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Westminster Hall

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 September 2023

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

Railway Ticket Offices

Before I call Chris Loder to move the motion, I want to give Members as much advance notice as possible that the time limit will be a maximum of two minutes. I will try to get everybody in, but I want to get to the Front Benchers no later than 10.30 am.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered railway ticket offices.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. We know that the future of railway ticket offices is important; the level of attendance here today and the fact that the Transport Committee is, in parallel, currently receiving evidence about this matter confirms it. It feels like the old days, when I was a member of the union having a union meeting, to see so many friends and colleagues from across the House here, and I warmly welcome them all to take part in the debate.

I am here today on a mission. That mission is to ensure that the staffed hours at West Dorset railway stations are protected and definitely not slashed by more than 50%, as is currently proposed by South Western Railway in its station change consultation.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Scunthorpe is another station that will see a huge reduction in hours under the proposals. I know the Minister will address this, but does my hon. Friend share my worry that staff clearly cannot get out from behind the ticket office and do any work around the station if their hours are cut, because they simply will not be there?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a lack of understanding about this issue, and I shall look to expose that later in my speech.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but not because I have been bankrolled by a trade union and feel obliged to speak; I know that some Opposition Members present are in that position and that union cash—[Interruption.] Union cash has gone into the back pocket of some Members who are here, to the value of tens of thousands of pounds. That is not why I am speaking. I am speaking because before I was elected I worked for the railway for 20 years, and that career started as a station assistant—the very role that is affected by these proposals, and in my case the proposals from South Western Railway.

The trade unions and particularly the RMT—the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—have for many years blocked meaningful reform of station staff’s conditions of service, even though those reforms may have been beneficial to staff. That has meant that when ticket offices are quiet and no customer is there, staff have in many cases not checked the car park, cleaned the station or helped those in need on the platform, often because they were instructed by their union not to undertake any other responsibilities or, indeed, not to fully undertake the responsibilities they have. That is nothing new, but I am very proud to say that it is not an issue at the stations in West Dorset.

No one can say that I do not believe staff are important. They are, and much more so than some train operators and others have given them credit for. For the record, I would like to thank those members of staff, many of whom are former colleagues of mine, who continue today to diligently and carefully look after the many thousands of passengers who pass through their stations. To Judith and Winifred at Dorchester South, to Colin and Bob, who both retired from Sherborne a few years ago, and of course to Anne, who has worked at Sherborne station since I was a little boy, I would like to tell you all today that as your MP I shall stand up to protect not just your employment but the cherished service that you give, which is so welcomed by the hundreds and hundreds of local people you help every single day.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I assure him that I am here not on behalf of any trade union but on behalf of my residents, particularly those who have a disability or who need special tickets, such as extensions to freedom passes, and women travelling late at night on their own. The new measures will see highly used stations, such as Whitton and Teddington in my constituency, reduced to only 20 hours of staffing a week. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that without an equality impact assessment and ticketing modernisation, we should not be pressing ahead with the changes?

I will highlight some of the issues in a moment. There is clearly a veil, behind which is hidden an enormous reduction in staffing hours at stations, which is a key issue that I shall address in a moment.

To completely alter decent ticket services for constituents is wrong, primarily because of what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) said, but also because the impact will be even greater in rural areas across the United Kingdom, particularly for elderly constituents and those who are not au fait with the online system. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as the hon. Member for Twickenham said, we need a review and for everybody to be able to input into the process before the Government and the Minister progress with the changes?

I will address those points later, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

Moving staff from being solely behind the ticket office window to being more visibly present on the station, and directly helping passengers with purchasing tickets or helping people on and off trains, is a good concept. In principle, it is an initiative that I support, but behind the veil is the reality: at Sherborne station, the overall staffed hours will be 40% less than today; Crewkerne station in south Dorset, which serves the rural west of my constituency, will have its hours slashed by 50%; and the reality for Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, is that South Western Railway currently proposes to slash the staffing presence at Dorchester South station by 55%.

Staff cuts are also proposed at Barnes, Earlsfield, Putney and Wandsworth Town stations, which serve my constituents. Does the hon. Member agree with me and my constituents, who do not understand why the Government seem to be pushing for this change and why the potential changes to the ticketing and settlement agreement made earlier this year have forced the changes on the rail companies? Does he agree that many people are concerned that this violates the Equality Act 2010?

Some of the hon. Lady’s questions are for the Minister to address later, but I agree that a number of aspects have not been taken into account in the current consultation and proposals, which is why I called for this debate and am making this speech.

The disingenuous veil of moving staff from behind the ticket office window to be out on the station, with no change in staff hours, is patently untrue in West Dorset. This is not reform but inequality against not just those with mobility issues, but the elderly and those who are often without access to technology, driving issues of rural isolation still further.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I congratulate him on securing the debate. There is a still more fundamental issue here: we are stripping life of human interactions and connections between people, in both the private and public sectors—in everything from shops to banks and now railway stations—and in doing so we are unpicking the threads that bind us together and make up the tapestry of civilised life. This is a time to think again and take a stand.

I thank my right hon. Friend, who I think is entirely in agreement with a lot of what I have to say. I shall elaborate further in a moment.

The proposed changes will compound years of really poor service to the people of Dorset. South Western Railway has previously slashed the train service, totally cutting us off from direct trains to London for prolonged periods, removed all on-board catering for train journeys of almost three and a half hours, and dumped passengers, at all times of day or night, with no way to travel forward just to save a few minutes in delay. Those are just some examples of what my constituents face day to day.

I recognise that proponents of the scheme say that it is vital to progress de-staffing and ticket office closures because only 12% of all tickets are sold at ticket offices.

Those wishing for closures argue that only 12% of tickets are bought at the ticket office, but I know that my hon. Friend has travelled through Thornaby’s brilliant little train station, where almost 25% of tickets are still bought at the ticket office. Does he agree that those 25% of people are often the most vulnerable, and that Thornaby’s ticket office must stay open?

Anyone would think that my hon. Friend has had prior sight of my speech. Yes, I agree with him, and am about to articulate why.

In West Dorset, South Western Railway has refused to tell me what the percentage of tickets sold at ticket offices on both the Weymouth and Exeter lines actually is—I wonder why. Operators that have wanted to do the right thing have been open and shared that information because it is in the public interest. Regardless of the background, we have some realities to face. The real question that my constituents are asking is: does a national figure of 12% of all tickets being purchased from ticket offices warrant them all being closed down?

On that point, I am staunchly against the proposals for not only a reduction in staffing hours but the closure of ticket offices in Keighley and Ilkley. Given that the proportion of tickets sold at Keighley and Ilkley is higher than the national average—it is one in six, as opposed to the lower national trend—does my hon. Friend agree with me that the proposal to close Keighley and Ilkley ticket offices is absolutely wrong?

I agree that my hon. Friend shares many of the same difficulties and challenges that I face in West Dorset. I will be pleased to articulate further why I agree with him.

The fact that nationally 12% of tickets are purchased from ticket offices does not necessarily warrant them all being closed down, particularly as the percentage for many rural stations and among higher-age communities is much higher than the national average, and no more so than in the south-west. The demographics of constituents in my West Dorset constituency are such that 30% of the population is over 65, which suggests that more people than average use ticket offices. That totally busts the myth that only 12% of tickets are sold at all stations. For example, at Barnstaple station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), 45% of all tickets are sold at the ticket office.

In Dorchester, even if the company gave me the stats they would not offer an accurate picture because such is the level of management incompetence that the ticket office door was closed for in excess of three months last year, awaiting repair. That will undoubtedly have skewed the statistics and is, quite frankly, questionable in itself. The only reason why that situation got sorted was because I complained about it.

I have an email from a whistleblower who works for Abellio Greater Anglia. The key thing it says is that

“the ticket offices are used much more than people realise. Although the figures say only 12% of tickets are issued by ticket offices, this is an average…Stations like Billericay, Wickford and Raleigh are selling over 500 per shift at weekends.”

So people who work for the railway and who know the truth would agree with everything that my hon. Friend just said.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution and support.

There is a significant Access for All bid in for Dorchester South, for a new footbridge to make the station accessible. What company of any moral standing would propose a reduction in staffing hours of 55% when half the station is inaccessible, and when the company refuses routinely to change the platform to help those in the greatest need?

Typically, when we buy our tickets online through retailers such as the Trainline, we assume that they are working in our best interests as fare-paying passengers, and that they automatically search for the cheapest fare possible, perhaps through something called a split ticket. I can tell the House today that that is not the case, and I shall offer an example or two.

The cheapest way for rail passengers to get from London to Plymouth is to travel via London Waterloo and change at Exeter St David’s. They should buy a ticket from Waterloo to Axminster, and another ticket from Axminster to Plymouth, which in total will cost £93.90 for a return, and with a railcard just £64.50. Any Members present with a smartphone should feel free to have a look for themselves. I checked this before the debate. If they enter London to Plymouth on the Trainline, they will be given the option of taking the 10.04 am from Paddington to Plymouth, and offered a ticket for a staggering £158.70. That is almost £100 more than the cheapest alternative, which is actually on the 10.20 am from Waterloo to Exeter, and then change.

Why is that? It is because anti-competitive online digital algorithms have been set to block certain ticket combinations, in this case on the Waterloo to Exeter line. To be fair, it is not just on the Trainline app that this happens. Those who want to should have a look on South Western Railway’s website and try to book the same fare. Put in those details—why not even try specifically to put London Waterloo to Plymouth? It will not give them the cheapest combination either; it will send them to Paddington and make them pay more.

Do not think that the issue is reserved to the south-west alone. This time last year, I called out Avanti West Coast and the Trainline for similar behaviour on the route between Manchester and London, where the supposed walk-up fares were quota-controlled if bought online. If the ticket quota had sold out, the customer would be redirected to a more expensive online fare, or the cookies on their smartphone would tell the system that they wanted that ticket and it would automatically charge them more.

My hon. Friend seems to be describing my journey home this evening. He is outlining the reason why we need people in our ticket offices: so that we can ask for advice and guidance, how to get about, and how to navigate the system, which is so badly orchestrated for those buying tickets online. Can he go further in telling us how we might provide a solution for that system?

My hon. Friend is taking the concluding words of my speech out of my mouth.

If a customer went to the ticket office, where the regulations require that the cheapest ticket is to be sold, they could indeed buy the cheapest ticket there at the advice of someone in the ticket office. What is really disgraceful about all this is that the issue I highlighted on the west coast main line this time last year happened during the period of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II lying in state, when so many people wanted to travel to London. It is pure commercial disdain, and it makes me sick.

Frankly, this is a scandal. After the debate, I will be writing to the Competition and Markets Authority to ask it to investigate, and I hope the Minister will do so as well. If any other Member, regardless of which side of the House they sit, would like to co-sign my letter, I will be delighted to hear from them after this debate.

I remind the House that I am here to make the case for station staffing hours to be maintained, not just because we need these experienced and knowledgeable members of staff, but to ensure that, in this cost of living crisis, passengers can get the cheapest fare, rather than rely on manipulative apps and online digital prices that overcharge them. The one person who can be trusted to provide the cheapest fare is the ticket office clerk.

Proposals for reform should not just improve efficiency; they should enable a growing railway for the future and access for all. The Secretary of State kindly gave me the assurance last week in my Westminster office that the sort of duplicity that is being proposed could be vetoed. Those of us here are making that point on the record; I hope the Minister will be able to concur.

I am not averse to reform. In fact, it is important to recognise that I think it is good, but, as the constituency MP for West Dorset, I request that the Minister stops these ridiculous proposals from South Western Railway and ensures that we do not see a reduction in staffed hours at Sherborne or Dorchester South. I expect other Members will make similar requests.

As everyone can see, this is a heavily subscribed debate. I want you to help each other. I have 18 people on the list, which makes two minutes each, without interventions. If anyone intervenes, that is nothing to do with me but it may restrict the number of people who can speak. That is all I ask. Without interventions, everyone on the list will get two minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing the debate. I agree with a number of his points but disagree entirely with his characterisation of trade unions. It will come as no surprise that I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my membership of several trade unions.

Time is limited so I will make only two or three key points. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, there are 1.1 million adults in the UK with no bank account, of whom one in five is aged between 18 and 24. One of the regions with the highest number of unbanked people is Greater Manchester, where my constituency lies. With the proposal to close ticket offices and given the unreliability of station ticket vending machines, how are people who are predominantly cash based meant to purchase tickets? What provision is the Minister proposing? Would not simply keeping the ticket offices be the best solution to any potential problems of creating a more inaccessible rail network? What about part-cash, part-card payments? What about refunds for tickets purchased with cash? There are 467 stations managed by Northern Rail, of which 449 have cashless ticket machines. It seems that people who want to pay with cash or part-cash are excluded from this new, in theory modern railway network. I hope the Minister will address that point.

The ticket offices are the only form of regulated station staffing. If they are closed, there will be no more statutory regulation for staffing at stations. The RMT union tells me that that will undoubtedly mean that train companies proceed with a massive reduction in staffing across the network. Does the Minister accept that such a move will mean job losses for thousands of railway workers? I have three train stations in my constituency: Brinnington, Heaton Chapel and Stockport. Two of those do not have disabled access. The idea that the Government are working towards a more modern network is complete nonsense, because there is no access available.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing the debate. In a longer session, it would be worth looking at how things such as contactless travel could be extended, particularly incorporating railcards into that offer.

In the time I have, I will focus on the situation at the ticket offices at Torquay and Paignton stations. Although the national average is about 15%, the consultation document confirms that at Paignton 41.3% of tickets were sold at the ticket office. The high percentage of passengers purchasing a ticket at this ticket office shows that demand and need for this service are still strong. It may partly reflect the fact that Paignton and the neighbouring areas are communities with a higher than average percentage of people aged over 70, who may be unfamiliar with online booking methods. Similarly, many tourists use the ticket office not just to buy a ticket but to clarify which tickets are available and the validity of their tickets, and use some of the GroupSave options that may be harder to get from a machine.

At Torquay station, 29.4% of tickets are still sold at the office, but I recognise that the situation is far from ideal for passengers. The ticket office is on the down platform, from which the only destination is Paignton station. Most people therefore depart from the up platform, which has the self-service ticket machine—though often with a large waste bin right behind it—no indoor waiting area and no staff facilities whatever.

I hope that, as part of this process, the Minister will look at feedback about facilities as well as the ticket office issue. I would be particularly interested to hear from him whether the response will be a blanket one, or one that considers the situation at each station. Will thresholds be considered to give more clarity to the level of usage that would see a ticket office retained, and will there be action where the consultation highlights issues such as a lack of other suitable facilities at a station?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. As the SNP disabilities spokesperson, this topic is very important to me. For disabled people, particularly those who are learning disabled, the proposal is appalling. Transport for All has given me a very full briefing on this issue. At no stage in the consultation on the recommended closures has there been any consideration at all of disabled people and their requirements.

The equality impact assessment has been mentioned. Has the Minister any idea how the proposed changes will affect disabled people? Has he spoken to disabled people or his Department’s disability champion? I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding, but I fail to understand why he has not considered the fact that the notification and advertising of the consultation is severely impacting disabled people, some of whom could not read the notices.


None of this is of any use to people who are visually impaired or deaf, older people, people with no access to anything but cash, or people in wheelchairs, who at present cannot get the required discount from the self-service machines in stations. There is only one answer to this whole mess: for the UK Government to do as the Scottish Government have done and nationalise rail operators.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing the debate and highlighting this important issue.

Southeastern and Southern, the two rail operators in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, have made proposals that were subject to consultation. I have urged constituents to engage in the consultation to ensure that their views are heard and taken into account. I have also met representatives from Southeastern and Southern to highlight my concerns and those of constituents who have contacted me.

Southeastern’s proposal is to close the ticket offices at St Leonards Warrior Square and West St Leonards and have station staff visible and available to provide a wider range of customer support, including accessibility and safeguarding. Hastings station is to be a travel centre, where customers will have access to help, information and all ticket-selling facilities currently available at a ticket office, including a face-to-face service. I welcome the proposal for Hastings station, which is one of the busiest on the rail network, serving a highly diverse range of customers, including tourists arriving and departing or changing trains.

Southern proposes to reduce the opening hours at Rye station and, worryingly, to close all ticket office facilities on Sundays. This proposal is unacceptable. Hastings is to be a travel centre because it has a large volume and range of customers, including tourists, during both the week and the weekend, but this is also true of Rye. I am advocating for Rye station to be made a travel centre because Rye is also primarily a tourist town, and has an older demographic that is not always adept at using online services or ticket machines. One size does not fit all.

Although I am acutely aware of the financial constraints following on from covid, the reduction in passenger numbers and the huge subsidies provided by the Government, I ask train operators to tailor their plans according to local need. I have asked them not to judge local response to their consultations, as people might not know about them or they might be unable to respond for some reason, even though they care about what happens. It is important that train operators listen to local residents and, importantly, to their staff on the ground as to what they consider to be an essential ticket office service for a given locality.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to discuss my opposition to the proposals that would close or reduce the opening hours of most train station ticket offices in England. Ticket office staff provide the human face of a complex system and play a vital role in helping passengers understand their travel options, buy the right ticket, find the right platform and secure assistance for those who are disabled. It would be sheer folly to cut or remove such a vital service.

Many of my constituents have expressed that view. One, who works in a railway station ticket office, is concerned about what this will mean for her job. She is right to be concerned. According to the RMT, the proposals put 2,300 station staff jobs at risk. Another constituent who has a severe visual impairment has been in touch with me to say that for blind and partially sighted people, the support provided by ticket offices and staff is vital. She has expressed serious concern, saying:

“Ticket office closures will see even more visually impaired people excluded from travelling independently by train.”

