Wednesday 22 January 2020
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered national productivity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I declare an interest as a metropolitan mayor. I am pleased to see the Minister and the shadow Ministers here this morning. I know they all take this issue very seriously, and rightly so, because it affects all corners of our United Kingdom and all our communities.
I wanted to secure this debate because, for too long, the general debate about productivity has been too narrow—it has been too focused on the purely economic, on gross value added and on national statistics. That is the wrong approach. Growing productivity matters to people, matters to our businesses’ ability to raise wage levels and matters in terms of the types of job our economy makes available and the prospects we seek to create for our young people.
Being part of a productive economy also builds those intangible bonds between our people and our places, and between our role and our contribution. I hope that I speak for all Members when I say that we all want to live productive lives; we all want to leave the world in a better place than we found it; we all want our children to grow up full of ambition and aspiration and to be confident that we are building a world in which their hopes and dreams can be realised; and we all want an economy that creates wealth, enabling us to invest in our public services, in our people and in our communities.
Raising productivity, which is, in essence, about creating more value with the same or less input, is at the heart of all of those aims. Yet, despite the importance of raising productivity, the size of our economy has for too long been the overriding measure of success. That has led to an approach towards economic growth that has neglected the real long-term drivers of success: skills; investment in research and development; a balanced economy, with opportunities available right across the country; and the enabling infrastructure, the lack of which in many parts of the country means that we lag behind.
Perhaps conveniently, we have been able to ignore the growing weight of evidence that we are in the midst of a productivity crisis. The figures are stark. Since the financial crash, the UK’s average productivity growth has been a woeful 0.3% a year. For that reason, the Royal Statistical Society awarded it what in this instance is the unwelcome accolade of the “statistic of the decade”.
That is costing us billions in lost economic output, and the situation is even starker outside London and the south-east. Public policy has entrenched a productivity gap between the north and the rest of the UK of around 12%, which costs the economy about £40 billion. The OECD calculates that regional productivity gaps alone account for lost economic growth of around 10%. Looking across the whole UK, according to the Core Cities Group, which represents cities across the UK, if we brought all our regions up to the UK economic average, we would put around £80 billion into the economy every year. So the current situation is a huge missed opportunity for our people, our businesses and the Exchequer.
There is no silver-bullet solution to tackle the productivity challenge, but the levers to pull are all within our collective grasp, and there are things we can do urgently that will start the process of addressing the national and regional productivity challenges we face. First and foremost, we must win the argument for investing in an active place-based programme of investment that includes every region, city and town across the country. That programme must be focused on investment that is linked to the strengths and capabilities of each individual local area: its people, its businesses and its research institutions.
We must ensure that such investment is better balanced across the UK. Public R&D investment in Oxford, Cambridge and inner west London accounts for 41% of total public R&D spending in the UK. I do not begrudge any of those fine places any of that investment, but we must close the gap between academic research and the implementation of the ideas that we create. That means increasing investment in institutions such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre and the Olympic Legacy Park in the Sheffield city region. Such institutions connect ideas, innovation and research with real-life business challenges. They are ready-made vehicles through which we can supercharge regional economies, and they must be the focus of greater Government investment.
Around such institutions, we must build deep and pervasive programmes of support, to connect them more effectively with the productive potential of our existing businesses. We are already starting to do that in my own region of South Yorkshire; indeed, I believe we offer a national blueprint that shows how we can turn the productivity challenge around through the creation of innovation districts.
Many hon. Members will have heard of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. At the AMRC, the Government, the university and the public sector have invested alongside industry to build an institution that is focused on tackling real-life industrial problems, operating in that sweet spot between academic research and industry, and applying knowledge to problems.
Through the AMRC, we have been able to attract companies such as Boeing, McLaren, Rolls-Royce and many others to our region. We have built our inward investment offer around that approach. We have built the AMRC training centre, which helps to connect our young people to the opportunities that are being created. We have started to develop supply chain programmes that connect small businesses in the region to the opportunities being created by larger manufacturers. We are also looking to invest in the enabling infrastructure, to enable our workers to get to work by rail, tram and bike. That approach is building a true industrial commons, where academia, the public sector and businesses come together in a way that puts us in the vanguard of the reindustrialisation of the north.
However, there is so much more we can do. To create transformational productivity growth, we must embed this culture of innovation and ideas more broadly, across all our businesses, from sandwich-makers to steel manufacturers, and from education technology to energy production. If the Government are looking to establish a Massachusetts-style institute of technology for the north, they should look no further than South Yorkshire and the assets that we already have in place.
What we need right across the country is the ambition, matched with the investment, to scale up that approach and scale it out. Underpinning it all, the Government must take care of the fundamentals of any modern, regionally balanced and progressive economy. According to the Core Cities Group, deprivation is the cause of up to 40% of low regional productivity. Therefore, economic policy must sit right alongside our social regeneration and skills policies. We must tackle the issue of vocational and technical education head-on, and the Government must reverse a decade of under-investment in vocational education.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on all the work he has done on this issue. He is absolutely right to highlight the lack of funding, because it has had a huge impact on areas such as ours, in Barnsley. Does he agree that skills are the missing link in South Yorkshire? We need more investment in vocational education, so that all kids can access courses.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for that intervention. She is precisely right about all of that. We are seeking to do a huge amount of work across South Yorkshire, working with our further education colleges, our universities, our training providers and our businesses. I am incredibly concerned to ensure that, within our local enterprise partnership, we have the requisite knowledge, skills and experience to develop our skills sector. It is a fundamental and crucial pillar of our strategic economic plan, but it requires more thought and certainly more investment, as my hon. Friend rightly suggests. I give her an assurance that it is right at the top of my list of priorities, and I look forward to working with her and with colleagues right across South Yorkshire to ensure we have the investment in our skills system that we so need and deserve.
I was just making the point about the importance of investment in vocational and technical education. We need to ensure that we create parity of esteem across academic and vocational education routes so that we give businesses, our young people and their parents confidence in the skills system. We must better connect our businesses to the skills system. Notwithstanding the excellence of our civil servants and the capabilities and competences of Ministers of this Government, there is no way that skills, innovation, enterprise and transport systems can best be brought together at the national level. I know the Minister understands that.
To make all that happen, our places have to be given the right tools, so we must empower our places up and down the country to build their own industrial commons. Following years of austerity and systemic neglect, the manifesto on which the Government were elected contained a raft of ambitious infrastructure projects and a promise to level up investment across Britain, much of which was aimed at voters in the north of England.
If the Government are serious about building a collaborative, sustainable and inclusive economy where everyone shares the benefits, reversing the prolonged stagnation in productivity should feature at the very top of their agenda. The way to do that is by redistributing power to our nation’s regions through a programme of meaningful devolution. Westminster needs to give us the tools to do the job. I say this with the greatest respect to colleagues in the Government, but it is time to let go, because it is no coincidence that a country that has this level of political and economic centralisation also has some of the lowest levels of productivity growth and some of the highest regional inequalities. That is not good for the state of our nation. Nor is it good for the state of our public finances or the health, happiness and wellbeing of our communities. Let us make a change.
It is nice to be involved in a debate anywhere in the House, but especially in Westminster Hall. I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for setting the scene. As he does so often, he spoke in a cool and calm voice, giving all the detail and evidence that backs up the case. He does it well, and it is a pleasure to be involved with him. I see the Minister in his place. I think this is the second time he has responded in Westminster Hall, and we look forward to his comments.
As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said—it was one of his first sentences—this debate is all about how we help all the regions in the UK to benefit from national productivity. Productivity is certainly an intricate subject, with many facets. As always, I am very thankful to the Library for the briefing note it prepared, which clearly makes the point that while we are up on productivity from this time last year, the overall increase is not satisfactory. The hon. Gentleman talked about ensuring that we improve productivity in areas or regions where it could be better. Productivity rose by 0.4% in the third quarter of 2019 compared with the previous quarter, but it was only 0.1 percentage points higher than a year ago, so the rise is not as significant or as positive as we would like it to be. The slight pick-up in productivity growth should not obscure the continued weakness in the overall trend. We welcome any increase—we have clearly seen an increase, and it is important we recognise that as a positive facet—but at the same time we have to recognise that it is a bit slow.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons, if not the central reason, for the decline in productivity has been the past three years of uncertainty about Brexit, and that now that that is—hopefully—departing fast over the ridgeline, productivity will improve in all the regions, but particularly in Northern Ireland, the north of England and Scotland?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The debate should not be centred just on England, but on all the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and how we can all grow. Historically, UK labour productivity has grown by around 2% a year, but since the 2008-09 recession it has stagnated. To be clear, I am a Brexiteer and I look forward to the possibilities of Brexit and leaving on 31 January. Even though we in Northern Ireland have not got the deal that we wanted, we must be pragmatic and look forward to where the possibilities are. Labour productivity in quarter 3 in 2019 was only 2.4% above what it was more than 11 years ago in Q4. That was the pre-recession peak.
We could play the blame game and blame an ageing population. We could continue to blame the banks for the banking crisis. Some will blame Brexit. People always look for someone to blame—that is the nature of life—but in this case we want to be more positive. We could more accurately blame the behaviour in this place and the refusal to honour the vote of the people, point to the uncertainty that the trading partners have been displaying and point to the new leadership regimes in trading partners, but doing that is now pointless; we have to look positively towards the future, where we are and what we are trying to achieve. With that in mind, there are the possibilities after Brexit for trade deals with many parts of the world, and the Minister might give us some detail of that.
There are many possibilities and positives that we should be looking at to see how we can all gain. We in Northern Ireland want to participate in that gain, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said. We want to see what is coming our way, so that everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland benefits. We must look at how we can increase productivity throughout the United Kingdom and how we can realise those possibilities and new markets.
I put on record my thanks for the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and others who played a huge part in securing the future of Harland and Wolff, and indeed the successful sale of Bombardier, or Shorts, as we would all know it and so affectionately still call it in our part of the country. Both those businesses were in doubt not because of the quality of the service or what they manufacture, but because of the uncertainty in the market at that time. It was hard work that secured those businesses, so I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for all that he did in relation to that.
At that time, the Government stepped into that gap to help my hon. Friend because the Northern Ireland Assembly was not functioning, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is now functioning. We welcome it being back in place and offer the Minister for the Department for the Economy, Diane Dodds, all the best. Has the Minister had the opportunity yet to speak to the Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly? If not, when will that happen? It is important that we communicate regionally about where we want to be and how we can benefit each other. More of that needs to be done, and the start of that is ensuring that as much Government business as possible is carried out by British-owned, British-supplied and British-staffed factories.
My constituency of Strangford, like yours, Mr Paisley, has a burgeoning agrifood sector. Manufacturers are not just looking within the United Kingdom to sell their produce. Sales go down south, as far as the middle east and out to the States as well. The businesses involved include Willowbrook Foods, Mash Direct and Rich Sauces, along with Pritchitts and Lakeland Dairies. Probably 1,600 jobs depend on those factories, and then there are all the farmers that feed into those companies as well. We have a thriving pharmaceutical sector, with Eakin in Ballystockart outside Comber leading the way. It wants new opportunities in markets across the seas. We need a close working relationship between Ministers here and those in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Light engineering is prominent in North Antrim and elsewhere. Cooke Bros is a small company that does magnificent work through its engineering firm. Again, such companies need help from the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as from central Government here. Bus orders should no longer be fulfilled in Europe because of EU regulations, but by our own Wrightbus. I put on the record our thanks to you, Mr Paisley, for your hard work and endeavours in that respect. We all note the reasons why that firm was helped from going under: by finding a new buyer, retaining some of the jobs and having a really good base for the future. Wrightbus has a global reputation for high quality and reasonable prices. It should win on the level playing field. Such companies from our own areas have done very well, and we want to see how they go in future.
As I said in this Chamber yesterday, I agree with the industrial strategy. Now is the time to invest in ourselves. We want to be more productive and we want to compete globally, so we need help to make sure we can do that. We can be proactive and positive. When it comes to promoting ourselves on the world stage, we should do it under the flag of Great Britain, the Union flag, because that is our flag—that flag of our country collectively. I know the Department does do that and it is really proactive, but I want to make sure we can build upon it. We must show that we have belief in ourselves. We have to encourage employers to take on employees in their 50s. We have those who perhaps need help in that age bracket, so we should try to help. With the increased pension age, people will be in work longer. We must encourage businesses to look at skills and not simply age. By the same token, we must also ensure that we raise generations of skilled workers with a good work ethic and a healthy work-life balance. We have a very good skilled workforce in Northern Ireland, as we have in other parts of the United Kingdom. Again, how do we build on that?
On 31 January, we will turn to a fresh page in the history of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need to take the opportunity to make better decisions, encourage better behaviour and simply do better by our own constituents. We must start productivity reform by being productive in this place and giving better than we have given thus far.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on an intelligent, measured and thoughtful speech that went to the nub of the issue. We have a new Parliament and there has been a lot of change, but some things never change. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) set himself up in Westminster Hall in 2010 and is now claiming squatters’ rights because he speaks here so often. [Laughter.]
Before I begin my comments on productivity, I have to express my disappointment in the attendance on the Tory Benches today. A couple of weeks ago, a large number of Tories were elected in the north. In this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central focused his remarks on the north. I am disappointed to see that many of those representing northern constituencies are not here today to speak up for their constituents. This debate is important.
The prize-winning global economist, Paul Krugman, wrote in 1994:
“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”
The words Krugman wrote 26 years ago are as important today as they were then. Productivity is the key driver of economic growth in the UK. As the Bank of England chief economist, Andy Haldane, said in a speech in June 2018:
“It is a terrible word, as it leaves most people dazed and confused. Few are those who can define it and fewer still those who can measure it. Yet it has entered the popular lexicon and with good reason: the one thing we do know is that productivity is crucial to our pay and living standards over the longer run. Productivity is what pays for pay rises. And productivity is what puts the life into living standards.”
Productivity is no higher now than it was just before the 2008 financial crash. Annual growth of 2.1% was recorded during the decade before the crash; had the pre-crisis trend persisted, productivity would now be 20% higher—a stark statistic. With the Office for National Statistics releasing figures in November showing labour productivity—a measure of economic output per hour of work—slumping by 0.5% in the three months to June compared with the same period a year ago, it is the worst performance since mid-2014. We now face a situation whereby low productivity is no longer a mere blip but endemic to our economy.
Productivity stagnation since the crisis has been concentrated in a small number of industries: finance, telecoms, energy and management consulting. Over the past 18 months, the issue has been heightened by higher employment in less productive service sectors. In the past decade, we have arrived at a productivity puzzle that can be put down to three things. First, the UK is less productive than similar countries, most importantly, France and Germany. It is a long-standing feature of the British economy. In about 1960, France and Germany overtook us in terms of output per hour. To put it more colloquially, the people living in France will have been more productive by Thursday lunchtime than will the people living in Britain by Friday teatime. Secondly, productivity growth has slowed since the 2008 financial crash. Before 2008, output per hour worked was increasing by 1%. Since the crisis, it has grown by 2% in just one decade. Lastly, we have a third element. The slowdown in productivity growth has been more rapid and steeper in the UK than in any other developed economy. Before the crash, Britain was near the top of the G7; since then, it has been near the bottom.
To add some context, across the board companies’ capital spending is only 5% above its pre-crisis peak compared with a 60% increase over the decade after the 1980s recession, and 30% following the 1990s slowdown. In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis, business investment was constrained by some companies’ inability to borrow money as banks shored up their balance sheets. That is less of a problem now because most banks have recapitalised. Other factors, such as a lack of worthwhile investment or uncertainty about the economic outlook must now be playing a greater role in deterring companies from more capital spending.
The financial crash saw the election of a coalition Government. For all the talk of paying down the deficit or paying the national debt off—they are mixed up—the simple fact is that it was the Bank of England that used monetary policy to see off another recession. Fiscal policy, unfortunately, was largely ignored. Quantitative easing and low interest rates kept unemployment low, but had a huge effect on productivity. It is argued that low interest rates have sustained zombie companies. Record low interest rates have cut companies’ borrowing costs, allowing some highly unproductive companies—so-called zombies—to avoid going bust. That appears to be borne out by how the rise in the number of companies going into administration was much less dramatic in the past recession.
Monetary policy was very different in the most recent big economic slowdowns compared with the previous ones. The Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.5 per cent, making it easier for companies to finance their loans. By contrast, interest rates were held above 10% during the recession of the early ‘90s. However, it is not only unproductive companies that have high levels of debt relative to their profits—leverage that puts them at risk of becoming insolvent when monetary policy inevitably tightens.
Both high-productivity and low-productivity companies have high debt ratios.
“Higher interest rates hit both types of company,”
said Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England in March 2018. Interest rates explain part but not all of the productivity stagnation. An increase in the number of people looking for work, which has helped to hold down wage demands, and uncertainty about the economic outlook since the Brexit vote might have encouraged companies to hire more staff rather than invest in technology. The question should be asked: in the wake of a lost decade of low productivity, can the country solve its own productivity puzzle? Many of the problems that have come down to productivity come from a skills shortage. Getting the right workers with the right skills to work efficiently and effectively is a simplistic and obvious way to boost performance, but it is easier said than done.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said about Northern Ireland. I could not help but think that Northern Ireland, the north-east and Wales have the same problem: we are heavily reliant on the public sector to provide jobs. We have a smaller private sector than other regions. It is very difficult to increase entrepreneurship and encourage people to set up their businesses. The vast majority of businesses set up in Northern Ireland, the north-east and Wales are microbusinesses, which provide employment for one person. The fact is that we do not have a history of entrepreneurship. It is vital that as part of careers advice in schools we talk to children about setting up their own business and employing people. I talk to so many people who have the ambition of setting up a business, inspired by “Dragons’ Den” and “The Apprentice”, but when they go to do it, even though they have a fantastic idea, they find it extremely difficult. The Government need to educate people on self-employment and give them the confidence to be self-employed.
We talk about skills shortages. In my constituency, we have General Dynamics, a defence contractor from the States, where the average wage is £40,000—high-skill, high-tech jobs. We also have Axiom, another high-level engineering plant, and Unilever. They are all household names and big blue-chip companies. They will not have a problem upskilling their workers. On the other side of the coin, a small engineering outfit will need its workers to work and will not have time to upskill them. It is a truism of society today that people will not have a job for life; everybody needs to upskill continuously. That is why it is important that the Government introduce a skills levy, to allow companies to upskill their workers. In the short term, that will cost money, but in the long term it will work because we will have a more highly skilled workforce. If we ask businesses to invest in technology, a small business with fewer than five employees will have to decide between machinery or skills. That is where the Government need to step up to the plate.
The second area that we need to look at is even more obvious than upskilling. Technology has driven every change in society. From the first industrial revolution to the fourth revolution now, technology is at the forefront and the cutting edge. The biggest changes in society have come about because of technology. Even today, the most productive companies in this country are those that have invested in cutting-edge technology. The figures bear that out: on average, those that have cutting-edge technology are up to 6% more productive than other companies. Again, the Government could step in. Yes, we could have high levels of connectivity and faster broadband, particularly in rural areas, and such areas as Northern Ireland, the north-east and Wales, which I have talked about. However, there also has to be an effort from companies themselves. They need to utilise that technology, which feeds into my earlier point that they need to have the skills to do so.
Low productivity is the biggest problem facing our economy. We have high employment, but people feel unhappy because they are not feeling it through their wages. We can say that low productivity is a fact of our economy, but if we have the political will and we harness the skills and energy of the British people, the next decade can be this country’s most productive.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley, and to speak in the debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who made a characteristically serious contribution.
Those of us who have participated in economic debates over the past decade, as I have had the great fortune to do in this House, have been talking about productivity for some time; yet the problem is not resolved. Today, we are talking about national productivity, and we have heard about regional disparity, which is certainly a problem for our economy. The divergence between some of the regions of the United Kingdom is greater than between some of the regions of the European Union as a whole, so if we think that Brexit will solve all our problems we are in for a bad surprise. However, that is not the reason I rise to speak.
It is true that investment in our economy, particularly from the private sector, is in a chronic and parlous state. We need a greater contribution to the future potential of our economy, and as an ex-employee of Network Rail nobody believes more than I do in the power of infrastructure, particularly trains, to do great good for our economy. Unfortunately for us all, infrastructure investment is necessary but not sufficient for the future good of our economy.
I want to make a different contribution on how we should look at productivity in the UK, because it is important to understand and get to the root of the issue. When we look at who does the jobs in the least productive firms—those jobs that add less to our national productivity—the answer is women. Women work in jobs that are, on average, 22% less productive than those that men do. Why? It is because they work in those areas of our economy that are the least productive, such as retail and hospitality, where productivity growth has been slow for many years.
