be seen as an all-encompassing measure of welfare and wellbeing, and we entirely accept that it was never designed to be. Former Chancellor George Osborne commissioned Sir Charles Bean to undertake an independent review of economic statistics. The review acknowledged some of those limitations, such as the challenge of capturing activities where no market transaction takes place, the challenge posed to GDP and to some of our existing modelling by technology, transforming the way that we measure welling and productivity and, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the fact that GDP estimates make no allowance for the depletion of natural resources,
The Government fully supported the recommendations of the Bean review, which we commissioned, and we have provided the ONS with an additional £25 million to help improve UK economic statistics and implement the Bean review. That was the “Beyond GDP” initiative that the hon. Lady mentioned, which aims to address the limitations of GDP by developing a broader measure of welfare and activity. In response to the hon. Lady’s question about the publication of statistics, the ONS is an independent organisation, so we do not control it in that respect, but I am happy to pass on her comments and ask the ONS to respond.
In the time left, I will briefly mention a number of other steps that the Government have taken. The Treasury’s Green Book, our guidance on the appraisal and evaluation of infrastructure and other investments, is essential to a number of decisions that are made by the Government. In 2018, we refreshed the Green Book to include additional environmental values, such as greenhouse gases, air quality and noise pollution. We also included a social cost-benefit analysis, which I hope is making a significant difference. It will be very important in the upcoming spending review. That work is well perceived internationally. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has now convened international Finance Ministers, and the area that the UK will likely lead on internationally is that of economic modelling and how we can do that better on a global scale.
The Minister spoke about the Green Book, which is still—despite the changes—essentially a neoclassical economic model based on equilibrium economics. Most scientists and economists on the fringes of economic thinking would tell us that we are moving into a disequilibrium position in our economic model. The two are completely incompatible and the Green Book is not fit for purpose as we enter a climate crisis in which many of its assumptions are no longer credible.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the theme behind his remarks is one of the reasons why we have amended the Green Book. We have created this concept of social value, so we now take into account negative externalities to the environment and to people’s lifestyles as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, for example. I am happy to have a further conversation with him on that after the debate, as there is very little time left.
We are working closely with Dieter Helm’s review and recommendations. I met him to discuss the issue of natural capital accounts, which we are taking seriously—it is a big endeavour. We are working with the ONS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bring that forward. I hope that we will be one of the first countries in the world to take the issue forward.
Following the report by the Committee on Climate Change, the Chancellor and I met Lord Deben and accepted his recommendation over the summer that the Treasury should do a major and urgent piece of work on how we can fund in a fair way the changes that we need to make as a society as a result of the Committee’s recommendations. That work is under way. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to give her more detail on some of those initiatives, which are extremely important. We want to take them forward with gusto in the months ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
High Speed 2
Before I call the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to move her motion, eight Members have notified me that they intend to speak, and I suspect many more may wish to intervene. We only have an hour. I do not want to limit the key points that anyone wishes to make, but if we can have a little brevity, it would be greatly appreciated.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the business case for High Speed 2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, in my first debate as a Back Bencher in more than five years. I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss one of the biggest concerns for many of my constituents, and to outline why I believe that the business case for High Speed 2 must be urgently reviewed by the Government.
I first became aware of HS2 when it was proposed in 2009 by the then Labour Government. Investment in infrastructure, creating jobs and growth, improving travel times between our major cities, and closing the north-south divide were all put forward as reasons in favour of the UK’s second high-speed train line. However, those supposed benefits unravelled one by one, and it quickly became apparent that HS2 is not the right infrastructure project, will not improve point-to-point travel times, and will not close the north-south divide. It will create jobs, yes, but at an eye-wateringly expensive rate, far beyond what we might expect from a similar project.
Those of us who expressed concerns about HS2 even while it was still in consultation were dismissed by others as nimbys and told that we were flat wrong about the wider benefits that HS2 would bring to the north. I was then and continue to be willing to be proved wrong, but with the delay to the notice to proceed, growing concerns about the project’s spiralling costs, ongoing engineering and design difficulties and, even now, the rumours that the line past Birmingham might never be built, it is high time for the project to be thoroughly reviewed to ensure that it will actually deliver for taxpayers.
It is a pleasure to hear the right hon. Lady speaking in a debate, rather than her listening to me asking for one. Does she recall the number of times that I have said in the Chamber of the House of Commons that HS2 will cost much more? Every time I said it, £10 billion more, and going past that. Now, it is accepted that it will cost £100 billion. Does she agree with that figure?
The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue a number of times, and it is true to say that many think the costs will overrun. I will come back to that.
