Wednesday 12 October 2022
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
New Developments on Green-belt Land
[Relevant document: e-petition 600577, Ban developments on Green belt and Greenfield sites across the country.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of new developments on greenbelt land.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank every single Member and my hon. Friends who have chosen to participate in this important debate and represent their constituents’ concern. The impact of new development being imposed on our treasured green belt is a burning issue for many of my constituents in Coventry North West, so I welcome this opportunity to highlight their frustrations.
From Eastern Green to Allesley, Keresley and Holbrooks, communities in my constituency have seen vital green spaces lost to new housing developments in recent years, with more of our local green belt threatened with the same fate if we do not change course. Campaigners in Coventry want to see a bold change of direction concerning planning and development policy, so I hope that securing this debate will force the Government to listen and take note.
I want to start by examining the process by which houses are built and how it favours big developers, who are not accountable to local communities and often ignore local housing needs. We all know that Britain has long faced a housing crisis. Waiting lists for social housing continue to grow to record lengths, while home ownership in the UK has fallen to 65%, with many struggling to get on to the housing ladder. It is a plight that stretches across all our constituencies, and it has been left unaddressed by the Conservative Government for over a decade. The Government have also failed to introduce any meaningful reforms to planning and development since I became the MP for Coventry North West in 2019. Serious change in this area is long overdue. The lack of action means that we are left living in a planning and development free-for-all, and the impact on our local communities is clear for all to see.
As things stand, it is private developers who hold the balance of power. They decide which type of houses are built, where they are built and the prices that they are sold for. They are not accountable to anyone but themselves—not to communities, not to local people, not to local government and not even to national Government. For years, my constituents have told me that the current planning rules are not fit for purpose. They serve developers’ greed and do nothing to allow local voices and those most impacted by new development to be heard.
We need to be able to hold developers to account. Developers will claim that they are helping to fix Britain’s housing crisis by building new developments, but the truth is that until they start listening to the needs of local people, they will only make the problem worse. Indeed, the new Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should simply hand more power to property developers risks permanently changing our communities. The voices of residents and their elected representatives will be virtually wiped out of the planning process if the Prime Minister ignores their objections and presses ahead with these changes.
But is it any wonder that this Conservative Prime Minister wants to hand even greater power to wealthy developers when property developers were responsible for 20% of all donations—more than £60 million—to the Conservative party between 2010 and 2020? While Conservatives in Coventry conveniently pretend to care about saving our green belt from development, the same political party is lining its pockets with donations from the very housing developers that they claim to be standing up to. This is unacceptable. We need our Government to stand up for local people, not those seeking to maximise their profits at the expense of our precious green belt.
Our planning system is completely broken, and the answer cannot be to hand more power to a few greedy developers. Instead, a complete overhaul is required, with local communities and local government in the driving seat. That way, they can set the direction of travel concerning new development in their neighbourhoods, delivering affordable homes for families exactly where we need them.
A survey of my constituents that I carried out recently unsurprisingly revealed that a clear majority wanted more affordable homes to be built in Coventry, but that they wanted those homes to be built on the existing brownfield sites across the city instead of on our treasured green spaces. The survey also showed that residents were overwhelmingly against any proposed changes to planning laws that would make building on green belt easier. A majority of residents were also worried that the rule changes would mean local people had even less say when a new development was proposed where they live. I call on the Government to take action to ensure developers are accountable to local people, communities and elected representatives.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate, and I apologise for the fact that I will not be here later on, because I have another thing to go to. Does she agree that in urban and rural development, as with much in life, there is a delicate balance to be found? Current planning does not find the common-sense balance, and community planning takes a back seat to the interpretation of the law. We need to ensure that future planning is flexible enough to protect both urban and rural development, and that communities have a full say in what happens. I know the rules are different in Northern Ireland, but in many cases back home I find that local people do not have the input that they should.
The hon. Member makes an important point, and he is absolutely right that local people need to be able to have a local say on developments in their area. Developers should not be dictating to people in Coventry North West, who have often lived in the area for generations, what is in their best interests.
I will take a moment to look at the statistics, which are often used to estimate how many homes should be built and where. With the 38 new investment zones that have recently been announced, Whitehall is taking more and more control over the planning processes in our towns and cities. This approach is often predicted using census projections, but in Coventry the predictions have turned out to be way off. Our population has not grown anywhere near as quickly as was anticipated. The Office for National Statistics estimated Coventry’s population would be over 379,000, but recently released census results show that our city’s population actually stands at just 345,000—more than 30,000 less than predicted. This means that green-belt land may be torn up unnecessarily for houses that are not actually needed. It is now clear that the Government projections were plain wrong, and that top-down imposed house building targets are widely inaccurate.
The outcome in Coventry is that some of the most beautiful green spaces in my constituency have been needlessly taken away from green belt and allocated for house building instead. The figures do not stack up. For the short term, I would like to see a halt to building on any green-belt land around Coventry while accurate figures are calculated. I have repeatedly joined campaigners across Coventry in calling for these figures to be reviewed, but our pleas are falling on deaf ears. The Government have refused to take any action to remedy the situation, so the decimation of our green belt is poised to continue. Plans are still ongoing to build new developments that few people want. An overwhelming 92% of residents who took part in my survey thought that those elected to represent them on the city council must have a proper say on new development proposals in our city, but local government has little power over the matter.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for her excellent speech. In my constituency, Weaver Vale, more than 2,000 units are being built on green-belt land as we speak. This former green-belt land was purchased by the Government agency named Homes England, yet the national planning framework talks about building on green belt in exceptional circumstances. There are huge contradictions, and the direction of travel seems to be towards further liberalisation. I agree with my hon. Friend that there need to be strengthened protections in the green belt.
I thank my hon. Friend for his important point. He is right that we must continue to strengthen the protection of our green belt.
An overwhelming 92% of residents who took part in my survey thought that those elected to represent us on the city council must have a proper say on new development proposals in our community, but local government has little power in the matter. Instead, Whitehall is able to impose house building targets based on its faulty figures. I want to see a real shift in power away from Whitehall and towards local government. That would mean that local elected representatives, accountable to their residents who live and breathe their community, had the final say on new development. That way, we could abandon the inaccurate house building targets imposed by Whitehall and get on with meeting local housing needs.
In contrast to the Conservative Government, who have consistently sided with wealthy developers over local people, the Labour party has set out a different vision for planning and development policy. Labour would hand power to local communities to build the affordable housing they need and give councils the ability to build much-needed social housing—the houses we need where local people want them to be built. When new developments were built, Labour would give priority to first-time buyers and prevent new homes from being bought up by foreign investors before local people got a look in. That would put the dream of home ownership within reach of many people who cannot get on the housing ladder and reverse the decline in home ownership under this Government.
While the Conservatives are in the pocket of their property developer donors, a Labour Government would be on the side of local communities and would deliver the housing that Britain needs. Far too often, the houses being built are in opposition to what people need and want. Across the communities in Holbrooks, Allesley, Keresley and Eastern Green in my constituency, many have real and heartfelt anxieties about the impact of large-scale new development and its devastating impact on green-belt land. That is because the wrong type of housing is being built, and those houses are being built in the wrong part of the city. Eventually, they are going to be sold at an unaffordable price. From start to finish, this is a mess caused by a broken system. Those communities are already changing because of overdevelopment, and there is a great deal of frustration owing to the fact that communities can have large-scale development imposed on them without receiving the investment that is needed.
Too frequently, when homes are built in the wrong part of our city, the additional local services and new infrastructure required to support them are not put in place. Greedy developers must not be allowed to profit from building hundreds of expensive new houses against the will of local people and then walk away, doing nothing to provide much-needed services and infrastructure. New developments in Coventry North West are often built far from the nearest GP surgery, schools and shops, and without a proper broadband connection. Those developments often have neither public transport nor adequate roads. Everyone is fed up with massive developments being allowed to go ahead without proper thought and consideration being given to the infrastructure needed and the availability of public services. It is just not good enough.
It is morally bankrupt to build homes without also ensuring access to vital services, and it makes no practical sense either, as extra pressure is piled on already overstretched services. Developers will always want to turn a profit, but they must be made to play their part in delivering the services and infrastructure required to support the new homes that they build. In my constituency, too many homes are being built on green-belt land, and they are simply too expensive for local people to afford. I have repeatedly met with big developers to insist that they build affordable, family-sized homes for first-time buyers in the right part of our city, but those calls have repeatedly been dismissed. We must build homes that are affordable for families living in Coventry. Otherwise, what is the point of those homes?
Overpriced homes and out-of-reach mortgages are not what my constituents need. In Coventry, there are brownfield sites and similar land suited to redevelopment. That must be used first, before developers start destroying our precious green belt. Rather than building on the green belt at the behest of developers, I want houses to be built on brownfield sites, on disused land and in empty buildings, because that is what local people have asked for.
Lastly, I will highlight some of the specific local concerns that affect my constituency. Too often, developers earmark popular open spaces in our towns and cities for new homes, depriving communities of much-needed open spaces. That is certainly a problem in my constituency. Take Coundon Wedge, a beautiful spot that is enjoyed by people from across our city. Developers have been eyeing up Coundon Wedge for some time and, as homes are proposed on nearby Browns Lane, many people are understandably anxious that the Wedge will be next.
The local council has made it clear for decades that it does not want to build homes on Coundon Wedge. However, many people fear that because inaccurate house building targets are being imposed on Coventry by Whitehall, the hands of the local council may soon be forced. That is totally unacceptable. Coundon Wedge must not be put up for sale, and as the local MP I will oppose any future plans for new development on this vital green space.
Although local Conservatives in Coventry have been cynically campaigning to save Coundon Wedge for their own political gain, their party has been in power for the last 12 years and has failed to deliver long-overdue reforms to our planning law. The Conservatives are overseeing the very same planning and development free-for-all that threatens the future of the Wedge. Indeed, when the Conservatives last led Coventry City Council, they proposed thousands of new homes on green-belt land in Keresley, which is also in my constituency. People in my constituency will not be so easily fooled, and the hypocrisy will not go unnoticed.
I support many of the arguments that the hon. Lady has made, and I share her concern about greenfield development. However, one issue in my constituency is the absence of a local plan that sits with local government. I wonder whether that is the case in her patch, too, because I understand that in her area, as in mine, there is a very long waiting list for social housing.
I thank the hon. Member for making that important point. Yes, in my constituency there is a long waiting list for housing, and local government needs more control over that.
I have covered a number of issues today, including how house building favours large developers, how the statistics that are used are often inaccurate and lead to undesirable outcomes, and how the houses that are built are often not what local people want or need. I am sure that many Members here have similar issues in their own constituencies and that, like me, they have heard from concerned constituents who oppose the current development free-for-all. It is seriously concerning that the new Prime Minister appears determined to make the situation even messier. We have seen reports in the media just this week of Government Ministers scheming to hand over yet more power to developers. At the same time, they want to scrap rules that ensure new homes are affordable, and they want to remove wildlife protections. This Government want to create a developer wild west, which is completely out of order.
I believe that the only way to deliver for our constituents is to listen to their concerns. It is overwhelmingly clear to me that they want good-quality, family-sized homes that are for sale at an affordable price, and they want those homes to be built on empty brownfield sites, alongside good-quality infrastructure and local services. They do not want homes to be needlessly built on green-belt land—they do not want that to be imposed on them by an out-of-touch Whitehall and developers looking to make a quick buck.
With reform in development and planning rules high up on the Government’s agenda, I call on the Government to do the right thing: listen to my constituents and take action as soon as possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing the debate and leading it so well.
Some 91.4% of my South Staffordshire constituency sits within green-belt land, and the largest number of signatories to the petition—616 in all—are South Staffordshire residents. That indicates the real passion, concern and desire to protect the green belt in South Staffordshire.
There are a number of things that the Government can do to make a material difference to protect the environment, nature and conservation—all things that every one of us in this House values and wants to protect so very much. At the moment there is a real lack of clarity in the Government’s approach to the duty to co-operate. That puts enormous pressure on many local authorities, especially ones that neighbour large urban, metropolitan areas.
The Government have said that there will be changes to the duty to co-operate, but they have not come up with the clarification that authorities need to be in the best position to proceed with local plans and understand what the new rules will be. I hope that the new Minister will take the opportunity to set out clearly what the new rules on the duty to co-operate, or its abolition, will mean. If he is not able to do so, will he give a date for when that clarification will come about?
It would also be useful if the Minister could speak to local authorities that are in the process of developing their local plans. In South Staffordshire, we are in a terrible situation. We are having thousands of houses imposed on the green belt by Black Country authorities and by Birmingham as a result of the Government’s saying that they are going to abolish the duty to co-operate but not clarifying what they will replace it with. This is urgent. Will the Minister say whether authorities that are proceeding with local plans are able to pause those plans and make sure that they have protections so that they are not vulnerable to unscrupulous developers coming forward with plans? Authorities cannot properly proceed until the Government clarify what the replacement for the duty to co-operate will look like. I hope the Minister will be able to do that today.
The simple reality is that the duty to co-operate system is causing many local authorities to build the wrong types of houses in the wrong areas. It is a blight on our countryside and our green belt. The Minister needs to act on the Government policy to abolish the duty to co-operate and stop imposing thousands of housing units on the green belt when it would be more appropriate to use brownfield sites and inner cities in order to regenerate.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West made a very important point about how the housing numbers that local authorities are required to use are simply wrong. It is widely known in the industry, by planning authorities and in communities that they are wrong. The 2014 figures, which are currently the basis for plans, are leading to the incorrect numbers being used by local authorities, which puts an even greater burden on councils to provide numbers that are not required. That needs to be urgently addressed. The figures are eight years out of date.
My hon. Friend is spot on. I know that our hon. Friend the Housing Minister has great ambition and drive. He has many predecessors whom he can far outshine by showing great leadership. He can be known as the finest Housing Minister out of many by giving clarity on these issues. Making reforms to the housing market and to housing supply would not only benefit people who want to buy a home, but protect the green belt, our countryside and nature. I urge him to seize the day and do that.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing the debate.
Before asking what is being built on the green belt, we have to ask what is being built on brownfield sites. In York’s case, it is assets for investors rather than homes for families and communities. CPRE estimates that more than 26,000 hectares of UK brownfield land are available for development—enough to build a million homes. Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of brownfield land used for residential development dropped by 38%, whereas building on greenfield land increased by a staggering 148%. Public money is invested in the remediation of brownfield sites, while the owners land bank before declaring the unviability of any affordable or social housing. It is a complete scam.
Until the Government turn planning on its head, landowners and developers will continue to game the system, using every means possible to derive huge profits from urban brownfield sites by delivering high-priced investor units that do not meet local need and exceed local affordability. In York, again and again, this has meant that scarce land is used for the development of properties for the investment market, student accommodation or hotel rooms, leaving local housing need unmet and pressure to develop the green belt—a developer’s paradise.
Just last week, the Lib Dem-Green York Council agreed yet another multipurpose development, including an 88-room aparthotel and 153 new apartments, more than half of which will be bedsits and will immediately flip into holiday lets. There will not be a single affordable unit. That mirrors a long succession of planning decisions in our ancient city. In York Central, Government agencies are planning to use 45 hectares of brownfield land for the delivery of 2,500 units that are unsuitable and unaffordable for local families, thereby wasting the land and pushing vital economic and housing development to the green belt.
Every hectare of brownfield land that is squandered for extractive profits puts another hectare of green belt under threat. On each of these new developments, large swathes of properties move to the second home market immediately after completion. Some are never occupied, and many turn into Airbnbs. The revenue pays the mortgage while the asset gains value, pushing up house prices even more and making them completely inaccessible to local people.
Meanwhile, in York, thousands of families are waiting for a home that they simply want to call their own. We cannot pretend that there is any gain for local people; demand is outstripping supply, driving up property value but never delivering the homes people need. They are being driven out of their city to some greenfield site miles away. That impacts the local economy too, with people on the lowest incomes having to make the longest commutes, involving costs they cannot afford.
Greenfield demand is a consequence of failed planning, and I fear that greater liberalisation is on its way. The Government are going in completely the wrong direction. Unbelievably, Dartmoor, the North York Moors and the New Forest are set to fall within the boundaries of freeports and urban centres’ investment zones, free from planning restrictions. The developers’ charter is back, but without a people’s charter for public land for public good, we will never meet housing need. The economic crisis has made things worse.
The only politician to make real inroads in this area was Nye Bevan. In a famous speech, he said that only municipal control could ever develop the housing needed. He was right, and he delivered it. York is plagued with applications for green-belt development, but brownfield land must not be squandered at the expense of our green belt. We cannot stand by when people have nowhere to live. This is not an urban versus rural debate, but one between those who extract profit and those wanting to protect communities. Working together to ensure that brownfield sites are developed for local need will protect the green belt. The Government need to decide which side they are on.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing this important debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue.
My constituents in East Hampshire were among the top 10 by number of signatories to e-petition 600577, which is explicitly linked to this debate and is about green-belt and greenfield sites. It is important to make a distinction between the two: “green belt” is a particular land designation and a particularly important natural asset, but “greenfield” is also an important part of nature and amenity, whether for resident constituents or people coming from further afield. People often use the two terms interchangeably.
Realistically, I do not think we can say that we will never build on a greenfield site. Whatever type of dwelling we or our constituents live in, it is built on what was once a greenfield site. The reality is that the population has been growing for many years, for many reasons, including the positive fact that people are living longer, as well the tendency towards smaller households. However, we can make sure that we prioritise brownfield sites, and we need to give meaning to that. It is an easy phrase to throw out, but it has to mean something and to be enabled, through initiatives such as the facilitation of high-quality, amenity-enhancing estate redensification, town centre concentrations and city centre revitalisations.
The situation in my constituency is almost unique because the constituency is bisected by the boundary of a national park. Some 57% of the area is in the national park and 43% is outside it. Unusually, there is a sizeable town—Petersfield—inside the national park. Although the housing numbers were assessed on the basis of the whole district, effectively almost all of them have to go in the minority area, outside the boundary of the national park. That potentially puts a great deal of pressure on places just outside the boundary, such as Alton, Four Marks, Whitehill, Bordon and parts of the village of Liphook. In practical terms, East Hampshire District Council’s emerging local plan sets out that 632 homes a year will have to be built, but 532 of them—some 84%—will have to be delivered in the 43% of the area that is outside the national park.
The system nominally allows local authorities to use what is called “an alternative approach” to assess housing need where the strategic policy-making authority’s boundaries do not align with the local authority. However, there is a big risk in taking that route; authorities know that if they pursue it, they can expect challenge when the local plan is examined by the Planning Inspectorate. The consequences of the plan failing at that stage, in terms of speculative development and lack of infrastructure delivery, are potentially so great that local authorities are naturally reluctant to consider an alternative approach. We found it difficult to find examples of local authorities in a similar situation that have adopted such an approach.
I thank the Minister’s officials at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for meeting officials from my local council earlier this year to discuss these difficult circumstances, but the situation essentially remains the same. The “Planning for the Future” White Paper of 2020 contains proposals to look at land constraints right at the start of the process of assessment of housing need, but we are not clear about the status of those proposals. Is the Minister able to give us any further detail about that? That would be welcome.
In common with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), I am also keen to urgently understand the meaning of the “more flexible alignment test” that is intended to replace the duty to co-operate. Finally, in a situation such as mine, where the boundary of a national park cuts across the constituency and the local authority area, it would be preferable if numbers could be assessed separately inside and outside the park.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing the debate and leading it so well.
I grew up in a little village in Cheshire, in between Chester and Warrington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury)—probably only a political nerd would describe the area they grew up by its constituency. We were always sensitive about the need to maintain the green belt. There was pressure from new towns in Warrington and Runcorn, which were providing overspill, but the green belt is there for a reason: to prevent both urban sprawl and urban decay. Hon. Members have already talked about the fact that if development must take place in city and town centres, it revitalises them.
The green belt must be there for everybody. There cannot be an assumption that it is only there for the people who are lucky enough to live in it. The countryside should be enjoyed by everybody. We talk about rural poverty and rural deprivation. It is true that that happens, but getting people into rural areas would make a difference to that. The green belt should be there for all to enjoy, and it needs to be defended.
Despite the name of my constituency—City of Chester—almost three quarters of it is green belt. In the last few years, I am afraid that we have seen developments in green-belt areas, which were opposed by the local community and the council but overturned on appeal and granted by the Government.
I am currently battling development of a greenfield site on Sealand Road. The clue is in the name: it is in part next to the River Dee, which has flooded in the past. These are floodplain areas, and there are fields there used as sinks during floods, but they have been built on. The local council opposed that development, but speculators bought the site, took it to appeal and won. There are existing houses on Sealand Road. The new houses have had to be built raised up behind them, because of the threat of flooding. I can say now that when the first floods happen in that area—because they will; as I say, the name is something of a giveaway—all that water will go to the existing houses. The Government must understand that they cannot keep granting green-belt developments in entirely unsuitable locations over the heads of local authorities.
There is a difference between planning regulations in England and Wales: when new residential developments are built in England, particularly on the green belt, there is no requirement for the developers to deal with surface water, whereas in Wales there is such a requirement. That contributes to drains being inundated when there is heavy rain. The drains cannot cope, so water is diverted into the sewers; then the sewers cannot cope, so water is diverted into open water such as rivers. There has to be a change in planning rules in England to make sure that developers have a responsibility to build suitable drainage. Otherwise, the water falls on stone, concrete and tarmac; it does not go anywhere, and it inundates the sewerage system.
My hon. Friends have already said that the wrong type of housing is being built for the wrong reasons. The current housing policy in England suits the needs of the developers, not the housing needs of communities. The developers get the most profit from building big, executive-style country houses in nice locations. I do not blame the developers—they are there to make a profit, and good luck to them—but that should not dictate our housing policy. Our housing policy should meet the needs of the community, and that means building lots of different types of housing, and in cities. There should be a presumption against spreading out and an aim to maintain vibrancy in city centres.
Finally, there is still reluctance among local councils, which are under severe financial pressure, to stand against development proposals even if there is strong community opposition, because they know that they would have to pay the costs of an appeal. That is unfair and wrong, and it skews local councils’ planning judgments and their ability to fight against green-belt or any other developments, because they have to be very cautious about costs. I would be grateful if we could look at that again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing this debate and clearly setting out many of the challenges we face in our constituencies. I want to focus on one particular planning application in Willingdon, which sits in the constituency of Eastbourne, because it reflects all that is wrong and all that needs reforming in the planning system, and it also reflects my constituents’ many concerns.