That chimes with the results of a survey by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which showed that only 3% of blind and partially sighted respondents said they could use a ticket vending machine without problems.

We must also remember the impact of the proposals on those with poor literacy and numeracy skills. In England, 7.1 million adults—that is 16.4% of the adult population—are functionally illiterate. It is a matter of extreme concern that the Department for Transport refuses to release its equality and impact assessments regarding the potential closures. The Government must make the assessments available; people have a right to know what is in them.

Public transport must be inclusive. It is vital for employment, leisure, accessing healthcare, visiting friends and the operation of the economy. Making it harder to travel by train simply makes no sense.

The second highest number of signatures on the petition against these proposals comes from my constituents in Rayleigh and Wickford. I have been pressing the Minister for months for figures on ticket office sales in my constituents’ stations. They arrived yesterday afternoon. At Hockley, he says they sell an average of 219 tickets a day, in Rayleigh 461 and in Wickford 480, but the email I read out from the Abellio whistleblower—by the way, I have no faith in Abellio’s management—says that in fact, and particularly at weekends, the figures of ticket sales are even higher. I ask the Minister to listen to my constituents and to people who work on the railway.

In my reply to the consultation exercise on 24 July, I said:

“In summary, I do not believe that what is proposed will provide significant savings for train operators but will conversely provide serious disbenefits to passengers. In other words, ‘the game is not worth the candle’. I very much hope…that these proposals will be reconsidered and eventually dropped.”

That “very much” remains my view.

I have had the privilege of being a Minister, and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), is a fair Minister, I know. In all seriousness I offer him and the Government some genuine advice: look around. The proposals are completely unloved. They are not popular even among Conservative Back Benchers—quite, quite the opposite. I urge the Minister to accept that mistake has been made. It may not have been his mistake, but I say to him: take the hint, drop it, get rid of it and retreat gracefully. Do not press forward with this. The House of Commons does not want it and nor do our constituents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing this important debate.

Looking through the correspondence I have received from my constituents on this issue, it has become clear why the public consultation was originally intended to last just three weeks: the train operators knew they would not get the response they wanted. Of course, I have not had the opportunity to see all the submissions made—over 460,000 of them—during the three months in which the consultation was open, but if the overall public response is anything like the response that I have seen in my constituency, it will have been emphatic and nearly unanimous. The verdict of the British public is clear: they do not want the ticket offices to close.

I am grateful that in my constituency of Birkenhead, not a single ticket office is slated for closure. That is because they are all operated by the Merseyrail network, which is under the leadership of Steve Rotheram, the Metro Mayor, who has announced Merseyrail’s ambition to become the most inclusive rail network in all of Britain. Just as it did in its approach to the pay dispute, when it sat down with the unions to reach an equitable deal, Merseyrail has chosen to break with the scorched earth tactics of the Rail Delivery Group and will instead pursue a path that works in the interests of both passengers and rail staff. When travelling within and out of their community, my constituents will still be able to rely on the expertise, support and assistance of ticket office staff.

According to research conducted by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, only 3% of blind and visually impaired people reported being able to use ticket machines without problems, while 58% said that it was entirely impossible for them to use ticket machines. Ticket offices are indispensable to ensuring that everyone can access our rail network, but the bleak reality facing many people who are blind or visually impaired is that if ticket offices close, their world will grow smaller because their ability to travel freely and independently will be constrained. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), should recognise that ticket office closures represent a profound threat to the progress that has been made in fighting for equal opportunities for all in this country.

My constituency has three railway stations: Warrington Central, Warrington Bank Quay and Warrington West. The latter two will see their manned ticket offices close, and although Warrington Central is one of the few stations where ticket offices will not be shut entirely, there will be a reduction in staffing hours there.

This public consultation is one of the poorest public consultations I have seen, because there is simply no explanation for the vast difference in the way that two stations that are less than a mile from each other are being treated. Warrington Bank Quay, which is the main line station on the west coast main line, will have no members of staff at its ticket office, yet Warrington Central will have a fully staffed ticket office. That makes no sense at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) cited a figure saying that 12% of tickets last year were sold through a ticket office. That really is an oversimplification of the situation, especially when we consider just how many journeys are made annually. The latest figures for 2018-19—pre-pandemic—show about 1.8 billion rail journeys taking place in the UK. If we accept the 12% figure, that means that 200 million tickets were purchased through a ticket office. That is a huge number, but we are simply to withdraw ticket offices from around the UK. The 12% figure also does not take account of the conversations that take place at ticket windows when a ticket is not purchased but advice is sought about the best route, or details are given about buying a ticket at a later date. All these things are not being taken into account.

I will not take up any more time in this debate, save to ask the Minister one question. Can he explain to me why there is a difference in the way that Warrington Bank Quay station, which is run by Avanti, is being treated and the way that Warrington Central, which is run by Northern, is being treated?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing this debate. He made an excellent speech, although he will not be surprised to learn that I disagree with him about his characterisation of the trade union movement. Labour Members are very proud to be associated with that part of the labour movement—and of course, to the extent that we are funded by unions, it is the cleanest money in British politics. [Laughter.] Some colleagues laugh, but I will sure we will have a look at their entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The proposals we are debating today are appalling. Let us get this matter into some perspective. These 13 companies are planning to close nearly 1,000 ticket offices. That will leave 2,300 working people in our constituencies right across the land out of work. I am concerned about the ticket office staff in my constituency of Middlesbrough and my constituents who use the service, but the same situation applies right across the country. About 25% of the staff will be lost.

As a former shadow Rail Minister and shadow Transport Secretary, I wholeheartedly agree with the remarks of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). This is about a human relationship with the railways. People find it very difficult to travel in any event. To strip that out would be a disaster.

I wondered whether my former shadow might raise that issue. The people in Spalding in Lincolnshire want that human interaction. The hon. Gentleman and I worked closely to pursue transport policies in the national interest and for the common good. That is what this is about. This is about the common good of the communities we serve: Spalding, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere.

That was so well articulated, but the reality is that companies are issuing section 188 notices and advertising premises to let now, while the consultation is under way. I ask the Minister, who is a good man and who thinks about these things very deeply and has good intentions in this regard, to really think about this matter.

I find myself in total agreement with the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). There is universal condemnation of these proposals, and there is an opportunity to retreat and consider a better way forward. Of course we want to see technological advances, but it is not an either/or; that human contact can still be there, with more people on the platforms but also in ticket offices. Let us think outside this box.

Transport for London have the most remarkable system of fares and ticketing. That is the sort of initiative that we should be rolling out across our country. I have recommended Labour’s plans for ticketing and fares before, and I encourage the Minister to look at those carefully. We have got the ability and the algorithms to do it, but it cannot be at the cost of losing that human contact that so many people—disabled, vulnerable or otherwise—depend upon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing and so ably leading this important debate.

Darlington station’s ticket office sold 133,785 tickets in 2022. That is 368 a day. I recently spoke to one of the ticket clerks there, and they have been sending a member of staff out on the platform to work in the proposed way. This is not scientific, but the clerk estimated that 50% of the people they tried to help still needed to come into the ticket office to be properly assisted.

As the Minister is aware, Darlington Bank Top station is in the process of a £139 million transformation, including the construction of new platforms that will significantly increase the station’s capacity and the number of people it serves. It seems madness to close the ticket office at Darlington at this time and undermine the important Government-funded redevelopment.

The Minister has already heard my concerns on this issue. I have raised a number of issues with him, including the siting of ticket machines, the unavailability of tickets via apps and machines in the minutes before boarding a train, and the anxiety caused to passengers threatened with penalty fares.

There is tremendous cynicism in our society these days as to what a consultation means. It is now almost a universally held belief that, when a consultation is commissioned, the decision has already been made and the process is conducted solely to pay lip service to the public’s views. I am grateful to the Minister for listening to me on this issue and for his reassurance that this is a genuine consultation, that the voices of my constituents will be heard loud and clear, and that Darlington Bank Top station can keep its ticket office.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. In rural communities like the one where I live in Devon, ticket offices play a role that extends way beyond selling tickets. By being able to speak to a real person and talk through journey options, it means that people can avoid online vendors ripping them off. I would like to hand my platform over to a couple of constituents who have written to me about how the changes will affect the four stations in my constituency: Axminster, Honiton, Feniton and Tiverton Parkway.

I received an email from Marian. She lives with a visual impairment and is deeply concerned about how these changes will impact her and other people who are blind or partially sighted. She wrote to me:

“Without ticket offices, we will have to purchase tickets online or through vending machines at stations. These are often inaccessible, so improving this basic accessibility should be the first priority, not ticket office closures.

Ticket Office staff are usually my first point of contact at my local…station where staff are exceptionally knowledgeable and helpful, taking time and trouble to be as informative as possible.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the bizarre things about the proposal affecting Axminster is that its station will actually get more staffing hours rather than a reduction?

People who live in Axminster recognise that the station will be poorly served, and they as constituents will be poorly served by the changes. They will mean that blind and visually impaired people such as Marian will not know where to go in the station concourse.

Another constituent, Josie, describes herself as an “active pensioner”. She wrote:

“The staff provide an invaluable service, giving accurate up-to-the-minute information especially during disruption of trains due to adverse weather, cows on the line, bridge damage, engineering work and strikes. They provide reliable advice in advance for other services and for fares. They print out timetables and have at hand leaflets for obtaining railcards.”

Those are just two testimonies, but they show the real, human impact of this appalling proposal to close ticket offices in rural places such as my corner of Devon.

My constituents, rail user groups and I are absolutely flabbergasted by these proposals. We are frustrated and deeply angry. It is fair to say that the way in which the consultation has been handled is suboptimal. Three weeks would never have been long enough and that has undermined a lot of public confidence.

Five railway stations in my constituency will be affected by the plans, four of which are on the great eastern main line. My constituency is proudly in the middle of Essex. We are growing; we have more commuters across villages such as Hatfield Peverel, Kelvedon and Witham town. I use Witham railway station myself. I buy my tickets in the ticket office; I am proud of the staff there and the service that they offer. The point is that we rely on rail services as a commuter constituency in the heart of Essex. We feel safer and more reassured by the outstanding service that station staff provide, and we want to support them during this time.

The Minister knows that commuters on our line and our franchise have been at the forefront of innovation. We believe in innovation. For over a decade, our commuter groups and rail users, supported by MPs, have focused on flexible season tickets, 15-minute delay repay, more online ticketing and investment in our railway. We believe in those things, but not to the detriment service delivery. That is why I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for convening this debate and for his authoritative opening. This is about people and rail users.

If I may say so, the Minister is one of my favourite Ministers in this Government because he engages and listens. I urge him to consider the nature of this debate and the points he has heard, and readdress the concerns. I invite him to Essex and to my constituency to visit our many rail stations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I have been vocal in my opposition to this proposal. Indeed, I have responded to the consultation, setting out the many reasons why I oppose ticket office closures. If closing ticket offices was really about customer service, it would not be happening. It is a reduction in service, which is not wanted by any rail users I know or, I suspect, any of the nearly 700,000 people who have reportedly responded to the consultation.

The chair of the English Regional Transport Association, based in Bedfordshire, spoke for many when he said that members are

“opposed to the closure of local ticket offices generally as a cut and closure of an amenity many people still find useful and which with creativity can double up as a local information point bridging on-rail and off-rail information.”

I agree with him that closing tickets offices is a stupid proposition.

As a frequent rail user, I enjoy the flexibility of being a digital ticket buyer and a regular ticket office user. A huge number of rail users either do not have access to digital services, or cannot or do not want to use them. The plans are discriminatory, especially against older people, people with disabilities and those on the margins who cannot afford a smartphone or the average cost of tickets. The Government should be working proactively to encourage people to use public transport to travel, but instead they are restricting people.

Northern rail proposes to reduce ticket office hours at Levenshulme and Gorton stations in my constituency by 70%. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is purely a cost-cutting exercise, and yet another example of the managed decline of our railways?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s important point. What happens when a ticket machine does not work for whatever reason? That happens quite often; it is not unusual. How will a machine advise us on the best or cheapest route? People want to talk to informed people, not machines, to address their queries and concerns. Ticket offices and well-staffed stations are absolutely essential to ensure safe travel for customers and to keep our rail network accessible for disabled and vulnerable people.

These mean proposals are not about improving the rail service. They are all about putting profit before people. The British public are sick and tired of being taken for granted, and having to pay more for less in return. I hope the concerns raised by the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the consultation will be listened to and acted on, which should mean that this ill thought through proposal is fully derailed.

This is an excellent debate and I am delighted that it was raised. Supposedly, the driver for closing ticket offices is the reduction in sales to 12%. In coastal and rural areas, that is clearly not true. Certainly, in Newton Abbot 22% of sales are at the office, while at Teignmouth it is 26% and at Dawlish it is 34%. Therefore, why am I being told that ticket offices at two of my three stations will be closed this year, and the other one will be closed next year? We have just spent £80 million getting that line up and running. The line is key to the local economy—the line is about the economy. Those closures will damage not only the economy but access for people, such as the disabled, the visually impaired and the vulnerable who can only use cash, as well as our tourist industry, which is hugely dependent on ticket offices.

Chapter 6 of the ticketing and settlement agreement states that changes to opening hours can be made only if

“the change would represent an improvement on current arrangements in terms of quality of service and/or cost effectiveness and members of the public would continue to enjoy widespread and easy access to the Purchase of Rail Products”.

Minister, that test has not been met. We have had 680,000 responses to Transport Focus. We know it is going to be referred to the Government, so in his reply the Minister should not tell me that this is nothing to do with them and that it is a private matter for companies. Government play a huge role in the matter of funding; it will be referred and the Government will have to take a view. When the Minister is asked the question, he should—please—say no. It is clearly about money, not about stations, so find another way.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing this important debate.

I wish to make a few points the short amount of time available. First, my constituency, which is in south London, has only one tube station, so we are overwhelmingly reliant on services from the 11 railway stations in my constituency to be able to get to work, visit friends and family, get to school, and for shopping and leisure activities. Those commuter rail services are vital for London’s economy as well as for the convenience of my constituents. Only one of the stations in my constituency currently has step-free access.

Secondly, we have seen the erosion of our rail services in recent years. Timetables have been cut, services have become progressively less reliable, and the use of short trains has increased, with consequent overcrowding. My residents are thoroughly fed up at the quality of the rail services they receive week by week, while the costs of those services have continued to spiral.

Thirdly, cuts to ticket offices will have a disproportionate impact on disabled or visually impaired constituents. I am listening to my constituents. My constituent who is a wheelchair user explained to me that when he arrives at a station and needs assistance, he will visit the ticket office, where help can be easily called. How is he to find somebody to help when there is not that single anchor within the station?

Fourthly, the proposed model is set up to fail. We saw this with police stations. When the police closed all their front counters in my constituency and popped up in supermarkets once a week, residents could never find them, so the service was never used and it declined. I put out a survey to my constituents, and 96% are opposed to these measures. I implore the Government to listen to residents up and down the country, scrap these measures and keep our ticket offices open.

I congratulate my good friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing the debate. My constituents do not have to use the train. They choose to, to avoid congestion; to avoid high parking charges when they arrive anywhere by car; to reduce their carbon footprint; because it is easier; because they enjoy the journey—anyone would, coming down to west Cornwall; and because we like and value the staff. All that is at risk by the ludicrous proposal to close the dedicated ticket offices in Penzance and St Erth.

Rail groups’ own figures confirm the value of Penzance ticket office: as a proportion of ticket sales, a third more tickets are sold at the station in Penzance than in Exeter St David’s or Plymouth. There is huge support for Penzance ticket office, which will be demonstrated by the level of engagement in the consultation. Even the big boss of RMT came down to Penzance in the summer to see what all the fuss was about.

People use the dedicated ticket office to plan their best route, get the best connection, get the best price, get the best and most convenient ticket, and navigate the connections. The reason is that Penzance is the start of the British rail network. Real people are needed to advise and help plan our journeys.

The Government have invested millions—as we heard in relation to the Dawlish route—in the rail network since 2015, in track upgrades, new rolling stock, delay repay compensation, the train care centre in Penzance and station upgrades. Let us not cast a shadow over that impressive investment by closing dedicated ticket offices where they are needed. That will do nothing to increase passenger numbers on our rail network or get to net zero.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Both the proposal and the process have been carried out incredibly badly, and both, I would argue, are discriminatory. The proposal to close all these ticket offices is bad for passengers and the public in general, and it will disproportionately impact disabled people, women and other minorities. That is one of the reasons the public object to it so much.

We then turn to the process itself. How can we have a situation where the Government are pushing through a discriminatory proposal with a consultation that, itself, is discriminatory? The National Federation of the Blind of the UK said that the public consultation was not accessible, and that is the extended one—first it was meant to be 21 days, and then it was extended, but even then, the consultation was not fully accessible to many of those who will be most adversely impacted by this dreadful proposal.

Despite that, nearly 700,000 people have registered their objection to this proposal. If the consultation had been carried out more sensibly and more accessibly, that figure would have been even higher. There have been 13 train operating companies and 25 email addresses, with variation in the level of accessibility of documents, and yet 700,000 people still made their point. Many more out there feel very strongly about it.

The heart and soul is being ripped out of our local shops, our local railway stations and our communities. Human interaction is so important. There are more important things than profit. Community and accessibility are both very important, and they are being ridden over by this proposal.

