Thursday 23 January 2020
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Public Transport: North Staffordshire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that features heavily in my constituency correspondence and is frequently brought up by constituents on the doorstep. North Staffordshire’s public transport is simply not good enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I made clear to the Minister’s colleague Baroness Vere recently, bus services are too few, too slow and too infrequent. Indeed, a survey I conducted in a number of communities in my constituency resulted in many hundreds of replies saying just that. We now have communities that lack any service, with elderly and vulnerable people left cut off. The removal of evening and weekend services has also had a major impact on people’s ability to get to work and get around the area.
At the same time, local train services—they are almost non-existent and are often overcrowded—have been under a slow process of decline. Little more than 100 years ago, north Staffordshire had an excellent local rail and tram network. Old maps reveal that we had one of the most comprehensive public transport networks in the country. Since then, local rail lines and local train stations have been lost. The tram network has gone altogether and the bus has risen and fallen as a replacement. It is on bus services that I will focus most of my remarks today.
I have held a debate on train services in north Staffordshire, and there are serious causes for optimism that the situation is improving, with greater capacity and better services promised on the Crewe-Derby North Staffordshire line. Under the new franchise, I am delighted that we will see longer trains, additional services at evenings and weekends and most services extending to Nottingham. I am campaigning to reopen Meir station in my constituency, and there is a definite feeling that for rail, like for Stoke-on-Trent itself, the trajectory is upwards, which will help to reduce the pressure on our congested roads.
There is little such optimism about bus services, and the picture has often just been one of looking at which service will be lost next. That is not to say that everything is terrible with buses in north Staffordshire and, as I will lay out today, it does not mean that there should not be optimism. I understand that the First Potteries No. 18 bus, which runs between Hanley and Leek bus station, now boasts plush new seats, USB charging points and wood-effect flooring. I certainly welcome that. It is long overdue and an example of best practice in the area. It would be good to see such improvements on services that run in my constituency, too. Frankly, it would be good to see any direct service to Leek from my constituency, even just on market days.
The city of Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six historic market towns, as well as numerous other towns and communities across north Staffordshire, each of which needs public transport provision serving its town centres. Hanley, by virtue of being the largest and in the middle of the city, is regarded as the city centre and has the largest bus station, which is also served by National Express coaches in Stoke-on-Trent. While Hanley might be the city centre, it is not the only centre. We have Tunstall, Burslem, Stoke town, Fenton and Longton—all centres in their own right with high streets to support and attractions to be visited. However, Hanley is not served by rail services. Those fell under the Beeching Act, as did those to Burslem and Tunstall, with all three on the old loop line that was immortalised in the literature of Arnold Bennett, but is sadly no longer a physical reality. Fenton lost its station even before Beeching, but Stoke and Longton fortunately still have stations, as do Longport, Kidsgrove and Blythe Bridge. Blythe Bridge is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), just over the boundary from my seat, and the station is used by many of my constituents.
The six historic market towns in Stoke-on-Trent share a north Staffordshire identity that is more than merely geographical with the other historic market towns around the city, including Newcastle-under-Lyme, Kidsgrove, Biddulph, Leek, Cheadle, Stone and Stafford, which are home to many commuters to and from Stoke-on-Trent. Improving and enhancing the public transport links between all those towns is important for our economic growth. Sadly, bus use in the Potteries has declined by more than 10% in the past year alone, with more than 1 million fewer bus passenger journeys in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. The number of journeys fell from 10.4 million in 2017-18 to 9.3 million. Compounding the disappointment is the fact that bus use had at least seemed to have levelled off from the previous decline. The 10.4 million journeys reported in 2017-18 were an increase on the 10.3 million reported in 2016-17. However, at the start of the decade, more than 15 million journeys were recorded.
Since 2010, the relative cost of travelling by car has decreased considerably. Fuel duty has rightly been frozen and even for those who are entitled to free bus passes, the falling marginal cost of driving has disadvantaged bus services in relative terms. Relative price signals have often been compounded by the enhanced marginal utility of driving instead, particularly as cars have improved in personal comfort over the decade relative to buses. Once a decline in bus services begins, it all too often feeds on itself as the relative convenience of just jumping in a car becomes ever more pronounced. Against a backdrop of less frequent bus services, passenger utility is reduced even further. With the reduction in demand comes more cuts in supply.
In north Staffordshire, journey times by bus can be more than double those by car—sometimes easily treble or worse—due to the loss of direct cross-city routes. No doubt that story is familiar to Members in all parts of the country. I have raised the situation in north Staffordshire in particular because, as our local newspaper The Sentinel has highlighted, the decline in the Potteries has been much faster than in England as a whole.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I can confirm that the issue exists across the country. In my constituency of Chelmsford, failing bus services in parts of the city are having a real impact. We have seen some services go. Does he agree that we need a medium to long-term strategy for how we run sustainable buses in our urban areas, as well as in rural areas?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In the Transport Committee—I was a member of it before the election—we discussed the need for a national bus strategy to look into some of these issues and ensure that we are addressing the decline that we have seen across the country in many areas.
I have also secured this debate because of the positive proposals being put forward locally for significant improvements to our public transport infrastructure and services in the years ahead. We certainly cannot go on as we are. Stoke-on-Trent is on the up and our roads are increasingly congested with cars, vans and lorries that are a sign of the city’s improving economic fortunes under the Conservative Government and our local Conservative-led councils across north Staffordshire, including the city council of Stoke-on-Trent. Those cars, vans and lorries are often caught in gridlock at rush hour and are reducing air quality to unacceptable levels in the worst-affected areas. The decline in public transport and the growth of congestion has seen us breach World Health Organisation limits for air quality, with our people forced to breathe hazardous fumes.
How do we turn it around? How do we avoid being a victim of our own success? How do we make buses popular again? I certainly do not want the Treasury to hit motorists in the pocket and make it too expensive to drive. I want instead to improve the quality, reliability, journey times and frequency of buses. I want passengers to rediscover the convenience of travelling by bus or, indeed, by local rail. I am determined to see Meir station reopened in my constituency between Blythe Bridge and Longton on the line to Stoke. Since the station closed, we have seen significant growth in the area in the residential population and in levels of economic activity. Meir also has high levels of deprivation, and reopening the station would open up employment opportunities for people living locally. Much is still there, including a footbridge, so a halt is already highly feasible and the new station is likely to be relatively inexpensive.
Importantly, any new station should link seamlessly with the bus network. We really need to get to grips with seamless transitions between modes of transport in north Staffordshire. Fortunately, there is a plan to achieve that at Stoke station, under the city council’s bid for a transforming cities fund investment.
Securing the full investment for which we are asking would mean significant improvements at Longton station in my constituency. The old Victorian ticket hall would be uncovered from the hoardings that have blighted it for years, and the space repurposed for retail or a café, as well as ticket machines. At the moment, there is nowhere to buy a ticket before getting on the train at Longton, although I am delighted to say that the new rail franchisee has promised to put in machines soon.
The TCF bid for Longton also involves making the platforms accessible by lift, rather than just stairs, as at present—improvements for which we have been pushing for some time, as the Minister is well aware. There would be places of shelter that would exceed the quality of the very basic provisions currently on offer, and Longton rail services would become much better connected with bus services.
Creating a much more effective public transport system across the whole of north Staffordshire is essential. Another key element of the plans is the super-bus proposal, with a vision of an attractive, efficient and affordable bus network forming the core of our local public transport. High-frequency, high-priority bus services would operate on a network of cross-city routes, creating a bus-based urban transport system. End-to-end journey times would be competitive with cars, and travel costs would be attractive.
Just as the loop line defined the interconnectivity of the Potteries towns, so the new seamless bus network and the transport partnership behind it would be a key feature of the city, helping to attract investment into housing and businesses. The proposals are such that the bus network would be as commercially viable as possible, although financially supported where absolutely necessary. In short, the Minister will be pleased to know that full advantage is being taken of the Bus Services Act 2017 to mould a local partnership, and the super-bus proposals focus on three key elements that the Department for Transport wants to see: bus priority measures, improved frequency and a capped daily fare.
I will take each element in turn. First, on bus priority measures, work has been undertaken to identify the main causes of bus journey delays on our local road network, as part of the transforming cities fund bid. Much of the road infrastructure in Stoke-on-Trent has changed little since Victorian times, with a predominantly two-lane network that lacks effective bus priority. Well over a third of delays across the network were found to be caused by severe problems in just 20 locations that would, it is estimated, cost in the region of £50 million to mitigate.
Currently, very few buses run straight through the city centre, meaning that almost all passengers face waiting times for connecting services at the city centre bus station if they want to get from one side of the city to the other. Operators have been reluctant to provide through services, because it is much harder to guarantee their reliability. That, in turn, adds to the congestion at the city centre bus station, with two short-route buses needed to complete what could have been a single-bus through journey.
The required interventions are a mix of low, medium and high-cost schemes, ranging from relatively simple traffic management measures, such as the widening of bus lanes, to more complicated redesigns of junctions to give buses priority. As an initial step, three cross-city routes are being developed, but a number of additional cross-city routes have also been identified to create a truly north Staffordshire-wide network.
The first three routes would all run through the city centre, and they would create the following links: line A, from Kidsgrove in the north-west to Meir in the south-east; line B, from Trentham in the south to Abbey Hulton in the east; and line C, from Keele via Newcastle and Stoke railway station to Biddulph or Kidsgrove, which would provide a direct link between Keele University and Staffordshire University.
The first two of those three lines involve services in my constituency, and, of the four under consideration for future cross-conurbation routes, three would serve my constituency. They include a proposed circle line between Longton, Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme, and a proposed service that would link the city centre and the railway station with Trentham lakes and the World of Wedgwood, which will be important for residents and visitors alike.
A review of traffic management policy will be needed to ensure the smooth flow of buses through town centres, and that can be readily delivered with sufficient will at local government level. It has already been agreed with local bus operators that cross-city services would carry co-ordinated branding and run at regular frequencies.
The second key element is improved frequency. A turn-up-and-go service requires a frequency that does not exceed 10 minutes between buses. Even that frequency would be regarded as poor in London. A 10-minute interval is considered to be one of the downsides of some parts of the Docklands Light Railway, and it certainly would not be tolerated on the London underground. Yet in Stoke-on-Trent a 10-minute frequency is exceptionally good; currently, only four bus services operate at that frequency. The frequency of other services is generally 20 or 30 minutes.
Introducing all the proposed cross-city lines with a weekday daytime frequency of at most 10 minutes would cost some £4.8 million per annum. There would be a further capital cost of £1 million for purchasing additional vehicles. It is important to note that in certain important corridors in the city, such as between the railway station and the city centre, frequencies would be much closer to five minutes than to 10 minutes, with the exception of early mornings, night-times and Sundays.
I reiterate that bus passenger journeys in the Potteries have declined by a third in the last decade. Bus operators could have done things to lessen that decline—in customer service, promotions and the onboard experience—but they are far from solely responsible for it. The operators have identified congestion as the single biggest hindrance to providing efficient public transport as an alternative to cars. That means that congestion, which should inspire people to travel by public transport to avoid traffic jams, is feeding itself by making bus journeys unfeasible and keeping people in their cars, or even forcing people to use them.
There are two main bus service operators in north Staffordshire: First Potteries and D&G. First Potteries is the bigger of the two, with D&G often filling the gaps that First Potteries has left or vacated. Very sadly indeed, a recent and welcome attempt by D&G to save the No. 12 and 12A bus services removed by First Potteries in my constituency has not worked out.
It is deeply disappointing to me and, more importantly, to the people of the Saxonfields and Parkhall areas that commercial services there are said to be impossible to provide. It is a sign of how important it is to get our bus network right, our passenger numbers up and financial sustainability sorted.
There are other, smaller operators, which run a limited number of services, mostly using buses smaller than the standard single-decker ones prevalent in the First Potteries and D&G fleets. The current operators run a multi-operator ticket scheme. One such ticket is called Smart, which is focused on Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, and another is called The Knot—after the Staffordshire knot—covering the whole of Staffordshire. There is also a PlusBus scheme covering the Smart zone.
That brings me on to the third key element: the price cap. The current standard adult fare for one of the most popular tickets, the Smart day ticket, is £5.90, and the proposal is to cap it at £3 per day, resulting in a ceteris paribus revenue loss of £3 million per annum. However, it is, of course, expected that all things will not be equal, and the price cap, together with congestion-busting road traffic management for bus services, should result in a substantial increase in ticket sales.
Indeed, the uplift is expected to be such that the city council has warned that operators will need to be prepared for boarding delays caused by the volume of people wanting to buy the £3 day ticket. That would have been much more of a concern only a year ago, when contactless payment was still far from widespread across north Staffordshire buses. Thankfully, operators have now invested in contactless technology that speeds up the boarding process.
It is further proposed to make PlusBus tickets even more attractive than they are at present by making the PlusBus element entirely free of charge, or at least heavily discounted. That would be particularly useful for promoting seamless travel across public transport modes in the city, and it is backed up by plans to transform Stoke-on-Trent railway station into a multi-modal transport hub, with Station Road restricted to bus traffic. Current take-up of PlusBus is so low that the total cost across three years is estimated to be only £300,000.