On the need for reform, I echo the comments that have been made about the five-year land supply. The planning authority currently has 8,000 approvals that have not been built, and yet it is held hostage by speculative development because there is no local plan. That powerfully demonstrates the very weak voice of local determination, because this has happened despite the wishes and desires of the local community.
The planning application also reflects some of the faultlines in the calculation of housing need. This greenfield site, so cherished by the local community, represents probably the final green space between Eastbourne and Willingdon. The application essentially changes forever the character of the local area, which was once a village but is increasingly part of an urban fringe, and takes important agricultural land out of use. It is well recognised that there are concerns about flooding in the area, and I am absolutely mystified that Southern Water has given its support and endorsement to the planning application, based on the use of storm overflows. That cannot be right.
Congestion and road safety are also in the mix, but I want to focus on due process, and I know that my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), shares my concerns. On 6 September, I spoke at the appeal inquiry and outlined the fundamental and fatal flaws in our local transport models, which were exposed in a 2019 report by the highly regarded AECOM. I argued that if the models are unfit for purpose, the findings based on them cannot be considered in any way safe or sound. Highways are clearly central to the decision to grant or reject this deeply unpopular proposed development, and are the reason it was previously thrown out.
Of most serious concern is the obvious chilling effect that the threat of costs has had on local government bodies and the democratic process. Wealden District Council twice refused the application. Days before the appeal, it withdrew its objection, not because its concerns and principled objections had been answered and satisfied, or because the local residents it had been representing had been otherwise persuaded, but because it had been warned by its legal representative that continuing courted the risk of substantial cost. Willingdon and Jevington parish council, which had likewise stood against the application at every turn and contributed strongly at every stage of the process, was similarly forced to withdraw. That is a damning indictment of the system and a clear democratic faultline.
The decision has now been made, and the appeal has been successful. I urge the Minister to meet me and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, to look at the application and call it in. I also ask him to look at levelling up as it relates to VAT. New build and greenfield attracts a 0% VAT rating, but conversion, restoration and renovation of my Victorian town centre carries a 20% VAT penalty. It is clear where the balance of interests lies. Finally, I ask him to consider the brownfield-first strategy mentioned today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech. In July I attended a public meeting in Greasby community centre organised by local people who are determined to protect the green belt. The hall was absolutely packed, and it is abundantly clear that my constituents feel passionately about protecting the green belt, and I support them.
The green belt is incredibly important for our health and wellbeing, to supporting wildlife habits and to allowing nature to flourish. It has a vital part to play in our response to the climate and ecological emergency, so we need housing to be built on brownfield sites. In recent months there has been a spate of applications from developers to build homes on green-belt land in Wirral. In Wirral West, Leverhulme Estate currently has plans to build up to 260 homes in Pensby, 290 in Irby and 240 in Greasby.
There was great concern among Irby residents at the news that another developer—Richborough Estates—has come forward with a proposal that could see up to 190 news homes built across 31 acres of green-belt land on either side of Mill Hill Road. On their website, the developers say the site
“will be promoted for Green Belt release through the emerging Wirral Local Plan”,
so it seems they will be lobbying for these green fields to be released for development. I have voiced my concerns, and according to the local press the company has said it will not proceed with these plans until the site is successfully removed from the green belt and has status within the Wirral local plan. That is hardly reassuring, and the developers’ intentions remain clearly stated on their website. Local people are angry and upset, and I support them as we stand together in our opposition to Leverhulme Estate and Richborough Estates’ proposals to build houses on precious green belt.
CPRE, the countryside charity, publishes regular reports on the state of the green belt, which, among other things, track the number of submitted and approved applications for development on green-belt land. According to the most recent report, in February 2021, 793 applications were submitted on green-belt land between 2009-10 and 2019-20, of which 337—just over 42%—were approved. That resulted in the building of more than 50,000 housing units, so clearly there is not the level of protection for the green belt that there needs to be. The situation looks likely to become worse because the Government’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill could further weaken protections. The Bill would introduce national development management policies, which would have primacy over local development plans, meaning that those plans could be easily and rapidly rendered out of date by changes to national policies.
I would like to look at the implications for Wirral West. Wirral’s draft local plan states:
“Sufficient brownfield land and opportunities exist within the urban areas of the borough to ensure that objectively assessed housing and employment needs can be met over the plan period… The council has therefore concluded that the exceptional circumstances to justify alterations to the green belt boundaries do not exist in Wirral.”
However, an NDMP could overrule that. I fear we are facing a power grab by central Government, so it would be helpful if the Minister could rule out a situation where, on the one hand, a council says that any new housing in its area will be built on brownfield sites and the green belt will be protected but, on the other hand, the Government set a national development management policy that overrules the local council position.
It is a matter of real concern that the current Secretary of State has previously called for the release of green-belt land for new homes and has described the green belt as
“an arbitrary and increasingly damaging holdover from seventy years ago”.
He has said:
“The green belt is not part of the problem, but is the problem. As currently constituted, it has become the central obstacle to enabling the building of the volume of houses we need, where we need them.”
It is also concerning that, back in 2019, the now Prime Minister said that the Conservatives should build 1 million homes on the green belt. No wonder people in Wirral West are concerned by the threat the Conservatives pose to the green belt. I urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to think again, and I ask the Minister to speak to them directly about this matter because it is clear that people value the green belt and want it protected.
We need more homes in Wirral and right across the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West so eloquently described. Such homes need to be affordable for first-time buyers and private renters, they need to be in locations where infrastructure such as roads, public transport and services is already in place, and they need to have high levels of energy efficiency and to be built on brownfield sites. It is a matter of real concern that, just as it has damaged the economy, the Government’s policy now threatens to further damage the environment too. The Government really must come forward with strong protections for the green belt as a matter of urgency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on bringing forward this debate on issues affecting Coventry, which have an impact on my constituents—particularly those who live in the village of Bulkington, within the ambit of Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council. My constituents there are having to accept a 27.3% increase in the size of their village, with the number of houses moving from 2,794 to 3,558.
That is a massive increase and proportionally much more than other areas are being asked to take, but there is an opportunity to hold back on consent for 196 homes on one site if the Secretary of State grants a moratorium on strategic site approvals in the way the hon. Lady has asked for. I have written two letters to Secretaries of State asking for that to be done. Regrettably, the response was not positive, but I will make the case for action to the Minister today.
The challenge in Bulkington arises because, in 2015, a memorandum of understanding—a duty to co-operate—between Warwick District Council, Coventry City Council and Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council included provision to promote the release of land that was previously in the green belt. This arose from the need for additional housing in the city of Coventry, which, as the hon. Lady drew attention to, arose from the Office for National Statistics population estimates in 2014.
The challenge for Coventry is that it is an established urban area and there remains a shortage of land in that urban area to meet those housing numbers. As a consequence, Warwick was brought into the mix, along with Nuneaton and Bedworth, to provide additional land as part of their duty to co-operate. I support the contention of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) in asking for some clarity on this particular role.
In her remarks, the hon. Member for Coventry North West unfairly criticised Conservative councillors for their approach to these matters. In this case, the issue arose because Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, which was Labour led at the time, chose to declassify part of its green belt to enable this development to take place. It is important to note that, at the time that that action was taken, it was opposed by the Conservative group on the Council. Significantly, without that declassification, my constituents in Bulkington would not be facing the challenges and problems they currently face.
The hon. Lady referred to the inaccuracy of the numbers, and that was picked up by CPRE, the countryside charity. A review has now taken place and was published in May 2021. It found that the population estimates
“for some cities such as Coventry did seem to be inconsistent with local evidence. This appeared to be the case in some other smaller cities with larger student populations”.
The hon. Lady and I are both proud that Coventry has two universities—Coventry University and the University of Warwick—but that results in some confusion around the number of houses needed.
The hon. Lady pointed out that, in a further development, we now have actual data—the 2021 census figures—and do not need to work off projections. In Coventry’s plan, its population is projected to grow by in excess of 89,000 between 2011 and 2031. The actual growth in the first half of that period, according to the 2021 census, was 28,300. That is substantially less—almost half—of what was projected. That is why the numbers—on which the housing development that the hon. Lady referred to and that is affecting my constituents was based—need to be looked at. If the Coventry population figures had been more accurate, the need for adjacent local authorities to help meet Coventry’s housing need would have been diminished. The development in Bulkington would not need to take place.
So what is our ask? What happens next? Conservative-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council—the Conservatives have controlled it in recent years—and the people of Bulkington would like the Secretary of State to impose a moratorium on new housing while Coventry City Council and Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council review their local plans. As I mentioned, one site in Bulkington was previously green belt but has now been declassified and has not yet been consented. It is known as HSG7, and it would accommodate 196 homes to the east of the village. Developers currently have a window of opportunity, and we wish to stop that development taking place by asking the Minister to consider the moratorium to which the hon. Member for Coventry North West and I have referred.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I commend and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for her excellent speech and for securing the debate, and I concur with many of the points raised by Members on both sides of the Chamber. In the time available to me, I would like to raise three points: first, the pressure on green land in and around Reading and the neighbouring town of Woodley; secondly, the importance of protecting green spaces and historic streets within towns; and thirdly, the need for the Government to rethink their planning proposals and to have a new planning policy.
First, the pressure on green land in our part of the Thames valley is already significant, as colleagues may know. We have a growing population in our part of southern England, and there is a lot of pressure from speculative developers trying to build on the outskirts of existing towns. Reading does not have a green belt, but it does have a lot of green land. The Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty is a short distance away from the northern boundary of the town. In other directions there are protected sites and interesting landscapes that need to be preserved for local amenity use. As other Members have said, it is so important for local residents to be able to go out and enjoy the countryside, whether that is walking their dog, looking at the countryside or enjoying the green space. That is important for people’s wellbeing and mental health, and everyone should have access to our wonderful countryside.
Sadly, in our area we have a specific problem with speculative developers, and I would like to mention one case that indicates just how appalling this can be. On one site on the edge of Emmer Green, a small village that is now part of Reading, a speculative developer wanted to build a large number of executive homes. That would have started to join up Reading with the neighbouring south Oxfordshire village of Sonning Common, which is completely against the wider thrust of planning policy and the importance of maintaining separate settlements. It was an unsuitable, unsustainable site that would have led to a large amount of extra traffic in both directions, which no residents in the area wanted. I and neighbouring MPs and parish councils campaigned against it, and we were successful. However, I am concerned that the Government’s proposals could unleash a wave of similar applications on the outskirts of existing towns and cities in my constituency and neighbouring parts of southern England.
The strange contrast is that, in Reading, there is a large amount of brownfield land. We actually have enough brownfield in the borough of Reading, let alone the neighbouring suburbs, to provide almost all the housing that is needed until 2036, and that is from Reading Borough Council’s local plan. I urge the Minister to listen to that point, and I hope he will consider rethinking the policy.
Secondly, preserving historic streets is a related issue for many people living in towns and cities; my colleagues from two historic cities—my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—mentioned it, and others have hinted at it. Reading is a Victorian, Georgian and arts and crafts town, with a huge amount of really attractive architecture. Sadly, as a university town with many new residents coming in, we already face a lot of pressure, with houses being converted into bedsits, which causes all sorts of issues for neighbouring residents, such as overflowing bins and parking problems. The Government’s proposals would allow what could, in many cases, be quite ugly extensions under permitted development, such as unwanted large rear extensions and loft conversions that are out of keeping. That aspect needs to be rethought, and there should be an emphasis on maintaining the attractive visual appearance of historic areas, whether or not they are conservation areas, for the benefit of all residents. I hope the Minister will consider that point about our wonderful urban environments in many towns and cities, which is related to the issue of preserving the green environment.
I appreciate that there is pressure on time, so I will move on and highlight a potential future policy. As many Members have rightly said, there should be much greater emphasis on redeveloping brownfield. We have some interesting and positive examples of that in our town, in which attractive, red-brick terraced houses or low-rise flats have replaced industrial sites near the town centre, often reusing land that had been derelict for some time and providing a benefit to local residents by removing an ugly site. Also, the environment is protected by the reduction in traffic and the increase in cycling, walking and public transport use. All those are for the greater good, at a time when we are trying to address the serious challenges of climate change and other related environmental challenges. That, surely, should be the way forward.
I hope the Minister will focus on that point and look again at the balance in the planning system between brownfield and greenfield, which seems to be out of kilter. Sadly, the Government proposals, from what I understand of them, would take that much further and allow developers far more leeway to build in areas where local residents clearly do not want development and where there would be unfortunate environmental impacts such as increased car pollution and traffic jams and, indeed, an economic impact owing to transport delays.
I shall conclude, as I appreciate that there is time pressure. I hope that the Minister will think again and listen to the concerns raised by Members on both sides of the Chamber.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing this important debate, although I shall start by disagreeing with her slightly.
In the Lewes constituency, we had a good system. We had a local plan in place, and nearly every town and parish in the Lewes district had neighbourhood plans, which were voted on by local people and put together by parish councillors. That was delivering our housing numbers in the right place and delivering the right type of accommodation, which enabled older people to stay in their communities by downsizing and young families to begin their life in their community with a starter home.
Our issue is that in 2019 the Lib Dem-Greens took over the district council and let that local plan go out of date, and with it the five-year land supply. With that, all the neighbourhood plans have fallen, and since then we have been inundated with applications from developers, who seized the opportunity to target every greenfield site in the constituency for housing development.
The local planning authority has refused most of those applications on the principle that they are not in the local plan and not in the neighbourhood plan, but those refusals are being overturned almost daily by the planning inspector, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) suggested, and there is inaction from our local council, which is squabbling over housing numbers. Meanwhile, not having a local plan in place means that our communities, parishes and town councils, which worked so hard to accommodate the housing numbers they were given, are being left to face the consequences.
I will not because there is little time left.
That is not fair because the housing being built on those sites is not affordable for local families. It is £400,000 or £500,000 for a starter home, and those are three-bedroom or four-bedroom homes that do not allow our older residents to downsize and stay, or our new young families to start their life in their community. This is not the right housing. We were trying to build communities, not just homes, and the system has failed us.
I have seven key asks of the Minister. Many Members have raised the brownfield first strategy, which was highlighted by the previous Prime Minister and hinted at by our current Prime Minister. We need clarity on that. In Lewes town, we had the Phoenix quarter, which would have delivered thousands of new homes. The Government gave the council £1 million to start that scheme, but not a brick has been laid on the site. Meanwhile, our green fields are being concreted over.
We need to be able to force local councils to get their local plans in place. It cannot be right that we had a plan in place that delivered the housing numbers and the housing that our communities wanted, but that the local plan is not happening because the council is squabbling over housing numbers. All that is now a hostage to fortune. It is the same in the Wealden district of my constituency, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. There has never been a local plan and the district is holding out for the Government either to scrap housing numbers or to deliver a different housing strategy. Meanwhile, every greenfield site is open to challenge from developers.
The standard method was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson). I have received letters from the previous Housing Minister saying that it is not a target, just an indication, but local councils do not feel confident enough to take matters to appeal, because when they do so the planning inspector does not uphold that view. The 2014 housing numbers, which form the standard method, as has been highlighted, are inaccurate and out of date.
We need to take the heat out of the south-east. Members across the Chamber might not agree with me, but we are talking about applications in their thousands, not their hundreds. We have GPs who have closed their lists because they cannot cope, schools that are full and roads that are congested. At the end of the day, we are just not building the housing that helps our local communities, and residents have had enough.
On the land banking issue, Oliver Letwin did a review a couple of years ago and said there was no problem—“Nothing to see here, folks.” Actually, I agree with the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne. Wealden district has 8,000 units that have planning permission, but because they are mainly on brownfield sites, it is cheaper, quicker and easier for developers to challenge the council, win at appeal and build on greenfield sites instead.
We absolutely need to support our local planning authorities. In the case of the proposed Mornings Mill development, the council has refused it twice and it has gone to appeal. I am concerned not about the cost but about the principles behind that decision. What is the point of having planning authorities? We might as well give the decision to planning inspectors in the first place. We have tried to build the housing that we are required to build, we did our local plan and our neighbourhood plan, and it cannot be right that decisions by democratically elected councillors are overturned. Developers have the money and legal expertise to be able to win every single case.
Finally, I will address the issue of local plans and five-year land supplies going out of date. Does it really need to take years? They were good plans, and there are only a couple of sites that did not come to fruition. It should take months to revamp that, and we should be able to keep those local plans and the legal protections they provide for our constituencies.
The odds are stacked against our communities at the moment, and we need the Minister’s help. We want to build housing, but it must be the right type of housing for our communities, and we want to build communities and not just homes.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) not only on securing a debate that is clearly of great importance to the communities that she represents, but on her willingness to tackle at length a subject that is controversial and has arguably failed to receive the attention it deserves in this place. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part this morning in what has been a lively, interesting and thoughtful session.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend outlined with her customary forcefulness her concern about the large-scale green belt release that has been authorised on the fringes of her Coventry constituency. The individual cases she mentioned are complex and I do not intend to comment on them in detail, other than to say that, more than anything, they illustrate the difficult position in which individual local authorities are placed in the absence of effective sub-regional frameworks for managing housing growth.
My hon. Friend was also at pains to situate the general issues arising from green-belt development in her city within the context of Britain’s housing crisis, and she was right to do so. After all, the point at issue here is not whether green belts have value and can provide for public recreation, contact with nature and habitat maintenance, which they do. Rather, it is whether green-belt land should be released to meet the significant housing need that now exists across England and, if so, how much and under what circumstances.
When it comes to the green belt, what should be in many ways a relatively dispassionate debate consistently provokes intense emotion and polarisation. That is partly because housing development, by its very nature, will always be a contentious issue, but that fact alone cannot account for the strength of feeling generated by this issue.
I would suggest that at least two other factors underlie the passions provoked by the green belt. The first is that any consideration of the green belt as policy labours under a series of misconceptions. Chief among them is the falsehood, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), that green belt is always and everywhere green fields, as opposed to the reality, which is that, at least on the edges of most major cities, green belts include abandoned industrial buildings, petrol stations, scrubland, motorways, farmland, golf courses and nature-rich green fields.
The second misconception is that, more often than not, any debate about the future of the green belt is framed as an irreconcilable choice between two flawed options— namely, the complete abolition of green belts or rendering their present boundaries entirely sacrosanct. A more honest and nuanced approach is long overdue—one that recognises that the green belt has served England’s towns and cities very well over many decades, in terms of its original aim of preventing unlimited urban sprawl, and that it must be retained for that purpose but one that also accepts that the green belt’s existence has come at a cost, in terms of constrained housing supply, growing problems with affordability and problematic development displacement, and that there is a strong case for looking again at how the policy should operate in the years ahead.
The Labour party fully supports the prioritisation of brownfield development. We remain committed to preserving the green belt and would resist any attempts to abolish it, as per the long-held wishes of those for whom nothing short of total planning deregulation will suffice. Not only are green belts not to blame for all the country’s housing shortage ills, but their removal would without question trigger a tsunami of land speculation and an increase in low-quality, high-cost and infra- structure-deficient development of the kind that, as we have heard, is already far too commonplace.
However, we are equally opposed to any attempt, along the lines mooted by the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) in the recent Conservative leadership contest, to prevent green-belt land from being released for development under any circumstances. The truth is that there are certain types of land within green-belt boundaries—for example, brownfield land within green belt or poor monocultural farmland next to key transport hubs—that are ideally suited for development. Politicians who argue that every inch of green-belt land should be forever off limits are doing the public a disservice.
I wish to respectfully correct the hon. Gentleman. He is referring to already developed land—he talked about petrol stations and industrial areas—but actually that sits outside the green-belt designation. Green-belt designation does not include previously developed industrial land.
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman; I think he is wrong on that point. It includes brownfield land and land that has previously been developed. That is part of the problem: there is a misconception that green belt always equals greenfield, but it does not. I will talk about the distinction in a minute, because it is important for how we might go forward.
The debate we should be having is not a rehash of the stale exchanges between those who wish to abolish the green belt entirely and those who wish to render it inviolable. It should instead focus on what the Government need to do to ensure that more of the right bits of the green belt are released for development, that land-value capture is maximised on those sites so that the communities in question can benefit from first-class infrastructure and more affordable housing, and that green-belt land with the highest environmental and amenity value is properly protected, enhanced and made more accessible. The selective release of green belt should increase, rather than decrease, the opportunities for urban communities to benefit from green space and nature.
In our view, any approach to green-belt development must be premised on the involvement of local communities. We believe that more needs to be done to ensure that local authorities routinely review green belt land as part of the local plan-making process and that they have the freedom to take a balanced view of how green belt land within their boundaries is managed, but we also want to see a more meaningful role for the public in determining which areas of local green belt land are permanently protected; which are improved and made more accessible; which might be added to the green belt as part of a swap; and which might be appropriate for new homes.
Perhaps most importantly, any green-belt development must deliver tangible benefits for local communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West ably outlined, the problem is that in far too many cases today, green-belt land is being transformed into ill-planned neighbourhoods full of overpriced executive homes with the inevitable community backlash that that results in. That point was also made by my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda), and by the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield).
Ensuring that green-belt development leads to beautiful and well-serviced neighbourhoods with good access to improved green open spaces and homes that are genuinely affordable for local people would require reform, not least to enable local authorities to acquire the land at a reasonable price, but that is entirely feasible if the political will exists. We can debate the precise delivery mechanisms, but Labour believes that the case for more effectively facilitating very limited development on poor-quality land within green belts in areas where it is most needed, in a way that meets local housing need, while at the same time protecting and enhancing high-quality green-belt land for the benefit of the public, is unarguable.
The alternative—here I take issue with the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson)—is to accept what is already taking place: namely, the progressive loss of all kinds of green-belt land, including greenfield and high-quality green-belt land, via haphazard and speculative fringe development, often of poor quality and via appeal. Doing so also sets aside a potentially valuable means of boosting housing supply, simply because it is too politically sensitive.