For me, both as a concerned constituency MP and as someone with 25 years of experience in finance, including project finance, I am alarmed at just how much the business case for HS2 has changed since the project was initially proposed. The business case that HS2 relies on now bears little resemblance to what Parliament was told at the start of the process—if I cast my mind back to when I first became an MP in 2010—nor to what we voted on when the enabling legislation was passed, which I voted against, or when the subsequent main legislation was enacted.
First, we were told that HS2 was about reducing journey times and improving the economy by bringing businesses and workers from the south to the north to spread economic prosperity around the country. Then we were told it was about capacity constraints on the west coast main line, and managing the continual growth in annual passenger numbers. Both arguments no longer stack up.
On improved journey times and associated productivity gains, the underlying assumption built into the business case for HS2 was that any time spent travelling for business purposes was wasted time, and that business travellers undertake no productive work while travelling. In the 21st century, technological advances such as mobile devices and improved wireless internet connections clearly mean that work and leisure activities are increasingly mobile, and increasingly affordable and accessible for rail passengers. Such advances are expected to continue.
I have great respect for the right hon. Lady, but she is fundamentally wrong on this issue, although she is right to criticise the way in which the Department for Transport uses travel times. In the assessment of all transport infrastructure, the Department fails to take into account the economic investment that always follows investment in transport. The case is the opposite of what she is saying: it underestimates the benefits from HS2.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me: the business case needs to be reassessed with accurate underlying factors taken into account. It is the case that the more productivity on trains increases, in particular as faster fifth generation—5G—mobile internet is rolled out across the country, the less valuable the journey time savings are, and therefore the smaller the estimated benefits of HS2 become on those measures.
My right hon. Friend is talking about journey times, and I completely agree with her that this is not about journey times. She also mentioned capacity, and it is about that, but it is also about one more thing—connectivity. We have not had a new railway line north of London for 150 years. Surely now is the time to improve our infrastructure and to make our trains and lives fit for the 21st century.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—we certainly need to invest in our rail infrastructure—but my question is whether HS2 is the right piece of infrastructure.
The argument for the business case around journey times and productivity quickly collapsed, and HS2 Ltd turned to arguing for capacity instead. That capacity argument has been questioned almost since it was first made, and most recently by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee in its report of May this year, “Rethinking High Speed 2”.
The original business case for HS2 was put forward at a time of strong and continued growth in passenger numbers in the preceding years, and the expectation was always that this growth would continue unabated. That is not the case. I made that point in 2011, when I led an HS2 debate on the Floor of the House. As I said then, HS2’s forecasts were “heroic” when compared with Network Rail’s numbers over the same period. According to the Commons Library, across the entire rail network, annual passenger growth peaked in 2011 at about 8%, and growth has been on a downward trend since then. Passenger growth between London and the west midlands has now fallen to 2% growth per annum, against a decadal average of 6%.
It is true to say that the west coast main line is the busiest mixed-use rail corridor in Europe, with 15 fast trains coming into Euston in most peak hours of the week and little to no availability in that period for additional train paths. However, capacity on the trains themselves is a different matter. As anyone who travels at rush hour between Euston and Milton Keynes—as I do frequently—will know that there is always high capacity pressure on any of the trains during that peak period: about 95% of all available seats on morning peak arrivals into Euston are occupied, with many trains cramped and uncomfortable. Again according to the House of Commons Library, across the entire day only about 60% of all available seats into Euston are in use. For the other major cities on the line of route—Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield—across the entire day, all of those stations operate at less than half their passenger capacity in terms of seat availability.
As the right hon. Lady knows, I am a very experienced traveller between Wakefield and London, and know the routes well. May I ask her to pay attention to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), from Manchester, because he is wrong? All the research in France and other places shows that having super-speed or high-speed trains sucks power away from the regions. What has happened in France? More power to Paris, and less to the provincial cities.
I fear that I am very much aware of what the hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with him.
Clearly, therefore, much of the capacity constraint on the west coast main line is spatially and temporally specific, being focused on the peak rush hours, and only in Euston and Birmingham. The biggest issue is crowding on individual trains at those times, rather than crowding throughout the day.
The hon. Lady is right that building a train line frees up capacity for freight lines and all sorts of other things; the question is the business case for this particular project. The question must be asked: is it worth spending £55.7 billion of public money, as allocated by the Department for Transport, to alleviate crowding issues in the morning and evening peaks? The main alternative considered by the Government, known as the strategic alternative, could have achieved the same result at a much lower cost, through a combination of infrastructure and rolling stock upgrades, at a cost of around £4.9 billion in 2011 prices. Additional capacity and more fast-line services could be delivered via Euston to relieve the specific pressure points during the peak-hour rushes, rather than building a whole new line that would create unneeded capacity throughout the day.
The Lords Economic Affairs Committee report concluded that the Government have
“yet to make a convincing case for proceeding with the project”
and it has
“not seen convincing evidence that the nature of the capacity problem warrants building HS2.”