What matters is delivery. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is already working with Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to progress proposals to improve air quality through a ministerial direction. Getting traffic moving and promoting public transport are key to the improvements that we must make. The proposals that I have run through could easily incorporate the Potteries becoming the first all-electric bus pilot. With several town centres across the city conurbation, we would provide a lesson in good practice to cities and towns alike. Liaison with bus operators is already strong, but it needs to be strengthened further, particularly for fares management across companies. A project manager and team of engineers for north Staffordshire’s super-bus proposals would cost in the region of £750,000 per annum, or £2.25 million over the three years of development and implementation. It would be well worth it.
In conclusion, Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, but we need to reverse our public transport decline. The investment requested from Government would enable Stoke-on- Trent City Council to work in partnership with bus operators and neighbouring authorities across north Staffordshire to remove the barriers to bus traffic flow. It would also ensure cross-boundary co-operation and incentivise investment in a seamless north Staffordshire public transport network, taking advantage of improving rail services and encouraging further improvements by train operating companies as the shift away from cars takes hold. The current cycle of bus service decline can be reversed, with more frequent, more relevant services on better buses leading to increased patronage, thereby funding further improvements that will encourage still more bus use.
Let me be quite clear: what is envisioned is nothing short of a revolution for road traffic planning in Stoke-on-Trent, with a radical reordering of highway space and junction prioritisation in favour of buses. By removing the worst pinch points and installing bus priority measures, we can improve passengers’ level of confidence that buses will run smoothly and to time. The measures envisaged would mean that timetables could provide for faster services running over longer distances across north Staffordshire. We would once again be able to boast one of the best and most comprehensive public transport networks, just as we did over a century ago. I hope we will receive the Department’s full support, and the Minister’s support today.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for the opportunity to raise the concerns in my constituency. Local buses are a vital lifeline for the people of Stafford and provide a critical link for the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. I recently visited Winchester Court, in Weeping Cross in Stafford, and was dismayed to hear how local residents feel let down by the public transport system. Several elderly ladies explained their plight in great detail: they have to travel by taxi at great expense in order to get to church services, due to the lack of bus services on Sundays. It is a very simple journey for those who can drive, but those who rely on public transport face missing out on important local events. Other residents have raised with me directly the lack of frequent buses into town on busy routes, such as Cannock Road. Lack of access to the local community is leaving people at risk of suffering further problems, such as loneliness, and I am pleased that this Government are working hard to tackle those problems.
A regular and reliable bus service is very important for those of my constituents who live in villages, as those in rural locations rely on public transport to access important services, such as their GP. For example, the 841 bus service goes from Stafford to Hixon, but only on the hour. The last bus back from Stafford to the village is at 5.55 pm, so residents have told me that if they are doing a regular day’s work until 6 pm or would like to attend an evening event in the town, they are unable to do so without their own car. Some of the smaller villages in my constituency, such as Seighford, do not even have a direct bus service into town. That is why the value of rural public transport should not be underestimated.
Staffordshire County Council has managed very well under difficult circumstances, and I appreciate that the council and bus services face a challenging task in deciding which bus routes provide not only the most benefit for the public as a whole, but the best value to operate. Nevertheless, we must strive to provide accessible, affordable and reliable transport for every resident of Stafford: whether young or old, urban or rural, no one should be left behind. It is simply not good enough to leave residents without suitable transport just because running a bus route is not deemed viable.
As I said in my maiden speech,
“I believe that politics is about getting stuff done”.—[Official Report, 13 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 805.]
I would therefore like all parties to consider a middle-of-the-road option and find common ground. There is, in my opinion, an answer to this challenge. In the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), the Moorlands Connect service, run in conjunction with Staffordshire County Council, is already up and running. Rural residents of north Staffordshire can, for a few pounds, use the service to arrange for transport that caters for everyone, from wheelchair users to commuters with bikes, allowing them to get into local towns and villages. With just one simple phone call, residents can visit local community hubs and have access to the vital services they need. That type of dial-a-ride service model is something that we should consider expanding across Staffordshire.
It is also important to recognise the vital role that public transport and, in particular, buses play in reducing the number of car journeys. It is vital that we all play our part in tackling climate change, and I back the Government’s commitment that the UK will reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. I am delighted that the Government are powering ahead with that world-leading agenda by hosting COP 26 in Glasgow later this year. It is therefore a tragedy that my constituents are forced to make so many journeys by car—vital journeys such as travelling to work, doing their weekly food shop or collecting medicine—because they have no other option. That is simply not good enough for rural residents in villages such as the Haywood, Derrington and Brocton. Local residents want to do their bit to tackle climate change without disrupting their daily lives.
The residents of the beautiful county town of Stafford are also concerned about congestion, which has been raised with me time and again when I have knocked on doors across the constituency. The negative impact of unnecessary car journeys on all of my constituents should not be underestimated, from the additional air pollution that is belching out of cars sitting in queues and being inhaled by all of us, to the hours lost every week by people stuck in traffic jams. Those wasted hours are not only reducing productivity across my constituency, but reducing precious family time. People have told me that they miss reading a story to their children before bed. That is time that people do not want to lose stuck in gridlock.
By re-evaluating the public transport offering in Stafford, we have the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives. These are the sorts of changes we should be making as modern, compassionate Conservatives. Regular and reliable buses are essential services for commuters and local residents in my constituency, so I urge all parties on a local and national level to investigate and expand upon this north Staffordshire initiative, to ensure we provide bespoke and adaptable transport for all of Stafford’s residents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on having secured this important debate. He is right to say that our public transport in north Staffordshire is simply not good enough.
The market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, which I have the privilege to represent, is not part of Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke-on-Trent has a unitary council, whereas we are administered by our borough council and Staffordshire County Council. However, the market town is very much part of the wider conurbation. We have the A500—or, as the locals call it, the D road—to separate us from the city centre, but many of the same issues that my hon. Friend has raised about bus services in Stoke-on-Trent apply equally to my constituency, and us all working together to press for the improvements we need is clearly the right approach.
On top of the similar issues we face with our bus network in Newcastle, we do not have a railway station of our own. Newcastle-under-Lyme station, which was on the old line to Market Drayton, was closed in 1964 as part of the Beeching axe. I believe that makes us the third-largest town in the country without a railway station of our own. Most of my constituents therefore rely on Stoke-on-Trent station for their connections to the main line rail network, but their having to do so is itself a contributor to the congestion that has been mentioned—particularly on the roads that link Newcastle and Stoke, one of which I will speak about shortly.
A number of my constituents in the northern parts of my constituency—the areas of Bradwell, Porthill and Wolstanton—use Longport station, which my hon. Friend referred to. That station is just on the other side of the D road. If Northern Rail would consider stopping its Stoke to Manchester services at Longport station, or if West Midlands Trains would consider stopping its Crewe to Birmingham, or even its Crewe to London, services there—both already stop at a number of similarly sized stations—that would be a major boon to those constituents, and encourage more use of Longport station.
Turning to buses—the primary topic of this debate—I was struck during the general election campaign by how often the issue of poor service was raised both on the doorstep and in correspondence. A particular concern is that a number of services simply do not run at all when constituents want to use them. For example, the last bus back up to Wolstanton from the town centre leaves at 6.25 pm and the Sunday service has recently been cancelled altogether. That is not the best way to support our Government’s agenda to revitalise our high streets and our town centres, and I fear it leads to a vicious circle. People stop using the buses because they are not sufficiently convenient or reliable, which in turn leads the bus companies to make further cuts to services, all of which leads to some very heavily congested roads in and around Newcastle.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to one road in particular, the A53 between Stoke and Newcastle—Etruria Road, known locally as Basford Bank. That road marks another edge of my constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) is responsible for the other side of the road, which takes people into Newcastle. The traffic jams on that road are legendary and the local newspaper The Sentinel highlighted just the other day its impact on air quality for local residents in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend and neighbour.
Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has been asked to address the poor air quality on Basford Bank. Neither the council nor I believe that a chargeable clean air zone is the right approach, as it will simply shift the congestion and the problem elsewhere. The right way to improve our congestion problems and our air quality issues in north Staffordshire is through improvements to the pinch points on our roads and through cleaner and better public transport.
On pinch points, I welcome the proposed Etruria Valley link road—it is in the pipeline—which will connect my constituency better with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). That link road was secured by our two councils, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent, working together, along with the Department for Transport and the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire local enterprise partnership. That cross-authority co-operation shows that the various local authorities in the area can and will work together to deliver infrastructure investment.
Another pinch point is junction 15 of the M6, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has been campaigning in this House. Following my election, I look forward to joining him. The cramped design of the junction and nearby roundabouts contribute greatly to congestion on the A500 and on Clayton Road, my constituents’ main road out from Newcastle town centre to the south. Fixing that will go some way to addressing the concerns of my residents along Northwood Lane in Westbury Park ward, who have unfortunately experienced their road being used as a rat run because of all the congestion on the other roads.
Fixing our local road network is a major part of delivering better bus services. It will enable them to run to timetable and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has said, to run through from one side of the town to the other. It will facilitate introducing the potentially all-electric super-bus network, as outlined by my hon. Friend. I particularly welcome the proposed line C that would link Keele University in the west of my constituency all the way through to Stoke-on-Trent station and Staffordshire University.
I am wholeheartedly behind the agenda outlined by my hon. Friend for a genuinely radical transformation of public transport across north Staffordshire, particularly in our conurbation. I look forward to working with him, other new colleagues and the Department to deliver on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important and timely debate. It is wonderful to be able to have this debate with all Members from north Staffordshire on this side of the Chamber. It has to be said that that is a first.
My constituents in Staffordshire Moorlands face similar issues to those that have already been described, but we have some additional issues that are down to the rurality of the constituency. It is one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country. A third of the seat by geography is in the Peak District national park. The constituency includes the highest village in the country, Flash, where the local pub, the New Inn, is 1,518 feet above sea level. There are many villages and hamlets in the constituency and only two towns, Leek and Biddulph.
Connectivity between those villages and towns is hampered by the topography of the area. As the name suggests, Staffordshire Moorlands is quite hilly. We do not have the kind of infrastructure that many of my colleagues have. There is no dual carriageway anywhere in the constituency. There is no train station; there is no main line that runs through the constituency. We have a heritage line, but we have no main train line in the constituency. Access to our towns and villages is very important and is a matter that is often raised by my constituents.
As I mentioned, a third of my seat is within the boundaries of the Peak District national park, and tourism is one of our major economic generators. We are home to Alton Towers, which is the most visited tourist attraction outside London. Everybody who goes to Alton Towers arrives by some form of road transport—a few by bus from Stoke-on-Trent station, but the vast majority by private car. The congestion on the roads at opening and closing time is a challenge for people living in the villages of Alton and Farley. I am sure many people in this room have been to Alton Towers and have wondered what exactly is happening, as they come off the dual carriageway of the A50 and go up a nice road past JCB World headquarters at Rocester, and then suddenly find themselves on tiny little windy roads going through villages. That is because Alton Towers is located in the beautiful village of Alton. It is the former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, and it was designed by Pugin, so it is very reminiscent of where we are today. It is now a major tourist attraction that happens to be located in a very beautiful part of the country, and we therefore have some really specific concerns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) touched on the A53. Between Leek and Buxton, it is one of the most dangerous roads in the country. It is frequently in the top 10 or 20 roads in the country for fatalities and road traffic accidents.
I have described the situation with rail. Our bus network is woeful. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South talked about the new number 18 bus. It is a great thing to have a wi-fi enabled bus with USB points and everything else—a lovely green bus—but it runs only once an hour. It is not exactly frequent, and we have very few other buses in the constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) pointed out, we have the Moorlands Connect service. It is very good to have that dial-a-ride service, but the fact is that these villages and hamlets are not served by public transport, and that is contributing to rural loneliness and social isolation. It is contributing to people not being able to go and enjoy days out at our fantastic market in Leek and our monthly artisan market in Biddulph. People simply cannot get to these places, because there are no bus routes. A frequency of one bus every 10 minutes would be a dream come true; we are lucky if we have a bus twice a day sometimes.
Bus routes are being cancelled far too often, and there is a point at which somebody has to take responsibility. I have met the bus companies and they explain to me perfectly rationally why they cannot continue running the bus services—there simply is not the money to do it. I sit down with the county council and the city council and they explain to me perfectly rationally that the money is simply not there and they have to prioritise those services that are best value for money. The problem with those two rational bits of behaviour is that they have led to an irrational situation in which we simply do not have buses. Then we have buses, for example, that serve the village of Alton, but they are full of people going to Alton Towers, so nobody in the village of Alton can get on the bus to go where they want to get to, because it is full of tourists visiting Alton Towers.
Will the Minister ensure that some rationality is applied on bus routes overall and that we start looking at the strategy for buses in a holistic way across the whole of north Staffordshire, reflecting the fact that we have these incredibly rural areas that desperately need a way for people to get to the post office and the local market, to see their friends and live the kinds of lives that people in London would just think absolutely normal? They would think anything else unacceptable.
Reference was made to proposals for bus routes to Biddulph. I welcome those proposals, but while they are welcome, somebody needs to look at the road layout in Biddulph, because the redevelopment of the town centre when the new Sainsbury’s supermarket came to town just under 10 years ago means that getting buses round corners is not proving to be all that easy. We have speed humps and other things on the high street that make it very uncomfortable for people, and I hope the Government will examine that.