In the face of a housing crisis that is our country’s most pernicious iniquity, blighting the lives of millions, the notion that every part of the green belt is sacrosanct cannot be justified. It is high time for a serious debate about the role that a reimagined green belt can play in tackling the crisis. I look forward to hearing from the new Minister, and I once again welcome him to his place. I hope he can clarify not just what the Government intend to do to prevent the ongoing release of high-quality, nature-rich green-belt land of the kind we have heard about, but what the Government’s thinking on the green belt now is more generally, given that in the space of just three years the present Prime Minister has called both for a million homes to be built on green-belt land and for no green-belt development whatsoever to take place.
Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to all colleagues for attending today, and I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) on securing this debate. In this my first debate as housing and planning Minister, it is good to get into the important issues that hon. Members have raised. I am sure that they will be brought back regularly throughout my time in post.
A significant number of different issues, both specific and broad, has been raised about the green belt. I will try to answer and address as many of them as I can in the time available. There are two things that mean that I will be unable to answer some questions or to directly address some specific points. First, as hon. Members are aware, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the planning system I am unable to comment on large aspects of individual local plans and specific planning applications, given that they could be called in and dealt with at ministerial level. I apologise to hon. Members for being unable to do so, but I hope they will understand the rationale behind it. Secondly, as a number of hon. Members have indicated, there is a set of questions that are open at this time, and that is because we have a new Government—a new Administration, Prime Minister and Secretary of State. We hope and aim to close and clarify many of those questions as soon as possible, but I hope hon. Members will understand that I am not able to do so in this debate.
With those points in mind, and before turning to the individual comments of hon. Members, I will restate the Government’s clear position that the green belt is a hugely important part of our planning system. For many decades, this much loved and historical feature has protected our landscape. The national planning policy framework makes clear that the green belt has a specific purpose, that it should be released only in exceptional circumstances, as has been clear for a number of years, and that, where possible, local authorities should take into account other ways in which development can take place before looking at green belt, including a requirement to consider brownfield development.
I refer back to the countryside charity CPRE’s research. It examined a 10-year period of the release of green-belt land and found that about 41% of applications to build on the green belt had gone through. Does the Minister believe that the protections are sufficient and strong? The research suggests that that is not the case.
That is a very important point. I will come to it, but it is important to highlight that the amount of green belt in this country has increased in recent years. The overall amount has gone up substantially. That is due in large part to the introduction of a green belt in the north of England, but it is also the case—we should always stand back and consider this—that, in terms of pure hectarage, the amount of green belt has increased. The hon. Lady makes a very important point, and ultimately we have a decision to make on green belt.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) on the Opposition Front Bench made the important point that some parts of the green belt do not have the same aesthetic quality as others. Moreover—this has been in the NPPF for a substantial amount of time—there will be exceptions. In certain instances, buildings will need to be built for farms and for forestry, and consideration will have to be given to elements that most hon. Members and people out there will accept are reasonable. My point is that there has to be flexibility. The NPPF provides flexibility while making significant statements about the importance of the green belt, which is absolutely vital.
I will conclude my point, if I may. If the process for at least some scenarios needs to be flexible, as is the case here, we need to consider who is best placed to determine that flexibility. In my view, that decision has to be made locally because, in those very small instances, it is the localities and the local councils that will be able to make the best decision about what should or should not happen with this designation of land. That is within the wider context that, ultimately, the green belt should be released only in exceptional circumstances where there is a clear and compelling case to do so and when other things such as brownfield have been considered first.
As I have indicated, I cannot talk about individual cases, but I understand his point and the strength of feeling that he shares with other colleagues about the issue of appropriateness.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West made a substantial number of important points. Again, I congratulate her on securing the debate. I am not sure I agree with some of her slightly more partisan elements, but I will disregard them in the spirit in which this debate has largely been pursued. The reality is that everything in planning is a challenge. There is a balance to be struck and a set of trade-offs. There are no easy answers. We all share the same desire. I have a substantial proportion of green belt in my constituency, which I want to enhance to protect our natural environment. I want it protected so that everybody can enjoy it in future, as the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) indicated in his remarks.
We also want to ensure that people can get on the housing ladder—a point that was highlighted by the hon. Member for Coventry North West. The proportion of home ownership is not as high as it used to be, although it is starting to rise again. We have to balance these things, and that requires a nuanced and mature debate, which we have largely had today, with a recognition that there has to be flexibility in the system, as well as the great protection that is necessary.
I really must make progress.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West talked about a failure to address issues in planning. I accept that there are always challenges in planning, but I wish to put on the record the importance of the 2 million new houses that have been built over the last 12 years—2 million families have had the opportunity to realise their dream of home ownership. Some 600,000 of those are affordable homes, and 242,000 were built in 2019 alone. Billions of pounds, whatever our views on whether that is sufficient, will have come forward in infrastructure to support communities.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West also highlighted the challenges in how the system works. I absolutely accept that there are challenges in how the system works, but ultimately this is a process where local authorities—I will not mention specific councils—have the power to bring forward a plan at the time that they wish. They should understand the context in which local plans are brought forward. They have the ability to both include and exclude locations, and they can set the overall framework in which development happens in a local area.
There is then clarity that allows developers, communities, individuals and those who are affected to understand what will and will not happen. Some authorities do that well. Some of those that perhaps do it less well could learn. I am unable to comment on Coventry specifically, but I hope the hon. Lady and her colleagues from the city will reflect on that.
I need to make progress—I have only a few minutes. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) talked about the duty to co-operate, and I hope we will be able to make further announcements on that in due course. I am happy to discuss it with him separately if that helps, given his interest in it.
Colleagues from various constituencies, including the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), talked about brownfield land. I absolutely accept the huge importance of developing on brownfield land. As I highlighted, the national planning policy framework indicates the importance of that. A substantial amount of taxpayer subsidy has already been brought forward for brownfield land. There was only one announcement, back in July. I hope that, if hon. Members’ local authorities had the opportunity to bid into that brownfield land fund between July and August this year, they did so. Should it be appropriate, it is important that local authorities take opportunities to bid to build on brownfield land, and that they think through what they can do locally to bring forward additional brownfield land.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about investment zones. I place on the record that the expression of interest guidance for investment zones is clear on the environment: mitigation would be required of any environmental impacts of proposed investment zones. If local authorities that apply do not concur with that, their application would be failed. That is publicly available in the guidance on expressions of interest.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) made strong points about the importance of a diversity of approaches to ensure that we support housing need in local areas. I am happy to talk to him more about the land constraint point that he highlighted.
The hon. Member for City of Chester talked about the importance of green belt, which I have already talked about. I wholeheartedly concur with him on that point. He also highlighted water and storage facilities. Paragraph 160 of the NPPF covers that, but if there is a specific point he thinks I should be made aware of, I would be happy to talk to him separately.
My hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) talked about specific applications. I am afraid that I am unable to talk about those, but my hon. Friends have noted them. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes about the importance of neighbourhood plans and the involvement of local areas in them. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for raising the issue about his locality. Within the bounds of appropriateness, I am happy to receive further representations on that and to talk about it. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Reading East for highlighting the brownfield element.
In the 30 seconds that remain, I again thank all colleagues for their comments. It has been a useful and helpful debate, and I look forward to further discussions. If there were simple answers on this issue, I am not sure that we would be here today. If there were easy ways to resolve the very difficult trade-offs, I am sure that my many predecessors would have done so years ago, as I have been told on a number of occasions. However, it is good to talk and to understand the concerns in local areas. I am grateful both to the hon. Member for Coventry North West for securing the debate and to everybody for their contributions to it.
I thank all hon. Members for participating in the debate and for speaking so passionately. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) spoke about protecting the green belt and giving more power to local people, so that they have a say in the development process. My hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda) focused on the importance of building on brownfield sites and protecting the democratic process. We all agree that building affordable houses, with proper infrastructure that meets the needs of the population, should be a priority for the Government. I hope that the Minister takes back all the issues that hon. Members have raised today and takes urgent action.
Will the Minister also meet me to discuss Coventry’s plan, and will he put on hold any green-belt applications currently put forward to Coventry City Council, so that the council has the time to review local plans and make decisions based on current ONS figures? Lastly, I thank all the activists who have campaigned to protect our green spaces, both in Coventry and across the country. They understand the impact that the issue has in their communities.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the impact of new developments on greenbelt land.
Procurement of Evusheld
[Relevant Document: e-petition 611884, Fund Evusheld the preventative COVID19 antibody for immunocompromised.]
There has been a lot of interest in this debate. I will call Daisy Cooper to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to have the final say, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the procurement of Evusheld.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I am pleased to have secured this important debate on behalf of the forgotten half a million immunocompromised and immunosuppressed patients in England, and the 18,617 people who have signed the parliamentary e-petition calling on the Government to fund the preventive covid-19 drug Evusheld. I pay tribute to the extraordinary campaigning work of Evusheld for the UK, Blood Cancer UK, Kidney Care UK and many other charities that have given their members a voice. There is clearly significant interest from colleagues across the House, and I will endeavour to take as many short interventions as possible.
Let me be blunt: the Government have got this badly wrong. Some of our most vulnerable people are now in an impossible position, or, as some of them have said, they have been left to rot. People with blood cancer, vasculitis, kidney transplants, multiple sclerosis, long- term conditions and rare diseases and those on immunosuppressant drugs are crying out for the preventive drug Evusheld. Why? For them, the covid infection is just as deadly—in fact, more so—than when we first went into lockdown two and a half years ago. They do not mount a response to covid through the vaccines like the rest of us. Covid is not just a bad cold or an inconvenience, but a killer disease. In a society where people are allowed to walk around with that killer disease without being required to wear a mask, test or isolate, nowhere is safe for the immunocompromised—not inside or out.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. I was contacted by a constituent ahead of it, who reiterated that as autumn and winter approach, we are even more vulnerable and isolated. Given what we face, I am sure the hon. Lady agrees that it is urgent for Ministers to listen to this debate and set out plans to support immunosuppressed patients and people during the difficult winter ahead.
The hon. Lady is right. I will set out not only that the scientific evidence backs up the case for Evusheld, but that there is strong political consensus for it. Of course, the voices of those affected must be heard.
There is nowhere that is safe for these people: not shops, not schools, not supermarkets, not buses, not even the very GP surgeries and hospitals that they need to visit to manage the conditions that make them vulnerable. They are at extreme risk of hospitalisation and death, and they have been left with no choice but to lock themselves away from family and friends for two and a half years. Many now face a third winter of shielding.
I agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiments. I have a constituent who has been shielding for 30 months—a 26-year-old who is the son of Mrs Rehana Patel. Along with the hon. Lady, I plead that the Government continue to give serious consideration to the use of Evusheld to help those thousands of clinically vulnerable people across my constituency and the rest of the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention.
Let us move on to the facts. Is Evusheld safe and effective? Yes, it is. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved it in March, seven months ago. Is there enough scientific evidence? Yes, there is ample evidence.
The hon. Lady and I have had conversations about this issue and about my own constituents. What I cannot understand is that the RAPID C-19 committee has looked at this 11 times. These are supposed to be experts that are looking at it. She is quite right to want evidence that proves that the committee is wrong. How come we have got into a situation where Government scientists are saying one thing and the rest of the scientific community is saying something completely different?
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. That is exactly the question I would like the Minister to answer.
There are two significant problems with the most recent report published last week. First, it effectively says that the RAPID C-19 group looked at the results of a trial run on actual people in December 2021 and concluded that the evidence was so good that they were going to recommend that Evusheld be rolled out to patients. However, in May of this year, they looked at non-clinical data—test tubes, petri dishes and the like—and decided that the results were not good enough. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that high concentrations of a virus in a petri dish do not translate to tests in real human beings.
I understand that 33 other countries have approved the use of Evusheld, including every G7 member apart from the United Kingdom. What do you think we can learn from the other parts of the world that have approved this important treatment for the immunocompromised?
I am grateful for that question. In fact, Evusheld is now so effective that not only has it been rolled out in 33 countries, but a number of countries, including Japan, Italy, Spain and Israel, have actually put in repeat orders for Evusheld, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has even launched a public drive to increase uptake. In private discussions, both the Minister and his predecessor have indicated to me in meetings that there was some evidence that countries had bought the drug but were not using it.
Let us be clear: the failure of any Government to identify clinically vulnerable patients and distribute the medication to them has nothing to do with the effectiveness of that particular drug. Before we throw stones in glass houses, we should remember that of immunocompromised patients in England who caught covid and were referred for treatment, only 17% actually got it. That failure to distribute is more to do with the fracturing of our health systems; it is not about the effectiveness of this drug.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this vital debate on behalf of the many constituents who have contacted me and in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary health group. Does she agree that when people feel they are being left to rot, it is not only their physical health that is impacted; their mental wellbeing is crippled in the stage of recovery where they need the most support possible?
The hon. Member is absolutely right. Many people are clinically vulnerable because they have a health condition, and their physical health is getting worse, as it would when someone is stuck at home for two and a half years, but the mental health impact is also incredibly profound. We know that many of our constituents have experienced suicidal thoughts.
I turn now to the advice of the RAPID C-19 oversight group, which has been mentioned. The Government refused to share this advice for some time, and many of us were asking for it. I was pleased to see that this advice was finally published last Thursday on 6 October. I was pretty shocked for two reasons. First, the report actually says that the group looked at real-world data and the impact on people and that data was very strong. Then it looked at the data in a non-clinical setting and decided not to roll it out. That seems absurd to me.
There is a second problem with the evidence that was published last week. It lists the evidence that the group reviewed, and it leaves out one very critical scientific study by the Francis Crick Institute—a study that I believe the Government commissioned themselves. That study was commissioned to look at the effectiveness of a different drug: sotrovimab. That report concluded that sotrovimab was effective, and the Government are using that report to justify why they continue to use sotrovimab. However, the report also concluded that Evusheld was even more effective. So why not buy Evusheld too? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us.
On the same day the Government published this RAPID group report, The Lancet—the world’s highest-impact general medical journal—carried an article by 19 experts calling on the World Health Organisation to update its guidance on Evusheld, based on the study the Government commissioned. In the article, those experts say that Evusheld should be used for not only preventative, prophylactic use, but treatment. The UK Government are really trailing behind. Can the Minister tell us why the RAPID study ignores this vital piece of research, which they must have known about?
Many of the people we are talking about have already had five or six vaccine jabs, even though they will mount very little, if any, response. The Government say it is important that these people get those vaccines, because they say some response is better than none. Why does that same test not apply to Evusheld? Why is it being singled out and held to an impossible standard?
Let us look at what the Government are proposing, instead of following the science. Ministers have referred Evusheld to NICE for further clinical and cost-effective assessment; apparently, we might hear back in April 2023. That is another delay—another six months of isolation—even though every other covid treatment and vaccine was urgently procured before being appraised. I ask again, why is the Government’s treatment of Evusheld so inconsistent?
My constituent Helen Nash asked me to be here to support the case that the hon. Lady is making. She makes the key point: while the Government did a lot of great work to accelerate the availability of vaccines for the population at large, this particular cohort seems to be subject to a very different set of criteria. That is the great concern. While we must rely on clinical advice, we must also have the same situation for all people, regardless of their status.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the big concerns that has not been answered by the Government so far is why their approach to this drug is so inconsistent with their approach to others. As I say, Ministers have referred Evusheld to NICE, and it is not at all clear why their treatment of it is so different.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health has proposed that immunocompromised patients have an antibody test, and that those who do not respond well enough could join an Evusheld trial. Let us be clear what that trial would mean in real life. It would require some of the people who have been shielding to stay alive for two and a half years to come out of shielding like the rest of us, but without any protection from covid vaccines, knowing that they might only be given a placebo. It would be like taking lambs to the slaughter. I would be astonished and appalled if that proposal passed anyone’s ethics test. I do not know if the Minister would support one of his loved ones taking part in such a trial, but I certainly would not. Can the Minister therefore tell us why his Department wants to take this dangerous approach instead of the approach suggested by the Drug Safety Research Unit, which has called on the Secretary of State to roll out Evusheld now, for this winter, and to run an observational study of the impact?
Another question that has arisen is whether there are problems with supply. The answer is no. AstraZeneca has dismissed that claim.
The hon. Lady is presenting a powerful case; I congratulate her on securing this important debate. Max Johnson is a 14-year-old heart transplant recipient. He was the key figure in the organ donation campaign that was supported by Members right across the House. Max and his family are being supported by their local MP, the hon. and learned Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), but we have kept in close touch. Max’s life has been turned upside down since the start of the pandemic, with no light at the end of the tunnel of isolation. Does the hon. Lady agree that Max, along with thousands of other people across the country, has the right to a better life and should be allowed access to Evusheld without any further delay?
I completely agree.
I do not know how much a dose of Evusheld costs. I hope that, when the Government enter into negotiations with AstraZeneca, they will get a good price for the taxpayer. However, all Members of this House know what the cost is to our constituents who are affected. They have given up jobs, caring responsibilities and vital moments in their lives—they could not go to weddings, funerals or births. Some of them no longer run vital volunteer-led community services. Some have lost their life, and some are suicidal; they are thinking of taking their life because the psychological torture of prolonged shielding is too much for them to bear.
Those people are getting even more ill, because no one can be locked up for two and a half years without getting problems with their back or knees, or experiencing extreme loneliness and mental ill health. Those are all problems that are piling up for our already overstretched NHS. If those immunocompromised patients get covid, they are far more likely to end up in an intensive care unit, which we know will cost us thousands and thousands of pounds. There is also a risk of variant escape, because several studies show that new variants and virus mutations are more likely in immunocompromised patients. Against that backdrop, Evusheld is the cheap option.
Two years ago, Members stood in this room and begged Health Ministers to change their minds on care home restrictions, which were supposed to protect people but were so tight that some people started dying of neglect. We are at risk of that happening again. The Government changed course after that debate and can do so again today. The people affected by this feel that they do not have a life; it feels like a life sentence. Ministers have it in their gift to give those people their life back, and on behalf of the half a million, I urge the Minister—I beg him—to do it today.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) for securing the debate, and the many hon. Members from across the House who have either intervened on her, or whose presence on behalf of their constituents speaks to the concern and interest across the country.
I come to this debate not merely as a new Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, but as the Minister who established the shielding programme in spring 2020. I have been involved in these issues, in one way or another, for two and a half years, and care deeply about the individuals who have been shielding since then. Having met many of them, both as a Minister and as a constituency MP, I understand their distress, and the psychological harm that living a cloistered life places on them and their loved ones.
I also approach the issue with the view that the Government should make decisions on covid-19 treatments based on the available evidence and the recommendations of the medical experts at our disposal. That has been the case for all covid-19 treatments, and is, and should be, the case for Evusheld. It is imperative that we deploy only those drugs that we are content are effective. We would be doing a disservice to the public if we deployed drugs through the NHS that, in this grave situation, gave them a false sense of security.
I will make one further point, then I will come back to my hon. Friends. That does not mean that there is not a role for Ministers in interrogating the evidence, listening to the voices of those with the contrary view—both in the House and in the public domain—and ensuring that we get all the information that we need before we make informed decisions. That is the approach that I have tried to take in the three weeks in which I have been in post, and will take going forwards.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. On behalf of the half a million, and of one very special lady in my constituency, I wanted to ask a question. I have carefully considered the Government’s response. It talks about the risks outweighing the benefits of deploying Evusheld at this point, but I have not really been able to understand what those risks are; I understand the risks of not deploying it, which have been outlined. Could the Minister could speak to that? As the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) described, my constituent is fighting for her career, mental health and relationships, and this debate is very important to her.
I entirely agree with the point about making sure that we have clinically robust evidence. We saw during covid with ivermectin how poor data influenced a debate that was sparked across the world. That said, one thing we do have control over is how quickly we look at the regulation. Is there anything that the Minister can do to speed up the decision making? That is within his gift.
Yes, there is, and I hope I will be able to shed further light on that in my remarks, but given that there is relatively little time, sadly, for this debate, let me set out first the process that we have been through; I hope that that will give some comfort to those in the Chamber and listening to the debate that the issue has been handled in a very rigorous way.
Our regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, gave conditional marketing authorisation to Evusheld in March 2022, but—this is an important point to note—it did so noting a lack of data regarding how it responds to the omicron variant. The lack of supporting data has been noted by other respected regulatory authorities, including the European Medicines Agency and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. Although the MHRA licenses drugs, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence assesses the clinical and cost-effectiveness of them. The normal process would therefore be that NICE proceeds to investigate Evusheld, and that is happening as we speak. As the hon. Member for St Albans said, that process is due to conclude in April next year, but yesterday, I met NICE’s chief executive, Sam Roberts, to review her work and to seek reassurances that her work could proceed at a faster pace, and she has committed to reverting to me as soon as possible with a new timetable.
I welcome that development. I want to place it on the record that of course the devolved Governments also depend a lot on the advice of RAPID C-19. I am sure that the Welsh Government, along with the others, will welcome an accelerated timetable, if it is possible. I congratulate the Minister on doing that.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that comment. Given the urgent need—we all agree on that—to protect lives during the pandemic, we also expedited processes by creating RAPID C-19 as a multi-agency initiative made up of the UK’s main healthcare agencies. It was established in 2020, in response to the pandemic, to get treatments, such as Evusheld, to NHS patients quickly and safely. Therefore we did not simply leave the matter in the hands of NICE; we asked RAPID C-19 to review the evidence base for the use of Evusheld and to consider whether the evidence merited patients having access to it ahead of the normal NICE appraisal. The evidence has now been published and is available on gov.uk; any emerging evidence will continue to be kept under review. That includes the Crick data that the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned, which was published in May and in August and is now being reviewed by RAPID C-19, and also the Lancet study that she referenced, which was published on 6 October, relatively recently.[Official Report, 13 October 2022, Vol. 720, c. 1MC.]
Three types of evidence have been considered. The clinical trial data is generally the strongest source of evidence. However, in this case, the trial was carried out before omicron became dominant, so it does not confirm efficacy for omicron variants. It would be, I think, concerning to deploy a drug on the NHS that had not been considered in the light of omicron.
The Minister is making an interesting speech, but I am really inquisitive as to how we are still using vaccines that have not been tested on omicron, yet we are using the excuse of Evusheld not being tested on omicron for those people who are immunocompromised.
Before we deploy Evusheld on the NHS and give members of the public the sense of security that comes with that, it is clearly sensible for us to investigate its efficacy in the light of the dominant variant. Otherwise, we would be giving people a false sense of security.