As a result, women do the worst-paid work. We can ask ourselves whether women do those jobs because of gender stereotypes, whether those jobs are paid less because of gender stereotypes, or whether investment in those areas is so poor because of gender stereotypes, but the truth is that that is the situation we face. I simply ask the Minister to point to what the Government strategy will be to approach that, because if they do not approach the question of productivity with a focus on gender we will not solve the problem.
Women are also less likely to work in high-productive firms. We have heard a lot about advanced manufacturing. It is certainly the case that the most productive firms are those that invest heavily in technology. I do not think that it is fair that half the population has much less of a chance of working in the sectors of employment in our country that are likely to offer a higher pay packet.
In order to understand the question, we need to think about what productivity actually is. As has been said, it is a measure of how much value is added to the economy with the time that we have. That is why the question of time is so important. How we improve productivity depends on who decides what we do with our time. According to the data, women’s productivity really drops off around child-bearing age, because that is the point at which women have less of a choice about what they do with their time.
Childcare responsibilities still fall heavily on women, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that access to childcare is a central problem for the productivity of our country. If we focus just on putting pounds in the ground—building new railways and road links, and investing in heavy infrastructure—we will fail to solve the productivity crisis in our country for yet another generation.
The other aspect is about power inside low-productivity firms. It is about time management, and the poor quality of management that we have had in the United Kingdom for many years in low-productivity firms, where people do not have the power to say, “Actually, I would like to manage my time so that I can be out of the business for one day a week, so that I can learn and upgrade my skills.” Again, women are most likely to be unable to do that, because of childcare responsibilities and, increasingly, responsibilities looking after older people in our society. Our social care system is collapsing before our eyes, and when that system collapses, it means that women cannot get to work because they are busy looking after older relatives as well as children.
In summary, if national productivity is to mean anything and if the Government are to have any kind of strategy to improve the productivity of this country, we must recognise that one half of our population are unable to take the steps they need to improve their working life and their ability to contribute to our economy. If we do not recognise that, we will fail yet again.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and I thank everybody who has come to contribute to today’s debate and try to resolve the productivity issue that is plaguing the UK economy. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) pointed out that there is a real need for investment in skills, research and development, creating a balanced economy and infrastructure, and also a need to tackle the deprivation that holds back so many people in so many communities from accessing and participating in the economy.
Since the Scottish National party came to power in Scotland, productivity there has grown three times faster than in the UK—a rate of 1% a year, compared with the UK average which, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said, is 0.3%. When we consider that we have done that against the backdrop of austerity, and more recently against the backdrop of Brexit, it is all the more impressive. We are doing things such as encouraging businesses to sign up to the Scottish business pledge. According to its website, 722 businesses have now signed up to that pledge, including firms of all different sizes, large and small, from multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Deloitte to The Good Spirits Co., which is a small shop in my Glasgow constituency. Hearts football club has also signed up to that pledge, so a range of different organisations have signed up to it.
The Minister will be interested to hear that the Scottish business pledge has three core elements: payment of a real living wage, not the Chancellor’s pretendy living wage but one that people can actually afford to live on; action on the gender pay gap; and no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts within the companies that sign up. Once companies have met those three core pledges, they are encouraged to work towards further elements of the Scottish business pledge, including environmental impact, having a skilled and diverse workforce, workforce engagement, innovation, internationalisation, community and prompt payment, all of which are important to businesses of all sizes.
I encourage the Minister to look at that pledge; I believe it has been a hugely important factor in improving productivity rates in Scotland, because businesses are being asked to sign up to something that will make them, or encourage them to, act responsibly. That pledge also has a wider effect on the economy, as those businesses spread the good word and encourage more and more people, including those in their supply chains, to sign up to it. This is not just an issue of business growth, but of the wellbeing of employees, which has a huge impact on productivity and how people feel when they turn up to work in the morning. The Minister needs to look at that further as well.
The Scottish Government are taking other measures, such as the Scottish National Investment Bank legislation which, excitingly, passed unanimously in the Scottish Parliament yesterday. The Scottish National Investment Bank seeks to increase innovation, give support to small and medium-sized enterprises and build an inclusive, high-tech economy, which is incredibly important. We can see how investment banks such as KfW, which was set up post-war in Germany, have changed, worked for and invested in their economies; for example, KfW has changed housing so that investment in that sector works towards greener standards. There are real things that we can learn, and it seems bizarre that the UK Government at that time set up an investment bank in Germany but never thought to set one up for itself, when we could use it so much.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned the importance of R&D. The Scottish Government have invested £37 million in R&D and have a target of doubling business investment by 2025, which should go some way to make sure that people are investing in the businesses, technology and infrastructure that they have, as well as in people. We have a green new deal that will harness the power of that Scottish National Investment Bank, including a £3 billion green investment portfolio and a green growth accelerator to attract green finance to Scotland and bring the inward investment that will help drive its economy. We in Scotland have also recognised the importance of inclusive growth, and have been recognised internationally for our approach to inclusive growth. If an economy leaves people behind, it cannot be a particularly good or productive economy, never mind a happy one.
The Scottish Government are reviewing measures to tackle historic disparity. It would be useful to hear whether the Minister has any further information about things like the shared prosperity fund, because European money has been absolutely crucial to addressing that historic disparity in a number of ways. In areas of Scotland where we have been working so hard over so many years to try to correct that post-industrial Thatcher legacy, European money has been crucial, not just for constructing buildings and other things, but putting money into training programmes, universities, colleges and infrastructure. During last week’s education debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned the importance of college education in Scotland. I have City of Glasgow College in my constituency, which now has two campuses in the city centre, and looks and feels like a beacon that will attract people to enter. It does not sit, up on Cathedral Street, with any less dignity than the University of Strathclyde, which neighbours it, and that is important for how people feel when they are accessing those education institutions.
Our lack of control over wages in Scotland is a real challenge to productivity. I have already mentioned the Chancellor’s pretendy living wage; I am yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why a 16-year-old starting in the same job and on the same day as a 25-year-old is worth over £4 less, which is all they are entitled to. The majority of people in those low-paid jobs will be women, and they will be in part-time work as well, which makes it very difficult for those women to bring more money in to support their family and to bring along the next generation. They will be struggling. As the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said, it is crucial that we look at women as part of this productivity issue.
I attended the graduation ceremony at the Open University, which plays a huge role in enabling people who might not have been able to access more traditional forms of degree to obtain skills. At the end of the graduation ceremony, the participants in the room who were receiving their degrees were asked to put up their hands if they had children, had a disability, had caring responsibilities, or were working while they were doing their degree. Hands went up everywhere. I am pretty sure that no other graduation ceremony would look like that, so I ask the Minister to consider the importance of the Open University in ensuring that productivity is increased.
I also ask the Minister to review the mechanisms that are currently holding people back, particularly universal credit. Universal credit makes it incredibly difficult for people to change their job and improve their circumstances, because they are penalised when they try to do so. For example, the two-child limit traps working families who perhaps started off in life with three children, and were working quite well until something went wrong. It makes it incredibly difficult for them to get back on track when they cannot get enough money to feed their family; they end up in a trap that they cannot work their way out of. The childcare element of universal credit should be paid up front, rather than in arrears, because that is a barrier to families taking on work. It makes it very difficult for families to access employment when they have to pay those childcare fees themselves and claim them back. Other elements of universal credit, such as conditionality, sanctions, and the fact that if a woman is added as a second earner in a household it automatically has an impact on household benefits, also make it difficult for those families to improve their circumstances.
Other hon. Members have mentioned entrepreneurship, self-employment and skills shortages, all of which are important to addressing productivity. Looking ahead, all those things will be made worse by Brexit. I disagree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); he always views things with great optimism, but I am afraid that I do not share his optimism about Brexit, because it will have an impact on investment and on skills. At the moment, skills shortages are filled by EU nationals’ being able to work and travel freely. I fear that the absence of those people, who are running businesses and are in our schools and our education system, will have a significant impact on our ability to improve the productivity of this country, and that impact will continue for many years to come.
Interestingly, the Chartered Management Institute sent a briefing to the debate. Its research, which is backed by the Bank of England, mentions
“a long tail of poorly managed and unproductive organisations”—
a real issue, which the Minister would do well to address. It gives a figure of 2.4 million “accidental and unskilled managers” and has worked on management apprenticeships to try to ensure that firms do not just put people into management roles without that support. An interesting aspect of the debate is to ask what more can be done to support those managers—those people who end up in positions of influence—and make sure they understand that their roles are important, that they are well supported, and that they can play an important and active role in their organisation to make it more productive.
In Scotland we look to the experience of the Scandinavian countries, which have happier and, by all definitions, more productive and equal societies. I look at them with envy, because they have the full set of economic powers that small independent countries can have and they do well for their people—not just for their economies—as a result. I imagine what Scotland, as an independent European nation, could do with the full set of economic levers to move towards being a more inclusive, fair and prosperous country for all our people. That is very much something to aspire to, but which we cannot fully reach at the moment in the UK.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing the debate. He made an excellent contribution, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I genuinely enjoyed listening to them. I say that every time I close a debate, but it was true today, because if I had my way, we would be talking about this subject every day of the week.
All hon. Members have correctly said that the No. 1 objective of any Government must be to ensure that the country’s economy works to provide the maximum prosperity and living standards for all parts of the country and all our constituents. That is what we all want, which means that we should celebrate what we do well as a country and the optimism that the Government are asking us to embrace. It also means, however, that we must be honest about what is not working well and what needs to get better, and then discuss what the solutions might be. In the UK, productivity is clearly one of those significant problems.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central said, according to the figures from the House of Commons Library, UK labour productivity has historically grown by about 2% a year, but it has stagnated since the recession in 2008-09. The level of labour productivity in the third quarter of last year was only marginally above what it was 11 years earlier, in 2007. We might look at the impact of Brexit and the uncertainty that was mentioned earlier, but we must acknowledge that the problem is more deep-seated.
It is normal to expect a recession of the depth and severity that the financial crisis brought about to have an impact on productivity, but we would expect that to last only for a certain amount of time. The fact that we are still only just recovering to pre-crisis levels is a deeply worrying indicator and does not reflect well on how the Government have handled the recovery. Overall, UK productivity is still 16% below the average for the rest of the G7 countries. As hon. Members have said, that matters a great deal. In a highly competitive global environment, we are not match-fit. We are about to voluntarily increase our barriers to trade—at least in the short term—with our major trading partner, the European Union, as Brexit occurs, so if we do not improve productivity, we face a challenging future.
There are many reasons for that underperformance. Something so persistently bad must be deep-rooted, and many hon. Members have put forward accurate analyses and persuasive arguments about what they want to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central talked about skills and devolution, and I agree entirely. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn talked about capital investment and monetary policy, which was spot on. I particularly agreed with the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South about gender disparity and the need to look at issues such as childcare alongside capital infrastructure projects.
I will talk about three additional areas where we need decisive action: transport, automation and business support. I acknowledge, however, that there is a counter-argument to what I will say. Some people will put the UK’s poor productivity down to our higher employment rate. In other words, some might say that, by definition, having more economically active people than France, for example, comes at the expense of higher productivity—so a country could feasibly have a smaller but more productive workforce that exists alongside significant unemployment.
We cannot be satisfied by that explanation. In 2018, the employment rate among people of working age was the highest ever in this country, as we have often heard from Ministers in Treasury debates. But in 2018 the employment rate was also the highest ever in Canada, Germany, Australia and 22 other OECD countries. The truth is that the Government have been incredibly fortunate to be in office at a time when technology has driven up employment rates in all developed countries. We should therefore be in no doubt that we have serious work to do.
On transport, I will shamelessly talk about my own constituency. Every hon. Member present has a sound grasp of north-west geography, but for people who are not aware, Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield sit about 10 miles east of Manchester city centre. My constituency’s other border is where Derbyshire begins. It should take about 15 minutes to get from Stalybridge train station to Manchester city centre, but that can happen only if the train turns up. Every single day—today is no different—I get up, turn on Twitter, and see my constituents telling me, rightly, that they are not getting the service they deserve. If I say, “Brexit is coming. We’ve all got to roll up our sleeves and improve this nation’s productivity,” they will reasonably suggest that the first thing to do to achieve that might be to give them a train service that gets them to work on time.
The problem is about much more than underperformance by the franchisee, although that is evident too. It is an endemic problem of inadequate infrastructure outside the south-east of England. Not that long ago, my constituency was full of big firms such as ICI, Christy, which produces towels, and Total Petrochemicals—real industrial giants—that employed the vast majority of local people.
On that point, there were people on the news this morning who were unable to get a train on time. One lady, who started a new job in Manchester in the new year, had been late to work every day since—not because of her, but because the trains were late. If there is going to be connectivity and dependability on the train service, that service must ensure that the trains are on time and that the number of trains can grow, so that people are not saying, as they were this morning, “If the train doesn’t go on time, I’m going to go by car.”
I could not agree more. I am delighted to hear about new jobs being created in Manchester, but not that people are struggling to get to them.
My point about the state of infrastructure, and not just the short or medium-term performance of the franchise operators, is that, not that long ago, people said that modern communications technology would make place less relevant to economic development, that we would all be able to work from home, that it would improve productivity, and that we would see the benefits of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central made the point, however, that place is as crucial as ever, because cities have generated the jobs of the future, particularly in the knowledge industries and in services. Our transport system is only now trying to catch up.
If we cannot give people an adequate journey over 10 miles, we have no chance of linking up the north, the midlands or South Yorkshire more comprehensively. From Stalybridge and Hyde, people should be able to go to work by public transport in not just Manchester, but Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and, of course, Barnsley. That is why I have always championed transport projects in my constituency, such as electrifying the Huddersfield rail line, which the Government are still prevaricating about and telling us might be partly possible; the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass, which would make it easier to get to Barnsley; and the extension of successful transport networks, such as the Metrolink tram network. That is also why we need schemes such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. I say to the Minister that those two projects are complementary, not in competition. They will require major transport investment, but it will be worth it.
Secondly, I want to talk about automation. Many people fear the rise of automation and worry that it will destroy jobs and create huge and painful upheaval. I understand those concerns; I grew up in the north-east in the 1980s, which was a time of tremendous upheaval. We did not deal with those changes well, but, in the right hands and with the right leadership, automation makes the country more productive and more prosperous, not less. The problem in the UK is that we have not enough automation, rather than too much. The International Federation of Robotics notes that, in 2018, there were 71 robot units in the UK for every 10,000 manufacturing employees. The comparative figure in Japan was 303, in Germany, 309, and in South Korea, 631. We need more ambition with technology, not less. It is amazing that, until very recently, one 10th of all the fax machines in the world were in use in the NHS. I would like to see the Government lead on a managed automation plan as part of their industrial strategy, to drive up the use of new technology, and alongside that, have a technology displacement fund to support workers with the skills and training they would need if they faced displacement through new technology.
I also want to talk about business support, because as well as the things the Government need to do to improve productivity, decisions that individual firms make clearly have a big impact, based on the leadership and training they possess. The previous Chancellor, Philip Hammond, used to mention that a lot. There is some excellent work already happening. Many Members will be familiar with Be the Business, the business-led organisation that works with peers to improve and benchmark productivity performance. I am impressed with its work, but I wonder whether it could be taken further. Could Be the Business be the basis for a new social partnership or standing organisation to further expand on that work?
I hope this is one of many debates we will have on this subject in this Parliament, but I want to sound a word of warning. We are told the Government want to ban the word “Brexit” in an attempt to present it as being done, but, in reality, so many of the debates in this Parliament will be related to our exit from the European Union. The impact of future trade deals, in particular, will require serious debate about which sectors will be prioritised and which will be severely disrupted. The announcements we have had so far suggest there will be no substantive deal covering services of any kind, especially financial services, and that, on goods, the just-in-time supply chains that the automotive and aerospace manufacturers depend on will be significantly disrupted. Those sectors are where productivity is currently strongest. For instance, the Nissan car factory in Sunderland has a claim to being the most efficient in the world. If all of us here today are in agreement that national productivity must be improved, we must also make sure we do not lose the good sectors that we have.
We should work to improve the UK’s productivity where we can, but we should not take poor decisions that would make our productivity and therefore our prosperity and the living standards of our constituents much worse. I look forward to what the Minister has to tell us about the Government’s plans in this area.
I begin by echoing the thanks of all Members to the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for calling today’s debate on an issue that goes to the heart of so many of the issues facing our economy and our society. I congratulate him on his key role in progressing the devolution deal for South Yorkshire, which we all hope will help to unlock significant productivity benefits for the people of his region. I know he shares this Government’s view that devolution across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom can boost productivity across the country, and we look forward to working together to achieve that.
Giving power to local people on the ground is undoubtedly the best way to make the most of every area’s unique strengths and to confront their unique challenges. That is why since 2014 the Treasury has led negotiations with several city regions across the country to strike landmark deals with eight places as part of a devolution revolution. The slogan might have changed, but the metro mayors are now delivering on local priorities. Tees Valley, where I live, is home to the South Tees Development Corporation, which is regenerating the former SSI site at Redcar. Manchester, the home of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), has a focus on trams. We are talking about Northern Powerhouse Rail connecting up the regions better. Liverpool has its rail networks, as the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) alluded to, which are key to driving the benefits that we all want. Our commitment to enabling local people, who know their areas best, to be the masters of their own economic destiny could not be stronger.
We saw further progress just last week, as South Yorkshire moved forward with its own deal that agreed £900 million of new Government funding over 30 years for investment in local priorities identified by the Mayor and his combined authority, not by Westminster. I will be travelling to Leeds next week to hold talks with West Yorkshire’s leaders on a mayoral devolution deal for Leeds city region. We are determined to build on Leeds city region’s strengths in digital, financial services and the creative sectors, as we level up and share the success of the opportunities ahead. We will put our money where our mouth is for the right agreement. I will go to Leeds next week in search of that deal.
We know that Britain is currently too centralised and that solving the productivity puzzle will need us to think differently. We cannot just sit in Whitehall, pull a lever and cross our fingers—I completely understand that. People want control over their lives to come up with their own plans and, crucially, to be able to put them into action more quickly than the machinery of central Government sometimes allows. We need to give them that. We are hugely committed to making devolution to Sheffield city region a success. We look forward to continuing to work closely with regional leaders to build an economy that works for everyone by improving connectivity, strengthening skills, supporting enterprise and innovation and promoting trade to ensure that the people of South Yorkshire benefit from the powers and investment envisaged in the deal.
Clearly, such issues transcend the borders of England. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to Northern Ireland, and I am delighted that we have managed to get devolution back up and running at Stormont. It is crucial to ensuring that all parts of the community in Northern Ireland feel the benefits of renewed growth and renewed control over their own destiny. I very much look forward to picking up talks with the new Ministers there as part of our efforts to make sure that our policies and theirs work as closely as they can for our shared benefit.
In her powerful speech for the SNP, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned the UK shared prosperity fund. Obviously, we are determined to make sure that that is delivered correctly; we need to take the time to get that right. I confirm that we will be setting out our full plans at the comprehensive spending review later this year. That will be the moment when we start unveiling how that will work and give people the clarity that they need to make the investment decisions over the course of the years ahead, as we transition out of the European Union.
The Minister says “correctly”. His definition and interpretation of that might be slightly different from mine. Will the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have full control over the purse strings and decision making for the shared prosperity fund?
I am afraid the hon. Lady will have to wait for the publication of the consultation at the comprehensive spending review. The key point is that we want to make sure that this gives the Scottish Government meaningful control over key aspects of resources. She mentioned European funding in her remarks. The point I would submit is that that money was fundamentally UK money that was recycled back to this country, with conditions attached. We should be clear that we want to devolve control of that funding to the lowest possible level, and we will inevitably want to do so in a spirit of genuine concord with Holyrood.
The Government will set out further information about our plans here in an English devolution White Paper this year, which will outline our strategy to unleash the potential of our regions, level up powers and investment and give power to people and places across the country. Alongside that, we will publish a refreshed northern powerhouse strategy, building on the successes of the existing strategy in bringing together local leaders to address key barriers to productivity in the regions.
As the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) said, productivity is not a concept that always commands headlines, but it goes to the heart of national prosperity. It is the best way to boost wages, improve living standards and enhance economic growth across the country, regionally as well as nationally. We are working hard to build a stronger and fairer economy—dealing with the deficit, helping people into work and cutting taxes for businesses and families. There are 3.7 million more people in work, and the hon. Member for Wirral South alluded to the record rate of women in employment, which is worth highlighting. More than 60% of the increase is in regions outside London and the south-east, but we need to go further and we need to be candid about the extent of the productivity challenge we face. Productivity growth slowed globally in the aftermath of 2008, but the slowdown has been particularly acute here. The Government are committed to tackling that challenge as we enter a new decade in which we are less under the shadow of the financial crisis and the impact on our public finances.