I will make a final point on buses before I move on to discuss trains. It is about school transport. The Minister will know that I have had meetings with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Baroness Vere on disability-compliant buses in school transport provision. The problem is that a court case last year found that if any child travelling on the buses was a paying passenger, the buses had to be disability compliant; otherwise, they were no longer insured. These are the public service vehicle accessibility regulations, or PSVAR. The issue has been resolved with a temporary fix to exempt buses on which no more than 20% of children are paying passengers. As I have described, a lot of people have to travel a significant distance to get to school, and they do not all qualify for free school transport, for a variety of reasons. On the buses on which the free school transport is run, children who do not qualify for free transport are charged.
The exemption is very welcome. We have had to get a further exemption for buses for faith schools, because the rules around faith schools and free school transport are more complicated, which meant that more of the children on the buses were paying. We have a further exemption for that, and I visited Boydons Coaches in my constituency last week to discuss this issue, but we need a long-term fix. Small operators such as Boydons simply cannot afford to buy a brand new disability-compliant bus. It does not fit with their business model; they need to buy second-hand coaches. They have very smart and nice coaches, but there are no second-hand disability-compliant coaches on the market at the moment. The large coach firms simply did not invest in them at the time they needed to, and I would be very happy to sit down with the Minister and explain the detail of it. It is complicated, but we need a long-term fix so that bus operators can continue in business.
I have said that we do not have a main railway line running through Staffordshire Moorlands, but we do have a line. It was closed during the Beeching era, but it still exists, and many attempts have been made to try to reopen the line. There are a few problems with it. The station in Leek is now a supermarket, so there would need to be investment in a new station. The line unfortunately ends at Longton and does not go on to the main station at Stoke. This is one of the issues facing a city made up of six towns: sometimes the connectivity between those six towns has not been all that good. The line that was closed in the ’60s did not require, at that point, connectivity to the west coast main line, but reinstating a line that did not have connectivity to the west coast main line would be nonsensical. Investment, and probably another platform at Stoke station, would be needed to get a connection and allow the line to work. The line continues from Leek into the countryside and goes as far as Alton, so it could service Alton Towers if it were reinstated.
I want to express a new idea. Instead of thinking, “Well, we have a line. Let’s put some trains on it,” why do we not think about a different form of rail—maybe light rail, or even a tram service? If we could get a quieter electric tram service that operated perhaps as far as Alton Towers, but definitely between Leek and Stoke-on-Trent, it would benefit many of my colleagues’ constituencies. My constituency borders Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent Central, all of which would benefit from a tram line. I wonder whether we north Staffordshire MPs could put on our thinking caps and work out what a light rail service might look like. We have all seen what a difference the Metrolink has made to Manchester.
My right hon. Friend mentioned that her constituency borders all three Stoke-on-Trent constituencies, as does Newcastle-under-Lyme. The tram line could run to Keele University on the same line that was axed in the Beeching era, and then we would have connectivity all the way through from her constituency to mine.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. With vision, we could make something really exciting happen for the whole of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire: we could see connectivity. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is another constituency neighbour of mine and was unable to attend the debate, but he is also very keen for work to be done to address the bus routes. I am sure we could benefit his constituency, too, with some form of electric tram that is clean and quiet and delivers the connectivity that my constituents would greatly value.
I will finish with two more points on transport that are more general to the area. The first is about HS2, which is not really an issue in my constituency because, as I have said, the name “Moorlands” suggests it is hilly. It also means that people do not tend to want to build railway lines through it. However, we need to ensure that connectivity to the west coast main line, Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield station is maintained. We benefit from having two trains an hour from Stoke to London Euston, and one train an hour from Macclesfield. Those are really important services that we need to ensure we keep. It takes an hour and 24 minutes from Stoke-on-Trent station to London Euston, although it may take my constituents another 40 or 50 minutes to get home from Stoke-on-Trent station, because there is no bus service that runs from Stoke-on-Trent station to anywhere other than Hanley bus station, and then they have to change—that is another story. In any work that is done on HS2, I hope we can ensure that connectivity to Stoke-on-Trent is maintained.
My final point is on the M6, which is our nearest motorway, and on the pinch points at junction 15 that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) spoke about. The stretch between junctions 15 and 16 is an issue that needs to be examined. If anybody listens to any travel report at any time of the day, they will almost certainly hear that there are problems on the M6 in Staffordshire around junctions 15 and 16. We cannot widen the motorway at that point, because there are issues with the topography of the area. We cannot make it a smart motorway, because the hard shoulder is not wide enough. When we have smart motorways south from junction 15 and potentially north from junction 16, the stretch between 15 and 16 will just be worse. I ask the Minister to look carefully at what could be done to alleviate the problems, which would benefit all of us in north Staffordshire.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on securing it. There is great consensus among all the north Staffordshire and Stafford MPs about some of the issues and how we need to address them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South ably put it, Stoke-on-Trent is today too car-centric and has too few rail and bus services, no trams and scant provision for cycling. Pedestrians, and town centres themselves, are too often treated as an inconvenience to traffic flow across the city. Places that would once have been market squares or bustling high streets now act instead as mere thoroughfares for vehicular traffic trying to get somewhere else. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South pointed out, we are one city but we are made up of six distinct historic market towns.
I have the great honour to represent Stoke town and Hanley, including the main railway station for the city in Stoke and the main bus and coach station for the city in Hanley. Although the city has taken welcome strides to regenerate Hanley as the city centre, my strong opinion is that it has failed for too many years to make the most of either Stoke town or the Trent, both of which are very close to, and should be an easy walk from, the railway station. I know from talking to residents in Stoke town, and its surrounding suburbs of Penkhull, Boothen, Oak Hill, Trent Vale, Hartshill and Basford, that they have been feeling left out. Well, their voices will be heard through me. It is absolutely essential to go ahead with the works to improve the onward journey to Hanley from the east side main exit of Stoke station. However, the west side exit needs equal attention to connect it properly to Stoke town, thereby giving pedestrians the most direct journey possible via Elenora Street, through the exciting development at Spode Works, on to the heritage high street of Church Street and London Road.
Stoke town is separated from Stoke-on-Trent railway station by eight lanes of traffic and a canal, and pedestrian access is a long and unattractive walk round. That barrier must be bridged—literally—if the strategic aim of increasing footfall in Stoke town is to be realised in full. A pedestrian and cycle bridge needs to be built from the station’s west side entrance, across the road and canal to the side of Stoke town that has suffered most from being cut off from the station. I want to see it as an integral part of the city council’s otherwise excellent transforming cities fund bid, which currently indicates minor improvements to the existing pedestrian route. That means that it will still take more than 10 minutes to walk from Stoke railway station to Stoke town centre.
There are concerns about the cost, of course, but if the Minister would come to Stoke and see how and where a new bridge would fit into the wider regeneration of the west side of Stoke station, she would see how important such a bridge was to making every penny of the scheme work. I note that a similar bridge in Barnsley, if a little less ambitious, is costed at between £5 million and £6 million. Such a bridge in Stoke would have a clear view down Elenora Street towards the old Spode Works, which is being transformed into an amazing, accessible cultural destination, with its museum, hotel, café and workshops. It would be deeply disappointing if, after so much had been invested in Stoke station, it still took the people of Stoke more than 10 minutes to walk to it, as planned. To finance a bridge, there may be room for savings from the current transforming cities fund bid. Local concerns have been raised about the proposed canopy, for example, which would look a bit like the roof of Portcullis House. I would greatly value a discussion with the Department about that.
Fundamentally, Stoke town suffers from the fact that its main square, Campbell Place, was reduced to a thoroughfare of four-lane traffic some years ago. Viable public transport alternatives to the car, including buses, are absolutely vital if we are to reverse the 1960s and ’70s road traffic planning, which has done nothing to help the vibrancy of the town as a place to enjoy, linger and spend time.
The River Trent runs from the north of my constituency to the south, and for most of its length one would not know it was there, yet it could be one of the most pleasant pedestrian routes through the city. The Thames path was once a pipe dream, but its reality shows that it was right to dream big. Equally, there is more to be made of the Trent and Mersey Canal, and branches of it, to provide handy walking and cycling routes through the city. Access could be improved in various parts of the city, and more could be done to separate pedestrians and cyclists at certain pinch points, particularly around bridges. We need to see buses stop in convenient places for joining canal and river paths.
I deliberately say that we need to see buses stop, not that we need to see bus stops. On Leek Road in my constituency, there are already bus stops that could serve the Trent Mill nature park along the River Trent at Joiners Square, but they are no longer in service. Ironically, unlike too many of the bus stops in Stoke-on-Trent, those unused bus stops have shelters. Shelters are very important to bus users, particularly when the clouds burst and we get a dose of the rain that keeps Stoke-on-Trent a green and pleasant city. We need more of them.
In order that more people enjoy the greenery of Hanley Park, I fully support the council’s bid to improve the frequency and reliability of connections to Hanley from Stoke-on-Trent station via College Road, which runs alongside Hanley Park and affords great views of it.
I am really excited by the prospect of being a super-bus city. My constituents are the biggest users of buses in the city, and one third of households in Stoke-on-Trent central do not own a car. We need something radical such as the super-bus scheme to remind people how useful and relevant bus services can be in the transport mix. We should make them attractive for the people who forgo an alternative mode, and sustainable for the people who have no choice but to rely on them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, Hanley used to be served by Etruria station, which was completely demolished and excavated beyond trace under the previous Labour Government, even though private rail companies were willing to run trains there. It was supposedly to speed up services down the west coast main line. Etruria served both Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme. It certainly needed clearer pedestrian routes to the city centre, but it has done no good locally for it not to be there at all. Any funding for a study into restoring the station and improving its strategic function in a seamless public transport system would be very welcome indeed.
I accept that much of the lost North Staffordshire Railway network—the Knotty, as it was known—is unlikely ever to be brought back into service. The old line to Newcastle, for example, has been built on. The most likely contender to reopen is the line from Stoke-on-Trent to Leek via Fenton Manor. In my constituency, it could serve stations at some combination of Joiners Square, Bucknall Park, Abbey Hulton and, at somewhere on the boundary with Stoke-on-Trent north, Birches Head Academy. Going north, it would have stations in Stoke-on-Trent north and Staffordshire Moorlands that a good number of my constituents would be able to walk to: Milton and Stockton Brook. The line would end at Leek, where it would meet parts of the North Staffs Railway that are preserved as a heritage railway through the Moorlands countryside. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) has long supported the scheme, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) favours it too. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has raised it in a previous debate on train services in north Staffordshire, which he referred to earlier.
Having being closed to passenger traffic many decades ago, the line continued to serve as a mineral line until relatively recently. It is mostly overgrown with trees, but the track bed is still there and the route has not been built on, although I understand that there is a legal battle over whether it is a public right of way for walking at the Moorlands end. I will be grateful if the Minister has any update on the contact that the Department has had to find out what the current intentions are on that.
If the Minister is able to accept an invitation to visit the city, I am sure that, between us, we could put together quite a tour of the relevant sites across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. It would be good to highlight the huge potential for honing the plans in the transforming cities fund bid, and achieving a great deal with the money we are asking for. By getting it right locally, we will have our greatest economic impact nationally.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I draw colleagues’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I want to start by reflecting on some of the points made by Members from Staffordshire, and I will then address the wider national picture with regard to transport, and discuss some potential policy solutions to the problems we all face. I found myself nodding in agreement with the points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). I represent an urban seat with many of the same problems, and I am aware of the same issues across the country. Our more rural colleagues suffer different sorts of transport problems, but we often face shared issues.
I want to highlight some points and praise Stoke City Council and the wider thrust of the initiatives that the hon. Gentleman describes. From the Opposition’s perspective, many medium to small-sized cities, and indeed great cities, face the challenge of growing congestion. The Victorian infrastructure means that it is impossible to extend the road network. Indeed, why would we want to, given the potential air pollution and congestion problems? Many towns and cities have problems with buses. I recognise that Stoke and the rural area nearby has particular problems, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently.
Rail connectivity needs to be improved across the country. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need to improve the network’s main arteries and branch lines, and to move the emphasis away from motorways and car-dependent development. That is a huge problem across much of England, particularly in densely populated counties such as those in the midlands and central southern England, where I come from.
I commend the desire of the hon. Gentleman’s local council to reduce bus fares and to provide a more rational system via enhanced partnerships. I gently suggest to him and to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) to talk with colleagues in other urban areas, particularly Reading and Nottingham, which still have municipal bus companies—it is a national model with huge benefits. A number of other authorities follow the model, and I should add that some of them are under the control of political parties other than the Labour party. Low-cost tickets, greater frequency and bus-priority measures are all wise and sensible choices that, when implemented on a bigger scale, will hugely benefit residents across the country.
The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) articulated the rural issues very well. Market towns and rural areas suffer from a lack of connectivity. I can quite imagine, having been to Alton Towers and the Peak District—it was very enjoyable and absolutely beautiful—the problems faced by residents in those parts of Staffordshire given the lack of connectivity. Local tourism is welcome, but it places pressure on local services, which makes it harder for local people to get to where they need to go.
Conservative Members have made some excellent points. I have great sympathy with the situation in Stoke and Staffordshire. My Labour party colleagues and I understand the pressures in both urban and rural areas around the country, and wish ardently to see the problem addressed.
