Tuesday 29 October 2019
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
Colne to Skipton Railway Link
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed reinstatement of the Colne to Skipton railway link.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. It is interesting that the Government have sent the heavy rail Minister to respond to the debate. I hope he will make the commitments to Colne-Skipton that we all want, about long-overdue investment. It is of course my role, as Member of Parliament for Hyndburn, to champion prosperity and encourage investment in the area for the people I represent. That is why I have been so vocal on the issue. If we reinstate transport in the area—particularly the rail link—it will provide an opportunity for east Lancashire and beyond. I thank all the MPs who have come to the debate, and the council leaders and campaigners who have brought the campaign to the place where it is today—where a serious proposition is being considered. That is testimony to their hard work. I particularly want to thank Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership for the campaign that it has run over many years, which is appreciated by all in east Lancashire and west Yorkshire.
What we are talking about is 12 miles of railway, which stands between east Lancashire and west Yorkshire—a third trans-Pennine artery that connects the two, which was taken away many years ago. It would not take a great deal of money to put that rail link back. At the heart of the issue, for many constituents, is the north-south divide. There is a grievance about the fact that little money is spent in the north, and particularly in the area I am concerned with.
My hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on rail and on the matter in question. She was at the forefront of campaigning to reinstate the Manchester link, from east Lancashire—albeit it is a second-rate one; at least we have got it now. She is quite right. The Institute for Public Policy Research has said that in London, for instance, £708 is spent on transport per head of population, but the average is £289 for the entire north of England. No wonder there is a north-south divide. People in the north see Crossrail 1, which is not yet completed, and Crossrail 2 already set up. That is after past projects such as Heathrow, Thameslink, and even Westminster tube station. All of that investment has cost the Exchequer billions of pounds, and there has been little for the north. It is right that people in the north feel that the Government should commit to the small stretch of 12 miles that we are discussing.
I hear arguments all the time about whether the reinstatement of the line would be economically viable. When will we use different indices for transport investment? The deprivation figures came out two weeks ago and the sub-region in question is the poorest in the country. If an economic case is to be made, there will never be an economic case for the poorest sub-region; at best it will be marginal, so there will never be investment and the indices will continue to plummet as they have. At some point the Government must step back and say that deprivation indices are a reason to invest. That would be the case in most other countries. It would be a question, not of using an economic model about the viability of the line, but of whether we are investing in people. That is the question: are we investing in people, instead of trying to count pounds, shillings and pence and reinvest in London and the south?
I am reluctant to say this under the chairmanship of the senior Merseyside Member, but although my constituency is in the Liverpool City Region, all points north and east, from railway stations such as Rainford, Garswood and Newton, go outside Merseyside. In my constituency people feel a strong Lancashire identity. Will my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of his constituency and of transport in the north, agree that we should work across boundary lines as the old county of Lancashire on issues of transport?
My hon. Friend makes two points. First, St Helens is occupied Lancashire and needs to be liberated. He is right to say that St Helens looks north towards Lancashire, but there is also a serious point to be made about the importance of connecting east Lancashire to the port of Merseyside and the support that we get from Peel Ports, which involves passing through constituencies such as St Helens North. It is also about giving people in St Helens the opportunity to look in all directions—particularly north—and to have an east-west link available through Preston and the East Lancashire line and over the Pennines. My hon. Friend is right to raise that. The north-west itself benefits from any transport infrastructure investment, wherever it is, because it allows more mobility.
Before I discuss the line itself, I want to conclude what I was saying about the Government’s broken economic model, which is just about pounds, shillings and pence, and all the investments in the south. We apply that metric to railways but not to anything else. The Government are happy to hand out grants for town centres or housing, with no expectation of any return. However, as soon as it comes to the railways, there is an expectation of an economic model with some return. The Government abandon the policy that they apply in other cases for deprived areas. I do not understand the logic of that. Surely the logic should be that if transport will bring prosperity, industry, jobs and wages, that is what we should subsidise. We should subsidise rail investment and the railways if we want to lift people out of deprivation—not titivate town centres or whatever else the Government hand out grant money to. The current system for looking at investment is broken.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about investing in prosperity and people. The Todmorden curve link is an example of what he has said. It took years of campaigning to get that short link, but the evidence in Burnley and east Lancashire is that completing that section of railway has brought investment and much-needed jobs to the region.
My hon. Friend is right. I do not have to hand the figures for Manchester Road station in Burnley, which is on that link. It is a circuitous route. It is not the old 30 minutes direct into Manchester; it is 60 minutes. None the less, passenger numbers at Accrington station have gone from, I think, 289,000 to 469,000— or thereabouts. I may be corrected afterwards, but it is not far off. That is a huge increase in numbers since the line was put in. The reinstatement of Colne-Skipton could only add to patronage and use of the lines, and investment in those areas.
The reinstatement would probably cost about £360 million. Let me talk about that number. The Government think that £360 million for a deprived area would probably not be money well spent. Not only would it be an investment in people, but if the railway is there for 100 years it comes to £360,000 a year. That would be the capital cost, instead of millions for titivating town centres. I might compare that with my local clinical commissioning group, which spends almost £1 billion in the east Lancashire area annually. We must get some perspective. There is serious ill health and deprivation in the area, but we are reluctant to invest in people and we try to cut margins on the railway. Economically that does not stand up. The Government’s policy of investing in other things and giving away grant money seems to me to be a case of looking in the wrong direction. We should be investing where it matters.
There are a lot of MPs here to support the proposition that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward, and I am glad to add my support. Does he agree that the secret to investment in any area is connectivity, which he has referred to, and that the key to that is a functioning railway line? Does he further agree that the proposed reopening of this line would enable not only better commuting, but more investment potential for these two towns and indeed the whole area, which should be the primary reason for the Government to pursue this proposal?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right; all these little bits of links, as I mentioned in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), add value to other sub-regions; they are not just an advantage or an addition for that particular sub-region. These things really matter, and with this particular line we are talking about potentially connecting the port of Hull with the port of Liverpool for manufacturing and the shipment of goods, as well as passenger services. That has a broad connectivity that goes beyond east Lancashire, which is why there is support all the way from Merseyside to Hull for the reinstatement of this line.
Yet we are sitting here with 12 miles missing in the middle, between Skipton and Colne. I want to see that line upgraded to a twin-track railway for freight—I think it is gauge 12, although I will stand corrected if it is not—and built to modern standards. We need to put back that line, which was cut in 1970, because it will connect two big industrial heartlands and provide opportunity for both passengers and freight. The decision to cut the line back in 1970 was a terrible one, which has mirrored the deprivation indices for east Lancashire, but since then we have seen an increase in passenger numbers on Britain’s railways. In fact, they have doubled.
That is certainly what would happen here. Think of the Borders Railway: what a success it has been. The Government said it would not be a success and ScotRail said it would, and who was right? It was not the people in Westminster or the people in the Department for Transport; they were wrong. The people who were right were the people north of the border. That line has been a huge success, and there should be a lesson there to us all about listening to mandarins in Whitehall instead of investing in and listening to local people.
Most of the route between Skipton and Colne is flat and level, and can be walked in a few hours. Some bridges need to be rebuilt, and in a couple of places—particularly at Earby—major road works are needed. However, in the words of the DFT’s 2018 report presented to the Transport Minister last December, there are “no showstoppers” preventing us from putting those12 miles back.
As I said previously, the Skipton to Colne link has widespread support throughout the local community. It is important to say that it is also backed regionally and by businesses, and regularly features in the media. I think it is on the list of 13 schemes that the Government are considering for rail line reinstatement. The campaign has more than 500 individual paid-up members and 50 businesses are signed up, as well as other organisations. Key businesses include Peel Ports, Drax—which is having problems getting to the power plant there—and Skipton Building Society, among many.
The project also has the support of all the MPs in the area. I note that the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) is here; he is a campaigner for the rail link and I pay credit to his campaigning, as I do to that of others—I do not think there is anybody, either candidate or MP, who is against the reinstatement. We have even had co-operation from Yorkshire, and that is remarkable. We just need some signs saying, “Welcome to Lancashire” when we reinstate the line.
On the point about the widespread support for this project, does my hon. Friend agree that it is hugely disappointing that the former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), visited and made some very positive comments, which raised hopes in the area, only to have them dashed recently?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have had highs and lows on this issue that we should not have had. There has been a bit of dither and it has gone on for too long; today’s debate is about asking the Minister to make a firm commitment as we are going into a general election.
Returning to look at the service more widely, if passenger services were to go on the new Skipton to Colne railway line, they would be building on an existing success story. The Airedale line, which runs from Leeds and Bradford via Shipley and Keighley to Skipton, was modernised in the 1990s. Since then it has seen strong growth, and the Airedale line train services are now very popular. Last year alone, over 1.2 million passengers used Skipton station. The Airedale line is often described by experts as the flagship railway line of the north, and we need just 12 miles to connect to that.
It seems very straightforward that this line should go in and connect to such a successful railway line, just 12 miles away. What it would bring to the towns of Pendle, Burnley, my own Accrington and the Hyndburn constituency, with a population in excess of a quarter of a million, would be a remarkable transformation. We would be on a new network with new opportunities. That is not an insignificant population; it is a significant population in the immediate catchment area alone. I do not include Blackburn, Ribble Valley or Preston, which are also on the line—in fact, the line goes right through to Blackpool—and would also benefit, as would areas further afield, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North has said of St Helens.
The project will help not only east Lancashire, but the north-west and the north, so we must look at the wider advantages. There is a sticking-point at Earby, I admit, but as the DFT report says, I do not think this is a deal-breaker. A solution must be found that will minimise the impact on local residents, and I am mindful of that, but it is not something that cannot be overcome by engineers.
I will return briefly to mention that freight and manufacturing is a crucial issue. This is a manufacturing area; I often hear the hon. Member for Pendle say that east Lancashire is a manufacturing hub, but if it is a manufacturing hub, why do we not have a freight rail link in? Why are we not investing in this line and managing to ship goods around the world via the two ports east and west of east Lancashire? I am asking the question. Having the heavy rail Minister here, as I pointed out earlier, is important, because we must not do what is being suggested and put in light rail passenger transport. We must invest for the future, for business, for manufacturing and for prosperity—not just to transport passengers around.
I will touch on an important point at this stage. Network Rail has said to me in reply that it does not have a freight rail terminal anywhere near east Lancashire. There is an ideal site at Huncoat power station in my Hyndburn constituency, a brownfield site that is being redeveloped. I ask the Minister to comment on this: while I know these are matters for the private sector, if those 12 miles go in for heavy goods and the Government actively invest in this rail line, it is obvious that they should actively pursue a rail freight terminal for east Lancashire.
We have the road network, which at certain times is not full to capacity—a long way short of capacity, particularly in the evenings. It would serve the manufacturing base of east Lancashire if this line were put back in to the ports and beyond and we had that rail freight terminal. That is a crucial issue. If we are going to put the investment in, let us put in the other corresponding investments too.
If the project was given the go-ahead in early 2020, we could expect a new passenger service to be running as early as 2025-26. This is not a massive scheme for the DFT. It is something that we, as a nation and as a region, should be pursuing, and we should be pursuing it actively, not hesitating or holding back. This conversation has gone on for too long.
As I come to the end of my comments, I note that the proposal is backed by Transport for the North, which has provided evidence that the scheme should go ahead. It has published its report on the strategic transport plan for the next 30 years, the TfN STP, which has conclusively shown that there will be a massive and transformational boost to the deprived economy of east Lancashire, should this reinstatement go ahead. That will be achieved by bringing all of east Lancashire within one hour of central Leeds and Bradford, and improving connectivity with elsewhere. The scheme has TfN’s full support, which is worth saying, and it is part of the section of TfN’s investment programme titled: “Specific Interventions before 2027—Proposed Early Phases of Northern Powerhouse Rail and Additional TfN Priorities”. TfN is an active stakeholder, along with the Department for Transport and Network Rail, trying to help and input into the development of the scheme.
I say this with a general election possibly around the corner: we in the Labour party have committed to reinstating this link for heavy rail without hesitation. Furthermore, we have committed to electrifying this line, which is needed because the Airedale lane is electrified. I am also pretty certain that the Labour party will support private sector investment in a freight rail terminal in my constituency.
We need to move quickly, for Britain, the north and this region, but we also need to look beyond: when the east Lancs line is done, we need to start looking at the Accrington to Stubbins connection. We need to put back what was taken away and make these once-proud towns proud again. Let us put in the investment that they deserve. When the cotton industry was thriving, 25% of our economy’s foreign currency exports were derived from it and off the backs of those workers. They deserve better today, and that investment should be put in. We in the Labour party are committed to doing so as a matter of course.
Finally, I am interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those deprived communities and how he can stop their fall down the deprivation ladder. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley is here. Burnley is the eighth most deprived town in the country, Blackburn is ninth and my constituency of Hyndburn is 16th. The hon. Member for Pendle is here, and he can perhaps say where Pendle is on the ladder; I think it is about 20th or 22nd. Those four constituencies, which would benefit from the proposed line, are among the poorest.
This is about investing in people. When we use metrics in considering whether to put those 12 miles of track back in, we should look at life expectancy, which is 10 years lower there than everywhere else, and we should look at the £1 billion cost to the CCG of not investing in people and leaving deprived communities to fail. Given that the railway will last for 100 years, we should not look at the small amount of £360 million and say that there is no economic return, and effectively—as happened on Merseyside—throw these people under a bus. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reply.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. As a former Transport Minister, I wish to make a few comments.
The biggest challenge facing our rail network is dealing with the growth that we are experiencing. Capacity is the biggest question. We have more services on our network now than at any point in British history, with 140,000 services per week, and we have more passengers on our network than ever before, with 1.8 billion passenger journeys per year. That is more than 1 billion more passengers carried on our railways every year since privatisation. A huge transformation has happened in our rail network.
That has been achieved without compromising safety—we have a fantastic safety record, which is obviously at the heart of the rail industry. The challenge is putting more capacity into our network to meet the demand, having turned this industry around from a declining to a succeeding sector. That will be met in a variety of ways. The first, which attracts most attention, is obviously the construction of new lines, including HS2 more than anything else. That is a controversial project for some, but I am a big supporter of it. We will also see capacity delivered via bigger and longer trains. The new rolling stock is transformative—just look at the new Azumas serving the east coast main line. We will also deliver capacity by opening new lines and reopening lines. That is at the heart of this project: reopening an important line that will connect Yorkshire and Lancashire.
I support this project. It is quite: it covers only 12 miles, there is existing trackbed, and it will connect people and jobs. The Minister will consider a variety of good reasons as he takes his work forward, but let me highlight some. First, the area already has congested roads, particularly in Colne—in fact, the M65 seems to end in Boundary Mill’s car park. The rest of Colne can also be quite congested. Improving public transport in the area would be one way to improve the quality of life in Colne.
There is absolutely no doubt that transport is a significant contributor to the carbon in our atmosphere, which is why the Government are taking action. I agree with the hon. Lady’s basic principle, but to say that the Government are not doing anything would be wrong, because there has been record investment in public transport and in our rail network, with the control period 6 budget of £48 billion being the biggest in British history. But yes, the environmental impact of improving rail connections for the people whom this line would serve would be a real enhancement and is one reason why this is a good project.
The economic case was made by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones), and it has been made consistently by the two Members at each end of the proposed line, neither of whom can speak because they are Ministers—one of them is here. The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), is a long-standing champion of the scheme, for all the reasons we have explored in the debate. Improving his area is his top priority. At the other end of the line, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), is also unable to speak, but I know that he is in support. However, it is not only the areas at both ends that the line would serve; transport connections would improve for communities much more widely. That would certainly be true of Burnley and the Aire valley, which would be clear beneficiaries, as would the Hyndburn area.
The trans-Pennine line is critical for the north of England’s economy, but it is congested. The Government are responding with a £2.9 billion trans-Pennine rail upgrade, but to really transform the northern economies we need to add capacity in lots of different ways. The trans-Pennine rail upgrade, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Skipton to Colne line all have a role to play, which is why I am pleased that the Government are taking this project forward through its development phase.
As a former Transport Minister, I have met campaigners and businesses who have been strong in their support for the project. We should pay tribute to their tenacity in keeping going, because it is not always easy to get transport projects off the starting blocks in the United Kingdom, and tenacity is a key ingredient in doing so. I met haulage businesses and people seeking to move significant amounts of freight from one part of the country to another, as well as people who simply recognise that some parts of the north have more vacancies and some parts have people who need work, and that transport is required to connect the two.
I am afraid that I must gently challenge the hon. Member for Hyndburn, who said that the Government are not seeking to invest in the north. If we look at the data published by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and covering the three-year period that we are right in the middle of, we see that the data from the national infrastructure and construction pipeline shows that the northern region has higher per capita transport spending than the midlands or the south—it is £248 per person for the north and £236 per person for the midlands and the south.
We can combine that with the fact that the biggest project currently underway on the railways other than HS2 is the transport and rail upgrade, and we can look at the fact that rolling stock in the north is being renewed for the first time in a generation. In only a few weeks’ time, the Minister will be able to say something that no Rail Minister has been able to say for a generation, which is that trains in the north are of a higher calibre than they have probably ever been, and they will be better than in any other part of our country.
The hon. Gentleman offers a different perspective from that of the Institute for Public Policy Research, which says that there has been a lack of investment in the north. I simply say to him that the public will ask this about the investment that is supposed to be going into the north, “East Lancashire is very deprived; whereabouts in east Lancashire will it go? I am an east Lancashire resident—show me the money.”
I have obviously seen the IPPR reports and the claims made, which frankly I think are not correct. The methodology of its reports is flawed in lots of different ways. That is why it is important to go back to the authoritative figures produced by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which gives us the data.
I think that we need more investment in transport right across the country, because I am a great believer in transport’s ability to drive economic growth, create opportunity and improve the environment. We should not spend time using methodology that is deeply flawed, frankly, simply to make a political point; we should look at the authoritative data, and I have already highlighted the numbers.
I will go back to my point about rolling stock, because this is a great opportunity for the north. We have not had decent rolling stock for a generation. The Pacer trains may have been a good idea at the time, when those who were managing our railways were taking cost out, because they were in precipitate decline. Those trains may have been the right answer then, but they are not the right answer now. That is why it is such a good thing that they are going. Many have already gone—a number went last week. We will see that continue to happen in the weeks ahead. This is not just on Northern; we are seeing new rolling stock fleets across trans-Pennine as well, and the new Azumas are entering service on the east coast main line. The transition from being utterly inadequate to having top-quality new rolling stock in the north is fantastic, and we should celebrate it.
Some of the rolling stock that will be entering service across the north is indeed refurbished rolling stock. The rolling stock entering service on the Leeds-Harrogate-York line is cascaded stock that has been refurbished to a condition that is as good as new, and it is absolutely fantastic. The response from the travelling public of Harrogate has been very positive, because it is a step change from the Pacers, which have served my community for a very long time.
I do not accept the basic position of Opposition Members that the Government have failed to invest in the north and are failing to modernise, because that simply is not true. There is not just the new rolling stock and the trans-Pennine upgrade; we also have the northern hub, which is connecting Piccadilly and Victoria in Manchester. The Todmorden curve opened in 2015, following a £10 million investment, and reconnected Burnley to Manchester—I think that was the first time that service had ever been operated. Those are good examples of investment in east Lancashire that is transforming the local economies, because transport investment is a driver of economic growth. That is why the current Government have been so strong in their consistent delivery of transport investment.
May I close by urging the Rail Minister to press on with his good work as he invests, modernises the railway and recognises the benefits that it brings to communities right across the UK? This is one project that has to be considered and taken forward, for all the positive reasons that we have discussed in this debate so far, and which has been championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle and others right across the area. As the hon. Member for Hyndburn said, it has support right across the political spectrum, at local and national level. For those reasons, I urge the Minister to press on.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), a fellow Member of Parliament from Yorkshire. He made a very knowledgeable speech. Indeed, it was a statesmanlike speech, following the statesmanlike speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.
I am a relative newcomer to this issue, on the basis that I was not re-elected to Parliament until 2017, but I have asked a number of questions on the issue, and I notice that every time I or someone else asks a question from the Labour side, there is quite rightly somewhere in the answer the line, “I am sure the hon. Member will recognise the contributions of the hon. Members for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith).” I do indeed recognise that. This is an all-party campaign. We even had Northern Ireland backing us earlier in the debate. The campaign certainly unites the great counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire like nothing else.
I have discussed the issue a couple of times with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. Obviously, he was formerly the Government Chief Whip. I saw him on the Airedale line two or three times on a Friday evening. I would be going to the pub; he would be going back down to London to run the country. But we would have a word about this scheme, to which he is committed. In a way, I am surprised, given such heavyweight commitment and given that it is now two years since the feasibility study was announced, that more rapid progress has not been made. Obviously, I understand that people such as my good friend and parliamentary neighbour the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon have had other things on their mind, but I say gently that we do now need to advance this cause more rapidly.
There are advantages to the Skipton to Colne scheme—we have heard some of them mentioned—that other schemes do not have. One is speed, the potential to implement this scheme speedily is something that no other trans-Pennine option has. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn mentioned, the line closed in 1970. The tragedy is that it survived Beeching and then was closed in 1970. It was opened in 1848. I was interested in hearing about potential dates, if we could get going, as to when it could be reopened. We should certainly commit today to start having the line rebuilt to celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2023, because unlike other lines that potentially could take freight across the Pennines, it has a relatively short-term horizon.
The economic growth arguments have been well made, but they apply equally across the Pennines in Yorkshire. It would be a massive economic boost if people from my constituency of Keighley could commute to Manchester—could have the option not just of Leeds and Bradford, but of Manchester. There could be holiday traffic to Manchester airport as well. This scheme could provide a great economic boost to Yorkshire as well as Lancashire.