The key will be an ambitious programme of investment. Infrastructure is a key driver of productivity—it is not sufficient in itself, but it is an absolute good. It links people to jobs and products to markets and supports supply chains, encouraging domestic and international trade. It affects daily life: speeding up internet connectivity means less time staring at blank screens; improving roads and trains, which the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde rightly mentioned, means less time stuck waiting to get to work and more time to play; decarbonisation means cleaner air for us all to breathe and more efficient energy. When the national infrastructure strategy is published alongside the Budget on 11 March, that will be a core moment in this piece. We will set out further details of our plan to invest £100 billion to transform our infrastructure and achieve a real step change. The strategy will set out our long-term ambitions across all areas of economic infrastructure, including transport, local growth, decarbonisation, digital infra-structure, and infrastructure finance and delivery.
Alongside that investment in our physical capital, it is essential to focus on and improve our human capital, as the hon. Member for Wirral South, whom I had the pleasure of serving alongside on the Treasury Committee, rightly said. I know that from my constituency. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) is right to say that talent is evenly spread across this country, but opportunity is not. We know that, which is why our recent manifesto pledged a national skills fund—I was briefed on it yesterday, and it is exciting, bold and visionary. We all know that it needs to happen, because there has been profound personal, human dislocation as part of our transition from one era of industrialisation to a new one. That has had uneven consequences across England, let alone across the UK. We will seek to give a leg up to people looking to get onto the career ladder, support those wanting to switch careers, and support growth by ensuring firms can get access to the skills they need.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde referred to Be the Business. I had the pleasure of meeting it last week, and it is hugely impressive. I heard first-hand from several of the entrepreneurs it has helped about how targeted interventions and upskilling have helped them to be better business leaders. We need more of that to create a culture of entrepreneurship, which, as the hon. Member for Islwyn said, is not always common in all parts of the United Kingdom.
Increasing our productivity also means innovating. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central referred to the AMRC in Sheffield. That is precisely the kind of thing that we want to see more of. That is why we are committed to meeting our target of raising investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, ensuring that the UK remains at the cutting edge of science and technology. One of the great frustrations of recent decades is that the UK has so often come up with brilliant ideas but has not had the opportunity to build them out at scale. That needs to change. If we do that correctly, there is so much good that we can unlock and economic potential that we can unleash. We are increasing public spending on science and innovation by an additional £7 billion by 2021-22, which marks the biggest increase in 40 years.
The point that the hon. Member for Wirral South made about human capital, and in particular women, was well made, and I take it to heart. It is something I have been talking to my officials about. The Government are seized of the cost of childcare and the need to resolve fundamentally the problem we face with social care, which has so many spillover consequences for our health service and our economy, and we will be coming forward with proposals. Particularly on the social care piece, we genuinely welcome constructive engagement with the Opposition as we try to build a settlement that has lasting legitimacy. We want to do it right for successive generations, which will doubtless encompass Governments of both colours.
On female entrepreneurship, my predecessor—the current Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government—and I are working with Alison Rose to develop the Investing in Women code, which will help to pioneer work. We are looking to increase lending to female entrepreneurs to increase the possibilities. Clearly, if someone cannot even make the time to work because of competing priorities, that constrains them. I genuinely take the hon. Lady’s point to heart, and I will continue to work on it with officials.
That is certainly an interesting idea, which I promise to look at. I would very much welcome the hon. Lady’s sending through her thoughts on this. We have, for example, committed to compulsory gender pay gap reporting. Those kinds of tools that can help to shine a light on hidden inequities, and we are keen to look at that. I am certainly happy to consider that idea.
We are excited about putting our plans into action, but we have to make sure that, when we begin to tackle the productivity puzzle, everyone in our country benefits. That is why we are taking advantage of low interest rates to invest in our priorities across the regions and nations of the UK. In our manifesto, we committed to spend £4.2 billion on upgrading local transport connections in England’s largest cities, and £500 million a year on tackling potholes—a recurrent source of frustration for all of us across the country. We are spending over £28 billion on roads through the national roads fund from 2020 to 2025—the largest ever investment in England’s roads. We are making sure every corner of the country benefits: we are spending almost £3 billion in the north, £2 billion in the midlands, and £2 billion in the south-west on improvements to our major road infrastructure. We are investing £2.5 billion in up to 18 city regions across England to improve roads, public transport, and cycling and walking networks through the transforming cities fund.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central will no doubt welcome the fact that the Sheffield City Region and West Yorkshire Combined Authorities have both been shortlisted for the £1.2 billion transforming cities fund. We will be announcing allocations from the fund shortly. I am sure that he has seen that the Government are also investing in a £3.6 billion towns fund to unlock regional potential and create places across the UK where people can live and thrive. I am sure he will be pleased that we have allocated more than £12 billion from the local growth fund to local enterprise partnerships, to be spent on local priorities.
I pay tribute to everyone who has taken the time to contribute. This has been a genuinely good debate, conducted in a tone of consensus. So many of the issues raised are accepted on both sides of the Chamber as priorities that we need to tackle as we move into the 2020s. From Strangford to Sheffield, we remain highly ambitious. On 11 March, the Chancellor will set out a Budget that lays the foundations for what we should all hope is a decade of renewal that will unleash our country’s potential and level up opportunities.
In an interview with the Financial Times at the weekend, the Chancellor very ambitiously said he intends to double the trend rate of economic growth that we have seen since the Conservative party returned to power. What kind of improvement in productivity would the Minister like to see, and what can we use to hold him to account for the successes of the strategy?
It is best that we wait for a fiscal event to set out our targets in this area. The Government are clear that we need to increase trend growth. There is no doubt that we accept that challenge, which is thrown down quite legitimately. As we have now cleared the rubble from the 2008 crisis, we need to aspire to do more. I accept that in the spirit in which it is offered. It is right to challenge the Government and hold us to account on whether we can now put that vision into practice. There is always a lag when it comes to investment on the scale and of the nature that we are talking about, but we are doing things that I hope by the end of the Parliament will have made a demonstrable impact, in terms of changing our economic structure.
I apologise for testing your patience, Mr Paisley. Doubling the trend rate of growth would really return it only to pre-crash levels of growth. To repeat the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) just asked, what measure for the Government to be held to, specifically on productivity, will the Minister commit to?
That is simply not something that I am in a position to commit to on behalf of the Government today. As I said to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, we are resolved to do more to increase growth in a way that will mean that, the next time we come to review these statistics at the start of a new Parliament, there is a new tone and a new level of ambition realised in the results. That is genuinely the Government’s commitment. We are particularly interested in ensuring that areas such as Merseyside, Teesside, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire lead the charge and are not left behind.
I want very briefly to reflect on two points that the Minister referred to. First, the transforming cities fund is absolutely vital for us, in terms of productivity and economic growth. We have worked incredibly hard with the Department for Transport to put forward an outstanding bid into the transforming cities fund. I am the only metro mayor who has been required to bid for that money. My parliamentary colleagues in South Yorkshire, who now include three Conservative Members for the first time, and I will be looking very closely at what the Chancellor announces in his Budget in March.
I want to reiterate the points that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) rightly made about the shared prosperity fund. It is a critical amount of money for our regional economies. I am pleased that the Minister said that the consultation will be launched later this year. It is vital that both regional and national leaders can contribute to the important process of determining how the shared prosperity fund will be allocated in our regional economies—that is incredibly important. We urgently require clarity so that we can make long-term investment decisions.
The debate has been really useful; we have had a series of very constructive contributions from Members representing every corner of the country—Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the north-west and north-east of England, and Yorkshire. We have established a consensus that productivity is a key driver of economic growth in the UK, and that regional imbalances are huge challenges that will require investment in skills, R&D and infrastructure, of which public transport is key. Devolution is a significant way to address some of those challenges, but democratically elected leaders need investment and resources to make regional and local decisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) rightly placed the focus on women and challenged the Minister and the Government on what they will do about gender disparities. To be fair, that important challenge also needs to be levelled at our metro mayors, all of whom are men, as she will know.
I had no doubt about it. My hon. Friend has put that important challenge to the Government and we will look and listen very carefully at how they respond to it. That challenge should also be put to our metro mayors, and I assure her that in South Yorkshire we take that very seriously and have a programme of work, through our skills and employment board, that looks specifically at the points she raised. I would be grateful for the opportunity to discuss that further with her at some point.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered national productivity.
All-lane Running Motorways
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the safety of all-lane running motorways.
Last year, in June, my constituent Jason Mercer said goodbye to his wife Claire at 8 am. Fifteen minutes later, he and another motorist were dead. Jason had been involved in a minor collision on the M1 in South Yorkshire, but in March 2017 the hard shoulder on that section of motorway had been converted into a full-time running lane, so, with no emergency refuge in sight, Jason and his fellow motorist were forced to stop in a live lane to exchange details. A steep bank immediately behind the safety barrier meant there was nowhere to move off the road, and instead they were left exposed. A lorry hit one of the stationary vehicles, killing them both instantly.
The safety features promised when the motorway was converted have still not been installed. Jason is one of the growing number of victims of so-called “smart motorways” on which the flow of traffic is controlled by remotely adjustable speed limits. Specifically, Jason was killed on the all-lane running, or ALR, motorway on which the hard shoulder has been permanently removed. Tragically, Jason is not the only victim of that ill-conceived scheme. That same 16-mile section of the M1 has seen five fatalities in just 10 months. Nationally, 2018 figures show 107 deaths across the whole of our motorway system and—let me repeat—I have had five fatalities in the past 10 months, in near-identical circumstances, on 16 miles of road. I acknowledge that ALR schemes can deliver capacity improvements, but they do so at the cost of motorists’ lives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Does she agree that that could have been avoided had police advice been listened to? In the Parliament of 2010 to 2015, I went to see the Minister’s predecessor with the South Yorkshire police, who had said, “This arrangement is not safe.” Recently, Chief Inspector Darren Starkey of the South Yorkshire police wrote to me that
“any stranded vehicle, in any live lane or carriageway on any motorway or other strategic road presents an immediate safety risk”,
but that when there is a hard shoulder, those
“risks are less than being in the live lane”.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and for all his campaigning on the issue. It was not only the police but the local authorities, the other emergency services, the RAC and the AA—everyone with any common sense knew that taking away the hard shoulder was going to lead to fatalities.
Hazards presented by the removal of the hard shoulder are manifold. The hard shoulder allows stricken motorists to stop in relative safety, outside the flow of traffic. In its absence, at a minimum, there should be emergency refuges along the carriageway. Mr O’Sullivan, the chief executive of Highways England, recently revealed to the Select Committee on Transport that 38% of all breakdowns on ALR motorways took place in live lanes, not in refuges. Even having refuges, therefore, does not keep people safe.
Dev Naran, a young constituent of mine, lost his life suddenly in 2018 in an accident on the M6. His parents are in Parliament today. The coroner’s regulation 28 report on his death raised some of the huge issues that the hon. Lady is exploring: despite the name, there is no automated system for spotting broken-down vehicles and where there is, at one place on the M25, it is overwhelmed by false positives; we do not know how often screens that are used manually to look for broken-down vehicles are refreshed, or how many screens an individual has to look at; and there is no consistency in the spacing of refuges, as she said, and huge stretches have no refuges at all. Officials have been too blithe about the problems she is pointing out. I hope that the Minister will stand up to the officials and take the huge problems seriously.
I echo those concerns, and the hon. Gentleman’s hope that the Minister will now do something. My heart bleeds for the families.
Reaching safety is particularly challenging in newer schemes, where refuges are being spaced further and further apart. The M42 active traffic management pilot placed refuges 500 to 800 metres apart, but in newer ALR schemes that has increased to roughly 2,500 metres. To be explicit, someone needs to travel 2.5 kilometres, or just over 1.5 miles—with a blow-out or an overheating engine, or after being in an accident—before being able to get out of a live traffic lane. The greater the distance between refuges, therefore, the less likely it is that a motorist will be able to reach safety. Motorists are instead left exposed, stopped in live traffic. I can only assume—I am sorry to say this—that that decision was made to save the Government money.
Does the hon. Lady agree that not only motorists but workers in recovery vehicles need extra protection from smart motorways? One way of achieving that might be to enable those workers to use red lights rather than the simple amber lights that they use at the moment. That would afford them greater protection from other vehicles that might otherwise not see them on the road.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one way in which to deal with the situation is to increase the speed at which the gantry signs change to close the lanes, so that people have more warning? Does she also agree that we need quicker access for the emergency services to deal with accidents when they happen?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will come on to the reality of the stopped-vehicle protection system, which unfortunately is somewhat shocking.
The smart motorway is meant to be smart, and its systems should come into play—for example, to close lanes to traffic automatically—but that of course relies on the stranded vehicle being detected. It pains me to say, however, that the vast majority of England’s smart motorways are unable to deliver on that. Almost all smart motorways are underpinned by Highways England’s MIDAS—motorway incident detection and automatic signalling—system which, by monitoring traffic flow, allows congestion to be managed. But the system has a significant and life-limiting flaw: it is unable to identify a lone stationary vehicle.
A 2016 Highways England report found that detecting a stranded vehicle took an average of 17 minutes. Safety is compromised still further by Highways England allowing up to three minutes to close a lane once a stationary vehicle has been detected. In Jason Mercer’s case, detecting his stationary vehicle took more than six minutes, and the lane in which he was stranded was only closed after the crash that claimed his life.
Stationary vehicle detection, or SVD, technology reduces the time taken to spot stranded vehicles by an average of 16 minutes. Highways England committed to fitting SVD throughout the smart motorway system in 2016. That has not happened. Four years on, SVD is in operation on only two sections of the M25, covering just 24 miles of England’s more than 230 miles of smart motorway. The Highways England chief executive acknowledged that, had SVD been installed, a number of fatalities on all-lane running motorways could have been prevented.
Even where SVD is in place, questions remain about its effectiveness.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing a debate on this incredibly important issue. Over recent months, sadly, there have been a number of fatalities and accidents on the stretch of the M1 by Luton. Since raising the issue, a number of residents have echoed concerns about the safety of that stretch of smart motorway. Does my hon. Friend agree that any review by the Government is welcome, but that including in it all the voices of road users and workers is vital?
I completely agree, and I compliment my hon. Friend on already raising the issue in the Chamber. The consultation was always flawed, and all the evidence mounting is just not being listened to.
A recent report in The Sunday Times revealed that the system’s own chief designer has highlighted weaknesses in the system, warning:
“The density of traffic at higher volumes means it is very difficult to detect stopped lone vehicles without an unimaginable number of false alarms.”
The Minister must not believe Highways England when it tells him that SVD is the panacea for safety improvements for all-lane running schemes. It is not; it is seriously flawed.
The risks to motorists do not end when a stranded vehicle is detected. Once detected, the system should close the lane that the stranded vehicle is in by marking it with a red X on the gantry. In 2016, non-compliance with red X signs was 7% to 8%. However, research by the RAC this year found that more than a fifth of motorists had driven in a lane closed by a red X sign in the past year. If a motorist is detected and lane closures are put in place, their chance of being hit by an oncoming vehicle remains alarmingly high. It will require a concerted education and enforcement programme to reduce non-compliance, and I urge the Minister to commit to that without delay.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and compelling case. Those concerns were first raised by the Select Committee on Transport, chaired by Dame Louise Ellman, back in 2016. They could—and should—have been addressed much earlier. Some of those who tragically lost their lives could have been saved.
That is the sad reality. I will come to the Transport Committee’s damning quote. I thank my hon. Friend for her work, as Chair of the Committee, to hold Highways England to account.
The Department for Transport has been aware of the dangers of ALR for some time. Many risks were highlighted in the 2016 Transport Committee report that my hon. Friend mentioned; it concluded that the Committee was unable to support ALR due to fundamental safety concerns. The Department for Transport, in contrast, argued that ALR is not only safe, but safer than traditional motorways. That position is hard to comprehend, but I have tried to figure it out. It is based on the twisted logic of offsetting the safety improvements of a managed motorway environment against the hazards of removing the hard shoulder. The issue with that logic is that those factors are not exclusionary. It is perfectly possible to maintain a hard shoulder on a smart motorway, but it costs more.
By suggesting that the risks are a necessary component of the improvements, the Department unjustifiably downplays the inherent dangers. The Transport Committee’s report labelled that approach “disingenuous” and robustly warned against decreasing the risk of some hazards to justify an increase in others. Highlighting the intrinsic problems of all-lane running compared with other smart motorway schemes, the Committee was damning in its criticism of the Department. It stated:
“The All Lane Running design has been chosen on the basis of cost savings, and it is not acceptable for the Department to proceed with a less-safe design, putting people’s lives at risk, in order to cut costs.”
Motoring organisations, including the RAC and the AA, have been warning for some time that ALR presents an unacceptable risk—concerns echoed by local authorities and police forces. Yesterday, it came to light that the AA will no longer carry out roadside assistance on all-lane running motorways due to serious safety concerns. How bad does it have to get before the Minister will act? Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, in response to the consultation on the conversion of junctions 32 to 35a of the M1, warned starkly that,
“from an operational perspective, the emergency services suggest that the risk of collisions involving stationary vehicles...is an unacceptable one which will have serious and potentially fatal consequences.”
Jason Mercer was one of those fatal consequences. Last year, there were nine fatalities on smart motorways.
There is no evidence that ALR can ever be delivered safely. I therefore strongly believe the Government must stop the roll-out with immediate effect. Until the obvious and intrinsic risks of removing the hard shoulder are addressed, existing schemes should revert to traditional motorways from today. At a minimum, Highways England must prioritise retrofitting stationary vehicle detection to existing ALR schemes, with a clear deadline for when that work will be completed. I support the RAC’s call for existing schemes to be retrofitted with refuges no greater than one mile apart, but I would go further and ask for the originally proposed 500 to 800 metre intervals. While that work is undertaken, the hard shoulder should be reinstated. If it is not possible to install refuges, the scheme should not go ahead on that road.
Urgent action—both enforcement and education—is needed to improve compliance with red X signs on gantries. Safety of motorists must always be paramount. Before the scheme even began, the Government were inundated with warnings about the intrinsic risks of all-lane running and were urged to rethink their approach to increasing motorway capacity. It is totally unacceptable for a Government to risk lives in the name of cost savings.
I cannot change the past. I cannot bring Jason Mercer back to Claire. But it is in the Minister’s gift to stop more deaths.
Order. The debate is heavily oversubscribed for a half-hour debate. Members may wish to lobby the Backbench Business Committee for a longer debate, given the considerable national interest on this subject. Tracey Crouch has asked for, and has been granted, time to speak.
We are all interested to hear the Minister’s response, so I will be brief, not least because the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) made a brilliant speech in which she articulated everyone’s concerns about smart motorways. This is the second Westminster Hall debate on all-lane running motorways in which I have spoken, the first being about the safety of roadside recovery workers. That was as a consequence of the partner of a constituent being killed on a motorway.
A section of the M20 that goes through my constituency is being converted into a smart motorway, and I have been concerned about the outcome since that was first proposed. Many constituents are petrified about its completion, not least because, since I raised the issue last year, there have unfortunately been a number of high-profile fatalities. When I have spoken on the radio and been quoted in the papers, hundreds of people have got in touch about their concerns and experiences, many of which are incredibly traumatic. We need to pay attention to drivers’ experiences on smart motorways.
I want to press on the Minister a point that the hon. Lady articulated incredibly well, about the statistics that are given to Ministers. When he looks at statistics from Highways England, he needs to disaggregate the types of accident. An accident on a motorway caused by someone driving at 90 mph, or a collision between a moving lorry and a car, is completely different from someone who has come to a halt on a smart motorway being hit by a moving vehicle—quite often a heavy goods vehicle. The statistics given are apples and pears; the Minister must drill down into them, because they are not safe otherwise.
I strongly encourage the Minister to revisit the cost of creating all-lane motorways and to consider whether the money could be better spent on the wider road and transport network, instead of on this increasingly dubious and dangerous upgrade plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Paisley. I am standing in for the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, who will be watching the debate closely, and I will meet her afterwards. Let me congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for raising this issue. I agree that it merits a bigger debate. The participation of colleagues across the House signals the strength of feeling.
Let me start by acknowledging the tragedy, pain and trauma suffered by the families of all those who have lost their lives on our roads—especially Jason Mercer, whose family are in the Gallery, and Dev Naran—and particularly, in the context of this debate, on our smart motorways. It is no good Ministers saying that all roads are safe; people need to feel safe and be safe. We need to ensure that safety remains our No. 1 priority. We accept there is a problem here. The Secretary of State is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a serious package of measures to tackle it. I cannot and will not pre-empt that, but I will deal with a number of points that were raised.
I would not be doing my job if I did not start by reminding everyone that safety is our No. 1 priority. Highways England’s objective in implementing smart motorways is to ensure that they are as safe as the pre-smart motorway network, which is already the safest bit of the road network, and ultimately safer. We are committed to developing an increasingly safe road network, and I am alarmed that the safety statistics showed a slight increase last year. I take the point my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made about drilling down into that data, which I will raise with Baroness Vere.