I am fortunate to have 10 railway stations in my constituency, but only one, Cleethorpes, currently has a ticket office. TransPennine, which manages Cleethorpes station along with neighbouring Grimsby Town station, has issued the following statement:

“If a customer specifically needs station staff assistance to access rail services, by providing help through the station, then outside station staffing times, alternative transport to the nearest accessible station or to their destination will be provided”.

That is complete madness. Not all journeys are planned: an elderly lady might receive a call at 4 o’clock in the afternoon from her daughter saying, “My husband’s gone into hospital and I need your help,” or some other scenario. How is that lady to get a ticket, arrange a journey and somehow get TransPennine to provide a taxi or—the dreaded words—a replacement bus service? This is nonsense. How is it going to apply?

Considering that TransPennine and other railway companies are subsidised by the taxpayer, who is actually going to pay for the taxi driver or the ticket? Is the taxi driver going to collect money on behalf of TransPennine? Is it ever going to reach the company? The whole thing is a nonsense. Grimsby Town station, which is used by many Cleethorpes residents, had its ticket office modernised a few years ago in partnership with North East Lincolnshire Council. Public money was used to modernise the ticket office, which is now proposed for closure.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for rail, I can tell the Minister that the officers of the group have met and are unanimously opposed to this. It is madness. Stop it now.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing this debate. The fact that so many Members are present, representing a lot of political parties across the House, shows how much interest there is in the debate.

I am afraid that I do not share the trade union-bashing rhetoric of the hon. Member’s speech. I am a proud trade unionist. The trade union movement plays a vital role as a social partner in helping so many workers to improve their pay and working conditions. It is fascinating that while the hon. Member was speaking, I was reading the RMT briefing, and all the points made were similar—in fact, there was unique agreement between the RMT and the hon. Member. In seriousness, he is correct, and the points he makes are widely accepted not just by the trade union movement and by hon. Members, but by the wider public. They are important points that I want to address.

As the hon. Member and others have said, there is real concern about whether or not this is an actual consultation. Will it make changes, or is it a fait accompli? It is concerning to hear and read that as soon as the consultation happened, a section 188 redundancy notice was issued to the trade unions, putting 2,300 station staff jobs at risk. I commend the hon. Member for saying that he is supporting his former colleagues in the workplace, because these are people’s jobs and livelihoods. It is also concerning to read that at least one train company, Avanti West Coast, is already proceeding to make arrangements for letting agents to put out their ticket office spaces for rent. I hope that the Minister can tell us whether the consultation is a real consultation or a fait accompli.

The hon. Member and others mentioned the role of ticket office workers. We should listen to what ticket office workers are saying, which is that 97% of them believe that closing ticket offices will make it harder for passengers to get the best-value fare for their journey. The hon. Member made an excellent contribution on that point: he mentioned the Trainline app and others, and the fact that when there is a ticket office, people get the cheapest fare. That was a very important part of his speech, which I hope the Minister will answer.

Some 98% of ticket office workers say that closing ticket offices would worsen accessibility for disabled, deaf and older people, a point that was made very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows); 98% say that closing ticket offices would worsen the quality of service provided to passengers; 94% say that closing ticket offices would worsen passenger safety and security. That is a very real issue that a lot of Members have mentioned—people feel safe when tickets offices are staffed.

A few moments ago the hon. Member talked about ticket pricing, and staff do assist passengers through that minefield. Does he agree that when there are 55 million different products on the market in the rail industry, it is imperative to have people in ticket offices able to navigate the complexities of the system?

That is absolutely correct. The staff have the experience and knowledge to do that. It goes back to the points made about human interaction, but it is also about knowledge. Ticket office staff have that knowledge to be able to say, “If you buy a ticket to this place and then this place, that works out much better value for money.”

We have to take into consideration that ticket offices help people who are unbanked—there is still an issue in society around cash. We are having a debate in my constituency about bank closures, for example, and there was a bank closure debate in the Chamber last week. The points raised in that debate could easily be raised here. Ticket offices allow people to make part cash/part card payments because not everybody has online access to make those purchases.

There are real perceptions around how passengers feel safe at stations. Some train stations, sadly, have antisocial behaviour, often requiring police attendance. If there are no staff at the stations, that makes people feel unsafe and they believe it is inevitable that the situation would worsen.

Why, Mr Davies, is the Scottish National party intervening on ticket office closures in England? I know you are asking yourself that question, as many others are. It is because there are threatened ticket office closures in Scotland. Avanti West Coast wants to close the office in Glasgow, and London North Eastern Railway is proposing to close the ticket office in Edinburgh. It is ridiculous, as I heard someone say. The move to close almost all rail ticket offices in England would be disastrous and should be rolled back immediately. The Scottish Government’s advisers on accessible transport have described the move as “entirely unacceptable”. It appears that some Tory Ministers knew how bad the move would be for their constituents because it is reported that the Chancellor tried to protect his own constituency from closures before they were even announced.

Transport for All, a disabled people’s rights group, has called on people to reject the plans in the consultation as they will harm the rights and access of disabled people to transport. I do not believe in the private sector model in rail provision. I think the privatisation of rail has been a backward step for many people. I hope the Government will consider following Scotland’s lead and bring rail back into public ownership, because it is time we had a rail service for all that was for people, not for profit.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for opening this important debate and for his work as the chair of the APPG on South Western Railway. He is a former member of staff in the rail sector—I believe as a ticket office clerk and a train guard—so his contribution is particularly valued here today.

As someone who used to commute from Fratton station to London Waterloo five days a week, I want to start by paying tribute to all the ticket office staff in Portsmouth and across the country who have helped me and, I am sure, many others at times of high stress. Hearing constant speculation about their job security in recent months will have been deeply worrying to many, but I hope the words of colleagues today, as well as the 680,000 responses to the recent consultation, show how much they are valued by the British public.

The debate has been popular with valuable contributions from Members of all parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) made the important point that we cannot forget about the 1.1 million British adults with no bank account, who increasingly face barriers at cashless stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) made helpful comments about the inadequacies of the consultation, and the impact on those with literacy and numeracy issues and on people with disabilities—a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley).

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said eloquently that the issue is about people and human interaction, which is why we must find a better way forward on ticketing and fares, and rethink these plans—a view shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), who said that these proposals are about putting profit before people. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) made the case powerfully against closures in London. I thank all Members for their insightful remarks about the proposals and the process.

As Members have highlighted, throughout the process the Government have shown no respect to rail staff, passengers and vulnerable people who will be most impacted by the decision. Ministers initially tried to force through these enormous changes, affecting more than 150 million rail journeys a year, with a consultation period of just 21 days. This was evidently designed to be a rubber stamp for a decision that had already been made with the most vulnerable cut out. It was only following an incredible demonstration of widespread opposition—from organisations including Disability Rights UK, the National Federation of the Blind, Transport for All, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and Guide Dogs UK—that the Government issued a chaotic last-minute decision to extend the deadline. Even countless Conservative MPs have spoken out, in addition to 680,000 responses to the consultation, which I suspect are not all glowing endorsements of the Government’s plans.

In contrast, the only support the changes have had has come from Conservative Ministers. Yet, despite that, Ministers seem determined to press ahead regardless—but why? Despite what they say, given the ditched plans for Great British Railways, we know that this is not about reform; given the Government’s dismal record on contactless ticketing, we know it is not about modernisation; and given the huge disruption this will cause, we know it is not about improving the service for passengers. Given the Government’s record on our country’s rail services, we know that it is about lowering quality and running our rail network further into the ground—all to the detriment of passengers.

Many Members have spoken eloquently about key concerns raised by passengers and staff across the country regarding the closures, so I will focus my remarks on the mounting evidence that the Government are not being straight with the public on this matter. Specifically, there are three claims used by the Rail Minister to justify the closures that I simply do not believe stand up to scrutiny.

First, the Minister has put on record that

“no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 929.]

However, the evidence from train companies shows that thousands of staff hours will be lost, with stations across the country becoming unstaffed. To name but a few: East Midlands Railway has 16 stations that would become unstaffed, with just daily or weekly visits from mobile teams and a loss of at least 728 staffing hours a week; and South Western’s proposals would see 135 instances where stations that currently have ticket offices in operation are no longer staffed on certain days of the week. For example, Worcester Park ticket office is currently open for 12 hours on Fridays, but would become unstaffed on this day under the proposals. The list goes on: Greater Anglia’s proposals would result in a loss of 730 hours a week; Avanti’s 350 hours; c2c’s 200 hours; and Northern’s a whopping 6,500 hours a week compared with its current ticket office hours. The question, therefore, is not whether currently staffed stations will become unstaffed, but whether Ministers know this to be true and are pressing ahead anyway, or whether the plans have been so rushed that Ministers do not even realise their true impact.

As we have heard this morning, one in nine tickets are sold at physical ticket offices. Many of those are to disabled and elderly people, infrequent passengers and people with language difficulties, for whom getting public transport can already be a tricky experience. As we have heard, 23% of disabled adults are unable to use the internet, and only 3% of blind people are able to use ticket vending machines without problems.

The second claim that the Minister has used to justify closures is that

“staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 929.]

Operators, however, have admitted that that may not be the case. Avanti has said that this project may lead more customers to use the ticket vending machines, which are not accessible for some disabled customers, including those with visual impairments. Northern has admitted:

“some customers with disabilities may not receive assistance during hours where the staff presence has been removed. This may discourage some passengers from using the railway.”

What a shocking indictment of the Government’s plans. At a time when we should be encouraging as many people as possible to use our trains, the Government are actively making it more difficult, particularly for those who rely on public transport the most.

Members have rightly raised concerns about the impact of closures on job security. The Minister’s third claim to justify the closures is that the proposals were not about job losses, but that

“the aim of these measures is to redeploy staff who are currently underutilised and who are not seeing the passengers that they used to”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 936.]

Yet analysis of rail operator plans shows that 2,300 station staff jobs are at risk, representing nearly a quarter of all station staff at those companies. It is time the Government saw sense and rethought the plans, as called for by Labour.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the least station staff deserve is honesty and clarity from the Government about their futures. The Minister must set the record straight today. Will he confirm whether he stands by the following statements? First, he said that

“no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed”,

despite evidence showing that thousands of staff hours will be lost with stations across the country becoming unstaffed. Secondly, he said that

“staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it”—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 929.]

despite operators admitting that customers with disabilities may not receive assistance during the hours where staff presence is removed. Thirdly, he said that the proposals are not about job losses, despite analysis of rail operator plans showing 2,300 station staff jobs are at risk.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks. I restate my thanks to the hon. Member for West Dorset for securing the debate and to all hon. Members who contributed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for securing this important debate on railway ticket offices. I also give a warm welcome to his new role to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan). I look forward to working with him.

I will give my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset two minutes to wind up, but in the time I have allotted to me I want to set out a little more detail about the consultation, as many of the questions I have been asked have had that in mind. I will also discuss the rationale for the moves. I will try and take the odd intervention if I can, but, if I cannot, I will ensure that I respond to all right hon. and hon. Members who made their points.

I thank Members for their kind remarks and I enjoy working with everybody across the divide. I want to continue to work with all those who have railways at their heart, and at the heart of their constituencies, to make the railways work. I am a passionate advocate of this, but Members are the champions and I want to continue to work with all Members. I recognise that some of my points will be accepted while others will not, but we will continue to liaise and engage, hopefully with the good spirit and kindness that I have been shown this morning.

I will make some progress and then I may have some time to take interventions.

Together with the rail industry, we want to improve and modernise the experience for passengers by moving staff out from behind the ticket office screens to provide more help and advice in customer-focused roles. As hon. Members have recognised, there has been a huge shift in the way in which passengers purchase their tickets at railway stations, with about one in every 10 transactions taking place in ticket offices in 2022 to 2023, although I take the points that that differs across the estate. Despite that change in passenger transacting behaviour, stations have hardly changed in the past 10 years, which means that staff are constrained to work in ticket offices, although they could serve passengers better on station platforms and concourses. Ten years ago, the ticket office proportion of sales was one in three and it is now almost one in 10.

On the point about growth in the industry, the Minister and I both know that the growth in real passenger numbers will come from leisure. That means people making not regular but irregular journeys. Is it not more likely that they will need assistance at ticket offices, rather than online? Is that not the case?

To keep some structure to my speech, I will come later to a response that I hope will address that point about ensuring that passenger interaction remains, despite the changes.

The rail industry launched consultations on the future of ticket offices under the ticketing and settlement agreement process, which gave the public and stakeholders an opportunity to scrutinise the train operating companies’ proposals to ensure that they work in the best way for passengers. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, my shadow, the consultation was extended. The 21-day period that was first used was the requirement under the ticketing and settlement agreement, which predates 2010. The volume of responses and interest in the consultation meant that it was recognised that it was right to extend it. I am glad that it was extended.

The train operator consultations ended on 1 September and, as has been mentioned, yielded more than 680,000 responses. Now, the independent passenger bodies—Transport Focus and London TravelWatch for stations in London—are engaging with train operators on the consultation response received and the criteria set out. In the past week, I have spoken to the leads of the passenger bodies to ensure they have the resources and to discuss some of the points they may make. I also spoke yesterday to the train operator managing directors to discuss where these proposals may come out. Of course, I have no role in the consultation at this stage, because it is for those two parties to look for an outcome on each station—on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset—by the end of October. I expect the train operators to work collaboratively with the passenger bodies in the coming weeks, to respond to the concerns raised and to refine their proposals accordingly.

There has been much discussion about reduction of hours and expertise at stations with ticket offices. At this stage, I do not expect a material reduction in the number of hours where ticketing expertise is available at stations, in the manner that some have described. That has been set out in the consultation. I expect that by the end of the process, there will be a differing design. When we talk about redeployment, it is important to note that the volume of hours is similar to what we currently have.

Where agreement cannot be reached between the operators and the passenger bodies, individual cases may be referred to the Secretary of State for a decision. That is the next stage of the consultation. At that point, he will look to the guidance under the ticketing and settlement agreement. That guidance was updated in April 2022, following targeted consultation with stake- holders, and was published in February 2023.

The update was made to ensure decision making could account for differences between stations and modern retailing practices. That included replacing the numerically “busy” ticket office sales threshold with a wider range of factors that should be considered, including how proposals would impact customer service; security at stations; modernising retail practices, such as availability of pay-as-you-go ticketing, which continues to be rolled out; and support for passengers with disabilities, accessibility or other equality-related needs.

Sorry, I will not give way due to the time available.

It remains important that we reform our railway to enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service, creating the modern experience that people expect. We should also look for ways to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. I know from listening to constituents and parliamentarians that there is great interest in what will happen to ticket office staff should there be any changes. The changes are about modernising the passenger experience, by moving expert ticketing staff out of ticket offices to be more visible and accessible around the station.

As for the points that have been raised, if only 10% of tickets are being sold across the ticket counter, crudely that means that 90% of passengers are not in contact with a member of staff. The idea is to take the member of staff on to the platform or concourse to help passengers where they need it—as opposed to at the ticket office—and to provide extra information, reassurance and additional security for all passengers—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Davies. Crucially, the Secretary of State and I have been clear in our expectation that no stations that are currently staffed will be unstaffed as a result of the reform. I have made the additional point about the hours not changing materially either, with staff still being there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it. That would include advice on tickets and assistance in buying them. Should ticket offices close following the process, we would expect staff to be redeployed and multi-skilled in order to provide advice and assistance across the stations. Exact arrangements will vary operator by operator, and will be the subject of collective bargaining with the trade unions.

It is vital that our railway is accessible to all. I have engaged directly with accessibility groups, and will continue to do so, including at a meeting I have this afternoon with our Department’s own lead. Alongside that, train operators are required to take into account the adequacy of the proposed alternatives in relation to the needs of passengers who are disabled, and to include that in the notice of the proposal sent to other operators and passenger groups.

Turning to the position in Scotland, I believe that ScotRail consulted on proposals for major changes to ticket office opening hours at 122 stations in 2022. Their opening hours had not changed, by and large, for 30 years. As part of that process, ScotRail was seeking to redeploy staff to provide enhanced customer service on the frontline. I understand that ScotRail amended some of its proposals in response to passenger and Transport Focus feedback. We also have the experience with London Underground, which has also moved away from ticket offices.

I make that point to all hon. and right hon. Members, because if the situation is changed whereby passengers are transacting in a different manner and are thus not seeing a member of staff regularly, my ultimate aim is to design a system in which all passengers can see members of staff and can get assistance with ticketing as well as the other assistance that passengers need. It is with that in mind that I will continue to engage with passenger groups and train operators. I want to ensure that the passenger gets the best experience, that the staff have roles where they are fully occupied and fulfilled, and that the railway embraces change. I know that there are concerns, but I reiterate that I will continue to listen, engage and work with hon. Members. I reassure them that this is a genuine consultation, which has some stages yet to go.

I thank the Minister for his response, and every Member for their contribution. My question to the Minister earlier was a request to stop the proposals from SWR to ensure that we do not see a reduction in staffed hours at Sherborne or Dorchester South. I think I have got a “not materially changing” response, which is progress from what we had before. I say to the Minister that I will continue to challenge him and make the case on behalf of my constituents to ensure that staffing hours do not reduce at both of my stations. I am sure that there are other Members who feel similarly.

The railways make an enormous net contribution to society and to the economy in this country. Before covid, on the South Western network, 40p of every £1 that was spent on train tickets came back to the Exchequer. Invariably, that was redeployed elsewhere across the country to support railways or other parts of the Exchequer spend. I fear that some of those wider economic benefits have not been considered in the proposals from train operators. Regrettably, the current set-up does not necessarily encourage that either.