I, too, place on the record my particular thanks to SELRAP. The last six months have been a strange period for those of us who have been campaigning on this issue, because all sorts of reports have been coming out about the nature of the Government’s feasibility study; all sorts of rumours have been coming out. I want more than rumours. SELRAP has been briefed, as have other stakeholders, by Government officials and Network Rail, but Ministers have been reluctant to put the information formally in the public domain. I therefore have a series of questions, on which I hope Ministers can help us.
What is the estimated cost of this scheme? My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn mentioned a figure of £200 million or £300 million. Some rumours are that the Steer consultants are saying that it is more like £800 million or £900 million. Unless we can see the report, it is hard to analyse it.
There has been a great deal of debate about freight. Officials have intimated that the case for freight does not yet stack up and they are now going to look at other potential freight routes across the Pennines and how long it would take to implement them. I would have thought that after two years that work would already have been done.
Estimates for passenger traffic are now in the public domain. SELRAP tells me that the consultant’s estimates for a new park-and-ride station at Earby is a mere 40,000. Well, I am told that at Colne there are already 80,000 passengers a year, with poor rail links to the rest of Lancashire and Manchester. Skipton has 1.2 million passengers a year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn mentioned. There is strong support from industry, but SELRAP tells me that Peel Ports and Drax were not formally interviewed by the consultants until this September.
I watched the rugby this weekend, as I am sure many others did. South Africa were holding on against Wales in the last few minutes, looking to kick into touch. Some campaigners are saying—I cannot possibly believe it—that the officials are intimating that this scheme is not being rigorously pursued and that Ministers are looking for the touchline until a general election. I would not credit myself with such cynicism. There are growing fears among some campaigners that this is not a priority, but it should be a priority.
Across the parties, we share a belief that the towns of the north, as opposed to the great cities, have not had a great deal. The towns fund is welcome. The prospectus for the towns fund comes out this week, with £25 million for Shipley and Keighley. I am very grateful for that, but this scheme would trump that in economic benefit. It would be a symbol of the Government’s commitment to towns. Whatever happens in the election, I hope that we can make rapid progress on this.
I had a brief chat with the shadow Chancellor recently, who reminded me that he signed an early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Pendle in 2012. The shadow Chancellor was in the top six signatures, such was his commitment. The hon. Member for Pendle managed to get an eclectic group in the top six. He also managed to attract the support of George Galloway, so there definitely was broad support. I was pleased to see that.
Transport for the North has been mentioned. It is important. Whichever Government are in office after the next election, Transport for the North needs to go to the next stage. As well as being a partner for Government, it needs to be a strong advocate for the north and, if necessary, take a slightly different line from Whitehall. It is a challenge for John Cridland, who chairs that group. He is coming to the end of his five-year term in 2020. He was at the Confederation of British Industry for five years. He said he was a “Star Trek” fan at that point and believed in five-year journeys. I do not know whether he believes in a second term at Transport for the North.
I understand that John Cridland is on the Government’s review of high-speed rail. It is interesting that he wears those two hats. If he suggests that high-speed rail will not go to Yorkshire or, if it does, that it will go via Manchester, it will be an interesting position for the man who chairs Transport for the North and is meant to be an advocate for the north. I think he has a chance, on this issue, to come out and publicly say, “Transport for the North won’t brook further delays from Network Rail or the Department for Transport but wants a decision this year.” We might get an election for Christmas—we will have to see what happens today—but above all we want the Skipton to Colne line to get the go-ahead by the new year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) for securing this debate. In his characteristic style, he set out a concrete case for the Skipton-Colne line. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this crucial debate, which is really about the future economy of the whole of the north. It is a pleasure to respond to this debate.
We are talking about just 12 miles of railway. Investment in this piece of infrastructure could be transformative for the north; that is why Labour has committed to that as part of our rail enhancement programme. If there is to be a general election, we will be eager to press ahead with this scheme, which is about rebalancing the economy. It will not only provide crucial opportunities to transport passengers and goods, but transform our economy and the opportunities for people in constituencies such as those that my hon. Friends represent.
We see major investment in the ports in Liverpool and on the Humber, but we must get the connectivity between them right. When I have discussed this with Transport for the North, it has stressed the importance of improving the trans-Pennine route, to which, I regret to say, the Government have not given the necessary enhancement for freight passage, which is important for establishing an east-west connection. The Skipton-Colne line—the west-east line—will complete the circle, ensuring that we get proper transportation.
I have spoken to businesses in the north, particularly Drax, which would benefit greatly. It says that the line would not only bring about improvements in the transportation of biomass along the transatlantic route to Liverpool, but improve the resilience of the infrastructure. Drax also depends on Immingham port, but we know that there are flooding risks there, so to secure our energy supply, we need to ensure there is an opportunity in the east and the west. At the moment, if biomass travels around our country, it either goes south, via Birmingham, or further north. These 12 miles of connectivity would make such a difference to Drax, which receives around 24 consignments each day. There would be the opportunity for storage of additional biomass along the line, which would build up the resilience of our energy sector, so this is an important project for us.
If the trans-Pennine route had a full upgrade, it would deliver for not only freight but passengers. Reliability is no longer a consideration for this Government, but it absolutely would be for Labour. Labour committed to electrification, and then the Government did, too; but then they withdraw that offer. This is a crucial project. We can go further than that: if we get freight connectivity right, we can reinvest and make the northern powerhouse actually happen, because this is about the wider economy in the north.
We need a modal shift for freight from roads to rail. That is crucial because of the environmental catastrophe facing our planet, for which we are responsible. Around a third of our carbon footprint is in the transport sector. The Government have not made the necessary progress on that. We believe that modal shift will be a game changer. In the transport sector, we need a 15% reduction of our carbon expenditure, year on year, for the next 10 years. The shift from road to rail, not only for passengers, but particularly for goods, will make a big difference.
We want to open up opportunities. Labour is putting forward a smart logistics strategy that not only connects industry to the rail freight sector, but opens up more opportunities for light freight and the accompanying development of rolling stock. We also provide for a transition between passengers and goods; we will look at peaks and flows in usage and time, so that rolling stock can accommodate both. We will ensure that far more goods can be transported across the network, while also investing in passenger enhancements. Of course, Labour’s plan, which, we must remind ourselves, will bring rail back into public ownership, so that the public have real control over our network, will also ensure connectivity across the network, which will bring the enhancements that people want.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn reminded us about the investment issues. I have to agree with him that, as the research shows, the north has not been well served. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) raised the issue of Pacer trains; I have to relate my experience from the weekend. I was on a Pacer train travelling from York, and of course rain was pouring in through the ceiling. It is 2019! That shows the challenges that we face with our trains in the north. We need to ensure that things move forward.
We have a genuine opportunity here to invest in freight. The line will play a crucial role in rail infrastructure, which will result in the growth of new manufacturing and reinvestment in industry in the north. Of course, if we have strong freight paths, manufacturing can become more reliant on just-in-time manufacturing processes, smart logistics, as I have highlighted, and the movement of goods on our railways.
It is vital that that economic opportunity is brought to the north. The whole northern powerhouse investment in rail, including the trans-Pennine rail route upgrade and investment in the Skipton-Colne route, could bring around 850,000 good-quality jobs to the north. We Labour MPs understand the value of that; it is in the title of our party. This is about investment delivering for local people. We want growth in those opportunities.
We also want the development of new passenger routes. We need to make sure that new housing developments are connected to our main infrastructure. We want better connectivity in planning across the country, to ensure that all investments, including in the economy and in housing, are linked to our rail network. We would then have a strong passenger offer and a strong goods offer; our infrastructure investment will deliver both those things.
I also highlight the opportunity that establishing the right connectivity between ports in the east and the west will bring about in the wider economy of the country. We are a crucial link between the rest of Europe and the Atlantic and Ireland. Better connectivity through the Skipton-Colne route could well mean that we become a proper transport path, whereby goods touch base in our country, and companies use us as a corridor for goods. Again, that is really important for economic growth and opportunity, but will also create a new transport role for the UK in Europe. This investment will not just be expenditure; it will drive revenue for the Treasury, so it is really important that we consider the overall investment programme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn talks about what will happen over the next 100 years. It is worth reminding ourselves that we are coming up to 200 years of the railways. I am sure that the annual spend he calculated will go down significantly if we bear in mind how well we build our railways and their longevity.
My hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (John Grogan), for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Hyndburn have highlighted that this debate is not just about infrastructure, including track and trains; it is very much about people. It is about jobs, opportunities and aspiration, which is very much what Labour wants from any investment.
Network Rail has put forward its proposals, but it is being challenged by Transport for the North, which believes that engineering can be streamlined in such a way that costs can be reduced. We will see what happens with that challenge. However, when we are considering investment, we must think holistically, as my hon. Friends have pointed out. We should consider not just the hardcore infrastructure, but the opportunity that such infrastructure opens up, including opportunity for new investment in jobs, and of course the wider returns.
The proposal before us will be transformative of the north, even though it covers only 12 miles of infrastructure. Labour is absolutely committed to opening up such opportunities for the economy and communities, and to the growth of our railways. We will schedule our enhancement programmes so that they are completed in a sequence that means that they will drive opportunity, not only for cities but, as my hon. Friends have said, for towns.
We will stretch that opportunity over a 30-year planning process. We can then schedule the jobs and the skills required to see real enhancement grow across the network, and to bring revenue back into the Treasury and, of course, the Department for Transport. That will then allow for reinvestment as we grow our public transport and freight paths. We will see that crucial modal shift and the necessary environmental change.
We are really optimistic. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough says that his Government have really invested in public transport; we remind him that, looking at the whole of transport, his Government have cut 3,000 bus routes, and buses play a vital role in building connectivity across the whole transport system.
Yes—I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. They try to justify why so little happened under the long period of Labour Government, when they electrified just 10 miles in 13 years. This Government do not cut bus routes; this Government do not operate bus routes. This Government have actually maintained their support of the bus network through the bus service operators grant, and extra funding was announced by the Chancellor in just the last few weeks. Can the hon. Lady perhaps help this debate by clarifying how much money will be required to deliver this magnificent wish list that she has just identified? Could she perhaps quantify the investment required and detail where it might come from?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He will see in the programmes that we have set out, particularly on rail, that we will repurpose current expenditure across the network that is being wasted on privatised projects, and that investment will go back into driving down costs. In fact, the rail industry says there will be a 30% saving if we put in place the scheduling that we propose. We want savings to be made from current wastage, and greater investment in driving forward and delivering our enhancement programme.
We are talking about just £360 million for this project and the opportunities that it will bring. I can commit today to Labour being right behind my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and all the rail campaign groups, as well as the local councillors, who have done so much work over the years to support projects such as this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. Already you have chastised my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and for him to get chastised, something really bad must have happened—
My word—I know when I am put in my place, Sir George. However, I was just making the point that my hon. Friend is one of the most mild-mannered men in this place, and he would never deliberately do anything to upset anybody.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) on securing this debate on the Colne to Skipton line. He made many a point about how my Department often gets its investment decisions wrong, so I thank him for making the case against nationalisation so well.
I thank the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for her contribution, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place. I also thank the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)—or occupied Lancashire, as I believe it is now called—and the Skipton and East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership for all the work that it has done in the area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is a former rail Minister. In fact, he is my immediate predecessor. I know that when I remark on his comments I am, as someone said to me just before the debate, standing on the shoulders of a giant, so I am wary and I listened to his comments assiduously. I note his ongoing strong support for the project. He is absolutely right to highlight the new and refurbished rolling stock that continues to enter the northern rail market—a demonstration of the Government’s commitment to deliver on their promises to the north of our country. He also served under the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who, as was noted by the hon. Member for Hyndburn, visited twice to see what could be done with the project in February 2018 and January 2019. I am well aware of his long-standing and continuing support for the campaign and project.
Before I get into the main part of my speech, I should mention, as the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) noted that I do all the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and also my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who is sitting to my right. The two of them attended a symbolic ribbon cutting of the project in 2014. The hon. Member for Keighley mentioned the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, which many people signed. I know the shadow Chancellor signed it, but I believe he was in a position at that time of signing just about every early-day motion. His support for the project was none the less welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle mentioned the project in his maiden speech, as well as in other speeches. In research for this debate I read his contributions from the Westminster Hall debate that he secured on 26 April 2017. It is good that we have strong cross-party backing for the project.
I gently remind the hon. Member for Burnley that after years of campaigning for the Todmorden curve under a previous Labour Government, it was a Conservative-led Government who invested the cash to facilitate travel between her constituency and Manchester when the link opened in 2015.
I remind the hon. Lady that the MP at the time, who also campaigned, was from a different party, but that is not the point.
I share the interest of the hon. Member for Hyndburn in ensuring that the corridor between east Lancashire and Yorkshire, in which the former rail line is located, has the transport infrastructure that it needs to flourish and grow. I agree that the potential role of a reopened Skipton-Colne line needs to be considered carefully. It is the case, as he kind of made clear, that the Government are investing in transport in east Lancashire and the north more widely. As he knows, the Government are committed to creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance our economy.
Investing in and fuelling the northern economy provides a great opportunity for the north to be at the forefront of the UK’s economic success for decades to come. I am a midlands MP. I welcome investment in the north because it drives investment in the midlands, too. A national benefit would flow from that. I want to gently correct, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough did, the incorrect IPPR study of investment in the regions. As he correctly pointed out, the investment is £236 for the midlands, £236 for the south and £248 for the north. However, it does not matter because the investment continues to grow, with projects coming forth that really will drive economic growth. Our continuing commitment to transforming rail connectivity across the north is evidenced both by the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on Northern Powerhouse Rail and the continued development of and investment in the trans-Pennine route upgrade programme.
As the Prime Minister reminded us when he visited Rotherham a few weeks ago, the north gave the world the railway. He said:
“And yet two centuries later, in this birthplace of the railways, we can do so much better.”
When he was in Yorkshire the previous week he reaffirmed his commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail and slightly challenged people by saying that he eagerly awaited the emergence of the plans. He also noted that there has been significant Government investment, with 2,000 additional services now operating every week, £500 million on new trains and £100 million on refurbishment of the rest of the fleet, including wifi and power sockets as well as the electrification of the railways in the north-west. A huge amount has gone in.
Before I turn to the Colne-Skipton line, I want to highlight the significant transport investment already under way in Lancashire and across the north to support the northern powerhouse programme. Through the growth deal process, the Government have provided the Lancashire local enterprise partnership with £8 million to support the Hyndburn Burnley/Pendle growth corridor investment, designed to maximise the benefits provided by the M65 in that corridor. Our third growth deal with the Lancashire LEP provides further funding for the M65 corridor—junctions 4 to 6—which will bring further benefit to east Lancashire and the constituents of the hon. Member for Hyndburn. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle who pushed for a study of the work. He is a very busy Member of Parliament.
I am sure the hon. Member for Hyndburn is aware of the proposals for the Colne to Foulridge—or A56 villages—bypass. When consulting on its east Lancashire highways and transport master plan in the autumn of 2013, Lancashire County Council set out six possible options for the scheme. It identified two that would potentially impact on the reinstatement of the railway at a future date. I understand that Lancashire County Council has not actively developed the options any further, pending the outcome of a centrally funded Highways England study that is under way.
More widely in east Lancashire we have, through the LEP, funded improvements to the Blackburn to Bolton rail corridor, and have enabled a more frequent service to operate between Blackburn and Manchester Victoria. That is not the first improvement that we have delivered on the rail network between east Lancashire and Greater Manchester. Thanks to our regional growth fund, under the coalition we reinstated the Todmorden curve, which the hon. Member for Burnley mentioned in her intervention. As part of the Great North Rail project, we have invested in improvements across the region. That is bringing major improvements to the northern rail network, one of the largest rail networks in the country, creating better journeys for passengers, supporting trade and creating, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) would like, a stronger economy.
Through the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises and investment in modern trains, we are delivering a host of better, more comfortable, more frequent, faster and more direct journeys. All the Pacer trains, which were possibly once loved but have absolutely outstayed their welcome, will be replaced by a mix of brand-new trains and trains refurbished and upgraded to an as-new stajndard. Investment in the northern rail network includes improvements to the Calder Valley line between Manchester, Rochdale and Bradford and Leeds—the other key current rail link in the central trans-Pennine corridor—and includes line speed improvements and improved signalling, resulting in increased resilience, more capacity and improved journey times. That is good progress, but we need to go further.
For the Hyndburn constituency, our investment has meant more frequent, hourly Sunday services to Colne from May 2018 and additional funding for the East Lancashire community rail partnership. As part of Northern’s £500 million investment, passengers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hyndburn will benefit from new trains on the York to Blackpool service via Accrington later this year.
Finally, the Department announced in March 2019 that Highways England would work with Transport for the North on a study looking at options for improving road links between the M65 and north and west Yorkshire. The output of that study will inform consideration of the case for future investment. Those are all important building blocks of the northern powerhouse.
The line from Colne to Skipton was closed in 1970. The Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership, which is possibly one of the best action groups I have come across in my short time as Rail Minister, and certainly one of the most effective—I think I had a letter from the group two days after I was announced as Minister—was established in spring 2001 to protect the former railway track bed from development so that it could, in due course, be reinstated. As I have detailed, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, former Rail Ministers have met the partnership many times, and I join them in paying tribute to its work over the past 18 years to raise the profile of the case for reinstating the 12-mile link between east Lancashire and Yorkshire.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn will be glad to hear that the Skipton-Colne scheme is clearly referenced as a scheme in the “determine” phase of the rail enhancements pipeline published earlier this month. As my officials outlined at last week’s meeting, hosted in Westminster by the hon. Gentleman, the focus of that phase is on establishing the case for progressing the scheme. That means identifying the improved outcomes sought for passengers, freight and the wider economy, and considering a wide range of potential interventions that could deliver those benefits.
The Government assess the case for progressing schemes through a five-case business case that takes fully into account the wider strategic and social case for investment, in addition to economic, financial, commercial and managerial aspects. We remain committed to enhancing rail connectivity across the north. The ongoing work on Skipton-Colne makes a very important contribution to that, particularly on the important issue of the provision of capacity and capability for trans-Pennine freight.
The first stage of feasibility work carried out last year confirmed the engineering feasibility of reinstating a rail link between Colne and Skipton to modern railway standards. It also confirmed the strategic case for a rail link between east Lancashire, which has local authority districts that the hon. Gentleman himself described as the most economically deprived in England, and the Leeds city region, as well as for improved rail connectivity for freight between Mersey and east coast ports and inland terminals.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that during a visit to Colne earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, the former Secretary of State for Transport, announced that he had asked for further feasibility work to be carried out, in order to challenge the cost of the scheme and to establish whether there would be sufficient freight demand, before making a decision on whether a reinstatement scheme should progress to the next stage of the rail enhancements pipeline.
I thank the hon. Member for Keighley for highlighting the towns fund, which will hopefully help towns and communities across his constituency and the north in general. He raised a couple of questions about the feasibility study. I am happy to share the December 2018 strategic outline business case with the partnership, so that it can understand the sorts of issues that we rightly have to tackle as a Government to ensure that the criteria that we have set are fulfilled, and that we can deliver projects that offer value for money and deliver the required economic outputs. Perhaps that can be the hon. Gentleman’s Christmas present. It is not quite the Christmas present that he asked for, but it is part of the way to it.
There are lots of important considerations, because there are challenges for the project. I am sure that the project can answer those challenges, but it is important to highlight them so that they are open and public, and so that people can work together to overcome them, as I believe has been the case up until this point. The first consideration was the initial finding that the economic case for reinstatement was quite poor without provision for, and extensive use of, the route for intermodal trans-Pennine container freight traffic attracted from road. We need to ensure that that can be delivered.
Before the feasibility study, there was insufficient evidence that the route would attract a sufficient volume of intermodal container traffic. There is evidence that other trans-Pennine routes, with necessary enhancement of capacity and gauge, could offer shorter journey times, and thus more efficient utilisation of rail assets—both staff and rolling stock. I am aware of the extensive work being done, and that has already been completed, by SELRAP, right hon. and hon. Members, and local businesses, as demonstrated by some of today’s speeches, to estimate what level of local freight could be expected. That work is very helpful indeed.
We must always address concerns about the high estimated capital cost of the scheme—questioned by the hon. Member for Hyndburn—which is relevant to both the economic case and the general affordability of the scheme. The first stage of the further work carried out by my Department’s technical advisers is nearing completion. It has been carried out in close collaboration with Transport for the North, Network Rail and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, with very helpful in-depth discussions with a number of freight customers. That work, which is continuing, suggests, first, that a high proportion of potential trans-Pennine intermodal container traffic could be carried on a low-floor wagon that requires a loading gauge that is smaller than the W12 gauge provided on a number of other trunk routes, and only marginally larger than the minimum current clearance on trans-Pennine routes.
Secondly, routing freight via Skipton-Colne is not only slower than other potential routes but engages a capacity bottleneck—as was mentioned in passing—on the eastern side of the Pennines, crossing the eastern approach to Leeds station. That is absolutely not insurmountable, but it does need to be addressed as we move forward.
Thirdly, we have confirmation that future demand for the key flows in question—Liverpool-Drax biomass and intermodal containers—is really sensitive to the end-to-end journey times that can be achieved, due to the impact on resource utilisation, so we need to work with those companies to ensure that there is a business case that works for us all.
Network Rail’s order of magnitude cost estimates are not inappropriately high, given the current state of the project’s development. However, further discussions are in progress with Transport Scotland, as the hon. Member for Hyndburn highlighted, regarding the Borders railway, as it appears that its out-turn costs were, per mile, much lower than Network Rail’s early estimates for the Skipton-Colne link. We are therefore trying to learn from what has gone on elsewhere, because we want to drive value for money.
I am really interested in what the Minister has to say. There seems to be an overengineering of a number of rail projects at their inception. Is the Department reviewing the way that infrastructure projects are approached, so that they are appropriately engineered?