That is one of the precise questions that the Secretary of State is looking at. I do not want to pre-empt that work, but I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s reason for asking that important question.
Highways England is constantly monitoring, and it has introduced a number of measures. This is ongoing work. It is not something we think is done and dusted; it is live as we speak. The truth is that, for anyone involved, one accident is one too many. I want to ensure that no one ever dies in this way again, and that the legacy of the people who have died is that that sort of accident, and the situation in which it occurred, cannot happen again. That is why the Secretary of State announced an evidence stocktake soon after taking office. He has called in all the evidence and data, and he is looking at a package of measures to deal with this issue, which will be announced imminently. It would be sensible if, following the debate, we quickly reconvened the all-party group on road safety. Perhaps we might go further and create a taskforce for all colleagues who are interested in this issue, so we can listen to their concerns and ensure that that work is fed directly in.
I hope my hon. Friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches understand that I cannot pre-empt the Secretary of State’s announcement, but let me make one or two key points in response to those that were raised. It is true that the principal rationale for smart motorways is to increase capacity, reduce congestion and reduce pollution. There are environmental benefits to ensuring that we maximise the use of existing motorways rather than building new motorway capacity, but there are real issues about awareness, information, the positioning of refuges, rescue, vehicle monitoring, and the safety of vehicles re-entering the highway. All those issues have to be got right, and that is why I am responding in the way I am.
Smart motorways have increased capacity. Since we introduced the scheme, more than 1 billion journeys have been made over the 250-mile network of smart motorways. I do not want people to think this is a very small patch of malfunctioning motorway; it is extensive, and over the last 15 years, millions of people have driven up smart motorways.
This debate is about all-lane running, not smart motorways. It actually is about a very small stretch. Please, Minister, do not just focus on smart motorways and how wonderful the M25 is. We get that. We are talking about all-lane running, which is where we do not have investment.
I understand. I am setting the context, because I think there is quite a lot of public misunderstanding about what smart motorways are. I am short of time and I am keen to get to the end of my speech if I can.
The conversion of the hard shoulder to a running lane is a key feature of capacity management, and we avoid having to build more motorways when we can increase the capacity of existing ones. I totally accept that there are real issues, which the hon. Lady raised, not least of which are refuge placement and ensuring that we have full CCTV coverage so we are able properly and quickly to monitor vehicles that are in trouble and ensure that they are dealt with properly. The scheme has been running since 2014. To the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, there is a lot of data that we ought to be able to draw on, and we are drawing on it in this review.
It is worth reflecting that the hard shoulder on a traditional motorway has never been deemed a safe place to stop. One of the problems is that, traditionally, people have seen the rescue telephones and thought of it as a safe place to stop, find facilities and make a phone call. It is not and never has been. One of the things we have struck is a misunderstanding that it is a good place to pull over. It is not. Let me repeat that the hard lane has never been that and is never that. In contrast, there have been no collisions in refuges resulting in fatalities.
In the original pilot on the M42 in 2006, refuges were set very close together, at approximately 500 metres apart. Based on operational insights, further performance data and ongoing monitoring, Highways England moved that to 1,000 metres on all other dynamic hard shoulder running schemes, and then to 2,500 metres on all-lane running schemes. That is one of the things the Secretary of State is looking at.
Highways England undertook a review of operational all-lane running schemes and found no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, but I take the point my hon. Friend made about drilling down into that data, and I will ensure that that is done. We and Highways England know that motorists not only need to be safe but need to feel safe and need to know what to do when they are in the dangerous situation of a breakdown or a collision. We need to ensure that everyone has that information properly.
The specification for the maximum spacing of emergency areas on new schemes has been reduced from 1.5 miles, which is about 90 seconds at 60 mph and equivalent to the spacing of lay-bys on sections of A road, to 1 mile, which is about 60 seconds at 60 mph. However, again, we need to look at the data; on particular sections, given the geography of the road area, the spacing might need to be different. Highways England will also install a number of additional emergency refuge areas in locations with the greatest spacing. We need to look at whether there are particular blackspots where we need more refuges.
All emergency areas are fitted with orange surfacing to make them more visible, and better advance signing will give motorists more information about how far away the next one is. I want to go further and ask whether we could use digital technology, which many drivers use for satellite navigation, to ensure that every driver knows when they are in one of these areas, where the refuge is and what they should do. Technology can help us ensure that we avoid the sort of tragedies we have seen.
Identifying a broken-down vehicle is key, and I know that is something my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has raised. If a driver is unable to reach a place of safety, the regional traffic control centre can and should use the overhead electronic signals to close lanes, display warning messages and slow down approaching traffic, as well as to create an access lane for the emergency services. To reduce response times in setting those signals, Highways England has installed a stopped vehicle detection system on two sections of the M25 and will shortly install one on part of the M3. Again, however, if that is the prerequisite, we need to put it everywhere and ensure that it works properly. Highways England is designing it into all-lane running smart motorway schemes that are currently scheduled, and it is exploring how to provide the same benefits on all existing all-lane running smart motorways. I say that not to suggest that it is an adequate response to the points that were made, but simply to highlight the work that is going on.
That is an excellent point, and it is one of the issues the Secretary of State will be looking at in his work.
In the remaining seconds, I want to touch on reports that the AA has said it will not let its patrols stop in live lanes. That is concerning, because we need the support of all vehicle rescue operators. It is worth saying they are never expected to work in a live lane on any motorway unless the scene has been made safe by police officers. That has always been the situation. Highways England has developed guidance on safe recovery with the recovery industry, and it has put in place a whole series of measures, such as electronic signs, variable speed limits and red X signals. Regional control centres and on-road traffic officers can now support vehicles leaving an emergency area. Again, I am not suggesting that is adequate; more needs to be done to ensure that this is working properly.
Red X lane enforcement is long standing. It has been in use since the system was introduced in 2006, and Highways England, in partnership with the police, has issued more than 180,000 formal warning letters to drivers identified as having wrongly used the hard shoulder at a number of smart motorway locations. That number must come down. The aim should be to ensure that nobody drives in the wrong lane at the wrong time, rather than to issue letters to warn them. We need faster progress on that. We have brought in legislation to allow automated detection of red X offences using camera equipment and to enable the police to prosecute, but, again, that should be the last line and something we hope never to have to do. We need to ensure that those incidents do not happen. There have been major public information campaigns, which I do not have time to list in detail.
Let me conclude by saying, in the spirit of the debate, that I am keen to work with the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, to follow up with colleagues on both sides of the House and look at whether we might set up a taskforce to ensure that their insights can be fed in, and to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that the package he announces is adequate for all of us who use the motorways and represent drivers. I want to ensure that the deaths of Jason, Dev and the others were not in vain, and that their legacy is real improvement so everyone knows these routes are safe.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
North Cotswold Line
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered North Cotswold line transformation.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), will respond. I will start by declaring an interest, which is that I am an unpaid vice-president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, a fantastic voluntary organisation that has worked relentlessly for decades to improve the North Cotswold line. I am grateful that I have secured the debate so early in the Parliament, and in time for the 2020 Budget, because we have a Worcestershire Chancellor, who truly understands the value of infrastructure improvements in unleashing our country’s potential and increasing its productivity. I believe that the case for investing in the North Cotswold line will be one of the easiest and most convincing ones he will see.
The North Cotswold line, for those who have not had the pleasure of travelling along it, runs from Oxford to Hereford and crosses many constituencies, one of which is Witney—my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) has recently, and conveniently, been appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Transport Secretary. The line also runs through the constituencies of The Cotswolds and Mid Worcestershire, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will seek to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr Pritchard, although, sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) would have to sit here silently, as he currently serves in the Whips Office. It then runs through the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), through my own constituency, and on to North Herefordshire—my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) is a keen supporter. It then goes through the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).The North Cotswold line plan is to improve services to Kidderminster—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) is here—and I know it will have knock-on benefits for colleagues in the Oxford area as well. All those colleagues are supporting this debate, even if they are not all speaking in it.
I also wanted to hold this debate now because it coincides with the arrival in the Department for Transport of the strategic outline business case for the North Cotswold line, which has been written by the North Cotswold Line Taskforce. I put on record my thanks to Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for chairing the taskforce, and to all the taskforce members: Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire County Councils, Herefordshire Council, the Worcestershire, GFirst, Marches, Oxfordshire, Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnerships, the West Midlands Rail Executive and the Cotswold Line Promotion Group. They have all done excellent work since the taskforce was set up two years ago.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She has read out a list of a number of those supporting the plan, but I notice that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership was not involved. Is she as surprised as I am not to see it there, given that its southern part covers those north Worcestershire constituencies that the line to Droitwich Spa and Kidderminster goes through, where this will make a difference? It is a bit remiss of the LEP not to be on that list.
The honest answer is that I do not know the background and whether that LEP was approached, or whether my hon. Friend will now be able to tell it about this exciting proposal, which benefits the Wyre Forest and allows services to Kidderminster.
The history of this 86-mile line between Oxford and Hereford represents sharp decline and, now, slow recovery. The lovely, fully doubled line of the early part of the 20th century was reduced to mainly single track in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—perhaps not coincidentally, a time when the whole railway network was in public hands. By the 1980s, there were only two trains a day between Paddington and Hereford.
Thanks to the campaigning of my predecessor, the late Lord Spicer, as well as Sir Peter Luff—the former MP for Mid Worcestershire—and many others, two sections of the track were redoubled between 2008 and 2011. By 2015, a broad hourly service had been achieved. The partial redoubling has also brought some improvements to journey times. Since the December timetable changes, one train per day in each direction completes the London to Worcester journey in less than two hours.
Having looked at a range of options, the North Cotswold Line Taskforce has given unanimous backing for what it calls option 5, a redoubling of four miles of track from Wolvercote Junction, Oxford, to Hanborough station, and the redoubling of five miles of track from Evesham to Pershore. In addition, option 5 includes second platforms at Pershore and Hanborough.
The combination of those elements in option 5 would allow two trains an hour from Worcester to London, additional services beyond Worcester to Malvern, Hereford and Kidderminster, a regular Worcester to London service in less than two hours, and faster services from Malvern and Herefordshire to London, as well as improved performance and reliability.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that those improvements on the North Cotswold line would also unlock additional opportunities in the nearby area? For example, it would be possible to link the line through to the Cowley branch line, and having the additional capacity at Hanborough might make it possible for that station to operate almost as a parkway, which would relieve some of the pressure on Oxford station. It would be a win-win not only along the route, but in many nearby areas.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support and, through her, thank Oxfordshire County Council for the support it has given this taskforce. I believe that option 5 allows a significant improvement to services around the Oxford area. I will come on to some of the environmental benefits of the scheme. She may well want to call a similar debate at some point in the future on the proposals she is making.
I do not know the details of the proposals the hon. Lady is making, but I do know that the benefit to cost ratio of this scheme is well over 4:1. That is with a cost estimate of just under £200 million for the whole option 5 scheme, including an optimism bias in the cost estimates. The five counties supporting the taskforce, including Oxfordshire, are home to more than 2.5 million people, and their economic gross value added is greater than that of the West Midlands Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Moreover, they are only asking for half the budget from the Department for Transport.
As I mentioned, there are clear environmental benefits. As train travel increases, it will take cars off the road. Currently, my West Worcestershire constituents travel miles along the congested motorway network just to get to Warwick Parkway and Birmingham International stations so that they can use the Chiltern line and the west coast main line. The strategic outline business case goes into detail on the benefits to the road system, and estimates that 5 million miles of highway driving would be avoided. Indeed, the delivery of the Worcestershire Parkway station—it is due to open any day, and I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to come and officiate at its opening—will strengthen the case for more travellers across south Worcestershire to use the North Cotswold line.
There will be huge tourism benefits, as the line goes through some of the loveliest countryside in the world. It passes the cathedral city of Oxford and goes on to the cathedral cities of Worcester and Hereford. It goes through the heart of the beautiful Cotswolds, near Blenheim Palace and, of course, through the glorious Malvern hills. There will also be huge housing benefits. The scheme will increase the affordability of housing for those working in Oxford, by giving them the opportunity to commute by rail from less expensive areas. In short, it will unleash the potential of the midlands engine and link it to the Oxford-Cambridge arc corridor, connecting it all more reliably, more frequently and more quickly to London, the Crossrail network and Heathrow.
My only ask of the Minister today is that he agree to pay half of the develop stage costs and allow the proposed scheme into the industry’s rail network enhancements pipeline. With that funding, an outline business case and a structural survey can be prepared for 2022. A commitment from his Department of only £1.5 million of the £3 million cost—taskforce members will pay the other half—will enable that progress.
I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister sees how compelling option 5 is in terms of value for money, the environmental benefit and the country’s productivity. The proposals are sensible, modest but impactful, and achievable in the tangible future. When he makes his case to the Chancellor, he will be making it to a friendly Worcestershire colleague, and he will know just how many other colleagues will be pleased by approving further progress on this wonderful train line.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing the debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here to answer our requests.
I have been heavily involved in the Cotswold line redoubling campaign, as it goes through my constituency—Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham are both very busy stations along the line; the latter is just outside my constituency boundary but is used by many of my constituents—and I have worked closely with my fellow MPs, as my hon. Friend said. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) in his place. Part of the ask of this feasibility study will be to get the redoubling done in his constituency. I will say more about that in a minute, but I am sure that it will benefit his constituents hugely, and all of our constituents, because it will make the whole journey time quicker. It is delightful to see him here.
We have all worked closely with the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, which has been a staunch advocate for this line for tens of years. I pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, to Lord Faulkner for heading up that group. We have had upgrades on this line, as my hon. Friend said; it was redoubled in the early 1990s, as was the line from Kemble to Swindon. That had huge benefits, because it now takes just 12 minutes to travel from Kemble to Swindon, and reduces journey times from Cheltenham to Swindon to London.
The redoubling of the Cotswold line will increase the number of services along the line for the entire journey. Timetable changes in December 2019 were a milestone, because trains on that line now deliver an hourly service throughout the day. The trains are less crowded, with more capacity and, above all, faster journey times. The new timetable has been welcomed locally, but further investment is required to take it on to the next stage—for rail services to meet the long-term needs of the region which, as my hon. Friend said, is growing both economically and in population terms.
Relative to other regions, this is still a slow journey. The journey from Worcester to London, for example, which is 120 miles, has an end-to-end speed of just 57 mph, compared with the speed from equivalent towns such as Leamington Spa, at 76 mph; Bath, at 77 mph; Swindon, at a very fast 84 mph; and Rugby, at 99 mph. This is a slow service at the moment, and much could be done to improve it.
The journey time between Paddington and Worcester Shrub Hill—120 miles—takes between 1 hour 59 minutes and an appalling 2 hours 40 minutes, which is slow when considering that frequent trains throughout the day can reach Oxford from London in just over 50 minutes. The extra bit, which is another half of the journey, takes well over an hour. It is unacceptable that people travelling beyond Oxford are expected to travel on a second-class, slower service, as the train slows down significantly from Oxford.
The redoubling of the line that I worked to secure has improved the journey time, but the faster trains have to slow down through the single-line sections. Suggestions put forward by the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the North Cotswold Line Taskforce would mean two trains per hour travelling through Worcestershire, the Cotswolds, Oxford and to London. Option 5, as my hon. Friend said, would see further redoubling from Wolvercote to Hanborough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and eventually a 5-mile stretch between Evesham and Pershore, producing faster journey times of less than two hours between Worcester and London. Minister, that is the ultimate goal; a city of the size, importance and distance from London of Worcester ought to have a rail service of less than two hours.
I am sure the Minister knows—my hon. Friends certainly know—that the line currently operates on both diesel and electric modes. A long-term aim, which would be a game changer, is to fully electrify the line from Oxford to Worcester, but that is not the subject of this particular study. Making the journey faster and more environmentally efficient is most important. I am sorry to tell this tale, but it is absolutely true: I recently caught a very old train from Norwich to Sheringham, and frankly it was like travelling on a moving, polluting factory—the diesel emissions were so bad. The ultimate aim must surely be to phase out all diesel trains in this country. If we want to get rid of the internal combustion engine—petrol and diesel cars—by 2040, we must have a plan to get rid of diesel trains as well.
As my hon. Friend said, the business case for redoubling the Cotswold line is compelling, with more frequent, faster services helping to generate nearly 400,000 new passenger trips each year. An investment of £199 million would have economic benefits of £33 million gross value added per year, and would support 750 new jobs. The operating costs put forward offer efficient rolling stock utilisation, with improved use of the existing fleet and efficient redistribution to match supply with demand.
Such improvements would hugely benefit my constituents who use the North Cotswold line. Moreton-in-Marsh is a growing town that has already seen considerable growth, mainly due to its actually having a station. I recently helped the Fire Service College—a national institution in my constituency—obtain a £500 million contract with the Ministry of Defence to train defence fire and rescue workers, which will help to secure an additional 100 jobs. The Fire Service College critically depends on the Cotswold line.
In addition, as my hon. Friend says, the Cotswolds is an important area of outstanding natural beauty, attracting some 38 million domestic and international tourists a year, generating £1 billion a year for the Cotswolds economy. I might add that that is not only my constituency; there are 17 constituencies in the Cotswolds. For the Cotswolds to be accessible and to retain this industry, it must have strong, sustainable, green transport links that offer an alternative to road-based traffic. For the Government to achieve their targets, as set out in the 25-year environment plan, including meeting the legally binding targets to reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants and ending the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, more investment is needed.
The Cotswold line improvements will link in with the Elizabeth line, which is significant to my constituents, as well as those of my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire and for Witney. At the moment, the journey to Heathrow is so difficult that I should think that well over 90% of my constituents choose to travel there by car. However, with an improved Cotswold line, meaning that they can get to Oxford and then Reading, and can then use the fast Elizabeth line from Reading straight into Heathrow, I am sure that more of them will change their mode of travel from car to rail. If we do not keep improving these railway lines and connectivity, many of our roads will simply clog up, which cannot be good for the environment.
Overall, this project delivers very high value for money—my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned a benefit-cost ratio of 4:1; I believe that the actual figure is 4.46:1, so it is nearer 5:1—and will support economic and population growth, tourism, connectivity to London and other regions, access to jobs and reductions in road congestion. We are talking about enhancing rural but economically competitive areas, such as the Cotswolds, that are currently being restrained—constrained—by the transport connectivity with other areas. Other strategic options such as train lengthening, road investment, platform lengthening and other railway projects in the region would all help to achieve those objectives.
My final sentence will be to repeat to the Minister the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire. We need from this debate only half the cost of doing a feasibility study—a mere £1.5 million. Considering the other requests that will be made, that is absolute chicken feed.
I did not originally intend to speak in this debate. One notable thing about this place is that quite often Members of Parliament stand up to speak because although everything has already been said, not everyone has already said it; so I will try to avoid repeating the incredibly excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—my own MP—who initiated the debate, which is a really important one for the local economy, and by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). Both have interests in this matter, because the track runs through their constituencies, and they are working extraordinarily hard to champion this scheme. However, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire about it affecting other constituencies is incredibly important. Although Wyre Forest is in the northern part of Worcestershire, it will benefit very significantly from the opportunity created by the doubling of the track.
I want to make just a couple of points. I raised in an intervention on my hon. Friend the interest of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership. I did not want to catch her unawares with that, but it struck me that the more people we get behind this scheme, the better it is in terms of making the business case for what is not actually a very big ask from the group involved. Because the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP also covers the northern part of Worcestershire—Wyre Forest, Redditch and Bromsgrove—it takes in two of the stations that will benefit, Droitwich Spa and Kidderminster, which will benefit from being able to feed into this line through Worcester. Therefore there is an economic interest for that LEP and I will certainly make representations to it in order that it throws its weight behind the scheme.
My other point is on the benefit to local economies. If people look at the economies along this track and to the north, going towards the Black Country, they will see that we suffer from a number of different things, one of which is lower than average regional wages, particularly in Wyre Forest; that is something I have been particularly aware of. One thing that we are trying to do in the whole of Worcestershire, through the Worcestershire LEP, is to attract more businesses into the area and therefore bring up training, productivity, wages and general wealth and wellbeing for the county. It is well known that the best way to do that is to create infrastructure links. People will not be attracted to come to a county if they cannot get their workers in and the training in and their products in and out, and rail is certainly an incredibly important part of that. And if we free up the road networks by having more people travelling by rail, that benefits the economy as well as the environment. It is incredibly important that we all throw our weight behind this scheme, for so many different reasons, and it is incredibly important that we are having this debate now.
I shall ask just one question. There is obviously the rather peculiar debate going on at the moment about the £105 billion that is being put into HS2. That is not without controversy, and I do not particularly want to make a controversial speech, but I remember that when I was on the Treasury Committee a few years ago, we did an investigation into the value of spending what was then £52 billion, if I remember rightly—I think it was actually lower than that, but let us say that it was £52 billion—on HS2. Were we actually going to get value for money out of it? There was a very strong argument for it, and Andy Street, the Mayor of Birmingham, is arguing very vehemently in favour of that part of HS2 going up to Birmingham—I would agree with him on that.