It is clear that across the House we have quite a lot of things in common. That is partly because I was a station assistant at the beginning of my career, and for those who did not know, I am a former member of the RMT. I did not read the brief, but I thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for pointing it out—I appreciate it very much. If people need a sense check on the fares from what I said earlier, is the fact checker. It will be able to call them all out if they are wrong.

I thank everybody for what they have contributed. I thank the Minister for—

Border Target Operating Model: Food and Biosecurity

I will call Mrs Natalie—[Interruption.] Order. Can people please be quiet as they are leaving the room so that we can get on with this debate? Thank you. I will call Mrs Natalie Elphicke to move the motion and then I will ask the Minister to respond. Hon. Members will be aware that, as is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Border Target Operating Model for food and biosecurity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Today is Back British Farming Day. However, supporting our farming and food producing industries is not just about buying British and replacing EU subsidies; it is also about our food security, and protecting our biosecurity is an essential part of that. We must support our farmers and food producers with a level playing field and high quality standards. Why do border checks matter? This has been very well expressed by the National Farmers Union:

“Proportionate and effective controls are necessary if we are to prevent outbreaks of pests and diseases that threaten human, animal and plant health, the safety, quality and biosecurity of our food products and the confidence of our trading partners.”

Those dangers to our food and biosecurity are there every day at the border. Spot checks at the Dover border have highlighted some very serious concerns.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. She is outlining some of the problems and she will also be aware that the outstanding issues with the remnant of the insidious Northern Ireland protocol and Windsor framework have yet to be addressed. How will the model that she is describing and the suggestions that she is making ensure free and fair passage of food to Northern Ireland without reams of paperwork checks and other wastes of time and money that are designed only to pacify Europe and which harm Northern Ireland business? Surely we are in a worse boat than anybody else.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is exactly right, as ever, in bringing out the very serious issues with the management of the Northern Ireland issue. Controls have to be modern, proportionate, effective, and fair to business. He makes that point very well.

What we have seen on the Dover border is rancid meat, seeds with dangerous levels of pesticides and meat that could contain livestock-infecting diseases. All of these have been detected coming through Dover from the EU.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is fitting that the debate is taking place on Back British Farming Day. Biosecurity is pivotal to protecting UK farming. As she has mentioned, infectious disease is coming in. We know the implications of foot and mouth disease and African swine fever. Does she agree with me that getting this targeted border operating model up and running and working is critical to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and welfare and public health, and that pivotal to all that is to ensure that we have the Animal and Plant Health Agency resourced and staffed so that it can monitor the borders properly, and also to upgrade the facilities at Weybridge in Surrey, its disease HQ?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is incredibly knowledgeable on this issue, as we have just heard, and he is exactly right. We cannot wait any longer. I will be explaining how, at the Dover frontline, we have had a ready-to-go, state-of-the-art facility mothballed for 18 months. It should be put to work straightaway to protect our nation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to put these facilities and these new measures in place urgently.

What are we finding at the moment? With global food disruption and increased costs of production getting worse because of the war in Ukraine, threats to food safety are on the increase. It is not just food. Farm animals are threatened by the diseases carried in infected meat. We need to be very clear about that. This is not the odd rogue import. Dover Port Health Authority has found it happening on an industrial scale—tonnes of this stuff. It has formally warned the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the increased risks and findings.

This meat does not meet our—or even Europe’s—required standards for slaughter, storage or import. It is not just unhealthy, but dangerous. The danger is not just to humans, but to our livestock and therefore to the livelihoods of our farmers and food producers. That is because this rancid, illegal meat can contain live viruses of some of the most serious threats to our animals. As we have heard, diseases such as African swine fever have steadily spread from eastern Europe to Germany and now France. The NFU has said:

“A breakdown in biosecurity is one of the most serious risks we face as a nation.”

I agree with that.

It is welcome that the Government have, at last, published the border target operating model. However, the long delay and continued uncertainty around the new arrangements is worrying. Concerns have been raised with me by Kent-based import-export businesses, national food and drink trade bodies, the British Poultry Council, the NFU and the Dover port health authority. As I mentioned, it is some 18 months now since Dover’s ready-to-go, taxpayer-funded, state-of-the-art post-Brexit facilities were mothballed, awaiting the publication of the proposed target operating model for the border. At the time, the model was expected in some weeks. In the end, it was published just a couple of weeks ago, on 29 August 2023.

Almost a year ago, last October, I led a debate in Westminster Hall on this subject. The then answering Minister said that for traders, the target operating model

“will explain what must be done upstream of the border before goods arrive at it, and what must happen at the border—including border control posts”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 271WH.]

We finally have the border target operating model, but in relation to the short straits, which means the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel, we have no confirmed border control posts even now.

The target operating model says that a decision will be published soon and that facilities will be operational in April 2024. However, as I have outlined, the Dover facility has been ready to go for some 18 months. April 2024 would represent a delay of some two years from when the facility was due to be made live, during which time the operating environment for food and biosecurity has significantly deteriorated, as DEFRA has been told time and again.

Given the importance of these issues, the delay is unacceptable. The state-of-the-art facility at Dover needs to be opened right away. Dover has the expertise needed to secure our borders, but it is not being supported as it should be. Dover needs to be backed in its vital role in keeping our country’s food and farming safe. Government action is needed now to ensure that we are properly protected from dangerous food and diseases coming into the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when the new Dover facility, which is so obviously needed, will be opened.

I would like to address why things have taken so long and what needs to happen. There are three issues. The first is the dreaded phrase “cross-governmental working”, which, in layman’s terms, means that no one person is in charge and the buck does not stop anywhere. As I have before, I make the case for a Department for the border to draw together all the border-related functions, as many other countries do, including America and Australia. It would be a single window under a single Department responsible for order at the border. From customs to trade, and from biosecurity to visa entry and migration, there is an urgent need for a single Department in charge of setting policy, overseeing operations and—importantly—taking responsibility for what is happening at our borders.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about being joined up. We are talking about the risks, but there are also opportunities for UK businesses. If we get the level playing field right—if we get a post-Brexit regime that not only deals with all the UK concerns and needs but provides a level playing field for businesses here and abroad—it is a great export opportunity for small businesses such as Tozer Seeds in my constituency.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. If we can get the import border checks right, we will boost our export potential as well, whereas if we have weak import controls we will put at risk the very businesses that should be taking the opportunities provided by our new trading agreements in our post-Brexit world. I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention.

The need for a single department and a single focus at the border also applies operationally, because accountability matters. It is imperative that Dover continue to be the sole port health authority responsible for the short straits. Anything else would weaken accountability, introduce new risks in our border controls and make our country less safe. Dover is best placed to manage resources between multiple facilities to keep trade moving and manage the ebb and flow of volume traffic movements. It is well used to doing so and is the most cost-effective and sensible option to manage the border. I am aware that Dover port health authority has written to Ministers to express its strong wish to oversee all relevant border control posts for the short straits in order to manage and control the risks. I hope that the Minister can give some update or assurance on that issue tod-ay.

The second issue is that the Government hope to introduce so-called digital borders. Unfortunately, that has not proved possible to achieve quickly, as the Government’s own wonderfully named ecosystem of trust evaluation report, which was published last month, sets out. Let me be very clear. Having digital borders is a very good idea that I am very keen on—later today I will be chairing the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain, and I wholeheartedly agree that the future border is a digital and even a smart one—but there is a problem. At the moment, neither industry nor Government are ready for digital borders. That is made clear by the ecosystem of trust evaluation report in relation to biosecurity and food security. Page 8 of the report says:

“The UK government believes that transforming the border means moving physical processes away from the frontier wherever possible.”

As a border MP, I cannot see any logic in the suggestion that the starting point would be moving checks away from where the goods come in. Checking at point of entry is regarded globally as the gold standard for border control, with very good reason: to stop bootleggers and smugglers and to contain the risk of contamination of the food chain. Those risks are not trivial. The evaluation report makes it crystal clear that digital borders, at this time, will not work. There is no effective substitute for the physical border checks that need to happen. Page 4 of the report says:

“The pilots show us that new models are not yet ready to replace traditional mechanisms of border control.”

The reasons for that are not high-tech. As pages 22 to 24 of the evaluation report set out, they are very basic things like descriptions of the load and weight of a consignment being available only in formats that are not machine-readable by digital border systems or are

“incompatible with government-systems specific risking rules.”

What does that mean? It means that they cannot be read by the IT system, so we cannot have an intelligence-led, risk-weighted approach. We therefore cannot, at this time, have a digital borders programme.

The report says that

“there was no way to replicate identity and physical checks. Defra notes biosecurity assurance capabilities from consortia”—

the pilot partners—

“are limited and do not provide the same level of information/assurance as regular import processes.”

The report also identified gaps, one of which was

“Lack of transmission data (ie likelihood of a disease hazard surviving on a commodity).”

That could mean rancid meat carrying a serious disease, which cannot be found through these digital processes. There is also a lack of “mitigations and prohibitions data”—information about whether there is a disease outbreak or an export ban in the country that the food is coming from. That is a very serious concern that I hope the Minister will address.

For the Food Standards Agency, the information gathered through the digital process was described as being of “little value”. The report concluded that there are serious threats that need to be addressed and that an

“effective import regime is therefore essential to protect domestic food safety and animal and plant health and welfare.”

That brings me to my third and final point. The evaluation report is clear that physical border checks will be needed for the foreseeable future to keep our country safe, and that that is the right and responsible thing to do. Digital borders will come, but not yet.

Much has been made of the costs of making checks at the short straits—we still await the final charging structure, which is expected at some point in autumn 2023—but against them we have to set the cost of doing nothing. We cannot allow toxic food to enter the food chain. We cannot risk disease threatening our national livestock herds. We know how much this costs, because we have been here before. The costs are even set out in the Government’s own report, at page 56: the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 cost an estimated £8 billion, the horsemeat scandal of 2013 cost £120 million, and ash dieback in 2014 cost £15 billion.

There needs to be a level playing field—that is important. The British Poultry Council has said that its industry is paying £55 million a year to export to the EU, while imports to the UK are free for EU exporters. That is unfair and undermines our British farmers and food producers. DEFRA needs to stand up for our farmers to have a disease-free level playing field with the highest food standards. As we have touched on, if we import from a country that is suffering an outbreak, we can expect that other countries may ban our own produce. That could affect our ability to make the most of the trade agreements we have made, so it is important that that does not happen.

The bottom line when it comes to border security on food and disease is that we must invest to keep our food, our farms and our exports safe and secure. We cannot rely on the EU to check our food for us. We are an independent trading nation, so it is right that we now do this for ourselves. That is the clear lesson from the evidence found at the Dover frontline.

I ask the Minister to join me in thanking the Dover Port Health Authority team, under the leadership of Nadeem Aziz and Lucy Manzano, who is here today, for the work they do every day to protect our country from food and biosecurity risks. They need to be better supported, particularly with the immediate opening of the new Dover facility. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will keep our country safe and, on Back British Farming Day, keep our farmers and their livestock safe and biosecure.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for securing a debate on this important topic, and I thank all colleagues who have come along. I join her in paying tribute to the team at Dover, who do so much to protect our borders and who work hard on our behalf.

The recently published border target operating model is a very important milestone for the UK, reflecting a long period of intense work across Government, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about it today. Introducing biosecurity controls on imports is not optional. They are critical to protecting us from harmful diseases such as African swine fever, but they are also essential to protect our international trading interests; our trading partners want to be reassured that we maintain the highest biosecurity standards. The overall ambition of the BTOM is to introduce robust controls that protect biosecurity while reducing administrative and cost burdens for importers.

Following our departure from the EU, it was for us to establish a controls regime that worked for us. That is set out in the BTOM, published on 29 August. We issued a draft BTOM in April 2023 for the purposes of consultation with stakeholders. During that period, we had about 10,000 participants at multiple stakeholder events, received over 200 written responses through our online portal, and had over 650 detailed responses at focused sessions with food retailers, producers, the logistics sector and many others. We have listened to that feedback and have adapted the model accordingly. To give businesses more time to prepare, which their feedback made clear was important for them, we have moved back by three months the phased introduction of controls.

The new controls will be introduced as follows: on 31 January 2024, health certification will be introduced for imports of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU.

I would like some clarity. Let us imagine I have had a career change and am bringing a lorryload of qualifying Northern Ireland goods from Northern Ireland to GB. Under the new model, will I be free to drive off the ferry and proceed on my onward journey without being stopped?

The Windsor framework sets out the criteria for trade between GB and Northern Ireland. We are keen to facilitate that border and to work with businesses in Northern Ireland. We want Northern Ireland to feel very much part of the United Kingdom, as I know the hon. Lady does, which is why we are trying to make sure that that trading operation flows as freely as possible.

I think the Minister may have misunderstood the question. It is not about GB to Northern Ireland. Now that the border control model is going to refer to goods going into GB, will there be any checks on Northern Ireland qualifying goods going from Northern Ireland into GB—or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) asked, will people be free to drive through without any checks at all?

I am not quite sure that I fully understand. Is the right hon. Gentleman talking about trade coming from Northern Ireland to the European Union?

Let me take another intervention and let the right hon. Gentleman try to explain the question again.

We are talking about trade from Northern Ireland into GB—trade that the Government have said will be totally unfettered. Since the border operating model will require goods going into GB to have checks, the question is: will Northern Ireland goods then be subject to checks going into GB?

My apologies; I now understand the question that the right hon. Gentleman is asking. The TOM does not change controls on qualifying Northern Ireland goods. They will still benefit from completely unfettered access. It should not affect that at all.

Let me just return to what we are doing on the new controls.

I will take another intervention, but I do want to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover.

There will be goods travelling from the Irish Republic via Northern Ireland—through the port of Larne or through Belfast—into Cairnryan. How will a distinction be made between loads of Northern Ireland qualifying goods and goods coming, for example, from the Irish Republic, which is part of the EU, through Northern Ireland and into GB? What criteria will be put in place to ensure that those goods are checked but Northern Ireland ones are not?

I am very conscious that this is a debate about the Dover straits, and I do not want to be diverted into a debate about the Windsor framework, but I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s passion on the topic. We are setting out how the Windsor framework will operate in the future; as I have said to him, we are very keen to ensure that trade is as free as possible between Northern Ireland and the rest of GB.

Let me return to the controls that we are introducing. On 31 January, we are introducing health certification on imports of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU. On 30 April 2024, we will introduce the documentary and risk-based identity and physical checks on medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU. We will also begin to simplify imports from non-EU countries. On 31 October 2024, the requirement for safety and security declarations for imports into Great Britain from the EU or from other territories will come into force. Alongside that, we will introduce a reduced dataset for imports, and use of the UK single trade window will remove duplication.

In response to the feedback on the draft TOM, we have also improved the trusted trader offer for animal products, designed a new certification logistics pilot to support movements of goods from hubs in the EU, and provided further information on how we will support importers using groupage models to move sanitary and phytosanitary goods into the UK.

We are confident that the decision to move controls back by three months achieves the right balance between supporting business readiness ahead of the introduction of the controls and mitigating biosecurity risk to the UK. In the meantime, DEFRA has implemented controls on the highest-risk imports of live animals and plants from the EU. We will continue to support and fund port health authorities to manage UK biosecurity, including controls to protect against African swine fever.

As was promised when we published the UK 2025 border strategy in 2020, the TOM introduces a range of technological advances to ensure a fully 21st-century border that facilitates UK trade. The development of a single trade window will make the process for importing to the UK simpler and more streamlined, enabling importers to meet their border obligations by submitting information only once.

Let me turn to the facilities in Kent. To implement the SPS controls regime, we need the right infrastructure, particularly in Kent, where the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel are the main points of entry for the majority of EU SPS imports. Further to the publication of the TOM, and based on data gathered, the Government are reviewing our BCP needs in Kent and reviewing whether two inland BCPs—one at Sevington and one at Bastion Point—are needed to serve the volume of SPS goods transiting the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel. As the infrastructure was constructed for a previous border model, which required more intensive checks, it is only right that the Government review the operating arrangements to ensure that they are proportionate to our needs and are cost-effective for traders using the short straits.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for sharing her views on the matter in such a forceful way. She is a passionate advocate for her constituency, which is important to the UK’s security. As she knows, we will be in touch shortly with a decision on this important matter. I thank her again for securing the debate, and I thank all colleagues who have participated.

My right hon. Friend is making an important speech about the new regime, and much of it is welcome. He has made the point that pests and disease do enormous harm to crops. Maize crops can suffer losses of up to a fifth from any outbreak of pests or disease. I would be interested to know a bit more about what the Government will do on surveillance, because that is the most important way of preventing diseases from coming into the UK in the first place.

My right hon. Friend raises an important point: we need to make sure that we are using surveillance. As he will be aware, it is often best not to talk too publicly about the methods we use to protect our borders and detect diseases, but I can give him an assurance that we take the issue very seriously. We use intelligence to detect where the risks will be, but we also have robust regimes in place to make sure that we can pick things up as they come into the country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) mentioned, African swine fever is moving across Europe. It is vital for our pig sector that we protect ourselves from the disease entering the UK, which is why we are introducing robust regimes to make sure that we protect our border, back our farmers and back our food production system. Working together, that is what we will do, moving forward.