We have looked at in vitro neutralisation studies, which can be completed much more rapidly than clinical trials, that have measured in the lab how a new variant changes the binding efficacy of the therapeutic. These studies show reduced binding with different omicron variants, which means that the clinical efficacy against these variants is expected to be reduced. We have also reviewed the published clinical experience of the use of Evusheld, including the studies emerging from the United States and Israel. There can be difficulties in interpreting some observational studies if, for example, there is not an appropriate control group. The conclusion of the evidence review is that there are uncertainties about efficacy, so a clinical trial has been proposed to look at that. We are working with AstraZeneca on the practicalities of creating an urgent trial that can inform the debate ahead of NICE’s ultimate decision in early 2023.
As was noted, other countries have introduced Evusheld, including, in some cases, before omicron was dominant. Many have decided to double the dose to try to counter the drug’s reduced ability to neutralise the omicron variant. Our experts consider that even at this increased dose, the evidence is still insufficient to demonstrate efficacy, so individuals could be at risk if they changed the protective behaviours that they have undertaken for many months.
The Government recognise that an effective pre-exposure programme for immunosuppressed people would be valuable, but the scientific evidence does not support emergency deployment of Evusheld at this time. To boost the evidence base for future decisions, clinical advisers in the expert groups and my Department have recommended a clinical trial, which could help us to answer outstanding questions on dose, efficacy and duration of protection against different variants. We are working through the practicalities of that trial. We will update colleagues and members of the public as quickly as possible.
We have had great success in generating evidence in clinical trials; last week, initial results from the PANORAMIC trial indicated that early treatment with one drug significantly reduced recovery time, and we will now work in the same way to understand what this evidence means for patient access to the drug. I appreciate the difficulties that immunosuppressed individuals face, particularly if they are concerned about not having protection from covid-19 vaccinations, and so continue with behaviours to avoid covid-19. We all recognise the impact that that has on individuals’ lives and want to improve their quality of life. The Antivirals and Therapeutics Taskforce has ensured that UK patients have the earliest access to antiviral, antibody and anti-inflammatory COVID-19 treatments. NHS patients were often the first in the world to receive safe and effective treatment, both in clinical trials and following regulatory approval of treatments.
Colleagues here and those listening at home have my personal assurance that I will continue to work with expert advisers in the Department, and with RAPID C-19, to ensure that they review all emerging evidence, and to ensure that the NICE process is carried out as swiftly as possible, while ensuring that it is safe and efficacious; we want to ensure that members of the public, who may ultimately receive this drug, have confidence that it does what they think it does.
I am holding a meeting for Members of this House with our expert advisers tomorrow at 11 am. It will give Members the opportunity to ask our experts, including those who have been part of RAPID C-19, any questions and seek further assurances.[Official Report, 13 October 2022, Vol. 720, c. 2MC.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for St Albans for securing this debate, and for the passionate way in which she expressed the strong feelings of members of the public; I hope to work with her productively in the months ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
[Julie Elliott in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: e-petition 582336, Ban Water Companies discharging raw sewage into water courses.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered sewage discharges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank all colleagues who are here to debate this important issue. I also thank the public and the e-petitioners for driving us to seek this change. I welcome the Minister to her place, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, for everything he has done on this matter. Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I will try to limit interventions. I recognise that there is a Minister here—my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman)—who cannot make a speech, and I hope some of these words will apply to him.
Let me illustrate why I sought this debate. As of 16 September, on nine out of the 16 days of the month Bexhill’s beach had been issued with a pollution risk warning and signs warning against bathing because of the risk of sewage discharge. On 18 August, a fault at a pumping station at Galley Hill caused a discharge of waste water, and sewage was pumped into the Bexhill coastline. It lasted for two and a half hours, starting at 2.59 pm, and bathers were not warned about what was occurring until early evening. In the settlement of Heathfield, residents at the bottom of the hill are up to their knees in discharge when heavy rain comes. That has led to rat infestations, illness for children and pets and contamination of homes and gardens.
Our sewerage system is not fit for purpose, and yet we keep building homes in these areas and making the situation worse. Much of our nation is covered by combined sewerage systems comprising hundreds of thousands of miles of sewers. When those systems cannot cope with the volume, rather than back up into properties, they discharge into our seas, our rivers and our waterways from approximately 15,000 combined sewer overflows. The practice is disgusting. Last year, there were more than 370,000 monitored spill events. Every discharge impacts our environment and our marine life, and our ability to enjoy it and make a living from it. This can no longer be tolerated.
Successive Governments have failed to tackle the issue, going back to the 19th century when much of the combined sewerage system was installed, although I welcome the Government’s latest steps to tackle the problem. Our job is to find solutions. With that in mind, I have four issues that I wish to touch on, and I will ask the Minister a number of questions.
The first issue is the storm overflow discharge reduction plan. I welcome the concept, but we could be more ambitious with the deadlines to eradicate storm overflows. The plan relies on data being correctly and fully recorded. Many citizen scientists, for whom we should all be very grateful, believe that the discharges are not fully recorded. I therefore ask the Minister the following questions. Given concerns about under-reporting, is she confident that the discharge data is accurate?
The event and duration of overflow discharges is monitored, but not the volume and impact. The Environmental Audit Committee recommended the installation of volume monitors on overflows. Will the new Minister explain why the Department rejected that recommendation?
Given that the 2035 and 2050 targets have been criticised for lacking sufficient ambition and urgency, will the Minister consider allowing Ofwat to permit sewage companies to deliver their improvement plans earlier and to higher standards? Southern Water, in the area I represent, aims to meet the storm overflow targets, but it would hit 80% by 2030, rather than 75% by 2035, which is the Government’s target.
The second issue is bathing water testing and quality. To use an example local to me, Bexhill’s bathing water quality is rated sufficient. There was a concern recently that it would drop to poor. The town comprises 40,000 people, and that number swells during tourist season. To assess water quality, testing occurs weekly between May and September. It is tested at different times of the day, but always in the same place in the sea. I am told that the water is tested in the busiest part of the beach, but our beach has no focal point and surely a wider area of bathing water should be tested. We are adjacent to excellent bathing water at St Leonards, so swimmers cross from excellent to sufficient in one stroke.
Every day—I am sure it is the same for other colleagues—the Environment Agency sends me pollution risk warnings. However, for many days, Bexhill has been the only beach where signs advising against bathing should be displayed. When I asked what made Bexhill unique, given that it rains across the Sussex coast, I was told that there was something particular about Bexhill and heavy rainfall. In Bexhill’s case, the testing place is adjacent to an outlet coming from a stream, which is the responsibility of the Environment Agency. In three years in which the agency has tested sub-optimal bathing water, Southern Water’s own testing in the immediate vicinity has come up clear on the same day.
Many suspect that heavy rainwater is coming from the highways into the stream and then entering the sea. That may or may not be the cause of the low bathing water quality. However, the fact that we do not know why our bathing water is only just sufficient tells us that we do not know enough about what is going on and therefore we do not know how to clean things up.
Does the Minister believe that it would be more optimal to test water quality on different parts of the beach and on a continuous basis? Given that the bathing water testing regime is some 30 years old, does she believe that the Environment Agency’s testing takes into account the latest pollutants, such as plastics, and gives an adequate reading of our bathing waters? Will the storm overflow discharge reduction plan prioritise busy bathing areas, such as Bexhill, which have bathing quality status below excellent or good?
The third issue is the impact from roads and house building. I will refer to the experience of residents in Heathfield, who have been blighted by sewage and flooding, and they still are when heavy rain comes. This is not just about the sewage companies, but about highways agencies ensuring that their drains can take heavy rainfall rather than it ending up in the combined sewer and causing a discharge or backfill. Despite this, Heathfield has more house building on top of the ridge below which these other roads sit.
On house building and roads, does the Minister believe that it is right to put the onus mainly on water companies to deliver fixes in the storm overflow discharge reduction plan, when many of these assets and the responsibility for them rest with the highways authorities? Has she considered giving the highway authorities a statutory duty to act and to maintain these assets after action has been taken, along with the funds that are to be generated for the plan? Alternatively, would she consider a prohibition on surface water from the highways entering the sewerage system? Either would reduce the chances of the combined sewer becoming overwhelmed in inclement weather. Next, will the Government commit to implement the plan for sustainable drainage systems—or SuDS, as it is known—thereby removing the automatic right to connect to the public sewer system, in order to prevent new developments from adding more surface water to the combined sewerage network?
Highways authorities can refuse to allow connection to their water courses. Will they be required to provide this access in order to avoid a situation in which developers connect to the combined sewers? Will the planning provisions in the forthcoming Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill enable further action to ensure that development takes place only where it will not put further pressure on the combined sewerage system, or will it provide local planning authorities with a justification for saying that further house building cannot take place without the establishment of separate drainage systems? Will the new planning rules allow for sewage companies to be statutory consultees on new planning applications rather than on just the local plan? My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow has a fine amendment in mind for that, and I would fully support it.
The final piece is the role of all of us—the role of the public. With more understanding of the combined sewer system and a demand that we end discharges into our waters, the public stand ready to play their part. However, many householders just do not know whether they are putting the heavy rainwater from their gutters into the sewerage system. If they did, many of them would take action to halt the flow and thereby halt the number of discharges when the system is overwhelmed. It might be cheaper to provide water butts to homes for free than to cope with an overwhelmed drainage system.
Will the Minister consider a requirement for householders to be informed if they have a combined sewerage pipe from their homes? Will she consider further financial incentives for householders to ensure that their rainwater goes into a water butt or tank, to help to reduce volume and to help when water is scarce in drier times?
I am so pleased that we are having this debate. I will end my remarks there because so many people wish to speak, and I am grateful to the Minister for the response that she will give.
As everyone can see, this is a highly subscribed debate. If everyone gets to speak—I want to try to get everybody in—they will have a minute and a half. I will have that limit informally for the first couple of speakers, but I will quickly introduce it formally if people do not stick to it.
Thank you, Ms Elliott. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this important debate. I am speaking quickly because of the 90-second limit that has been set.
We must be clear: we are in a dirty water emergency. Only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological standards, and water companies discharged raw sewage into English waterways more than 1.2 million times between 2016 and 2021. In my own constituency of Stockport, the Rivers Trust has reported that there have been 1,089 sewage spills for a total duration of 3,487 hours. This is shocking. As water bills have increased by 40% since privatisation, £72 billion has gone to shareholders, and yet investment in improving infrastructure has decreased by 15%. People are rightly angry.
The shameful frequency of sewage discharges and the resulting damage to our most valued, delicate river habitats is wreaking havoc on our natural environment and ecology, notwithstanding the public health issues it is causing. In the north-west, recent data from the Labour party shows that our tourism and leisure spots have been devastated by 253 years’ worth of raw sewage discharge. We also know that across the region there has been a 62% increase in the number of monitored discharge hours between 2018 and 2021. That is why I was so disappointed to learn last week from a report in The Guardian that the Environment Agency knew that raw sewage was being pumped into our rivers in the north-west of England 10 years ago in 2012. I must add that the Environment Agency has had a significant funding cut over the last few years, and we must talk a lot more about that. My local company, United Utilities, has been dumping raw sewage into rivers while failing to treat the required amount of sewage stipulated in its permits.
I am conscious that other people want to speak, so I will make my last point. Between 2002 and 2018 Scottish Water, which remains publicly owned, invested on average nearly 35% more per household than private English water companies did. Meanwhile in Germany, only 5% of the water supply leaks, but in England that figure is 20%. Additionally, by the admission of the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2018, nine regional water companies had paid out 95% of their profits to shareholders between 2007 and 2016. The simple solution to this crisis is public ownership of water.
I have public sewage discharge meetings concerning my rivers. I get the water companies, the Environment Agency, the district council and the county council together, and we take verbatim minutes and agree action points. One of the key things we heard in the last meeting was that British water bills are among the lowest in Europe. If we wish to clean up our rivers, there is therefore scope to increase our water bills. The Environment Act 2021 was a wonderful piece of legislation introduced by the Government, and let us make it work. We have already heard about monitoring above and below discharges so we can see where the problem is. Publish the data so the Government get the plans and send them off to Ofwat, which can allow more investment to stop storm discharges. The worst discharges do not occur during storms, however; they happen most of the time.
The other half of this problem is farmers, and I declare my interest as a farmer. Under environment land management schemes, we have new soil quality plans to stop farmers using fertiliser in unsuitable conditions, when nitrates and phosphates run off into water. Over the 30 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, our precious limestone rivers in the Cotswolds have become more opaque, and there are more weeds in those rivers. Our plans under the Environment Act and under the sewage reduction plan over the next 25 years, costing £56 billion, need to be sped up. That is what our constituents demand.
The only other ask I make of the Minister is to give the Environment Agency enough resources not only to police discharges, but to make prosecutions quicker and easier. That is what we need so that polluters, whoever they are, know they will be caught out and stopped. The public are demanding it and Members of Parliament, who are here in such numbers, are demanding it. We must get on and get these plans into action more quickly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this excellent debate. It is really important, and I thought he made an exceptional start.
I want to make three points. It is not really possible to articulate an argument in the time available, so I will just go through the motions. I want to mention the problem, the impact and the fundamental flaw in the water industry. The excellent Rivers Trust sewage monitoring data for 2021, which is available on the website, highlights 5,115 hours of sewage discharges in my constituency alone. That is the equivalent of 213 days of continuous sewage discharges. When sewage is dumped on 213 days out of 365, that is not an exceptional event but a persistent problem.
My constituency is fortunate because we have the east Durham heritage coast, and east Durham is home to a thriving wild swimming community. Seaham Seaside Swimmers is a local network with many hundreds of members who are passionate about health and wellbeing. Those who participate in that activity are aware of the Safer Seas and Rivers Service app, and last year there were more than 119 pollution alerts from the three combined sewage outlets in my constituency. We really must do better, and we look to the Government and the regulator to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate.
My Gosport constituency is a peninsula surrounded by Portsmouth harbour and the Solent’s waters, so we are a coastal community. We are also proudly protective of the ecology of the Solent. From the seagrasses to the seahorses, the flora and fauna of our coastal waters is vital to their health and sustainability, which is threatened by sewage pollution. In Stokes Bay, Lee-on-the-Solent and Hill Head, we have avid swimmers and lovers of water sports all year round, not just in the summer months.
We know that several targets have been set out for storm overflow reduction, and I welcome the new measures, but I have to express my frustration at the implied lack of urgency. The timescales are simply insufficiently ambitious. I know that storm overflows are a Victorian sewer system design feature, and I know that achieving the targets will require large and complex infrastructure projects, but water companies have made staggering profits for decades. In some cases, they have paid eye-watering fines while not sufficiently investing in infrastructure. Enough has to be enough.
Unfortunately, we regularly experience sewage outflows around our local beaches in Gosport. They do not always coincide with heavy rainfall, but the Environment Agency is only funded to deliver the requirements of the bathing water regulations by testing the waters between May and September. Therefore, if discharges occur in the winter months, the water quality is not known. I say to the Minister that our coastal ecology is affected all year round and people use the waters all year round. Can she please tell me what thought has been given to asking, and funding, the Environment Agency to check the waters all year round?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.
Over the summer, we saw multiple news stories reporting that water companies were pumping sewage into the sea. There were numerous reports of people being warned to stay out of the water at popular beaches because of pollution risks and unsafe conditions. It is an issue that my constituents are very concerned about, particularly as I represent a coastal community. In August, the Government published their storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which requires water companies to reduce discharges into designated bathing water and high-priority nature sites by 2035, and into all sites by 2050. That simply is not good enough.
The Rivers Trust has criticised the Government’s lack of ambition and said that the plan is too little, too late, adding that it was appalled to see that the plan had not taken into account the thousands of responses to the draft consultation, which called for much more ambitious targets. It is very clear that the Government’s plan to tackle discharge just does not show the level of ambition that we need to protect and enhance the quality of our coastal waters and waterways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.
We have too much sewage going into our waters. This is not a new problem—everybody in the various political parties is agreed on that. I was a supporter of the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), and I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on chalk streams. I also have the great Letcombe brook project in my constituency, so this issue matters a great deal to me.
A lot of nonsense has been written about MPs voting to allow sewage into our waters. As the independent fact-checking website Full Fact said, that is not true: whichever way that vote last year had gone, sewage would have continued to go into our waters, because our systems are very old, we cannot change them overnight and the alternative is sewage backing up into people’s homes, which is even worse.
I welcome the Government’s Environment Act, which places a legal duty on water companies to reduce the harm from sewage discharges, and the storm overflows plan, which will unlock £56 billion to help fix the problem. I probably most welcome the increase in the maximum fine from £250,000 to £250 million; that is the sort of thing that will help the water industry to take the issue seriously. There is a whole range of problems, from leaks to sewage. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, the public see a water industry that is
“slow to stop leaks, slow to repair them, slow to stop pollution and slow to say sorry.”
That has to change—the sooner, the better.
Thank you for chairing this debate, Ms Elliott, and I also thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing it.
We hear that there will potentially be an increase in the maximum fine. There have been only 11 prosecutions in the last four years, so we know that the real cause of anger is the failure to deal with legal discharges of sewage into our waterways, lakes and rivers. The collective profit of the water companies last year was £2.7 billion—£1 billion in shareholder dividends. The choice is not having sewage back up into people’s houses or letting it flow into our waterways, rivers, lakes and streams. The alternative is to invest those obscene profits in holding tanks to ensure that we do not get sewage outflows in the first place. [Interruption.] I hear Conservative Members muttering from sedentary positions. I wish they were as angry about sewage as they are about people campaigning against sewage.
In Windermere, the largest lake in England, there were 71 days last year when sewage was discharged legally. In Coniston, there were 112 days when sewage was discharged legally. In the River Eden, in Kirkby Stephen, there were 2,500 hours of sewage being discharged legally. In Morecambe Bay, there were 35,000 hours of sewage being discharged legally. The option here is obvious: to force the water companies to invest their profits now—not over a 20-year period—to ensure that the water in the lakes of the Lake district, the dales and the rest of the country are not polluted by sewage, so that this environmental health risk, public health risk, risk to animal welfare and risk to our economy is not allowed to continue. The Government have the power to force the water companies to take the action that they should take. We know that the water companies have the money to do it. Why are the Government not forcing them to do it now?
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).
I have 90 seconds to make three points. First, water is not like other products; it is the single most critical resource for any society. Without it, human civilisation, even existence, is impossible. I make that point because there is a special duty on water companies to act in the public interest, and I am afraid that too often they have deliberately shielded themselves from scrutiny or used complex structures to avoid paying taxes. They have appeared more interested in financial engineering than in the civil engineering that is required.
Secondly, combined sewage overflows are not new or unique, as has powerfully been pointed out. The reality is that there are more per capita in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. However, times have changed, and expectations have rightly changed, too. Progress is required, and it is required now.
Thirdly, the River Chelt, in my constituency, matters very much. I grew up near its source; it flows through my back garden, as it happens. I am pleased that Severn Trent Water have said to me—have given, in their words, a cast-iron assurance—that they will reduce overflows into the River Chelt by 85% by the end of 2024. That is welcome—it is essential—but if it does not deliver, I am afraid that my constituents, and constituents around the country, will take the view that the water companies are the unacceptable face of capitalism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am proud to represent the River Lea as part of my constituency, but in 2021 there were 27 instances of sewage discharge into the Lea—184 hours in total. That is not new: in 2019 overall the River Lea was classified as bad, failing on both chemical standards and ecological health. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the UK. Research from Thames21—an excellent charity that does work to keep our inland waterways clean—and University College London shows that the amount of faecal E. coli bacteria in the river regularly exceeds international standards. That is not a sentence that I ever thought I would have to read out, because it is shocking that that is the case. Hackney, my local council, has established the London Lea Catchment Partnership with other local councils and Thames21, to try to improve biodiversity, increase the cleanliness of the river and work to discourage swimming, Sadly, that has to be the case when we are still getting that level of discharge.
I have two key asks for the Minister. As other Members have highlighted, the sampling system has been unchanged for 25 years. It covers the May to September period. We need better and different sampling. Secondly, the Canal & River Trust does not get information or data in real time from the Environment Agency, so when it does monitor water quality there is a time lag and delay. If that could be done in real time, the Canal & River Trust and other partners such as Hackney Council could at least warn users not to use the river when it is dangerous. As other hon. Members have said, it is shocking that we have got to this stage, and we need real action now.
May I start by pleading with colleagues about the tone of this debate? We are legislators, not pollsters. When we vote, it is not an opinion poll on whether sewage is good or bad; it is about making good law that we are able to enforce.
I want to place it on record that I was proud to vote for the Environment Act. We know about the scale of the problem because we voted to put monitoring in place for the first time. We are investing £56 billion to change the infrastructure. Of course it could be done quicker, but we are making a start. We are seeing record levels of fines. Southern Water in my patch was fined over £90 million last year. I welcome the maximum possible fine being increased to £250 million—that cannot come soon enough.
I violently agree with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), that we also need to look at our highways, house building, the concreting of driveways, and the impact that they all have on water. I would like to see the expansion of reservoirs so that they can cope with rainfall. Finally, fixing the leaks is not just about saving water, but about making sure that water is not adding to the rainfall and adding to the problem. Given the number of Conservative Members present, I hope the Minister acknowledges the importance of this issue. We want to see enforcement action taking place.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this important debate. In Salford, we have had numerous incidents of sewage discharge. For example, in 2021 a sewer storm overflow at Pomona docks spilled 289 times for a total of 1,733 hours, discharging into the Manchester ship canal. It will take more than regulation and fluffy reduction targets to fix the problem.
Sadly, years of chronic underfunding of the Environment Agency and inaction by water regulator Ofwat means that there are few legal teeth to stop water companies flagrantly discharging sewage into our waterways. In my own constituency, the Court of Appeal sided with a major water company in the north-west, United Utilities, in a case brought by the Good Law Project over the legal routes available to people to challenge its discharging of sewage into the Manchester ship canal. That case means that any water company can dump sewage into waterways in England and Wales without fear of being sued in a civil court by any group—whether that is an angling club, a swimming club, a wildlife group or local residents. There is plenty that the Government can do to address the issue: properly fund environmental agencies, give environmental agencies real legal teeth for enforcement, and set more ambitious legal targets to clean up water quality. Finally, they should bring water companies into public ownership. It cannot be morally right that dividend extraction trumps investment in infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. We need to be absolutely clear: nobody wants to see untreated sewage discharged into our rivers and seas. To suggest otherwise is quite frankly nonsense. I have the privilege of representing the wonderful constituency of St Austell and Newquay. It has two coasts, and hardly a week goes by when a constituent does not contact me about this issue.