On the point about finance, is the right hon. Lady aware that HS2 has entered into an astonishing 270 or more non-disclosure agreements with third parties? Does she agree that the Government should make public the number of non-disclosure agreements, settled agreements, compromise agreements and any other arrangements that include non-disclosure provisions with former staff members?
Does the right hon Lady share my concern that funding from an unauthorised redundancy payment scheme operated by HS2 was used to fund some or all settlement or compromise agreements with former senior staff? In some cases, those staff were regarded as having made serious protected disclosures about their concerns over HS2’s financial statements. Transparency is essential in the funding of this project. Does the right hon. Lady agree?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that to me yesterday, and I am gravely concerned. As all right hon. and hon. Members will know, I am extremely unhappy at the prospect of non-disclosure agreements preventing whistleblowers from coming forward with information that is vital to the public interest or their own personal interest. People should not be gagged under any circumstances.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate on a topic we have discussed many times. I voted against HS2 at every opportunity in the House of Commons. In 2013, I predicted that it would cost in excess of £100 billion. The then Secretary of State laughed, and I think he was quite right to—it is clear that the project will be far in excess of £100 billion.
Does my right hon. Friend recall the report by Sir John Armitt in August 2018? His committee stated that, given that hubs are no longer in the centre of cities but on the outskirts, an extra £43 billion of infrastructure spending would be required to make use of the current hub sites that have been chosen. That has not been programmed into the budget at all.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the lack of point-to-point movement in HS2. Passengers do not end up at the Bullring in Birmingham, or in the west end of London; they just end up somewhere on the outskirts wondering how on earth they will get to where they want to.
The business case for HS2 is seemingly not based on improved journey or improving capacity on journeys between the cities along the line of route. That was alarmingly confirmed by the chief executive of HS2 Ltd, Mark Thurston, in November last year, when he appeared before the all-party parliamentary rail group. At that meeting, Mr Thurston remarked that to remain on time and on budget, HS2 Ltd was considering fundamental changes to the project, including, but not limited to, reductions in the speed that HS2 trains will operate at and reductions in the total number of trains per hour.
With fewer and slower trains, it is hard to understand how the business case can be maintained, given the growing lack of incentive for passengers to choose to take a more expensive HS2 train over a classic service. I have asked HS2 Ltd to confirm whether it is modelling the impact of such changes, but so far I have been unable to obtain a definitive response.
As the former chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir Terry Morgan, said when he appeared before the Economic Affairs Committee on the 22 January, nobody, not even he as a former chairman of the project, can say with any certainty what the final cost of HS2 will be. That cost has gone up and up over the years. In February 2011, we were told that HS2 would cost £37.5 billion. By January 2012, that figure had crept up to £40.8 billion. In June 2013, we were told the total cost had risen to £50.1 billion. Today, based on the funding envelope set out in November 2015 —not an estimate of the cost but rather the money available from DFT for the project—we are told that HS2 will cost the British taxpayer £55.7 billion. That is £55.7 billion for a single train line.
We have not actually seen a comprehensive breakdown of the costs for the full Y network of HS2 since 2013, although the National Audit Office has more recently said that, at the time of the 2015 spending review, the full cost should have been estimated at £65 billion. HS2’s land and property budget alone is expected to be five times greater than originally forecast, but that is of no help whatsoever to my constituents. I have had cases in South Northamptonshire where family farms have been cut in half, people have been forced to sell their businesses at a vastly undervalued rate and one constituent has been forced out of the family home that she had lived in for many years through a lifetime tenancy under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986. There are countless examples where I have had to intervene time and again on behalf of my constituents, due to the insensitive behaviour and slow engagement of HS2.
I, too, have had some very sad cases, where HS2 Ltd is not doing itself any favours. Considering the overall spend, the quibbling is over very small amounts. If it got that bit right, it might get more people on its side to make sure it delivered the project, which my constituents welcome, as long as they are looked after. If part of the line is cancelled, those properties will be blighted for ever.
I certainly agree that HS2 needs to do much more to protect those who have been affected through no fault of their own. There has been real hardship. There are countless examples in my constituency and I am aware of many in other constituencies.
As hon. Members have set out, concerns have been raised by industry experts and former whistleblowers from the company that the total cost for HS2 may very well be in excess of £100 billion. In contrast, DFT has separately announced investment of £48 billion in our railways over a five-year period through to 2024, comprising major infrastructure upgrades across the country and newer, faster, more comfortable trains to improve the passenger experience. I totally applaud the DFT for that decision—it is the right sort of investment and will improve our railways in all parts of our United Kingdom, sharing the benefits among all rail users.
We should consider HS2 in the context of alternative uses for the money for infrastructure investment. I was delighted when my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) advised me they would contribute to today’s debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) for all the excellent work she continues to do to raise concerns about this project.