Now that the Government have been re-elected, I suggest to the Minister that more attention ought to be paid to the wider national problem. Hon. Members are absolutely right to discuss the needs of Stoke and the need for more intervention in the market to provide a better quality service for residents. They are quite right to propose improvements in local bus and rail travel as part of a wider series of improvements, such as the bridge across the main road in Stoke, mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Similar investments in other parts of the country have brought enormous benefits to those communities. In my town of Reading, a new pedestrian and cycling bridge over the River Thames has dramatically enhanced access to our town centre, produced huge benefits in public health and got vehicles off very busy roads.
I ask the Minister to look at what the example of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent tells us about the need for changes to national policy. As with other evidence from around the UK, it clearly suggests the need for a rethink and a recalibration of our transport spending. At the moment, we live in one of the most car-dependent countries in the western world, yet we live on a very congested island. As has been mentioned, our physical infrastructure is limited, and none of us would want to see our beautiful British countryside built over with more road. We need to be careful in how we use our scarce national resources and land.
I absolutely appreciate the good point made about the widening of the M6. There are real limits to motorway widening and changes to the road network for greater efficiency. A greater emphasis on other modes of transport is needed, particularly given the common sense point that one bus could take 30 cars off the road, while one train could take hundreds off the road. Then, drivers who really need to get from A to B by car—perhaps they have a delivery business or must take an unusual route—could use the road space more effectively. That would also produce the huge benefit of tackling pollution.
We need to reshape our policy priorities and place less emphasis on road travel by car and more emphasis on public transport. The Minister is a very thoughtful member of the Government—as is her colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), for whom she is standing in—and is only too familiar with the issue of bus travel because we have often discussed it in the past. I urge her to push for more emphasis on buses, which, as has been said, are the main means of commuting—far more than trains—for most people. Buses provide services to many people without cars and to older people and children who may not have access to the family car.
I hope there will be a wider rethink and a move away from car-dependent development, car-based policy and large investment in new A-roads—which take cars from one congested city centre, such as Stoke, to another and do not solve our problems—and towards a greater emphasis on rail and buses. I will outline further some possible policy solutions that may help.
Members from Staffordshire are absolutely right to highlight local problems, but they are part of a wider national picture caused by the decline of bus services across the UK. In England, there has been a 45% cut in bus services since 2010 because of the reduction in subsidies for some services. The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands articulated in particular the severe problem in rural areas, which the Government must consider. Suburban areas are also part of the national picture. In my constituency, routes were affected by cuts to subsidies, and I have had to campaign for that subsidy to be maintained as local authorities face great austerity.
The huge rise in the cost of bus travel is also significant, given that car travel has effectively become cheaper because of the reduction in fuel tax. Arguably, central Government are making the wrong choices. As Government Members opposite articulated so well, the net effect of that policy is to create more traffic in congested centres and nearby market towns and to make it harder for people in rural areas to get to those towns. I hope there will be a rethink on the emphasis placed on car travel as opposed to buses.
We should also consider the current challenges for rail travellers. Travel by rail has become more difficult for many. The cost has risen by about 30% in the past few years and there have been notable problems on parts of the network. I fully understand that the Minister is not responsible for that part of the transport network, but I am sure that she and hon. Members will remember the considerable problems with Northern Rail. In my part of the country, the huge disruption on South Western Railway and other services has caused a great deal of difficulty for many residents. As the Government bed in, I hope they will also look at the relative lack of emphasis placed on rail travel, which, as other hon. Members have articulated so well, takes pressure of roads and allows those who have to drive to do so.
As with bus travel, another part of the solution is to take services back into public ownership. It is interesting that the Minister is smiling rather wryly, because the Department may be about to announce renationalisation programmes for two particular companies whose franchises have failed. The whole system is in crisis and, as the Minister knows only too well, that is very expensive. Bringing those franchises back into public ownership could result in considerable savings for the taxpayer. We estimate that about £1 billion would be saved by bringing all rail services back into public ownership. Nevertheless, bringing back even one or two could result in money that could be better used in other ways on the network.
I will highlight potential policy change for bus travel. Government Members have wisely pointed out the benefit of bus travel as a more effective means for residents to get around, and for rural residents to get into, city centres. I urge the Minister to consider giving all local authorities the power to franchise. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South rightly talked about the enhanced partnership scheme that he and his local authority are trying to develop. If he, as a thoughtful Member of Parliament, really wants to achieve the desired service levels with sensitivity to local needs, I urge him to go further and look at the model of franchising. At present, that may only be used in cities with a Mayor. The Minister is nodding thoughtfully. I hope that she and her colleagues will consider allowing all local authorities to franchise bus services. Stoke residents clearly wish to go in the direction of better, more integrated services that are linked to their local needs. Their local authority wants that, too, so perhaps that is how to improve the situation.
As part of the mix, I strongly recommend the municipal model. Towns and cities with municipal bus services still have a far greater level of bus patronage. My home town of Reading—sadly, we are a borough, not a city, but we have a conurbation of 250,000 people, which is not so dissimilar to large cities in the midlands—has a far greater level of bus patronage than other comparable towns and cities. The same is true of Nottingham. We even have night buses in Reading, and the services on one route run every seven minutes. That can happen because the company, though an independent body, is council-owned. It makes a small profit, and its approach is based on the service needs of the local community.
There is a lot to be said for the municipal approach, and I hope that the Minister, who is becoming only too aware of bus services around the country, will look again at it now that she has been brought back into Government. In particular, she should consider the most successful firms and how they have developed and are of benefit to their communities and their wider rural hinterland. In my own area, Reading Buses runs services as far as London in one direction, and to Henley-on-Thames, Newbury and various other towns in the county. Equally, in Nottingham the service has a wide footprint, and many rural residents beyond the city benefit. The municipal model is worth considering.
I also strongly recommend more capital investment in bus priority measures. I can well believe the issues in Stoke city centre described by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. That is a common problem around the country. A lot of evidence shows that, where services have been successful, such measures have been part of the picture.
I will make one more point about rail. I strongly appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern to restore branch lines in the Stoke area, but it is worth considering the emphasis on both branch and mainline services. There has been a great deal of discussion and debate about High Speed 2, but it remains a clearly thought-through programme which, despite some management challenges and cost issues, could stimulate huge economic regeneration for cities around the country, in particular in the midlands and the north.
I thank the Minister for listening patiently to my various points about bus services. I appreciate Members’ desire to improve services in their area, and I urge Ministers to rethink Government policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, in this incredibly collegiate and productive debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing it and giving me the opportunity to provide some answers that will please both Government and Opposition Members.
In this Chamber, we are all agreed that bus services matter. They are the best way for people to travel, being the cleanest and the cheapest, whether for getting to work or for accessing social services. We are all agreed that buses are our most vital form of public transport system. Fundamentally, too, buses tackle a number of environmental issues on which we are now leading.
We must not forget that 4 billion bus journeys already take place each year. I am no longer the Minister with responsibility for buses—I am standing in for that wonderful Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)—but I am still the accessibility Minister, and people with accessibility issues will always travel on buses first and foremost. We need to ensure that we continue to provide the service. We understand the importance of bus services, not only across the country but obviously in Staffordshire. It is wonderful to speak in a debate where everyone is agreed on how we need to go forward, because that makes solutions a lot simpler for Government to provide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South raised a couple of issues. The introduction of The Knot is a good example of how services can become far more accessible and sexy, especially encouraging younger people to use buses, because it answers some of their problems. The Knot is a multi-operator ticket giving people the flexibility to use any bus, anytime and anywhere across Staffordshire. It sits alongside the Smart multi-operator ticket, which allows passengers to travel on buses provided by different operators across North Staffordshire with just one ticket. Fundamentally, too, there is contactless payment. Busy people and younger customers especially want to ensure that journeys are as easy as possible, and contactless payment is more efficient. National Express West Midlands says that journeys would be speeded up by 10% were people able to use the card in their pocket.
When I appeared before the Select Committee on Transport a while ago, my hon. Friend was robust in challenging me on bus strategy. However, he and I wanted the same thing, and we have got it—we have a win here. First, we have had the announcement of an ambitious and innovative £220 million bus package and, secondly, we are putting together the first ever national bus strategy, which will revolutionise bus services across England.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) will see that we now have a rationale. She can go back to her council and her councillors to say that we now have a path forward with that £220 million and a national bus strategy, which will review all existing funding. Those packages will transform our bus services, especially looking at on-demand services, which are key in rural areas and something that I have always campaigned for as the MP for a rural constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) also spoke passionately about how we ensure that services fit rural areas with fewer passengers but are just as important.
What everyone has been asking about today of course is the super-bus network. That will decrease fares and develop a comprehensive network of bus priority measures to improve the frequency of buses. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell)—already a powerful champion on behalf of his constituents—nailed his colours to the mast. No doubt he will campaign for public transport in his constituency.
Furthermore, £50 million has already been committed for Britain’s first all-electric bus town—everyone has spoken passionately about the environment here—and an extra £30 million has been committed to bus funding to be paid directly to local authorities to improve existing bus services or restore lost ones. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands expressed concerns about limited funding, so I hope that she will be able to go back and mention that too. Expressions of interest have been sought for demand-responsive transport, the all-electric bus town and the super-bus pilot.
Access to public transport is incredibly important for people in rural areas, as I mentioned, so we must not forget the £250 million paid directly for bus services in England via the bus service operators’ grant, which helps local authorities to ensure that the buses are running. Also, £43 million of the bus service operators’ grant is paid directly to local authorities to enable them to fund services that might not provide a financial gain for bus companies. There are a few options there. We have heard that the service is mixed, and that passengers are not getting what they want, which is why MPs are present to champion their constituents. To improve existing bus services, we have that extra £30 million for local authorities and we must not forget the £1 billion spent on concessionary bus passes every year.
What will help most Members in the Chamber is a national bus strategy. It is key that the bus strategy both adopts new technology and promotes cleaner air quality, fitting into our decarbonisation strategy. Since 2010, we have set aside more than £250 million to replace and upgrade buses, meaning that we now have more than 7,000 cleaner and better buses on our roads. Most recently, the electric bus launched at Birmingham airport is incredibly quiet and has USB portals. However, that is not as good as the No. 18 bus, which even has wood-effect flooring—I hope to be able to take a journey on that bus in future.
We can go even further. Decarbonisation and tackling congestion were mentioned by both my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. We must drive down congestion to bring greater economic benefits to the villages, towns and cities that they represent. We hope to lead the world, in particular in driving down emissions and by having the first ever all-electric bus town or city, to which we have already made a financial commitment. When we host the 2020 United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, we can use that prime opportunity to talk about how public transport drives our decarbonisation agenda.
Something that is incredibly important for rural transport is demand-responsive transport, which is about journeys that are taken less frequently and might not be economically viable but are just as vital, especially for rural constituencies. This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford in particular. We are ensuring that funding is available for such transport, so that those services can run for the first few years when they may not be so economical. That is why we have allocated £20 million to demand-responsive transport. I have campaigned for it in my constituency, so if any Member present in the Chamber wishes to talk through how to champion it with their local authority, I am more than happy to do so.
I was asked to be revolutionary, and I hope that I can be towards the end of my speech, but we must remember that we already have a revolutionary Act in place. The Bus Services Act 2017 is crucial in driving down the powers and choices to a local authority. A number of options are already available. The shadow Minister talked about franchising, but there are enhanced partnership options, which are just as valuable in ensuring that buses operate where passengers want them.
On effective partnerships, I was delighted to hear that north Staffordshire has taken full advantage of the Bus Services Act to form a local partnership, but legislation alone is not enough. We need good partnerships between local authorities, parliamentarians and bus operators. It is good to note that every Member is keen to work with other Members, local authorities and bus companies to make that happen. We must not forget the role of bus companies: they must be just as collegiate, open and transparent with local authorities, and provide services in the not-so-profitable areas just as much as in the profitable areas.
Open data is also quite revolutionary. Hon. Members may be surprised to hear that that is not the way the bus services have been run previously, but they need to adopt new technology to ensure that people can jump on a bus without a second thought, and to attract newer, younger passengers, too. Through the bus open data powers in the Act we will go further than before, to open up both routes and timetables early this year and to look at fares data by next year.
Members are keen to ensure that they are doing their bit to secure funding from the transforming cities fund. The Government are investing £2.5 billion to support the development and creation of new and innovative public transport schemes, which will improve journeys and tackle congestion in some of England’s largest cities. Stoke-on-Trent has been shortlisted for an upgrade to its public transport links. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) was spot on; she put forward a fantastic case. At the Department we welcome the business case put forward by Stoke-on-Trent and supported by hon. Members. It will improve connectivity across the region. I am afraid I cannot say anything more right now, but an announcement on the outcome of the process will be announced in the next few months. The strength of this debate will no doubt be recognised when that decision is made.
I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands about alternative forms of mass mobilisation of transport with a low impact that goes beyond buses and trains. I was very keen to hear her proposal to set up a session with fellow Members. I have no doubt that the Department will be keen to hear what they wish to propose, and how that can be taken forward.