To suggest that Conservative Members do not take this matter seriously, and at times are not angry about what is going on, is quite frankly wrong. This is the first Government to put in place a deliverable plan to address the issue and hold water companies to account. That is what we voted for, and that is what we are delivering. Yes, it could be quicker—and I know that because I had the privilege of being the Minister who launched the combined sewage discharge reduction plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who did most of the work on that; I just got to do the glamorous bit and launch it. It contains a review date of 2025 to look at whether the delivery of the plan can be sped up. I urge the Minister and whoever is in the hot seat when the review takes place to continue to do that.
The Government are looking at planning reform, and if there is one thing we can do to help it is to speed up the planning process for water companies that want to upgrade their sewerage systems. Removing the red tape would help deliver the plan much quicker.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. For my constituents, this issue is of significant local concern. In fact, last year, the very first visit I made as an MP was to see with my own eyes the impact of a sewage discharge at Latimer Park in my constituency.
Chesham and Amersham is home to two of the nation’s chalk streams: the River Chess and the River Misbourne. They are globally rare and locally precious, but despite their ecological significance, in 2020 and 2021 the River Chess saw a total of 175 discharges from Thames Water’s treatment works in Chesham—one of the worst figures in the country.
My constituents clearly share my disgust, as more than 1,000 of them signed the petition to ban this damaging practice, and I want to give voice to their concerns. Fortunately, I have been assured that something is about to change at a local level. This summer I met Thames Water, which outlined its plans to expand the capacity of the Chesham sewage treatment works by 40% to prevent future sewage discharges. However, as we know, storm overflows do not only take place due to a lack of capacity. Discharges frequently occur during particularly rainy periods when the rainwater run-off makes its way into the sewerage system through leaky pipes and loose manhole covers. Thames Water is looking to counter that in my constituency, and is undertaking a project to replace or reseal 750 manhole covers. I welcome that investment, and I look forward to seeing the results of its efforts, which it assures me will be completed by the end of 2023. I know I will not be the only one locally keeping a close eye on whether it meets that target.
If we are to protect our country’s rivers, similar action must be taken across the country, and quickly. The Government have assured us that such improvements will take place, but I am concerned that, under current plans, a portion of the price of the works will be paid by the public in the form of increasing water bills. The discharges occur in large part as a result of years of underinvestment and neglect by water companies. They must be held to account for the failure to maintain essential infrastructure to a functional standard. They should pay to fix it.
I will get straight to the point. For the record, this Government did not vote to allow raw sewage to be discharged into rivers. On the contrary, it was this Government, through a whole range of processes—in particular, six pages of clauses in the Environment Act 2021, which I was proud to bring through with the support of many hon. Members here—who put in place a comprehensive system for dealing with our sewage once and for all. We also set targets to reduce storm sewage overflows via the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, announced by the other former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). We hope the current Minister—I welcome her to her place—will make sure we keep to the targets. In 2025, the Government have to report on progress. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman): I think we can bring forward the 2050 target and get rid of the impact of these overflows quicker.
We have to make sure that Ofwat, the independent regulator, does its job. It has had new guidance from the Government through the strategic policy statement to put the environment at the top of the agenda and reduce storm sewage overflows. It has to use its tools better than it did before. Water company executives should not be taking large salaries unless they reflect environmental improvement.
I welcome the new fines for polluting—that is great—but please could we make that money available, via a third-party organisation such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to communities and farmers in the catchments where the pollution occurred? I think that would be very popular.
Finally, this is much bigger than just sewage; we have loads of other things to deal with. The cocktail of pollution in our rivers is shocking, but the Government are on it. We have set new targets for nitrogen and phosphorus soil run-off. The Minister has to report back on those targets by 31 October, so no pressure. We agreed as a Government to publish those targets, and we would like to see them come to the fore.
Can we please deal with fatbergs and bring through mandatory clear labelling on what things are flushable? The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) will probably comment on that. Finally, we need a more holistic approach to dealing with water: supply, demand, abstraction—bring it all together, Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank all the 111,000 people across the country who signed the petition, and the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for introducing this important debate.
Last year, 370,000 discharges of untreated sewage flowed into our English waters, including the Wandle, in my constituency, for three and a half hours on 25 August. That followed 81 sewage leaks into the Wandle in 2021. People are shocked by these sewage overflows, but the situation can be changed.
I have three points to make. First, the reason for that leak was that the storage of the Beddington sewage works overflowed, going out into the sewers. Water companies need to fast-track storage to stop overflows happening.
Secondly, my campaign to ban the use of plastic in wet wipes has had support cross-party, including from former Ministers. A consultation closed in February. Plastic is the reason why wet wipes do not disintegrate but flow through the sewers and out into the riverbed. Just yesterday, I was on the bank of the River Thames and saw all these toxic ropes formed by wet wipes that have not disintegrated because they are made of plastic. Will the Minister confirm the next steps on that public consultation, whether she supports banning plastic in wet wipes, and when that ban will be put in place?
My final point is about urgency: 2035 and 2050 are far too late. We have the worst-quality rivers in Europe. It does not have to be this way. I urge the Minister to take more action, more urgently.
My constituency of South Cambridgeshire is home to many beautiful chalk streams: the Mel, the Shep, the Rhee—I played in them as a kid. That is why the issue of sewage discharges is so important to me and my constituents. It is clear that sewage discharges are completely unacceptable. We must do everything we can to tackle them.
I fully support the measures that the Government took in the Environment Act 2021 to tackle them. I note that the Opposition parties all voted against the one piece of legislation to reduce sewage discharges—we will have to ask them why they voted that way. I welcome the fact that the Government have increased the maximum fine from £250,000 to £250 million, but I have a suggestion to go further, and I have made this point previously in the Chamber.
Ofwat is doing a consultation on financial resilience, which includes looking at dividend payments and tying that to environmental performance. I have written to the chief executive of Ofwat, David Black, to suggest that he goes even further and considers tying bonus payments of senior managers and dividend payments to environmental performance. In particular, if a water company is fined for illegal sewage discharges, it should not be able to pay dividends to its shareholders that year or to pay bonuses to its senior manager. Bankers lose their bonuses for breaking the law, and so should senior water executives. I urge the Minister to consider taking that forward.
Finally, the constituency of South Cambridgeshire as among the highest levels of house building in the country. That has been massively pushed by the local Liberal Democrats, who are trying to build far more than the Government think is necessary. All those houses produce sewage, and all that sewage increases discharges into our local rivers.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for introducing this debate. I share the anger of many constituents, Members and the petitioners at the actions of water companies as they continue to pump sewage into our rivers and seas.
As another riparian MP, I know how important the Thames is—it gives space for rowing, paddleboarding and kayaking. It helps local businesses such as boat companies to thrive and it supports wildlife and our natural environment. Thames Water pumps raw sewage into the Thames every time it rains more than a drizzle. Last year, over two days it pumped 2 billion litres into the Thames. It came from Mogden sewage treatment works in my constituency, which has released raw sewage 45 times already this year.
I have challenged Thames Water about odour, mosquitos and sewage discharges over the 25 years that I was councillor and the seven and a half years I have been an MP. On 31 January 2021, my constituency saw at first hand the impact of a chronic lack of investment in sewage infrastructure. When the brick wall of the sewage inlet at Mogden collapsed, sewage spilled into the pristine Duke of Northumberland’s river, then into surrounding homes and parks in Isleworth, and then into the Thames.
We have seen a decade of failure from successive Conservative Governments. When the Prime Minister was Environment Secretary, she had a near puritanical obsession with cheese and pork, but what about sewage? She did not have a single meeting with water companies to discuss their performance on sewage spills, but she found time to push through savage cuts to the Environment Agency and to its enforcement and monitoring work, which is a disgrace. People across the country are rightfully angry. This has been a systematic failure, a failure by Ofwat and a failure by successive Conservative Governments over a decade.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for their superb campaigning on this issue. This is a hidden scandal, and it is frankly deeply shocking.
In South West Surrey last year, we had nine sewer storm overflows in Godalming, nine in Grayswood, 12 in Bramley, 29 in Farnham and 76 in Chiddingfold. Taken together, they amount to 24 hours a day of sewage storm overflows for 65 days in a row—two whole months. It is morally indefensible to pollute our environment in that way.
We know the answers, which have been spoken about eloquently today. In particular, we need investment in more wastewater and rainwater capacity, the proper measuring of phosphate levels, the banning of plastic wet wipes, which I support absolutely, and changes to the planning rules. The Government have done a great deal on the issue, and it is a shame that we were not able to do more when we were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats a decade ago.
Two thousand people responded to my survey on the issue, and 94% of them signed a petition to the water companies. What all of us want is a timetable, so that we can see tangible progress on cleaning up our rivers, saving our fish and boosting biodiversity in our precious countryside.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to everyone who took to beaches across the south of England this weekend in protest at the deplorable condition of our beaches and rivers. At Bexhill beach, in the hon. Member’s constituency, wild swimmers came together to form a human wave. Meanwhile, in Whitstable, local campaigners cordoned off Tankerton beach and declared it a crime scene. They were distinctly British protests, and people had the right to be angry.
Even if Ofwat is content to turn a blind eye, a crime is being committed—not just against our precious natural environment, but against all those who depend on our nation’s waters for their livelihoods, leisure and mental wellbeing. For far too long, the water monopolies have been allowed to treat our rivers and coastal waters as open sewers. Since 2016, more than 1 million sewage spills have been recorded, which is one every two and a half minutes. That is the equivalent of more than 1,000 years of raw sewage. Britain is once again the dirty man of Europe.
In my constituency, more than 650 sewage spills were recorded last year, with thousands more along the length of the Mersey. That is dealing a grievous blow to the decades-long effort to improve water quality in our region and undermining the ability of working-class families in Birkenhead to enjoy some of our borough’s best beauty spots.
The blame for the unfolding ecological catastrophe lies squarely with the water monopolies which, since the privatisation of the water industry in 1989, have hiked up bills by 40% on average in real terms while paying £57 billion in shareholder dividends that could have gone towards making much-needed improvements in infrastructure. However, we must not forget the essential role that this Government have played as an accessory to the crime.
Water companies such as United Utilities in my region would surely never have acted with such disregard for their obligations towards our natural environment had they not been guaranteed that successive Conservative Environment Secretaries would simply look the other way. Indeed, the Prime Minister served for two years as Environment Secretary—
My congratulations to my office neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I will make a few quick points, because I agree with virtually everything that has been said—apart from what the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) just said.
The Minister, in her response, needs to reassure us that she will be looking at the water quality target work done over the past year. That is due to be published shortly. She needs to ensure that it dovetails with what is in the Environment Act 2021, in order to ensure that the results of the self-monitoring called for by many Members upstream and downstream of the storm overflows are made available to the water companies, the Environment Agency and the public, so that we can all know the quality of the water we are visiting.
Secondly, I hope the Minister will speak to her colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill goes through, so that we can ensure that the necessary measures, as highlighted by the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has done so much work on these issues, can be properly brought into effect in legislation as required. That includes, for example, making water companies statutory consultees for large developments that might impact on a treatment or supply location. At present they are not, other than through the local plans.
Finally, when the Minister looks at the implementation of drainage management plans by water companies, I urge her to recognise that there is the possibility for some companies to go further and faster with those plans? Will she encourage them to do so, as Severn Trent did when it decided to replace the main sewer in Mansfield as part of the green recovery plan funding last summer?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my constituency next door neighbour and parliamentary colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). This debate shows that there is a clear need for action, and it has more than done justice to the issue. I want to echo the call for an informed, responsible debate.
I represent the beautiful coastal community of Eastbourne, and tourism is our mainstay. Genuinely, this last summer, local people said to me that they would not take their lives in their hands by swimming in the sea. However, they are stunned when I tell them of the reality around our situation—that our bathing water quality is actually good, touching on excellent, and that a live Government-funded and county council-delivered project called Blue Heart is going to get us to that excellent rating.
People are equally surprised to learn, having looked at the social media discharge on this subject, that 95% of our discharge is actually rainwater. They are also surprised to learn that, since 2017, Southern Water has redirected any dividends back into the business and has not paid out those profits. They are equally surprised when I say that, while the international standard for “good” is set at 70, the UK sits at 74. That is better than Germany and France, and we are chasing the Scandinavian countries, which do these things rather better.
It is really important for communities such as mine that this debate is grounded in responsible, informed discussion. I echo the sense of urgency. I asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in May whether the bathing season could be extended all year round, and I very much hope that that will be the case and that monitoring will likewise be all year round.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I wish to put on record the deeply felt frustrations of many residents in Hastings and Rye, who rightly expect clean rivers and seas, as we all do. I strongly welcome this debate, secured by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who spoke passionately and persuasively about the sewage discharge issues facing local people in East Sussex and about the responsibility of Government, water companies, highways organisations and the Environment Agency in dealing with them.
While some try to use the issue to score political points, this Government have taken extensive steps to ensure that we have clean water and a fully costed, affordable plan. After all, it is measures introduced by a Conservative-led Government that mean that the true extent of this issue is now better understood. Comprehensive measures have been put in place, and I urge the Government to do what they can to ramp up the pace of change. It is easy to play student politics with an issue such as this, and to shout and demand action without having a real plan, but working with all stakeholders—local, regional and national—is a pre-requisite to progress.
We can all do our bit by helping to reduce surface water, meaning rainwater, from entering the sewage pipes and to reduce what we put down our loos and kitchen sinks—cooking fat, wet wipes and such. Local solutions are key, and we should make greater use of nature-based solutions to reduce water surface run-off: water attenuation plans, swales, tree-planting, household water butts, permeable paving, grey water storage tanks in new developments and so on. If we work with all stakeholders and put local solutions into practice, that will, alongside central Government action through the Environment Act, begin to make a real, positive and long-lasting difference to our ability to reduce our reliance on sewage discharge.
It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for bring this important debate to the Chamber. Over 1,200 of my constituents responded to the petition—the third highest number from any constituency—but I would argue that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the feeling on the ground.
I welcome the excellent work done by various Ministers and former Ministers; it is this Government who are driving forward this agenda, which for many years has been ignored. As someone who has been closely involved locally in this issue for the last two years, working with the community, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, I know that a lot of people on the ground are willing and able to significantly improve the quality of life of my constituents. I urge the Minister to continue to build on the work of the excellent new Secretary of State by putting the feet of Ofwat and the Environment Agency to the coals to ensure that they understand how important this issue is on both sides of this House and, more importantly, to our communities.
In South West Hertfordshire, I have the Grand Union canal and the River Chess, which are unfortunately frequent flyers in this respect. Comments have been made about illegal sewage treatment releases, but there have consistently been legal sewage treatment releases, which have caused even more offence to my constituents. Hopefully the Minister will appreciate my emotion; all I am doing is sharing what my constituents feed back to me.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliot. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this speed debate. I will make four points. One, which has already been alluded to, is that the impact of storm overflows on coastal communities must be recognised and prioritised by the Government and water companies.
In Southend we have seven miles of beaches, which attract 7 million visitors a year, although the most important visitor every single day—I am stealing a line from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell)—is the sea. We have the Thames, which is the lifeblood of our local economy and supports our thousand-year-old fishing and cockle industries. We also have one of the most environmentally protected foreshores in the country, and, of course, our local economy.
That is why it is so outrageous that, last year, in Southend alone, sewage was pumped into the sea 48 times, for more than 251 hours. That is more than 10 whole days. On top of that, being at the end of the Thames, we get the 39 million tonnes of sewage dumped into the Thames every single year. Coastal communities are a special case.
Point No.2 is that the water companies need to do far more. Of course, I recognise and welcome that the Government have taken steps to tackle the problem through the storm overflow reduction plan. However, Southenders cannot wait until 2035 for the use of storm overflows to be eliminated in Southend West. Most importantly and immediately, Anglian Water must better inform residents when there has been a recent pollution incident from one of our five storm overflows. The data and technology are there; the water companies must use them.
Thirdly—I may not get to my fourth point—we can all do our bit, as has been said very fluently this afternoon. One of the main causes of storm overflows being used is blockages caused by non-flushable wet wipes. There are 370,000 blockages a year, which cost bill payers £100 million to sort out. Will the Minister agree to support the brilliant Conservative Environment Network campaign for a mandatory clear labelling system for commonly flushed items such as wet wipes? Just because things might be biodegradable—and wet wipes are not—that does not mean they are flushable. I will not carry on with my fourth point.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this debate; it is clearly much needed. I thank the 278 of my constituents who signed the petition and helped to bring this debate here today.
Last Saturday morning, hundreds of residents gathered at Gyllyngvase beach in Falmouth to attend an anti-sewage pollution protest. In Falmouth, we have had enough. This is affecting people’s lives and businesses, and it is not just in Falmouth; it is happening all over my constituency. In Cornwall, we do not just look at the waterways—we use them for recreation, we use them to fish for a living, we use them for exercise, and we swim in them. I have one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries on the River Fal, and we have a duty of care to protect that fishery and give it the best chance of life.
One of the most shocking figures I saw was that one storm overflow spilled 355 times, for almost 7,500 hours in our River Fal. Some simple maths shows that that particular outlet was discharging sewage for the equivalent of 312 days. Just imagine for a moment that sewage was being discharged all day and all night for 312 days in a calendar year. That did not literally happen, but it kind of did.
I recently met South West Water on site in Portloe, a beautiful, picturesque fishing village, to talk about the raw sewage overflow there. When the system overflows, as it often does in the summer, it squirts sewage up into the air and on to the foreshore, which is horrendous. It should not take the intervention of the local MP before something is done about that. Something has to change.
I have had the great privilege of sitting on the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), and we have done some great work on this. I pay tribute to the work he has led—I have only been a small part of it. I work locally with people and stakeholders to do what we can to clear up the River Fal, in particular, and it is not just about the storm overflows; all sorts of other things go into the river. After two and a half years as an MP and much longer campaigning on this issue, I believe we really must do better. I have run out of time, so I will sit down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I commend you on getting so many speakers in, and I commend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate.
We have heard about the key issues regarding sewage discharges. I am in a unique position, in that I am the only MP in the current Parliament who is a sewerage civil engineer. I have designed combined sewer overflows and sewer flood alleviation schemes, so hopefully I can add some insight. I worked in the water industry from 1993 until my election in 2015. In my early days as a graduate engineer, I saw at first hand how the Tories resisted implementation of EU legislation, which left the UK with a massive catch-up in terms of cleaning up the beaches and getting rid of the “dirty man of Europe” moniker. I hope we do not see a return to that south of the border.
In those early days, as with the privatisation of the railways, the Tories argued that privatising the water companies had magically created investment and improved performance. The reality is that it was nothing to do with privatisation, but resulted from the requirement to comply with the EU bathing water directive and urban waste water treatment directive and allowing the water companies to borrow money. The fact that Scotland maintained public ownership of the water companies that would eventually become Scottish Water is proof that compliance and investment can be achieved without the need to privatise.
Since privatisation, English water companies have paid out nearly £60 billion in dividends. That money should be reinvested into upgrading infrastructure. It is effectively a £2 billion-a-year subsidy from water bill payers to hedge funds and asset management companies. It is also worth pointing out that bills in Scotland are lower than those in England and Wales.
It might not be popular or widely understood, although some Members did touch on it, but combined sewer overflows are required to protect the sewer system and prevent widespread flooding of roads and buildings. Nothing can be worse than houses being internally flooded by sewage, with people having to move out of their houses—which are left stinking and needing clean-up—and fearing that the same will happen every time it rains. The reality is that combined sewer overflows are required. Combined sewers are designed to take a one in 30-year storm so, by default, any storm greater than that will exceed the capacity of the system. That is why relief is required, but due to developments over the years, we need combined sewer overflows to provide relief from storms with return periods of much less than one in 30 years.
We have heard talk about elimination of storm overflows altogether and about a 2050 target. All the water companies are saying that they can do it. I do not think that is a realistic proposition. To eliminate CSOs altogether, we would need to completely separate surface water from the combined sewers. That means disconnecting all the road drains that are connected. It means disconnecting roof drainage. Hon. Members have suggested butts to deal with that, but they would still have to be disconnected from the sewers. Private surface water connections would also have to be identified because people drain their driveways or gardens and connect them into their own combined drain. All that needs to be identified and eliminated, so I would urge the Minister to think carefully about the practicalities of what is required. We would need massive new surface water sewers and pumping stations and, as I say, there would be disruption in many roads and streets throughout the country.
I have said that CSOs are a requirement, but they need to be well designed. They need to be designed so that they do not have a detrimental impact on water quality. From what we have heard today, that is not happening, so that needs to be addressed. It is obvious that this has not been the case in practice by private water companies over the years. Private Eye has long highlighted exemptions that were applied to discharges post privatisation. It was a “get out of jail free” card for a lot of companies. It is obvious that there is insufficient operational maintenance, and the reason is clear: they are making profit by cutting running costs. Not enough is spent on maintenance, and that is why we have heard about pumping stations failing and then discharging into rivers and seas.
The worst company, according to the Financial Times, was Southern Water. Historically, it was close to defaulting on its loans and now with Macquarie at the helm, debt has risen to £6 billion and Southern Water’s risk profile is deemed to be at risk of a credit rating downgrade as a result of poor operational performance. It should be pointed out that Macquarie was allowed to take over Southern Water despite Ofwat highlighting poor performance at Thames Water, so there are serious questions about that ownership.
While the focus rightly has been on the shocking discharges of sewage into rivers and coastlines, and obviously on criticism of the performance of water companies, there is one big issue that I want to touch on, which it seems the Tory Government have been blind to. The elephant in the room, which was touched on slightly by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, is the right to connect for developers in England and Wales. This means that a statutory water company cannot refuse a developer permission to connect to a sewer. It is effectively a right for a housing developer to pollute the environment, which is disgraceful.