However, the interesting question now is this. If we were to start the argument from the other end and say that we had £105 billion to spend on the rail network, would we build HS2 or would we spend that money on exactly this type of project and, indeed, other projects whereby we could extend reach down to places such as the far west or to East Anglia and other parts of the country that will not benefit from HS2? I think it is worth using this debate to highlight that point. Although HS2 is a very exciting project, it is not necessarily what we would have spent £105 billion on if we had started with the offer of the money. We may well have started by spending it on this type of project in order to get more—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but I think we should not forget that the schemes that we are talking about here are in addition to HS2. This Government are spending £48 billion on the railways on precisely these sorts of schemes. Even if we release the money for HS2, money is still available for these sorts of schemes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am not suggesting that we should scrap HS2 to pay for this scheme. He is absolutely right: we need to do an awful lot of different things. I was just trying to give a slightly different viewpoint on the whole HS2 argument. Actually, I think interregional connectivity is the most important point.
I will not take up any more of the House’s time; as I said, this is a really important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire for initiating the debate. The scheme is really important. It will make a big difference to a lot of constituencies that are not on the track but will benefit. My hon. Friend and everyone who represents a constituency along the track can 100% rely on my support for the scheme and my support in trying to get the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP to come in behind it as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I apologise for being somewhat late. I also refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing today’s debate and on championing investment in our railways. Labour is also very supportive of that. We have been calling for it consistently as part of our endeavours to create a greener and more affordable transport network run in the interests of passengers.
Back in 2017, the North Cotswold Line Taskforce was established. It was made up of the five county authorities, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and five local enterprise partnerships that are served by the line. As part of the Department’s enhancements pipeline process, the taskforce brought forward its strategic outline business case just last month, calling for faster, more frequent rail services to serve and better connect the communities and economies we have heard about today.
I also want to make the point about the wider connectivity—referred to by, I think, one Government Member—to the Thames valley and my own constituency in Reading, and about other, wider benefits across Oxfordshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) mentioned branch lines in her constituency. We need to look at this scheme on a system-wide basis, seeing it as a potential benefit not only to residents in the north Cotswold area, but to the wider rail network. Indeed, I will talk later about the importance of looking at the network as a whole.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that supportive point. Of course, all the trains that go from Paddington to Worcestershire and Herefordshire will pass through Reading, which in recent years has become a magnificent station, thanks to the investment that we have put in. That will enable connectivity to Crossrail for those areas, which are poorly served at the moment. I therefore thank the hon. Gentleman very much for making that point.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning Crossrail, because it is important that we think about the integration between London stopping services and the wider countryside beyond London and beyond major towns and cities.
The taskforce made a convincing case for track doubling on parts of the line, as we have heard. Currently, the single-track line on parts of the route does have an impact on the quality of services. What is proposed would come at a cost, but, as we have heard, with a very high benefit to cost ratio. It is worth noting—certainly we have noted—the very high benefit to cost ratio, at 4.46:1. That is unusually high, so the hon. Lady and other colleagues have made a very good point on that, and I hope the Minister considers the relative strength of the case.
The enhancements would also allow an increase in the speed and frequency of services along the line, as we have heard. The taskforce’s business case pointed out that the benefits would be felt by not only passengers, but the local economy. I think it quantified that at about £33 million annually for the economy and the area, and there would also be the creation of about 750 new jobs, which is quite a substantial benefit. We need to consider what this scheme means in real terms to the area, as well as to the wider network and the country as a whole.
It is obviously now up to the Department to look at the scheme—I urge it to do so seriously—and to decide whether to include it in its pipeline of enhancements and to commence the development stage, which, as we have heard from hon. Members, is the next step. Moving the scheme on to that phase will require an additional £3 million initially.
This scheme exemplifies how investments in public transport can bring massive benefit to communities across the country, but that should not be the preserve of just some areas. There should be a system-wide examination of the benefits of this type of scheme for all the UK. Investment in rail should stretch across all nations and regions of the UK. We hope, as hon. Members have described, that that will support other local economies, in counties, groups of towns and cities around Britain, and deal with the problem of rising inequality.
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Increased investment in rail is required to tackle air pollution and the climate crisis, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) mentioned. According to the Government’s climate change advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, the Government are not on track to meet their emissions targets, which themselves are insufficiently ambitious to meet the objectives we all have set ourselves.
Transport, as was rightly mentioned, is the most emitting and worst-performing sector of the economy. It is an obvious target for us. There is a potential benefit economically and environmentally, and the hon. Gentleman made that point eloquently. Despite improving technology, transport emissions are rising. There is a serious risk of over-emphasising road transport—with the road schemes in the pipeline currently highlighted by the Government—rather than rail, which is a low-emitting sector.
If the Government are serious about cutting emissions, they must put their money where their mouth is. Unfortunately, Government policy in the last decade has taken us in the wrong direction. Regulated rail fares have risen by over 40% since 2010—more than 2.5 times the rate of increase in median wages. At the same time, overcrowding has increased, and reliability has declined. Rail travel is becoming unaffordable for many people, who are priced off the railway. Those who do travel by rail have to spend more of their income in real terms.
The policies Labour presented at the general election would address many of these issues. That complements my point about investment in particular parts of the country. Bringing the railway back into public ownership would improve services and deal with the timetabling chaos suffered by communities in the north of England last year. We would also have cut regulated rail fares by 33% from January 2020 and delivered a simple London-style ticketing system, which I am sure residents in the north Cotswolds would much appreciate as they travel in and out of the south-east or across their region.
Other countries are already tackling these issues. In Germany, where the railway is under public ownership, the Government recently made a substantial cut in rail fares, specifically as a climate protection measure. That complements expanding rail provision in under-served parts of the country. I would like the Minister to consider that approach. I hope he will take note of my points today in the same way I am sure he will take note of the specific regional issues in the north Cotswolds.
I hope the Minister will consider other policies where I believe we have the wrong balance between rail and other modes of transport. For example, the Government have repeatedly frozen fuel duty for private vehicles and, effectively, air passenger duty, at the same time as allowing rail fares to rise and cutting subsidies for buses. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds hinted, there is a wider issue of connectivity to other public transport services, both into London and within shires, including better bus services. What steps will the Minister take to reduce the cost of rail travel, and reconsider the balance between rail and other modes of transport?
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about connectivity. We worked hard in Moreton-in-Marsh to try to get the local bus service to coincide with the arrival and departure of trains. We are also working hard on getting trains to coincide with bicycle hire, so that people can arrive at Moreton-in-Marsh from London, hire a bicycle with their family, have a day out in the beautiful Cotswolds and then take the train home again.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about connectivity to bicycle hire. Cycling can be supported by sensible policies that promote it and link it to rail travel and bus use. As I am standing in as shadow Minister for local transport, I refer him to the recent Labour manifesto on those matters. At least as a fellow cyclist, it is worth considering the need for greater investment in cycling.
I understand the Minister is interested in reversing some of the Beeching cuts. There is some merit in exploring that, but it must be matched by funding. Conservative Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East have articulated the need for funding. I urge the Minister to look at the broader funding envelope for the Department and the relative weighting of spending on rail as opposed to road. He may want to shed some light on various aspects of that, particularly his plans to reopen branch lines in addition to dualing existing railway lines.
If the Government are serious about boosting rail connectivity, the Minister must look at the pot of money the Government have available for road enhancements, which is taken from hypothecated money from vehicle excise duty. There is an argument for spending some of that on public transport. We have already suggested that a proportion of it be spent on subsidising bus use, which has recently declined, but there might also be a good case for some of that funding to be hypothecated for rail, considering the obvious points that have been made, as rail can often provide an excellent alternative for rural residents who wish to make long journeys and avoid our congested motorway network. Sadly, at the moment, we are not following the right approach, and we need to look at that balance again.
I commend Conservative Members for highlighting the needs within the north Cotswold area. They have made an excellent point about their railway line. I urge the Minister to consider the weighting of Government spending. I hope he will address such points and the wider package of support for branch lines and other smaller rail routes. I urge him to reconsider, to make a commitment to boost investment in the railway significantly and to cut fares to make rail travel more attractive.
I shall have to remove a number of pages from my speech, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—I shall obviously obey your indication from the Chair and ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) has plenty of time to answer the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I shall now call her the vice-president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group—“vice-president” is a proper title, even though it is unpaid. She is certainly showing that she is unbelievable value for money, as I am sure the cost-benefit reports she detailed in her speech show for this particular scheme. I congratulate her on the points she made, and I will go into some detail in my speech. My answer will get somewhere along the line towards where she wants to be.
A lot of Members have taken part in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) was instrumental in earlier improvements to the line we are discussing. I am sure that more than a bench on a station will be named after him for his contribution and his work in the area. He reminded us that the ultimate goal is to have journeys between Worcester—I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), is in Westminster Hall this afternoon—and London coming in at under two hours, which is what everybody should expect of a modern-day railway.
My hon. Friend talked wisely about the environment and how trains are a way of reducing car journeys. Actually, I think he would be proud at how much greener our rolling stock is becoming by the day. We have a huge amount of new rolling stock—I think it is about a thousand carriages—coming on to our network this year, so there will be a much greener network at the end of the year.
Yes, indeed. I am pleased to hear they have noted the difference, because, at the end of the day, these are relatively expensive vehicles, so it is nice to know that they are worth what we pay for them and provide good value for money for the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) is no longer in his place; he apologised for leaving, but he had to go to another meeting. He wisely made the point that the Department for Transport needs as much stakeholder involvement in these schemes as possible. It would therefore be good if he could prod the local enterprise partnership for Greater Birmingham and Solihull to provide support, because the scheme would benefit this whole geographical area. My hon. Friend also made some points about High Speed 2, but that is not part of my brief, and it is a bit controversial, so I will duck that one completely.
There were other contributions, including interventions. Brief contributions were made by the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). It is very kind of her to come along and support her “hon. Friends” on the Government side, and there are a lot of hon. Friends on the Government side, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has been itching to speak in the debate, but who has not been allowed to. However, it is fair to say that there is a voice close to the Department that is very positive about the benefits that can flow from this debate and indeed from the improvements to this line.
Then there is the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). We have never really tangled in debate before, so I welcome him to his position—I believe he has been elevated or, at the very least, that his brief now encompasses more things. Everything that I have heard about him leads me to believe he is an honourable and decent man who actually wants to improve our railways and has some sensible suggestions to do that. I look forward to engaging with him on this issue.
The shadow Minister obviously knows a lot about our railways, so I am sure he has seen that there is a huge amount of investment in them. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, £48 billion will be invested in this five-year control period. That is a huge amount to improve our existing railways, quite apart from the huge schemes on the cards to build new capacity around the country.
The shadow Minister also made a point about fares. I have seen what has been going on in Germany, but I remind him that, in this country, 98p of every pound spent in fares is reinvested back into transport and specifically into the railways. So someone’s fare—any fare—is almost an investment in the railways themselves. However, there is a debate to be had about this issue. I welcome that debate, and I look forward to debating this issue with him.
The shadow Minister made a number of points about the road networks and other things that are way beyond my brief. Just as with one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest, I will duck those issues in today’s debate and stick to the issue we are here to discuss.
Having said that, there was a point about cycling, which is in my brief, even if it is not part of this debate. I just wanted to back up the point my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made about how we can connect cycling to the railways so much more than we do currently. Last week, I was privileged to go to the Cycle Rail Awards. Yes, there is such an event; it is a proper, red-carpet event—nothing but the best for the Rail Minister. It was really encouraging to see all the cycling schemes now being delivered up and down our railways, increasing capacity so that people can cycle to the railway and park their bicycle. There are also schemes whereby people can rent cycles. People can come out of a city and rent a cycle to enjoy the countryside, before returning the bike at the end of the day—please. There is a lot of investment in this area as well, so it was good to hear it being highlighted in the debate.
However, I guess I should actually talk about the meat of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire presented a typically eloquent and persuasive argument for investment in the railway line between Oxford and Worcester. Although the debate is about the transformation of the North Cotswold line, it would be remiss of me not to begin by remarking on the renaissance the route has experienced over the last 10 years—my hon. Friend alluded to it in her speech, and it is quite spectacular.
At one stage in the 1970s, there was just one through train to London from Worcester each day, which meant the line lived up to its nickname of “Old, Worse and Worse”. From that low point, the route and the services on it have all seen slow—quite slow—but steady improvement. Now, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the North Cotswold Line Taskforce, it is going from strength to strength.
The real catalyst for the revival of the route was the Government’s investment in 2012, which reinstated sections of double-track railway that had previously been cut back—my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds was vociferous in campaigning for that to happen. The increase in capacity was made to improve performance on the route. However, it also enabled Great Western Railway to gradually introduce progressive enhancement of train services.
Fast forward to 2019 and we have seen more investment from the Government in the North Cotswold route and across the whole Great Western Railway network. We are investing over £5 billion to deliver better services and new trains, with thousands more seats, improving over 100 million rail journeys each year and stimulating—as all my hon. Friends have alluded to—economic growth from London through the Thames valley to the Cotswolds, as well as to the west country and south Wales. Our investment has provided 4,900 extra seats into London in the peak hour, which is a 40% increase in capacity.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. Can he update us on the wider plans across the Great Western Railway region for reusing old infrastructure that was, sadly, taken out of operation in the Beeching era, because it seems that a number of lines will be affected? My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) highlighted the Cowley branch line. I believe there are a number of other branch lines, and other sections of track, that are currently single track that might be worth reopening, and we should consider them.
I am sorry—I did not answer the point the hon. Gentleman made about Beeching in his speech. We have a £500 million fund. We are now setting out the rules for it. Obviously, Members would expect us to want to get the best value for money out of the schemes that are being brought forward thick and fast to reopen lines or to strengthen lines, so that instead of a line just having freight services it could also have passenger services, which would require the provision of carriages and so on.
Actually, there is way more demand for investment than the initial £500 million that we, as a political party, put in our manifesto and thought would be required. We will be able to pick some amazingly excellent and viable schemes, which are deliverable in short order, to reopen Beeching lines, and obviously there will be a geographical spread across the whole country. I very much hope to announce more details on that in the near future, but I hope that, for now, that answer will suffice for the hon. Gentleman.
The modernisation of the Great Western Railway enabled last month’s introduction of a new timetable, which most hon. Members here today would have noticed. It was a big timetable change for the Great Western Railway. I was not the Rail Minister in May 2018, but I was a Whip at the time, and we had debate after debate about the May 2018 timetable changes. There were so many words used to describe them in the Chamber, but they all meant that the changes had been pretty much disastrous in some parts of the country, where things absolutely did not work.
As the new Rail Minister, therefore, having such a big timetable change was a bit of a worry. However, it is fair to say that it has gone particularly well and delivered significant benefits to all rail users, reducing typical journey times between Hereford and London by 10 minutes, and the fastest journey times by seven minutes. The new trains have transformed the travelling experience for North Cotswold line users. A number of stations have benefited from extended platforms to make the best use of the longer trains.
The train operator has also invested in the route. New waiting shelters were opened last year at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham, and a combined ticket office and waiting area was opened at Hanborough. Car parking has also been expanded at several stations, reflecting the increasing popularity of the train service. On top of that we are trying to do things to encourage people to cycle to stations. The next key milestone will be the opening of the new station at Worcestershire Parkway. As Rail Minister, I am rather more excited about that than I should be, given the slight delay in proceedings. I am pleased that work is well advanced.
I would absolutely love to have that honour. I hope my hon. Friend has the capacity to invite me and that I am not going to turn up and be shoved off a platform because someone else is meant to be opening the station. If I am available, I would love to come. The issue has been a point of interest for me in the Department in the past few months as we have got to this point, but I am pleased that work is now well advanced.
The Government are committed to finding new and innovative ways to attract different forms of investment into the railways. Worcestershire Parkway will be a good example of how such investment can add value to our railway network.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his positive words. I underline the connection between this line and another major project, which is the change to Oxford station. He will know that is a challenging project and that some of the discussion has been around where the buses will go in Oxford and whether it is necessary to have a multi-storey car park. I do not think that is necessary; I think we should privilege the buses. Having that link to Hanborough could help, if we used that as an additional parkway on top of the new Oxford Parkway station, which has been very successful. Will he bear that in mind when he talks about these issues?
The hon. Lady makes a good point for her constituents. What she has just described is a point of controversy in the city. Hanborough serves as a vital link not only to Oxford, but to Witney and other towns and villages across the piece. Her point is well made.
Worcestershire Parkway will enable thousands of new journeys on the two key rail corridors that it serves: Birmingham to Cardiff, and the line we are talking about today. I very much look forward to coming down and seeing it open, in operation and serving passengers who are seeing the benefits it delivers.
It is fair to say that the North Cotswold line has already been transformed from what it was a little over a decade ago. Members of Parliament and other supporters along the route can take great pride in their actions and what they have achieved, but time does not stand still and the world moves on, especially in the Cotswolds. We must look forward and effectively plan for the next investment and the next generation and for how they can grab the great opportunities that the Government will be providing and enabling. I therefore welcome and commend the work of the North Cotswold Line Taskforce in taking the lead on how to bring about further enhancements. Where others may have sat back and reflected on their success, the taskforce has galvanised stakeholders to push for more—in this case, £1.5 million more as a starter. I recognise that it wishes to see faster and more frequent services. I very much hope we can work together to move things forwards.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire and all Members here today that the Department will analyse in great detail the proposals set out in the taskforce’s strategic outline business case. We only received it 10 days ago, and it would be remiss of me to promise money without going through due process within my Department, but I guarantee we will go through that process as quickly as we can. The request for funding to develop the case further will be properly analysed and considered. There is a lot of information to digest in what we have been given, but I pledge that Department officials will set the way forward with the taskforce by the end of next month, so that we can move forward at a pace that allows us to do the work properly.
To conclude, I thank all Members for their contributions to an important debate. This is a fantastic success story, and I hope it continues to be so in the future.
I welcome the words from colleagues and from the Minister this afternoon. We have heard that there is support from all parts of the House for the continued growth of and investment in the North Cotswolds line. There was recognition of the importance of the geographic area and its significance to our country. There was a welcome commitment from the Minister, which I will hold him to, to give us an answer by the end of February. I encourage his officials to go through the recommendations, in particular option 5, as quickly as possible. I note that the end of February is still before this year’s Budget.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered North Cotswold line transformation.
Adult Social Care in Shropshire: Government Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government funding for adult social care in Shropshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Before I start to outline the concerns we have about Government support for paying for adult social care costs in Shropshire, I will put forward two historical contexts to try to explain to the Minister a little as to why and how we got into this situation.
In 2004, the Labour-controlled Shropshire Council increased council tax in one year by 16.4%. That was the year before my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and I were elected for the first time. I am sure they will recall, as I do, the palpable anger, fear and frustration of many people on low fixed incomes in the face of that massive tax increase. When our party came into office, we incentivised councils to freeze council tax because there had been so much frustration and such a backlash against the massive increases, not only in Shropshire, but in Labour-controlled councils up and down the country where there had been double-digit increases in council tax.
Our local council, which became Conservative in 2005, decided to dutifully follow the advice and froze council tax, not just for one year, but for seven years in a row—clearly to the delight of local ratepayers. The council is now telling me that the Government have not adequately filled the shortfall in revenue that it inevitably had to face as a result of the freezing of council tax. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding from Shropshire Council officials is that the additional support that was envisaged to come from Government tapered off quickly, leaving the council without additional support of, it now estimates, in the region of £20 million per annum.
Labour shadow Ministers always criticise repeated references to their management and stewardship of the economy, but let us not forget that in the good times the Labour party, when it was in office, borrowed £50 billion a year, sold off our gold reserves at rock-bottom prices and put all these new hospitals on private finance initiative contracts, with the result that we will pay exorbitant interest rates for decades.
When the financial crash came in 2008, the kitty was bare. I am not ashamed of repeatedly referring to that. People forget about it, but the Minister will remember the sheer gravity of the situation when we came to office. As a nation, in 2009-10, we were borrowing £152 billion a year.
I commend my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is not only about the financial pressures on Shropshire Council but the domino effect of the under-provision of social care in Shropshire on the acute trust, and how that affects A&E waiting times? Finally, does he agree that there needs to be cross-party consensus and working together nationally? We do not need another review; we have had lots of those. We know what the problem is. We now need solutions, and that has to be done on a cross-party basis, but quickly.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention. I could not agree more.
When we came into office, we of course had to rein in expenditure, and all Government Departments had to have cuts. The cuts to local government have, of course, adversely affected our council. I am pleased that the country’s annual deficit is now below £28 billion a year, down from the £152 billion a year that we inherited. However, now that we are getting the finances under control in a more sustainable way, I urge the Minister to take the message back to the Treasury that we need to increase public funding of our councils, so that they can start to meet the huge rise in demand for adult social care in our county. I will explain why Shropshire is uniquely affected.