I am a passionate advocate for better infrastructure. There is no doubt that properly targeted infrastructure investment can massively improve productivity and enable growth and economic opportunity equally for all parts of our United Kingdom, including in the north and the regions, but getting the best bang for our buck has to be at the heart of all that we do. With the benefit-cost ratio for HS2 declining to 1.4 in October 2013 and remaining unchanged in the intervening period, it is vital that we make sure that we are investing in the right infrastructure projects. The Government’s own guidance on value-for-money assessments has said that a benefit-cost ratio of 1.4 for phase one would represent a low value-for-money project.
What can we do? My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) has spearheaded a whole host of alternative transport project proposals with the TaxPayers Alliance—he will expand on that later. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) is here to set out his own ideas about better value-for-money projects. We have to think creatively about our transport infrastructure and be brave enough to scrutinise the value for money of any project if we think it might not deliver the benefit it promises. We have to hold HS2 Ltd to account to ensure that it is open and transparent in all that it does.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister in her response to commit to a full review of the business case for HS2, before the notice to proceed is granted later this year, and to make a clear and open statement on the Floor of the House on whether this project truly does represent good value for taxpayers’ money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate, and on her excellent speech, with which I strongly agree.
I state categorically that I believe passionately in our railways; I have been a daily commuter for 50 years and I have always believed in their future. I continue to support strong investment in our railways, but not in HS2. The alleged business case for HS2 has two essential components: cost and need. The costs have been ballooning, dwarfing the claims of £50 billion by multiples. Even the rumoured likely costs now are way below what an eventual bill would be. With more time, I could give some explanations as to why, but I wish to focus on the supposed need and the likely passenger demand for HS2.
The business case is based on a frequency of 18 trains an hour leaving and reaching London. HS2 has grudgingly agreed that a figure of perhaps 16 trains an hour in off-peak periods might be appropriate. The trains would be some 400 metres long, probably with 16 carriages; they would be rather similar to Eurostar trains, which are 20 cars long, and capable of seating 80 passengers per carriage. That is well over 1,000 passenger seats on each train. With 18 trains an hour over the day, that would mean in excess of 200,000 passenger seats going to and from London. That is a significant proportion of the total population of Birmingham; it is complete nonsense. In any case, 18 trains an hour is just not possible. At a meeting of the Select Committee on Transport in 2011, SNCF witnesses from France with some knowledge of high-speed TGVs were astonished at the 18 trains an hour figure, saying it was impossible, and that 12 trains an hour was the absolute maximum.
HS2 has been in a mess and a panic for some time about costs. It asked if it would be possible to terminate trains at Old Oak Common and avoid the horrendously expensive costs of tunnelling through to Euston. The idea would be to transfer passengers to Crossrail at Old Oak Common. That would be impractical because of the vast numbers involved. Up to 20,000 extra passengers on Crossrail every hour is not a serious proposition. All this is just not credible. If HS2 goes ahead, we will surely see expensive trains on a very expensive track rattling around the country with very few passengers on them.
I want to end on a positive note. There are some serious and much-needed alternatives to HS2, and I have written a paper setting out some of them. I submitted my paper, prepared with the advice of a range of friends in the railway industry, to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee for its inquiry into HS2. I also submitted it to the recent Great British transport competition, supported by the TaxPayers Alliance, and was pleased that one of my proposals was selected as one of the winning schemes.
Most significantly, there is the GB freight route, with which I am involved and to which the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire referred. This would be a freight priority line from the channel tunnel to Glasgow, built to a large-loading gauge and almost entirely on railway land, capable of accommodating full-sized lorry trailers on the trains. It would take some millions of lorry journeys off our roads every year, with immense benefits. It would link all the majority economic regions of Britain to each other, and to the continent of Europe, and Asia beyond.
There are several serious rail schemes that should be adopted and, if HS2 does not go ahead, all the schemes paused and abandoned by Government in recent times could simply be readopted. Electrifying the whole rail network, with massive improvements to railways in the north in particular, where rail has been disgracefully neglected, could and should go ahead. These schemes could provide many thousands of jobs very quickly, with track work ready to go. This would be money well spent in every sense.
We should reflect on the sensible Eddington report, which recommended rail investment in and around our major cities and conurbations, where real passenger need is most concentrated.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; absolutely. Even within the northern region there are some dreadful train services. There are old charabancs on rail tracks that are a disgrace and should have been replaced, and the lines have not been electrified. They should have been.
I think I have made my point. I am running out of time, Mr Hosie. I could go into much more detail, but on this occasion perhaps I should conclude here. I think the case against HS2 is overwhelming. I look forward to a sensible Government abandoning it and reinvesting in all the other schemes that are so much more beneficial and needed.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for securing this important debate.