The issue goes back to failings in the Water Industry Act 1991 and was confirmed in a Supreme Court case between Barratt Homes Ltd and Welsh Water in December 2009. Welsh Water had tried to prevent a developer connecting to an overloaded sewer, but Barratt effectively forced its right in law to connect to that sewer, and that has now been put down in law. It means that any responsible water company that is implementing improvements to a system can see all that good work and all the environmental benefits wiped out because a developer can, in theory, connect hundreds or even thousands of houses to the sewer, which obviously will then destroy any upgrades that have happened.
A key question for Back-Bench Tories to consider is, why have the UK Government not acted to resolve this loophole, which was put in law in 2009? Is it because they are too cosy with house builders? Is it because they fear it will impact house-building targets? It needs to be addressed soon. In Scotland, the law is clear via the Sewerage (Scotland) Act 1968. Any developer has to apply for permission to connect to the sewer system. If the assessment deems that a new connection will cause detriment to the sewer system, that developer has to pay for the remedial works to ensure there is no detriment to it. That means that housing developers have to take it on the chin and pay for upgrades. Quite often, they have to fund large volumes of storage, but they know that is the process and they deal with it. That is a process I have been involved in. I know how well it works, and that makes it even more incredible that it has not been adopted in England. I urge the Minister to think carefully about the right to connect.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle touched on sustainable urban drainage. Again, Scotland has led the way in that regard; such drainage has been part of regulations for the best part of 20 years. Not only does a developer have to apply for the right to connect to a sewer; they have to implement sustainable urban drainage schemes, so that there is not additional surface water going into our combined sewer system. Once more, that should be in the regulations. In Scotland, Scottish Water is a statutory consultee in the planning process, which is something else that the Minister should consider, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle suggested.
The Minister and the Secretary of State can demand drainage improvement plans and they can talk tough on fines, but the reality is that if the right to connect issue is not resolved, all that talk counts for nothing, because developers will continue to connect to sewers, overloading them and causing problems. Hopefully the Minister can address that point as well as the other points that have been made.
First, I congratulate you, Ms Elliott, on the way that you have chaired this debate and on getting everybody in, which has been excellent. What a task!
Secondly, I welcome the Minister, because this is the first time I have debated with her. She is the third Minister I have shadowed since I became the shadow Minister last December; I am quickly running through Ministers. However, I would not say that I am a veteran, because the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), has spent many more years on this subject than I have, as we just found out.
I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for reminding us that section 1 of the Environment Act 2021 legally requires the Secretary of State to set long-term targets for air, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction, and that section 4 requires the statutory instrument to be laid by 31 October. I reinforce her question about whether that requirement will be met in the next 19 days. I would welcome an early opportunity to sit in a Committee to consider that SI with the Minister. Perhaps some former Ministers would like to be on that Committee too.
I come now to the pressing issue of the day. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. It is such an important and timely debate. He rightly said that Sussex beaches regularly see sewage being discharged into bathing water, as do coastal communities up and down the country.
Something that has not really been explored in the debate before now is how coastal businesses are affected, particularly leisure and tourism businesses. I was formerly the shadow Minister with responsibility for tourism and I have seen directly how badly coastal discharges and poor water quality can wipe out a day’s business in the summer, and businesses have already had so many shocks recently.
There is clearly wide interest in this issue right across the country, as can be seen from the number of speakers in this debate, who come from every region and nation. That shows how widespread the problem is. So many Members have cited shocking sewage outflow and spill figures. This is an issue that we probably need to explore further in other debates.
The Secretary of State says that we need our watercourses and beaches to be safe and sewage free. Although I of course agree with him wholeheartedly, the reality is that the Government’s policies will be no more than a drop in the ocean when it comes to dealing with what the media—not we in the Opposition, but the media—are now calling “a Tory stink”.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Environment Act 2021 does not apply to Wales, where his party is in government and where there is no equivalent legislation forcing Welsh Water Dŵr Cymru to act. The Government are taking action in England. Will he tell me why his party is not taking equivalent action in Wales?
Of course, there are not any shareholders in Welsh Water; it is owned by the people of Wales. On some of these issues, Welsh Water is performing exceedingly well as a water company. The hon. Lady knows that this is a devolved matter, so I will not comment any further on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) made an excellent point about faecal E. coli and how that affects human and animal health. In my constituency, people have basically had to swim through sewage and dogs have unfortunately passed away because of exposure to it.
Over the last six years, Tory Governments have allowed a million discharges of raw human sewage into our watercourses. Last year, they were given an opportunity to place legal duties on companies to reduce discharges. It was just that—legal duties to reduce discharges. I know that there has been a lot of heat in this debate about this matter. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), was involved in that and he made an excellent speech today, as usual. Most of the MPs on the Government side voted against it, but I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle and others present for being among the 22 Conservative MPs who voted with us for the amendment. There will be future opportunities to bring in that legal duty—if not in this Parliament, I certainly hope in the next one, when we will have a change of Government.
It is naive to think that these watered-down policies will be enough to end the epidemic that we currently face—an epidemic in which there is a sewage spill every two and a half minutes. We have been in this debate long enough for at least 30 spills. Crucially, if a spill is not monitored, a fine cannot be issued. Water bosses will continue to get off scot-free, with no incentive to install comprehensive monitoring. Yes, some discharges come as the result of storm overflows, but we know that others are a deliberate corner-cutting exercise by water companies that prioritise profit over the natural environment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said that our rivers are now open sewers, and he is right. He made the excellent point that water companies are monopolies, but the Government treat water like a market. By contrast, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), has clearly outlined Labour’s strategy for cleaning up our waterways. Under a Labour Government, there will be no hiding the problem. We will ensure that there are mandatory monitors on all outlets—every sewage works—and introduce automatic standing charges where this requirement has not yet been met. We will ensure that we get the real-time data that a number of Members have called for, and give the Environment Agency the power and resources to properly enforce the rules.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for securing the debate, and I urge him to consider whether the current Government and his party are genuinely committed to dealing with the crisis. Are they serious about stopping more sewage releases on to Sussex beaches, Bexhill beach and beaches around the country, or are they simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic while water bosses laugh all the way to the bank? Some £72 billion in dividends has been given to those water bosses over the lifetime of the companies. These are the bosses who fail to properly invest in our water infrastructure yet still receive enormous payments and bonuses, all paid for by the customers—our constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) made the point that many of our sewage treatment plants have insufficient storage. The current minimum storage that the Environment Agency stipulates is probably insufficient and, in many cases, is being breached. We need to see significant infrastructure investment in that storage, which will reduce overflows. My hon. Friend has also been a doughty champion of banning plastic wet wipes. When will we see that legislation introduced? I hope the Minister responds to her on that.
The Government make grand environmental claims, yet the Prime Minister did not bother to meet a single water company to discuss sewage spills during her time as a DEFRA Minister. Instead, she allowed water bosses free rein while cutting the DEFRA budget by £24 million, which could have been used for monitoring raw sewage. We saw sewage-dumping events skyrocket into the millions during that period. When Labour comes back into government, we will hold water bosses personally accountable. We will strike off directors who fail, and even introduce prison sentences for the most serious crimes. The Government have increased the fines, but we will introduce unlimited fines and cap bill increases to protect our most vulnerable citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) made an excellent point when he said that we are seeing dividends being given out, debt being built up and our constituents’ bills going through the roof. I know that his water company has increased them significantly. Labour will ensure that any failure to improve is paid for by eroding dividends, not by adding to customers’ bills or cutting investment. We will fix the broken system whereby water companies rake it in while neglecting their customers and the environment.
Which plan will better protect beaches from sewage spills: ours or the current Government’s? How can we trust the Government to clean up our water, when their track record is one of allowing our rivers and beaches to be treated as open sewers? Only Labour can clean up our water. We will introduce a legally binding target to end 90% of sewage discharges by 2030, taking every necessary step to ensure a fairer, greener future for everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in my position in DEFRA, Ms Elliott. I thank all colleagues for showing such interest in and passion about a subject that I know we all care deeply about. Most of all, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate.
I also pay tribute to the two Ministers who were unable to speak in the debate but have listened intently: the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) and the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). I am very grateful for support.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the two previous Ministers who have done so much in this area: my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and, of course, my wonderful predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebeccab Pow), to whom I pay particular thanks. They have not only taken up this issue professionally as Ministers, but campaigned pretty much their entire lives on it. That hard work has paid dividends: I am able to stand here today and talk about the improvements that this Government have made, and the pragmatic steps that enable monitoring. It is uncomfortable to hear the results of that monitoring, but without it we would not know where or how much we need to improve. To put some numbers on that monitoring, we have improved the systems from 5% in 2016 to 90% today—a tremendous improvement.
We are absolutely clear that we will not tolerate the failure of water companies to reduce the amount of storm sewage discharges. It is completely unacceptable. When it rains heavily, as has been discussed today, rainwater lands on roofs and impermeable surfaces. It is uncharacteristic of me to agree so much with the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), but he has experience in this particular sector. We recognise that combined sewers are part of the problem, particularly during heavy precipitation, when all of that run-off from non-permeable surfaces flows with the foul water into the sewage treatment plant. We hold water companies to account for improving that situation, for splitting those systems and for a whole raft of other infrastructure changes, but that will take time.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) raised the possibility of water companies being statutory consultees when planning applications that add pressure to existing sewerage systems are made. Had they been so, developments in Weston, in my constituency, that will put unbearable pressure on the existing drainage and sewerage system would not have gone ahead.
My right hon. Friend raises an excellent point. Reforms are taking place in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at the plethora of opportunities for speeding up some of those planning processes, with no regression in environmental protections. He raises the issue of nitrogen and phosphates in our water system. Nutrient neutrality has caused significant delays—in fact, entire blockages—for many house builders across the country. That is exactly why we are coming up with systems to ensure that those developers contribute to environmental processes that improve the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous in water, and enable those developments to go ahead.
I have talked about the challenge of combined sewers. The options are both intolerable as long-term solutions: either to allow water, including foul water, to back up the system, flooding into people’s homes and businesses—I was flooded, and I agree with other Members that it is an incredibly unpleasant situation to be in—or to discharge sewage into watercourses. Neither of those options is acceptable or tolerable.
In August, the Government published the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which found that achieving complete elimination could cost up to £600 billion and increase annual water bills by up to £817 by 2049. It would also be, as suggested by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, highly disruptive and complex to deliver nationwide. Our storm overflow discharge reduction plan will see £56 billion in capital investment by 2050—the largest infrastructure programme in water company history. By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water, and improve 75% of overflows discharging into high-priority nature sites. By 2050, that will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by our targets regardless of their location.
There has been some talk about the Environment Agency being resourced to be able to carry out that role. DEFRA and its agencies received £4.3 billion in the 2021 spending review to do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations. In terms of the response to Ofwat, Ofwat’s investigations will consider how overall companies operate, manage their sewage treatment works and report on their performance where the investigations can find failings on obligations. Ofwat is responsible for enforcing; it will use its full range of powers accordingly to hold companies to account for their failures, and to require them to put things right in short order.
The subject of sewage also brought to the fore the Thames tideway tunnel, which is a £1.9 billion investment. Once operational and taken together with the other improvements, it will achieve a 95% reduction in the annual volume of untreated waste water entering the tidal Thames.
Could the Minister please remember that tideway starts downstream of Mogden sewage works, which is the second largest sewage treatment works in Greater London and, I believe, in the country. None of the sewage discharges from Mogden will be captured by tideway.
I am happy to pick that up separately. I have not got time to go into the detail now, but I would be delighted to have a meeting with the hon. Member to go into that in the future.
The Secretary of State made our commitment to tackling sewage discharges absolutely clear on his very first day in office. He held a call with water companies’ chief executives, and we are now working with them to explore the acceleration of infrastructure projects. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion to deliver the 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025, but if we can go further and faster we will. The Secretary of State and myself are challenging those water companies to come up with acceleration plans to clean our water system and ensure we have the infrastructure and the supply for the future. We have also recently announced that we will bring forward plans to increase the amount that the Environment Agency can directly fine water companies that pollute the environment by a thousandfold, from £250,000 up to £250 million.
Will the Minister going to invest in the right to connection issue because at the moment, as an outline, housing developers can connect a sewer, overload it and cause pollution; that must be cleaned up and paid for by other billpayers instead of the housing developer, which is making money and moving on. It is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
There was also reference to privatisation. There has been over £30 billion of investment in the environment by the water industry since privatisation. The improvements in sewage treatments since 1995 have secured significant environmental benefits, such as a reduction in leakage by a third since 1990. Some 70% of UK beaches are now classed as excellent, and customers are now five times less likely to suffer from supply interruption since privatisation. In the 1990s, water and sewage companies were responsible for over 500 serious incidents per year; in 2021, that number was reduced to 62. Of course, that is 62 too many, but it is a significant reduction. Sewage treatment works are now discharging much lower amounts of harmful chemicals into our rivers, including 67% less phosphorus and 79% less ammonia than in 1995.
The more rainwater that can be captured before it goes into a drain, the better. That has been echoed by Members in Westminster Hall today. The more we can separate the run-off and foul water in the network, the better. When one in 10 people does not have access to clean water close to home, access to the purest quality drinking water is something to cherish every single time we turn on the tap. However, average water use is around 145 litres per person in England and Wales, compared to 121 litres in neighbouring countries. We can all play our part by using water more efficiently in our homes, such as by harvesting rainwater with water butts, as has been mentioned, and reusing grey water, which can reduce the risk of flooding, reduce water bills and, ultimately, limit the amount of water added to the system. We can encourage our families, friends and constituents to be mindful of the impact that incorrect disposal down the drain can cause.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) referenced the subject of wet wipes. I agree with her, and I would be delighted to meet with her to explain some of the progress that my Department is making on reducing or banning plastics in wet wipes. I thank her for the work she has done in this area.
I have created a gravel garden at home on what was previously non-permeable concrete. After core drilling down, adding organic matter and planting the right plant in the right place, it is now a beautiful area, attracting pollinators and invertebrates. It has also reduced the likelihood of my house flooding.
These ideas are just some of the simple steps that can be taken in addition to the £56 billion that this Government are requiring water companies to invest. We will not hesitate to use all options for robust enforcement action against breaches of storm overflow, which can include criminal prosecution by the Environment Agency. Water companies must clean up their act, and this Government will not hesitate to hold them to account. I will now conclude my remarks to allow time for my very effective and hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle to respond.
Thank you, Ms Elliott, for chairing us so efficiently. I thank the Minister for the responses she has given. I thank the other two Front-Bench speakers, the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and all the other colleagues who have come forward with their ideas. With so many ideas having been put forward, would it be possible for the Minister’s Department to collate those in its response, so that we get a full response?
The hon. Member for Leeds North West asked whether we in East Sussex are satisfied. We are never satisfied in East Sussex! That is what keeps us here. My neighbours —my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield)—and I are in a car. It is the East Sussex car and we will continue to drive it.
I will say this to the hon. Member for Leeds North West: I could give him £56 billion-worth of reasons why I am happier, because this Government are the first to do something about it. No other Governments have. We should all encourage the Government for that.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West is right that I did vote with him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne). However, we were not voting to end discharging, as has been put out on social media—not at all. It was just discharge at certain levels. Nobody who voted the other way was doing anything but voting for improvements for the first time. It pains me to see some of the abuse that goes on. We are not campaigners here. We can work effectively together for all of our constituents’ sake to make a better environment. All I would hope is for us to stick with the facts and the ideas and be nicer to each other and to our waterways.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered sewage discharges.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rural healthcare provision.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I have already provided the Minister with a copy of the report by the all-party parliamentary group on rural health and care, which followed a three-year inquiry that we undertook with the National Centre for Rural Health and Care. It contains a lot of detail about the issues and suggested solutions. It looked far and wide across the world, not just across the United Kingdom, and I certainly hope that the Minister will give it more time than I suspect he already has in preparing for this debate.
The number of people living in rural settings is not small—9.7 million people live in rural England—and they have very different needs, so the current one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. We have a different demographic. Generally, our constituents are older, they have complex comorbidities, they live in isolation, and many are in severe deprivation, but much of that is often hidden because the data collected is at such a high level that the issues are simply not identified. If levelling up, which is a commitment of the Government, is to mean anything, that has to change.
Covering everything in the report would take me more than the time available, so I will limit myself to the Government’s alphabet. Let me go through A, B, C and D. On ambulances—A—I absolutely applaud the Government’s position that the current situation is unacceptable and that we need shorter response times, particularly for category 1 and category 2 emergencies, but I am sure the Minister is well aware that the data shows that rural and coastal areas have some of the worst response times across the country, often because it is simply not possible to reach particular parts. In Devon, there are some areas where it really does not matter how many ambulances there are and how fast the roads might be—they are not—as there comes a point where it is not possible to get further.
We have not looked at a different approach. We have not looked at how we triage this differently so that we improve, rather than reduce, health outcomes. A one-size-fits-all approach means that those in rural areas are at much greater risk than those in urban areas. There is not a specialist centre of excellence for strokes that people can get to very quickly by being popped into an ambulance.
Money is clearly an issue, but if we properly integrated our use of fire services, police, ambulances and first responders, we would get a better outcome. Let us triage the calls as they come in differently, and then let us use those individuals and organisations better. Currently, the barriers are different pay for different forces and the fact that those organisations—fire services, police and ambulances—have different lines of accountability to different Departments, which means that they do not work together.
We could find a much better and more efficient way of doing this. Fire services are vital, because they are often physically located in some of these very rural areas. There is not a lot of point trying to get an ambulance in every rural village; that would be completely inappropriate and unaffordable, and it would not work. Let us look at how we can deal with those blockages and do this differently.
B is for backlogs. The Government’s aim to reduce the backlogs is commendable, and the plan to get waits down to one year by 2025 is fabulous. However, those of us who have rural constituencies know that the resources right now are simply not available, and rural areas have a real challenge to recruit. They are seen as unattractive. Youngsters want to be near the nightlife and the fun when they are off duty. The idea of coming to a rural area is not attractive. That is well known to the Government, because there have been various planned pilots and initiatives to pay individuals more to attract them to rural areas. It simply does not work.
The hon. Lady is making an important point. When it comes to waiting times for cancer treatment, 41% of cancer patients in south Cumbria and 59% in north Cumbria are waiting more than two months to get their first treatment after diagnosis. We know that is certainly costing lives. Does she agree that tackling the cancer backlog has to be the absolute priority for this Government?
More than that, we need to look at the different pathways in rural communities for heart, cancer and stroke treatment. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but there is a lot more than just cancer, and the rural pathway to care has to be reviewed to see what is realistic in a rural area.
All of this has been made worse by a funding formula that is not fit for purpose. Although there is provision to uplift for rurality, it is not enough and it has been done without any real understanding of some of the challenges.
Cornwall has more visitors outside of London than anywhere else in the country, so we have our winter pressures and then there is no respite in the summer months for our staff. We have issues with housing so we cannot recruit staff. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case to be made for extra funding for places such as Cornwall, and perhaps the wider south-west, to ensure that we have enough funding to treat all our visitors as well as our residents?
That is an exceptionally fine point. I have no issue with it because we have a similar problem in Devon. The solution is not just about more recruitment and doing things in the same way, because the people to be recruited do not exist. We need to look at doing things differently, by creating new career paths with shorter training periods and trying to train, so we can then recruit, locally. Generally, people will follow a career where they are trained. We need more rural training for doctors and nurses, and that training needs to be not in the local city, but in the rural areas. For example, in Plymouth we have a fine medical school— Peninsula Medical School—but the challenge is that the experience that the individual trainee doctors and nurses gain is not rural, and it needs to be.
My hon. Friend is making a fine point. From my experience, there is an opportunity: young doctors who are becoming GPs tend to be between the ages of 27 and 35. At that time, most people are looking to set up their family, go to school and get married. If we extend some of the career opportunities by extending training in those areas, they are more likely to bed down roots and gain a skill to become a GPSI—a GP with a special interest—in those areas. Does she believe that is a formula that the Government should look at?
I absolutely agree, and it is an excellent suggestion. In a similar vein, when we are asking primary care networks and others to deal with the backlog, it is important that we try to give them much more freedom in how they address the problem. I talk to many of my local commissioners, and they say that they are having to make decisions that they know are right, even though they are not currently in the guidebook as best practice. We need to give them that trust to be able to do the right thing.
C is for care. Members will not be surprised to hear that the adult social care discharge fund, although welcome, is not going to be enough. The reality is that the bed count is often low in rural areas. In the south-west, we have the lowest bed count per head of population; I think it is the lowest in western Europe, although I am happy for the Minister to correct me. It seems to me that we used to be moving towards saying, just in time, “Let’s have care in the community.” However, because of the shortage of care in the community, and the lack of proper validation that it works other than whether people are readmitted, we need to put a halt to closing community hospitals and to look at how they can be used. Some could be repurposed. Perfection can often be the enemy of the good.
Teignmouth Community Hospital in my constituency is on the closure list, but to me that is not a wise decision. There are no nursing care homes in the area. Without that residential care, and without adequate care in the community, removing the only other source of beds is not the way to solve the backlog problem.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and this important conversation. I also thank the Minister for the community diagnostic centre announced for the Isle of Wight this week. That is great, but we still have a problem similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris): unavoidably small hospitals. There are dozens of those in England and Wales, of which St Mary’s is the most isolated. We were able to work with the Government to improve the funding formula in 2019, so unavoidably small hospitals have got some more money. My concern—the same might be true for hospitals in my hon. Friend’s area—is that that is not enough to cope with the health needs and the demographics in our communities. It would be great if the Minister could meet some of us to discuss the future of unavoidably small hospitals in places such as Devon, Cornwall, Cumbria, Northumberland and the Isle of Wight to see what more we can do to support these important community centres.
A point very well made, which I support.
Care, as we all know, is one of the biggest challenges. If we fix care, we will fix the backlog, so we also need to look at how we train and professionalise not care on its own, but care with health. We need to give care professionals the same respect as we give others—and, frankly, for the same sort of skill, we need to pay the same salary. That is crucial if we are ever to get this to work.
D for doctors is the last letter in the Government’s alphabet. The Government are looking for the GP appointments system to improve, so that anyone who needs to see a GP can do so within two weeks. They want to provide data so that individuals may choose which doctor they go to see, and they want to increase the use of pharmacies.