Although it is absolutely the case that adult social care is very important in Shropshire, and in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, does not the hon. Member agree that we need to attract more workers into adult social care, because there seems to be a dearth of them, and help them to understand how rewarding it can be to make a real difference to the life of a vulnerable person? Also, does the hon. Member believe that we can do anything in this place to encourage more adult workers to be involved?
Yes, very much so, and I am sure that some of my colleagues from Shropshire will take up that point in interventions. However, I will make a few quick points before I take another intervention.
During the 2017 general election, we gave the impression to the electorate that somehow they would have to sell their homes in order to pay for their long-term care. I have to tell the Minister that I had never come across such levels of bewilderment, frustration and anger on the streets of Shrewsbury as I did following that announcement, and have not done so subsequently. Whoever came up with that policy for the then Conservative Government was really out of tune with the thinking of many of our natural voters.
Even my own beloved mother—this is the first time I have referenced her in 15 years—Halina, who is a staunch Conservative supporter, said to me, “I haven’t made sacrifices all of my life, I haven’t done the right thing, paid the right amount of tax and done all the right things, for you now to force me to sell my home to look after my long-term social care needs.” I think my mother exemplified the strength of feeling across the United Kingdom.
I am convinced that that policy lost us our majority at the 2017 general election; it was certainly a major contributory factor. I am therefore very pleased that the Prime Minister has indicated that in this Parliament a solution will be found. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said, we need radical, innovative thinking that has the support of our voters.
Shropshire MPs meet the council on a regular basis. We Shropshire MPs work as a team and hunt as a pack, and one of our greatest strengths is the unity between us all. In fact, we are seeing our council this Friday, 24 January, which happens to be my 48th birthday. I am looking forward to a few bottles of beer from my colleagues during the meeting.
Shropshire Lad. The clear message from Peter Nutting, the leader of our council, from the chief executive, and from the other senior councillors is that social care is their top concern. The Minister will know—she played a part in it as well—that in the last Parliament, MPs from rural shire counties worked constructively together to get a change to the funding mechanisms for our schools. Rural shire counties were unfairly discriminated against in comparison with inner-city, metropolitan areas. In this Parliament it is my intention, and that of many other Members, to make social care the No. 1 issue, because we have to listen to what our councillors are telling us.
There is no doubt in my mind that the black hole of approximately £20 million a year that the council faces is affecting not only adult social care costs but many other services in our county. The leader of the council has to take money away from repairing potholes, and all the other things for which the council is responsible, in order to manage the black hole that is staring them in the face.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on landing the debate and on the powerful case that he is making. As he said, we have all been working very closely on the matter for some time. I think he would agree that the situation is going to get worse. Currently, 23% of Shropshire’s population are aged over 65. That will increase by 50%, to 33% of the population, by 2036, compared with the projection for England of 24%. That is an increase from 74,029 to 110,926.
I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend is an avid reader of the Shropshire Star. On Monday there was a story titled, “Dramatic rise in dementia cases”, which reported that dementia cases have gone up by 57%. Dr Karen Harrison Dening of Dementia UK said:
“We are going to have a huge increase in population of older people, and one of the main risk factors of dementia is age. There is also going to be a reduction in the number of younger people who will be able to care for them.”
Would my hon. Friend like to comment on the inevitability of this getting worse?
I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) has just said. In south Shropshire, the population of over-65s is currently 29%, compared with 19% of the population across the UK and 23% across the county, as he said, so the issue is particularly pressing in the south.
Today, there are twice as many people over the age of 90 as there were on the day when my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and I were elected, nearly 15 years ago. However, it is not all gloom and doom about increasing demand, although that is a major problem. Shropshire is leading the way in this country in developing technologies to help cope with the growing pressure. I commend the Broseley project to him. It is one of the leading projects in the county, and in the country, trying to find technological solutions to keep people out of hospital or residential care. I encourage him to visit that project if he has not done so already.
I am extremely grateful for those interventions from my hon. Friends and neighbours. I could not agree with them more. Shrewsbury is listed as one of the top 10 places to retire to in the whole of the United Kingdom because of the beauty of our town—we have more listed buildings than any other town in England. We have a larger number of senior citizens as a percentage of our total population, and that percentage is growing much faster than the national average. Governments of all political colours have poured money disproportionately into inner-city, metropolitan areas while leaving us in the rural shire counties as the poorer cousins, and it is vital that we now start to take action.
Order. In half-hour debates on the Adjournment, people who speak have to have the permission of the proposer and of the Minister, and it is not good form to come in after the proposer has started speaking. I ask the proposer and the Minister whether Bill Wiggin has had permission to intervene.
I will follow your lead on that, Mr Stringer.
In the financial year 2019-20, the social care budget for Shropshire Council was £103.1 million. That represents 48.2% of the council’s net budget, up from 32.6% in 2015-16, which is extraordinary: our council’s budget for just dealing with adult social care costs has gone up from a third of its net budget to practically a half. I find those figures staggering, and my colleagues from Shropshire agree. Since 2015-16, Shropshire Council’s adult social care budget has risen by an average of £7 million per annum. In the coming financial year, it is projected to rise by approximately £10 million; £6 million of that is inflationary, meaning that only approximately £4 million is due to increasing demand.
As has been said, Shropshire’s senior citizen population is rising at a much faster rate than the national average, and Shropshire Council has become more efficient, which is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow was making. The Local Government Association has assessed our council as being very well managed, and as implementing new and innovative policies in this regard. Shropshire Council has become more efficient and innovative in an attempt to control rising costs in social care. Of all initial inquiries into adult social care, 85% are signposted to external support, and of the remainder, only 14.8% enter paid services. In total, 2.25% of all inquiries enter paid services; in 2014-15, the comparable figure was 32%. The financial pressures on Shropshire Council go beyond single-year budget increases. The most recent available analysis shows that if our council were funded at the English average per head of population, it would have an additional £20 million in its base budget.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, and look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers. I am pleased that all the MPs from the Shropshire Council area have attended this debate, and I am very grateful for their support. They know as well as I do the huge pressures that our council is under at the moment because of its lack of funding, and will share those pressures with the Minister. Our hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin also mentioned serious problems with our local hospital acute trust, which we are trying to raise with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
We in Shropshire are experiencing a unique combination of problems at the moment, meaning that our constituents are given services that are creaking at best. That is not something I feel comfortable with. We are the fifth-largest economy in the world; I read today that last year, we reduced our debt as a percentage of GDP by 0.9%, and I am delighted and thrilled that the International Monetary Fund is now forecasting that our country will grow at a faster rate than the eurozone over the next three years. We have turned a corner, so we can start to loosen the purse strings a little bit. We as Conservatives must demonstrate that we have a long-term solution to this issue, which affects so many of our constituents.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on the funding of adult social care in Shropshire. He is a strong and consistent champion for both his county and his constituency on a range of issues but, particularly today on the subject of adult social care. As he mentioned, he and his colleagues hunt as a pack; they work very effectively together, and I am pleased to see him joined by his colleagues. I do not know what the collective noun is for a group of Shropshire MPs, but it is clearly something very robust and effective. I am pleased to see them all here, and grateful for all the points they have raised.
Clearly, adult social care is one of the biggest challenges we face as a country, but it is not just our country that faces it; it is a global issue. How do we face the challenges of an ageing population? We have to preface this by saying it is not a bad thing that people are living longer; we should be celebrating that. This is not doom and gloom, but we need to make sure that we are equipped to support people in later life. People are also living longer with much more complex conditions. Over half of local authority budgets are spent on working-age adults; although that cohort includes a lower number of people, it is also more expensive, and we need to make sure that we are looking after those people sufficiently as well and supporting local authorities to do so properly.
Successive Governments have wrestled with the challenges of how to deal with the issues caused by an ageing population and of adult social care. Frankly, they have all then put those challenges in the “too difficult” pile, because the solution is very difficult and potentially very expensive. Unfortunately, the sand has run through the hourglass and we no longer have the luxury of being able to put those issues aside; we now have to face the challenges of an ageing population and of adult social care head on. That is why the Prime Minister, on the steps of Downing Street on his very first day, committed to tackle them. We will therefore set out much more on this issue in due course.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that by 2040, one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 or over. However, it is important to remember that this is not just about older people, as the number of those aged below 65 who access long-term support is growing year on year. Central to all our thinking are all those magnificent adult social care professionals, the social care workers, social workers and nurses, as well as the army of unpaid carers—loved ones, friends and family—who do so much in Shropshire and the whole country to look after their loved ones.
The Minister has just reminded me of one thing. Of course, we should pay tribute to the millions of citizens out there who are carers and who look after their elderly relatives in a voluntary capacity, as we looked after my beloved grandfather in the latter stages of his life. It is very important to acknowledge what they do. It is true, is it not, that the way in which a country treats its senior citizens is an indicator of what sort of society and culture prevails in that country?
That is absolutely right. It is because of the army of paid and unpaid carers that my hon. Friend mentioned that there are many reasons to be positive about the care people receive in Shropshire.
As of 1 January, 86.5% of care home beds in Shropshire were rated good or outstanding by the Care Quality Commission, which is much better than the national average, and 90.3% of care home agencies in Shropshire are good or outstanding. Moreover, in the 2018-19 adult social care survey of users, more than 90% of people receiving care in the county reported that they were satisfied with the care and support that they received. However, we know that there is still a long way to go.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) spoke about how Shropshire leads the way in technology. If we are to face the challenges of adult social care and tackle what might be regarded as a crisis, we need to look at not just funding but harnessing all modern technology. We need to look at the workforce, and at modern models of care and methods of housing to make sure that we are harnessing the best in all those areas. He was a fantastic Health Minister and a brilliant co-chair of the all-party group on adult social care.
Last autumn, the most recent spending round announced further investment in social care for 2020-21. That will give councils access to an additional £1.5 billion for adult and children’s social care, which includes an additional £1 billion of funding and a proposed 2% council tax precept that will enable councils to access a further £500 million specifically for adult social care. The £1.5 billion is over and above the existing £2.5 billion of social care grants that were rolled over in the spending review and is part of the biggest increase in overall core spending power for local government since 2015—an increase of 4.4% in real terms in 2020-21. A key stakeholder, the Local Government Association, said that it was delighted that the spending round
“has delivered a funding package of more than £3.5 billion for our vital local services...This is the biggest year-on-year real terms increase in spending power for local government in a decade”.
For Shropshire, the settlement puts considerable new resources into social care. It will receive an additional £7.9 million in funding from the new social care grant and £11.5 million through the improved better care fund, which will drive the integration to stop pressure being put on acute health services. Shropshire will also have the opportunity to raise an additional £15.1 million through the dedicated adult social care precept. That additional funding is an important step towards putting adult social care on a fairer and more sustainable footing. We recognise that it is important for local authorities to have security, predictability and certainty about future funding for social care, which is why the funding beyond 2020-21 will be set out at the next spending review.
On Shropshire Council’s wider funding, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham set out beautifully the challenges facing local councils up and down the country. All Government Departments and local authorities had to make tough decisions to deal with the parlous finances and extremely high borrowing that we inherited from the last Labour Government. He is right to say that that put huge pressure on local authorities, which were also trying not to put up council tax to deal with the problem. That is why the Government are committed to undertaking a review of the relative needs and resources.
The review will consider the drivers of local authorities’ needs, the resources available to them to fund services, and how to account for them in a way that draws a more transparent and understandable link between local circumstances and local authority funding. In my hon. Friend’s area, for example, the rurality and the relative size of the ageing population would have to be taken into account. The Government are working closely with local government representatives and others to examine all elements of the review, including adult social care. The aim is to share the emerging results with the sector shortly, followed by a full consultation in the spring. I hope that he will find good news for Shropshire Council in that.
I finish by assuring my hon. Friend that my Department and the Government are by no means complacent. Fixing the issues with adult social care is a huge priority for us. As the Prime Minister said, the Government will deliver on their promises and bring forward a plan for social care this year. There are complex questions to address, but we have been clear on two things: everybody will have dignity and security, and nobody will be forced to sell their home to pay for their care.
Question put and agreed to.
Commission on Justice in Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the report of the Commission on Justice in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and an honour to have the opportunity to discuss the landmark report by the Commission on Justice in Wales for the people of Wales. First, I thank the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for our discussions prior to the debate, and all commission members, whose conclusions and recommendations in the report were—I emphasise—unanimous. I also thank Jeremy Miles, the Welsh Government’s Counsel General, for his advice. I look forward to that level of co-working continuing on such matters. The excellent report offers a description and a critique of how the public good, justice, operates in Wales and, more importantly, how justice is experienced by people in Wales. It is clear that there has been a great deal of cross-party agreement on the issue but there is room for further co-operation in and between Westminster and the Senedd.
Of course, Wales has its own legal history. Until the Acts of Union in the 16th century, much of the law of Wales was based on a legal system codified by the lawyers of Hywel Dda, King of Deheubarth, which covered almost the entirety of Wales in the mid-10th century. The attribute “dda” translates as “good”—Hywel the Good—and referred to the fact that his laws were perceived as good and fair by the people who lived under them.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. The report is a serious piece of work. Does she agree that what has not been good and fair is the fact that, in the last decade, the Justice Department has been unprotected and there has been a 40% cut in its budget from Westminster? That is clearly a driving factor in a number of the faults that Lord Thomas identifies.
Exactly. Lord Thomas identifies the discrepancies in cost and how much a local citizen contributes to justice in Wales. When I talk about justice being good and fair, I am describing the situation more than 1,000 years ago, not in the present day.
The legal system of Hywel Dda covered the law, procedure, judges and the administration of the land. It was notable for being based on retribution rather than punishment, for its pragmatic and arguably more compassionate approach than that which we now experience, and for granting higher status to women than most contemporary legal systems. Following the Acts of Union, of course, Welsh law was officially abolished and Wales as a legal jurisdiction ceased to exist.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. While the debate is focused on justice for Wales, the same argument applies in Scotland or Northern Ireland. There are differing laws. Does she agree that it is essential that regional laws are fully considered when the Government introduce legislation centrally in Westminster and that the Government need to work with the regional Administrations to achieve the goal that we all wish to see?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a sense that we can learn from and compare with the other nations within the United Kingdom, if we have the information and the means to act upon that. That is invaluable for each of those nations.
In the last 21 years of devolution, the power of our National Assembly has expanded and its confidence as an institution has grown. Now, in 2020, Welsh Government policy made in that Assembly has a greater impact on the lives of the people of Wales than ever before, yet extraordinarily my country still operates without a corresponding legal jurisdiction, despite having a full law-making legislature, its own Parliament, the Senedd.
In the broader sense, that means that while devolution divergence is expanding Wales-specific legislation, it is being enacted without the underpinning structures of jurisdiction. That creates a jagged edge, duplication, a lack of accountability, additional costs to the citizen without transparency, and confusion. As the commission’s report says, the people of Wales both need and deserve a better system. Justice is not an island; it should be truly integrated into policies for a just, fair and prosperous Wales.
I hear myself using these abstract words, but of course justice is not an abstract concept; it is put into action or it does not exist. It is put into action through a range of agencies—education, social services, health and housing—all of which are devolved to the Senedd. Does that matter? Yes, it does. Bingham’s first rule of law is that the law must be accessible and, so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable. That simply is not the case in Wales in the 21st century.
The commission’s report is comprehensive, but today I intend to concentrate on three areas: criminal justice, family justice and legal aid. There are many other areas that are worthy of more attention, and I urge that we have further discussion, because this problem will continue to be exacerbated. It is serious, given people’s experience in Wales.
On criminal justice, the report states:
“If criminal justice is to be effective, most particularly its treatment of victims, in policing and in the administration of the sentences of the courts (the principal role of the prison and probation services), it must be closely integrated with services which are the responsibility of other parts of local, devolved and central government—for example, health, drug and alcohol misuse, housing, education, employment, accessing benefits and managing debt and other welfare services.”
That, again, is the jagged cutting edge of justice. Whether a criminal reoffends or not is, of course, that individual’s responsibility, but that does not absolve the state of any responsibility as the provider of justice. If the state’s criminal justice system has contributed to the breakdown of family bonds, the release into homelessness, a failure to grasp the opportunity to address health issues such as addiction, and the likelihood of unemployment implicit in the toxic combination of low skills and a criminal record, what has it achieved, save to tighten the vicious circle of criminality?
I want to mention the case of Conner Marshall, whose inquest concluded last week. I pay my respects to Conner’s parents, Nadine and Richard, for their courage and perseverance in seeking justice for their son, and to my colleague and friend, the late and dearly missed Harry Fletcher, who supported the family in their search for answers. Conner was only 18 when he was murdered by a violent serial offender released on licence and on the books of community rehabilitation company Working Links.
Last Friday, the coroner in the inquest into Conner’s murder said that the probation caseworker of Braddon, the offender, was “overwhelmed” and
“essentially left to her own devices”
in what is an extremely challenging job at the best of times. Conner’s murderer had missed eight probation appointments, six of which were sufficient to return him to prison. The coroner—this is important—noted that that was not the fault of the probation officer. She had a case load of 60 offenders and was new in her post. Rather, Conner’s death was the collateral result of a failed social experiment—an ideological concept put into action by a Conservative Secretary of State for Justice in the belief that the profit motive of private enterprise can be trusted with a public good. Who would ever suspect that private companies might interpret contractual payment targets to reduce criminal acts by the simple means of seeing, hearing and recording no such acts? Clearly not the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). It is to the credit of the former Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, that he recognised the abject and costly failure of the transforming rehabilitation programme, and that Wales led the way in bringing probation back into public control with the new National Probation Service of Wales.
The case of Conner Marshall revealed how difficult it was for his family to get to the root of the circumstances leading up to and following their son’s tragic death, but the lack of hard data about the crime and offenders in Wales, disaggregated from the wider England-and-Wales picture, was also an issue for the commission. The crime survey for England and Wales warns that separate estimates for Wales are subject to sampling volatility and variability, and that extreme caution should be taken in interpreting figures under the present reporting arrangements when trying to extract Wales-specific data. I am glad to note, however, that CSEW intends to produce Wales-specific estimates for the first time this summer.
Additionally, it is distressing to note that the then Secretary of State for Wales effectively enforced a veto by insisting that all requests from the commission to UK Ministers and entities had to be passed by him. That caused a significant delay to the commission in receiving evidence, which the commission itself expressed. Indeed, in May 2019 he said that he
“did not think it would be appropriate for UK Government Ministers or officials to give evidence on reserved policy to a Commission established by a devolved administration.”
Such high-handedness does not engender confidence that the needs of the citizens of Wales were foremost in his mind.
My right hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech and a very persuasive case, based on the commission’s evidence. Do the UK Government’s heavy-handed dealings in relation to the commission’s work indicate that their objection to devolving these powers is based not on practicality but on ideology?
That question will be running through my speech. Of course, we should always be looking to measure and gather evidence about the public costs and what this does for the people of Wales. The fundamental conclusion here is that the present arrangement is not serving the people of Wales effectively. I urge the Minister to consider that. It is not simply matter of asking for the devolution of everything or nothing at all, although the commission recommends the devolution of jurisdiction. There are many stations on the way in the recommendations. I sincerely hope the UK Government will look at them in the spirit of what is best for the people of Wales. I find it difficult to believe that anybody could argue otherwise.
On the effort required to get a picture of what is happening to Wales, another person to whom I must give credit is Rob Jones at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, who has done excellent work. Dr Rob has made effective use of all research tools at public disposal to extract information of great public interest about the criminal justice system as it is experienced in Wales. That source reveals that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe—154 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Although imprisonment dropped by 16% in England between 2010 and 2017, it increased by 0.3% in Wales, at a time when everybody has been talking about the pressures on the prison system in England and Wales. Rob Jones’s work exposes that the Government plans for additional prison places will eventually result in Wales becoming a net importer of prisoners from England. Despite that evidence, we simply do not need more prisons in Wales, but unfortunately the Justice Secretary has recently indicated that the UK Government still want to build an extra prison. It begs the question why.
There is more. The commission notes that people who are charged are disproportionately likely to come from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and that there is currently a lack of a joined-up approach to address that inequality as well as inequalities with regard to women, LGBT people and disabled people. The Wales Governance Centre found that there were 72 black men—they would all be men—from Wales in prison for every 10,000 of the population in 2017. That rate compared to just 15 white people per 10,000 of the population. There were 25 Asian people in prison per 10,000, and 37 people from a mixed-race background per 10,000.
For women the current system is, for lack of a better word, simply inadequate; there are no facilities for women in Wales. It is perhaps in relation to women’s justice that a public health approach is most needed. There is significant evidence about the prevalence of a wide range of mental health problems afflicting many vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system. Most are the direct result of difficult childhoods, trauma, addiction and abusive relationships. In 2018, Wales was promised a residential unit for female offenders. Will the Minister, in due time, update us on where in Wales that unit will be, when it will be opened, and how his Government will work with the Welsh Government in its operation?