Just before I conclude, I want to respond to a few comments made by Members. My right hon. Friend raised the public sector borrowing requirement for school buses, which is something that comes across my desk. Over 98% of buses are fully compliant. I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s anxiety about working with smaller schools and faith schools, but they have had many years of lead time to try to get that right. The temporary exemptions run to the end of July 2020, providing even more time for the sector to become compliant. We must remember that it does not apply if the vehicles have fewer than 22 seats. If my right hon. Friend wishes to meet me or my Department once again—she does so frequently—we can try to explain that a little more. I hope that the new funding that I announce will give her the confidence to go back to her local authority and tell them that new money is on the way. The next time I am at Alton Towers I will pay a bit more attention to the road and the impact that driving with my family has on the village.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who is a great champion for his constituency already, talked about rail, road and buses. The road is a little beyond my remit, but the Department has heard the comments about the road improvements on the A53. It is for the local authority to bring forward proposals. If it requires any support to put the process in place, the Department or I am more than happy to show my hon. Friend, who is a new Member, the ropes.
I must reflect on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, who spoke passionately about the environment. I hope she can relay back to her constituents our commitment to decarbonisation. She mentioned access to Sunday services, the Cannock Road service and loneliness. The bus strategy is embedded into the Government’s loneliness strategy, which I have previously represented across Whitehall Departments. I hope that demand-responsive transport will provide some succour for her constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made a passionate speech about the funds available. Let us hope that there will be positive news. I am not the Minister responsible, but I know that the Minister responsible is very keen to ensure that we are aware of the situation on the ground. I will ensure that the open invitation is relayed to him, and I hope that a visit will be down the line.
I do not know what to say to the shadow Minister, because what he asks for we are delivering. There is over £220 million and a new bus strategy, so maybe a crack of a smile would not go amiss.
I am grateful to the Minister for her pleasant response. I urge her to take heed of the requests to give further powers to local authorities. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) may be disappointed by the outcome of an enhanced partnership, which has not led to improvements elsewhere in the country.
There is always a fly in the ointment. Enhanced partnerships are a positive way forward, but if there is one thing to remind Members and the shadow Minister, it is that services cannot be left to a local authority or the bus operating companies. There must be a collective effort. It was more than obvious from support in the debate that that will take place. I hope that hon. Members will agree that we are moving in the right direction. We are ensuring that public transport is key. The Government are committed to levelling up, making sure that there is equal access to services and employment. That requires good public buses at the heart of all transport, local government and town and cities planning. I look forward to working with hon. Members.
I thank the Minister for her fantastic support for improvements in bus and public transport services across north Staffordshire. I thank all my fellow Staffordshire colleagues for their support in the debate. It is fantastic to hear their perspectives on bus services in their constituencies.
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I just wanted to make the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has been able to make it for the end of the debate. Although he cannot contribute, he is here and is very keen to show his support for my hon. Friend’s debate.
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) supporting the debate.
We have heard some valuable contributions, right the way through from rural issues to the challenges we are facing in our urban areas in the city of Stoke-on-Trent and how we can improve them. We are all united across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire on how we can improve those issues. We want better bus services and public transport in the area, and there is a lot we can do by working with the Department. I am delighted that the Minister is committed to working closely with us to address those issues.
It is essential that we deliver on the transforming cities fund, making sure that we have the full ask of that, so we can deliver on the improvements we need as well as on the super-bus proposals. I think those issues would go a massive way to addressing the challenges we are facing with bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered bus services and public transport in north Staffordshire.
Assisted Dying Law
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the law on assisted dying.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I wanted specifically to examine the law on assisted dying as it stands, given that it affects not just those who want to have some control over the manner of their death, but those closest to them. The current law in this country simply is not working. I hope that we can begin to address today the effect of that law on terminally ill people and their loved ones, and on public servants such as doctors, health and social care professionals, police and coroners. They are all, in different ways, profoundly affected by our laws on assisted dying. I am well aware that this issue is hugely evocative, can involve issues of faith and puts the medical profession in the most difficult of positions. It is also, of course, the most personal, intimate and ultimate of decisions.
Like many people—possibly many people in the Chamber—I have been on a journey over this issue. I am not sure when it began, but I know it started with the point that it was not up to me. I did not know whether I would ever be in the position to have to make the decision, but I knew I had no right to interfere with anyone else. I suppose I could have been described then as a passive supporter, but over the years there have been several landmarks on my journey, to the point that I now see it as incumbent on me—on all of us, particularly all of us here—to ensure that our law is the best and most supportive law we can have, and that it puts the interests, needs and wishes of individuals first.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to be very careful to ensure that old and sick people do not feel a pressure to end their lives, perhaps from their children, who might want to inherit their assets and to whom they may feel they are being a burden?
I fully appreciate that point. That is why I am so concerned that we should have a very narrow and precise definition if we change the law. However, it has been ascertained that a third of patients who request assisted dying and meet the eligibility criteria in Oregon, for example, do not actually take the life-ending medication. They request it as an insurance policy—not because they feel they are being a burden, but because they want to have the opportunity to make the choice themselves.
As I said, there have been several landmarks on my journey to this point. The final one was just a few weeks ago, when I was chatting to a friend. We were talking about nothing in particular, but we decided that when people say, “You only live once,” they are not quite right; actually, you can have many lives. I certainly have, and I am sure many other hon. Members have. I been a journalist, a mother, a university lecturer and a politician, and I hope one day to be retired, but I will only have one death. When my time comes, I would like it to be the easiest possible for me and my family, and I would like to be able to choose for it to come at the end of a happy day.
The first step on my journey was, as I am sure it was for many other people, watching someone I loved go through an experience far from that: a long, painful death, which I still wonder about now, more than a decade later. Could it somehow have been eased? It took me years to come to terms with the emotional conflict between the despair over losing my mother and the relief I felt that she was no longer going through the pain of having her lungs destroyed a little bit every day. I have to be honest: I do not know whether she would have wanted the choice of how or when to end her life. Frankly, there would have been no point even asking, since it is not a choice allowed by the current law here, with its blanket ban, and most people cannot afford the fees to travel to Switzerland or elsewhere.
That is not in any way to criticise the standard of care in our hospitals or hospices in this country. Both provide a marvellous service.
Does the hon. Lady agree that palliative care needs to be better funded? No matter the excellent care that is provided in hospices, it is funded nowhere near well enough. Many areas do not have hospices, and we need to ensure that they are fully funded to meet the need. That would greatly assist people as they face the end of their life.
I absolutely agree. I have also experienced final moments with a loved one who was being cared for in a hospice. They were incredibly well looked after. The whole family was looked after and supported. Changing the law should not under any circumstances mean depriving anyone of the option of palliative care. Indeed, palliative care is as important as a choice at the end of life. Again, it should be available to everyone, and we should support it in any way we can.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. That is something we would have to be aware of, but I believe it is up to us to address it. It is up to the lawmakers and the Government in this country to ensure that we increase our investment in palliative care as a choice. There is that word again: choice. Free will—the ability to choose.
Seven years ago, in another landmark, my belief in that was firmed up by a conversation following a newspaper article I had written. At the time, the late, irrepressible Margo MacDonald was guiding her second, ultimately unsuccessful bid to make assisted dying legal in Scotland through the Parliament at Holyrood. I originally met Margo while I was a young journalist, and her amazing personality and commitment had a huge impact on me. That did not have an impact on my politics, of course—we had very different views—but I recognised in her someone who lived their beliefs and their politics. I had spoken to her while I was writing the piece, and I visited her office afterwards. On this issue more than any other, she had a profound effect on me. It was several years ago now, but that conversation has stayed with me and made me determined to protect the right of the individual—my right; your right—to choose to have the dignity that we want in our final moments. Why should any of us, knowing that we are not going to survive, be forced to endure unnecessary pain?
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I am pleased that she has not brought any legislation before us, because I found this issue very difficult when we last faced it, in 2015. I actively abstained by voting in both Lobbies, and I was told off by the then Speaker for doing so. I get her point that saying goodbye in an airport is not the best thing for people who choose to go to Switzerland, but at the same time I worry about safeguards. This could be exploited as a shortcut if NHS funds are not as we want. Does she agree, at least, that more research is needed? Nothing seems to have happened in Parliament since 2015. We need more evidence before we decide on this.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. That is the purpose of this debate. It is intended to get the ball rolling, look for the evidence, find out what people are afraid of, and consider the safeguards we need and how the law can be improved. We are not going to do that overnight. We certainly are not going to do it today, and I will not suggest any changes today, other than to say that we should look for the evidence and at what people want from the law.
Since this debate was publicised, I have been contacted—I am sure we all have—by a number of constituents. In some cases, they called for caution; in others, they expressed their opposition. However, in very many more, they expressed support. One in particular that I found moving came from a woman who was a palliative care nurse for more than 20 years, and who during that time witnessed numerous examples of the current assisted dying law failing dying people. One example she gave was of a gentleman with motor neurone disease who had a particularly undignified final few months of life. He was cared for at home at first before moving into a hospice, where he clearly expressed the wish that he wanted help to die. The staff had to explain to him and go over the reasons why they could not do that; it simply was not possible.
This gentleman’s motor neurone disease had affected him in such a way that his legs were still working, but he was not able to use the top half of his body. One day, he tried to throw himself down the stairs as a way of ending his life. Despite him fully admitting that he was trying to end his life, some of the staff understandably claimed that he had probably fallen, and that it was an accident. Perhaps they did not want to admit or acknowledge what he had tried to do, because of the position in which the law put everyone, but that gentleman did not get to express his distress about the way he would die or have it addressed as he wanted. I understand he lived for another two months or so before he died in a hospice. I am grateful to my constituent for sharing that story because it highlights the invidious position in which the current law puts everyone.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me that that story highlights a key issue that we are all wrestling with: the capacity to consent? My hon. Friend has made the point clearly that this has to be a choice, and that safeguards must be in place to ensure a person has the capacity to make that choice.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Capacity is important. As I have already said, it is not for me to say what the law should be; I simply ask that we address it, and that we take such points into account. I ask that we look at mental capability to make the decision, at when the decision might be made and at safeguards.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for securing this important debate. Often, when people face debilitating illness or very difficult life events, suicide may come to their minds. Does she agree that at such times, we should provide better mental health support, psychological support and counselling to enable people to come to terms with their feelings and look much more positively towards their abilities and the contribution they make?
I agree that better mental health care should be available at all points in our lives. For every decision that we have to make, we should have support. If we are allowed to look again at the current law and the blanket ban, the question of what mental support exists is the sort of thing we should look at.
As I said, I am grateful to the constituent I mentioned, because that example highlights the invidious position in which everyone is put by the current law and its blanket ban. That includes the patient who knows they are going to die, and who simply wants help to ease their way through it; the medical staff who must not help; and the families who are powerless to support their loved ones, because the law threatens them with criminal procedures.
A recent policy paper considered by the homicide committee of the National Police Chiefs’ Council showed that investigators are frustrated with the current legislation, and that families whose loved ones have had assisted deaths are losing confidence in the police and criminal justice system. Families such as the Whaleys and Ecclestons, who suffered the ordeal of court cases, are perhaps the highest profile examples of how the law fails those who are facing their final days, and fails their loved ones. Sadly, they represent merely the tip of the iceberg.
Dignity in Dying has calculated that every eight days, someone from the United Kingdom travels to Switzerland for an assisted death, with their grieving families often treated as criminals once they return. Every year in England and Wales alone, an estimated 300 people take their own lives because they are faced with a terminal diagnosis and it seems their only option. A great many more are beyond the reach of palliative care, which, sadly, needs more investment, and they die in agony. Perhaps the cruellest thing of all is that this can all be avoided if people can afford it.
The law has created a two-tier system. If someone has more than £10,000, they can travel to Switzerland or elsewhere for the end-of-life care of their choice. It is time to look at whether and how our law can be improved. There is ample evidence that the majority of the public would support a change. According to the most recent surveys, 84% would like to see a change. They want a very narrow and specific change—perhaps that addresses some of the points that have been made—for those in the final stages of a terminal illness who are mentally capable of making a decision, but they do want a change.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. We had a discussion today, and we have very different opinions; clearly, I do not agree with what she is saying. The answer is not legalising assisted suicide. The answer is to help, to support and to be compassionate towards families. Does she acknowledge the good work that is done by many charities, particularly Macmillan, whose compassion and love make the unimaginable a little bit more bearable?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that Marie Curie, Macmillan and other charities do outstanding work. The people who work in hospices up and down the country, and those who provide palliative care in our hospitals, perform an unenviable role and they are beyond reproach. However, it is not my view that people should have only that choice. For me, this is about being able to decide either to have palliative care—it should be there, and it should provide support—or to make another choice. That should be up to the individual, and the law should support them in that. As I said, 84% of people, according to the most recent surveys, would support a change.
As parliamentarians we are here to use our judgment, not simply to represent the views of our constituents. However, 84% of the public are in favour of a change. The last time the issue was voted on, in September 2015, 75% of parliamentarians voted against changing the law. There is concern among the wider public that Parliament may be out of step with the public on this. Does the hon. Lady agree?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it was unfortunate that on that occasion, Parliament took such a different position from that of the country. It is also understandable that the responsibility for making the decision is quite heavy. Many parliamentarians might like to see that change, but the thought of its magnitude perhaps makes them reserve judgment. If parliamentarians spoke to more people; if we had an inquiry and a public debate; if we had the opportunity to hear the views of the public; if we heard from the families of those who wanted to choose how to end their lives but were denied that choice by the law; and if we heard about what that had put them through, perhaps parliamentarians would have the confidence to reflect the public position.