Now, all that is very worthy, but unfortunately, when it hits reality, it becomes the problem. In rural areas, there are too few doctors. If we had data, choice would be great, but there is no choice, because there is not another GP practice. The problem in rural areas is not the level of data, and it is not choice—there is none. It is recruiting the doctors we need. Recruitment in rural areas is in crisis. Yes, we should make more use of pharmacists—that would be fabulous—but in many rural areas pharmacies are closing because they cannot get enough pharmacists. We have a real conundrum, and that is crucial.
If we are to address the issue, we need proper rural medical schools, shorter career courses, and proper training for new routes into medicine and care. Physician associates are a great start, but the reality is that that is only one route, and it is still quite a long training period. More broadly, primary care is mission critical; we know that training in generalist skills across the doctoring profession, if I can put it like that, is done very early but not continued. We need those skills so that we have a much broader range of doctors who, when we have something like the pandemic, are able to cope with the issue. We also need more geriatricians.
D also stands for dentists. The new contract is welcome, but it has been discussed for eight years, I think. It needs to get done. Doctors and dentists need a fair return for the work done and they need to be incentivised to provide the best treatment for the patient. As I understand it, under the existing contract, dentists are in effect encouraged to sub-optimise. They are only paid a relatively small amount, so they will do the minimum rather than what is in the patient’s best interest. We need fairness for the dentist and for the individual patient to be at the forefront of the contract.
We need to step up recruitment, we need to create rural emergency hubs, and I think we need to appoint school dentists. In the same way that a GP is in charge of a particular care home, I see no reason why we should not have a dentist who is responsible for a particular school. I am not suggesting that they should go in and do fillings, but they would at least go in and do regular checks.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with her time, and I appreciate that. I remember—she may too—that, as schoolchildren, we had somebody come into school to check over our teeth, just to see if there was anything going on. It is my understanding that someone does not have to be a dentist to be able to tell whether something is going wrong; dental technicians, hygienists and others can do this work. Does she agree that it would be worth doing pilots around the country, particularly in rural areas, to see whether that could cut down some serious dental issues with our children?
That is an excellent suggestion. There is quite a lot for the Minister to take away and think about.
Having gone through the alphabet, I think there are a number of things that we need the Minister and his team to do, including recognising that rural really is different and that the way we look at it now simply does not work. We need to properly understand and investigate the need in different rural communities, and then we need proper funding. We need to look at how we train locally, which will improve recruitment and retention. We need to create new, shorter courses and new professions—and we need to do that now; otherwise, we are never going to get on top of the backlog. Waiting for degree-qualified nurses and doctors will simply take too long.
We need to equalise the professionalism and pay across health and care, and we need to integrate emergency response across all resources—police, fire, ambulance and first responders. I am happy to volunteer the south-west, which I think would be up for it, as a pilot area. I hope that the Minister will go away and think about that, and that he may be willing to meet those who have raised issues today to see if we cannot find some solutions and to discuss the other issues in my rural report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. Before I start, let me pay tribute to the work of those in the NHS and social care services across England, who are delivering excellent care now and have done so throughout the pandemic. The country is rightly proud of each and every one of them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who has been a champion not only for her constituency but, more widely, for the importance of improving health services in rural areas. I thank her for securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to her work and that of the APPG, whose report I read with interest.
Although my constituency of Colchester, a relatively new city, does not share the rural characteristics of Newton Abbot, I am committed to excellent healthcare outcomes for all people in rural and urban areas across our country. I probably cannot cover every single aspect of the report, or even all the issues raised by my hon. Friend today, but I will certainly try to cover as many of them as I possibly can. Of course, I am very happy to meet her and any other colleague who would like to meet. I am proud never to have turned down a meeting with a colleague, and that is a record I intend to keep.
We certainly recognise many of the challenges caused by rurality, including the distinct health and care needs of rural areas and the challenges of access, distance and ensuring a sufficient population to enable safe and sustainable services. I assure my hon. Friend that this Government will remain committed to improving health services in rural areas, as we are committed to doing across all of England.
The Minister alludes to GP surgeries in rural areas, which the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) also mentioned. Generally speaking, they serve smaller numbers of people over much larger areas. They were supported in their sustainability by something called a minimum practice income guarantee. That disappeared a few years ago, leading to many closures. In Ambleside and Hawkshead in the Lake district in my constituency, some surgeries are facing potential closure because of the removal of that funding. Will the Minister consider introducing a specific rural surgeries subsidy fund to help ensure that surgeries in rural communities in Cumbria and elsewhere are sustainable?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. I am not going to make policy on the hoof, so I will not say yes now, but we are fast approaching the next GP contract, which will run from April 2024, so we have an opportunity to look at all these things in the round. I am passionate about securing access to GPs in rural and remote areas. Perhaps we can double-tag our meeting, make it twice as long and discuss that issue too. I will respond to some of the issues raised about GPs in a moment.
I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot that we are in full agreement that the NHS needs to be flexible enough to respond to the particular needs of rural areas. That is vital, and that is why we passed the Health and Care Act 2022. The Act embeds the principle of joint working right at the heart of the system, promoting integration and allowing local areas the flexibility to design services that are right for them. Integrated care boards and integrated care partnerships give local areas forums through which to design innovative care models, bring together health and social care, and, importantly, prioritise resources to ensure that they best align with the needs of individual areas.
We are also enabling the NHS to establish place-based structures covering smaller areas than an integrated care system. That could match the local authority footprint, for example, or in some cases it could be even smaller—a sub-division based on local need. That is fully in line with the view expressed in the APPG report that the NHS should foster and empower local place-based flexibility. I think that is at the heart of the report.
As my hon. Friend knows, in establishing those models for the NHS to follow, we have set the framework but have left it to individual areas to tailor them to local needs. I think that is the right approach, because local areas know better than Ministers. We do not always hear Ministers say that, but I think local areas often know better than I do, sitting here in Whitehall, how best to organise themselves, and how to design and, importantly, deliver the best possible care for patients. While we in Westminster can support, guide, hold accountable and occasionally chest prod, it is right that we also protect local flexibility.
When the Minister talks about local flexibility, I interpret that through the guise of funding. Does he accept that there is a funding issue for the 12 unavoidably small hospitals in England and Wales, and will he look at the funding mechanism that was established in 2019? It gives more money to unavoidably small hospitals, but arguably only about 50% to 60% of what is needed.
I have made a note of my hon. Friend’s question and I am going to come to it in a moment. The answer is no, but only because it is not my responsibility. It is the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who has responsibility for hospital funding, and in the next seven minutes I intend to commit him to lots of meetings with every single Member present.
Let me turn briefly to the question of resources, about which I know a number of Members are concerned, and which has just been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). It is vital that we allocate resources fairly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot mentioned. That is why NHS England asked the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation to consider the issue and provide a formula for allocations to integrated care boards. That formula took into account various factors, including population, age and deprivation —but we changed it.
In 2019-20, we produced a new element of the formula, recognising the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot makes, to better reflect the needs of some rural, coastal and remote areas, which on average tend to have a much older population. With an older population very often comes complex health needs. NHS England is using that formula to make allocations accordingly, but we recognise that some systems are significantly above or below target, and NHS England has a programme in place to manage convergence over several years. We also recognise the important challenge in ensuring that rural areas have the workforce—another point rightly raised at length—to provide the integrated patient-centred services that we all want to see.
We know that doctors are more likely to stay in the places where they trained, as my hon. Friend said. That is why, as part of a 25% expansion of medical school places between 2018 and 2020, we opened five new medical schools in rural and coastal locations that historically have been hard to recruit in: Sunderland, Lancashire, Chelmsford, Lincoln and Canterbury. I am conscious that my hon. Friend would want far more; that is perhaps a conversation to have at a later date. We hope—in fact, we expect—that graduates from those schools will stay in the area and will have a far greater understanding of the lives, needs and challenges of the people they serve in the locality.
My hon. Friend mentioned ambulances. As part of our plan for patients, which we launched in July, there is an extra £150 million for 2022-23 to address issues relating to ambulances. I hear what she says about differential pay rates, particularly in rural areas, between different blue light services, and I will take that away. Ambulances fall under the remit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark, and I know that he would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot to discuss that issue.
On backlogs, I completely understand the points that my hon. Friend makes about recruitment challenges. I will take away her point about incentives not working, and I will look at other measures to attract people to rural and coastal areas, because we know that is a particular challenge.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised cancer wait time variance. As the Minister with responsibility for cancer, that absolutely concerns me. We are opening new diagnostic centres, but we have to look at more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) raised seasonal visitors. I know that is an issue across Cornwall and Devon, and I would be very happy to look at that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) raised the issue of GPs, and extending training and career opportunities in rural areas. I totally agree, and we will soon have a date in the diary to meet and discuss that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot was right to raise community hospitals. Again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark will be delighted to meet to discuss that at great length, as he would be to discuss unavoidably small hospitals, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has raised with the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot and others mentioned doctors. I entirely hear what she says about data. Data is important for choice, but I completely understand that in some rural, remote and coastal areas, there is no choice; there is just one GP, pharmacist and dentist, so we have to look at it differently. But data is important, because it allows the local integrated care board to identify where there are challenges and which practices are struggling. From November, for the first time, we will be publishing practice-level data on appointments and missed appointments. That is important because the patient deserves to see how their tax money is being spent. It also enables us to hold the integrated care board to account for how it is holding to account the practice and ensuring it modernises, is more efficient, and addresses the issues that its patients face. As part of our plan for patients, we are looking at that at great length.
Dentists are a real passion of mine. Dentistry is not looked at in the depth that it should be as part of wider NHS services. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out a number of reforms that were put in place in July. They are starting to take effect, and she will see more as they come to fruition. It is a top priority for me, and I am looking for areas for potential further reform. I encourage my hon. Friend to talk to her integrated care board about what more can be done on centres for dental development.
We absolutely recognise the importance of giving rural areas special consideration. They face a different range of challenges to the NHS in urban and suburban areas, and it is right that we give local systems the flexibility to respond to that. I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend and others that the current system does that. I am sure she will want to continue her work and the important work of the all-party parliamentary group. I certainly look forward to working with her.
Question put and agreed to.
Trade Deals: Parliamentary Scrutiny
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the International Trade Committee of Session 2022-23, UK trade negotiations: Scrutiny of Agreement with Australia, HC 444; Second Report of the International Trade Committee of Session 2022-23, UK trade negotiations: Agreement with Australia, HC 117; First Special Report of the International Trade Committee of Session 2022-23, UK trade negotiations: Scrutiny of Agreement with Australia and Agreement with Australia: Government Response to the Committee’s First and Second Reports of Session 2022-23, HC 704]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am delighted that I have been able to secure this debate, and I am particularly grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting me the opportunity to talk about trade deals and the scrutiny process that goes with them. I am also very grateful to right hon. and hon. Members, who have heard me pontificate on this subject at great length on a number of occasions over the last two years. I should say that I am a member of the International Trade Committee.
I welcome the Minister back to his position as a Trade Minister. He is a friend and an extremely able Minister, and we are all delighted to see him back in his position, where he so rightly belongs. We very much look forward to working with him, both in Committee and in the main Chamber, where we will, I hope, have more opportunity to debate our trade deals.
I should start by saying that I am universally pro free trade and in favour of the Government’s agenda in the trade deals that they are signing. Our trade agreements have been an absolute litany of successes. Not only have we rolled over 70 trade agreements since our departure from the European Union, but we have signed deals with Australia and New Zealand. There are discussions under way about joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, and signing deals with the Gulf Cooperation Council, India and Canada. We have successfully signed a trade agreement with Singapore on a digital partnership basis, which is viewed as the gold standard in digital trade. We have signed a trade agreement with Japan, which is already opening up new markets and setting benchmark rates around digital concepts.
Those are all incredibly important agreements, and they matter because they make a huge difference to our economy, to how the Government interact with their allies around the world and to the businesses in our respective constituencies. They offer each and every one of us the opportunity to trade, to create global harmony and to open up opportunities for those who live and work in the United Kingdom, and those with whom we have signed trade deals. This is an important part of what was promised when we left the European Union, and I believe that we are being extremely successful in tackling the new trade agreements, although there have obviously been a few pitfalls along the way.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The hon. Gentleman and I sit on the International Trade Committee, and he is making a very good defence of the Government’s work. We heard in the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill Committee only an hour or so ago—it finished only 20 minutes ago—that British firms bidding in Australia will have disadvantageous terms compared with those of French companies, because the Australian deal weakens the global baseline.
These things are probably technical errors. They are things that were probably overlooked and that I hope are great mistakes; if they are not, someone in the Government should be hanging their head in shame. I think these mistakes would have been picked up with proper parliamentary scrutiny during negotiations, before the deal was signed or even ratified—just as happens in America and the European Union, and just as the French, Germans and most developed countries get in their national Parliaments. The International Trade Committee should be involved in the detail of the work on the negotiations before the text is published in camera, but this Government continue to refuse to allow that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on literally nothing apart from this point about scrutiny. I thoroughly enjoy working with him on this issue, because there is genuine cross-party consensus about the need for scrutiny. I say in response to him that trade deals are not static. We should not view them as static, because they can evolve and improve. To the point he just made, where there are pitfalls we should look to improve them, and to see how we can develop the agreements in the future. He is absolutely right; had we been given due process when we signed the free trade agreement with Australia, Parliament would have been able to debate this issue at length and we could have rooted out some of the issues before we ratified the agreement.
As we sign all the trade agreements, there is good news to be told, but a cloud has hung over all the excellent work. I want to raise four points—I am conscious that a number of Members of Parliament want to speak—that the Minister might consider and respond to. First, we must ensure that there is a long-term strategy for trade negotiations. We need better clarity. It is clear that the Government have a big appetite to sign new trade deals, and therefore they must consider how they will convey to Members of Parliament, trade bodies and the general public an understanding of their ambition. If we have a long-term strategy, we can at least understand the Government’s direction of travel, and we can scrutinise it to better effect to see whether the goals have been met. I really cannot think that any Member in this room is against the United Kingdom signing trade deals, but we need to understand whether we are meeting those goals and whether the Department for International Trade is improving or worsening in its ability to take on new trade agreements.
My second point is about issues on which our provision would not change in any circumstance, such as human rights. It is essential that there is a standard level of human rights clauses in our trade agreements. There is a moral obligation for us to do that.
My third and perhaps most lengthy point is about something that came into being in 1924, the whole premise and purpose of which was to give us a say over international agreements that were signed. It was updated in the late 2000s by the Labour Government in something called the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which basically said that we would have 21 days to ratify a new trade agreement. Within that, Members would be given time in Parliament to debate and vote on the issue, with a votable motion at the end of the debates. If it were rejected, there would be an extension of a further 21 days before ratification.
The previous three International Trade Secretaries have all affirmed the existence and the importance of CRaG and the need to use proper parliamentary scrutiny to get into the weeds of our trade agreements. In fact, the previous Secretary of State for International Trade said that CRaG provides a sound framework to scrutinise treaties that is less than a decade old. That is of real importance. Successive Ministers, including the Minister who is here today, have talked about the value of CRaG in ensuring that we, as Back-Bench Members of Parliament who are not in Government, can justify the agreements that we are passing and ensure that due process has taken place.
To the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) just a moment ago, the scrutiny has taken place; the value is there for British taxpayers, businesses and residents; and we are signing good deals. Ultimately, if we get these agreements right, we will only get better at this. If Members from all parts of the House are given due process to scrutinise trade agreements, we will only make better and more successful ones.
On 9 February, the Minister said that we have a robust scrutiny arrangement that allows Parliament to hold the Government to account. Let us take the Australia-UK free trade agreement, for which we were not given due warning of the CRaG process starting. There was not enough time for Ministers to come before the International Trade Committee to discuss the terms of the Australia free trade agreement. In fact, the previous Secretary of State was invited eight times and did not attend. When the CRaG process was started, the International Trade Committee had not even had time to publish its report. That is not the way it should be.
Let me make it crystal clear that the International Trade Committee should be given the right to publish its report before the start of the 21-sitting-day CRaG period, to ensure that due process is followed and that Members from across the House can read the report, digest it and prepare to debate and vote on the trade deal in Parliament. Can the Minister guarantee that a Secretary of State will appear before the Committee to discuss a trade deal ahead of our publication of any report on it? It should not be hard for us to secure a Secretary of State to discuss these trade deals of which we should, rightly, be so proud.
The important point, from my perspective, is that I am not asking for a veto. In fact, a vote to delay ratification does not change the terms of an agreement. It just delays it, and sends a very clear message that, should we sign another trade agreement, certain principles and concepts should be thought about again. We have to take that into account. I am not an extremist about the need for Parliament to come in, rip up trade agreements and decide what goes in or out of them. I am simply making the point that we must ensure that we have a say. We must have an opportunity to be constructive in a way that allows us to justify the creation of our trade deals and scrutinise their components.
Compared to other countries, we are behind the times on this issue. America has a more rigorous system. In Canada, Parliament has an opportunity to debate and—in some instances, although not in statute—to vote on trade agreements. Let us catch up with them. Let us justify it, because it will only improve the process.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument, with which I entirely agree. The UK has not done trade deals for many years, and there seems to be a slight lack of expertise out there, which is no fault of Government or Ministers. Does he think that that is a reason to have extra time for scrutiny? Also, there is plenty of expertise in the international businesses and industries that operate in the UK. Does he think that the Government should use that expertise more readily?
I thank my hon. Friend for his incredibly helpful intervention. Yes, I do. The International Trade Committee has sizeable limitations, and a number of trade deals are being signed. If we are able to discuss such matters with more people, open this up, and allow people to debate and scrutinise, we will be able to improve the actual process. If hon. Members were to ask anyone in the Department for International Trade whether they had learned lessons between the signing of the Australia trade agreement and the signing of the New Zealand trade agreement, they would clearly see that lessons have been learned: the situation has improved, and we are getting better and better. From the officials that have come before the International Trade Committee, it is clear that the Department is doing a fantastic job in tackling international trade agreements. It is learning each day how to do it, in a way that we have not had to for the last 40 years. It is right that we use the expertise in both Parliament and trade bodies across the country.
My last point is around the International Trade Committee’s resources. An extraordinary, dedicated group of people works to help us, as Members of Parliament, do our duty on that Committee. We have found it incredibly frustrating to see their hard work sometimes ignored and sometimes rubbished, because we have not had the access and due process—which was always promised to us, I hasten to add—to ensure that our reports can be produced, read and valued by Members of Parliament. We must change that system; otherwise, the International Trade Committee is completely redundant. I ask the Minister to listen carefully to what we are asking for. We are asking for access to Ministers and for time to produce our reports. We are asking for CRaG to be amended to include debates and voteable motions, so that we, as Members of Parliament, have opportunities to debate trade agreements.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to offer a view on whether there might be a fifth point for consideration. What has come out of the India discussions shows us that we must have a domestic politics that mirrors the approach in international trade. Otherwise, we will not have successful trade negotiations.
The right hon. Gentleman caught me from a surprise angle here. I do not know exactly what is in the India trade agreement, other than the rumours that have been reported. Our discussions about it have very much been on the basis of speculation rather than the reality of it. In all seriousness, if that is the case, it is something that we need to look at further.
There is value in ensuring that we get this issue right. We can improve the system, improve the value of trade agreements and ensure that there is greater buy-in from Members of Parliament. I hope the Minister will understand where I am coming from. I am not attacking the Government’s agenda, and I am not attacking the trade deals we are signing; I am merely asking that Back Benchers are given an opportunity to have their day in Parliament to discuss these very important trade agreements.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing the debate. Members will know that I have a very specific interest in ensuring there is ample scrutiny of these trade deals—notably, any one with India. My constituent Jagtar Singh Johal has been arbitrarily detained in an Indian prison for almost five years, and the authorities of the Republic of India seem unable or unwilling to address the allegations of torture, abuse of process and arbitrary detention that have dogged the case and my constituent.
Quite simply, as the Minister may or may not agree, this is a case that really gets to the root of both this debate and the UK Government’s ongoing attitude to pursuing these trade deals. This is a case where we see the power of the unstoppable force—namely that one of the largest supposed benefits of Brexit was the ability of the UK Government to gain unfettered access to the world’s fastest-growing economies—meet the immovable object, namely the UK Government’s clearly stated aim, articulated so well by the sadly departed Minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), that
“We will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights”—[Official Report, 7 September 2022; Vol. 719, c. 258.]
It is a matter of some considerable record, because I speak about it quite a lot in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall, as hon. and right hon. Members will know.
The human rights failings in the case of Jagtar Singh Johal are manifest and egregious. Despite this, we continue with a policy where a UK-India FTA has now become probably the greatest prize in the view of the Government, as long as the US-UK FTA remains unachievable. What can the Minister say to us to demonstrate consequences for the Republic of India for its continued mistreatment of my constituent or, alternatively, what it would have to do for the UK to threaten to pull the plug on these talks? Either way, it appears unarguable that in continuing to pursue this trade agreement, the Government are setting a precedent for future deals that human rights, and the rights of individual UK citizens, are placed below the pursuit of growth. In that sense, those who seek to defend human rights can probably join that distinguished list of those that the Prime Minister has labelled “the anti-growth coalition”. We see plenty of evidence in other areas that the UK Government’s pick-and-choose attitude to human rights and free trade agreements is making any claims to democratic accountability and oversight seem quite ridiculous.
Take the glee with which the Prime Minister trumpets the UK’s determination to sign a free trade agreement with a host of Gulf states, while speaking about preventing authoritarian regimes—such as Russia and, rightfully, China—from having any leverage in the UK economy. It is a truly bizarre situation. While I and other members of the Scottish National party have long called for the UK to wean itself off Russian and Chinese investments that have made so many people in this city and this Parliament enormously wealthy, the Government seem to be seeking to replace those investments with ones from regimes whose human rights and democratic records are essentially the same, and that—as demonstrated by recent OPEC decisions—do not share our broader geopolitical agenda. While we can correctly cite Russia’s assassination of dissidents by regime-loyal criminals as a reason to sanction it, we do not apply the same rationale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when it invites dissidents into one of its embassies and chops them up with a bone saw. While China is rightly criticised for its debt-trap diplomacy in places such as Sri Lanka, we rarely use the same rationale when we allow Emirati sovereign wealth funds to buy critical pieces of UK economic infrastructure, only for them to sack thousands of staff and threaten the Government with the closure of that infrastructure.