I will give the Minister another immediate opportunity to acknowledge the difference between England and Wales and to improve legislation at the stroke of a pen. The serious violence Bill will see new laws to require schools, police, councils and health authorities to work together to prevent serious crime. That will introduce a much-needed shift towards a public health approach to tackling serious violence in England. The Bill’s provisions will also apply to Wales, however, where most of the areas mentioned in the description—schools, councils and health authorities—are the responsibility of the Welsh Government.
I refer the Minister to pages 138 and 139 of the commission’s report. Page 138 shows the bodies that his Government have charged with implementing the justice system in Wales. On page 139, we have the Welsh Government’s crime prevention support networks. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that the Serious Violence Bill starts off on the right foot by acknowledging that the implementation of many of its measures will require the recognition of the existence of devolution in Wales? Will he commit to acknowledging the existence of those bodies, and to making sure that their best and effective use is planned at the early stage of planning legislation?
Will the Minister also commit to responding to the commission’s eminently sensible request to establish an overarching Wales criminal justice board with executive authority to set overall criminal justice strategy for Wales and to provide the means for accountability in Wales, which is presently missing in the delivery of an overall strategic approach? That degree of complexity goes against the first principle of Bingham’s rules of law. There is such complexity and presenteeism, and such a lack of coherence and answerability to strategy, that it has a direct impact on the people of Wales and their experience of justice.
Family justice is another area that was covered in the report, and is closely linked with the issue of women’s justice and with the part of the justice system that deals with concerns relating to children and interfamilial relationships. Again, unquestionably integrating education, health and social policy with family justice would be significantly more suitable than the current state of affairs. Shockingly, in August last year, Dr Sophie Hallett’s study into children in care found that in Wales, one child lived in 57 different places while in contact with social services. Although that individual case is extreme, the researchers found that on average, children were moved nine times and saw seven different social workers.
The rate of children in care is significantly higher in Wales, at 102 per 10,000, than in England, where the figure stands at 64 per 10,000. Scotland’s rate is higher still, but interestingly, it has fallen in recent years, while the rate continues to rise in Wales. That raises the question about how justice is applied, about the traceable differences between England and Wales, and about the job that we have just getting hold of that data, let alone actually applying it.
Cardiff University research shows that since 2010, spending on children in care in Wales has gone up by £95.9 million, or 33%. That in itself shows that the problem is specific to Wales and requires a solution specific to Wales, in the context of devolution. As family law is reserved to Westminster, however, there are complexities between non-devolved and devolved matters.
Although law-making powers in social welfare are now the responsibility of the Welsh Government, the current law is a mishmash of older laws that cover both England and Wales, such as the Children Act 2004; some that differ slightly between England and Wales, such as the Care Act 2014 and the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014; and some that apply to Wales only, such as Cafcass Cymru. Different legislation and different structures are in place, and we are still finding our way through that.
To cut through the complexities, the commission recommends that the law relating to children and family justice in Wales be brought together in one coherent system, aligned with functions in relation to health, education and welfare. I cannot perceive a logical argument to counter that.
I will move on to legal aid, although there are many other points in the report. The deep cuts to legal aid in 2012 have led to serious deficiencies in Wales, with deserts where legal aid is not available. Before the cuts, there were 31 providers of publicly funded benefits advice; now there are three. The number of firms providing legal aid has fallen by 29% in Wales compared with 20% in England. That has led to an increase in the number of people representing themselves in courts and tribunals, and leaving significantly disadvantaged.
The Welsh Government have rightly chosen to support people by spending their own funds on advice services for a policy that is reserved to the British Government. They are doing that to make amends for the harsh effects of cuts to legal aid, and because they believe it right for the people of Wales. Regardless of one’s political leanings, that one Parliament, for the good of the citizens it serves, has to provide its own additional funding to make up for the failings of political decisions made in this place must be seen as being unsustainable and unjust. The commission recommends that the funding for legal aid and the third sector providing advice and assistance should be brought together in Wales, to form a single fund under the strategic direction of an independent body.
To conclude, in the time available I have only been able to touch on certain matters raised in the commission’s report. Suffice it to say that the current system clearly does not work. For too long, Wales has put up with complexities that lead to the people of Wales being systematically let down. My party, Plaid Cymru, has long argued that it is time for Wales to take responsibility for justice and to have its own legal jurisdiction. There is a growing cross-party understanding that the devolution of policing and criminal justice, as well as powers over prisons and the probation system, is sorely needed. Surely now, with this landmark report, commissioned by Labour’s Welsh Government, we can move away from the accusations of partisanship.
We in Plaid Cymru are calling for devolution of justice, not just because we like the idea and believe in the principle, but because the evidence shows that it will improve the lives of the people of Wales. That is the point of devolution, and all acts that we take in respect of devolution should be with that aim in mind. We should have the tools, the data and the information to measure whether what we do is improving people’s lives, so that if it is not, we can make amends and improve the situation; but for all of us, in Cardiff and here in Westminster, that must be the driving force behind why we act.
I thank the right hon. Lady for securing this important debate, and I welcome the tone she has adopted. However, in the overriding, constant call of, “Devolve, devolve, devolve!” what is missing is the people’s consent, as is any mention of the cost. The estimate in the report is of between £105 million and £115 million; that is a substantial amount. She has outlined the cuts that have taken place. But where is the people’s consent? At the last general election, we stood on a platform of not devolving justice, but I understand that the right hon. Lady’s party did not.
On the costs, we know from past evidence that policing was funded under the Barnett formula. We have yet to apply that to the new police funding, but the per head rate of Barnett funding should produce an additional £25 million. The people of Wales directly fund the maintenance of the frontline presence of the police on their streets. The people of Wales are funding that themselves, in a way that does not happen with police forces in England. Wales is also already contributing funding for legal aid and advice over and above what happens in England, because that is believed to be best for the people of Wales.
That situation is not sustainable. One Government is propping up the failures experienced by the people of Wales that have been imposed on them by the Government here. By working together we can ensure that no other family will have to endure the pain and suffering that Conner Marshall’s family had to suffer over the last four years, by building a probation service that is fit for purpose. We can ensure that no child has to live in 57 different homes while in contact with social services, and design a Welsh policy integrating social services and family law. We can ensure that no one in Wales loses out on justice as a result of lack of access to legal aid.
Justice is a public good. Good governance exists not for its own sake but for the public good. If not now, when? Over the weekend, the Justice Secretary told the BBC:
“What is more important…from the point of view of residents is outcomes”—
rather than “who holds the pen”. That is evidence that the UK Government are merely opposing the devolution of justice on ideological grounds, and that the good governance that the Welsh people deserve to enjoy is of secondary importance.
I will close my speech with three specific asks in addition to those that I have already mentioned. Could the Minister tell us what will be the UK Government’s formal response to the report on justice in Wales, and when it will be released? Will he commit to providing a response that acknowledges all recommendations individually? When will the working group that the Welsh Government and the Ministry of Justice have agreed to set up to consider the user needs for Welsh justice data be convened? I understand that no timetable has been provided. Finally, I really hope the Minister will be able to find common ground with me on this: will he ensure that the Serious Violence Bill will include the Welsh Government and their agencies for all strands of co-operation?
I will keep my comments short because there is not a great deal of time. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate. I could hotly dispute every comment she made about the history of a thousand years ago, but we will have to reserve that for some other time as now is not the moment.
When there is a proposal such as the one we are debating, there is a fundamental question, which would make a significant difference, that we always must ask ourselves: is there a problem that needs fixing? I think all of us on the Labour Benches would argue that there is a problem in the delivery of justice in Wales, not least the dramatic changes to legal aid funding in Wales. Of course, the same is true across the whole of the United Kingdom, and we have all been angered by it. We have seen people unable to secure justice for themselves. It feels as if there is one law in the land for the rich and another for those who cannot afford to pay for expensive lawyers.
Many of us would say that it would be very difficult for a constituent who ends up in prison to have to serve most of their time a long way from home. It makes it far more difficult for them to return to their community and to get the support they need not to go back to a life of crime. There is clear evidence that that is the case.
There is less access to justice now because many of the courts have closed—certainly, that is true in the Rhondda. The evidence is that more people are refusing to turn up for court hearings, and consequently justice is not being well served.
There are problems with probation. I do not need to go into the nonsense of the privatisation of the probation service at length. Everyone knows that the Opposition parties were all opposed to that. I visited Cardiff prison and I know there are still significant problems with overcrowding. The staff are trying to do a good job, but they simply do not have enough personnel. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) rightly said that there has been a dramatic—40%—cut in the Ministry of Justice’s budget, which has had very clear effects on the delivery of justice to my constituents and to everyone in Wales.
My question in relation to the proposal on the table is: does devolution solve any of those problems? I am afraid it does not. If anything, I am terrified that the Government might bite off the right hon. Lady’s hand and say, “Yes, devolve it,” because I know what happens. They devolve the power and the responsibility so that they can devolve the blame when the service is not delivered properly, because they do not devolve the right amount of funding to go with it. I agree that legal aid is underfunded in Wales, but if it is devolved to Wales and no additional funds are provided, Wales will have to find those additional funds somewhere else. That will be the health budget, the education budget or the local authority budget. I am not in favour of that.
I argue here in Westminster that we should fund legal aid properly, and that we should ensure there are proper facilities across the whole of the country so that people do not have to serve their time in prison a long way from home.
The hon. Gentleman has long-standing views on these issues, but he knows that the devolving of public policy and the funding that comes with it is determined by the Barnett formula and Barnett consequentials. If policing were devolved to Wales, as it is in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there would be a £20 million per annum bonanza for the Welsh Government to invest in safer communities. Surely, that is a good thing.
Actually, the police settlement figures that are out today make it pretty clear that that would not do Wales any favours. We would simply be robbing the police budget to pay for the legal aid budget. I am not sure that solves the problem.
The hon. Gentleman says that my historical views are well known, but I am not sure that he does know my views on this subject, because I have tried to keep them to myself. To be honest, I am agnostic about the devolution of justice and policing, but I am not prepared to have the Welsh Assembly take responsibility for an area of policy if the money does not go with it. That would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.
If the right hon. Lady does not mind, other Members want to speak and she spoke for nearly 30 minutes, so I will not give way. I think she gets time at the end to wind up the debate, so if she wants to have a go at me, she can do so then.
There are enormous dangers. The right hon. Lady raised specific issues about children in care. I am not sure that there is a higher number of children in care in Wales because the matter is not devolved. I suspect that is much more related to poverty and deprivation, at historic levels in some of the valleys communities that I and others represent. I want to see causation, not just correlation. That is a fundamental principle in all our policy making.
During the general election, not a single person on the doorstep raised any of these matters. In fact, in all my time as an MP—18 years—I have never known anybody on the doorstep in the Rhondda raise the issue of devolution, except sometimes to say that the Welsh Assembly should be dismantled or done away with. I am in favour of devolution. It is terrible when a higher power arrogates to itself matters that should be decided at a much more local level. I am in favour of devolution. However, I do not think we should spend all our time in Welsh politics picking at the constitutional settlement. We should be trying to deliver better outcomes for our constituents. We should be trying to make sure that the money that is spent in Wales is well-spent. We should be trying to improve the national health service, the education service and all the rest of it. Frankly, I think the constitution can wait for—
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I just thought I would get a word in edgeways before he resumes his seat. He is right to say that the money the Welsh Government has to spend on health, education and other priorities should be spent on health, education and other priorities, but does he acknowledge the Welsh Government are currently spending up to £141 million per year supplementing elements of what should be central Government responsibilities because of decisions made here? I agree that it would be good to have all that money going to health and education, but that is not happening, so it would be better for us to have the responsibility, because we are paying for it as well.
I agree with that. It doubles my anxiety about the dangerous route that we will go down if we have more things devolved to Wales without the money going with them. I am absolutely certain that the only answer is a Labour Government in Westminster as well as a Labour Government in Cardiff. On that note, Mr Stringer, I resume my seat.
I think it is important to speak, but I will keep my comments short.
The report is important because in Wales we have tied ourselves up in constitutional knots for too long; we now have to deliver. I am impressed by the report because it talks not about constitutional change, but about the delivery of services. The most striking thing that comes out of the report is that people in Wales are being let down by the system in its current state. I am delighted that a Justice Minister will be responding, because the issue goes beyond Wales.
We are in crisis regarding our prison population. That is not being helped by the Government’s open door policy on Secretaries of State for Justice and Lord Chancellors. Last February, I secured a debate in this very Chamber in which I talked about the need to reform short prison sentences. I was heartened by the then Lord Chancellor, David Gauke, who talked about abolishing them. The then Minister, Rory Stewart, said he would put his career on the line if he did not deliver the end of short sentences. However, last week we saw the Lord Chancellor on the BBC “Politics Show”, once again saying that he wants to build a new prison in Wales without speaking to the Welsh Assembly. To me, that is absolute madness.
In a small country such as Wales it is shameful that we top the charts for locking people up. I believe that the Welsh Government have made progress with this—for example, ensuring that people do not go to prison for not paying off their council tax—but it is the most impoverished people in society who receive short prison sentences. When people are sentenced for six weeks, there is not enough time for the prison service to tackle issues such as drug, alcohol or mental health problems. Research by the Prison Reform Trust and the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics show that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending, but still this Government want to lock people up.
One group in society adversely affected by short prison sentences is women. Traditionally, women have a caring role, so if a woman goes to prison, more often than not her children will go into care; those children will be touched by the justice system. When people are in and out of prison there is little we can do about mental health services, yet in the past 10 years, on the watch of this Government—the so-called party of law and order—community sentences have been halved. Economically and socially, community sentences are better in the long run. Prison is expensive. As I said in a debate on short prison sentences last year, it costs more to send someone to prison than to Eton. But still there is a belief that prison works. Community sentences can work as a way of rehabilitation. They can help offenders to recognise and develop the skills that are necessary for work. They do not disrupt housing arrangements and, more importantly, they keep families together.
For me, this is not a constitutional debate. There is a problem right now and action has to be taken. The priority for Wales is not constitutional change or more devolution; it is tackling the problem of the prison population and reoffending rates. We need to improve provision for those who are released from prison. We hear too many reports about people being released from prison and being sent to live in a tent, due to lack of help in finding accommodation. That increases the risk of rough sleeping, which in turn increases the risk of reoffending and substance abuse relapse, and can exacerbate mental health issues.
We also need to look at Friday and weekend releases, which increase the chances of reoffending. If people are released on a Friday, the housing and welfare services that they need are often closed. We must make sure there are no gaps in post-release support. People who have served their sentences need help. They need to be met at the prison gate and be told what services are available.
I welcome the report, but this is not just a Welsh issue; it is an issue that needs to be looked at more widely by Government. We can devolve the justice system, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, in devolving it the UK Government will try to devolve blame, as they have in the past. I do not know how long it will take to bring about change. I do not know whether they want to devolve justice, but action needs to be taken right now. I hope we will see some today.
Over the 20 years since the first Welsh devolution settlement, we have witnessed the successful devolution of powers from Whitehall to Wales. The people of Wales have greatly benefited from power, money and decision making being centred much closer to their lives. I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that people may not mention it on the doorsteps when we knock on doors, but that is a good thing. That is when we know it is working; they mention it when it is not working. Decisions are made by people much closer to home, who have a greater appreciation and understanding of the daily struggles. When the Welsh people enjoy so much control over areas from transport to housing, education and health, it seems to me absolutely ludicrous that justice, the cornerstone of freedom and democracy, should be controlled from London.
I pay tribute to Lord Thomas and all the members of the justice commission, who looked hard and deeply into this issue and came up with a strong report—a landmark report. Let me highlight the most important part of it: the Welsh people are being let down by a broken justice system. Surely a nation that makes and executes its own laws should be policing them.
It is insufficient that the people of Wales do not have the benefit enjoyed by the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland and England of justice being an integral part of policy making. Policy and spending on justice must be aligned with those areas that are already devolved, such as health and education, but how do we get to the outcome we so need and want in Wales—the rehabilitation of prisoners in the prison system—when the Welsh Government have no control over how that happens in the justice system?
When the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—now the Under-Secretary of State for Wales—chaired the Welsh Affairs Committee, we had an inquiry, in which I took part, on prisons in Wales. When we visited prisons in Wales, we saw a broken system in action. Prison officers told us how they could not put in the mental health provision that prisoners so desperately needed because justice was a Westminster matter. We saw that at first hand. I know the Minister saw it at first hand.
To devolve justice to Wales is not radical; it is merely levelling up our devolution settlement to ensure that it matches those of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The commission found that people in Wales feel let down by the system. There are feelings of frustration and alienation from the system, driven in part by confusion about who controls it. We saw that at first hand.
Wales needs a clearer, more pertinent form of devolution to tackle its problems in justice, policing and prisons. I know that in policing, Cardiff is not currently recognised as a capital city and so does not receive the capital city funding for policing that it should, despite holding many large-scale national events every single weekend and facing the terror threats that many other cities, from London to Manchester to Birmingham, also face. If justice were devolved, the people of Wales would be able to properly allocate those resources where necessary and appropriate.
I have followed the speeches by the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans), and I agree. In fact, the hon. Member for Islwyn spoke with such passion that I was overwhelmed, after those thoughtful contributions, by the belief that this power should remain here. On the point about devolution and the process 20 years on, may I just reflect that I am not sure that the people of Wales have any faith that devolving more is always a solution? As someone who is passionate about devolution, I think there is a growing appetite for the Welsh Government to get on and deliver, rather than saying, “More powers.” It is wonderful to watch the Labour party present such a united message on this particular point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but what he is missing here is real life—real life in prisons, with prisoners being let down by that broken justice system. What is being called for here and within the judiciary and legal system is the devolution of those powers to Wales. That is what is being called for and that is what I am hearing. There is no reason why Wales should not enjoy the powers that have been enjoyed by Scotland and Northern Ireland, especially in solving the challenges that Welsh justice will face, requiring tighter, more localised and more regional powers.
The commission report also challenges Wales’s brilliant law schools to work more effectively together, to recognise the place of Welsh law in legal education and to ensure that teaching materials are available in both languages. We have some fantastic law schools; I must declare an interest there, as my daughter has just started at the brilliant Swansea University School of Law.
In conclusion, I welcome the announcement from the First Minister for Wales that he will establish and chair a new justice committee of the Cabinet to look at the commission’s recommendations. It is beyond time that our devolution settlement was levelled up. Wales should have the freedom and control to shape and mould the justice system so that it works for us, the people of Wales.
At the moment, a fair, effective and accessible justice system is simply not possible in Wales. We should not allow anything less than a strong, good, devolved justice system. The devolution of judiciary powers should be seen not as an exception, but as something that should have been carried out many years ago.
I concur with the point made by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and others. I am contributing here not because I am a nationalist Member, but because this is about the best contribution to the administration of justice in Wales. I have great sympathy with my colleagues in my sister party, Plaid Cymru, but I am not commenting on that basis. The irony is that I am commenting because I was asked to contribute to this particular commission’s report. It was thought that the points and the experience that I have, having been Justice Secretary of Scotland for almost seven and a half years, would be of benefit.
I was happy to contribute, because there are lessons to be learned. There are things that we have done right that Wales can follow and emulate, and there are pitfalls that Wales can avoid. There are also mistakes, which hopefully Wales will not replicate. No system in any Administration is perfect, and it is very hard to deal with challenged and challenging people, because they frequently make irrational decisions despite the best endeavours of those trying to look after them. There are lessons and there are similarities, because the demographics are similar. The challenges in many instances are the same: alcohol abuse, deprivation and inequality, all of which are the drivers of criminal offending.
We have to recognise that a small minority in every society in every country in the world are career criminals. They make a decision to break the law, and prison is an occupational hazard. The only way we can deal with them is through law enforcement—through the offices of the police and the courts, and thereafter by the prison service. Thankfully, they are few. The overwhelming majority of people who come into the clutches of the justice system, if it can be called that, do so because they face challenges and are challenged; they are often with difficulties. That does not obscure or condone what they have done, and it does not mean that they should not pay a penalty for it, because people have to be held to account.
One of the most significant points I made to the commission was to address the issue of alcohol. In Scotland, Wales and, indeed, England, as night follows day, as strong drink is taken to excess, issues arise. There is sense in having a symmetry and an assimilation of powers because, at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of the people we are dealing with—whom we are required to deal with, as our citizens—come from our communities where services have failed, or where the services that look after them are based. They are accountable to the Government of Wales, in many instances.
We also have to remember that those who are incarcerated —other than a few who will not again see the light of day, but they are very few; a handful in Wales and a handful in Scotland, thankfully—will return to our communities, and they have to be dealt with in our communities. On that basis, the best way to administer justice for them is on a more local basis.