The HS2 business case is clearly deeply flawed, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. When I was first elected, I was in two minds about HS2. I could see the damage it was doing to my constituency, but I thought it might be a worthwhile project for the country, if its administrators were savvy enough to resolve some local issues. Four years on, my view has shifted. The continuing and unceasing lack of care, interest or attention that HS2 pays to my constituents and my community have destroyed any faith that it can deliver the benefits that it promised.
Each individual failure is compounded to create an image of an organisation riven by incompetence and unable to deliver the project. For example, take-up of the need-to-sell scheme for phase 2b continues to be extremely low. The number of new applications has not exceeded double figures in the last nine months. Of applications placed before the panel, only a third have been accepted, whereas half the need-to-sell applications made in phases 1 and 2a were. The process remains time-consuming, and involves frequent requests for additional information and documentation. In spite of revisions, the guidance is still insufficiently detailed to enable applicants to understand fully what information and evidence is required for a successful application.
Further confusion has arisen in respect of the atypical or special circumstances route, which is intended to supplement the discretionary property schemes and provide a safety net where the specific requirements of existing schemes cannot be met. Departmental officials taking part in local public engagement events have been advising applicants that they should be applying under the atypical special circumstances scheme because of their particular situation, but applicants are then informed by HS2 that it is not available to them, as they are eligible to apply under one of the discretionary schemes.
Applicants understandably expect the advice that they are given by officials during public engagement events to be accurate and correct. The fact that that does not appear to be the case causes further unnecessary anxiety and frustration for applicants, as well as reinforcing the sense of distrust in HS2. It gives the impression that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that HS2 appeared to be trying to create the perception that the project was beyond the point of no return—that we cannot stop it because so much money has been spent? Does she also agree that in business, the first loss is the best loss, and we are throwing good money after bad on this project?
I certainly do. I remember stating the figure of £100 billion on television, only to be told that it was ridiculous. Now it looks like a certainty, rather than the ridiculous proposal that others claimed it was.
Issues continue even once applications under the property scheme are accepted. My constituents repeatedly tell me about the unco-operative and, at times, obstructive approach of surveyors acting on behalf of HS2. The surveyors’ repeated failures to acknowledge email correspondence, lengthy delays in responding to correspondence—even after numerous chase-ups and the involvement of members of HS2’s property team—and delays in arranging meetings are not only unacceptable but undermine my faith that HS2 can be delivered on its already inflated budget.
There is considerable concern, particularly for applications under the statutory blight scheme, that property valuations are based on the opinion of a single Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors surveyor, who is not local and is paid for by HS2, fostering a sense that the valuer is not impartial; in contrast, the need-to-sell scheme has an average of three property valuations. There have been repeated concerns that properties are being undervalued. HS2’s surveyors cite the additional compensation provided under the scheme, the suggestion being that the undervaluation is offset by the additional compensation, rather than there being recognition that the compensation is for the upheaval caused by moving property, and is not related to the value.
I know that the Minister has tried to mitigate some of these issues in the past, but time goes on and nothing changes, despite the Minister’s efforts; ministerial orders are ignored and overruled by HS2, which has come out with legions of excuses. If it cannot deliver for my constituents, how can it deliver for the country? My faith in this scheme is fundamentally undermined, as is my faith in the business case.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate and on giving the House a chance to confront a couple of important choices. She is right to say that nettles need to be grasped and bullets bitten, but I think she has chosen the wrong nettles and bullets, and I will explain why in the next few minutes.
As is traditional now, the argument against HS2 is couched in terms of value for money. In any value-for-money calculation, the money is easy to calculate, but the value is much harder to put your finger on. There were arguments in a previous debate about the Treasury Green Book, which is not a wide-ranging analysis. If we measure what we treasure, we will clearly see that HS2 is one of the best value-for-money projects that this country has contemplated for many years.
I will in a moment.
Coming from Birmingham, what I treasure above all is jobs. We have had the slowest jobs recovery since the financial crisis of any city region, and HS2 will bring lots and lots of jobs, not at some distant point in the future but over the next five years. It will bring something like 33,000 jobs around Curzon Street and 77,000 jobs around Birmingham Interchange, in addition to the 30,000 jobs that will be created on the line at peak. This is the most important fiscal stimulus outside London and the south-east. Indeed, if we were to cancel HS2, I would bet my bottom dollar that we would put the midlands back into recession within a year.
The former Secretary of State is right to make that point, because a number of significant businesses are now relocating to what is the worst unemployment hotspot in the country; the worst unemployment and youth unemployment in the country is in and around east Birmingham. We have a chance ahead of us to wipe out that youth unemployment, but only if we grasp the nettle and drive through HS2.