The whole point of the pipeline is to try to do exactly that, and to learn from previous projects, when things are delivered late and run over cost and when things are delivered within budget. Network Rail is going out of its way to learn from those projects, so yes, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance.
We need to investigate a number of issues further before any conclusions are drawn, hence the need for the current process. Those issues essentially boil down to the two questions that I outlined: what are the likely costs, including gauge clearance, of creating viable timetable paths in the short and medium term for additional freight, and what levels of freight traffic is the route likely to attract? We are pressing on with that work, including through a Network Rail feasibility study on trans-Pennine gauging, which was announced last month, so that we will have a complete picture in a few months. My officials will continue to update the campaign’s project development team as the work progresses. We will continue to do all we can to answer the questions that I have raised and recent work has raised, which will hopefully mean that we can work together to move this interesting and popular scheme forward.
To conclude, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn and SELRAP on the continuing commitment to this issue that they have shown, as well as the other right hon. and hon. Members with an interest in this matter—both those who could be present today and those who could not. I repeat that the Government are keen to reach an early conclusion on what role a reinstated line could play in improving passenger and freight connections across the Pennines. Given the current phase that this scheme finds itself in, my focus, and the Government’s, is on establishing the case for progressing it.
I thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing this debate. I also thank the hon. Members who have contributed to it, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who probably agrees that rail passengers in his constituency would be liberated by the reinstatement of this rail link, and my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper). She rightly pointed out that Burnley Borough Council, along with other local councils including Labour councils, led on the Todmorden curve initiative without much input from Lancashire County Council, which was very disappointing for a transport authority. We do not congratulate Burnley Council enough.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), the former heavy rail Minister, who has been backing this project for quite a long time. He probably feels that he has been backing it for so long that it must happen one day. I suggest that if he votes Labour at the next election, that day might come sooner, rather than later or never.
The Minister touched on the issue of the M65, which I did not bring up. To summarise briefly, that is another key pipeline project that must go ahead in conjunction with the rail link. I raised that issue quite a while ago, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, and have been a vociferous campaigner at the vanguard of the campaign to ensure that we get that connection through to the north-east, to Leeds and to the M1.
The Minister said that the Government were investing heavily in the north. I gently point out that if he is serious about investing in the north, he should back the budget for Transport for the North and the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, which comes in at £39 billion; I hope that commitment is not going to recede. The Government seem undecided about how much they will spend on Northern Powerhouse Rail, with some figures as low as £12 billion, rather than the £39 billion that is required. I also hope that the Government will commit to the northern infrastructure pipeline, a £7 billion investment to get some of the projects up and running quickly. They have not done so yet, so the idea that they have made some commitment to investment in the north that is equivalent to what is invested in the south does not bear scrutiny.
The Minister talked about cost, affordability and value for money. We are back to those words again; we are telling deprived communities, “You are not worth it. You are not getting anything. Hard luck.” This is a £360 million project; over 100 years, that is £360,000 a year. East Lancashire clinical commissioning group spends £1 billion a year, and that figure does not include West Yorkshire’s clinical commissioning groups, which probably spend more. Building this rail line will cost 0.3% of the health budget, so let us get some perspective. When we talk about levels of deprivation, building this line is an easy answer. In the context of a health budget, this rail infrastructure investment is a minuscule amount, particularly if we look at the whole corridor. It probably amounts to less than 0.1% of the health budget for that corridor, where deprivation levels are some of the most severe in the country. I do not understand the Government’s thinking in denying this investment at this stage; we should press on and do it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, there is no better time than the 175th anniversary of the opening of the original line. Let us get the shovels in the ground.
The Minister mentioned value for money. Is it not about time that we get local contractors and local people in? This is a deprived area. Why are we not bringing in local contractors to do some of this basic work, such as the trackbed work, which does not require engineering?
It does not matter. That does not excuse us from bringing in local contractors to do some of the most basic work, lowering the costs. We do not always have to bring in experienced contractors from the south on high-value contracts; that does not serve the cost analysis very well. I do not think that affordability, cost and value for money should be the drivers of this particular scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley was right to say that Christmas could have come early for us all if the Minister had committed to this rail line, but he has not. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who gave a very good speech, rightly suggested that it is about time that we brought the railways into public ownership so that we can make these decisions, instead of their being made by consultants and outside bodies. Local, democratically elected people should decide what is best for their local communities, not some of the experts who have failed east Lancashire.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposed reinstatement of the Colne to Skipton railway link.
Liverpool City Council Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the funding of Liverpool City Council.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. Liverpool has borne the brunt of a decade of austerity. Massive cuts in Government funding have hit the council hard, combined with benefit changes that have hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. I pay tribute to all those who work across public services in Liverpool, who do their utmost to deliver the best services. Last Friday I visited the fantastic Mab Lane Primary School in my constituency, which serves a community with high levels of social and economic need. The headteacher, Laura Morgan, provides truly inspirational leadership in a school that is making a real difference to the life chances of children, and therefore to the local community.
Liverpool City Council tells me that, when adjusted for inflation, it has £436 million less to spend each year than it did in 2010, which equates to an overall budget cut of 63%. As a result, Mayor Joe Anderson has warned that the council faces its
“worst financial crisis since the Second World War”,
with a £57 million budget gap in the coming year.
In those bleak circumstances, the council held an emergency budget meeting last month, where the finance director, Mel Creighton, publicly addressed the chamber for the first time. She said:
“We have gone as far as we can go—the next decisions we make will be very difficult ones.”
The city has exhausted its reserves; it has just £16 million remaining. If those reserves were used for day-to-day services, they would last about a fortnight. After that, there would be nothing left.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate on behalf of the city and people of Liverpool. Does he agree that that council meeting was an extraordinary example of people from across the city of all political persuasions coming together to back a motion that went to the council that said they wanted an urgent meeting with Government Ministers to set out the situation? We have that opportunity today to say that, party politics aside, Liverpool will be unable to continue in the current vein if something is not done urgently to address the serious situation.
The hon. Lady’s intervention precisely anticipates my next paragraph.
At that unprecedented meeting, members of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Liberal parties agreed unanimously on a call for urgent action from the Treasury. Liverpool MPs, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), have echoed the call for an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State. To echo the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), I ask the Minister whether the Government will meet Liverpool’s Mayor, MPs and councillors as a matter of urgency to look at ways in which the Government can help to address Liverpool’s perilous financial situation.
There is an inherent unfairness in the way that local government funding is allocated. The Government use core spending power as a measure. Their figures show that had Liverpool been subjected to only the average reduction in support for all authorities, it would be £77 million a year better off. Instead, since 2010 there has been a dramatic reduction in Liverpool City Council’s spending power while the spending power of other authorities has increased. For example, Surrey County Council’s spending power has increased by £65 per household in the same period.
In authorities such as Liverpool—and next-door Knowsley, Sir George—with a high level of deprivation, a large proportion of properties are typically in the lower council tax bands, for which higher Government grants have compensated. Since 2010, however, support from the Government has been reduced as they have sought to offset austerity by allowing local authorities to raise more taxation locally. The difficulty is that 60% of dwellings in Liverpool are in the lowest council tax band, whereas the national figure is about a quarter. Liverpool’s council tax base is further reduced by the number of dwellings that qualify for discounts and exemptions.
If Liverpool’s tax base were comprised of the same proportion of households in each council tax band and the same proportion of households that qualify for discounts and exemptions as the national average, the city council estimates that it would generate more than £100 million extra in council tax every year. Surely we need to address that issue of fairness. Will the Government seriously consider the Mayor of Liverpool’s proposal for a royal commission on local government funding to ensure that a fair funding formula can be adopted across the country?
Despite all that, the council has managed to continue to prioritise services for the most vulnerable in our community. In the last year it has spent £12 million on support to help prevent people becoming homeless and on assisting rough sleepers. It has spent almost £3 million on the citizens support scheme that it set up to help residents in short-term crisis to meet their needs for food and other essential items. That has provided a lifeline for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents after the abolition of the discretionary social fund. The mayoral hardship fund continues to provide vital support for some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Spending on discretionary housing payments, which support people struggling to pay their rent, has gone up by 12%.
I pay tribute to Mayor Joe Anderson and councillors from all parties for taking action to protect the most vulnerable families who have been left struggling and worrying about how they will pay for essentials. The support that the council has been able to provide stands between many families and destitution.
I also thank the vibrant voluntary and community sectors, including the Merseyside Law Centre, formerly Merseyside Welfare Rights; St Andrew’s Community Network, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden); and the Alt Valley Community Trust. I volunteer monthly at the north Liverpool food bank at St John’s church in Tuebrook, so I see the great need in our communities and the fantastic role that the voluntary and community sectors play, alongside the city council, in seeking to protect some of the most vulnerable.
The hon. Gentleman is making an impassioned case, for which I thank him. Further to his important acknowledgement of the contribution that voluntary and charitable organisations make, I particularly commend the work of Liverpool Charity and Voluntary Services, without which many small organisations would not have been able to pursue their ambitions. At a time of decreasing funds, LCVS has gone above and beyond to support many small organisations to have the infrastructure, resources, tools and expertise to deliver vital local services.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to put on the record the amazing contribution that LCVS makes, as do similar councils in other parts of the country. In the 12 years that I have been in Liverpool, I have been struck by the strong sense of community and the sorts of organisations that come out of some of the most socially and economically deprived communities, some of which I mentioned. I can imagine how much worse the impact of those cuts in Government support would have been if it were not for the great work done by LCVS and some of the other voluntary organisations to which I referred.
The reality is that the council faces a near-impossible challenge: when services are needed most, it has fewer resources with which to respond. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services calculates that the number of statutory responsibilities for local authorities in children’s services has gone up by something like 50% since 2011. We need an urgent review of the financing of statutory services to ensure that they are adequately resourced, because otherwise there is a real risk that we will fail the most vulnerable people again.
The city council is pioneering new technologies to combat climate change. Liverpool has set the bold aim of becoming the world’s first climate-positive city by the end of next year, which would mean the city would remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits each year. The council is working alongside the Poseidon Foundation to help offset its carbon emissions by incorporating blockchain technology into the day-to-day operations of the city council. Reflecting the challenges of climate change, the council recently declared a climate emergency. It is crucial that the Government work with the council and local community to ensure that the funding and support is there, so that we can respond fully to the scale of the climate emergency.
The city council has also been innovative and ambitious in seeking to deal with the desperate financial situation that it faces—for example, it has been pioneering in its Invest to Earn strategy, generating income through investments in the private sector that can then be ploughed back into support for local services. The council has relied heavily on the Public Works Loan Board for low-interest loans to invest in the purchase of assets that can bring in new revenue streams and grow the local economy. It is very concerning that the Treasury has now announced an increase of an entire percentage point in the interest rate for the Public Works Loan Board. The city council is doing all it can to mitigate the impact of austerity, but the interest rate increase will make that task more difficult.
Decisions made by Governments since 2010 have resulted in poverty becoming more entrenched for many of my constituents. We have now had the latest English indices of multiple deprivation, and Liverpool ranks third. Almost a quarter of the population of Liverpool live in income-deprived households, and around a third of children are growing up in poverty. The high level of need, which results in demand for services, cannot be met solely by a council tax base that, as I have said, is low. We desperately need a fairer funding deal.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the imposition of universal credit, which is very much a political decision by the Government, has only added to the woes of the most vulnerable people in our city? I pay tribute to him, and to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). We could be heading into a general election very soon, and they have been part of the Merseyside community for the past 10 years. I pay tribute to them for all the work they have done in this place to raise the issues of poverty and the most vulnerable people.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his kind words, and I echo his comments about our friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). He is absolutely right about the impact of universal credit and, before that, other changes—for example, the reductions in disability benefits and the introduction of the bedroom tax. That combination of factors has been significant in contributing to the challenges that the city council faces.
I am proud that Liverpool City Council has managed to keep delivering vital services and has done its best to protect some of the most vulnerable people, but the city now faces a budget gap that the council estimates to be £57 million, and it has just £16 million left in the reserves. Something surely has to give. The city council, the Members of Parliament and the entire city are united in saying to the Government that we want a fairer funding settlement that genuinely reflects the real levels of need in the local community. My concern is that if this is not put in place, we risk losing crucial services that our most vulnerable constituents rely on every day.
I hope that the Minister can give us some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I particularly hope that he can address the two specific requests for a meeting and for the Government to consider a royal commission on local government funding, because many of the issues faced by my constituents in Liverpool are faced by other communities across Merseyside, across the north-west and, indeed, across the country.
It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, not for the first time, Sir George. With a general election looming, and given that there are marginal seats across north-west England, it might be the last time for a while.
I am proud to have been born in Aigburth, to have attended Liverpool College, and to have spent my entire life before the age of 18 living in the great city of Liverpool, so I was really keen for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which is important not just for his constituents, but for north-west England. As a fellow north-west MP, I think a thriving Liverpool city region is about creating a thriving northern powerhouse.
I want to focus briefly on facts, because the hon. Gentleman talked a lot about the role Liverpool has played in cutting the deficit since the economic crash of 2007-08. I do not want to get into the politics of what might or might not have caused the crash, but it is absolutely clear that in an environment of reducing budgets, local government across our United Kingdom—but particularly in England, for the purposes of this debate—has played its part. However, the core spending power in Liverpool has increased every year since 2015; the increase this year will be some £9.2 million. I hope that reflects the fact that we are moving from a decade or thereabouts of recovery to one of renewal, in which local authorities must play their part, as an economic partner of Government, in driving the wider economy.
Wider investment in the Liverpool city region is so important to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and the constituents of other hon. Members; I am sure they would want me to focus briefly on that, before I address the two questions raised in the debate. I was really pleased that £172 million from the transforming cities fund went to the Liverpool city region. Having spent a considerable period of my life going around south Liverpool on a bike, and given that we are looking to address the climate emergency, which Liverpool City Council has been very forward-thinking in bringing to the fore, I was pleased to hear that £16 million of the fund will be invested in walking and cycling infrastructure in the city.
Another £460 million will be invested in the Merseyrail system—the Liverpool tube system, as it was described to me by a friend from London who recently visited the city. I went to school on those trains, sometimes via a slightly roundabout route. For my first job, I used to travel on the Merseyrail from Cressington station all the way to Moorfields. The trains were pretty terrible 20 years ago—or even 35 years ago, when I used to get them. I am very pleased that the money, which comes from a partnership between the council, the Liverpool city region and the Government, will be invested in the transport infrastructure.
Those of us who have spent long periods of our life sat on the Runcorn bridge will agree that the £1 billion invested in the new Mersey Gateway—£600 million was direct Government funding—shows the Government’s ambitions for the region. Many of those ambitions have been focused through the Liverpool city region devolution deal; the core funding for the devolution deal is some £900 million over the initial period. More importantly, it is about taking power, money and influence away from Whitehall and returning it to the great city of Liverpool. Those of us who grew up there in the 1980s know that Liverpool is rejuvenated, and has undergone a renaissance since the very dark days of deprivation, industrial decline and political chaos. The devolution deal is a really important step in ensuring that the renaissance continues.
I do not have to tell any MPs here who represent Merseyside seats, including you, Sir George, that Liverpool is the only city ever to have had its own Department in Whitehall. At one point, Liverpool contributed more to the Exchequer than the entire City of London. Arguably, Liverpool is the city that invented globalisation, and it certainly has always had the mercantile economy at its heart. Anything we can do to drive jobs and growth back into the city is something that we should work on together.
I am a strong supporter of the city region devolution. The deal the Minister describes is welcome. However, the strong sense in Liverpool is that what the Government have given the city region with one hand does not make up for what they had taken away with the other, particularly from some of our most deprived communities. Does he recognise that concern?
I will come on to address the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, but it is worth focusing on what happened in Liverpool. Across this House, we want to be optimistic for the people we represent, and there is real optimism in Liverpool. There are challenges, and have been for as long as I have known the city, which is my entire life, but on many occasions, sometimes in this building, people from across public life want to talk down to Liverpool. I want this debate to be an opportunity to celebrate everything that is fantastic about that city.
I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the Minister their categorisation of Liverpool as that vibrant, optimistic and positive city. Over the course of what will soon be a decade, however, the city has done so much in spite of the Government, and not because of it. My hon. Friend laid out many things that have happened, and I have a whole list in front of me of cuts, including to our fire service, the police service, the health grant formula—that is the current reality—or the early intervention grant to give every child born in Liverpool the best chance of the best start in life. Despite the cumulative impact of all those things, Liverpool has soldiered on—but that does not take away from the reality of what the city is contending with after nearly 10 years of cuts.
It will come as no surprise to the hon. Lady that I disagree with her. Lots of what I am talking about—the £900 million devolution deal, the £1 billion for the Gateway crossing, the £330 million from the local growth fund, and the £140 million upgrade of Lime Street station, which I am pleased about, because it was awful when I was growing up, and it is a fantastic building now—is a partnership. I hope that this debate can be about what Liverpool, the Government, the mayors and the metro Mayor can do together to drive the city. I know that that is the spirit in which the hon. Lady would wish me to respond to the debate.
Liverpool City Council has some challenges with funding, as well as other issues. It has £100 million of uncollected council tax arrears, which it should do something about, because that is very high from a national perspective. Its chief executive’s remuneration package is £461,823, which is absurd and not something that should be supported by the council, although it is, because it will have been voted on by the council. In fact, the council has 57 employees across Merseyside who earn more than £100,000 each. The age of austerity might be writ large over many parts of the council, but it has not yet reached the chief executive’s remuneration package, and there are things that the council could do, such as recover some of the £100 million of council tax arrears.
The partnership approach, however, which I hope Members across the House support, is part of the story of renaissance in Liverpool. I agree with the spokesman for Liverpool City Council who, earlier this year, said that Liverpool is undergoing a regeneration boom, with £14 billion of development schemes being delivered or in the pipeline. I pay tribute to the work of the city council in transforming the city, despite having maybe played its part in the decade of recovery from the global economic crash. Despite reductions in the amount of money the city has to spend, it is thriving and booming. People do not need to take my word for it, because anyone can visit the city—in fact, I recommend that they do. And we have not even talked about having the best football team in Europe, although that might be controversial; I do not know whether any Evertonians are present.
Why does all that matter? It matters because the Government are serious about delivering a northern powerhouse—a growing northern economy for all our constituents, including mine and yours, Sir George. Liverpool must be at the heart of that regeneration, and of the renewal of the north of England. That is why I am so pleased that the Prime Minister recently set out his agenda to level up all the powers of the metro Mayors—to ensure that Steve Rotheram has the same powers as Andy Burnham—so that we can drive Liverpool’s economy. I fully support that, and I hope and believe that Steve Rotheram, who has had discussions with me and with the Prime Minister about that agenda, will come out in support of it.
That is also why we have levelled up education funding. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, started the debate by talking about a school in his constituency, and I echo his tribute to all those working in our public services in Liverpool, Merseyside, the wider north-west and our entire country. That is why we are increasing funding for the NHS and the number of police on our streets. It is the poorest in our society, wherever they may be in England, who rely most heavily on the NHS and public services. That is why I applaud the Prime Minister’s ambition to level up.
I welcome the additional powers for the city region Mayor, and I pay tribute to Steve Rotheram for his work. I absolutely echo what the Minister said about the renaissance in the city centre, but I represent suburban east Liverpool, and it does not always feel that way in some of the communities that I represent. They are much more reliant on the council services that I focused on in my speech, so I am absolutely with him on the importance of the city region and investment in it, but we need to ensure that the basic services get their funding as well.
I accept that. In my penultimate point, I will address the two points raised by the hon. Gentleman about the real purposes of the debate. First, on an urgent meeting, I am not able to promise that the Secretary of State will meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues urgently. However, I am more than happy to meet them myself, which is a promise that I can make. I am sure that he will be in touch, or my private office will be in touch—subject to the limited opportunity that might be available if the election motion passes today. If it is at all possible, I will certainly do that. I have always taken great pride in being from Liverpool. In fact, my grandparents lived in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, in a place called Hayman’s Green, just behind the village centre in West Derby, so I know his constituency extremely well.
Finally, on the royal commission, the future of local government funding is something that would of course be set out in a Budget, but it appears that we will not have a Budget before 6 November. I suggest that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, keeps a close eye on what might be in a Budget. However, I reassure him on the point about the proportion of council tax properties in different bands. Since 2016-17, distribution of resources in the central grant system has taken into account the banding of council tax and business rates payers in the city. We believe that we have addressed that, which historically has been a major problem for cities such as Liverpool.
In conclusion, I hope that the hon. Gentleman, like me, occasionally gets the opportunity to visit the Pier Head. When I do, I look at the “Three Graces” buildings, including the Royal Liver building and the Cunard building, and all the fantastic architecture, and I am always struck by the fact that those buildings show their best face to the world. In fact, the back of the buildings, facing Saint Nick’s church, are relatively plain. Their best face looks out to sea, and that is what Liverpool has always done and will continue to do. After we leave the European Union, a global Britain can be led once again by a global Liverpool.
Before I bring the proceedings to a conclusion, I use the privilege of the Chair to thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for the service that they have given. I also wish them well in the future, whichever direction that may take them.
Question put and agreed to.
Endometriosis Workplace Support
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered endometriosis workplace support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. This issue affects not just the Minister’s Department, but the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions.
I thank Dr Larisa Corda, who is an obstetrician, gynaecologist and fertility expert—she is in the Public Gallery—the many hundreds of women who have contacted me, and the very brave women who have made the journey to London today to support this debate. I will not reveal the names of the people who have written to me even if they are happy for me to do so, because I want to maintain their confidentiality and ensure that it remains their choice. In opening the debate, I will cover the following areas: the disease itself; the poor diagnosis and medical expertise in dealing with this debilitating condition; its impact on women’s lives; its impact on workplace activity; and the protections that many women feel are not honoured, despite strong workplace health assessment laws.