The previous Government hinted at an inquiry into the law. When I asked about it yesterday in a point of order, Mr Speaker himself said that the time might have come for a debate. Perhaps the Minister will take the question of that inquiry back to the Government. Perhaps the time has come to think about whether the law is serving or protecting anyone. Perhaps we should have a public debate, which might allow parliamentarians to judge what is in everyone’s best interests.
I will say one last thing. Some Members may have noticed that there is a word I have not used—one that is normally central to this debate, and that is crucial to the campaigns that are going on outwith Parliament—and that word is “compassion”. That omission is deliberate on my part because, for me, there is no compassion in the law as it stands.
I will turn to the part of my speech that deals with some concerning developments from other jurisdictions that have legalised assisted suicide, as I prefer to call it. In Oregon physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill was legalised 10 years ago. The annual Government report of 2018 stated that more than half of those applying now cite
“fear of being a burden”
as their major end-of-life concern. Far fewer cite pain concerns. Disability groups are extremely concerned about what has happened, for example, in Canada since 2016. In just four years, under the law that has allowed terminally ill people to request assisted suicide and euthanasia, safeguards have been ignored, removed and extended to non-terminally ill people such as those with depression. In July a depressed but otherwise healthy man was killed by lethal injection, despite not being terminally ill. Another man who suffers from a neurological disease actually recorded hospital staff offering him a medically assisted death, despite repeated statements that he did not want to die. Only this week, on Tuesday, there was an article in The Times about three Belgian doctors on trial in relation to the euthanasia of someone reported to have a personality disorder and autism. The family believes that she was depressed but that she did not, as required by Belgian law, have a serious and incurable disorder.
The point to note is that, regardless of the wording of eligibility criteria in legislation, in practice safeguards are often discarded, and vulnerable and depressed people are assisted to end their lives. That applies in all jurisdictions that have legalised assisted suicide or euthanasia. In Canada, where medical aid in dying was legalised in 2016, the superior court of Quebec ruled last September that it was unconstitutional to limit access to medical assistance in dying to people nearing the end of life. That is particularly concerning because, while the ruling applies only to Quebec, the Canadian Government have now committed to changing the MAID law for the whole country, so it will no longer be, as was originally intended, limited to those nearing the end of life.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I realise that time is short. I do not have time to rebut all those arguments, and I will not do so in my speech, but will she address why more and more jurisdictions across the United States, Canada and Australia are changing the law and extending provision, if they think it is not safe?
Actually very few jurisdictions have legalised those issues, and the lessons that we are learning from them need to be learned now, so that more do not do so.
In Canada, for example, the Federal Government are now considering MAID for what they call “mature minors” and people with mental illness. It is easy to see from the example of Canada how quickly assisted dying laws have expanded, removing safeguards and protections for vulnerable patients. Tragically, in Belgium and the Netherlands, where the law allows euthanasia and assisted suicide, the original criteria have already been expanded to include children. Is that really what we want for the UK? Surely we can do better than that.
Rather than assisting vulnerable people to commit suicide, or administering euthanasia, we should be looking to improve palliative care provision and mental health treatment. Much has been done over recent years here in that regard, and more needs to be done. Let us keep our focus on that in this country. Marie Curie estimates that 25% of cancer patients do not currently get the palliative care that they need. That is an issue to which this House should turn its attention. I am pleased to note that Baroness Finlay has introduced a Bill in the other place to do just that—the Access to Palliative Care and Treatment of Children Bill. The UK is a pioneer in palliative medicine and a world leader in palliative care. Let us keep it that way.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing this important debate. I am a humanist and I believe people should have complete autonomy over their own lives. As the Member of Parliament for Luton, South I am well aware of the case of fellow Lutonian Diane Pretty, whose hardship was publicised in 2002. She was paralysed from motor neurone disease and wanted to have agency, to enable her to make the decision on when and how she would die. Her appeal to have her husband David to support and assist her in her decision to die with dignity was rejected, and he was threatened with a significant jail sentence if he did. Diane’s case, and others since, show the glaring failure of current legislation. It creates an ultimatum whereby law-abiding people have to choose between supporting those they love and following the law.
It is vital that we seek to reform the current law. However, that is not to say that every example of assisted dying legislation has been successful. As has been said, we must consider how to prevent slippage and avoid a transition towards a lax law that would allow assisted dying without sufficient safeguards. Assisted dying should be an option for those who are terminally ill, and we must ensure that any legislation is not used as an alternative to effective palliative care. We have the tools to look into creating a narrow law that includes robust legal and medical safeguards, and to enable terminally ill people to have choice and access, and to have control of how they die. If we look to legislate to maximise the quality of life at the end of life, I am sure that that reform will represent a vast improvement and put an end to prolonged suffering and criminalisation.
We can guarantee only two things. We are born and we will all die, but why should someone suffer unimaginable pain to reach the point of death, when we have capabilities to allow those who are of sane mind to choose to die with dignity, and on their own terms?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing the debate and speaking so powerfully at the outset about why it is important that we are having this discussion. It is safe to say that politicians are opinionated people, with an opinion on just about everything under the sun. However, on this topic I am genuinely undecided. In my short contribution I want to talk about that conflict, which I think is felt by many right hon and hon. Members. I want to thank the Members who have so far made contributions, which have been incredibly interesting and have provided helpful insights. Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh West I also thank those of my constituents, on both sides of the argument, who have contacted me so far to express their validly held views, no matter what they were.
The battle that I am having is between two sets of principles that I think both fit well with my party, but also fit with my world view. One of them is my belief in the sanctity of human life, and my concerns about having adequate safeguards in place, and the possibility that they could be abused if a Bill were passed. I have a background in the NHS, and I am concerned that the Hippocratic oath that health practitioners take creates a very damaging conflict for them. Of course, the primary goal for all of us is to heal and improve our lives. Even with a sign-off from two separate doctors, can we really adequately say that we can protect people—that we can prevent people from feeling as if they are a burden? What test should we apply to mental capacity? How can we guarantee that mistakes will never be made about something as final as ending a life? As we have already heard, surely it is important to refocus our energies on finding cures and improving palliative care.
On the other side of the argument, however, there is something that I struggle with. When there is no chance of recovery and no quality of life at all, it seems almost cruel to let someone live with that and prolong their suffering for no reason. That represents to me the principle that people should be the masters of their own destiny, and that every individual should have the ultimate decision on everything that affects their life, including their death. So while I may not be any closer to deciding what Lobby I would walk through if the issue were to be brought to the House in the form of a Bill, I hope that any such Bill would recognise the need for adequate safeguards. If no Bill is introduced, I hope that we shall have a national discussion about how we move forward. Clearly, the status quo is not working, and we need to have a discussion about how we talk about and deal with the end of life.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I do so not only as the Member for Bristol South, but as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for choice at the end of life.
I want to pick up the discussion where we left it at the end of the last Parliament. We were hoping for a call for evidence and to have some discussion with the Government on that. The Government said that they would continue the debate but were not currently persuaded. We can indeed debate, but ultimately only the Government can make a call for evidence; only the Government have the power to gather evidence. Only this Government can show their own compassion and demonstrate to the people of this country that compassion is not a crime.
I was privileged last year to welcome Geoffrey and Ann Whaley to the House to talk about their experiences. I do not have time today to repeat their stories, but people like Ann Whaley and Adam and Kate Wellesley are still being investigated by the police. They dreaded that knock on the door, which did come. Police officers are required to intrude on a family in the last days and weeks before the loss of their loved ones. I therefore welcome the debate that is now happening within policing. It was surfaced by Ron Hogg, a police and crime commissioner, and many police and crime commissioners are now also asking for a review of the evidence. Ron sadly died in December, but that was a powerful call about how the law is currently impacting on policing.
The current law does not offer protection. Assisted deaths are very rarely investigated. Illegal and unregulated voluntary euthanasia happens now. Current end-of-life practice is, if anything, less safeguarded than assisted dying and it is just as ethically challenging. Who decides whether someone should be sedated until death? How do doctors check that someone is not being coerced into refusing treatment? Is it right to support someone to starve and dehydrate themselves to death? I do not think so. If assisted dying laws are not proven to work, why are more and more being introduced rather than the existing ones being overturned?
My own interest in this area came from my time working in the NHS with clinicians talking to people about how to live and die. I found that it is often no one’s job to talk to people about dying, and it is very lonely for those people. Despite the care from the NHS and our brilliant hospices, 17 people a day—
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; I appreciate that time is short. It is interesting that we are in a place that deals with finalities—death and taxes—yet we never have a wider debate about what death is. As a GP, I speak to people all the time, and it is very difficult to raise the subject of death. Fundamentally, as a society, we need to be talking about what death actually is, because it is inevitable. That inevitability means that we have to answer some of these questions. Does the hon. Lady agree with me that that may well be the best place to start to move the discussion on?
I wholeheartedly agree and am grateful for that intervention from a clinical perspective, because what the hon. Gentleman describes is also my experience. Around the world, the current law does not protect the doctor-patient relationship and people are not having those honest conversations. The law does not allow the doctor to really talk to people about end-of-life choices, because people are frightened that their intention to perhaps go to Switzerland will result in someone being fearful of breaking the law.
I am not sure what the Government’s response will be today. I hope that the Minister can respond with compassion for people who are desperate for some recognition of the way the current law is not working. We cannot keep ignoring that. Asking families to retell their stories only perpetuates the trauma that they are going through. Families will keep coming forward, and their experiences are shocking—heartbreaking. For me, representing the constituency of Bristol South, the fact that only people who have between £10,000 and £15,000 spare can access safe care—in Switzerland—is equally shocking.
Is the law working now? No, it is not. Are people safer now? No, they are not. I am disappointed not to have more time to go into why that is the case. That is why, beyond the debate today, we need a review of the current law and how it is working. People need to have time to review the law. It is not working for families at the moment, and I hope that the Government will meet me and others who would like to discuss how a review might work in practice.
It is estimated that some 400 people have taken their lives in the last year as a consequence of having a terminal illness. In the Netherlands, however, the service that provides assisted dying has assisted some 21,000 persons to take that route. With our proportionately larger population, are we prepared for the trajectory of increase in this phenomenon that will fundamentally change the nature of the medical profession when the clinician who brings healing is also the clinician who brings death?
The Royal College of Physicians has in the last year changed its position from one of opposition to this proposal to one of neutrality. When it took the vote of its members, more than 43% voted to maintain opposition, only 31% voted to change that to support, and 25% voted for neutrality. The college is in the absurd position of now supporting the position that was voted for by the smallest number of its members.
I have every sympathy for those who find themselves in the most awful position of having a terminal diagnosis with every prospect of an unpleasant and undignified end. They face the dilemma of whether to make the choice that has been spoken of or delay it to a moment when they may have lost the capacity to make that choice. It is a terrible position to be in, but there is no lever that we can pull to remove every aspect, every possibility, of human misery. If there were a lever, I am sure we would pull it. However, my belief is that the lever that is available to us will end up being something much, much worse. What will begin as a choice will end as an expectation. After all, Sir Graham, you would not want to be a burden, would you? Would you not actually want to follow the example of Uncle Quentin, who saved us all so much anguish and expense?
This possibility may begin with mercy killing—it ends with Logan’s Run.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing this important and sensitive debate. Like, I am sure, other MPs, I have received a good number of emails on this subject. Many asked me to speak in favour of assisted dying, and many asked me to speak against it.
It is of huge regret to me that previous debates on such a sensitive and, for many people, deeply personal issue have become such polarised “for and against” discussions. Those who are for it refer almost exclusively to the need for people to be empowered while they still have the capacity to take the decision, so that they do not have to suffer an undignified and painful death. Those against raise concerns about the safeguards.
During the election campaign, I met a couple who pleaded with me not to vote for assisted dying. They told me about their disabled child, a child born disabled and with a life-limiting disease. She was predicted to live only a few years, but despite medical predictions, she has lived for many years and become a happy and joyous little girl. They told me about their fears that a permissive law on assisted dying could have been used to end her life even before she had had a real chance to start it. As a disability rights campaigner myself, I know that those living with a disability, or with experience of disability in their family, must be heard.
Both sides quote polls and “evidence”. One side says that it has the medical community on its side; the other says that it has police enforcement representatives on its side. For my part, I agree that the current state of the law is letting some people down, but everything that I have read over the years and recent representations from particular constituents mean that I say this with caution. As a new MP, I honestly do not know which way I would vote if there were a vote tomorrow, and I believe that scores of other MPs are in the same position as I am. And it is precisely because I do not know which way I would vote that I am in total agreement with this motion. For all of us as MPs and for the House as a whole to take an informed view, there must be an independent inquiry, so that we can take an evidence-based approach to the impact of the current law and enable those who would be most affected to be properly heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing this important debate. As we always do in such debates, we have heard passionate contributions from all sides, with Members speaking from personal experience and discussions with constituents. I suspect I am no different from most Members inasmuch as members of my family have died from cancer; indeed, both of my parents did. My views are shaped to a considerable extent by my belief that life is sacred and God-given.
There will be those who will immediately say, “Why should you impose those views on the rest of society?” In actual fact, society is based on religious values—we might not think of them as religious, but that is certainly the case—and those values have shaped the law. The law must ultimately determine matters of this kind. I mentioned my parents. My mother died in a hospice, and I saw the change from the care she received prior to going there; likewise with my father. Our views are inevitably shaped by such personal and difficult circumstances.