My right hon. Friend makes a brilliant case. If anything, he underestimates the result. When the Transport Committee went to France to look at the impact of the TGV, it found that the go-ahead cities that used the high-speed lines got huge extra investment that had not been calculated in the original assessment. Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are all go-ahead cities, so I expect more jobs than my right hon. Friend says.
Precisely. If we measure what we treasure, and if we treasure jobs, HS2 is, frankly, a project that we need.
However, that is not all I treasure; I also treasure tangible action to decarbonise our economy and our region. I want the west midlands to lead the first zero carbon revolution. Back in 1712, when the Newcomen engine was demonstrated up at Dudley castle, we sparked the carbon revolution the first time around. We need a radical plan that allows us to move trucks off the road and on to rail. Only with the capacity that comes with HS2 can we reopen 36 new freight lines that can take a million lorries off the road each year. We cannot de-clog the M6, the M5 or the M42 unless we get that freight off the road. It is impossible to see how we can drive forward the decarbonisation of a sector that contributes 40% of our carbon emissions each year if we do not drive ahead with HS2.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s aspirations, but for Scotland. To meet the UK-wide net zero carbon targets we have set for 2050, we need to make sure that these new rail lines work for the entire country. Does he agree that we need to review HS2, not only on its business case, but on making sure that it works for the entire United Kingdom and connects the powerhouses in the midlands with the true northern powerhouse, which is of course Scotland?
I am all for that, so long as it does not introduce a moment of delay in driving this forward. Frankly, our economy cannot have any further delay.
I treasure a project that puts the west midlands at the centre of this economy. I particularly treasure the speed, which will result in a journey time of something like 65 minutes from Birmingham International to Canary Wharf, the most important business site in the country, via the connection at Old Oak Common.
The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire advanced the traditional bang-for-buck argument, which is that if we got rid of HS2, there would be plenty of bucks left for other kinds of projects. I have to say that that is not fiscal realpolitik at all. The fiscal realpolitik will mean that money currently earmarked for HS2 will be quickly absorbed into other projects, and Opposition Members will be forgiven for worrying that it will disappear into the £10 billion-a-year tax cut proposed by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson).
The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire was right to demand choices, but the choices that she proposes are wrong. The real strategic transport choice that this country must confront is not between HS2 and other rail network lines, but between planes and trains. We should drive ahead with HS2 and cancel the ludicrous decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport for £14 billion. We could use half that money to build a high-speed loop and take passengers from Heathrow to Birmingham, where there is already untapped capacity for 17 million passenger movements a year.
Around the world, a trillion-dollar high-speed rail revolution is under way, and we are being left behind. It is time that this country got on with it.
With that in mind, Mr Hosie, I endorse wholeheartedly everything said by the first three speakers, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who truly eviscerated the business case for HS2. I politely disagree with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). I do not feel that £100 billion is worth some jobs in Birmingham; there may be ways to assist with employment in Birmingham other than by spending £100 billion of taxpayers’ money. [Interruption.] I do not have time to go through all his arguments in detail, but I look forward to talking to him firmly about it later.
I will make two brief points. The first is romantic, which I make no apology for. We love our area. It is fair to say that some objections to HS2 are a form of—
No, I will carry on, if I may; I have no time.
I reject the nimbyism argument. We are building far more houses in my constituency than in the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill’s, finishing three a day at the moment. We embraced the Oxford-Birmingham canal in the 1790s, we embraced the M40 30 years ago and we broadly welcome east-west rail in our area. We are not against large national infrastructure projects, but we object to large national infrastructure projects with no real benefit, for us or for the nation as a whole. We feel that strongly.
As a former civil servant, the rational argument, as opposed to the romantic one, is that the process to set up HS2 causes me real pain and worry. Frankly, the Committee corridor deals done at the time of the Select Committee stink. They set neighbour against neighbour on purpose, and it was not a pleasant experience to watch. There has been a continual lack of engagement and transparency from HS2. I have a list of questions to which I have repeatedly demanded answers, and it shows no sign of taking me seriously or engaging with me. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) had a very interesting wake-up call when she made a freedom of information request to find out what it felt about her personally. I have not yet grown a thick enough skin to make a freedom of information request about my name and HS2, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire has not, either.
It is disgusting that taxpayers’ money is being spent on an organisation that behaves this badly. In short, HS2 is a white elephant that is trampling over the dreams and aspirations of my constituents and I cannot support it.
I will be very brief —unlike HS2, I plan to run to a timetable. The project could, should and would have worked had it been run properly. Instead, we have burned through £10 billion of taxpayers’ money, including some £600 million for consultants—£600 million for consultants, but not one mile of track laid. If the UK Government want to see how to run an infrastructure project, they should look no further than the SNP Government and our investment of more than £8 billion in Scotland’s railways, including the border railway, the longest new domestic railway to be built in Britain in more than 100 years, on time and on budget. Thank you and goodnight.