The disease is often described as cells from the womb growing in other places, but that is a gross underestimation. I believe that that simplistic description is among the reasons why women find it hard to get employers to understand the terrible condition that they are suffering from. According to Dr Corda, since the start of this year more than 100 women have taken their lives as a direct result of this disease.
Endometriosis comes with many symptoms, which occur not just at the time of a woman’s period. The most common are abdominal cramps, back pain, severe menstrual cramps, abnormal or heavy bleeding, painful bowel movements, pain urinating, painful sex, difficulty becoming pregnant, and nausea or sickness. According to endometriosis.org, people with endometriosis are more at risk of several diseases. The risk of ovarian cancer is 37% higher than for the general public; the risk of endocrine tumours is 38% higher than for the general public; the risk of kidney cancer is 26% higher than for the general public; the risk of thyroid cancer is 33% higher than for the general public; the risk of brain tumours is 27% higher than for the general public; the risk of malignant melanoma is 23% higher than for the general public; and, according to cardiosmart.org, a heart attack is 62% more likely. That series of statistics does not describe the impact of the symptoms; I will give some real-life examples later, but the stark truth is that 30% to 50% of women become infertile from the disease.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. I am sure millions of women around the country will be enormously grateful that he is raising this issue at the highest level. Does he agree that one of the challenges that many people face is that there is a significant lack of understanding of the condition? That leads to all sorts of things, including dreadful delays in diagnosis and a lack of understanding in workplaces of what the chronic pain really means to those women.
My hon. Friend summarises the biggest issues that those women face. I will talk about the real-life experiences of the women who have contacted me, but one of the most important things—I hope other Members will expand on this—is that there are support networks out there, because women often suffer in silence. As I said, this subject goes beyond the DWP: certainly, the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care have a role to play.
In June 2015, the BBC carried out a study on 15,000 women in Scotland. It found that women with the condition had a 76% chance of miscarriage, which is unbelievably high. The article reported that women with endometriosis had a trebled risk of ectopic pregnancy. The chance of premature birth was 26% and the chance of having a caesarean was 40%.
Later, I will talk about the impact on women of abnormal and heavy bleeding and bowel movement impacts, which can be distressing in the workplace. I am aware that the issue I am about to talk about falls under the authority of the Department of Health and Social Care, but it is vital to add context and explain why this disease has a knock-on effect in the workplace. I ask the Minister to ensure that this debate is fed into the relevant Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care.
The House of Commons digital engagement team put out a survey only last Thursday, and there have been 2,610 responses, 1,083 reactions, comments and shares on Facebook, and 215 retweets. I want to cite some of the quotes from it. Again, I will not put the names out there; I will just set out the reports.
“At 18 I am currently being put through medically induced menopause to try and fight back against my endo, it’s horrific, it’s debilitating and it’s exhausting. The pain I have I cannot even describe, and two operations later I am no further to being pain free or living a normal life. My next step is a hysterectomy, I haven’t even had children yet and this is what is being recommended to me. My life has been overtaken by operations, drugs, injections, sickness, anxiety, depression and a whole load of awful nights with no sleep and no rest. I am currently finishing my A Levels and I am absolutely terrified of what life will be like after. My dream is to become a primary school teacher, but I think that dream is unachievable. How will I find an employer who will understand that I often have to lay in bed because as soon as I move I will throw up, or that I have had to have time off work because I’ve got to have my ovaries removed? It’s about time that endometriosis is taken seriously, and people understand that life is so challenging and excruciating, but we carry on, smiling through the pain, simply because we have no alternative.”
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this very important debate. Like the woman whose case he is discussing, I had a chemical menopause at the age of 37, but many women have to go to the GP at least 10 times in order to be referred to a specialist. Does he agree that we should include this issue in statutory sex and relationships education, so that when young girls and women experience gynaecological problems or even heavy periods, which may be a sign of endometriosis, they seek help at the earliest opportunity?
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, who speaks with a great deal of personal experience. We have been friends for a long time—since we came to this place. We are two West Yorkshire MPs, despite being on different sides of the aisle. I am grateful to her for making those points. As I said, it is important that the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care take this forward. Other Members may wish to try to secure debates that are responded to by those Departments. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will certainly feed those issues in.
I apologise for citing a lot of stories, Mr Pritchard, but it is important to set out the context. Another lady said:
“I had stage 4 (severe) endometriosis. I had a 7 year wait for diagnosis. From my referral to the hospital, I had a year and a half wait for surgery. My surgery was lifesaving as my bowel was 50% blocked with a mass of adhesions that had grown through the bowel. I was in constant pain, slept for 3 or 4 hours a day and was unable to care for my son properly, I considered putting him into care. If it wasn’t for him, I would have given up on everything. Despite being told in 2010 I ‘probably had endometriosis’ I was still given pain killers and mefenamic acid for years to manage the pain and symptoms. Throughout this time the endo was worsening, it is progressive. Had I been diagnosed earlier I may not have needed the bowel resection I needed and will have bowel issues for life. I was on the pill for 15 years, which is still considered a ‘treatment’. It is not. The same year I came off it (2010) I was at the GP with SEVERE bowel pain during my period (It was fused to my womb). The pill masked the symptoms, but it was quietly progressing. Please ban the use or presentation of the pill as ‘treatment’.”
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this incredibly important debate. One in five women will suffer from this disease, and it has been shown that, as that story shows, it can take up to seven years to convince a doctor. That is completely unacceptable. We have an issue in this country with what has been called the gender pain gap. We need to put more money into research and funding to look at proper cures and support for women when they need it most.
I entirely agree with those sentiments. As I said, I hope this debate will go beyond the Department for Work and Pensions. I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution; it is spot on.
Endometriosis affects 1.5 million women in the UK. It takes an average of eight years to diagnose and there is not really a cure.
I will share a few examples from women who have spoken out through the digital platform. One said:
“I have suffered with endometriosis since the age of 15 and I was diagnosed aged 22. The worst thing about endometriosis is the lack of awareness. Even some doctors haven’t even heard of it which is very frustrating! I’ve had 4 surgeries to try to alleviate the symptoms. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked. I want to try to basically create more awareness of endometriosis, especially online, as much as I can.”
Another woman said:
“I was diagnosed with endometriosis in May 2016. I would say 2 years was spent actively pursuing a diagnosis. But the previous 9 years I often went to the doctors, complained of pain and heavy flow and I was told ‘it’s just a bad period, it’s normal’. The hardest part of endometriosis for me would be the mental health side of things, coming to terms with the fact my body has limits and my life probably isn’t going to take the direction I thought it would.”
Someone else said:
“I was 17 when I was diagnosed with endometriosis. I’ve had 6 surgeries since. The thing I hate most about endometriosis is not being able to plan ahead because you don’t know how your pain is going to be that day. You could be absolutely fine, or you could be crippled.”
A young woman said:
“I was diagnosed with endometriosis on the 14 February last year, I was only 15. It took me 3 years to get diagnosed. For those 3 years, I was told I had unexplainable abdominal pain.”
Another story comes from a woman who said:
“I was diagnosed when I was 25 when I had a miscarriage. I had been struggling since I was a teenager with all the common signs of endometriosis. It just wasn’t picked up until I had my first surgery. What I hate most about endometriosis is that it takes time away from my children. Especially when I have to just go and rest in bed. I would love to be able to make it more aware for children, especially young girls and in schools, to be able to support them through this and see the early signs and educate GPs on the signs and symptoms.”
I thank the right. hon Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this hugely important debate. Does he agree that local groups, such as Endo Warriors in my constituency, which do such important work to educate young people in schools and to ensure that early signs of endometriosis can be picked up by doctors and health professionals, are absolutely vital and have such an important place in our communities and constituencies?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who raises a very important point; there are many support groups out there. I will come to the workplace impact, for which the Minister is responsible, but one of the things that I want this debate to achieve is to highlight to women far and wide that there are lots of support groups in different areas of the country. More importantly, I hope that the debate will be heard by the Department for Education. To strengthen our point, we may have to come back to debate the issue with each separate Department, and we should ensure that we do so.
Another sufferer said to me:
“I have suffered with endometriosis since being 19. I had always had heavy periods and then my symptoms escalated to constant bleeding, pain on intercourse, really bad pain in the lower tummy and lower back. I was backwards and forwards from anywhere between 6 months plus, who constantly checked me for STDs. They’d do swabs, send me on my way and they’d come back clear, and I was in that cycle. I was in work one day when I was given an awareness form for endometriosis. Every symptom listed, I ticked. I’m now 36 and I’ve had 22 laparoscopies. At 29, I had a hysterectomy. When they removed my cervix, they found the endometriosis in there.”
A young woman who has given me a huge amount of help in preparing for this debate told me:
“My journey with endometriosis began when I was 11 years old, when I had my first period. From a young age I was going back and forth to the doctors for leaking through my clothes at school, just after being to the toilet. I have always been active in football and dancing but found myself struggling with the disease due to the pain, lack of energy and continued leaking through my clothes.”
We are talking about an 11-year-old girl. She continued:
“Initially I was told they thought I had endometriosis but was too young for the surgery required for diagnosis. I ended up going through surgery for a womb polyp and ovarian cysts. To date, I have now had 10 surgeries, all with general gynaecologists. Finally, I have been able to see an endometriosis specialist after 10 years of suffering. I had surgery on the 8th of April 2019 which was the diagnostic surgery I had been waiting for. The specialist surgeon found years of missed endometriosis due to untrained surgeons. Unfortunately, a shortage of worldwide endometriosis specialists means this is not uncommon for women suffering.
This disease has had a huge impact on my mental health. Alongside other personal family issues, the daily pain I have been going through has made tackling day to day life harder. Whilst I have had friends and family support me, I have also lost friends because they don’t understand this disease. I have tried to take my life multiple times because of it. The problems have also extended to my fertility. I have had miscarriages and a medically advised abortion. Not only was this a devastating and horrific experience for me but had a dramatic impact on my work life as well as personal.”
Another lady said to me:
“As soon as my periods started when I was just 12 years old, the problems began. I suffered extreme pain and heavy bleeding, to the point where I passed out several times. On speaking to my GP, I was told ‘every girl has this, it’s normal’. The doctor prescribed me oral morphine for the pain, but most of the time it barely touched it. Finally, I was offered a laparoscopy in February 2016. The surgeon told me I had endometriosis, but that they had treated it and I wouldn’t have any further problems. I was so happy and relieved, little did I know the fight was far from over. By October the symptoms had returned. On speaking to my doctor, I was told it couldn’t have come back after surgery, it was part of being a woman and I simply needed to be more positive. Eventually, I got referred to an endometriosis specialist hospital where an MRI scan showed my left ovary and bowel were stuck to my cervix and I had 100% got endometriosis back. This means more surgery.”
I am so grateful to the members of the public who engaged with the digital engagement platform. A woman from Newcastle shared her workplace experience. She said:
“I have been disciplined for being off sick. I am terrified to go off sick again, so I have to force myself to work even when the pain makes me vomit. If I go off sick again, I know they will sack me, this has been made very clear. I work for HMRC and I know this is a massive issue for other members of staff as well.”
Another lady said:
“I have been fired from all my jobs, my last workplace bullied me and mocked my illness, nothing was done via HR and I was made to leave instead. I have never had support from any workplace.”
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this extremely important debate. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis, which is ably chaired by the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), I have been privy to many of these stories. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a major barrier to support in the workplace is the taboo around menstrual health? Surely, we have to get people talking about that. One idea may be to encourage employers to become endometriosis-friendly, so that people get support and HR departments understand that it is a real illness and not something that someone should have to endure.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that important point. That goes back to the earlier example of the lady who suffered for so many years and who got a diagnosis only when she had ticked every single box of a workplace survey. That is why we need a debate with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—we need to work across so many areas of government. The hon. Lady is right: any issue of women’s health, but especially menstrual health, is still taboo. Someone asked me why I secured this debate. The primary reason is that I have worked very closely on this with a previous constituent of mine, but I also think it important that a man stands here and says that women’s health is not a taboo subject. We are all human beings and we all have health issues. We should all stick together and help everybody, regardless of how embarrassing we might find the subject. There is nothing embarrassing about health and we need to look after people.
The stories that I have given all share the same underlying theme: “I was told by doctors that it was all part of being a woman.” Given the backdrop of the personal trauma that women with endometriosis suffer—years without a diagnosis, personal relationships breaking down and strain on personal finances—they should at least be able to expect the law to protect them in the workplace, like anyone else who suffers with a disability. The truth, however, is that a whole host of employers are completely unsympathetic to the disease, and often dismiss employees because of a “poor sick record”.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good case and highlights the challenges faced by many women with endometriosis. He will recognise that many people have other chronic health conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or rheumatoid arthritis, which can also be life-limiting in the ways that he has outlined. For clarity, is he saying that endometriosis is a special case, or do the principles that he is outlining actually apply to many other chronic health conditions, the sufferers of which often find that they are also discriminated against at work?
Of course, all employers should support people in the workplace who have any of the whole host of chronic illnesses that my hon. Friend mentioned, but quite a few of those illnesses get diagnosed relatively easily, or in a shorter time than endometriosis. One of the problems is that there is such a long diagnosis time—I will refer to that later. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) made a point about better education in the workplace. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) that this is not about singling out one disease—the whole range of workplace diseases must be covered—but it creates many issues when women cannot even get diagnosed, and cannot tell an employer, “This is what is going on.”
I was given a copy of this text message, which a lady received:
I hope you are doing a bit better, i am sorry to hear you have so much going on physically.
We have had to pause your email access due to confidentiality as you are signed off sick. I am aware you may be off for a few months, so we will end your contact at this point as you are off for a prolonged period of time.
Should you wish to reapply when things work out for you please get in touch through the usual route.
I hope this all makes sense for you, and you can take the time you need to recover and get things back to normal.
Many thanks for all your input, and maybe hear from you again in the future.”
That last sentence perfectly encapsulates an utter lack of understanding and support that is far too commonplace.
I quote from an email I received this morning from the Open University, highlighting the work of PhD student Victoria Williams. She has given the following statistics, based on her doctoral research on the workplace:
“In a study of 7,000 women across 52 countries, over 40% had given up or lost their job because of endometriosis…Others are being pushed into part-time roles or becoming self-employed whether the motivation or support is present or not…Women lose an average of 10.8 hours per week due to pain…Women lose an average of £5,757.72 per year due to lost work days…Many suffer in silence in the workplace in a bid to protect their jobs, careers, credibility and reputation. Women live with the daily predicament of disclosing symptoms which may drive accommodations or negatively fuel workplace discrimination…Endometriosis is a condition that is closely connected to menstruation alongside a history of shame, secrecy and lack of knowledge, it is classed as a taboo topic that constrains requesting and/or receiving organisational accommodations and support. Currently there is no advice for working with endometriosis from government bodies, occupational health specialists or the CIPD.”
One woman told me,
“I have had to have extended probations, sickness meetings, ‘what are you going to do to make this better’ and you have to sit there knowing you can’t do anything as there’s no cure.”
Going back to the lady in my previous story, when she had to have the medically advised abortion, a manager said, “Should’ve worn a condom.” The lady said it was hard to describe how disgusted she was, as the manager knew what she was going through.
A catalogue of women starting jobs only to fail the probation period due to sick leave is, I am afraid, an all too common reality. However, it would be remiss of me not to name an employer that women have told me has tried very hard to help sufferers. NPower allowed one severe sufferer to work from home, on flexible working, and was understanding of hospital appointments and surgeries. Let me take this opportunity to highlight an employer that shows that it is not impossible to support women in the workplace with this terrible disease.
My ambition for today’s debate is to raise awareness, especially of support groups, such as the one that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) mentioned, and others such as the Northern Endometriosis Sisters Support and Period Powerful Hub, to mention just two. I want better education in schools for young girls, as we can easily overlook the problem that a young woman with a single-parent father may have in understanding these issues. As I said, I hope that this debate will be recognised by several Departments, but I ask the Minister to ask the Department for Work and Pensions to do a full assessment of how the Department recognises endometriosis as a disability.
For too long, women with this disease have been dismissed as lazy, unreliable, dishonest and a nuisance. It surely must be illegal for a manager who is told of a sufferer’s condition to dismiss it out of hand by saying, “Should’ve worn a condom.” Women have described having to cope with blood seepage through their clothes, but another common factor can be a complete loss of bowel control, and having to dash to the bathroom unexpectedly. To have such an embarrassing and distressing situation used against them, and sometimes to be mocked in the workplace, must surely be illegal. The Equality Act 2010 is a piece of legislation we should all be proud of, but as with all law, it should evolve and change, especially when previously unrecognised situations come to the fore.
I want an assurance from the Minister that he will instruct his Department to do an assessment of how the blatant breaches of law on workplace humiliation, employment protection and, quite frankly, workplace bullying can be addressed, since this silent disease, which often has no physical appearance, can be so easily ignored by employers.
One of the challenges that the Minister will face when responding to the debate is that while there are medical guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and I think there are some National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines on how to diagnosis support women with endometriosis, those guidelines are not particularly well known among all the medical community. I wonder whether more should be done by the Department of Health and Social Care to improve diagnostic rates. If more women had a confirmed diagnosis, it would strengthen this Minister’s hand in taking action in the workplace.
I was just about to say that I need the Minister to work with the Department of Health and Social Care, because without a proper medical sign-off, this situation will keep arising, and by the time a diagnosis is finally made, many women have already seen their life destroyed. The Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s intervention.
I close with some rhetorical questions. Why is a disease that affects 1.5 million women in this country so unrecognised, and so easily dismissed? Why is there not women’s health education in schools, to help young women through their life journey and illnesses they may be suffering from? Why do we have such poor medical diagnosis? How have we been able to go so long without in-depth training for gynaecological surgeons who can help tackle this disease? Fundamentally, and pertinent to this debate, why, despite decades of work on the protection of employee rights in the workplace, do employers try to not only ignore this disease, but shuffle sufferers out of the door?
More than 1.5 million women in this country have been desperately crying out for far too long. Let today be the day that we stop failing so many women in our society.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) not only on securing the debate, but on the eloquent way that he presented his arguments, which were excellent and enabled us all to unite around them.
I will speak briefly on behalf of a constituent who wants to be identified, Katie Adwas, who came to see me only last week. She is a teacher, and actually she has a supportive employer. She explained to me what it is like to live with constant pain every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and how exhausting it is to do her job and get through the day. Unless we experience that, it is very difficult to relate to and understand. It makes everything she does in her life so much more difficult.
Although she recognises the need to focus on the world of work, she feels very strongly about the need for a focus on earlier diagnosis, better treatment and funding for research, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. It took 10 years—an entire decade—for my constituent to be diagnosed with endometriosis, by which time she was already at stage 4. She initially went to see her GP regarding a problem connected with her periods. As a consequence of that, at the age of 16, she was not only prescribed antidepressants but told that, as a woman, she would have to live with that kind of thing. The right hon. Gentleman alluded to that. At primary healthcare level, GP training is crucial; if that does not happen, we are destined to continue to have many problems.
Katie has also had a number of operations specifically to try to save her fertility. She wants to start a family, but she made the point that, unfortunately, surgery is not always successful. It can lead to the removal of appendix and ovaries, which, along with the condition more generally, can have a horrendous impact on someone’s mental health. We need to be concerned not just about the physical consequences of this condition, but about the long-term and ongoing mental health problems that, for understandable reasons, many women experience.
Katie very much wanted me to be her voice today. Other women in my constituency have been in touch too. I think we heard that one in five or one in 10 women across the country suffer from this condition. That is an extraordinary statistic. As policy makers and legislators, we must recognise that we have failed to act to date, and that we now have an opportunity and a responsibility to take decisive action. It is incredibly important that there is a joined-up approach across Departments. As the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell said, it is clear that there are a number of Departments with responsibility that can make a difference on these issues.
It is also incredibly important that the Department of Health and Social Care does not say, as it often does, “We are not willing to focus on specific conditions; we are willing to have generic approaches to groups of conditions, but we are not willing to train people on, raise awareness of or recognise particular conditions that need a much greater level of central intervention.” It is obvious from the neglect that this condition has experienced for a long time that it needs central intervention. Centrally-driven changes in policy are essential. Of course, delivery has to come on the ground—that is about awareness raising, training, early intervention and education—but we also need a specific focus on this condition.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on the sensitive way in which he introduced the debate. He posed three questions at the end of his speech. The answer to all three is: “Because it affects women.”
I have never been one to claim that we are disadvantaged as women, but I have seen over time that so much discrimination still happens. Never was that clearer than when I served as a Health Minister. Over and over again, I was approached by female colleagues from across the House—we are all very good at fighting for ourselves—who told me about how they had felt diminished at the hands of the NHS when sharing their experiences of quite common conditions.
At the heart of this debate is the fact that 51% of us have periods, so there should be far better understanding of menstrual health and what constitutes a healthy period. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for her work in this area. She highlighted to me the under-diagnosis of endometriosis, despite the fact that, as we have heard, it can be a debilitating condition for some women and it is very common.
I had the pleasure of addressing the hon. Lady’s women’s health conference, where I met representatives from Endometriosis UK. They had three jars, which contained physical representations of how many sanitary products someone would use if they had a healthy period, if they had heavy periods or if they had dysmenorrhea, which affects people with endometriosis. That was a revelation. If only young women were shown that when they started their periods, they could manage their menstrual health so much more effectively. I met a woman from Endometriosis UK who was in her early 20s. She had struggled with endometriosis and very heavy periods throughout her teens, to the extent that she had had to have time off school. Seeing that representation had been a revelation for her; she had been able to get the treatment she needed and carry on with life.
That brings me to my final point, which I pitch to the Minister for him to consider when he responds to the debate. We all expect our employers to have good policies on staff wellbeing—we encourage that with respect to mental health and physical health—but we really should encourage them to do much more about really common conditions that can be managed effectively with support. I thank everybody for attending the debate—especially the men.