Like the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), I offer a few reflections, rather than a clear direction because it would be difficult to decide how to shape a law that could cover all possible circumstances and justify a change. I do not think we can justify change at the moment, not just because I am personally opposed to it but because, as was mentioned, it would change the relationship between doctor and patient. We should treasure that relationship. Rather than opening the door to assisting us to die, patients—all of us—need to have confidence that our medical professionals are striving to keep us in good health and alive.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. It is notable that most professional organisations favour the current arrangements, although, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) said, one of the royal colleges now has a neutral stance. That is regrettable. The key thing is that any change in that direction is a signal that society places a lesser price on the value of life.
My plea to those who favour change is to consider the relationship between the doctor and the patient, how we could frame a law that covered all circumstances and whether we would be taking a further step towards euthanasia. Society is moving towards a position where it might accept assisted dying, but the big danger is what could be the next step after that.
I should declare that my daughter is an end-of-life nurse at the Marie Curie hospice in Belfast and my wife is a volunteer fundraiser for that organisation.
We will each have experience of a friend or dear loved one facing the end of life. Each of us can recount circumstances, some of which will be peaceful, some less so, some shocking and some sudden. In the midst of life we are in death. We do not continue on here—this is not our permanent resting place—and that is a shock to some people. I agree with the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) that we should have a national conversation, because people wish to exclude discussion about faith and non-faith in the midst of this. Palliative care should also be part of that discussion.
Ninety per cent. of us who walked into the building today probably did not realise that we walked under a portrait of Moses carrying the ten commandments. The top one says, “Thou shalt not kill”. We are debating at what point we shall kill. The House debates it many times. Should we kill in the womb? Should we kill at the end of life? When should we do it? We have to take those tough, critical decisions, and sometimes the House gets it wrong. We should not get it wrong on this occasion.
We should not set a position on when is the right time to kill someone who is sick. We should be asking the positive, strong question: how much palliative care and support can we give people at the greatest point of need? What question does the House face? It should be about what we do to give hope, not what we do to continue with the heartache. We parliamentarians should be prepared to offer hope to people, not to say, as others have said, “You’re now a burden. It’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil.” We should be giving hope to people.
We should also not be discouraging those involved in palliative care—the doctors and nurses who train so hard to give their all. My father, my brother-in-law and my father-in-law have been in these circumstances, and I have known the people who were around them, caring for them. To be able to work with and talk to those people afterwards gives us emotional support. Therefore, in that conversation—“What is life? Where does it end and when should it end?”—we need those people to take us through that journey and not to give up. We should not be giving up on life. We should not be asking Parliament to create a law that says, “Now is the time to tell people it’s time to get off.” We should be supporting people to the very end, giving them palliative care and putting the money and resources into making that happen.
To discuss matters of life and death, and of choice and obligation, is to recognise the gravity of one’s role as a Member of Parliament. It is also to grasp the very essence of our moral conviction, while upholding our calling to represent the wishes of the people by whose wisdom we find ourselves here. To consider measures relating to assisted dying demands not just the fullness of empathy but the totality of our intellect.
My constituent Phil Newby is in a battle with motor neurone disease. Phil has pursued his right to die through the High Court. It stated that it was not the proper forum to discuss the matter but that Parliament is rightly responsible for deciding on issues of such fundamental importance. I have been struck by Phil’s considered and measured case, and it sits with us to make a decision.
The crux of the matter is to recognise the terror and the agony there must be in having your body turn on you, with it racking you with pain or torturing you. Those suffering debilitating terminal diseases are being robbed not just of life but of death. To come to terms with one’s own death and to depart this life in peace and dignity is a privilege that we as a society should endeavour to extend, not to limit. What is more, those facing such daunting circumstances may wish to take the decision into their own hands. I support a change in the law, but it must be the right change with the right safeguards.
Many doctors hold that assisting in death is a violation of their professional oaths and a desecration of their ethical responsibilities. For that reason, any legislation must protect the conscience rights of healthcare professionals and ensure adequate protections for them.
While I support a change in the law, it must be limited, be done after widespread governmental and non-governmental consultation, and balance the rights of those seeking dignity in dying with our obligations to protect the most vulnerable and the rights of healthcare practitioners. As many have said, we must also improve palliative care. I do not believe we face a binary choice. We can and must balance empathy and science not just for our sake but for Phil and everyone in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing the debate.
The status quo is not sustainable. It puts the Director of Public Prosecutions in a difficult position, and that is no way for such an important matter to be handled in law. It is for us to make the law. Whatever we do, we must do something, because the current situation is not sustainable. It is not fair on family members who are investigated and left on bail. The evidence is that the public are willing to look again, and are willing us to look again, for the reasons already given, including compassion and dignity. I do not think there is much dignity in what people have to go through to obtain an assisted death. Another reason, perhaps, is our changing attitudes to faith. There are more people without faith or whose faith is less orthodox than it was in the past.
Like the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), I am new here. Hon. Members who have taken part in previous debates have told me that those debates changed their minds. I recognise that exact safeguards will be difficult to agree and that if a Bill is introduced, we would have to consider them all carefully.
To conclude, although I am instinctively predisposed towards a possible change in the law, I remain open-minded. Therefore I welcome a Government-backed inquiry as an important first step.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on what she said and the way in which she has framed the debate.
There is no doubt that opinion is moving. I myself have changed my mind completely since I arrived in this place 33 years ago. My wife is a senior an NHS GP of some 40 years standing and, after many years of opposition, she has also changed her mind. Public opinion is moving. We should put at least some of that down to the work that has been done in the House of Lords, in particular by Lord Falconer. He has deftly aired the legal, moral and emotional issues, which has led to a majority of the House of Lords being in favour of changing the law. This place has been 75% against changing the law, but there are signs of things moving, which is a good thing.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), I am new here. I paid my way through university by working in a care home for old people. Those people were my friends and I witnessed them screaming in pain and agony, asking for a death that nobody was able to give them. Unfortunately I have also witnessed family members trying, if I can put it in northern tones, to bump them off for the money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any proposed legislation has to protect against that absolutely? That would be key to my decision.
I thank my hon. Friend and I hope we will hear much more from her. She expresses the dilemma on both sides of the argument extremely well. For the first time in 33 years I have drawn a place in the private Members’ ballot, although somewhat low down, so I am unlikely to trouble the scorers much. I am considering, and am talking to constituents about, the possibility of promoting a Bill for assisted dying, but the balance of the argument is as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West set out and an inquiry would be the right approach.
Perhaps it is a factor of age, Sir Graham, that over recent years you and I have seen more of our friends, families and constituents facing the dilemmas that this debate is examining. It seems to me that it is not for lawyers and judges to make these decisions, which is a point that has been eloquently made this afternoon. It is for us to wrestle to with our consciences, as a number of colleagues have said. We should do that. I can think of constituents, friends and family who, at the end of their lives, I have watched with the deepest concern and misery, and have reflected that we would not allow a family dog or a wild animal to be treated in the way in which they inadvertently ended up being treated. With all the protections that must, of course, be required, we need to wrestle with this issue.
When I feel that it is the time to go, I want to be able to choose the manner in my own way. I want that decision to be available to my constituents as well and, above all, I want it to be their decision and not the decision of the state.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing this important debate and on her excellent contribution, which eloquently summed up the issues on both sides of the argument.
When Parliament voted on this issue in 2015, I was a new MP and was invited to various debates on the subject. A local bishop invited me to a parish church to talk to the congregation about assisted dying. He knew I was in favour of it, as I still am today. We debated the issues and were asked questions about what we proposed. I was surprised, as was the bishop, that the vote at the end showed that 80% of the people there were in favour of assisted dying. There were only about 20 people present, so it is not a representative sample.
That concurs with the public view. According to the Dignity in Dying survey, 84% of the public are in favour of assisted dying. Therefore, it is perhaps surprising that in 2015 some 75% of parliamentarians were against it. We have to be careful when we are that far out of step with the general public, as we have seen before with the Brexit debate. I was one of 22 Members on the Conservative side of the fence who voted in favour of assisted dying, and I think the Minister also voted for it. It is great to see so many new Members speaking today and sitting in the Chamber. I have a feeling that may mean that the balance of opinion may have changed in recent months.
During the election campaign I lost my mother. Her final hours were difficult, particularly when she was having some fluid taken off her lungs. It was difficult for us as relatives and for other people on the ward, as she was on an open ward and she had to have a number of surgical treatments to clear the fluid off her lungs. It was very distressing. I simply do not see why someone should have to go through that in the final hours of their life. I contrast this to the way we treat family dogs, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said in his excellent speech. Our dog, Ben, was put down. He was perfectly healthy apart from a hip problem, but that meant we had to put him down. My wife, four children and I gathered around him as a family, and he had a very peaceful end to his life.
Would what the hon. Gentleman is describing take place if more resources were put into palliative care? If that happened, precedence would be given to the care, expectation, love and compassion that Members so desperately want to see, not just for themselves but for their loved ones and their families.
That is a good point. I am not against more resources for palliative care, but I am in favour of choice. I think people should have the choice. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who is doing much work in this area, made a brilliant speech in the 2015 debate on assisted dying. In his phrase, we should have “the dominion over” our bodies.
My father was a brave and strong man who built double-decker buses all his life. I lost him when I was 18 and I remember from my youngest years that his gravest fear was being trapped in his strong body and not being able to communicate. The father of one of my best friends in the world was the first person to be diagnosed with locked-in syndrome. It is about choice and being able to have some sense of control over the body, and about deserving to have that choice.
I absolutely agree. I do not wish to impose my views on any citizens as to how they choose to end their lives, but I do not want anyone else imposing their perspective on the way I might choose to end my life in difficult circumstances.
Of course we have to have checks and balances. In my professional life, outside this place, I have dealt with a number of cases where there have been rapacious relatives. Where there is a will, there is a relative. We know what these things can be like, so we have to have checks and balances. Given that so many other jurisdictions have dealt with this issue and introduced legislation to allow assisted dying, an inquiry must be able to learn from the best of other jurisdictions, develop best practice and ensure that we get this absolutely right. We should do what the public expects us to do and bring forward an appropriate law on assisted dying that is fit for purpose.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for whom I have great regard, but whom I disagree with fundamentally. I shall explain why in a few moments.
One of the most difficult things to come to terms with in life is the fact that it is temporary—one might say, in the great span of human existence, almost momentary. It is also difficult to come to terms with the fact that each and every life is punctuated by despair, pain, loss and disappointment. All our lives will have a share of that, and some lives have more of it than others. That is a sad fact.
In our age, it seems very unpalatable to people that that should be so. We have been encouraged, perhaps by the world we live in, by media, popular culture or the exchange of ideas, to think that lives can be made ideal, perfect, cushioned and so forever comfortable, but it is just not like that. I say to everyone in this room that if they live long enough, unless they are taken in some dramatic or sudden way, they will become weak and wizened, frail and faltering, because that is what ageing does.
Although life, as I have described it, is momentary, each moment is precious. The life of profoundly disabled people is precious, and the life of those weak, wizened, sick and infirm people is precious. Every life has value and every life ultimately ends. If that is unpalatable, then so be it, because that is the contextual reality that this debate is considering.
Of course, it is true that people on both sides of this argument want to do right by people in difficult circumstances; they are motivated by compassion. Several people have said that they are conflicted because of that. But in the end, the truth is that it is compassionate most of all to care, to protect and to prevent where we possibly can. That is the ultimate compassion: coming to terms with the temporary nature of life and the pain that I have described, and then exercising that kind of care.
It is easier to end lives. I would not for a moment accuse anyone in this Chamber of this, but there are those who, perhaps because of their bourgeois sensibilities, find it difficult to accept what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) says: that there are people who would take advantage and who would see this as a route to do very cruel and unkind things—not to exercise compassion, but the opposite. She described it more graphically as bumping people off; I will put it slightly differently. Some of those people would say, “You are a burden, Mother.” Mother would reply, “Do you think I really am? Am I causing you difficulty? Am I causing you disturbance and distress? Wouldn’t it be better, now that I have reached this great age, to go?”
If there is any prospect of one vulnerable person dying as a result of this change who would not otherwise do so, it is not a chance that, as a legislator and a parliamentarian, I am prepared to take. Indeed, it is not a chance that any other Member of this House should be prepared to take. The current law may not be perfect—what law is?—but I say that we should stay where we are, for anything else could be considerably more dangerous, damaging and, in the end, frightening.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing this very important debate. Although I may not personally agree with her conclusion, as many of us across the House do not, I must credit her with having set out a passionate and robust case, both this afternoon and in her recent article.
I thank other hon. Members for attending—certainly, for a Thursday afternoon, this is probably one of the largest attendances I have seen in this Chamber—and for their own moving and thought-provoking contributions. We have heard many moving and personal accounts. Many of our thoughts and beliefs, and much of what drives our opinions, on this important topic come from our own personal experiences and stories. In this debate and the debate last year, hon. Members spoke powerfully of friends and family members at the end of their lives, or of constituents at the end of theirs. Bound together with our mortality and the fact that some day each of us here will pass on, hoping to do so as peacefully as possible, those experiences are what make this such a personal and hard-hitting issue.