What can I say after that contribution, other than that it is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Hosie? I also thank the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for bringing forward today’s debate in a very candid way.
It is absolutely right that this House scrutinises HS2. I have listened carefully to the debate, and it is absolutely clear that the objection is rooted not so much in the actual scheme as in the governance of it, and I, too, have put question marks over the governance and management of it. Some of that sits fairly and squarely with the Secretary of State and the fact that he is not doing his job of calling HS2 to account. Therefore, it will be absolutely right that, on Monday, hon. Members from across the House support my amendment calling for greater scrutiny of the project. I very much hope that they will join me in the Lobby.
I take issue with the fact that a number of non-disclosure agreements have been issued. We want there to be real transparency. That is about calling management to account for the way they are handling the employment situation in their organisation. It is absolutely right that those questions are asked of HS2 and that it is brought to account for that.
I want now to set out Labour’s position on the whole project. Connectivity and reliability must be at the heart of our railway system. There have been problems, and we need to make improvements. We are determined to do that through our enhancement programme. HS2 should not be segregated; it needs to be integrated into our rail enhancement work, and that is certainly what we want to do. We want to see more capacity built across our railways.
Our driving force is, first and foremost, to decarbonise our transport system. Currently, 29% of emissions come from our transport system, and we are in fact seeing regression on carbon reduction, not least with the deeply ecologically and environmentally damaging road building programme—road investment strategy 2—that the Government propose. We want to see good public transport investment, and certainly that is what people will get under a Labour Government.
We want to drive modal shift. It is so important to have people moving from their cars on to our rail network—we see that as comprising the main arteries of our transport system. But crucially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) said, we need lorries coming off the roads and freight moving on to rail. HS2 provides an opportunity to ensure that we have the good connectivity—
I am afraid I do not have time.
There is an opportunity to have good connectivity between ports and airports and to ensure that we can bring that right through to urban consolidation centres and then to the final mile. We need to seriously decarbonise our transport system using rail.
We want skills to be at the heart of this opportunity as we build the rail network for the future, and that brings me to one of the questions I have for the Minister today. In the light of Hinkley point being behind schedule and of the number of infrastructure projects the Government have planned, we have a bell curve whereby we have a peak in demand for skills but not the skills to match that. How will she ensure that there are sufficient skills for this project, particularly given that, at its peak, it will provide jobs for 30,000 people? We need to ensure that the project is not delayed because of poor infrastructure planning across the economy.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), who made a most excellent speech, about ensuring that we measure what we treasure. This is about jobs. Certainly on the Labour Benches, we believe that it is important that we invest in high-quality jobs for those areas of the country that have been missed out to date. Therefore, inward investment in the northern towns and cities, and in the midlands—east and west—will be vital to rebirthing our economy in those areas. At the moment, they are in a lot of pain because we have not seen that investment.
We have a real opportunity, but it has to be managed properly. Building capacity across our transport system is really important. We need sustained freight paths. Part of this will also be about seeing growth in patronage and ensuring that we reduce journey times. We need to lead that right into Scotland to ensure that we can see that modal shift from plane on to train. That is the larger vision of where we are going. But we would also do things differently; we make no bones about that. For instance, with parkway stations, it does not make sense that people have to drive to get the connectivity with the rail network. We would very much want to seek urban connection points; we believe that the situation needs to be reviewed.
The final phase of the project—the 2b stage—has to be fully integrated with trans-Pennine connectivity. This should be one project, not two segregated projects; it needs integrating. We hear that call from Transport for the North, and we hear it now from HS2, and we certainly hear the call from politicians across the north that it is time we brought those projects together into one. There are proposals for constructing things differently from the current Y shape and for making this much more about ensuring, first and foremost, that we get the connectivity across the north. The case was made very clearly in the House of Lords through the paper “Rethinking High Speed 2”, and we would certainly support that.
With regard to the way we proceed on this project, we believe that the missing piece, which is crucial, is that the project is not peer-reviewed. It must be peer-reviewed independently to ensure, first, that the engineering is right and, secondly, that the value is right. That is where the lack of accountability sits. Once we have that information before the House, we can make a sound judgment on whether the project will deliver the value, the jobs and the opportunity for conurbations across this country. Until that occurs, we will put a serious question mark over the governance and over this Government’s handling of the project. We believe that it could be in a different place. Certainly on the issue of cost—the cost financially, but also the cost to the environment—we need to ensure that all these measures are properly brought into check as we move forward in improving scrutiny.