Last year, during a round of crucial Brexit votes, I collapsed in the Opposition Whips Office and was taken to A&E over the road. I ended up staying in St Thomas’s for almost a week, hooked up to an IV and pumped full of antibiotics and painkillers, before I was eventually diagnosed: a cyst on one of my ovaries had ruptured and caused an infection. Last week, during a similar round of crucial Brexit votes—it felt very much like groundhog day—I was back in A&E with the same problem, in excruciating pain.
I have not told many people about those instances, but I wanted to speak in this debate because I have realised that, unfortunately, my experience of women’s health is far too common. Last week, I was sent away with painkillers and told, “Cysts rupture in women all the time.” It seems very much that things are allowed to go without treatment and without any knowledge of the cause because they happen only to women.
In her brilliant book “Period”, Emma Barnett makes the point that part of the reason for our failure on women’s health is that we simply do not talk about it. We do not talk about our periods because they are seen as shameful, unhygienic and unclean, and as something that should be kept secret and private—tropes that have been used to subjugate and silence women for centuries. Barnett is absolutely right: societal norms that do not allow discussion of periods and their wider consequences for women’s health mean that women do not seek treatment for their pain—as, for too long, I did not—or that, when they do, they are shrugged off, as I was last week.
On leaving hospital last week, I cried all the way home, in part because of the pain but mostly because I was furious that I had been so instantly dismissed and told I simply would have to live with a syndrome that would cause so much pain and risk on a monthly basis. I knew that countless other women would have been dismissed just as I was and gone home feeling exactly the same, because it is really hard for someone to advocate for themselves when they are in pain and feeling ill. I realised that we have to start normalising discussion about something as totally normal as periods. The current lack of education, awareness and medical research dismisses women and our health problems. It tells us that our pain is less important, and that our fertility is irrelevant.
I really welcome this debate and thank everybody for being here. I commend the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for securing it. I am so grateful to women such as Emma Barnett for using their platform to highlight the consequences for women of our failure to address their health, and for risking all the opprobrium they receive for speaking out. I hope that together we can seriously move this agenda forward, and demonstrate to millions of women that their voices are heard and that we will no longer allow them to suffer in silence.
That was a brave speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on introducing the debate.
Since the BBC covered this subject on 7 October, many of our constituents have raised issues with us. I will not repeat them all; I will just pay tribute to Carla Cressy, a local constituent who came to see me at a surgery, described her condition and encouraged me to set up the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis. We have with us the hon. Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who are all very active members of that group. I thank them for all their support.
When it comes to appreciating the severity of endometriosis, I was concerned to learn that the universal credit manual states that “endometriosis is rarely disabling”. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be keen to explain the progress that has already been made on this subject, and I kindly ask that that that guidance is re-examined and corrected. If workplace support is to be suitable, we have to make sure that managers truly appreciate that the condition is not just a little inconvenience; it affects everyone’s lives and can often be disabling. If we truly want progress towards meaningful workplace support, we need to address the concerns of 1.5 million women. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss). We should encourage employers to become endometriosis-friendly and make sure that there is access to statutory sick pay for those who suffer from it.
I end with these thoughts: the House cannot get Brexit done, but the all-party group on endometriosis will get endometriosis support done. We are launching an inquiry and will invite Ministers from all the different Departments to contribute. When it is done, the inquiry will not simply gather dust; we will make sure that there is real action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on his all-party group efforts. May I briefly pay tribute to Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals trust, a centre of excellence for the condition and the second busiest centre in the country? Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the Department of Health and Social Care, our GP surgeries, our CCGs and our hospitals must do more to publicise the condition and publicise how women can seek the help that they need?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We might ask his trust to come and give evidence to our inquiry.
A great service has been done in initiating this debate. It means that we are able to talk about the issue and encourage sufferers. We have heard that one of our own is suffering immensely from this disease at the moment, but our all-party group’s inquiry will make sure that we do far better than we have done thus far to support women who suffer with endometriosis.
I thank the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for securing the debate. I have campaigned on endometriosis ever since a constituent came to me and explained the long wait she had had, the difficulties she had faced, and the pain she had been suffering. I will take one moment to congratulate her because she has just had a baby, having previously been told that she was possibly infertile, so huge congratulations to her and her family.
I am delighted that endometriosis is now in the education curriculum and part of sex and relationships education. I met the Minister for School Standards and he agreed to include it, so that is great news. In the short time I have available I want to focus on my list of asks for the Minister. One ask is about people with endometriosis having the statutory support that they need and not facing discrimination. Such support includes personal independence payment and other disability allowances. Guidance on endometriosis and its impact on work should be clear so that those assessing an individual’s application understand the debilitating impact that endometriosis can have on a person’s life. I am slightly concerned that when people who have a severe form of endometriosis go for a PIP assessment, they are not taken seriously and the severity of what they suffer is not taken into account.
We must ensure that those with the disease have access to statutory sick pay as well. The current definition and criteria for statutory sick pay fails to recognise long-term conditions such as endometriosis, and statutory sick pay is available only to an employee for a linked period of sickness to a maximum of three years, which penalises people who have chronic long-term conditions such as endometriosis where the symptoms can be felt for life. Those with endometriosis need to be supported through both guidance to employers and statutory sick pay. It must be recognised that chronic conditions may result in intermittent rather than continual symptoms. Again, the guidance does not seem to match the particular circumstances of endometriosis.
I also want to ask the Minister to work with Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that those with endometriosis have access to the right support at the right time, in order to limit the amount of time they need off. I do not feel that the NHS has woken up to the scale of endometriosis, and services do not appear to be planned to support all those who need it. It needs to be taken seriously by commissioning services.
My final ask is that the Department of Health and Social Care looks at supporting the research that has been done at the University of Hull, which has looked at developing biomarkers for endometriosis to reduce the amount of time that it takes to diagnose. They need only £10,000 in seed funding, which would make a huge difference.
I have much more to say, but in the time remaining I will simply echo what many other Members have said: it is time to take women’s health seriously. Will the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care work together to deliver a difference for the many women who suffer?
For many people, endometriosis is a condition that they have never heard of, or are certainly not familiar with, yet it has blighted the lives of far too many women. The latest figures suggest that one in 10 women suffer with it. For those women, “suffering” is the correct term to use. In addition, it is associated with being the cause of infertility in 30% to 50% of cases. Shockingly, the average diagnosis time after symptoms first appear is seven and a half years.
Although the condition is not recognised as a disability as such, many women living with it will testify that it can be very disabling and debilitating. At this point, I wish to give a shout out to my constituent, Ann Devlin, who lives in Largs. She has lived with the condition and is what we might call an “endo warrior”, since she has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the condition and to support other women who live with it. She is energetic, cheerful and resilient in the face of the sometimes great challenges that the condition has placed on her life, but she still inspires, helps and supports others who face similar challenges. I pay tribute to her strength. I know how often the condition has crippled and consumed her, and too many other women. I have huge respect for all that she has done.
I also pay tribute to the work of my husband, Kenneth Gibson MSP, who worked extremely hard to ensure that there was a specialised endometriosis unit to serve women in the west of Scotland to complement the services already provided in units in Aberdeen and Edinburgh. It was simply not fair that my constituents had to travel from North Ayrshire and Arran to Edinburgh for specialist care for this condition, and he has worked hard to secure that change. He has campaigned incessantly for better treatment and greater awareness of the issue, and he was the first to bring the issue of endometriosis to the Floor of the Scottish Parliament in a debate in 2001, and again last year. He is the only Member of the Scottish Parliament to have secured debates on the issue in its 20-year history.
This debate is timely as we seek to address support in the workplace for this condition. Otherwise women find that their contribution to and potential in the workplace and wider economy is lost. Women often lose out on sick pay for the recurring nature of the condition, so that needs to be addressed. It has a huge impact on women’s lives in the world of work as they might require time out for medical treatment and consultations. They suffer pain and fatigue, and the seven and a half years before diagnosis makes it very hard for employers to treat their condition with the seriousness it deserves. We have to keep talking about it. We must keep shining a light on it and raise awareness and understanding. That in itself will do much to ease the burden of women with the condition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which he introduced it. As many Members know, I have spoken in the past about the challenges that my wife faces as a fibromyalgia sufferer, and I can see many parallels between the two conditions, given the debilitating physical symptoms and their unpredictability, as well as the lack of understanding from the public and employers about the conditions and the delays in getting a diagnosis.
I want to speak briefly about the experience of a person I spoke to who suffers from endometriosis. She told me that before she was diagnosed she had regular periods of extreme pain, which she described as more severe than giving birth. She said the contraction-like pains would last for several days a month, which made it difficult for her to look after her children and go to work, yet she did not feel that she could take time off for what her GP described as bad period pains. She went back and forth to her GP for three years and was given increasing amounts of pain medication. Outrageously, she was told that, as a woman in her 40s, she was not expected to have to put up with it for much longer. I simply cannot believe that was the advice. She was eventually diagnosed and had treatment, and she is now on the mend.
Endometriosis UK has called for those with the condition to have access to statutory sick pay. As it stands, the current definition of SSP penalises people with chronic long-term conditions such as endometriosis, whose symptoms can be experienced over many years. What about people who work in the gig economy? How realistic is it for people in agency work or on zero-hours contracts to take time off when they are suffering, knowing that they may not get a call back when the next shift becomes available? We need to think about wider protections.
We also need to make it easier for employers to feel comfortable in talking about endometriosis with their staff, who will hopefully feel more supported if they can have an open dialogue. An endometriosis-friendly employer scheme would be helpful in that respect and would effectively mean people could manage their conditions better in the workplace. Some of the examples given by the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell about how people have been treated in the workplace show that there is an awfully long way to go.
This is a good opportunity for the Government, and for Parliament, to lead by example and become endometriosis-friendly employers. I would be happy if we could support that scheme. We must step up the fight here to ensure that all women who suffer from that terrible condition have the support they need in the workplace. That means strengthening workplace protection so that women do not feel that they need to fight their employer as well as the condition itself.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on bringing this matter to the attention of the House. As the father of three sons, I must admit that the subject of periods and “women’s concerns”, as my mother used to call them, was not my forte. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) will know what I am about to say, as I have told her before—and I commend her for all that she does and for the event that she held in Portcullis House. It was helpful for everyone to be aware of the issues.
In my office five out of six staff members are female, and two of those girls suffer from endometriosis. I have overheard too many conversations to ignore the issue and leave it in a pile marked as women’s concerns. I married my wife some 32 years ago, and at the time she suffered from endometriosis as well. The doctor told her, “If you have some children, that will clear it up.” Well, we had three children, and it did not clear it up—that is a fact.
I did a little research, with the help of the House of Commons Library, and the briefing states:
“It is not known how many women are affected by endometriosis in the UK, there are no official figures collected on prevalence but a figure commonly cited is that it is estimated to affect 1 in 10 women. In 2015, the Royal College of Nursing reported that ‘the exact prevalence of endometriosis is unknown but estimates range from between two and 10 per cent of the general female population but up to 50 percent in infertile women.’ The NHS does collect data on hospital admissions where endometriosis was the primary condition—in 2018-19 there were 23,000 hospital admissions where the main cause was endometriosis in England.”
I will always bring in the perspective of Northern Ireland, where nearly all the 380 women who took part in BBC research said endometriosis had badly affected their mental health, career opportunities, sexual relationships and education. The latest figures show that in Northern Ireland the number of women waiting for a gynaecology outpatient appointment rose from 7,700 in 2012 to 17,000 in March. That is a massive increase of about 120%. In 2010, 221 patients were waiting for a laparoscopy, and by March this year the number had almost tripled to 606. That shows that the issue is becoming more prevalent. Of those waiting, nearly half have been doing so for more than six months. Those women are being failed by the NHS. Yet we expect them to continue to go to work with immense pain, feeling ill and sometimes unable to move. Worse, we live in a society where we have been trained not to talk about it. We talk about migraines openly in the workplace, but the debilitating disease of endometriosis is just as deserving of consideration and support in the workplace.
I firmly believe that we must begin a campaign to raise awareness of the problem for women, and of how gentle support can and must be put in place. That support can range from more frequent rest breaks to a change of activity during flare-ups in manual labour jobs, and even flexibility in sick day procedure. It is just a matter of understanding, being compassionate and sincere and trying to help—having empathy. I believe the change must start from here and work its way through all public sector jobs. I look to the Minister, as always, to understand how and when he intends to implement that support system.
Thank you for accommodating me in the debate, Mr Pritchard. I had not intended to make a speech but was inspired by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who spoke of her own experiences.
Many Members may know that one of the main issues that I have championed since coming to this place in 2015, besides constituency issues, has been women’s health. Largely that has been the result of my own experiences. I have an endometrial disease and, thankfully, I was lucky with respect to workplace issues. I worked in the NHS through most of the time in question, including diagnosis, so my employers were reasonably understanding when I went through chemical menopause at the age of 36 or 37. I want to stress how important it is for women to seek help at an early age if they experience abnormalities or, as in my case, very heavy and painful periods.
The thing that really encouraged me to seek help was when went to Asda after work one day and fainted from the pain. I have never experienced childbirth, so I cannot compare it, but it was the most chronic abdominal pain. I worked in a hospital at the time. I will not use the words that I said to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for fear that they might be unparliamentary. I chose not to see the gynaecologist in the hospital where I worked because I thought, “If he has been looking at my nether regions I don’t particularly want to bump into him in the hospital canteen,” so I got a diagnosis at another hospital in the neighbouring trust in south Yorkshire. The gynaecologist was a mature gentleman and was very rude, saying to me, “Put up with it; you’re a woman, and women have periods.” I found that absolutely devastating and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, I went home and cried. I thought, “I have to put up with this. This can’t be right.”
Years later I got a diagnosis—at the hospital where I worked, ironically. That gynaecologist has since emigrated to New Zealand, although I am assured that it was nothing to do with me. Within minutes of meeting me he said, “I know exactly what’s wrong.” I had already had three lots of surgery—two laparoscopies and one hysteroscopy. He allowed me to have the chemical menopause or a hysterectomy. I chose the chemical menopause because I still harboured hopes of having children. Thankfully, I was one of the women virtually cured by it. It brought some other health challenges. There is a message in that, about empowering women to ask for a second opinion. There is nothing wrong with doing that.
Traditionally in this country—thankfully, things are changing gradually—legislation has been made by men. If I have a headache or break my leg, men can empathise, because they have heads and legs too. But if I have a problem with my periods or my womb, we are still playing catch-up. I feel that the tide is turning. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), whose speech was excellent.
I appreciate that I am late in coming to the debate, Mr Pritchard, but it is an important issue, and I thank the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for obtaining it. The issue is not recognised by most people. In particular, women end up taking a huge amount of painkillers—not just during their periods but when the pain is excruciating and they are unable to move or do anything. That has a huge effect on their kidneys. I have had a kidney transplant, and I understand that. People say, “Just take some more painkillers,” but that is not the way to solve it. We must look at how employers deal with it, and how the NHS deals with it. That is the most important thing, and I wanted to make that point because I have a friend who is a sufferer.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing the debate. I put a shout out on social media yesterday and was overwhelmed by the responses I got from women across my constituency and beyond. When I posted something about the debate, asking people to watch it, a post came in from a woman who said, “It nearly killed me”. That goes to the heart of the issue and conveys the severity of endometriosis symptoms.
A statistic that I was not aware of, which came up early in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, is the 62% increase in the rate of heart attacks among those who suffer from endometriosis. One of my staff members had a hysterectomy because of endometriosis, and she suffers from a number of other health issues, which we have done our very best to accommodate and support her through. I have seen the pain that she went through. A number of my friends suffer in this way; one of them, Sabrina, got in touch with me. I remember working with her in Aberdeen, and recall the pain and suffering that she went through—and, sadly, the lack of support that she often received from employers, was significant.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned an anonymous person who had got in touch with him and who worked at HMRC. Another woman from HMRC—she does not want to be named—got in touch with me, and said that she feels unable to miss work appointments, and that the condition has had a deep emotional impact and caused her huge anxiety. She said:
“I work in a male dominated civil service department and have had my concerns ignored, and a previous manager even refused to document the condition as it made him feel uncomfortable.”
The fact that so many men are speaking up about this issue today—the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) has also raised it in the Scottish Parliament a number of times—goes to show that there are men out there who care. We must ensure that every employer does, and we can make a significant dent in that by getting the UK Government to commit to ensuring that HMRC, and all other Departments, are sensitive and prepared for something that is clearly an issue in their own house.
This has been a hugely consensual debate. I do not want to be overly critical, but we cannot have consensus just in Westminster Hall today and nowhere else. We can do something about this issue if we work together. We heard what the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) has had to endure, and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) spoke powerfully about her experiences and the work she has done. There is huge expertise in this room, but I also wish to give a voice to some of the women who have got in touch with me. One said:
“I was lucky to have a good employer and eventually they sent me home with the promise that I go to the doctor, as the pain was so bad one day.”
She said that her doctor had no clue what the problem was, and she had to go to hospital many times after suffering for 10 years. Another women, Ailsa, said that the condition
“completely impacted my work and social life due to the pain, anxiety and isolation”.
Rebecca said that endometriosis had a life-changing impact on her mental health. She has been trying to reduce her working hours, but that has not yet been implemented, and she has been off sick since August.
A number of women got in touch to say that their employers have been sensitive to this issue, but so many are not. Raising awareness of endometriosis is our duty, but doing something about it is even more of a duty. One woman said that she was constantly being called to see HR, and then being called a liar and threatened with dismissal. Another woman said that her employer had refused to provide a sanitary bin because it was “too expensive”, and he did not want to add it to the costs of the business. It is incredible that although 1.5 million women are affected by this condition across the UK, we still have employers who think such behaviour is acceptable. Let us be clear: they are breaking the law.
Legislation alone will not solve the problem. Earlier I spoke about ENDO Warriors West Lothian, which was founded in 2017 by Candice McKenzie and Claire Beattie, and I pay tribute to them. They recently walked, as did I, on the Kiltwalk in Edinburgh to raise money for the EXPPECT Centre, which is a specialist clinic for endometriosis. We must also recognise the challenges in rural areas in Scotland and across the UK. Women in rural areas have to travel further to reach services, and good practice is particularly important.
Another constituent, Rachel, said that she lobbied her employer, and they now have an understanding. She has been able to get better support, whereas previously she lost pay or had to take holidays to attend operations or hospital appointments. She was unable to get sick pay, which added to her stress and financial worry, and those poor experiences resulted in her taking more time off. One woman told me that she is fighting her employer to get reduced working hours, just so she can work at a desk. We are all employers, and it is our duty to support our staff.
Emma got in touch with me to say:
“25 years blessed with a curse…finally diagnosed 15 years ago after 10 years of being palmed off.”
She was told that she suffered from hypochondria—that old chestnut—and that periods were “meant to be painful”; that was said by a man. Someone said, “I’m sure your pain is very real to you,” as she crawled to A&E, crying her eyes out and vomiting in pain. She was told that periods cannot cause leg pain—she uses crutches some of the time—and she often passes out from pain when going to the toilet. She was told, however, that she looked “fine”. She wrote:
“Through the years I’ve passed out so much that my bathroom floor has had more hits than Take That”.
That goes to the heart of the issue.
Shirley said that she
“worked full time and had NO support from bosses and management…even after my specialist wrote to them I still got no support…in fact they stressed me out that much I had a heart attack”.
Such experiences are outrageous, and wherever we find them, we must call them out. Not every woman can get in touch with her employer, or ask a specialist to write a letter. We must do everything we can as Members of Parliament and legislators to change the narrative, change the law if necessary, and work holistically across Departments and the UK to ensure that women who suffer from endometriosis get a proper diagnosis at the proper time and the right support. When women are at work, they should not be persecuted for something over which they have no control.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing this important debate.
We have heard excellent and powerful contributions from 15 hon. Members about the profound impact that this complex and debilitating condition can have on our constituents—and on Members of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). It is extraordinary to think that nearly as many women in the UK have endometriosis as have diabetes, yet the suffering associated with it is often private and unseen. Part of the issue is a still-ingrained culture of silence and even shame when it comes to women’s reproductive health, and the pervasive attitude that serious menstrual pain is normal and natural. It is not.
When such attitudes collide with working life, the effects on women can be profound. For the 30% of women with the disease who have severe endometriosis, the condition can stop them working in the way they want. As we heard from hon. Members across the House, some women report finding conventional, full-time jobs impossible to hold down because of the impact of the condition on the hours they can work—zero-hours contracts have been mentioned—and the tasks they can perform. In some cases, women are literally managed out of work. Recent research shows that such actions can lead to those women who are most severely affected losing on average more than £5,000 in earnings a year, and one in six women gives up work entirely. We cannot afford to ignore this condition any longer.
Workplace attitudes often do not help. Today, we have listened to the experiences of women, and we heard the same stories over and over: when it comes to endometriosis, women are often not believed or supported by doctors, employers or even loved ones. Almost all women who responded to a recent BBC survey on endometriosis felt that their career had been hampered. The knock-on effects of endometriosis on mental health are shocking; almost half of the women surveyed reported that they had experienced suicidal thoughts.
Endometriosis UK provides information and guidance for employers and employees, but workplace guidance from the Government is still lacking. Endometriosis is not mentioned in several mainstream Government resources on occupational health and disability. Government acknowledgement is a vital part of awareness and recognition of endometriosis; in the absence of that acknowledgment, the condition is often framed as a performance issue, rather than a health concern. Will the Minister commit to changing this discriminatory practice? As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) highlighted, some of that has to do with the Department for Work and Pensions.
Another problem raised by Endometriosis UK is statutory sick pay. The current guidance limits statutory sick pay to three years—much less than half of the average time it takes a woman suffering from endometriosis to be diagnosed, let alone their total time living with the condition. Endometriosis is a chronic, complex and fluctuating condition. Will the Minister do everything he can to ensure that statutory sick pay reflects reality?