Across the Opposition, across the Chamber and indeed across the country, as we have heard, we are split on the issue of assisted dying, with clear arguments advocated on either side of the divide. For those advocating a change in the law on assisted dying, important and pertinent points have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Time does not permit me to go through contributions from each hon. Member, but one of the first arguments put forward is that of personal liberty—that relaxing the law would grant an individual control over their own death when it would otherwise be cruelly taken away from them by a terminal illness; and that it would allow them to end what is often incredible suffering, which leaves them with little to no quality of life and forces others to watch helplessly, witnessing the decline of their friend or relative right in front of them. We have heard some very personal experiences of that here today.
The argument that to legalise assisted dying would also spare loved ones the fear of conviction for their compassion, as we have seen with a number of cases such as those of Zoë Marley and Mavis Eccleston, has also been put forward. It will continue to be, for I doubt whether anyone here, regardless of what our views may be, really wants to see an elderly grandmother or others prosecuted for honest acts of compassion. That is joined by an argument that adequate safeguards could be applied to prevent abuses of the process and protect vulnerable people, with several examples of countries and states that have legalised assisted dying put forward as a model for the UK to copy.
However, for every argument made in favour of relaxing the law on assisted dying, a counter-argument is advanced, as it has been by hon. Members in this and previous debates. Those who oppose change point out that legalising assisted dying could lead to an abuse of the system and to pressure being applied, even unintentionally, to those suffering from terminal illness. They may feel that they are, or will become, a burden on their friends, family and carers, leaving them, in their eyes, with no real choice but to end their own life in a selfless act to spare others. That point was made by a number of hon. Members.
Hon. Members also raised the point that to relax the law on assisted dying now would slowly allow an escalation in what is allowed, creating a slippery slope whereby the eventual outcomes are far beyond the reality originally imagined by those who advocate for change. They argued that assisted dying would put immense pressure and stress on doctors and families, and even on individuals themselves.
Some of the phrases that my hon. Friend has used are used across the world, although there is no evidence for many of those things—for example, that there is a “slippery slope”. Does that not reinforce the idea that, whatever people think, if we can persuade the Government to look at the call for evidence, we can air these issues publicly and get the real evidence in a process that the public, and all who participate in such care, can recognise as rigorous? That call for evidence is the real thing we should be focusing on.
I thank my hon. Friend for being a strong and passionate advocate in this area. I think the whole House will acknowledge her work on this subject. A call for further evidence or an independent inquiry can only be of assistance to the broader debate. We cannot forget that the ethical and practical issues, and the threat of a slippery slope, have left even medical professionals reluctant to back any changes to the existing legislation on assisted dying.
Despite the clearly differing views in the House and in society, we are united on the principle that everyone should be able to pass on in peace, surrounded by family, friends and fond memories. That brings me to palliative and end-of-life care for those with terminal conditions, for at the heart of this debate is the matter of dignity. Indeed, much of the argument in favour of assisted dying is about the real fear faced by those approaching the end of their lives that they will lose control, that they will have their dignity taken away from them and that they will suffer in pain in their final days, weeks and months.
Sadly, for too many, that fear becomes a reality as insufficient palliative and end-of-life care, too much variation in practice and poor management of symptoms leave those who are at the end of their lives, and their friends and families, suffering unnecessarily. As I pointed out last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that there was considerable scope to improve the way that care is designed and delivered for those reaching the end of their lives, and that the experience faced by such people can still be poor, with medical and care staff sometimes failing to recognise that people are dying and failing to respond to their needs appropriately.
The IPPR also found that too few people were offered the opportunity to end their lives in the comfort of their own home, surrounded by their friends and family, and not in a hospital, surrounded by strangers fighting for every last breath. While talking about the pros and cons of relaxing the law on assisted dying—the arguments for and against—we must talk more about how palliative and end-of-life care is not nearly as good as it should be, and how that drives so many people to consider taking their own lives.
Time not permitting, I will sum up. I firmly agree—this is probably not a statement I will make often—with the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who stated in response to questions in a previous debate on this issue that this is a matter of conscience and must be decided by Parliament. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) indicated, for a matter to be considered properly, we must be properly informed and have as much information as possible.
I outlined my personal view at the beginning of this speech, and I believe that this is a matter of conscience that must be decided by the whole of Parliament. However, I hope that we can address some of the real issues at the heart of the debate—insufficient palliative and end-of-life care, and allowing those who are reaching the end of their lives to die peacefully and painlessly.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing the debate on such an important and profound topic so early in the new Parliament, and on the sincerity and compassion of her speech, which I know everybody here will have listened to very carefully indeed.
Whatever one’s personal view on this issue, there is no question but that Members on both sides of the argument hold strong and powerful views, which we heard expressed today with great sincerity and compassion. I thank everybody who took part in the debate. I particularly thank the new Members, who spoke with such thoughtfulness and conviction, as well as the more experienced Members, who offered their views as well, which are equally important. The debate has been an example of Parliament at its best, as we weighed up these deep and profound questions—weighing up, on one side of the argument, the sanctity of life, against, on the other side, the principle of personal choice. Few topics are deeper or more profound than those.
It may be worth my laying out the legal background to the question before us, which has not really been touched on; it is probably worth reminding ourselves of the current legal landscape. The current law on assisted suicide in England and Wales is governed by section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, which gives a blanket criminalisation of the offence, including by “encouraging or assisting” suicide. There are no exemptions from that in statute. In Northern Ireland, there are similar statutory provisions. In Scotland, there is no statutory criminalisation of assisted suicide, but it is prosecuted as a culpable homicide, so the effect in Scottish law is, broadly speaking, the same. The law as it currently stands across all parts of the United Kingdom is that assisting or even encouraging somebody to commit suicide is a criminal offence.
The application of the law, and prosecutions for anyone suspected of assisting or encouraging suicide, is subject to prosecution policy—whether the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, or the Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland, decide to prosecute. In making a prosecution decision, with this offence as with any other, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions apply two tests. One is an evidential test: is there evidence that the offence has been committed? Secondly, there is a public interest test: does it serve the public interest to pursue a prosecution?
I was about to come on to precisely the figures that the hon. Gentleman refers to. Before I do, it is worth reminding the House of the current prosecution policy. It was set out substantively in February 2010 and revised somewhat in 2014. Clause 43 of those Crown Prosecution Service guidelines sets out a number of conditions that will make it more likely that a prosecution serves the public interest.
However, clause 45 lays out six conditions that will make a prosecution less likely, including: first, that the person who has died reached a voluntary, clear and settled decision; secondly, that the accused was motivated by compassion; thirdly, that the nature of the assistance or encouragement was minor; fourthly, that the accused had tried to dissuade the person dying from pursuing that course of action; and fifthly, that the matter had been properly reported to the police. If those conditions are met, the Director of Public Prosecutions would be less likely to bring a prosecution—not completely unlikely, but less likely. The judgment as to whether a prosecution serves the public interest is an independent question for the Crown Prosecution Service, or the Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland.
The Minister is actually setting out—I was going to deal with this in my speech had I had longer to contribute—that the existing circumstances, far from being rigid, are very flexible. The guidance exercised and the discretion used allow a good deal of latitude in the circumstances he describes. That is a good case for not changing the law.
I will in a moment. I seek simply to set out, for the House’s benefit, a factual description of the current circumstances. I will first respond to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), before coming to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell).
As with any offence, there is a measure of CPS discretion as to whether the prosecution serves the public interest, but of course somebody who is in the unfortunate circumstances that we have been discussing today does not have any certainty, because they cannot be certain how the Director of Public Prosecutions will exercise their discretion.
Let me just go through the numbers, before I respond to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield; I think that it is worth my setting out some facts and some numbers for the House’s benefit. Between April 2009 and July 2019, the police referred 152 cases related to this issue to the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales; I regret that I do not have the figures for Scotland. Of those 152 cases, 104 cases were not proceeded with by the CPS; 29 cases were withdrawn by the police; three cases were prosecuted successfully; one case was prosecuted unsuccessfully, which is to say that it went to court but the jury acquitted; three cases remain outstanding; and eight cases led to prosecutions for a different criminal offence. So, just as a matter of fact—I am not expressing an opinion, but simply stating a fact—only three of those 252 cases, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said earlier, resulted in a successful prosecution.
Now I will of course give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield.
What is so interesting about this issue is that I drew entirely the opposite conclusion to what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said in his intervention. The conclusion that I drew was how uncertain this situation makes it for anyone put in this position, and how having to wait for a decision to be made at a time of great stress and misery in their life is so very wrong. That shows, I submit, that there are deeply felt views on both sides of this debate, and that it is for this House—this Parliament—to reach a conclusion.
I am very grateful. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that there is a difference between assisted dying and committing suicide? If I was faced with a terminal illness that I did not want to go through, I would happily choose for my life to be ended through the relevant medical procedures. However, I would not want to commit suicide, because I would not want my children to think that their father had committed suicide; I would not want them to live with that. So I think there is a complete difference between these two different ways of someone ending their life.
I thank both my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for their very thoughtful interventions.
Perhaps I might just turn to the question of end-of-life care, hospice care and palliative care. Many Members on both sides of the argument, and indeed the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), have referred to the importance of these types of care. I think that one thing we can all agree on is that, regardless of our position on the question of assisted dying or assisted suicide, proper provision of hospice and palliative care is essential; belief in the importance of palliative care is unaffected by and unrelated to one’s position on assisted dying. So it is very important that we ensure that those provisions are properly in place.
I am pleased to report that in 2015 the UK was ranked top out of 40 countries in terms of what is called a quality of death index, which is based on palliative service provision, access to opioids for pain relief and a national strategic approach. Very few countries have levels of integration of palliative care within wider health services similar to ours, so the UK leads the world in the quality of palliative care and end-of-life care.
In 2016 the Government brought forward the end-of-life care choice commitment. We have set out plans to improve patient choice significantly, by ensuring that more adults and children can die in the place of their choice, be it at home, in a hospice, or in hospital. End-of-life care is a key priority for the NHS, and in its long-term plan we have set out key actions to improve the care of people at the end of their life, including a £4.5 billion new investment to fund expanded community teams, which will provide rapid targeted support to those with the greatest need, including those at the end of life. Hospices are vital, and as recently as last August the Prime Minister announced £25 million of additional funding for hospices and palliative care. So Members should be in no doubt at all that, first, the United Kingdom leads the world in the quality of its palliative and end-of-life care, and, secondly, that the Government are completely committed to supporting those services.
I have tried to lay out in a factual way what the current legal, prosecutorial and palliative care landscape is. The reason that I have tried to do that in a factual way is that, as the shadow Minister has already said, it is quite right that in matters of profound personal conscience, such as this one, the Government do not take a view. The Government are neutral in the debate on this issue and have no policy position on it. Although all of us, including me, have our own personal views about this issue, the Government’s position is that it is for Parliament to decide great issues of conscience, including this one.
A number of Members have asked for a review or a call for evidence. The Government do not have any plans at the moment to initiate any review or call for evidence; our view is that it is for Parliament to act in this space. But of course it is open to Committees of the House, including Select Committees, to initiate reviews, calls for evidence and investigations, if they see fit to do so.
Of course, it is also for Parliament to initiate legislation, if it sees fit to do so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned the private Member’s Bill ballot. The last vote on this issue took place, as some Members have already said, in September 2015. The Bill proposed was defeated, but, of course, since then we have had two general elections and the composition of Parliament has changed. However, it is the Government’s position that it is for Parliament to decide on this great issue of conscience; it is not for the Government to lead in this area.
I reiterate how important and moving the speeches today have been, on both sides of the argument. I think this debate is an example of Parliament at its finest, dealing with these great issues of life and death, and weighing the sanctity of life against personal liberty and personal choice.
There are no easy answers to these questions, but I can think of no better way of resolving them than via a measured debate and a parliamentary decision. We have certainly seen a fine example of that in today’s debate, and I again thank and commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for her speech and for securing this debate.
Thank you very much, Sir Graham, for calling me to sum up; it is a pleasure to do so.
I thank the many right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, which, for me, showed exactly why this debate today needs to be the beginning of a debate throughout this Parliament, so that we can come to the sort of parliamentary decision that the Minister has just referred to. I hope that we can take it from his comments that we will now have a proper and meaningful debate on this issue.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for clarifying, in the way that I would have done, the legal position on prosecutions, with 150 prosecutions being pursued, whereas more than 300 people have gone to Dignitas. There is a lack of clarity. The public deserve to have things made completely clear, so that they do not face having to make the most horrendous decision about their own future or a relative’s future without knowing whether prosecutions will follow. They deserve clarity.
I will just refer to two other specific points that were made. One was about medical organisations. The Royal College of Physicians has carried out the largest survey of medical opinion ever conducted. That survey showed that less than half of hospital doctors support the current law; the RCP’s elected council voted 36 votes to one in favour of moving to a position of neutrality. And both the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association are looking again at their policies.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned religious beliefs, and I completely take that on board. I do not think that any of us in this place would want anyone to go against their religious beliefs or expect them to do so, but religious beliefs are a matter of personal choice. I say that because my own belief is very different to others’ beliefs, and I respect all manner of beliefs about the sanctity of life and whether we have a right to end life. And the humanist view is very different from some religious views.
I will make one final point about palliative care, and I thank the Minister for what he said about it. Perhaps the most important comment was made by both the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), and my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), who are two of the many new Members in this place. We have a duty to consider this issue, and to reflect on what the public might want and what the law might be. So, although all the opinions expressed here today are equally viable, we need to address the situation and come up with a fresh and accurate view about it. I hope that we can do so.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).