Does the Minister agree that if we get a fully operational border target model, it will not only protect the nation’s biosecurity, but help to unearth the illicit movement of animals in and out of the country? That includes puppy smuggling, the smuggling of heavily pregnant dogs and those that have had their ears horrifically cropped, and horses being illegally exported to Europe for slaughter. Can he reassure me that the new model will help to stamp out some of those practices?

Those are all things that we want to achieve. The way to do so is by having a very efficient border point where we can check things, deter criminal activity—let us be clear that some of this stuff is criminal activity—and prevent inadvertent infection through diseases and pests at the same time.

We have had a really productive debate. Once again, I put on the record my thanks to the team at Dover for keeping us secure, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for her support.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

High Street Heritage and Conservation Areas

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered high street heritage and empty properties in conservation areas.

I am delighted to have secured this debate and to hold it today with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. Five years ago, I led a similar debate on town centre heritage action zones. At the time, it had recently been announced that Stoke-on-Trent would enjoy a zone that, while encompassing every surviving bottle oven in the Potteries, would focus mostly on Longton in my constituency, one of the six historic pottery towns that make up the modern city of Stoke-on-Trent, and home to the largest localised collection of bottle ovens.

Since the Clean Air Act 1956, the bottle ovens are no longer fired, but they are key to our identity as the Potteries, the authentic world capital of ceramics. They are the picture-postcard view—or, more likely these days, the selfie. As I said five years ago, the paradox of the international tourism market is that when people can travel anywhere in the world, they actually want to go to places that are unlike anywhere else on earth. Well, there is nowhere in the world like Stoke-on-Trent for bottle ovens, and there is nowhere in Stoke-on-Trent like Longton for bottle ovens.

The trouble is that if a bottle oven cannot be used for firing pots, what can be done with it? We have lost hundreds of them while struggling to find an answer to that question. The work of the HAZ in bringing together the owners of the remaining bottle ovens with local academics, experts from national bodies and the city council has been really positive in helping to exchange ideas and build a more coherent narrative for the role of historic ovens in our city’s future sense of place.

I am delighted that Stoke-on-Trent will be the home of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ new flagship arm’s length body, the Office for Place. I will say more about that later in my speech, but I note that its mission is to help councils to create beautiful, successful and enduring places. I have to say that our city council does indeed need help, and we must recognise that. There is a shortage of officers with the right skills in the field of heritage—a skills shortage that hampers councils of all political colours across the country. Historic England has experienced similar issues in filling highly skilled roles. It also hampers us as Members of Parliament when we need expert information that is just not there, whether for responding to consultations or bidding for additional funding.

For example, Stoke-on-Trent City Council recently ran a public consultation on the boundaries of each conservation area in Stoke-on-Trent. I responded to that consultation on the proposals for the conservation areas in my constituency, but time and again I was hampered because no character appraisal was available for the conservation areas within their existing boundaries. Such appraisals should surely be the basis for deciding what would be in character for any new boundaries to embrace. Where appraisals are available, they are sometimes decades old.

This really matters, because conservation areas must be meaningful; there must be some evident logic about what they are there to conserve. Optimally, in Stoke-on-Trent they will actively conserve and enhance the historic fabric of our city, with its unique character as the Potteries—the world capital of ceramics, and one modern city of six historic towns and numerous subsumed but distinct villages. An expert character appraisal is vital to determine how successful conservation areas are in achieving such an aim.

In the end, for this particular consultation I relied on my own appraisal from my years of being out and about and getting to know the character of each area and how areas are defined in the heads of local people. This is not necessarily how they appear to be defined in some cases, in which the areas defined seem to be aimed primarily at achieving convenient, bureaucratic tidiness.

There was a particularly ludicrous suggestion that certain out-of-character post-war housing in Fenton should be brought into the Albert Square conservation area. No explanation has been given as to why no character appraisal of any age is available for this conservation area, despite it having been declared in 1987. That really matters, because bringing someone’s house into a conservation area is so restrictive. If it is not obviously for heritage reasons, it looks arbitrary. This unpredictability as to what the council wants to achieve hinders necessary economic development.

Some of our current conservation areas are visibly in a very poor state. The focus should be on getting them into a much better state, rather than simply widening their boundaries or merging them for no good reason, other than perhaps to be seen to be doing something on paper that ticks the heritage box. But something on paper is not enough. Ultimately, both the enforcement action and the resources needed to address properties of concern have been insufficient.

Virtually no enforcement took place during the pandemic, and things have not got much better since. Effective enforcement action needs to be properly resourced, with increased use of section 215 notices. As the Minister will know, the Government guidance makes it clear that such powers should be used proactively, rather than just being complaint-led. Indeed, the guidance also makes it clear that authorities that use the powers proactively have been more successful in achieving wider regeneration benefits. The guidance says:

“Experience has shown that authorities that interpret the scope of s215 widely also tend to be more proactive and successful at using the powers to achieve wider regeneration objectives.”

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. This topic is close to my heart, and we can see from the Members present that the midlands and the Black Country feel strongly about heritage buildings.

Members may be aware of what happened to the Crooked House pub. With your indulgence, Ms Fovargue, I will bring up some of the related issues. On the role of local authorities in all this, my research has quickly established that it is voluntary for councils to maintain a register of heritage buildings—not all local councils do it. In fact, when councils do have a register, it is a document that sits on a shelf and can quite often be forgotten about. What does my hon. Friend think about making it compulsory for all local authorities to have a register of buildings that might tick the box for being of heritage value, and for that register to be reviewed annually or biannually to make sure it is maintained and up to date? Unfortunately, the Crooked House was not on such a local authority register.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I very much agree that more should be done to document important historic buildings, because they are very emotive. That shocking incident in particular—the destruction of what was an important local historic asset in the south of Staffordshire—has had a massive impact on the local community. We have seen a massive outpouring because of the damage that has been done. I agree with my hon. Friend about the important role that local authorities should play when it comes to heritage and the maintenance of a designated list of the historic buildings within local areas.

Sticks like section 215 are sadly needed because sometimes even generous carrots, such as funding from the heritage action zone schemes and partnership schemes in conservation areas, are an insufficient lure. This is especially the case when it comes to absentee landlords, often overseas, who are interested solely in land value and are sometimes, I suggest, waiting for heritage buildings to get into such a poor state that they are able, or required, to demolish them, as we saw with the pub that my hon. Friend just mentioned.

We have actually had buildings falling into the street in Longton. The latest one, on Market Street, could have killed someone. I and others made multiple reports to the council about the perilous condition, but action was not taken until it was too late. The whole of Longton conservation area is on the heritage at-risk register, and is rated as very poor by Historic England. The whole of the historic Trent and Mersey canal through the city, including where it runs down the west of my constituency, is also registered as at risk. This is the cumulation of decades of inaction, under-investment, decline and a preference for tinkering at the edges. It has to change.

Where there has been a proper focus, such as on Trentham mausoleum in my constituency—the only grade I listed property in Stoke-on-Trent—the situation has greatly improved. There is now a clear path for getting the mausoleum off the at-risk register, on which it is now listed as being in a “fair” condition and described as “generally sound”.

Hopefully, the Office for Place will help to focus minds further. I certainly look forward to engaging with it and talking through where I think our sense of place in the south of the city is being undermined. I have done the same with Historic England and am grateful to that body for ensuring that parliamentarians are involved and informed. Having made the case to win funding from the Government, it is right that MPs play an important role.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Stafford has a number of similar challenges, with heritage buildings being closed on my high street, which is why I campaigned for the Shire Hall to be reopened—the Government recently gave us £1.6 million to do that. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must do more to regenerate and reopen these historic buildings in Staffordshire, and that we must invest and level up in the west midlands?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and commend the work she has been doing in the town centre to bring some of those buildings back into use; they have such an important role. I know that Stafford faces challenges similar to those faced by many of the high streets across Staffordshire and the country, so I very much commend the work that my hon. Friend has been doing to raise these issues and encourage new usage in Stafford town centre.

We have been working hard in north Staffordshire—in Stoke-on-Trent—to attract Government funding. It is good that levelling-up bids and, indeed, the bids for the restoring your railway fund require the sponsorship of MPs for local projects to win national funding. We often see a bigger picture and are able to raise the hopes and concerns of constituents at a local level more broadly. It seems to me that the bigger picture is what the Office for Place is really all about. The bigger picture I see is that ceramics is not just our past, but our present and our future. Industrial heritage properties give our city a sense of place, but it is manufacturing, of which ceramics is most emblematic, that gives our city its sense of purpose.

It is that sense of purpose that means that our place in the world is more than just a kind of permanent stage, or a film set for a period drama. Of course, it is excellent for those purposes too—from time to time—but we cannot live in a period drama, and particularly not a gritty one. I am sure that the Office for Place gets that and recognises the huge potential of cities like Stoke-on-Trent, which have grown faster economically than other areas in recent times. I hope it shares my excitement that the UK has overtaken France to be the world’s eighth-largest manufacturer. Industrial decline must be left as a fiction for the movies.

The renewed sense of purpose in the manufacturing of our world-class goods is key to levelling up our city, and the sense of pride that we take nationally in our manufacturing base helps to drive that purpose locally. We like the fact that people all over the world still place extra value on ceramic goods that have “made in Stoke-on-Trent” written on them. I emphasise to the Minister that it is important for her to think of her mission as levelling back up, reversing decline and restoring our heritage and skillset to where they belong, which is at the very forefront of international manufacturing, engineering and technology. It is that rooted sense of purpose that built what is now our industrial heritage in the first place.

If the Minister were to walk around the Longton conservation area with me—she is very welcome to do so; I invite her to join me—she would see that that sense of purpose is still there in part, just as our sense of place is still there in part, but that it needs to reach its full potential. In the Potteries tradition, there are fantastic manufacturers of ceramic wares, such as Duchess China 1888, which makes world-class tableware that can be bought in the House of Commons shop, and across the road from that firm we have Mantec Technical Ceramics, which makes an array of advanced, technical and specialist products.

The Minister will know, because I say it often enough, that the gross value added of the ceramic sector has doubled in real terms since 2010. Its revival, and the revival of our wider local economy, is keeping alive heritage buildings that would otherwise be in the same state that the Crown Works is sadly in, following the loss of the famous Tams business, which occupied it until the financial disaster of the last Labour Government saw it close.

The Crown Works is a landmark building that I have been determined to save from gradual dereliction and all-too-frequent arson attacks. I cannot thank the Department, or indeed the Prime Minister, enough for the levelling-up fund. It has enabled me to work with the city council and OVI Homes to get together a scheme to save this heritage asset by repurposing it as retirement housing, which will in turn mean greater footfall and more town centre living. Thankfully, we are now seeing actual delivery at the Crown Works, which is the necessary final step.

As MPs for Stoke-on-Trent, we have frankly busted a gut to secure much-needed funding for a range of schemes across the city. We have had to watch with frustration as covid lockdowns and inflationary pressures delayed so much of what we believed, and were promised, could have been delivered by now. I hope the Government will look carefully at what has been delayed and work with councils— a number of councils, not just ours—to adjust the timeframes for the delivery of projects that sadly could not be met for reasons that were totally out of our control.

I am particularly keen to get the accessibility improvements for Longton railway station finalised and under way. If we look at the visitor numbers for the Gladstone Pottery Museum, and then the numbers of passenger entries and exits at Longton, we see a correlation in the ups and downs. If we look at the visitor surveys, we see causation too, with visitors opting to take the train to Longton and walk up to the museum. Perhaps as much as half the passengers who have used Longton station recently have been visitors to the museum. Preserving the beauty of this cherished asset, even with all its warts—such as the recent saving of its rare sash windows from a bygone age of long-outlawed industrial practices—is integral to Longton’s wider success as a must-see destination and working centre of contemporary manufacture. It is a living destination, steeped in the full narrative of ceramics history.

By preserving our unique industrial heritage, we continue to attract today’s leading international ceramicists—practitioners who could base themselves anywhere in the world—to Stoke-on-Trent, as the authentic world capital of ceramics. However, Stoke-on-Trent, including Longton, is sadly also an area of multiple deprivation, and we had been running up a down escalator just to stay still—never mind advance—even before covid hit. The council tax base is the second lowest in the country after Hull, which poses significant challenges in leveraging restoration funds from the private owners of heritage buildings. Of course, the Government understand that, because they have granted us national funding to help, including funding to reinstate residential accommodation above shops.

The delivery of schemes is now key. The schemes will be sustainable if, alongside wider public realm improvements, they encourage people to use the buildings that are saved on Market Street, Commerce Street, and up to the Gladstone Pottery Museum, for interesting new business and residential uses. Currently, though, the pedestrian journey between the station and the museum is unacceptably poor. Longton station has steps, but not lifts or ramps, and the historic Victorian ticket hall is boarded up—the transforming cities fund is supposed to be unlocking it. Transport is not the Minister’s Department, so I will not rehearse my frustrations with Network Rail and the council with her, except to say that if she wants to see a case study of how delivery has been stymied by covid, by inadequate resourcing and skillsets and by the intransigence of other bodies, she could use Longton station as an example.

The Government are driving levelling up by enabling funding, but they have caught councils and other bodies on the hop because submissions for funding are often reactive to the funds and are not part of an active wider local agenda that is driven by a coherent sense of purpose. I get why that is—the Government want to deliver on national priorities for their own sense of purpose in levelling up—but many councils do not have local schemes that are remotely shovel ready and perhaps bid for funds without really knowing how they will deliver them if something goes wrong. Some councils are not resourced to meet the match funding requirements of some national schemes, and some lack the specialist officers or the time to deliver what is agreed, for whatever reasons.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point about councils not having the plans in place to move forward. In Rother Valley, for instance, the Land Trust had quite a detailed outline plan in place for Dinnington high street, so when the levelling-up fund went ahead we could bid for it, but other high streets in Rother Valley such as those in Thurcroft, Swallownest and Maltby do not have that outline plan; the council has not done it, which means it cannot bid for the money. Does my hon. Friend agree that councils should have a duty to put together outline plans for all our high streets—heritage and otherwise—to ensure that when pots of money become available, they can secure them?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We absolutely need that coherence. There are often many different pots of funding, but we need something to bring them together to increase the benefit—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying, some councils are not resourced to meet the match funding requirements of some national schemes, while some lack the specialist officers or time to deliver on what is agreed, because of skills shortages or churn in personnel or for some other reason. The Government have been amazing in enabling funding to come forward for projects in Stoke-on-Trent and unblocking some of the barriers often presented by national bodies. It would be a tragedy if rigid timescales and problems at the council led to a failure to deliver what the Government have provided funding for.

Fundamentally, there needs to be a plan for enhancing the character of the conservation area in Longton that is deliverable and is delivered. There are several pots of money, and of course more money in those pots would be gratefully invested; I am thinking particularly of Historic England’s PSICA programme. There also needs to be a coherent plan for re-establishing a more obviously pedestrian-friendly town centre environment, especially along Market Street and the Strand, to link better into the big pedestrianised 1960s Exchange shopping arcade.

I am glad to say that, thanks to investment by the owners of the Exchange, some of the empty shops there are now being turned into small-scale units for independent retailers and potters selling their authentic local crafts. On Saturday, I was particularly pleased to see the opening of Keep It Local, a new shop selling products that are nearly all handcrafted by local artists and craftspeople. I wish it every success: we need to see more of that in our town centres.

Historically, Longton’s lower market square, which is now called Times Square, was joined to an upper market square by Market Street. That upper square is now all but lost to traffic flows, but when it last served its purpose it was called Union Square. I want to bring back Union Square with that sense of purpose to enhance the sense of place of Longton as a town centre.

Much of the current highway infrastructure is from overengineered and unsympathetic post-war traffic schemes and is detrimental to the surrounding historic town centre street scene. It appears to come from a mindset that Longton had a future as a place to drive through, but not to stop in. For many who do stop, the current poor urban environment, particularly the narrow pavements in places, dissuades footfall. That, in turn, dissuades future uses of many of the heritage buildings. There is none of the dwell time that we see in other towns that have ripped out the 1960s road configuration to make them places to be, not places to pass through. Decline has encouraged crime and antisocial behaviour. We have too many broken windows, and all that the broken windows theory predicts will follow, including the problems related to monkey dust that I have raised in a separate debate.

Future proposals for the reorganisation of the road layout, including through the as-yet-undelivered transforming cities fund, should pay serious attention to making a positive impact on the conservation area and encourage footfall along Market Street. We need to link our town centre together better, especially along Market Street and the Strand, bringing together the station, Gladstone Pottery Museum and the main retail centre. I am waiting to see what proposals the new administration in Stoke-on-Trent will come forward with once it has finished its process of re-evaluating the projects that it inherited mid-delivery.

It is not just the buildings of Longton that need their attractive heritage rediscovered; it is also the squares, the roads and the public realm. They need to serve people and to be places that people will visit, live in and work in, encouraging new uses and more investment. I hope that that is something that the Office for Place will be able to inspire, catalyse and advise on.

Alongside having the right permanent public realm, I suggest that one way to unlock development is to simplify the restrictive planning use categories. Face-to-face businesses such as cafés and independent shops like to set up where the public realm attracts customers and staff. Where possible, those businesses like to be in historic buildings that add to the customer experience. Developers know that, but they also know that planning use categories can be a minefield.

Giving a historic building new life through a change of use should not be overly difficult. It should not be hard to host a temporary event such as a music or theatre event. We need to look at where such liberalisation might be possible to encourage new uses in our town centres. I would like local authorities to be given powers to designate all commercial properties within town centre boundaries to class E, mixed use. That would make it far easier to attract new commercial uses and remove the bureaucratic hurdles caused by the need for change-of-use applications.