Concerns have also been raised by the Work Foundation about how guidance for benefits such as the personal independence payment covers endometriosis. It has been suggested that its potential severity is not accurately reflected in guidance provided to assessors. Concerns have also been raised that references to “lifelong” conditions in disability policy have the potential to exclude women with this condition. Considering the number of women affected by endometriosis, and its impact on working lives, what will the Minister do to investigate that and ensure that women receive the support they need?
In 2017, the main recommendation in the first ever guidance on endometriosis produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence was that medical professionals should “listen to women”. I advise the Government to do the same. Listen to what has been said in the Chamber. Listen to research and testimony. Listen to the outcome of the APPG inquiry. Listen to what women, and the organisations that represent them, are telling Ministers about the help that they need, and commit to addressing the unacceptable shortcomings in support for those who suffer with endometriosis.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again for this important debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing this debate, which provides an opportunity to discuss this hugely important and overlooked condition.
It is clear that there is overwhelming cross-party agreement, with little to disagree with in the sentiment expressed. I am incredibly impressed with the references to digital engagement and with how most hon. Members who spoke have been personally contacted or have personal experience of the impacts. It was clear to see genuine emotion from people watching the debate, and that is because this genuinely matters.
It has been highlighted that this issue cuts across many Departments. I represent the Department for Work and Pensions, but there is clearly a big role for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in how employers are acting, for the Department of Health and Social Care on awareness and how long it takes to get the correct diagnosis, and for the Department for Education in raising awareness at a younger age, although it does see that there are positive steps. To ensure that nothing falls between the cracks, my Department recently moved the Office for Disability Issues to the Cabinet Office. We are still responsible, but it is based in the Cabinet Office so that on cross-cutting issues such as this it can be the eyes and ears, making sure that there is a joined-up approach.
I absolutely give a full commitment, on behalf of the DWP, that we will engage fully with the APPG review, to identify areas where we can improve awareness with our frontline staff, and improve how we handle benefits, support and everything that we can possibly do. We will also do everything we can to encourage the other three Departments, which I have no doubt will be just as willing to be proactive in this area. With the APPG’s helpful, constructive, proactive review, using the wealth of experience that is out there, hopefully together we can make a big difference.
We clearly welcome what the Minister just said, but as the shadow Minister said, surely there needs to be an understanding in the DWP of what endometriosis is and what its symptoms are, so that that is reflected when considering someone’s benefits. As elected representatives, we sometimes find that that is not the case. How will the Minister ensure that the Department and officials can make that change?
That is what I am articulating. We want to know that all our frontline staff and systems are taking that on. People are raising concerns that may not necessarily be directly linked to the DWP, although they may be. That is why I want to commit as much as I can to support the review, because if there are areas in which we can improve, we should and will improve in them. There is a genuine commitment.
The point about taboos has been raised by many people, and the fact that this condition is so under-researched and given so little airtime because it relates specifically and only to women. I bring the Minister’s attention to the #periodpositive pledge, developed by my constituent Chella Quint, which campaigns against menstrual taboos and asks particularly for all official documentation to explicitly use the terms “menstrual issues” or “mental health issues” rather than euphemisms such as feminine and sanitary hygiene.
I welcome what the Minister said about the DWP looking at how it can raise awareness of the condition for frontline staff. Does he agree that it is important to look at how sick pay works? Given the recurrent nature of the condition, it often has a financial cost to women in days lost to sickness. Will he commit to looking at whether endometriosis can be accommodated?
I will come to that in my speech, so I ask hon. Members to be a little patient. I will cover most of the points raised.
When, of the four Departments, my Department and I were selected to respond to the debate—one of four Ministers could have been selected to respond—my initial reaction was: do I know much about this? I was contacted by a former employee, Kamya Gopal—she is happy for me to name her—who had this condition. When I employed her, we had had a conversation and made some relatively easy changes that involved being sympathetic: she had to go for short-notice GP appointments; we took into account a need for urgent toilet breaks when doing visits, making sure we were not too far away; and we took things on a day-to-day basis. For a reasonable length of time, no changes were needed. Sometimes they were, and we just accepted that, and it worked. The key thing is that it was easy for me to make those changes, and I as an employer benefited, for four years, from a really valuable member of my team. It was a win-win from having the confidence to have that conversation. She made it clear to me—this has come across clearly in hon. Members’ speeches—that it affects everyone differently. For her, it is a family trait, but they all have different symptoms and challenges to overcome. It all comes down to having that conversation.
Linked to that, another impact is the need to use disabled toilets. Kamya has a RADAR key—it is a hidden disability—and recently someone challenged her for using the disabled toilet. She had to explain, which was embarrassing for her and for the lady who challenged her. That is why I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who has been championing Grace’s sign, which is fully supported by my Department, to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and hidden health conditions and avoid those confrontational, embarrassing situations.
It is important that people with health conditions get the support that enables them to stay in work, and productive in work. Such support is wide-ranging and relies on employers being open to discussing health matters with their employees in a respectful and constructive way.
I am on my fifth Secretary of State as a Minister in the DWP, and I have many roundtables with different stakeholders. We were talking about disability employment yesterday, and it was interesting how there has been a shift in focus to ensuring that people do not drop out of work due to disability or a health condition. Collectively we must do much more in that area. I am encouraged that there is increasing awareness and recognition of hidden disabilities, and hidden health conditions in particular. There is still a huge way to go, but there is a willingness in society to do better.
Endometriosis is a serious condition; we have heard about the ways that it can be debilitating. For the estimated one in 10 women in the UK who suffer, the condition can have a huge effect on their daily lives, including their ability to work to their full ability. As the examples quoted by various Members today show, diagnosis is not always straightforward. Problems arise because symptoms can vary significantly, and because diagnosis tends to require invasive procedures. I do not profess to be a health expert, but it is clear that because endometriosis is seen as a taboo, that will impact on the ability to diagnose and provide support. Members have spoken powerfully about how we have to do much more in that area.
The challenging nature of the condition is recognised within the health system, which now has specialist training. NHS England has developed a service specification for severe endometriosis under the specialised commissioning area of complex gynaecology. That is a good step. It is the beginning of the journey and we will have to see what difference it makes, but I am encouraged that it is starting to happen.
Through these measures diagnosis and treatment should improve, but we must also consider the effect on the ability to work. A survey by investment firm Standard Life found that one in six women with endometriosis report having to give up work because of the severity of their symptoms, with almost all—some 87%—reporting that the condition affected their financial position in some way.
Individual women feel the harmful effects, but employers and the economy as a whole lose out. The leading charity, Endometriosis UK, has estimated that the total cost to the economy of the condition is £8.2 billion; the cost from loss of work is a key contributor to that figure. As outlined in the Work Foundation report, such an impact means that the days of dismissing topics such as these as “women’s issues” are long gone. We know that both the health and work landscapes must be more aware of the condition and its symptoms, for the sake of the women who suffer from it and in order to build a healthier and more productive society for all.
One way that people in work are protected is through the Equality Act 2010, which is the principal means through which disabled people are protected from discrimination in Great Britain. Other than for a very few exceptions, the Act recognises a disability by the impact on the person’s life rather than by the condition itself. Importantly, that means that women with endometriosis are protected by the Act if their condition has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. I recognise the points that have been highlighted about how we need to improve the awareness and the enforcement of the Act, and about wider support. I will come on to some of the work in that area.
Individuals are also protected in law against unfair dismissal. While those legal protections exist, sufferers continue to face barriers to work and barriers in the workplace, as we have heard. More must be done to raise awareness of hidden conditions. Workplace cultures must adapt to spread understanding of the importance of supporting individuals with health conditions and the value of open discussions about health in the workplace.
Can my hon. Friend pick up on the specific point that was raised about HMRC by myself and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell)? I absolutely agree with what he is saying, but it seems like an easy starting point to address that point with a Government Department.
Will the Minister guarantee that no employee of HMRC. or any other Government Department. who has spoken out or contacted their MP will be persecuted or disadvantaged in any way in their place of employment? Because of the treatment she had experienced at HMRC, the constituent who contacted me was concerned that she would be putting herself at further risk if she were to be named. That is why I have not named her. Can he give me that guarantee?
That is absolutely understood. It is underpinned by the Equality Act 2010, which protects workers in the workplace.
Unfortunately, as highlighted, there remains stigma and taboo attached to discussing health issues that affect women. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said that she was pleased to see so many men contributing or responding in this debate. I recognise that that is important. I also welcome the recent media focus on endometriosis, which has begun to break down some stigma and taboo. There is still a long way to go. This debate alone highlights the need to do more. Women, particularly young women, must know that they do not need to suffer in silence. This is one of the few issues that unites us across parties; those who have campaigned on this issue should take credit for helping to secure that cross-party support.
I find cause for optimism in parallels with work supporting other hidden disabilities, such as mental health issues, where we have been able to raise awareness. There has been a desire in all parts of society to improve what we can do. We need to replicate that with this condition in light of the concerns that have been raised.
The Government’s main role is to create conditions in which employers can do the right thing. In mid-July we published a consultation on proposals to reduce ill-health-related job loss, called “Health is everyone’s business”. The consultation closed on 7 October, but I will try to make sure that everything that has been raised today is fed into that. There were some helpful insights.
The proposals covered a range of areas, such as changes to the legal framework to encourage employers to intervene early during sickness absences and provide workplace modifications; the reform to statutory sick pay, which many Members have highlighted as an area of particular interest; and better provision of information and advice to employers on health issues in the workplace, which is important to me.
We often think about big businesses that have HR and personnel departments. As long as the key decision makers at the top can be convinced about what their organisation should be doing, there are professionals who are comfortable making sure that that is embedded in the culture of the organisation. As an example, I pay tribute to John Lewis & Partners; I spoke at an event in Parliament last week about its provision of good in-work health support for its staff.
However, over 50% of private sector jobs are in small or medium-sized businesses. With the best will in the world, they do not have HR or personnel departments, so we must do far more to ensure that they have information and to signpost them to organisations and groups that can provide the next level of support. I want to see that delivered through the Health and Safety Commission. We are brilliant at supporting safety in the workplace; we have to have the same approach on health and on improvements to the quality and accessibility of occupational health services. These proposals do not name and target specific conditions, but they will reduce ill-health-related job loss across the board, which will benefit those suffering with endometriosis.
I again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell for highlighting the powerful words of many of the people who contacted him. I know that, with over 2,000 responses, he had a lot to choose from. One response that articulated the value of flexibility particularly well said:
“You don’t know how your pain is going to be that day. You could be absolutely fine, or you could be crippled.”
Being able to adjust workload on a given day, or to choose to work from home, will enable women who experience fluctuating symptoms like that to stay in work.
The Government are committed to showing employers the business case for this flexibility, and to showing that a more productive and engaged workforce, with better retention, will be the end result. I say that with genuine passion. I have employed many people with health conditions and disabilities, and I have benefited from that.
I have been grateful for the opportunity to address the issues raised. Endometriosis is a condition that we all need to take seriously, and those with the condition need all the support they can get. I trust I have been able to offer reassurances to hon. Members about the support and protection available, and about the measures that this Government are taking to support and encourage employers to support their employees with health conditions and create workplaces where everyone can thrive. We have much more to do. The all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis allows Members who have a real interest, passion and knowledge of this area to contribute. All Departments must take that seriously.
Finally, I pay tribute to all the volunteers who are providing support groups across the country, among our local communities. They are making a real difference, ensuring that people realise they are not suffering alone.
I thank every single right hon. and hon. Member who has contributed today. Given the times we are going through, it goes to show the strength of parliamentarians from across parties that we have come together to deliver a clear message about where we want to get to as we move forward.
My main aim today was to raise the issue further into the public perspective. I welcome the Minister’s words; I know the APPG will be feeding into that. I am excited by the fact that the issue is now with the Cabinet Office, so that it can look at it across Departments. We have made it clear—all coming at the subject from different angles—that we need different Departments to get a handle on the issue if we are to sort it out.
I pay personal tribute to the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff). Many of us in this Chamber suffer from health issues, but not many of us are brave enough to stand up and say what they are. People who inspire other people make change possible. Being able to look at someone who is in the position of being a Member of Parliament and say, “That person has the same thing I am suffering from,” hopefully lets the word spread. Fundamentally, we have to break down the taboos. We have to educate better in the workplace and use the education system we have, but we have to break down the taboos. We have made a good start today.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Bus Services: Cumbria
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bus services in Cumbria.
It is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this massively important issue.
To represent a part of Britain as breathtakingly beautiful as ours in south Cumbria—to stand here and speak up for communities in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the rest of the south Lakes—is the greatest privilege. It is an awesome place, and it is a huge place—the travel distances are immense. My constituency could contain every single one of the 73 constituencies that make up London, and we would be delighted to have the public transport options of just one of them. In such a vast and sparsely populated area as the south Lakes, public transport links are fundamental, yet so often they fall woefully short of meeting the needs of communities, and the provision that currently exists is coming under continuous and increasing threat.
Cumbria suffers from rural transport poverty. The picture for the whole north-west region is pretty bleak; in the 10 years from 2008 to 2018 the north-west lost 888 separate, distinct services. That figure does not include the services that we have lost in the past year. We in Cumbria have been particularly badly hit, although we had a little good news last week when we won a temporary reprieve for two bus services in the south Lakes. Stagecoach agreed to continue running the 552 between Arnside and Kendal and the 530 between Cartmel, Levens and Kendal, but only for a further three weeks, while we look to put a longer-term solution in place.
In a large rural area with a dispersed population, it is very hard for bus services to be run on a commercial basis. Unlike many urban areas, we cannot rely on the private sector to fill the gaps when funding disappears.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I represent a constituency with many similar challenges to those he is talking about in Cumbria; it is a collection of small towns and villages around a bigger town, near a city. Exactly that point applies—we cannot rely on a commercial service. If we compare the number of cuts, the funding and the services that we have in south Yorkshire and Cumbria with areas such as London, the same model simply does not work. Does he agree that we need more funding, but that local people also need to get the services they deserve?
The hon. Lady’s intervention is very appropriate. I am certain that her communities will have had similar experiences to mine. In the end, investment in public transport is just that. People use the word subsidy, but we are talking about an investment, because the impact on local communities, their economy and the wellbeing of the people who live in them of having these services is worth the money we put into them. It makes more money in terms of the multiplier, so her point is well made and I am grateful to her for making it.
Over the next three weeks we will work together to try to provide a long-term solution to the proposed loss of the 552 and the 530 services. We are grateful to have managed to persuade Stagecoach to give us that stay of execution. As I said, in a large rural area with a dispersed population, it is hard for bus services to be run on a commercial basis and, unlike many urban areas, we cannot rely on the private sector to fill the gaps when funding disappears. In fact, none of the recent services that have been cut has since been taken up by a commercial provider. Once they are gone, they are usually gone for good.
That is why I am so determined that we should find solutions now to protect or to replace the 530 and the 552 before they disappear. With no alternative bus service, those communities can easily become cut off. The average age in my patch is 10 years above the national average, and with a significantly larger older population the need for reliable, regular bus services is all the greater. Many people I know have found themselves alone and disconnected in their later years, the loss of bus services leaving them stranded in places that are utterly beautiful but utterly isolated.
The steady erosion of our bus services comes at the worst time, when other key services are also being reduced. The closure of bank branches in places such as Milnthorpe, Grange, Sedbergh, Ambleside and Coniston in recent times, alongside the closure of shops and post offices, means that people rely even more on public transport to get to the bigger towns and villages, just as those public transport options are disappearing.
That is why we were right to fight to expose Barclays for its dreadful plan to withdraw from the scheme that underpins our post offices, and I am relieved that Barclays has done a U-turn under pressure from many of us. However, it is a reminder that we need to ensure that the banks pay a fair price to the post offices that now fill the spaces that they left behind when they closed their branches and abandoned our communities.
Many in our towns and villages rely on the buses for the basic tasks of daily life—shopping, doctor’s appointments, seeing friends and family or getting to work. The 530 is the only bus route that serves the village of Levens. It is well used by residents to travel into Kendal to shop and to access other vital services. The same applies to the 552; without that service, there is no regular bus connection linking Arnside with the other major communities.
We must also consider the impact of loneliness on physical and mental health. Let us imagine someone who lives in a small village and is unable to drive. If their one transport link is removed, they will find themselves increasingly cut off, unable to travel at the same time as they witness the closure of accessible services in the place they live, with more and more of the homes in their community becoming second homes that are empty for 90% of the year. With few neighbours and fewer local services, the loss of buses constitutes the loss of a vital lifeline and risks leaving many even more isolated and vulnerable.
It is not only the elderly in our communities who are suffering from the reduced bus services. Young people’s access to public transport is also under threat. Free school transport is provided for children up to sixth-form age, but after that the support is not available. It simply makes no sense for the Government to demand that young people carry on in education until they are 18 and then deny them the ability to afford to do so. In places such as Sedbergh and Coniston, it is often impossible to gain access to sixth-form provision at schools or colleges by public transport. There needs to be a statutory responsibility for local education authorities to guarantee home-to-school transport for 16 to 18-year-old students, in the same way that there is for the under-16s. However, there must also be the buses available to deliver that transport in the first place.
Community bus services have filled the gap in some cases, as over the past 30 years Governments of all colours have allowed funding for bus provision to evaporate. To their absolute credit, communities have not just stood by. When the X12 from Coniston to Ulverston was cut, the community stepped up to run the service through fundraising and sheer determination, but it has not been easy. It is a service run in the face of obstacles thrown up by the Department for Transport’s own rules.
Similar stories could be told of the 106 between Kendal and Penrith, and of the 597 Windermere town bus. In Sedbergh the buses are now run by the community-run Western Dales Bus, set up after the cancellation of the 564 left Sedbergh entirely without a connection to the main town of Kendal. I am massively grateful to the volunteers who make those services possible. Indeed, it was a pleasure to be a volunteer driver myself on the Sedbergh bus just a few months ago. It was a great pleasure for the passengers too—at least, they were pleased when the experience was over.
I am proud of our communities and proud of the bus services that so many groups run locally, working tirelessly to provide the best services they can, but it is a battle that comes at a personal cost. Our communities do a phenomenal job, but they should not have to. Urban areas would never settle for that absence of provision, so why should we?
The Cumbria chamber of commerce last year consulted businesses throughout our county for their response to Transport for the North’s strategic review. Inadequate bus services were cited repeatedly for the toll that they were taking on the ability of businesses to recruit staff. Put simply, staff have no means of getting to work. That is a particular issue for the tourism and hospitality industry, in which staff often have to start shifts early or finish late. Lack of buses also prevents businesses in the Lake district from recruiting staff from Barrow, where the employment pool is bigger and unemployment is higher.
Bus services are essential to life for locals. They are also key to Cumbria’s vibrant tourism industry. Cumbria’s Lake district is Britain’s second biggest visitor destination after London—16 million people visited us last year. A high proportion of visitors use their free bus passes while on holiday. That is subsidised by Cumbria County Council through funds provided by the Government, but calculated according to the number of people permanently living in our community. That calculation does not count the reality of the colossal number of tourists using the service. The funding does not even begin to reflect the number of passes used in our area, and local taxpayers end up picking up the shortfall. That is one reason why there is no money to subsidise public bus services in Cumbria; we are basically subsidising public transport for people from richer authorities who do not return the favour.
It strikes me as bizarre, standing in London as I am, that bus services here receive a £722 million annual subsidy, while in Cumbria we receive absolutely nothing. The lack of subsidy has a catastrophic impact on fares, and the extortionate prices make commuting by bus a real challenge, especially for lower-paid workers. How is it right that the 5-mile bus journey from Ambleside to Grasmere—neighbouring communities—costs £4.90, while a journey of equivalent length in London costs £1.50? The Government subsidise buses in a big city where the market is not broken, but they refuse to help in rural areas where the market absolutely is broken.
We are proud that so many people want to visit our area—we love to welcome you to Cumbria. Our tourism industry is invaluable to the economy, but investment in public services is essential to ensuring that tourism does not damage our local communities but helps them to thrive. We want to encourage our visitors to travel sustainably, but 85% of them use the motor car to get to our community and to travel around once they are there. However, we know that with the right interventions and conditions, our visitors will travel sustainably.
Tourism sector deal zone proposals include a focus on sustainability, and public bus transport is a key component of that—so we welcome it—alongside rail, boats, bikes and, of course, walking. Improved bus services could alleviate pressure on the roads that become clogged with the cars of those visiting.
The reality is that we are too late to prevent climate change, but we have perhaps a dozen years left to avoid a major climate catastrophe, with real and appalling human consequences. [Interruption.]
Order. [Interruption.] Order. Could you sit down in the Public Gallery and be quiet, please. Thank you. Mr Farron—[Interruption.] Please, this is a debating chamber; it is not for members of the public to take part in the debate. I am awfully sorry, but thank you for leaving. I am sorry, Mr Farron. Would you like to continue?
Thank you, Dame Cheryl.
The reality, whether we like it or not, is that climate change is happening. The question is whether we can prevent a climate catastrophe that will have huge impacts on human beings in this country and across the globe. Tackling this global disaster will take change in every community and lots of steps that add up to a bigger picture. Public transport is an element of that. In order for there to be success globally, we in the Lakes are determined to act locally. Our community bus services prove that determination.
Two new platforms are being funded and opened at Manchester Piccadilly railway station. That important public investment in infrastructure and the economy through the northern powerhouse is good news, but where is the equivalent for the rural north? The transport spend in the north-west per head of population is still barely half that in London, despite promises made when the northern powerhouse was formed. I will continue to fight the cuts to individual bus services. I will continue to stand with and work with the community to find alternative solutions, just as we are currently doing for Arnside, Levens, Cartmel, Hincaster and Kendal. But let us be honest: that is not good enough. The concept of the northern powerhouse is great, but from Cumbria’s perspective it is not much of a powerhouse and it is not very northern.