A great comment was made by the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) about symmetry with Scotland. There are still challenges, because Scotland is on a journey itself. As Justice Secretary, I had, in the main, responsibility for all aspects of justice. I was rarely down in these parts until I was elected last month. I first came down to meet Jacqui Smith when she was Home Secretary, and I returned finally to meet Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. I met Justice Ministers and other Home Secretaries in between, but I did not really have a great deal of requirement, other than for the odd meeting with Jack Straw or Ken Clarke. That does not mean that there were not issues.
The Justice Secretary every week—as Government Ministers will do—signs off warrants for interception and covert surveillance, which are invariably related to firearms or narcotics. It will come as no surprise that responsibility for both of those is reserved to Westminster, which brings challenges. We had to seek the devolution of powers to address, for example, the licensing of air weapons, which have been welcomed in our communities. Similarly, as we seek to tackle alcohol abuse, we sought the devolution of powers over the alcohol limit for drivers. There is a journey there, but I was happy to make that comment.
Equally, I can also say that I was asked for a meeting by the Police Federation, brokered by the Scottish Police Federation, about a move towards a single police service in Wales. I know that that has not been greatly touched on in the commission’s report, but I was happy to say in the presence of the Scottish Police Federation, which supported a single Police Service of Scotland, and to the four Welsh forces representatives, that it makes sense. Not only should justice be accountable in Wales in terms of the legal services, but the police should be accountable there too, so it would make sense for a police service of Wales to exist, rather than having individual constabularies.
There are challenges. Police numbers have dropped significantly. One way to address that is to try to preserve frontline forces and reduce the back-office services and all the accommodation that goes with having four chief constables. That on its own is not a sufficient remedy, but it would be much better to do that, by creating a police service of Wales, than to strip those constables’ powers and pass serious organised crime to the National Crime Agency, leaving the police as some glorified security service patrolling housing schemes, whether in the valleys or the cities.
Those are the issues needing to be addressed. Structural change is necessary. Bringing those elements together is essential, but there are other issues that are touched on through policy. Legal aid is challenging. Scotland is not perfect by any means. I have to say that I was a legal aid practitioner for 19 years, and it shames me that I had to preside over cuts, but there was no alternative. It was not so much the implementation of swingeing cuts, and certainly not the abandonment of core services, because we tried to protect them, but it has been challenging under austerity.
I do not say that things are perfect in Scotland, but we have tried to ensure that legal aid is not simply for those in extremis and not simply for those in involved in criminal justice. Some of the solution has to be evidentiary changes. Until such time as we can reduce the drain on the legal aid fund from the criminal expenditure, it will be difficult to protect the civil cases that are fundamental. Scotland has done much better in preserving the rights of people to apply for legal aid on immigration and employment issues, which matter in communities. There are challenges. No legal aid lawyer will jump up and say, “Whoopee! Kenny MacAskill was fantastic, and his Government did a wonderful job.” They will say that there are issues, which there are, but we have managed to protect the system and provide some integration, so that it is not about criminal justice alone.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) was correct to raise the issue of female offenders. They are a distinct group with challenges that do not apply in the main. That is not to say that women should not go to jail. We do not take that position in Scotland. Sadly, a ladette culture has come about and, in extremis, women do bad things for which at the end of the day they must go to prison, because no other tariff is available. However, far too many women go to prison—even in Scotland, although we are reducing the numbers—for offences that occur because of their circumstances. As the hon. Gentleman eloquently said, the fact of the matter is that there are knock-on effects, which do not relate to male prisoners, such as children going into care, resulting in an escalation down through the generations and those who have suffered continuing to suffer.
I always remember the money we poured into—
Order. I know the hon. Gentleman is newly elected to the House. Normally in these debates, the Scottish National party spokesperson has five minutes. Because we have time, I have been generous, but I would be grateful if he focused primarily on the topic of the debate, namely the Commission on Justice in Wales.
My apologies, Mr Stringer. Legal aid and the position of women was touched upon in particular by the commission, because there are serious issues there. That must be addressed. Their needs are distinct, the challenges are different, and we must deal with that if we are to break the cycle of offending down through the generations.
Equally—this is why it comes back to the requirement for synergy and, indeed, the devolution of powers—serious violence has been mentioned. Violence is a culture. That is why alcohol abuse must be addressed. The proposal of the commission must be supported. At the end of the day, these issues must be pulled together. The lack of education suffered by many, the failure of social workers to pick up the needs and challenges of individuals, and the inability of people to obtain work are all issues we must bring together. Not all those issues are devolved to the Welsh Assembly at the moment, but many are. If we are to have a successful justice policy—something that all parties and Administrations seek, because it is their fundamental duty to secure the safety of their people—we must bring all this together.
To conclude, there is merit in seeking the devolution of these powers not for devolution’s sake, but for the better administration of justice for the people of Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing the debate, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) for their passionate speeches regarding their concerns about what is happening in Wales.
I welcome the report and commend the Welsh Government on commissioning it. It is a thorough, detailed piece of work with many excellent recommendations for the Welsh Government and central Government. The report found that, despite excellent work on the ground and hard work by staff across the country, the justice system is all too often mismanaged and underfunded. That closely aligns with my experience as the shadow Justice Minister.
In a balanced assessment, the Thomas commission makes it clear that the justice system in Wales is in urgent need of proper, substantive reform. The conclusion that people in Wales are being let down by the system in its current state is damning. In too many areas, precisely where responsibility is located and who exactly provides the funding is opaque.
The report lists complicated reasons for the problems, as well as some very simple ones. The United Kingdom Government’s spending on the justice system in Wales has fallen by a third since 2009-10. Members of Parliament will be familiar with many of the issues through casework, when people come to them to talk about the devastating impact of cuts to legal aid and the inevitable hardship caused by court closures.
The report found that the Welsh Government have had to spend their own funds on advice services, which they should not have to do. That is not the proper way forward. They cannot be expected to cover the funding gap that has been created by Government cuts to legal aid. The position is therefore not sustainable. The Government need to invest, and spend more money on justice issues in Wales.
I was not surprised to read that courts and tribunal closures have left many people in parts of rural and post-industrial Wales facing long and difficult journeys to their nearest court. Amid the frenzied cost-cutting, the Government appear to have forgotten the deep social value of local justice. The report also states that the advantages of digital technology have not yet been fully realised in Wales. It is not just Wales that has that problem; recently I visited a few Crown courts in London, and the technology there broke down as well.
The report also advocates the establishment of problem-solving criminal courts as well as family, drug and alcohol courts in Wales. We in the Labour party have been calling for such courts for some time—that includes our manifesto—and we are very strong advocates of them. Some FDACs have been trialled in England, but we need to ensure proper coverage so that everyone has access to them.
Calls to establish alternatives to custody for women are sensible, evidence-based policy. The emphasis on greater provision of domestic abuse services and funding for women’s centres is also welcome. I hope that the Government will have the sense to provide the necessary funding.
The report also engaged thoroughly with the Lammy review, asking difficult questions in the process. Far too little action has been taken in response to the excellent work by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I hope the Government will ensure that his recommendations are now dealt with. I have raised the implementation of the Lammy review a number of times at the Dispatch Box.
Those shared issues come alongside problems that are unique to Wales, and which emerge from an excessively complex system and a convoluted devolution settlement that leaves the centralised justice system struggling to co-ordinate with the devolved Department. It is totally unacceptable that the report found that gaps in the provision of the bilingual system are preventing people from accessing justice. No one should be hindered in seeking justice based on the language that they speak.
The commission also found that Wales is the only place in the world where different legislatures make different laws on the same subject, but all within the same body of law. Of course, it is not for me to advocate a particular distribution of power between Wales and Westminster, but it is clear that the current approach is not working. A settlement must be found that facilitates a far more integrated, co-ordinated relationship between different Departments and the agencies they work with. The Government must recognise that the tone-deaf centralised approach is having a deeply damaging effect.
All too often, reports such as these are ignored by the Executive, who encourage them to sink without a trace. I hope that does not happen in this case. When the Minister responds, I hope he will recognise that the report proves yet again that justice cannot be done on the cheap, and that proper funding is required to ensure that people have access to justice. It is not right for the Welsh Government, who already have a tight, limited budget, to have to spend money on this area as well when it is not in their power or remit. Will he commit to working with the Welsh Government to explore and implement the report’s recommendations?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I add my congratulations to those from the shadow Minister for the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I hope I pronounced that correctly—on securing today’s important debate. I thank the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) and the SNP Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for East Lothin (Kenny MacAskill), for their eloquent contributions to today’s debate.
That is good. Clearly, I need some lessons in Welsh pronunciation. The right hon. Member who moved today’s motion made a case for what essentially amounts to the full devolution of justice functions to Wales in line with the recommendations of the report that Lord Thomas recently published. I respectfully disagree with her conclusion that the wholesale devolution of justice to Wales would be in the interests of Wales for, broadly speaking, two or three different reasons.
I will start with the right hon. Lady’s argument that there should be congruence between the Parliament of Wales and the justice jurisdiction of Wales so that the justice system matches the laws. That argument—to avoid the “jagged edge” that Lord Thomas refers to in his report—is not wholly valid, because many or most laws that apply in Wales are reserved matters that have been legislated on in this Parliament. In fact, if we look at the laws that have been passed in the 11 years since 2008, the Welsh Parliament has passed 62 new laws and this Parliament has passed 600, the vast majority of which also apply to Wales. Looking at the law on reserved matters, legal principles such as criminal responsibility, incapacity, mental elements of offences, criminal liability, sentencing, the law relating to homicide, sexual offences and offences against the person—the very fabric of the legal system—are all reserved matters where England and Wales law applies.
Devolving justice in the context of a body of law where the majority of it applies to England and Wales would actually exacerbate or worsen the jagged edge problem the right hon. Lady referred to, because it would then apply to these reserved matters, which are far larger in number than the matters that have been legislated for separately at the Welsh level. Indeed, it would be further exacerbated because the Thomas report, interestingly, does not recommend that the legal profession, its regulation and its qualifications be separated, but instead that they remain the same. If we were to devolve justice to Wales, we would have a further incongruity in that we would have a single legal profession with the same qualifications across two different systems. That would be a further exacerbating jagged edge.
Some Members speaking today have referred to the interface between justice and other devolved matters, in particular education and health. I put the question to a senior official working in the Ministry of Justice’s Welsh department who deals with day-to-day justice matters. Their view was that whether justice was devolved or not would make no real difference to the interface between justice and education and health. Whether education and health were being run in Wales and talking to an England and Wales MOJ or a Welsh MOJ, that interface between Departments would still exist, whether the MOJ sat under an England and Wales umbrella or a Wales-only umbrella.
At the same time, the probation service in Wales has been specifically set up to reflect the fact that education, health and housing are different in Wales in relation to probation. We have not been able to do justice to this report in the time we have had, but my one specific ask, if I may press the Minister, is when will his Department respond in full to the recommendations of this report? I understand that it has already been indicated that it will. When will that occur, and will the Department respond to all the recommendations in turn?
I was going to come to that point at the very end, but I will answer it now, since the right hon. Lady has raised it. This report was commissioned by the Welsh Government, by the previous First Minister of Wales. It was not commissioned by the UK Government, so there is not an intention to produce a full and formal response to the Thomas report.
However, we are of course going to discuss in detail with the Welsh Government in Cardiff the issues that it raises, to see where we can constructively improve our working relationships across some of them. The right hon. Lady has touched on a couple of those already. We want to improve the level of co-operation we have with the Welsh Government. We want to ensure that, where there is joint working and an interface with, for example, the health system, which many Members have mentioned, that interface works as well as it can, and that we are co-operating and reflecting some of the unique circumstances in Wales. Those conversations will certainly happen, and we will approach them with a constructive and an open mind.
As I said a moment ago, however, I am afraid we do not agree with the conclusion that we should wholly devolve justice and create a Welsh jurisdiction. One reason for that is the second point I was about to come on to before the intervention: cost. The Thomas report does not talk about the cost at all; perhaps the reason is that there is a very significant cost.
The Silk commission, which reported a few years ago—I think in 2014—did cost the establishment of a separate Welsh jurisdiction. It estimated, adjusting for changes that have happened since, that the extra incremental cost of creating a separate jurisdiction would be about £100 million a year. That is £100 million that could be spent on more probation officers, more police and all the things we have been talking about, and we do not feel that the imposition of that extra cost is at all justified.
For example, we would have to replicate the Ministry of Justice’s functions at the Welsh level. Wales does not have a women’s prison, which itself is an issue, or a category A prison. All those issues would have to be addressed. The MOJ is currently hugely upgrading its IT systems, and there are obviously economies of scale. If a Welsh Ministry of Justice had to do that itself, it would be extremely expensive. We do not believe that that cost of £100 million a year can be justified.
Thirdly, and perhaps unusually, I concur quite strongly with some of the analysis offered by the hon. Member for Rhondda, who asked us to concentrate on outcomes and how our systems work in practice, and on improving those rather than endlessly talking about process and arguing about where powers get exercised. In many ways, it is slightly sterile to argue over who holds the pen and exactly where a power is exercised. Our collective energy, ingenuity, creativity and everything else are better directed at trying to improve the services that are being delivered, so I embrace the point that he made.
While the Minister is embracing my views, I wonder whether he will look at the issue that has been experienced in Cardiff jail, where there has been a really good programme screening new prisoners arriving in the prison for brain injury. That is an area where there is a clear overlap between the health service, which will be working with the individuals, and the Ministry of Justice. I know that that programme has been extended, but I wonder whether we could keep it running on a permanent basis. It is a simple fact that if people do not get the proper neuro-rehabilitation for a brain injury, the likelihood is that they will end up reoffending.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentions Cardiff Prison, which had a fairly positive inspector’s report last July. The programme that he is describing is not one I am hugely familiar with, because my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is the Prisons Minister. However, it sounds like an extremely worthwhile programme. I know that, in general, the Government are keen to encourage closer work between the justice system and the health service, in order to treat health conditions where they exist, and that programme sounds exactly like the kind of programme that should be continued. I undertake to raise it with my hon. and learned Friend, and I will urge her to consider extending the pilot indefinitely, because it sounds like exactly the kind of thing we should be doing. I will make representations along those lines.
Devolution in itself is no panacea; it does not automatically solve problems. For example, that has obviously been well documented in education, where per capita spending in Wales is much higher than in England, that educational outcomes in Wales are none the less worse than in England. So the idea that devolving something somehow automatically makes it better does not necessarily hold up.
I turn now to the tragic death of Conner Marshall, which was mentioned earlier. Of course, we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family. There were failings in the probation service, which have already been referred to. Therefore, it is right and appropriate that Wales was the first part of England and Wales to have the community rehabilitation companies wound down and wholly replaced by the National Probation Service. It is very welcome that Wales has seen that happen first. Clearly, the Conner Marshall case underlines why that move was so important, and I am glad that we made it.
More generally on the question of resources in the probation system, substantially more money will go into the probation system in the next financial year. Across England and Wales, we will also recruit 800 more probation officers, many of whom, of course, will go to Wales.
The issue of imprisonment rates was raised. The rate of imprisonment for offenders in Wales is very similar to that in England. It is fractionally higher in Wales—it is about 6.5% in England and 6.85% in Wales. So, as I say, the rates are very similar.
Regarding sentencing policy and the implications for the prison population, the Government’s approach is that we want to see very serious offenders, including terrorist offenders, receiving longer sentences and serving more of those sentences in prison. In fact, that is the purpose of the statutory instrument being laid today, which moves back the automatic release point for standard determinate sentences for serious sexual and violent offences that qualify for a life sentence, and where the sentence is over seven years, from halfway to two-thirds of the way through the sentence.
We want to see the most serious criminals serving longer sentences and serving them in prison. However, for less serious offences, and in particular where there is a health problem associated with such offenders, which the hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned earlier, I want—as the Minister with responsibility for sentencing—to see a greater emphasis on treatment, which is the point the hon. Member for Rhondda made a moment ago. I would like to see more community sentence treatment requirement orders being made, so that people who have a mental health problem, a drug addiction problem or an alcohol addiction problem receive treatment for that health problem, rather than serving a short custodial sentence, because the evidence is that short custodial sentences are not very effective.
We will address that area through the sentencing review and the sentencing White Paper, which we will publish a little later this year, and then through the sentencing Bill, which will be introduced subsequently. It is an area where there is more work that we can do to treat the causes of offending, particularly where they are health-related, rather than imposing short custodial sentences.
The issue of court closures was raised. As in England, there have been court closures in Wales, as we try to run the court system more efficiently and effectively. The utilisation of the courts in Wales prior to the start of this programme, which was about nine years ago, was 54%. That is extremely low. The utilisation rate in Wales is now 67%, which is clearly higher.
Regarding attendance in court, which was mentioned, there is no evidence that the rate of attendance at court by defendants or witnesses has declined as a consequence of the programme. In fact, in terms of disposing of cases, in Welsh magistrates courts—where the vast majority of criminal cases in Wales are heard—78% of cases are dealt with in less than six weeks. The equivalent figure for England is 68%, so the Welsh magistrates courts are 10% more effective at quickly dealing with cases that come before them than their English equivalents.
Even after the closure programme that was referred to, 97% of the Welsh population can get to their nearest magistrates court in less than two hours, which is comparable to the equivalent figure in England. The digitisation process is well under way to allow people to access court services digitally. Making civil money claims, probate applications, uncontested divorce applications and entering minor pleas can now all be done online.
We do not concur with the Thomas report’s principal conclusion that justice should be wholly devolved, but we will work closely with the Welsh Government to ensure justice policies are aligned and to take into consideration distinct Welsh needs. For example, the recent transfer of probation services in Wales to the National Probation Service is a clear example of distinct justice policy in Wales, which can be achieved under the current settlement. Joint Ministry of Justice and Welsh Government blueprints on youth justice and female offenders were published last year—a successful example of co-development of strategies across the devolution boundary. Welsh prisons perform well when compared with their counterparts in England, and Welsh law firms benefit from being part of a world-renowned justice system. The justice landscape in Wales is faring well.
That said, we absolutely agree that the administration of justice in Wales requires regular review to ensure the needs of Wales are being met. In addition to ensuring that justice policies are designed with Wales in mind, we regularly evaluate the wider arrangements to ensure they are fit for purpose. Hon. Members will be aware that, during the passage of the Wales Act 2017, the Government committed to undertake a regular review of justice in Wales. An advisory committee was established in 2018, comprising the judiciary, the legal profession, legal regulators, operational deliver arms, and members of the Welsh and UK Governments. The committee published a report in July last year, which made a number of recommendations about the justice system in Wales, particularly around accessibility of law and the management of divergence. We are taking those recommendations forward.
The Welsh Government’s decision to commission Lord Thomas to undertake a review was founded on their belief that there was
“unfinished business from the Silk Commission”.
On the contrary, the decision by the Silk commission that Wales should continue to be part of the single jurisdiction was reached after careful consideration of the merits for and against devolution, and it is our firm view that the current settlement works best for Wales.
I welcome certain of the Minister’s comments, particularly his commitment to close working. However, I note that, although he referred to the sentencing review, the health intervention is, in essence, devolved in Wales. In that respect, if there is additional expectation from Westminster, I can only presume that the funding to enable that will follow.
I also mentioned the serious violence Bill. Again, there is an opportunity to reflect the structures that exist in Wales to ensure that it is better proceeded with in Wales, but that was not referred to. Even when I was working on the Domestic Abuse Bill, the fact that there are different structures in Wales was not thought about; it was not even an afterthought—it was not remembered. That is a weakness in governance, and goes back to how these things affect the people of Wales and the quality of the services that they receive.
Of course, the current joint work is not done with transparency, and we do not effectively have the means to compare what is for England and Wales in its entirety with what is happening in Wales. I hope that there will be a commitment to continue with the crime survey for England and Wales, so that we can have a proper picture and talk about crime not in the abstract, but as it is experienced by real people in the real communities of Wales, to make that comparison properly. This report has endeavoured to emphasise that justice is not an island; it is not isolated from the services that support the victim on the one hand or that punish and rehabilitate the offender on the other hand.
I will conclude with that old “Encyclopaedia Britannica” trope: “For Wales, see England”. The nagging question for this Government is whether, when it comes to Wales, they see only England. Diolch yn fawr.
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. I am sorry to be a pain, but some of us were a bit confused about the timing this afternoon. Obviously, we have had votes and so on, which have interfered with the system, and I know that the second half of the day is three hours, but I wonder whether, in future, when there has been an afternoon such as this, there might be a means of making the House generally aware of when each of the new debates in Westminster Hall is going to start.
Thank you for that point of order. As Chair, I probably should have made it clear at the start of the debate that the time gained on the first hour-and-a-half debate was carried over. I apologise to hon. Members for not having made that clear.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the Commission on Justice in Wales.