In summary, these are my key asks of the Minister. We need more investment in Longton’s local heritage, particularly from Historic England. We need more time to get on with work delayed by covid and inflationary pressures. We need greater focus on enforcement, with better resources, including skills that relate to the enforcement by local government of section 215 notices and the upcoming measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill for compulsory rental auctions and so on. We need planning rules on change of use to be freed up, especially with greater powers to expand category E use in town centres. We need to take a good look at how the Department can keep an overview of how the various pots of national money can be better co-ordinated into local schemes. It would also be appreciated if the Minister could give us any further information about the Office for Place, particularly on the benefits that it will bring to its proud home in Stoke-on-Trent and, from there, to the rest of the country.

With the right sense of place, driven by a rooted sense of purpose, we can turn our declining high streets and conservation areas around. Coherence, delivery and enforcement are key, as is an enticing mix of a quality permanent public realm and interesting temporary events. If the public sector gets that right, it will attract the right businesses from the private sector, with the dynamism to build and respond to a loyal base of local consumers and an eager market of visitors from further afield, levelling back up with new opportunities and bringing the living heritage offer back to life.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on high street heritage and empty properties in conservation areas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on setting the scene with detail, information and evidence that encapsulates all our thoughts and puts on record what he wishes to see for his town.

It is a pleasure to see the strength of support from—I am not sure if this the right word—the Stoke cabal, who are all here. I mean that in a good way, because they have worked together very well and are a team. I have been impressed by them over the past few years, so I am really pleased to see everyone here and of the same mind. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) will be coming to Newtownards, if God spares us until March next year. He will be my guest at a dinner, and I very much look forward to showing him a wee bit of Newtownards, so he will know for himself just what it is like.

I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. She has been in the vanguard, because she came to Newtownards last summer to see what it is like. We talked about her visit before she went and while she was there, and I know that she was in the Ards peninsula and in Newtownards town. She will understand well what I am going to refer to.

I am very proud to have an office in Newtownards town, which boasts a rich history as a market town. It is the major town in my constituency of Strangford. In 1605, Hugh Montgomery was granted the lands and set about rebuilding what was then known as Newtown; it was later expanded to Newtownards, because it took in the Ards district and the Ards peninsula, and that is the name that we have today. Official records show that the town was established in 1606. Montgomery built a residence in the ruins of the old priory, the tower of which remains, just off the main shopping street and its satellite streets with their smaller boutiques.

I have seen changes in Ards over the years, but I have also seen a commitment, from a Department that is not the Minister’s responsibility, to retain the high street’s heritage and some of the empty properties that needed extra attention. Newtownards became a market town, with the Market House in Conway Square constructed in 1770. The Market House is known today as the town hall, but the market still operates in the square every Saturday, come rain, snow or shine. It is very much one of the attractions of Newtownards, bringing lots of people into the town from not just the surrounding area but further afield. It is cosmopolitan: you meet people from all over the Province on a Saturday morning in Newtownards.

We have one of the few high streets to have bucked the trend. Of course, we have a shopping centre mall, but our high street is thriving—indeed, it won the high street of the year award last year and a bronze award this year. The right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) visited when she was a Minister, during the covid period, and we were all greatly impressed. Her engagement with the chamber of trade, businesses and elected representatives has left a lasting impression on us in Newtownards. Even today, she always asks how we are getting on in Newtownards; I always say, “Come back, and we will refresh your memory.” Hopefully, that opportunity will arise.

We have a rich blend of culture and couture, with numerous small boutiques and independently owned shops, which people from throughout Northern Ireland travel to and make the most of. The historic Saturday market has the oldest market cross in Northern Ireland. It was built in 1636, but destroyed by the Commonwealth troops in 1653. The present replacement building was finished in 1666—I am going back a few years there. Its conical roof was probably used as an office or shelter for the town’s nightwatchmen. Townspeople say that the cross used to flow with wine—it may still do so today—at the birth of a royal baby. That tells us a wee bit about the history. I know that all right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber are, like me, committed to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the royal family have a key role for us in that.

The market cross is the only surviving 17th-century example in Northern Ireland. The original cross resembled a similar structure in Edinburgh, being octagonal with a flat roof and was topped by a stone column some 20 feet in height, on which there was a carved lion. It is a rich piece of history in the middle of a thriving high street.

Carnduff Butchers, the only butcher in the town, employs some 45 people. There are bakers, shoemakers—yes, we have them all—and a variety of other shops. Warden Brothers, the biggest shop in Newtownards and one of the last independent stores, is 146 years old. It was established in 1877 and employs some 55 people.

These are all reasons why the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood came over. She appreciated the abundance of variety in Newtownards town, and I know that the Minister will appreciate that as well. It has culture and modern shops, with something for everyone, all under the very energetic direction of the chamber of trade, led by its president Derek Wright.

However, as with most high streets, there are difficulties with some of the empty lots. We are fortunate that some of the empty lots are starting to fill up, as there is demand for properties in the town. I commend Ards and North Down Borough Council for running a scheme for the upkeep of those properties with frontage, which is so useful. That needs to be funded; I am ever mindful that how the streets in Newtownards and elsewhere in Northern Ireland are funded is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I know from our conversations that she has a deep interest in Northern Ireland, and these are things that we are concerned about.

On the funding that should be provided for these properties—especially for the listed buildings, additionally to the historic ones—I have a simple question for the Minister. I know she will come back with a positive response, as she always does. What engagement has taken place with the relevant Department in Northern Ireland to ensure that we can move forward together, sharing ideas and schemes perhaps, to maintain that cultural heritage in the high street that we so much wish to have?

Our high street is only as strong as the crowds who flock to it. Newtownards has much to offer, and the chamber of commerce and the local council must be commended. They have a strategy and they have a plan, but they must be supported to enable them to continue. That is what is needed from the Department back home in Northern Ireland, but also from this Government and from the Minister here.

I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say. I am always encouraged by hon. Members who push for their towns in the way that they should, as I do for my town back home.

I am delighted to take part in this important debate and I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on securing it. I make no apology for the fact that Stoke-on-Trent is 100% represented in this debate, and that we dominate, because we are all incredibly proud of our city of six towns. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always has something enlightening to say.

My hon. Friend, whose constituency is in the Black Country, raises an important point. We all hope that the Crooked House is rebuilt.

Conservation areas hold a special place in our hearts because of their historic and architectural significance. They are meant to be protected and preserved, yet empty properties in those areas threaten the essence of what makes our towns and cities special. The sight of boarded-up shops and decaying buildings has a serious impact on our collective sense of pride and identity. We need to encourage growth in these historic places and help our heritage assets to be more productive, unlocking their potential and making them more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors.

In my constituency, conservation areas include the city centre, Hanley Park, our blue-green canal corridors and the old Spode factory, as well as the university quarter. Stoke-on-Trent is a city steeped in the tradition of ceramics. The Potteries has a rich heritage of craftsmanship and artistic achievement, which I am reminded of when I walk around the city centre and look up at the fine examples of architecture.

However, at street level many of those buildings house boarded-up shops and display the scars of antisocial behaviour and graffiti. Those structures, which in past eras would have been part of a proud civic scene, are now suffering neglect. High streets are important barometers of local pride. It saddens me when I see buddleia growing from the brickwork of those once-loved buildings. From Hanley Town Hall to the historic Bethesda chapel—a Methodist sanctuary that once accommodated up to 2,000 worshippers—buildings with a key purpose in times gone by now languish in need of a new purpose that respects their heritage but breathes new life into them.

Hanley features on the list of high street warning lights as one of the 100 towns where persistent vacancy rates have increased since 2015, so I am always pleased to see innovative ideas. For instance, the Potteries Centre in Hanley encourages pop-up shops for small businesses and welcomes community use to attract more people through its doors.

If we are to stop the decline of heritage buildings in our high streets, we must hold property owners to account when their properties fall into disrepair. Councils have a statutory duty to ensure community safety; when buildings are deemed unsafe, action must follow. Councils also have the power to offer discounted rent or easier lease arrangements on their own property portfolio to community organisations and charities. I believe that power should be used to stem the tide of empty buildings. In Hanley, I am particularly sorry about the Prince’s Trust move from its heritage building in Tontine Street. The Prince’s Trust provides a valuable resource to young people, so its departure from Hanley will mean that yet another building will stand empty and an important organisation will be gone from its city-centre base.

Injecting funds is not enough; if there is not community engagement and a bigger vision, well-intended investment in projects is far less likely to succeed. Although I am grateful that Stoke received £2 million in funding from the heritage action zone fund, there is still much more ground to cover. Without community buy-in, our town centres cannot thrive. Indeed, I am a fan of ideas such as the creation of a high street buy-out fund to help communities to purchase empty property on high streets, along with a specific business rates relief for regulated socially trading organisations.

Power is too distant from communities. Polling conducted across England by Power to Change revealed that three quarters of people felt that they had little or no control over the important decisions affecting their local area. We need to develop places that are really valued by the local communities that they serve. For that to happen, we need a collaborative approach and strong local leadership. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here and today’s consumer is very alert to something that is inauthentic.

Town centres should be places where we see a mixture of arts and culture alongside the traditional shopping experience. There is a growing consensus that experience will be at the heart of the future high street, whether it is in the form of a greater role for hospitality, community organisations or public services, or in the form of more residential property.

Across our city, many more opportunities exist to repurpose heritage buildings while preserving their distinct Potteries characteristics. In particular, the site of the old Spode Works presents a significant opportunity for intelligent regeneration, and levelling-up funding will encourage further investment. However, the complexity of the Spode site necessitates a sensible approach. Although many buildings should be repurposed, some buildings should make way for a new vision of the site. Revitalising our high streets is not solely about repurposing properties currently sitting empty but about enhancing our heritage. Does the Minister agree that we must show ambition in our vision, to create new heritage for future generations?

First of all, Ms Fovargue, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important debate.

High streets and heritage are humongously important to the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, because ultimately they are about having pride in place, in addition to the fact that Stoke is obviously a collection—a federation—of six towns, each one with its own unique identity and new purpose. Some of them are still fighting to become the city centre all over again one day, but hopefully those arguments will not be heard in Westminster Hall today.

I am blessed in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to represent the mother town of Burslem and the town of Tunstall. They are fine examples of towns where we are proud of our history and heritage, and so much good work has already begun. For example, Tunstall Library—the old library—and Baths has secured £3.5 million from the UK-leading £56 million given to Stoke-on-Trent by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. That has meant that we will see new life being breathed into this important historic monument, and lots of new jobs will be created from the investment in our high streets and town centres.

There was also investment under the previous administration of Stoke City Council, under Councillor Jellyman, in Tunstall town hall, which is on the high street of Tunstall. It is an important and historic landmark that has seen a brand-new library and a family hub—one of the Government’s flagship policies—helping those aged nought to 19 to come into the town of Tunstall. It is right on the high street, thereby enabling more footfall. We have also had additional support for Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent’s award-winning market, the Tunstall indoor market, which has many excellent independent retailers and cafés inside for people to enjoy a good, old-fashioned Staffordshire oatcake. It is cheese and bacon for me, with a bit of red sauce—although I accept that that is controversial.

We have recently had Tunstall action days, which means that rogue and absent landlords have been held to account for the damage being done to our high street: some buildings are not being taken care of and some landlords, sadly, have accounts in the Cayman Islands but do not invest in making sure that their properties are watertight. I know that because my office is on the aforementioned high street of Tunstall. I have had plenty of back and forth with the landlord but, sadly, he is not living up to the standards I would expect by protecting and preserving our history and heritage.

We have some fantastic cultural heritage open days at the moment. If someone wants to step out of the mother town of Burslem or Tunstall, Middleport pottery is doing some fantastic excavation work at two of the kilns on site. The excellent Burgess and Leigh pottery is the world’s only handcrafted pottery, and “The Great British Pottery Throwdown” was filmed there before being moved to Gladstone Pottery Museum. We have Ford Green Hall, a fantastic Tudor building that many people can enjoy, right by the high street in Smallthorne, which has a fantastic shopping community. There is Moorcroft, the heritage art pottery, and St Bartholomew’s church in Norton-le-Moors, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South served as a city councillor before coming to this place.

We have an abundance of opportunity, but I want to go back to the point about the section 215 notice; I place on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State, but also to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill called the Planning (Proper Maintenance of Land) Bill, which was inspired by the dreadful scenes that residents in Longport and Middleport have seen at the Price and Kensington Teapot Works. An individual has allowed the beautiful, grade II* former factory to fall into disrepair and have numerous fires on site. They have allowed waste to be dumped and not allowed Historic England to go and check the status of the buildings, which means that it has become a major eyesore and dangerous to some of the surrounding roads. The city council had to bring down part of it in order to protect the wellbeing of motorists and passers-by. Despite being taken to court under the legislation, there have been only £72,000-worth of fines, which is not really a big deterrent.

When I introduced my private Member’s Bill, I was delighted that the Government accepted it and made it part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. The current fine, which is capped at £1,000, will be replaced by an unlimited fine for the first offence, allowing judges to use their discretion to determine what level of damage has been undertaken. The second fine will increase from £100 to £500 a day, which will hopefully give bargaining power to local councils in order to hold to account rogue and absent landlords who plague our history and heritage, particularly in conservation areas.

Sadly, Stoke-on-Trent was land banked, as it were, by outsiders. Lead, copper and glass were stripped out of the Queen’s Theatre, the indoor market and the Wedgewood Institute before the city council regained them. Buildings were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, but past administrations bravely stepped in and saved them by at least keeping them in the ownership of the people of Stoke-on-Trent. We are now working tirelessly to find a way forward.

I will quickly mention Chatterley Whitfield colliery, because I forgot to do so and will be in big trouble with the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield as well as Historic England. We recently opened building 30, which has lots of displays from the old tours that used to take place at one of the largest complete coalmining sites in Europe. It is a fantastic site with fantastic individuals, including Nigel Bowers, who recently received an honour from His Majesty for recognition of the work he has undertaken. Again, the colliery is well supported by local councillors such as Carl Edwards and Dave Evans, who have been working tirelessly for a long time and championing the importance of the site. There is a wide-ranging mixture of important, historic buildings, with a huge opportunity to experiment with geothermal energy on site as well as bring back the history that is so important to our area. Josiah Wedgwood did not just choose Stoke-on-Trent because of the clay; it was also the coal that came with it that enabled the ceramic sector to flourish.

Our history is important, rich and diverse. That is why there were tears and mourning in the city of Stoke-on-Trent when we saw The Leopard pub in Burslem tragically burn down only last year. That is still being investigated but sadly no one has been held accountable to date. That important historic monument in the middle of Burslem played an important role in this country’s industrial revolution, as the place where James Brindley and Josiah Wedgwood met to discuss the development of the Trent and Mersey canal. We hope that one day we will be able to protect at least the front of the building, but it looks like the damage is so severe that another use will have to be found. I know that plans are being looked at with Historic England, the city council and the owner of the site to look at bringing it back into residential use. I hope that is done in a sensitive way, to take into account the look and the feel of this fantastic town.

We also know that a study was undertaken by Councillor Abi Brown to look at the feasibility of bringing into use the Burslem indoor market, the Wedgwood Institute and the Queen’s Theatre. Those three beauties of Burslem will take a large amount of investment, but first we need the funding to make sure the buildings are safe to carry out more extensive investigative works. For the mere sum of £650,000, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities could unlock the opportunity for us to further explore what can be done with those three buildings to bring investors into our city to look at how they can take advantage of the wonderful opportunities before them.

We can breathe life into Burslem indoor market to make it a fantastic performing arts space or a place where people can have street food on match day before going off to watch the mighty Port Vale football club, the dominant football club in our great city, which does such a fantastic job for its community, again in the heart of Burslem—obviously, there is another club down in the south of the city, but I do not want to mention its name. The Wedgwood Institute also provides a fantastic opportunity to look at potential office space, and the Queen’s Theatre is a potential performing arts school, wedding venue or whatever it could be.

Those beauties need to have life breathed into them, and I was delighted when Historic England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities supported the bid by me and others in the local community to protect the indoor market by making it a listed building, enabling us to access pots of funding that we have not been able to access previously. I am, however, a little bit miffed that when I saw the levelling-up fund round 2, there was a separate cultural bid pot of up to £50 million that was not accessible for those who bid in round 1. Stoke-on-Trent has been awarded the most money from the levelling-up fund of any area to date, but when there is an opportunity for more, we always want it in Stoke-on-Trent. I hope that Stoke-on-Trent can bid for the cultural pot in rounds 3 or 4 in future and ensure we can put further funding into our key historical sites. That might be at the Spode works, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) has been tirelessly championing; the Crown works, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has been championing; or the three beauties in Burslem that can be unleashed and unlocked in our local area.

We have also had good news, with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery receiving a significant amount of funding. That includes funding from the former Administration of Stoke-on-Trent City Council to bring about the new Spitfire Gallery, in remembrance of how Reginald J. Mitchell, a lad from Butt Lane—where I am proud to live and serve today—invented the Spitfire that enabled us to keep the Germans off our shores during world war two. It is great that we have that fantastic Spitfire on display. I have also been working with all Stoke-on-Trent Members of Parliament to secure around £5 million for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to look at how we can put the archives on public display and sell the story of coal and clay in our museum that the public will enjoy. That is how we bring further investment into our high street and boost our local economy, creating more jobs and, crucially, enabling our history and heritage to be preserved.