If new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly are an investment that will boost the Manchester city region’s economy, a comprehensive bus service in rural Cumbria is the investment to boost the Cumbrian economy, so that is my proposal today: that the Minister should ensure the direct commissioning of a comprehensive, affordable and reliable rural bus network in Cumbria. Will the Minister do that as a key plank of the northern powerhouse?
The bus service running through the south Lakes along the A6 and the A591 is the 555. Running from Lancaster to Keswick, it serves Milnthorpe, Kendal, Staveley, Windermere, Ambleside and Grasmere. It is a reliable service, but extremely expensive. The Kendal to Ambleside journey was recently revealed as the second most expensive route in the country. But if we look at the 555 as the trunk service, what we have seen over the last 30 years has been the slow but steady hacking off of the twigs and the branches. If people do not live in one of the communities along the main south Lakes route, they are more than likely without a bus service. Therefore, what I am asking for is a new commissioned service that will bring back buses to every community and breathe new life into the public transport of the Lakes.
If the Government keep ignoring the plight of rural communities, we will keep fighting for ourselves, rolling up our sleeves, making our own luck and finding solutions against the odds, but we would love it if they would stop ignoring us and instead commission a comprehensive rural bus service to exceed anything that we have seen before, even 35 years ago before deregulation. It will be an investment that revives rural communities, boosts our economy, tackles isolation and connects our towns and villages. I plead with the Minster to be ambitious and to back that proposal.
Thank you for that, Dame Cheryl. I echo those sentiments and thanks.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate and thank him for raising this issue. He now has a meeting in the diary with my noble Friend Baroness Vere, who leads on buses in the Department. It is an absolute pleasure for me to respond to the debate, partly because, as a rural MP for Mid Norfolk, I share many of the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations at the neglect of rural buses over decades, but also because, as the newly appointed Minister for the future of transport, with responsibility in the Department for a new portfolio and leading on tackling disconnection, decarbonisation, digitalisation and innovation in the private and public transport sectors, I welcome the chance to speak to the issues that he has raised and to highlight some of the things that we are doing to turbocharge the improvement of rural connectivity.
The hon. Gentleman and I, and indeed the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), recognise, as I think all rural MPs do, that public transport and particularly buses in rural areas are essential to connectivity to the workplace, but also for access to public services, particularly healthcare and education. Often in these debates, however, those of us who bemoan the lack of investment and support for rural buses over the years forget that there is still a very substantial service. There are 4 billion bus journeys a year.
Buses remain the most popular form of public transport. Overall, passenger satisfaction remains consistently high, at 85%. I happen to think that the figures are probably higher in urban areas than in some of the rural areas, such as Mid Norfolk and Westmorland and Lonsdale. None the less, I place it on the record that buses are popular and are vital for the connectivity of rural communities and, of course, vital for productivity and general economic wellbeing. For the many people visiting areas such as the Lake district, buses are key.
For the first time in my memory, we have a Prime Minister who has been a Mayor—it is certainly the first time we have had a Prime Minister who makes model buses—and who actually has a passion for public transport, and for places, buses and connectivity, which is all to the good. It is for that reason that I am here today to signal the levelling up of our ambition for rural connectivity. Indeed, the first request that the Prime Minister made to me when he asked me to take on this role was to drive better innovation and faster connectivity, to reach out to those people and places left behind, which is a subject the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I have both spoken about and written on widely.
That is why I am delighted that in the last few weeks the Government have announced a new £220 million bus deal and committed to a long-term bus strategy. We may say that is long overdue, but it is happening none the less, and I am delighted. Crucially, it will focus on the passengers who rely on the services, rather than the providers, and we will also look at how national and local government, and the private and public sectors, can work together to improve value for money and to get a better deal from not only the additional money, but the money that we have already put in.
Each year the Department for Transport provides £250 million in direct revenue support for bus services in England via the bus service operators grant. Without that, fares would increase and marginal services would disappear in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine. Around £43 million of that grant is paid directly to local authorities, rather than to bus operators, to support socially necessary bus services in their areas that are not commercially viable. The Government recognise the importance of these services, which are essential for rural connectivity and for supplementing the often patchy private provision of, for example, evening or Sunday services, which may not be available.
To improve current bus services or to restore lost services, the Government will pay an extra £30 million of new funding to local authorities to help tackle that problem, in addition to the £1 billion a year currently spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes. We also committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which benefits around 10 million people, allowing free, off-peak local travel anywhere in England. That concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community, and enables access to facilities in their local area and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends.
In policy making, it is sometimes easy to overlook the essential nature of rural public transport for basic, functioning communities and connectivity. Living in a great city such as London during the week, one sees transport at our fingertips, on demand when we want it. In rural areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s and mine, it is not like that. No one expects it to be identical—we want diversity—but we have to recognise that connectivity is fundamental to a functioning society and economy. That is why we are going further and why we need to be more innovative.
Digitalisation and basic telephony now make a whole range of new services possible. Demand-responsive transport services have been used for some time to replace infrequent traditional services that do not meet a local community’s specific needs, or to get services closer to where people live at a time that is convenient for them—and we are about to go further and faster. We will start to look at places, counties and districts and ask where the people who most need to be moved around actually are, and at what time of day, and whether one bus running infrequently down one road is the right way to do that. Could we use technology to provide a more mixed package of lift-share, car-share, community bus and traditional and modern bus services?
To trial on-demand services in rural and suburban areas, the Government have established a new £20 million fund as part of that bus deal. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that, as part of that, I will be championing innovation in rural areas. As part of the future mobility zones that I am putting in place, we will look specifically at rural mobility, not just at inner-city and urban mobility, where so much of the innovation has tended to be.
The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the many people up and down rural Britain who contribute to community transport and support their communities. I echo that. Approximately 8 million passenger trips take place in rural areas every year, which has a huge impact on encouraging growth and reducing isolation. Community transport operators can access the bus service operators grant to help keep fares down and to run a wider network of services than they could otherwise afford to run. Community transport spend from this grant was substantially above £3 million in 2018-19.
Data, technology and innovation are making possible a whole range of new services, which is why access to digitalisation for rural bus services is a crucial part of what we are doing next. Passengers rightly expect easy access to comprehensive and high-quality information about local bus services. People want to know where they can catch a bus, when it will come, what the fare will be and how they can pay. With more and more people having smartphones in their pockets, it is surely possible for us to run a more digital and demand-responsive service.
The bus data powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 will go further than the partnership provisions, requiring all bus operators of local services in England to open up real-time information on routes, timetables, fares and tickets to passengers from next year. These improvements aim to remove uncertainty in bus journeys, improve journey planning and help passengers secure best-value tickets.
However, we will go further. Notwithstanding potential electoral disruptions, I shortly expect to announce future mobility zones, our flagship project for supporting innovation in future transport. Crucially, I will be looking at rural as well as urban areas. We will look at pilots on demand-responsive services such as those in Lincolnshire and in the Tees Valley, which was announced this week by the Mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen.
I will close by congratulating the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and genuinely thanking him for securing the debate, which has given us the chance to raise these issues. His points on the northern powerhouse were well made, and I will pass those on to the Minister responsible. The truth is that there is no single solution, and we should not seek some magic bullet. He is right to highlight that rural areas demand a different solution from urban areas. Equally, he is right to highlight that while cities such Manchester—the heartbeat of the northern powerhouse—are growing and investing, we need to look at nearby rural areas, to make sure that we are not creating a two-tier transport system.
The commitment from the Government and myself is clear: to maintain and improve local public transport. We also commit to go further, using this £200 million bus package to improve and support innovation in rural public transport, so that we have a mixed economy that works for the benefit of communities and businesses in rural areas. The Government are 100% committed to that. The Prime Minister is committed to that. I hope that we get a chance after the next election to put that into practice.
Question put and agreed to.
Northern Ireland Economy and Innovation: Government Support
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for the economy and innovation in Northern Ireland.
First, may I say what a pleasure and privilege it is to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Cheryl? I am particularly pleased to finally secure the debate. The Minister will be aware that I had secured the debate twice previously, and that it unfortunately fell twice because of the proroguing. I am glad to be here, particularly at this moment in time, to talk about the business and innovation community in Northern Ireland, which is such an important issue.
Absolutely. Even when I saw that the debate was scheduled, I thought that I had jinxed the entire thing, and that it certainly would not be third time lucky. However, it is, and I am really pleased to be here, because I am passionate about supporting the economy and businesses in Northern Ireland.
The issue is particularly important at this pivotal time for Northern Ireland and our United Kingdom, of which our businesses are very much part. I will touch on a number of issues relating to business, innovation and the economy in Northern Ireland, and I will raise questions and issues on particular elements. I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond.
First, I want to paint the broader picture in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has an incredibly proud industrial and manufacturing history. We have been world leaders. Many companies that were created and thrived in Northern Ireland, and have been world leaders, will be well known to many across the United Kingdom and the world. Northern Ireland has contributed in a valuable way, including to the economy of pre-partition Ireland and of this United Kingdom. We have been world leaders in manufacturing and industry.
Many generations in Northern Ireland have worked, created, innovated and led the way. They have been critical to our economy and the tens of thousands of jobs they created, changing lives. The mighty companies of the past put Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland on the map. However, as we are all aware, times have changed, and some of those huge, mighty industries of the past have faded away or are disappearing. This is common not only in Belfast and Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom and in many other countries.
However, we must build on our incredibly strong foundation to move forward. Having spoken to businesses, universities, and people in my constituency and across Northern Ireland, I believe there is a huge appetite to do that. It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that is true when it comes to the economy and business in Northern Ireland. We have a bright and optimistic future if there is application, support and the right environment to help our businesses, economy and companies grow.
I want to highlight the benefits we receive from the likes of Ulster University. Its Harry Ferguson building, a centre for innovation, brings forward many world-leading manufacturing products, which will revolutionise the future. But sometimes we fail to embrace the great innovation that we have in Northern Ireland. In my constituency, Conemaster developed a safety product for laying out cones on motorways. Unfortunately, it was set aside by the UK Government and those who want to run things here. It is important that we buy from, and support, local industry, and do not promote others.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which was so good that I almost intervened on him. I absolutely agree. We have incredible companies. Politicians from all parties, but particularly the Democratic Unionist party, have always been proud to showcase and promote those companies, in London, the UK and across the globe. I have had the privilege and pleasure of accompanying many of those businesses on trade missions across the globe. I can see the huge interest in the innovation and creativity of those companies.
The Democratic Unionist party has often been referred to as the party of business in Northern Ireland. Some may disagree with that, and we do not always agree with business on everything, but one thing is clear: the Democratic Unionist party is a proud pro-business party. We recognise that supporting business is critical to supporting our economy, and growth in our economy is critical to getting new opportunities for young people and building a better future for them. We know that shared prosperity in Northern Ireland will bring shared stability. That is essential for Northern Ireland as it emerges from decades of trouble and division, and their legacy, which we still deal with; we know that growing the economy is key.
That is why, in 2007, when the Northern Ireland Assembly was restored, the Democratic Unionist party made growing the economy in Northern Ireland the No. 1 priority. We do so by building a coalition with all the other parties that agree that growing the economy is the best way to get a bright and better future for all in Northern Ireland, across all communities: Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and nationalist, and new and other communities that do not define in that way. We want everybody in Northern Ireland to succeed, and to have the best opportunities, and we recognise that one critical way of doing that is to have a robust, growing and strong economy in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. She mentioned large companies, but the backbone of Northern Ireland is small, family businesses. We have helped those in manufacturing with rates relief and other measures. Regarding innovation, we have the Young Enterprise programmes, which are coming through into small businesses to give them some initiative. I am sure she will also welcome that.
I absolutely agree. Later in my speech, I will come to the various aspects of our economy in Northern Ireland, and the particular issues, challenges and opportunities they face.
Northern Ireland is the smallest region of the United Kingdom, making up just 3% of the UK, but we still make a mighty contribution, and have a mighty story to tell. All of us here from Northern Ireland want it to play an even greater part in what is often referred to here as global Britain, but we would like to see a truly global United Kingdom agenda, in which every part of this United Kingdom is fully integrated and promoted and each region pulls its weight.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the downsides of the current withdrawal agreement is that although we are a major exporting region of the UK, we might find ourselves prevented from taking part in trade deals that the Government might strike with other parts of the world because of the way in which we are tied into the EU?
As a member of the International Trade Committee, I am very aware of the opportunities, challenges and barriers that full participation in international trade entails. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that I will mention the ‘B’ word—Brexit—later in my speech, and specifically the dreadful proposal for the Northern Ireland economy. My hon. Friend’s points are valid; that constitutes a real and present risk to our economy.
Northern Ireland, just 3% of the United Kingdom, relies hugely on trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. Great Britain is the biggest market by far for Northern Ireland—bigger than the Republic of Ireland, the European Union and the rest of the world combined. Over the past 10 to 20 years, and certainly since the restoration of the Assembly in 2007, huge effort has been put into increasing our exports, and the market for our exports in other countries in the European Union and across the world, but Great Britain remains our biggest market, which we rely on hugely. Any barriers to trade with it would have significant impacts. I will touch on that later.
A factor that is discussed less often in this debate is consumer choice. Consumers in Northern Ireland rely hugely on the Great British market for goods, from the supermarket goods that we see in common high-street shops, to bespoke and craft products in smaller, family-owned shops. Many of those goods come from Great Britain, and there are real concerns about how people will access them. Many people today access goods through online marketplaces, such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy; that, too, gives rise to concerns about consumer choice and access. Many of the companies in those marketplaces are based in Great Britain, and many are very small producers; barriers might prevent them from posting their products to shops and consumers in Northern Ireland.
As a small region of the United Kingdom, we rely heavily on its economy, but Northern Ireland has a really strong case to make. As we have gone round the world trying to attract new businesses and, particularly, foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland, we have been able to showcase the fact that we have the highest skills in the United Kingdom. We have three excellent universities: Ulster University, Queen’s University in the heart of my Belfast South constituency, and the Open University, which does a huge amount of work. We also have high skills and a good education system. That is not to say that we do not have challenges—I have spoken about the challenges of trying to support every child to succeed in getting skills—but we are one of the highest-skilled regions in the United Kingdom.
We have relatively low staff turnover, which is very attractive to businesses moving to Northern Ireland, because they know that if they take those staff on, train them and invest in them, they will show loyalty. Indeed, I think we have the lowest staff turnover in the United Kingdom, which is comparatively unique. A company looking to come to the United Kingdom will also find relatively low set-up costs in Northern Ireland, as well as people who can support it through the process, and comparatively low recurring running costs.
We have a strong case to make, but of course there have been challenges. Over the past 15 years, the Republic of Ireland has cut its corporation tax time and again to make it even more competitive, knowing that our corporation tax rate is tied to that of the rest of the United Kingdom, and is therefore significantly higher. The Republic of Ireland has created tax incentive packages that I would describe as innovative, particularly to attract big US companies such as Facebook and Apple. We want to be able to attract those companies, too. Since 2007, working closely with Invest NI, Northern Ireland has had a very strong record; in fact, for some years, it attracted more FDI than any region of the United Kingdom outside London and south-east England. For a small region with the challenges that we had, that is a really strong story to tell. It is a story that we should be proud of—but we want more. We want to do better, and we need to do better, because we still have challenges and we still do not have the types of jobs that we want for our young people: high-value, stable jobs that young people with the right skills can move into, creating happy, healthy lives for themselves and their families with the prosperity that we want to bring.
My hon. Friend is right that it is not just jobs that we want, but good-quality jobs. Does she agree that when the Assembly was working properly, one of its successes was in attracting such jobs? Indeed, about 50% of the jobs attracted through FDI paid wages above the average wage in Northern Ireland.
I absolutely agree. Statistics released in recent days indicate that although we have had growth in the average wage, it has now slowed down, and there has been a slowdown at the high-value end of jobs. In Northern Ireland we have comparatively low unemployment, but those statistics do not necessarily show the whole story. My constituency of Belfast South has one of the lowest unemployment rates not just in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom—but too many of those jobs are at the lower end. We need high-value jobs that pay people better, because there is significant in-work poverty. The best way to get out of poverty is with a well-paid job. People need jobs with stability to help them to support themselves and their family.
We also have persistently high levels of economic inactivity. Although people point to that inactivity, the reality is that right now we cannot just match it with jobs growth. We need good programmes to support people, regardless of why they are economically inactive. In Northern Ireland, we have a higher than average percentage of students, who are currently defined as economically inactive, but those are not necessarily the people we are worried about; we are worried about those who have been economically inactive for some considerable time. Even more worrying are people in families who suffer from transgenerational unemployment. They need the right support and skills programmes, at the right level.
This is not just about getting people entry-level jobs; we want them to skill up and make progress. I have heard House of Commons statistics about how many people go into an entry-level job and stay at that level for their entire career. Social mobility and support for people throughout their career, so that they can increase their wages and their family income, are essential to the shared prosperity to which we are committed.
Let me touch on a few particular aspects. I have already mentioned foreign direct investment. Northern Ireland’s economy is still very much one of small to medium-sized, largely family-owned businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said. The Democratic Unionist party absolutely wants to support those businesses, but many of them are understandably reluctant to take risks in order to grow—people are content with the strong business that they have built not just for themselves, but for their children and family. We want to encourage those businesses because we need them to grow, but they should be able to take those risks in an environment in which they feel confident and positive. I will say a little more about family and small businesses in a moment.
I know that the Minister will have had meetings with Invest NI and received briefings. I pay tribute to the incredible work of Alastair Hamilton, who I worked with many years ago. He has done a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances, particularly in the past few years, to keep increasing foreign direct investment and high-value jobs. Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly more than 1,000 days ago, one of the small glimmers of light has been the fact that Invest NI has been able to continue to make jobs announcements, including in my constituency, and to create the opportunities that we really need. Under the framework set by the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alistair Hamilton and his Invest NI colleagues were able to continue going into the global marketplace, winning contracts and attracting companies to Northern Ireland. We want to build on his incredible work; as he moves on from the job, we are all thankful for the amazingly competent work that he has put in.
We are keen to continue to play a full role in attracting foreign direct investment. We can do so much through our regional organisations, such as Invest NI, but as the Democratic Unionist party has pointed out to the Government on a number of occasions, our sell in Northern Ireland must be fully integrated into what the United Kingdom does on a global scale. We want to be fully included in what is being offered, including trade fairs, engagement with countries, and trade missions. Some progress has been made, but we want more. I am sure that Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales, the north of England and other regions also feel that historically, their region has not been fully included and integrated in the sell of the UK Government. I have raised that issue on many occasions with the Secretary of State for International Trade, and with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Progress has been made, but we want to build on it, and we want more of our companies to take part.
We know that innovation is the way forward. Northern Ireland will never be a low-cost manufacturer, but we have been, can be and will be high-quality, innovative and creative in our manufacture, industry and services, and in the skills that we bring to them. Investment in innovation is therefore very welcome. Some investment in research and development has been affected by constraints around state aid and other aspects of the European Union. As we move forward from that, we want a continuation of the investment in innovation, research and skills that we have had before.
The Government have spoken on this issue on a number of occasions, and I certainly welcome the very warm words that they have used. However, we would like concrete proposals on how Northern Ireland will get its fair share from any central programme to support innovation, research and development, and on how Northern Ireland can be more successful in bidding for central funds, to try to get the help and support that our businesses need to grow.
I have mentioned a number of universities, but as the Member of Parliament for Belfast South, I will of course mention once again Queen’s University, which does fantastic work in innovation; in fact, it is leading the way in a number of areas.
I am very conscious that we need to identify the potential growth areas. In what areas can Northern Ireland show unique creativity and innovation? What can the UK as a whole do to be particularly attractive to foreign direct investment and growing businesses? We have done huge amounts in areas such as cyber-security and finance.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. An issue raised with me time and again is research and development assistance from Invest NI, because small companies are very much hands-on, so they do not have the manpower or staff to handle research and development. Maybe we could look at another way to deliver R&D.
Absolutely. The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were in a really good place to listen to businesses about their needs, and the challenges that they found when trying to apply for those types of funds––the red tape and other difficulties. In future, particularly post-Brexit, we will need a Government who are responsive to the question of how we can support businesses to grow in a way that works for them and their owners, because those owners have enough to do running those businesses, and focusing on what they are good at. The Government need to support firms in a flexible way, and give them the right tools and encouragement to grow.
I will briefly refer to our small and family businesses, particularly retail businesses on our high streets. I mentioned this issue last night in a debate in the main Chamber. As is the case across the United Kingdom, our high streets are under a huge amount of pressure, but unfortunately, we have not been able to access the same amount of support as other areas. I welcomed the Government announcement of additional support for high streets through the future high streets fund, but of course Northern Ireland was not able to use that money, because it went into the Northern Ireland block grant as an unhypothecated Barnett consequential, which meant that it was not ring-fenced for that purpose. As there is no Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment, there is no accountability; there is no way that elected Members and the people of Northern Ireland can push civil servants to spend that money on high streets.
We all know that our retail sector in our towns, villages, and small urban areas in cities are crying out for help; that is common right across this United Kingdom. Those areas are suffering from high business rates; they feel crippled by the bills that they receive. The shopping habits of consumers are changing, so small businesses are struggling. Very often, they are family-owned, and the owner actually works in the business. They need this help, but I met the head of the civil service to urge him to put that money towards retail, and there is no indication that that has happened.
That brings me something that I have spoken about many times since I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2017, namely that there is no Northern Ireland Assembly to listen to what the economy needs, and to do what it needs to do. That genuinely grieves me. The people of Northern Ireland, including our business people, are deeply frustrated. They want politicians to get back to work, to get back into the Northern Ireland Assembly and to start investing to grow our economy.
That is my challenge here today to Sinn Féin. There is no impediment to all the parties going back into that building tomorrow and sorting out our problems around the table, like adults, in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I speak for very many people across the community when I say, “Just get back to work and do what you need to do, because our economy needs to grow.”