On Monday, we have an opportunity to review phase 2a in relation to the Bill. Labour will bring forward amendments on Report, and we very much hope that people who believe there should be greater scrutiny, governance and accountability of HS2 will join us in the Lobby to ensure that we put in place the right checks and balances for this project, to drive up the very treasure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill mentioned.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate. I am honoured to be responding to her first Back-Bench debate —I was hoping that it would be on far more compatible terms, but we will have to agree to disagree on a number of the issues under discussion.
The debate provides an opportunity to reinforce the importance of HS2 not only for its capacity or for shortening rail journeys, but for fundamentally boosting the economy and smashing the north-south divide. My right hon. Friend has been a strong advocate for her constituency regarding the impact of the line there. She has quietly and diligently worked behind the scenes to communicate her concerns to the Department for Transport. I value the opportunity to put this on the record for her constituents to see.
When the argument changed from speed to capacity, does the Minister agree that there were more options, which could have been considered, to deliver that more quickly and cheaply, and provide greater benefit to our constituents? We are trying to predict rail usage in the distant future, but we have seen huge technological advances since the project was announced in 2009.
The business case has not moved from speed to capacity. People hooked on to the speed aspect in the early days, because it was seen as a shiny new train, but capacity, job creation, skilling up and smashing the north-south divide were always important aspects. If hon. Members fixated on one point and now realise there are many more, that is for them to come to terms with.
My right hon. Friend is a huge source of knowledge on this issue, as he is a former Secretary of State for Transport. He is right that all of those arguments have always been there. Unfortunately, people fixated on one or two points and now they are rather surprised that a large infrastructure project, which moves people from A to B, has many other positive impacts.
One of my constituents, who was recognised as a whistleblower on HS2 and was featured on the “Panorama” programme, cited several problems with the assumptions used in the original business case. What are the Government doing to address those issues? They were raised and it went to the Public Accounts Committee. There are a number of follow-up questions still to be answered.
Will the Minister make public the number of non-disclosure agreements, settled agreements, compromise agreements or any other arrangements, which include non-disclosure provisions with former staff members? Can she confirm that funding from an unauthorised redundancy payment scheme operated by HS2 was used to fund some or all settlement or compromise agreements with former senior staff, and that in some cases those staff were regarded as having made serious protected disclosures as to their concerns—this is the same point made by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham)—over HS2’s financial statements? If she cannot answer today, will she write to me with detailed answers before the summer recess?
I know that NDAs are a particularly sore point for the Labour party right now, but we regularly engage with local authorities, sharing work at the early design stage with them, which is why they use NDAs, especially during the planning phase. They are used to protect commercially sensitive and personal information. I will take the point about using taxpayers’ money on the chin. We need to ensure that we are always using taxpayers’ money properly and transparently. We always hold HS2’s feet to the fire on all of those issues. I am happy to put all of this in writing, and to answer in writing any further questions that the hon. Gentleman has.
I do not want the Minister to be in any doubt that worries about NDAs come from only one side of the House. On the Conservative Benches, we are equally concerned about the governance of HS2. NDAs are a real concern to us in getting to the bottom of what is going on.
As I mentioned, NDAs are used to deal with commercially sensitive or personal information. This is a large project involving a large chain of people and companies. We will put into the public domain any information that we can. We will respond to all queries from Members of Parliament within the allotted time.
Arguments have been made for and against HS2. I want to explain why this Government are committed to HS2. Every time the House has voted on this project, the Government have always won with a stomping majority. Our current infrastructure is 150 years old. It is an overstretched Victorian network. Passenger numbers have doubled in the past 20 years, and on key routes in the west coast inter-city corridor they are set to triple.
We have an overused and overcrowded railway, which is also one of the oldest. With HS2 in place, we can deal with the pressures on express trains, freight trains and slower local commuter services, which are already operating at peak capacity. That is just one of the reasons why HS2 is crucial: to solve our chronic capacity problems. I was intrigued by the argument that there will not be as many passengers using our railway network in the future. I hope this Government will not make the argument for people to stand still, but will encourage people to go out for social and work reasons.
HS2 is a new dedicated railway for fast inter-city express services, no longer encumbered by the inevitable inefficiencies associated with mixed-use lines, which will also free up huge capacity on the existing railway for more local trains, including for services to places such as Milton Keynes. In fact, 70% of the jobs created across our economy will be outside London, bringing prosperity to the north and the midlands, just as the first railways did, and not only to the cities on the high-speed line. HS2 trains will call at over 25 stations across the UK, from London to Scotland. It has already created 9,000 jobs and 200 apprenticeships. We expect that to rise to 30,000 jobs at peak construction, including over 2,000 new apprentices, many of whom will be trained at the national colleges in Doncaster and Birmingham.
In 2009, the Labour Secretary of State for Transport, Geoffrey Hoon, said that
“a new company, High Speed 2, has been formed to develop the case for high-speed services between London and Scotland.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 144.]
Will this Conservative Government reinstate that aspiration?