Finally, although I appreciate that the new Labour administration is understandably taking its time to evaluate existing projects, I was disheartened to see that on day one the levelling-up projects were brought into some sort of disrepute through rumours about potential cancellation or delay, led by Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s current leader, Councillor Ashworth. Thankfully, that has now been nipped in the bud, even though the arena that we anticipated for the Etruscan Square scheme has now been written off. That arena would have had an e-sports specialism—the only one outside London—which would have complemented Staffordshire University’s role as a leader in video games technology and the digital T-Levels at the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College.

I am also dismayed to remind the public of Stoke-on-Trent that under the former Labour Administration we saw £30 million to £40 million of white elephant projects, such as new council office buildings, rather than investment in the mother town of Burslem. When they did invest, it was in daft schemes like Ceramica, which did nothing but bring further downfall on the town. Recently, even, threatening to issue a section 114 notice has only driven investment away from our city. Thankfully, Councillor Ashworth clarified at the last full council meeting on 7 September that there is no near threat of such a notice being issued, but the sheer silliness of even putting out the idea that it could happen will have an impact on us trying to get that private sector investment into our history and our heritage; I hope lessons will be learned, because that was not the smart thing to do.

Since 2019, the Members of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent have secured over £100 million of investment into our city—more than any other collective group of Stoke MPs in history. We passionately believe in our history and our heritage. We want our town centres and high streets to thrive, not just survive. But we need the Government to do more, because we have many challenges: many historical buildings, including listed ones; poor land value, which in some cases will put off developers; and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned, being the second lowest council in the country when it comes to what we earn through council tax, so we cannot simply rely on the council tax payer of Stoke-on-Trent to pick up the tab.

I hope that Stoke-on-Trent will be told to bid for the coming round of levelling-up funding, that the cultural fund will be made available to us and, of course, that we will get a nice big chunk of money to carry on making sure that Stoke-on-Trent is the greatest place for people to bring up a family, go to work and live out the rest of their days.

It is incredibly good to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing this incredibly important debate. Heritage is the soul of a community—a point that we should remember when we build new communities and regenerate existing ones. It is so good to listen to the passion with which hon. Members have spoken about their communities, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who I think is passionate about everything he does, but in particular about heritage in Stoke-on-Trent.

There has been so much to agree on in the debate. I was particularly struck by the support for the ceramics industry: that is pure heritage in Stoke-on-Trent, and it really comes through in Members’ contributions. Indeed, it is not possible to go to dinner anywhere with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North without him checking the plates, and if they are not made in Stoke-on-Trent he complains to the management of whichever restaurant or hotel we are in. It is that passion which drives the community, but that passion needs to be enabled by action and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned, the action has been slowed by the pandemic, the inflationary pressures we face and so on. The pandemic stole two years of everybody’s lives. The effect was especially felt here in Whitehall and Westminster, and that has translated down to frustration in our communities.

A huge opportunity remains. I am passionate about levelling up. We are dishing out billions of pounds to breathe life into left-behind communities through the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund, the towns fund and the future high streets fund. Ultimately, levelling up is a cycle of skills and jobs, infrastructure, services and investment—pump priming from the Government, but corporate investment and foreign direct investment as well. All of that combined goes around to people, communities and the places in which we live. That is the lens through which we need to look, and it is where heritage comes in, because levelling up at its very core is about the opportunities that we create for people and that people can create for themselves. We need to reset the way that we look at this investment. It needs to be looked at through the lens of place-making, and that is where we bring in heritage. It is where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned, we lack skills in councils and planning authorities. We also lack capacity and—dare I say it—political leadership in councils to look at the bigger picture. We need to look beyond the administrative, bureaucratic and statutory elements of planning and at what an area and a community need. What are the health outcomes we want to address? What are the policing priorities for that area? How do we make a place that is fit for the future, but has the memories and best of our past enhancing our heritage?

We have a huge opportunity. The all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness recently produced a report on empty properties—on conversions from retail and office space into homes for people. The report identified up to 20,000 units in the possession of local authorities around the country that could be converted. That opportunity directly translates to action that we could be taking at a local level, and that could be supported by action from the Government through not just the high streets fund, the towns fund, the levelling-up fund or so on, but funds such as the heritage fund and various others. We need to put heritage at the heart of place-making, but we need to do it in a way that brings through the passion that we see in our local projects and local politicians.

Members might ask why I am passionate about the subject when I am not from the Black Country—I am literally the odd one out in the debate. It is because I have plenty of heritage in my constituency. I have Olney, which is a beautiful Georgian market town with huge amounts of heritage and listed buildings. Newport Pagnell is, again, a beautiful market town. Tickford bridge in Newport Pagnell is a grade-I listed iron bridge. Wolverton is a wonderful, proud railway town, home of the royal train. We have heritage in all our constituencies that we can pick up and run with when it comes to designing the future. I am incredibly proud that Milton Keynes got £3 million from the shared prosperity fund, which admittedly is not the £50 million that the collective MPs for Stoke-on-Trent got, to regenerate those high streets that I mentioned and to do more to take that heritage through.

There is lots to do, but through the lens of place-making, we can understand and make a tangible difference by bringing the best of the past into our future and designing a vision for our future that works. That vision should take the best out of things such as the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund to help acquire empty properties and to deliver value that reflects our heritage as well. We need to co-ordinate, plan and deliver. We need to breathe beauty into our high streets, understanding our past and embracing our future.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I commend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for bringing this important issue to the Chamber. I sincerely thank all hon. Members who have contributed. We may not always agree politically, and certainly not on red sauce and brown sauce—they have strange tastes—but heritage is deep within our communities and the people we represent. This is not just about the heritage of buildings or industries, but the heritage of who we are, as unique communities across the country. That has been demonstrated admirably throughout the debate, but especially so by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who did so with the characteristic heart he always brings to such debates.

The debate comes in a week in which we have heard in the headlines the troubling news for Wilko. Those shops are often not in heritage sites, but 12,500 jobs are in the balance. Each job is a person watching their livelihood be tossed from one potential administrator to another, with the prospect of more empty premises on our high streets. Mortgages, rents, bills and retirement savings are all up in the air for our constituents. Wilko is the most recent retail chain to succumb to that fate, but all indicators show that it will sadly not be the last. Over the past 13 years of punishing austerity policies, we have lost countless high street favourites, with their empty properties haunting us long after the owners have vacated. Our formerly thriving town centres now sadly serve as business graveyards. It is truly a miserable predicament.

While cases such as Wilko stand out due to their status as major employers, every week small and medium-sized businesses and heritage industries are facing the threat of closure. That is particularly true of manufacturing towns and cities, including Stoke, as we heard, and the town of Luton, which I represent. Manufacturing history runs right through Luton, and we still have businesses under threat. SKF has been in my constituency for well over 100 years, and workers have given their best years of their life to that plant. Without a coherent industrial strategy, we will see the threat continue in the future.

The Federation of Small Businesses has written that

“high street vacancies not only harm the overall perception of the area but also lead to a significant loss of spill over footfall from larger units and national chains.”

That is backed up by findings from the Association of Convenience Stores, which states that empty properties have a “detrimental effect” on existing businesses, reducing customer traffic to retail hotspots and leading to a vicious cycle of more closures. We have seen that across the country. It is crucial that the Minister takes note of the widespread impact that leaving properties vacant can have, both economically and socially.

The decline in the beauty of our high streets leads to a decline in custom and standards of behaviour too. It has been mentioned already that abandoned town centres have become hotspots for crime in recent years. That is why the Labour shadow Home Secretary has committed to reintroducing respect orders, which will hold perpetrators of antisocial behaviour to account and restore community bonds through a social contract. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South was right to talk about the merits of section 215. Hastings Borough Council has been doing something like this for a number of years—decades almost—under the guise of what was called Grotbusters. It has transformed the seafront and the old town and preserved one of Europe’s largest land-based fishing fleets. I know that the council, working with brilliant campaigners such as Helena Dollimore, will continue to work to preserve that heritage.

We all want to see our high streets buzzing with businesses of all shapes and sizes and to make them safe to wander around and attractive to spend in. Strong businesses also mean more job creation. In turn, that means local pounds in the pockets of local people to spend in their local shops. Surely that is something we all want to see. Thriving high streets lead to a revival in our local communities and that is what every community wants and deserves. The glaring failure to reform business rates in the Government’s 13 years of power has led to the decline of our high street businesses on an industrial scale. It was not just covid; the decline started well before then. The Office for National Statistics indicates that the third quarter of 2023 is the eighth quarter in a row where there have been more closures than creations of businesses. What a damning statistic that it.

Labour in power will reform our outdated and ineffective business rates system and bring in wide-reaching reforms to even out the playing field. As it stands, the threshold for small business rates relief is still too low, at £15,000, despite calls from across the House and vocal groups in the sector. Reviving our high streets is not just down to changing business rates. There are other factors at play that are making retail locations unappealing for customers, sending them to online giants rather than local bricks and mortar businesses. In the room next door is the Food & Drink Federation, which spoke of how important it is that we have healthy high streets to ensure that we can compete with online giants.

A pleasant natural environment, a feeling of safety while browsing and easy and affordable transport are all understood by us as key to seeing improved outcomes for our high streets. This is not a pipe dream. Across local government, we are seeing the fruits of our municipal values. Councils such as Sheffield, Southampton and Telford are glowing examples of the success town centres and high streets can enjoy when their health is made a priority.

In Sheffield, the Heart of the City development has refreshed the city centre but preserved heritage buildings, keeping beautiful façades, combined with cleaner streets and improved public transport, as well as creating new jobs. That is all bringing shoppers back to the centre in hoards.

In Southampton, which voted Labour into power in 2022, the council is delivering on its promise to regenerate the city centre. Similar to Sheffield, the Labour council in Southampton understood that improving the natural environment with greenery and more eco-friendly transport goes hand in hand with increasing custom in local shops.

Meanwhile, further north, Telford and Wrekin Council has demonstrated its commitment to investing in its Pride in Our High Street programme. Business support grants have given a second chance to struggling businesses, and saved local favourites from financial ruin. It is even holding its own High Street Heroes awards. Nominations for this year’s businesses are open until 23 October, so there is still time to get in there.

I know from the popularity of my own Small Business Saturday shout-outs in Luton North, which happen every Saturday—not just once a year—that such support means so much to the owners of the small businesses on our high streets, and to the customers who see their local favourites celebrated. It is fantastic to see the variety of ways that local authorities are championing our high street businesses and preserving our heritage through direct grants and other incentives aimed at the public.

Although MPs such as the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) may publicly state that the Government are not interested in constituencies such as hers, the situation is not the same for Labour. Sheffield, Southampton and Telford are fortunate to have Labour Mayors and Metro Mayors who have been creative and committed in their support for town and city centres. In contrast, Central Bedfordshire Council—under historically Conservative leadership, but now under no overall control—has shown blatant disregard for the role high streets can play in bringing communities together. It has persisted in building housing developments with no shopping areas, no town or village centres and poor infrastructure. People complain about access to GPs, services and schools because of this Government’s lax planning laws. Elsewhere, residents are losing their treasured local pubs, places that have been there for neighbours to gather and share connection for hundreds of years. As we have seen in recent events, that has shaken communities across our country. Planning laws that benefit unscrupulous owners are continuing to fail our communities. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined whether there are plans to address that.

Labour is the party of real-life levelling up. We will support small and medium businesses to grow, both in strength and in the ways that they can serve the public and the community. We trust that council leaders are best placed to make decisions for their localities. That is why our plans for expanded regional devolution will include powers to create strong and sustainable local economies. We will revive the great British high street. We will reform business rates, tackle antisocial behaviour and reduce empty premises, so that shoppers will return to their high streets and we will all be better off.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to listen to this fantastic debate. As a midlands MP myself, it has made me just that little bit more proud of the heritage that I share with colleagues here—as well as with Milton Keynes and, of course, Strangford across the water in Northern Ireland. There is always a lively debate about where exactly the Black Country ends. I am often asked whether there are any bits of Worcestershire in the Black Country—perhaps we will discuss that outside the Chamber.

It is right that I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing the debate, which has shone a light for us all on the diligent work that he does day in, day out on behalf of his constituents. It has also shown his deep knowledge of his area. As he said himself, although he was not able to rely on some established processes to contribute to the consultations he mentioned, he could draw on a lifetime’s experience of living and breathing the streets of Stoke-on-Trent South.

Like my hon. Friend, the Government want our high streets to be restored to their former glory, as the beautiful, beating hearts of our communities where people can come together to socialise, shop, work and run businesses in safe and attractive surroundings. The reality is that many of our high streets are struggling—they are blighted by boarded-up shops and antisocial behaviour—but we are determined to break the cycle of decline. We have already started to do so, working side by side with local leaders to achieve our shared goals. Transforming dying high streets back into vibrant places to live, work and socialise is central to our levelling-up agenda, and that will be the litmus test for our success.

Today’s debate is crucial to our better understanding what more needs to be done to protect and rejuvenate crucial civic centres, which are rightly cherished by communities up and down the UK. There is no better example of best practice than those that hon. Members shared of the historic ceramic industry and pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent, which are backed by the Conservative Government. I will turn to the specific points raised by hon. Members at the end of my remarks. The truth is that, in stark contrast to what the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) just said, we have success stories all over the country, backed by billions of pounds of funding from the Conservative Government.

Even with the massive challenges that have emerged in recent years—the exodus to online shopping and the impact of the pandemic—people still very much care about their high streets, as we have heard from all the speakers in the debate. High streets are central to people’s sense of local pride and belonging; they are the iconic thing that people focus on. When we ask, “What does levelling up mean to you?”, concern about the high street comes up time and again.

Let me talk about some of the actions that we are taking to reverse some of the issues that hon. Members have rightly identified. Our ambitious Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will help to tackle the growing problem of empty shops on high streets, which fuels the feeling of decline, through high street rental auctions. Those will empower local authorities to address long-term vacant properties. Landlords will be required to rent out persistently vacant high street commercial properties to new occupants, or face the local authority’s stepping in and putting the lease up for auction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South may be aware that, on 27 March this year, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced that £2 million would be made available by the antisocial behaviour action plan to support communities and businesses to bring such derelict properties back into use. That vital funding will cover the cost of refurbishing properties, the cost of the auction and the council’s fees, and will enable doors to open again for rapid occupation. High street rental auctions will breathe new life into our much-loved high streets, and the funding will do just that by empowering communities to take control and restoring pride in place.

As my hon. Friend noted, local planning authorities have powers under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to serve notices that require owners to take steps to clean up their land where it is adversely affecting the amenity of an area. The power applies to both land and buildings, and it is an important tool for local planning authorities, alongside other powers, such as repair notices in respect of listed buildings or dangerous structure notices.

Today’s debate has been about how we look after our high streets, and one of the best ways of keeping heritage buildings going is just keeping them going. Unfortunately, a number of buildings require extra protection, and there is a pattern, up and down the country, of buildings suddenly becoming vulnerable to arson attacks, and then demolition, when they are either sold or not used as much. The Minister will know why I make that point.

As we are talking about enforcement, one way that we could, perhaps, afford extra protection to such buildings is through the listing process. When an application for listing is made in England, there is no protection until the full process is undergone and a decision is made to protect the building. In Wales, when an application to list is made, temporary provision is made immediately, and then a final decision is made about whether to give full protection. Will the Minister consider that, and perhaps suggest it to the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison)? Will she also consider increasing penalties where there is clear evidence of arson and misuse of property?

I thank my hon. Friend and commend him for all the work he is doing on behalf of his constituents, who I know used to be regulars at the Crooked House pub. We have all watched the situation there with great concern. I will take his ideas seriously and look at what more we can do; I thank him for those proposals.

We have seen some transformational examples of section 215 powers being put to good use for formerly vacant industrial sites, town centre street frontages, rural sites and derelict buildings, as well as more typical rundown residential properties and overgrown gardens. Local authorities have powers to undertake clean-up works themselves, the cost of which they are empowered to recover from the landowner.

My hon. Friends have called for use classes to be made simpler and more straightforward. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will know that the class E use class includes a broad and diverse range of uses suitable for a high street or town centre, including shops, restaurants, cafés and offices, as well as health centres and gyms. It also allows for new uses that may emerge in a town centre. The use class applies to buildings in conservation areas and to listed buildings, but unfortunately planning permission is still required for any external works in those areas. We always keep use classes under review, and I am sure it is right that we continue to explore where we may be able to assist my hon. Friend in achieving the objectives he outlined. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) made the point that people like to visit properties in heritage areas, whether they are pop-up cafés or restaurants. That is a vital point.

I am also sympathetic to the frustrations of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South with the implementation of local conservation areas and the boundary lines. I know that he has already taken that up with the local planning authority. I remind the authority that it is duty-bound to review past designations to determine whether former or new areas should be considered to be within the boundary. Planning authorities are responsible for delivering conservation area appraisals, which should be kept up to date.

One of the central policies that we have to enable Stoke-on-Trent to reach its flourishing potential even more than it is at the moment is the Office for Place, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I am thrilled that that newly created arm’s length body will be located in Stoke-on-Trent, because it gives me the perfect opportunity to arrange a visit and to have oatcakes with cheese, bacon, red sauce and maybe even brown sauce—let’s try them all and see which we prefer. Of course, the vision is to support the creation and stewardship of a beautiful, sustainable, popular and also healthy place, so perhaps we should have a small oatcake.