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. We are talking about the economy, but peace and prosperity go hand in hand. Does she agree that the current EU withdrawal agreement, which she touched on, has the potential to damage local businesses further? Those businesses bring many of the goods that they sell on the high street from Great Britain, and anything that adds to the cost of bringing in those goods risks the ongoing presence of those businesses on our high streets.
Order. Before the hon. Lady resumes, I point out that I have one eye on the clock, three Members have indicated that they would like to make a contribution, and I want to start the wind-up speeches by the two Front-Bench spokesmen at 5.10 pm. It is, of course, up to the hon. Lady to decide what she does, but I thought it might be helpful to point that out.
I will try to move on as swiftly as I can. I was coming on to the next section in my speech, which is on Brexit. Your comment is probably a good indication that I should not speak for very long on Brexit, Dame Cheryl; despite the fact that I could do so, I will not do so.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). However, before I move on to speak very briefly about Brexit, I will mention business rates, because our smaller retail businesses and other businesses on the high street have been crying out for reform of business rates.
I was chair of the Finance Committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly just before the collapse of the Assembly, so I know that business rates were an issue that we were looking at, because Northern Ireland had led the way in rate support for small businesses. Unfortunately, however, since then, the rest of the United Kingdom caught up with us, and then moved past us, so our businesses are now suffering from business rates that are higher than those for small businesses across the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Democratic Unionist party wants fundamental reform of business rates; we recognise that there needs to be additional support for our small businesses. We are up for that challenge; we want to have that discussion; and we need a Northern Ireland Assembly back in action to do it. However, in the absence of the Assembly, I strongly urge the Minister to do what he can to listen to business, and to work within the regime that we have in Northern Ireland to give that much-needed support to small business.
I will very briefly touch on Brexit. A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends have already made contributions about it, and I will not repeat what they said, especially because I know a number of other Members still want to make a contribution about it. Nevertheless, it is absolutely right that any barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain—east-west or west-east—will create greater bureaucracy and disruption, and will threaten the economy that we rely on.
The fabric of that economy is complex. It encompasses everything from the large manufacturers and large businesses that have come in, to the supermarkets, right down to the business owner who runs a gift shop and brings in 10 or 20 pottery mugs, bowls or whatever it may be from a small supplier in Great Britain. When we work through all the detail of the withdrawal agreement, we can see where there could be significant additional costs and significantly more bureaucracy. These businesses may actually have problems in getting supplies. That is the difficulty for many, many businesses.
We have raised that issue, because the Democratic Unionist party will always stand up for what is good for Northern Ireland. What is bad for business—what puts up barriers—is bad for Northern Ireland. We know that, and we care about the people involved.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. However, I am getting a huge amount of pressure on my right from my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is very keen to speak; I know that because he never gets to speak in Westminster Hall. So I will wind up.
In conclusion, I am passionate about supporting the economy in Northern Ireland, and I hope that I have got that across very firmly today. I am passionate about making Northern Ireland work. I am passionate about helping Northern Ireland to thrive. That must mean creating jobs, opportunities and a brighter, more prosperous future for all in Northern Ireland, across all the communities. We recognise that. I recognise that happy, contented people in this Union—in this United Kingdom—will not vote for the chaos, change and decades of transition that leaving this United Kingdom would bring. Members of our party genuinely care about the people of Northern Ireland, and we want our businesses, economy, industry and people to succeed.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl—hallelujah to get the chance to comment. Northern Ireland is on the cusp of greatness. In football and sport we are doing great things, but our economy is doing even better, with international investment in the IT sector and a booming financial industry. Newtownards, the main town in my constituency, is a commuter town; it is about half an hour from Belfast on the wonderful Glider service. Many people from the town, and indeed from across the Ards peninsula and the wider Strangford constituency, find job opportunities in the Belfast area.
The Minister for retail, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), came to Newtownards to get an idea of how the towns and the retail end are working. Unemployment in Strangford is at its lowest level for many years. I understand that the Government have acknowledged that FinTech is one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, and Northern Ireland is increasingly recognised as an important destination for new development and investment in FinTech, with more than 36,000 people employed in the financial services sector. We have just had the appointment of a new FinTech envoy for Northern Ireland, Mr Jenkins, which I and my party welcome.
I also welcome the confidence and supply motion. Just this week the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced further rural network broadband investment. Coverage will go from 78% of Northern Ireland to 91%, as the Secretary of State said in the Chamber yesterday. That is good, but it cannot be the extent of Government support for the economy and innovation in Northern Ireland. As I said in March, we have the potential to do so much more. We have state-of-the-art office spaces, UK-wide connectivity and low business rates.
We are a place to invest in, with a high-class graduate labour force and an abundance of administrative staff. As a shooting man, I would say that all the ducks are in a row. It is perfect for Northern Ireland at the moment. Queen’s University, with its innovation in health, its partnerships with companies across the world and its students, adds to that. Pharmaceuticals are doing exceptionally well in my constituency—although they could do better—as is the agri-food sector. TG Eakin in pharmaceuticals, Mash Direct, McCann’s and Willowbrook Foods, Rich Sauces and Lakeland Dairies are all in place.
We could do something on corporation tax to enable us to be more competitive with the Republic of Ireland. We have the rental property space, the skilled labour force, the connectivity and the ability to reach an airport within an hour for most of Northern Ireland—we have it all. We need a Government in our corner helping us to attract international investment and fighting for us as an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because we are better together—as opposed to something that seemingly works against us—in something that benefits the entire UK body.
It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Cheryl. The wonderful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) really put into perspective the fact that not only does Northern Ireland want to play its part in the economy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but it plays its part in the world. That is very important, because we have a great history. She mentioned standing on the shoulders of giants. Currently, 10% of all global financial exchange networks flow through Belfast, and 10% of all cholesterol tests for the world flow through Randox Laboratories in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland plays a significant part in the world economy.
We are therefore anxious for Northern Ireland to do more, and for the Government to recognise and facilitate that, not cut us off from our mainstream economy. In simple terms, about £18 billion-worth of trade is done every year between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom; and about £6 billion is done with the Republic of Ireland and the EU. I know which side of the fence traders in my constituency and across Northern Ireland want to be on. It is therefore critical that we get that balance right.
We have five very simple requests for the Government. First, reduce corporation tax in Northern Ireland. Stop footling around with other things in Northern Ireland and deal with corporation tax. Reduce it to 10%. Make Northern Ireland the attractive place that it should be for businesses to invest in. Secondly, remove airport passenger duty for our region and allow us to compete properly with Dublin airport, which is stealing customers, who do not turn left when they get off the aeroplanes in the Republic of Ireland but stay in the Republic.
We need those customers to come to Belfast. Thirdly, therefore, incentivise airline carriers to land in Northern Ireland so that we can have more tourism and more businesspeople. Fourthly, remove VAT on tourism and hospitality so that we can compete fairly with our land-border neighbour. Fifthly, build a bridge. Give us that connection between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Let the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) leave Larne and drive to Scotland, and then drive back again on the same day. Allow them to have that great opportunity, which they really need.
In the last few seconds of my speech, I want to thank the Government for their efforts to keep a brilliant manufacturing company, Wrightbus, alive in Northern Ireland. That will create tens of thousands of opportunities for people in the years ahead.
Let us agree on one thing: Northern Ireland is the home of innovation. There has been a long history of that, from the modern tractor through to the Sunderland flying boat, Wrightbus and Shorts Missile Systems. In fact, most of the ejector seats in modern fighter planes are made in Northern Ireland. There is no argument that we have that extraordinary history; that seedbed of innovation, which is flourishing.
When we go to places such as Lagan College and speak to young people who are working in completely new businesses and industries, we realise that the base material is there. So what can we do, as Government, to facilitate the flowering of that innovation and great skill? When, 20-odd years ago, we had a problem with the aggregates industry because of the fiscal harmonisation issue cross-border, the Government were able to work with the aggregates industry in Northern Ireland to equalise the rates of exchange on tariffs, in order to facilitate that local business. However, that is just a tiny bit of it.
We have a philosophical question here: how do we actually support industry and innovation? The days of DeLorean, of parachuting in large amounts of money and of top-down intervention are long gone. We have to work in an entirely different way. Look at companies such as Thales, based in my constituency.
Yes, and you get an extra minute. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given way, because he talked about the real innovation in Northern Ireland. This week I visited a company called Creative Composites in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). They make the entire shell of the new London taxi.
Do you know, I have no argument with that. Thales employs nearly 1,000 people in Northern Ireland, and it is there for a reason. It took over Shorts Missile Systems, and it is there because of the highly skilled, highly motivated, highly trained and highly capable workforce. What can we, as Government, do to help? In my days in the Navy, the number of marine engineers who came from Northern Ireland was extraordinary, yet somehow we are unable to see that great tradition of engineering innovation and expertise flourish in Northern Ireland.
I could make many suggestions; I will make just a small one. The backbone of Northern Ireland industry is small and medium-sized enterprises. They have a problem with apprenticeships—I am not talking about the Apprentice Boys, but apprenticeships. A small company finds it very difficult to employ apprentices, simply because of the absence of economies of scale. In GB we used to have a thing called the MSC—the Manpower Services Commission—whereby the Government would underwrite apprenticeships or temporary employment periods. Would it not be marvellous if the Minister, a man of great decency and honesty, and who is extremely committed to the expansion of industry in Northern Ireland, could persuade some of his colleagues to loosen the purse strings and look at the Government supporting apprenticeships?
At the moment, most SMEs simply cannot afford to employ apprentices. The foreign direct investment is there. Northern Ireland has a great reputation, not just within the rest of Europe but in America. However, we need small companies to have the capability and elasticity to attract and work up those schemes. Apprentices would make a huge difference. Let us see whether we can do that, because when we see the amazing extent of innovation, intelligence, hard work and commitment in Northern Ireland, we think, “Why isn’t this place the powerhouse of Europe?” I think it could be again.
It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) on securing this debate. It is third time lucky for her, and also for the House, because the speech with which she opened this debate was passionate, well-informed, comprehensive, and very moving in parts. I, for one, learned a lot from it.
I am proud to represent the party that helped broker the Good Friday agreement, and the current Government’s cavalier approach to preserving that agreement in the Brexit negotiations worries me. As hon. Members have said, the Good Friday agreement is the foundation of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic. The absence of the devolved Government in Stormont is another issue that many hon. Members have mentioned. Labour’s approach rests on increasing local, regional and national democracy, and the lack of resolution to that problem clearly undermines efforts to improve innovation and the economy of Northern Ireland.
I will begin by outlining Labour’s approach to industrial strategy and innovation. It is not a top-down approach; as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, that is not the right approach. We aim to provide support for a devolved Administration and local councils to make decisions in support of their industry and their workers. We have talked a lot in recent months about the differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but there are also many similarities, particularly with my home region, the north-east of England. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) likes to point out every time he intervenes in one of my Adjournment debates, there are many similarities between our regions, particularly our economies and the investment in making and building things over the centuries. The hon. Member for Belfast South spoke movingly about that in the context of Northern Ireland, as well as the years of deindustrialisation and under-investment in infrastructure and education that have left Northern Ireland with some significant economic challenges.
The legendary Harland and Wolff shipyard was recently saved from collapse because workers staged a nine-week sit-in in protest to show that it was still viable, but those who took redundancy face an uncertain future. Wrightbus has also been mentioned—a company that had been operating since 1946, but which closed its doors in September, threatening 1,200 jobs. It was recently bought by the Bamford family after going into administration, although we still do not know what its workers’ fate will be, particularly as the Government propose a Brexit deal that would place trading barriers between that company and the rest of the UK. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and the hon. Member for Strangford emphasised the negative impact that would have.
The business that the hon. Lady has alluded to is in my constituency. It was a very significant employer, equivalent to about 60,000 jobs if it were based here in the mainland, and I am delighted that the Bamford family have invested in it. It is a new chapter for the industry, bringing hydro technology to Northern Ireland. Hopefully, as a result we will get the cleanest, greenest public transport in not only the UK but the world.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will return to that example. However, my point is that this does not reflect a sound industrial strategy, precisely because the old company collapsed because of its UK customers moving to electric buses and the new company will be making electric buses. A serious industrial strategy would have a plan for transport that could have incentivised the company to move in that direction without the chaos of administration and the sale to a Tory donor, in order to achieve the same outcome. That sort of creative destruction might excite certain Government advisers, but it puts workers under severe stress and often results in employment under worse terms and conditions, as the former employees are in a weaker bargaining position.
That process of collapse and asset stripping is related to the problem of the financialisation of our economy. The last decade has seen the UK economy centred on London and the south-east of England, with a focus on financial services rather than producing things. As the economist Mariana Mazzucato argues, the financial sector has stopped resourcing the real economy. Instead of investing in companies that produce stuff, finance is financing finance. Financialisation changes the motors behind economic activity, giving investors with short-term interests more control over firms, and its legacies are low productivity and low pay. Labour is committed to changing that and putting innovation at the centre of our economy, using our world-class universities—such as Ulster University, and Queen’s University in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast South—as drivers of growth, rather than putting off scientific talent from across the world with cruel immigration policies.
Labour’s “innovation nation” mission would raise research and development to 3% of GDP—almost twice what it is now—using science and industry to benefit the whole country. We need to maintain our current centres of excellence, but must also ensure that every region can benefit from innovation and growth. That is why we are committed to putting technology and innovation at the heart of the lowest-paid and least productive sectors. The hon. Member for Belfast South spoke movingly of the need for social mobility in work, which requires increased productivity. We want to restart manufacturing, but we know that most jobs are in the service sector. Some 17% of people employed in Northern Ireland work in wholesale and retail, in the everyday economy. That is why we have plans to create a retail catapult to support those workers.
Much of our additional R&D spend would be drawn on by our industrial strategy missions, such as investing in carbon capture and storage as part of our commitment to decarbonise our economy, delivering hundreds of thousands of green jobs in the process. We propose a £250 billion national investment bank, made up of a network of regional development banks that would properly put regional needs first and restore regional decision making. Earlier this year, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce said that 77% of service sector firms and 74% of manufacturers were having difficulty recruiting staff. Labour’s national education service will support reskilling, delivering education free at the point of demand from cradle to grave and ensuring that we have the skills that businesses need.
Although the DUP might have secured £200 million in next year’s Budget through its deal with the Government, recent weeks have shown how quickly the Government can change their mind. Labour’s £250 billion national transformation fund would invest in transport and digital infrastructure across the UK without preconditions.
Finally, I will turn to the topic of Brexit. In the 2014-20 block of EU funding, Northern Ireland was allocated a total of €3.5 billion—significantly more than the Government’s offer to the DUP. As we have rightly opposed the Government’s shambolic Brexit deal, we have to question whether that funding will even be delivered. Will the Minister commit to publishing an assessment of the impact on the Northern Irish economy of putting extra tariffs on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and making sure that that impact is not negative? Will he also follow Labour’s plan and commit to maintaining the EU levels of structural investment as a minimum? Finally, given the current trade tariffs on EU exports after the row over subsidies to Airbus, what commitment will he give to aerospace workers in Northern Ireland?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I join many other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) on a superb speech and on having secured this debate—third time lucky. I was disappointed when previous debates were postponed, and am delighted that we have had the opportunity to have this debate today and hear some excellent speeches.
The hon. Lady rightly spoke about Northern Ireland’s proud industrial history and its bright, optimistic future as part of the UK. I strongly believe in upholding the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom—a family of four nations that are safer, stronger and more prosperous together. Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the world’s sixth-largest economy. Being part of the UK allows the 66 million people living across the four nations to work together to create jobs and opportunities.
As we have heard from many hon. Members, the Northern Ireland economy is strong, with an economic performance that sits alongside the growth of the wider UK economy. Employment is at a near-record high and unemployment is at a near-record low. The UK Government are serious in their commitment to grow the economy and to support innovation in Northern Ireland and across the whole UK.
I will set out some details of the UK Government’s investment in the Northern Ireland economy. We are delivering on our commitment for an ambitious set of city and growth deals across Northern Ireland. Since the funding announcement for the first city deal for Northern Ireland, the Belfast regions city deal, at the autumn Budget 2018, the total regional economic investment from the UK Government has exceeded £600 million. That commitment was reinforced by the Prime Minister’s announcement that £163 million has been allocated to complete the deals for the causeway coast and glens and the mid, south and west regions of Northern Ireland.
The UK Government have announced funding for all 11 council areas in Northern Ireland. That investment will significantly boost economic activity and attract private sector investment. The proposals are an example of what can be achieved when politicians of all backgrounds, local businesses, community leaders, academia and local government stakeholders come together to shape the economic future for their local areas and Northern Ireland as a whole.
The Minister is making an extremely powerful point. There are occasions when the Government can stand by and simply encourage—when they do not have to finance initiatives. Will he give credit to Thales, which I mentioned earlier, which has set up the primary engineer and secondary engineer leaders awards for Northern Ireland? That does not cost the Government anything, but provides an incentive for people in primary and secondary education in Northern Ireland to achieve awards in engineering.
The hon. Gentleman draws attention to what the private sector can do to support apprenticeships and programmes of that sort, which of course I welcome. I also look forward to seeing the nine digital and innovation business cases from the Belfast region city deal come to fruition next year.
We are of course aware of the challenges faced by some of Northern Ireland’s iconic businesses in recent years, notably Harland and Wolff and Wrightbus. These have been very difficult times for their workforces, the families and the local communities. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) kindly paid tribute to, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has engaged continuously with the efforts that local hon. Members in both constituencies—the hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)—have championed to bring in new investors to support those two iconic names. I join the hon. Member for North Antrim in saying that I hope those investors will deliver tens of thousands of opportunities. I believe that hydrogen-powered buses and green infrastructure can play a crucial part in achieving the UK’s aim of achieving decarbonisation, and show how Northern Ireland can continue to lead the way. So I want to see those businesses succeed.
The hon. Gentleman makes his bid strongly, as I would expect. I will ensure that that is passed on to the Treasury and other relevant Government Departments. Indeed, we have heard a number of bids during the debate, not all of which I can necessarily answer. Obviously, however, there are a number of opportunities coming to deal with some of those things.
People in Northern Ireland also benefit from the changes that people throughout UK enjoy that have been delivered by the Government, including an increase in the national living wage that benefits about 75,000 workers, and a fuel duty freeze for the ninth successive year that saves the average driver a cumulative £1,000 compared with under the pre-2010 escalator. Following the terrible fire in Bank Buildings, owned by Primark, in August 2018, the UK Government provided £2 million to support the recovery and regeneration of Belfast city centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast South. I am pleased that much of the city centre has been rebuilt and has reopened after that fire.
As the hon. Lady mentioned, the UK Government announced a £675 million future high streets fund to support local areas in England to develop and fund plans to make high streets fit for the future. As high streets funding and business rates are devolved, the Barnett formula was applied to Northern Ireland in the usual way, as she noted. It is for the Department of Finance and Northern Ireland civil service permanent secretaries to determine how that money should be spent.
I join the hon. Lady in wishing that we had a restored Executive and in encouraging all the politicians in Northern Ireland to come together to bring the Assembly back, so that decisions can be taken on those issues and they can move forward. Hon. Members may be aware that the Government introduced the Northern Ireland Budget Bill today, which is required to place the Northern Ireland budget, presented in February 2018, on a legal footing. Delivering that legislation demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to providing good governance for the people of Northern Ireland in the continued absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, but of course, we all want the Executive to be restored.
Businesses in Northern Ireland can benefit from UK Government initiatives, including the British business bank, which has supported more than 1,200 small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland with £80 million since November 2014. In the last year, more than 1,000 loans, valued at £7.3 million, have been granted to Northern Ireland businesses. Northern Ireland businesses also have access to UK Export Finance, which has provided nearly £33 million of support for exporters in Northern Ireland. I absolutely commend the collaborative efforts of Invest NI and the UK Department for International Trade to support Northern Ireland exporters to trade across the globe and to attract investment into Northern Ireland. I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Alastair Hamilton and in wishing his successor every success in the years to come.
As the hon. Lady will recall, the UK Government’s Board of Trade met in her Belfast constituency earlier this year, which was the first time it had met in Northern Ireland in its 400-year history. The global success of Northern Ireland firms was celebrated, with several Northern Ireland companies receiving their well-deserved Board of Trade awards.
Our prosperity and ability to build a strong economy depends on how we encourage innovation, develop high-quality jobs and skills, and support businesses throughout the UK to thrive and grow. Innovative businesses across Northern Ireland are a huge part of its success, including Armstrong Medical, which I had the pleasure of visiting at a Causeway chamber of commerce business roundtable recently.
As we have heard, Northern Ireland has globally admired universities and research institutions, such as Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, because we have nurtured our intellectual powerhouses with public investment. The industrial strategy challenge fund supports innovation UK-wide and has allocated £12 million in Northern Ireland to date, including specific investments in Queen’s University Belfast.
Several hon. Members have touched on the controversies about EU exit. I do not have time to respond in detail to all those points, but I will say that we need to be absolutely clear that Northern Ireland leaves the EU with the UK, and we need to make sure that trade between us continues unfettered. The hon. Member for Belfast South made the point very well about the enormous importance of the UK internal market, which we absolutely want to protect. Northern Ireland continues to be a top destination for inward investment, and we will work with Invest NI to ensure that that continues.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s comment that shared prosperity is shared opportunity. She made the case extremely well on behalf of Northern Ireland business, and I commend her for her efforts.
I will not go into any more detail about what we have discussed. I thank all hon. Members who turned up and I apologise for the fact that they had to make short contributions. As I said, there are a significant number of issues—I did not touch on city deals or some of the other issues. I ask the Minister to continue to work closely with us to help Northern Ireland to grow, thrive and succeed in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government support for the economy and innovation in Northern Ireland.