Quite simply, parliamentary scrutiny of these trade deals starts and ends with hard and fast rules, which this Government can use to build confidence in the House. Otherwise, I have to say: what is the point?
I would hope that my colleagues in the SNP and I—and, I am happy to wager, the vast majority of Scottish voters—would never stand for swapping the largest democratic free trade agreement and single market in human history for a series of piecemeal agreements that are, from my perspective, of dubious value. We will never stop shouting about the absurdity of leaving that single market, composed as it is of democracies with whom we share so much, in exchange for a sugar rush of cheap money and dealings with authoritarian regimes that share so few of the values that we here in Europe hold very dear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, I believe for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate.
Much of the political energy of this generation of politicians has been consumed by the fallout from the Brexit referendum in 2016. I remember visiting Washington with a cross-party delegation prior to the referendum. Ms Elliott, I believe that you were part of that delegation, so you may correct me if I am wrong, but nobody in that delegation believed that the UK would vote to terminate its relationship with the European Union. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that prior to the result of the referendum, not much serious thought had gone into what Brexit actually meant.
Following the vote, there was a political breakdown, as decision makers scrambled to interpret the result. Do people remember the period between the referendum and the 2019 general election? This place was consumed with debating different interpretations of the referendum result. I argued for the UK to stay within the European Union’s economic frameworks, for reasons that have become plain for all of us to see, as the dream of splendid economic isolationism from Europe in return for a mythical global Britain has turned to ash.
I suppose that if sensible voices had prevailed during that period, we would not be having this debate, because we would be safely within the single market and the customs union. However, the debate was won by the Brexit ultras, and the prize that they cherished above all was an independent trade policy.
We could have a long debate about how truly independent the UK’s trade policy has turned out to be. It seems to me that the British Government have been rolling over previous EU-negotiated trade deals. With the Prime Minister having admitted that there is no prospect of a trade deal with the US, I think that many of us will wonder what the point was of burning down those bridges with the European economic area.
Perhaps because we have been faced with these economic realities, we have seen the Prime Minister, in her first few weeks in power, endorse a strategy of thawing relations with the EU. To avoid being petulant in this debate, I welcome that. It is far from where the UK should be, but it might be the start of a journey back to reality.
May I therefore first associate myself with the comments of everyone who has spoken about the need for improved scrutiny of trade policy? The Great Brexit slogan of “taking back control” clearly did not mean bringing back power to Parliament. Instead, returning powers have been concentrated at an Executive level.
Each trade deal should be subject to a binding yes/no vote in the Commons; Parliament should agree the terms of negotiation before the British Government begin talks; and the International Trade Committee should—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Diolch, Ms Elliott. I believe I was about to make the point that the International Trade Committee should have a stronger role during negotiations.
On another visit to Washington with an all-party group to investigate the transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the US and the EU, I recall a meeting with representatives of the US food industry. At the time, there was some dispute in relation to genetically modified organisms and hormones in food products. During that meeting, we were left in no doubt that nothing would make its way through Congress unless there was movement on the EU side in the negotiations on those specific points. The point I am trying to make is that increased scrutiny would actually strengthen the hand of UK negotiators, as opposed to weakening it.
What I really want to highlight is the need for Wales and Scotland to also be involved in that scrutiny. Trade policy will impact on devolved policy areas, so it is completely unacceptable and unsustainable that the Welsh and Scottish Governments and Parliaments are excluded from decision making. From my perspective in Carmarthenshire, agriculture is extremely important. Agriculture is a devolved matter. For coherent policy, therefore, surely the Welsh Government and Senedd Members should play a full role in trade policy, including through a binding vote on deals in the Welsh Senedd, full scrutiny by the relevant Senedd Committees and a formal role for the Welsh Government in the negotiating process.
Belgium provides a good example. Its central state cannot ratify European trade deals without the support of its so-called sub-national Parliaments. As it stands, therefore, Wallonia has more power over EU trade deals than Wales has over UK trade deals. That is not a very good look for the British Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing today’s debate and on his excellent speech.
The Australia free trade agreement set a precedent. Unfortunately, when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny, it demonstrated what not to do. Select Committees were given insufficient time to prepare their reports; parliamentarians and key stakeholder organisations were given insufficient time to digest and scrutinise those reports; and, crucially, elected Members of Parliament were denied a meaningful debate and vote on the agreement.
It is worth repeating what the hon. Member for Totnes alluded to earlier. The relevant Select Committees were denied sufficient time to scrutinise and advise on the agreement. There were just seven sitting days between the Government publishing their section 42 report on the free trade agreement and triggering the CRaG period. At that time, the International Trade Committee had been able neither to take oral evidence from the Secretary of State nor to finalise its report on the agreement.
That evasion was facilitated by the vague language in the Government’s commitments. For example, they said that they would “endeavour” to share the signed free trade agreement with the International Trade Committee prior to publication, “where time allows”, and that they would ensure that Select Committees had a “reasonable amount of time” to scrutinise free trade agreements and produce reports.
This is easily fixed. The Government must replace these vague commitments with stronger ones containing concrete guarantees and well-defined timelines, which provide Committees with the time they need to undertake full and proper scrutiny of agreements.
My biggest concern, however, is the failure of the Government to facilitate a meaningful debate and vote on the agreement. That cannot happen again. A desire to hurriedly chalk up deals has left farmers and fruit producers feeling sold out by the Australia trade deal, with the services industry raising concerns over the India trade deal, which none of us has seen. The Government must ensure that they do not repeat their mistakes. I urge the Minister to strengthen the Government’s commitment to the parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements and to focus on the quality, rather than quantity, of the deals that his Department strikes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), whom I have the pleasure of serving alongside on the International Trade Committee, on securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union. The hon. Member and I undoubtably have major points of disagreement when it comes to not only the Australia free trade agreement, but trade policy more broadly. He has, however, raised a number of important issues and speaks for the entire Committee in expressing his frustration about Government conduct on this issue.
The UK has embarked on the most dramatic overhaul of its trading policy since its accession to the European Economic Community in 1973. The implications of the decisions that the Government make in the coming months and years for our labour rights, environmental standards and businesses the length and breadth of the country could not be more significant. It is essential that any new trade deal is subject to rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny both by the Select Committee and by Members of the House more widely. That is the model employed by our Commonwealth partners, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That is exactly what the Prime Minister committed to when she promised a “world-leading scrutiny process” when she was International Trade Secretary.
I am afraid that Ministers are failing to listen to the concerns of Members, businesses and civil society in their frantic dash to conclude new trade deals. In March, our Committee Chairman warned that the Government are failing to do enough to enable timely and appropriate scrutiny of trade agreements and accused Ministers of ignoring legitimate concerns and riding roughshod over Parliament. Yet the 21-day CRaG process for the Australia free trade deal had begun before our Committee had the opportunity to publish our report and even before the International Trade Secretary had bothered to come before the Committee to defend the agreement. When we requested that the CRaG process be extended to allow time for adequate scrutiny, our request was flatly denied. That was an unacceptable assault on the rights of Parliament and the people we are here to represent. I urge the new Secretary of State not to allow that deeply flawed process to set a dangerous precedent for future trade negotiations.
Finally, I want to raise an issue that I have spoken about a number of times in the Committee. Meaningful engagement with civil society and the inclusion of key stakeholders in the negotiation process is essential to achieving a trade policy that works in the interests of British workers, industry and our environment. However, the Trades Union Congress has also accused the Government of a lack of continued stakeholder engagement during trade negotiations and says that a failure to meaningfully engage with trade unions has resulted in the Government agreeing trade deals that lack adequate protections for workers’ rights. Yet again, Ministers are hiding from robust scrutiny because they know that the deals they are agreeing are simply not delivering for the British people. This is simply not good enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott.
I pay huge tribute to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate and for his excellent speech, much if not most of which I agreed with. Like him, I am a free trader. Free trade is massively important, and not just for prosperity; if we had more free trade with the markets on our doorstep, the cost of living crisis would not be as bad as it is.
Free trade is important for fairness and prosperity, but also for peace, because it integrates countries and makes conflicts between them seem much less plausible and more unthinkable. Let us remember that the European Coal and Steel Community, in its first few years in the 1950s, was about knitting together countries that had been at war. The accession of the eastern European states through the ’90s and noughties was about knitting together countries that had been enemies on either side of the cold war.
Free trade is dead important, and my criticism of the Australia and New Zealand deals is a criticism not of free trade but of deals that are not free—if they are not fair, they are not free. It is absolutely right that, as a country that has taken back control as a sovereign nation, we should be able to dictate the negotiating terms on which we go about setting up trade deals. How could Parliament have dealt with this better or be given the power to deal with it better? Most MPs on both sides of the House wanted Parliament to do its job better than it was allowed to, particularly on the New Zealand and Australia trade deals.
Better scrutiny means that Parliament should be able to sign off the negotiating mandate, and then sign off the deal itself. Surely, as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, we have a right as a country to dictate the terms on human rights, animal welfare, environmental issues and carbon reduction. They should surely underpin the negotiating mandate of any trade deal. Then, when a vote is taken, it must not be taken after the damage has been done.
The Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto stated:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
That is not true. That manifesto commitment has been broken.
Let us look in particular at the deal with Australia. The average suckler beef herd in Britain is 30 cows. In Australia, it is hundreds upon thousands of cattle. It is not that Australians are brutes and terrible at animal welfare, but the nature of farming in Australia means that it is cheaper per unit and crueller in practice. The same animal husbandry cannot be done for 1,000 cattle as for 30.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, but I urge a bit of caution on that point, because we would never sign trade agreements with other countries if we expect them to have exactly the same standards. As he rightly pointed out, we have the highest standards in animal welfare around the world. The hope is that, if we sign trade agreements with places such as Australia, they can start seeing how they can match our standards and rise up to them, rather than us lowering ours, because there is absolutely no intention of us doing that.
Well, that is the theory, but the Government’s own figures and modelling show that the Australia trade deal, for the very reasons I was just setting out, will give a £94 million hit to British farming. There is no doubt that the deal has sold out and—in the words of Minette Batters, the excellent president of the National Farmers Union—betrayed British farmers. The impact of the trade deal undermines British farming and the standards and ethics of the United Kingdom in general—in particular of the way we farm. That is added to a set of assaults on British farming.
The transition to the new farm payments scheme is in complete chaos. The removal of direct payments—20% by this Christmas—will plunge many farmers into poverty. Meanwhile, many farms are trying to engage with the new environmental land management system. Two years down the road, they will change their businesses, and now they do not know what to do. The Government have sort of part-listened and have thrown everything up in the air; it is total chaos. There is chaos in farming and in the market.
The greenest thing that the British Government could do is keep Britain’s farmers farming, because without farmers we cannot deliver the environmental goods. Likewise, we cannot deliver the food that we all rely on. If we become less and less self-sufficient, that has a moral impact as we push up the price of commodities for the poorest counties in the world. The failure to conduct fair and transparent trade deals with the scrutiny of this Parliament undermines British farming in general and puts at risk our environmental imperatives, our food production and, by connection, the poorest people in the world, whose food prices will go up because we cannot feed ourselves. That is why we must get it right next time. Free trade is important, but we must not throw our farmers under the bus in the process. Free trade that is not fair is not free in the first place.
I hope that this is an opportunity to reset our relationship. It is no secret that the relationship between the International Trade Committee and the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), was toxic. It was bad. She held the Committee in disregard and, frankly, the Committee held her in disregard. Let us be honest about it. The officials around her gave her bad advice. They gave her arrogant advice, and she encouraged it by responding and goading them to give her that advice. That needs to end, and it needs to end now.
The advice needs to be that the new Secretary of State has to make time in her diary to make sure that we are seen in a timely manner. The promises have to be fulfilled. The Secretary of State cannot expect to get away with what has been done in the past, because it was quite frankly embarrassing for everyone. Of course, it does not have to be like that. There are many other Departments that have very good relationships with their Secretary of State. I have sat on many other Committees in this House, and I have never seen such a dysfunctional relationship.
Order. It is usual that if a Member is going to directly criticise or mention a Minister, they give them advance warning. I am not sure whether that has been done, but if it has not, I would certainly be putting that right after this meeting.
None of this is new or not on the record. I think I have been even franker to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to her face in Committee meetings, including about her officials, but I will alert her to this because it is a speech that has come from my contemplation today.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not impugning officials at the Department for International Trade in that regard. I am not sure whether he was, but I am sure that he would not want to be questioning the integrity of the officials in the Department. Maybe I misunderstood him and maybe that was not the case.
No, I think their advice to her was bad. That is my honest feeling. It was not good advice on how she should conduct her relationship with the Committee. It does not need to be like that, because other Committees that I have sat on—and I have sat on many—have had very good relationships with officials. I do not think that the relationship with the officials and the previous Secretary of State was good. I am afraid it is not just about the Secretary of State on this matter.
When I was on the International Development Committee, the relationship was such that we had private discussions and briefings with the Secretary of State every month. They were private, off the record and totally in camera. We would discuss confidential issues relating to development spending—sometimes where it had been misspent or where there were problems. The Committee would then rally around the Secretary of State, the Department and their officials when things were happening. That is the kind of relationship that we need now, and it is the kind of relationship that I think we can have now.
We need to review CraG, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I also sit on, is doing that now. We need to strengthen CraG and we also need to have the following things, which I will list quickly and then finish. We need to ensure that heads of terms are presented to the Committee and signed off by the House, just like in America, the European Union and most other advanced democracies. We need to have private briefings at every single stage and on every single chapter. That is what the EU and the US get. If it is good enough for them, it needs to be good enough for us. We need to have embedded people in some of the key negotiations. Again, the US Senate has that, and that is what we should be expecting. It is not good enough for Ministers or the Department to tell us that these are confidential discussions. They are in the national interest and they must include the Committee. It is unacceptable for them to think that the Committee is not trustworthy.
We need a proper set of trade commissioners who give impartial advice to the Committee. The Committee needs to be given the resources for a set of sub-committees and staff. The Committee could then look at broad issues and the sub-committees could look at trade-by-trade issues. It is not good enough that the Committee is having to do all the trade-by-trade issues, which means that we are not looking at any of the broad issues in our scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott, I believe for the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate and for his reasoned contribution.
I agree with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) about the importance of ensuring that Parliament can scrutinise trade deals. After exiting the European Union, the UK finds itself negotiating trade deals for the first time in over 50 years, yet with minimal scrutiny by this House.
Trade deals are no longer simply focused on tariffs and border crossings, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said. They touch on every element of our daily lives, from jobs and environmental protection to food safety and public services. Given that these trade deals will have a lasting impact on our constituents’ lives, the lack of scrutiny is disappointing.
The measures that do exist to scrutinise trade deals are simply not up to scratch. Recent trade deals with Australia and New Zealand exemplify the disregard for proper parliamentary scrutiny, with those deals effectively signing away the livelihood of Scottish farmers. Under the current CRaG procedure, Parliament is granted little power in the scrutiny of trade deals. It cannot block or amend deals, but simply delay them. Despite the Government promising that this Parliament would have a full debate on the impact of the Australia trade deal, that has not taken place. It appears that the new Government wish to continue with this lack of proper parliamentary scrutiny.
On the topic of India, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) spoke incredibly eloquently about his constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, and I associate myself fully with all his concerns.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, scrutiny of trade deals by legislators is not uncommon. From an international perspective, the UK is an outlier in its lack of parliamentary oversight of international agreements. Our EU counterparts require parliamentary ratification for any deal negotiated, effectively giving them a veto over trade deals. A similar system is also in place in the US, with Congress outlining the objectives that the Government must follow in any negotiations. By allowing Parliament greater scrutiny over deals, we would be strengthening our system of oversight to match that of our international counterparts.
As has been said by hon. Members from across the House, parliamentary scrutiny matters. There was a refusal to enshrine basic animal welfare and environmental standards in the Australia deal negotiated by our current Prime Minister. As I have said, that effectively signed away Scottish farmers’ livelihoods. There is much concern in Scotland. Trade deals would greatly benefit from consultation with the devolved Administrations. The agreements have completely disregarded devolution and eroded the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
Scotland has its own legal jurisdiction over the environment, procurement, farming and health, yet it was not properly consulted about how the trade deals would impact those areas. It is vital that the Scottish Parliament has a greater role in scrutinising and approving agreements. It is unacceptable that the Scottish Parliament is effectively being ignored and lacks the power to delay or amend the terms of a deal that has huge ramifications for Scottish agriculture and industry.
The UK should follow the approach adopted in Canada in its recent negotiations with the EU. The Canadian Government consulted each of the provincial administrations and involved them at every stage of the negotiation. Similar systems, involving regional and devolved Administrations, are commonplace internationally, and the UK should look to emulate that by involving the Scottish Parliament in all future negotiations.
It is vital that we get the negotiation of trade deals right. Parliament must have a greater say in all trade negotiations, and the devolved Administrations must be involved. Once a trade deal has been ratified, it is incredibly difficult to amend the terms. We must therefore ensure that the negotiations are done correctly the first time. That can be done only if better mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the UK Government are properly scrutinised in their negotiation of trade deals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the second time today, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate on scrutiny of trade deals.
The Government have simply failed to ensure that parliamentarians, businesses, non-governmental organisations, sector representatives, devolved Administrations—as the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), said—and civic society can scrutinise our trade policy adequately. Trade can and should be a force for good: it supports well-paid jobs here in the UK and overseas, it can reduce poverty around the globe and it can be a vehicle for tackling the evils of our world, from human trafficking to environmental degradation, to name but two.
Effective trade, however, needs effective scrutiny, as all other equivalent nations have. We in the UK could learn a lot from those nations, but for this Government “scrutiny” avoids engagement. The whole process they operate avoids scrutiny and engagement and actively harms the development of effective trade policy and trade deals. We are not dealing in abstract facts. When I met NFU representatives in Wales this summer, they told me about their concerns and worries about the deal, particularly for red-meat farmers. Moreover, when they did meet Ministers and civil servants, they felt that they were being ignored.
To top that off, we have seen the sordid spectacle of the Government hiding from a debate in the Commons. Before recess, the then Secretary of State tried to deflect one and to claim that no parliamentary time was available for a debate on the detail of the UK-Australia deal. As the answer to a written question that I tabled suggested, that was not true.
Why does this matter? This is not an abstract parliamentary topic; it is about ensuring that consumers, farmers, businesses, civic society, NGOs and Members of both Houses are involved in matters of national importance. With his US example, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) showed why engagement strengthens trade deals. That is why virtually every other modern developed nation has much stronger scrutiny requirements—not just parliamentary scrutiny—for trade deals, including the US, the EU and South Africa. I met parliamentarians in South Africa to discuss this very issue, and we could learn a lot from South African transparency in negotiating trade deals.
Effective scrutiny makes for effective deals. It increases support for trade deals if consumers, workers and businesses feel that they have been listened to as well as just consulted, yet the free trade deal with Australia has a climate-shaped hole in it. The president of the NFU has warned that
“this deal simply serves to heap further pressure on farm businesses at a time when they are facing extraordinary inflationary pressure”.
That happened because key stakeholders such as farmers were not included in the process.
As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, trade is not free if it is not fair. On the agreements with the Gulf, there are serious human rights issues in countries there, whether on the right to protest or the rights of women, migrant labourers or many others. We now know that the Government stripped human rights and the rule of law out of their objectives for a Gulf deal.
The FTAs with India and the Gulf would have huge implications for our climate commitments. My first question to the Minister is, what assurances will he give that human rights will now be raised as part of the process and that there will be proper scrutiny for any free trade agreement with the Gulf?
The Secretary of State has been critical of the Government’s own net zero pledge, calling it “arbitrary”. Perhaps that is why they might wish to avoid any scrutiny. When the Prime Minister was Secretary of State for International Trade, she selectively released partial polling data, only to be rebuked by the British Polling Council. We saw her ignore officials’ advice about the impact of the UK-Australia deal on UK farmers.
In the past year, the former Secretary of State dodged the International Trade Committee multiple times, as we have heard today. The Department was even issued with an enforcement notice by the Information Commissioner for delays to freedom of information requests, further suggesting a fear of scrutiny and openness. That suggests that the Government are avoiding scrutiny and debate in both Houses.
I have focused on the Government’s attitude to the parliamentary process, but we need assurances that Ministers are meeting, and actually listening to the concerns of, other stakeholders. The stakeholders we met feel there is too little consultation, and even when there is they feel like they are being talked at rather than listened to.
Will the Government grant a debate on the Floor of the House on the UK-New Zealand trade agreement before it is ratified? If the International Trade Committee requests a debate on the FTA with India, will the Government grant it?
Finally, the Labour party is a pro-trade party. We want to see the Government striking ambitious trade deals. We want to see trade deals that support British business, British values and economic growth. To do that, trade deals need to be accompanied by proper scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. It is great to be back at the Department for International Trade after a one-year gap. It is good to engage on a huge number of the issues that I used to engage on—I have had a quick crash course to bring myself up to speed after the last year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. He is a genuine champion for global Britain and brings great energy to the International Trade Committee—something I remember from when I appeared before the Committee a number of times. The Committee is extremely important to the work of the Department for International Trade, as is the Lord’s International Agreements Committee. Many important points have been raised during the debate, and I will strive to cover as many as I can. First, I will lay out a little context, but most of my speech will deal with the points that have been raised.
For the first time in nearly half a century, the UK is free to negotiate its own free trade agreements with the world’s fastest-growing economies. The rewards will be significant: higher wages, more jobs and more growth, with agreements specifically tailored to the needs of the United Kingdom. However, given that our free trade agreements equate to a significant shift in trade policy and in how this country does its trade policy, it is right that Parliament has the opportunity to fully examine them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes rightly says that the CRaG process came in during the last days of the Labour Government, in 2010. CRaG ensures that Parliament has 21 sitting days to consider a deal before it can be ratified. Only once that period has passed without either House resolving against the deal can it proceed towards ratification. The Government believe that CRaG continues to provide a robust framework, but we have added, in addition to CRaG, some important parts to this process. In both respects, the need for parliamentary scrutiny and the Government’s constitutional right to negotiate international agreements under the royal prerogative—