There could be no more appropriate home town for the Office for Place than Stoke-on-Trent—the city’s name in Old English means “place”. We have heard the city’s proud heritage and its chance for a prosperous future so passionately and clearly articulated. The levelling-up funding going into the Crown Works is just one part of taking that heritage into a new area. I understand that the Office for Place chair, Nicholas Boys Smith, who is a leading expert in the country, has already met my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Stoke-on-Trent South and for Stoke-on-Trent Central, and council leaders, to discuss opportunities for regeneration. He will be working closely with them to help them reinvigorate their city, moving from streets as gyratories to streets as enjoyable places to be, attracting jobs and taking advantage of the proud industrial heritage.

The Office for Place has already established its office in Stoke-on-Trent, which will benefit the city through its positive impact on the local economy and opportunities for collaboration. It is fully envisaged that it will partner with Stoke-on-Trent City Council, but of course it must also take into account the views of local MPs, who have a broad vision, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said so well.

My understanding from colleagues in the Department for Transport is that they are still working with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to deliver the transforming cities fund programme, including proposals at Longton station. I encourage my hon. Friend—if he needs encouragement —to continue his lobbying efforts with the Department for Transport.

There has been a lot of discussion of high street heritage action zones. The championship that Members present have shown on behalf of their constituents, who both work in and appreciate the ceramics industry now and in the past, is just exceptional. We all agree that restoring our high streets must include protecting our heritage. The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to doing that, which is why we are investing tens of millions in regenerating historic buildings on high streets and in town centres across England through our future high streets fund. Meanwhile, social enterprises, community groups and charities reusing heritage buildings on high streets and in town centres have been supported through the £15 million made available via the Architectural Heritage Fund’s transforming places through heritage programme.

That programme is benefiting local people and businesses. For example, the historic Drapers’ Hall in Coventry has opened its doors once more following funding from the scheme as a successful arts venue. Meanwhile, through the £95 million high street heritage action zones programme, we are driving the regeneration of 67 towns and cities, transforming historic buildings and streetscapes. More funding is coming on top of that thanks to the additional £930,000 investment made this year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to support existing high street heritage action zone projects.

I was delighted, as always, to hear from my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—it has been too long. It reminded me what a wonderful time I had in his constituency. I really valued his tribute to the Union of our beautiful islands, to the royal family, and to moving forward together on our cherished heritage. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central that we should show ambition for the future, for our children and grandchildren, in terms of our culture and heritage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is a huge advocate for pride in place. Together with his colleagues, he has driven exceptional, record amounts of funding, in particular into his town of Tunstall. I very much hope that the current Labour administration of Stoke-on-Trent City Council will heed his calls, and those of all his colleagues, to work constructively with the exceptional, record amounts of funding that have been put into their city by a Conservative Government who believe in the future of Stoke-on-Trent after many years of neglect. It is always a pleasure to debate the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Luton North, but I will take no lectures from her about Labour councils. I say one thing to her: Birmingham City Council.

Our high streets have been the lifeblood of our communities for generations, and we will not let them wither on our watch—far from it. Instead, we are pulling out the stops to preserve them, protecting our heritage, supporting local businesses, and helping to provide the vibrant, safe civic hubs that our communities deserve, supported by our newly established Office for Place. We have measures to support our ongoing efforts, from planning use classes to high street rental auctions, and we must work pragmatically with local leaders on some of the timescales that have been raised with me due to delays from the covid pandemic. We are laying the foundations for a brighter future by working alongside local leaders to deliver for their communities with exceptional devolution deals that transfer meaningful powers and funding to them as we level up opportunity across the country.

I thank the Minister for her thoughtful response and look forward to welcoming her to Stoke-on-Trent. We very much want to show her some of the things that we have been talking about as she has a look around our fantastic city. Stoke-on-Trent is very much on the up, and it is the litmus test for levelling up, so we would very much like to show her some of the issues that we have been talking about.

I thank all colleagues who contributed to the debate, particularly the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It was fantastic to hear about his town and the rich heritage of Northern Ireland. I also particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who have supported the work that we have been doing to level up Stoke-on-Trent and attract the huge investment that has come into the city.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi). I very much agree with his suggestions about listings. We should look at the process in Wales and whether it could be applied in England to protect buildings under huge threat, such as we saw with the destruction of the Crooked House pub. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), although I will make a little correction: Staffordshire is not part of the Black Country, although part of the Black Country historically used to be in Staffordshire.

I slightly disagree with the points made by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), regarding austerity. Many of the challenges and issues in Stoke-on Trent have been going on for decades. We saw decades of neglect under Labour Administrations. Some of the challenges now faced by our high streets have been going on for much longer than the issues she mentioned.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

World Sepsis Day

I beg to move,

That this House has considered World Sepsis Day.

It is always a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue.

Dame Cheryl Gillan stood down as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sepsis in March 2021, and I felt so humble when she asked me to become chair. I had always admired Dame Cheryl, who became a dear friend and treated me with respect and dignity. It was a tragedy when she died in April 2021 only a month after standing down as chair. I miss her wisdom and guidance, but most of all I miss her friendship.

I have done my very best to lead the APPG and have had enormous help from the UK Sepsis Trust, particularly from Sarah Hamilton-Fairley and Dr Ron Daniels. I could not have carried out my duties as chair without their constant support, advice and good humour. We have become close friends.

Why did Dame Cheryl choose me? Perhaps it was because she knew that I initially became a member of the APPG in 2017 because I am a sepsis survivor. One day we had a cup of tea together because she wanted to know my sepsis story. In summer 2013 I went to New Zealand to visit my daughter Angharad, who was living and working in Te Anau, South Island. On the flight over I started to have what I thought was toothache in my lower right jaw. After a few days in Te Anau, it did not improve, so I went to the emergency dentist, who took X-rays and could not find anything, but gave me antibiotics and painkillers. There was still no improvement after about a week and the right side of my face became swollen, so I went back to the dentist, who thought it might be an abscess and gave me stronger antibiotics and painkillers.

I got on the flight home. During a short stopover at Singapore airport, I started being sick, but I thought it might be travel sickness. I just wanted to sleep. By the time I landed at Heathrow I was in a bit of a mess, but I managed to get to Paddington and get on the train back to Wales. The pain and swelling had increased, but I was so exhausted I just fell asleep.

I got home, took more painkillers and slept. I live alone. When my friend Jen called to see me, she was really concerned, so she drove me to my dentist, who could not find anything. They thought it was an abscess and replaced the filling. I was on the ceiling with the pain, which I felt through the many injections, which also put me into orbit. The dentist gave me more antibiotics and more painkillers. Nothing improved and I continued to be sick. I had not eaten anything in days and became extremely dehydrated.

Jen called to see me again and took me to the local A&E. The emergency doctors rehydrated me, but did not diagnose anything and sent me home. I continued to be sick and Jen took me back to my dentist, who sent me immediately to the dental hospital at the Heath Hospital in Cardiff. I must have lost consciousness on the journey because I do not remember anything more. Jen told me later that they admitted me to A&E and the duty surgeon, Dr John Jones, identified sepsis. He told Jen that if he did not operate immediately I would die. He asked whether it would matter if he had to cut my face to get rid of the poison and Jen told him, “Just make sure she doesn’t die.”

After some time in intensive care and on a ward, I had recovered enough to be discharged, but it took me years to recover my strength physically and mentally. How I caught sepsis remains a mystery. I was fortunate to survive and I owe my life to Dr John Jones, who correctly identified sepsis and acted immediately, to all the wonderful NHS staff who cared for me, and to my friend Jen.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s courage, the contribution she has made and her tribute to Dame Cheryl, and congratulate her on securing this debate on World Sepsis Day. Through her story, she has shown the importance of raising awareness and recognising symptoms of sepsis early. Will she join me in recognising the vital work of the UK Sepsis Trust, whose support made such a difference to my constituent Kamaldeep Sandhu and her family after her brother Rick, whom she describes as the perfect brother, husband and father, tragically lost his life to sepsis last year, aged 42? The family believe that the hospital spotting the signs too late meant that he died, which he might not otherwise have done. I also pay tribute to Kamaldeep’s campaigning to try to ensure that what happened to her family does not happen to anybody else.

I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention and I am very sorry to hear of her constituent’s loss. My heart goes out to Rick’s family and friends. I will speak a lot about the UK Sepsis Trust, because it helped me enormously and I want to highlight its work in fighting sepsis.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate and for the very personal story she has conveyed to us all—we are very much moved by it. To reinforce what the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) said in her intervention, sepsis claims some 11 million lives globally each year, or five lives every hour in the United Kingdom. That is more than the deaths from bowel, breast and prostate cancer combined. To give a Northern Ireland perspective, sepsis affects around 7,000 people yearly in Northern Ireland, of whom 1,240 lost their lives to it in 2021. Does the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) agree—I suspect the answer will be yes—that there must be more awareness of the earliest symptoms, to ensure that death from this dangerous and life-threatening disease is reduced as much as possible across all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He must have seen my speech, because he has quoted some of the stats that I am going to come on to later.

What is sepsis? It is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to infection causes injury to its tissues and organs. It is a global health concern, but today I will focus on its prevalence, the challenges and some potential solutions in the UK. Sepsis is indiscriminate. While it primarily affects very young children and older adults and is more common in people with underlying health conditions, it can readily occur in those who are otherwise fit and healthy.

Sepsis can be triggered by an infection, including chest and urinary tract infections. It is not known why some people develop sepsis in response to those common infections whereas others do not. Sepsis is often referred to as “the silent killer” because of its ability to strike swiftly and unexpectedly. In the UK, sepsis is a significant public health problem. Each year around 240,000 cases are reported, leading to more than 48,000 deaths.

Sepsis is the leading cause of avoidable death in the UK, claiming more lives than breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined. Unlike data for heart attacks, strokes and cancer, sepsis data is imprecise, because it relies on coded administrative data rather than the granular clinical data of patient-level registries. Moreover, this striking deficit means that not only do we find it necessary to estimate the burden of disease, but we are decades away from precision medicine for sepsis. However, therein lies a paradox, as the UK’s unique healthcare infrastructure means that we are well placed to change that for the world.

Around 40% of people who develop sepsis are estimated to suffer physical, cognitive and/or psychological after-effects. For most people, those will only last a few weeks, but others can face a long road to recovery and develop post-sepsis syndrome. One of the biggest challenges in tackling sepsis is early diagnosis. Sepsis can mimic other common illnesses, making it difficult to spot in its early stages. Symptoms such as fever, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, confusion and extreme pain can be attributed to various conditions. This leads to delayed treatment, which significantly worsens the patient’s chance of survival.

To combat sepsis effectively, awareness is the key. The UK and devolved Governments, healthcare professionals, and organisations such as the UK Sepsis Trust have been working tirelessly to educate the public and healthcare providers about the signs and symptoms of sepsis. Public awareness campaigns and training for healthcare workers have been instrumental in improving early detection. Timely intervention is crucial in sepsis management. The UK Sepsis Trust’s “Sepsis 6” care bundle and treatment pathway includes administering antibiotics, providing fluids and monitoring vital signs, and has been implemented in 96% of hospitals across the UK and in 37 other countries worldwide to ensure rapid and effective treatment. Early recognition and swift action can save lives and reduce the severity of sepsis-related complications, but despite such work, there remain many cases of avoidable death every year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing today’s debate, and for the very powerful speech she is making. My constituent, a teenager, tragically lost his life. Not only did he display so many signs, his parents were screaming for help, but those calls for help—for further investigation and better treatment and management—were just not heeded. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is now crucial that we introduce Martha’s law, so that parents can be granted a second opinion when they ask for one, in order to save lives?

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I think she must have been looking over my shoulder, because I am just about to come on to Martha’s law. As always, her timing is impeccable.

Over the past couple of weeks, significant media attention has been given to the tragic case of Martha Mills, who died of sepsis aged 13. Martha’s grieving parents have advocated for the establishment of Martha’s rule, which would empower patients to request an immediate second opinion if they feel that their medical concerns are not being addressed adequately. Other preventable deaths include UK Sepsis Trust ambassador Melissa Mead’s son William. The then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), apologised to William’s family after a report found that clinicians missed four opportunities to save his life, and to Jason Watkins, who lost his daughter Maude when she was only two and a half years old.

In order to end these preventable deaths, parents need to feel empowered to advocate for their child—to just ask, “Could it be sepsis?”—and clinicians must be given clear guidance on the appropriate care pathway in cases of suspected sepsis. At the moment, there is room for improvement on the clinical side, because of the confusion created by delays in updating the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence clinical sepsis guideline, NICE guideline 51. In addition, research plays a pivotal role in understanding sepsis better and developing more effective treatments. The UK has a rich history of medical research, and ongoing studies are dedicated to improving our understanding of sepsis. Advances in genomics, microbiology and immunology are shedding light on the complexities of sepsis, paving the way for innovative therapies. Technology is also proving to be a game-changer in the fight against sepsis, with AI-powered algorithms being used to interpret patient data and identify sepsis risk factors early on.

The UK Sepsis Trust is a charity founded by an NHS consultant, Dr Ron Daniels BEM, in 2012. It has led the fight against sepsis after Ron witnessed the tragic and preventable death of Jem Abbots, a 37-year-old father of two. The UK Sepsis Trust aims to end preventable deaths from sepsis and improve outcomes for sepsis survivors. It also strives to raise public awareness of sepsis and works to support anyone affected by this devastating condition with its free, nurse-led support service. It raises awareness by educating healthcare professionals and by instigating political change.

The UK Sepsis Trust aims to protect people by enabling the prevention of severe infection and the treatment of sepsis, while helping to ensure that antibiotics are used responsibly. Its clinical tools are used by healthcare professionals across the country and have been formally endorsed by NICE.

The trust contributed to feedback on a draft update to the NICE clinical sepsis guideline—NG51—in March this year. The final version was due to be released in June, following a request by NHS England to update it in the wake of a statement from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges about the timing of using antibiotics. However, the publication was pulled at the last minute without any obvious reason. The result is that we are left with a NICE guideline from 2016 that conflicts with the position statement from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. This has caused confusion among clinicians, which could lead to patient harm.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and for her powerful and personal speech today. We have heard about the UK death rates from sepsis, but it is really important for us to bear in mind that sepsis is a global killer; one in five deaths globally are attributed to sepsis and one person dies from it every 2.8 seconds somewhere in the world. A lack of access to medical treatment is often a reason for those figures. Because the symptoms of sepsis are often similar to those of other illnesses, as has already been discussed, it is vital that we increase not only public awareness of it but awareness in clinical settings, too. Does she agree?

I thank my hon. Friend for her very important intervention, and what she says is why World Sepsis Day is so important. Sepsis deaths are a global phenomenon and we need to do our bit in the UK to fight sepsis, as well as working globally.

Sepsis is a critical healthcare challenge in the UK and across the world, but it is one that we can tackle with determination, awareness and innovation. Early detection, rapid intervention, research and support for survivors are the cornerstones of our battle against this silent killer. I urge everyone to take sepsis seriously, to educate themselves and others about its signs and symptoms, and to support the ongoing efforts of the healthcare professionals and organisations working tirelessly to save lives and improve outcomes. Together, we can make a significant impact and reduce the devastating toll that sepsis has on our society.

On World Sepsis Day, we remember those who have lost their lives and those whose lives have been affected by sepsis. We stand by their families and friends, and we try to support them in any way we can. Their stories must be told. I ask the Minister to meet me, Dr Ron Daniels and Sarah Hamilton-Fairley from the UK Sepsis Trust, to discuss the help she can give to set up a national sepsis register.

When will the updated NG51 guideline be published? Can the Minister update us on the recent announcement by the Health Secretary in the main Chamber that he is exploring the introduction of Martha’s rule? He referred to Ryan’s rule, which has been successfully established in Queensland, in Australia, and which has prevented several potential tragedies. Ryan’s rule provides patients and their families with the opportunity to request a clinical assessment from a doctor or nurse when the patient’s health is deteriorating or not showing expected improvements. When will Martha’s rule be implemented?

The Swiss Government have recently announced 10 million Swiss francs of state investment—around £9 million—over a five year period for implementing sepsis improvement across five workstreams. The best possible way to mark World Sepsis Day would be for the Minister and the Government to commit to a similar investment in sepsis improvement work in the UK and, in so doing, prevent the UK from falling rapidly behind the international curve, when it should be leading.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for introducing this important debate, which is taking place on World Sepsis Day; for her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group; and especially for her tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan, who did so much work in this space. I am sure that Dame Cheryl would have been delighted by the way the all-party parliamentary group has been taken forward under the leadership of the hon. Lady.

I was touched by how she shared her personal experience of sepsis because I think that will highlight to people listening or watching how difficult it sometimes is to diagnose sepsis and the very many circumstances in which sepsis can present. Sepsis is a devastating condition and, while many people who develop sepsis survive, every death is tragic. Patients rightly expect it to be recognised and treated promptly because very often they are feeling so poorly that they are not necessarily in a position to raise concerns themselves. Even as the hon. Member for Neath pointed out, just becoming unwell with sepsis has long-term consequences and it can take many months to recover from an episode. She put that extremely eloquently.

The many interventions have moved us all. Many of us will know people who have become worryingly ill or have died from sepsis. It is especially heartbreaking when the family of someone who has died from sepsis feel that more could have been done to save them. Those cases are hard to hear, but it is important for us to listen and learn at all levels of Government, from officials through to frontline clinical staff.

As has been mentioned, we have all been moved to hear about Martha Mills who was 13 when she tragically died from sepsis despite concerns being raised by her family about her care. On what would have been Martha’s 16th birthday last week, her mother spoke about her death and the need for patients and families to be listened to when they think that something is wrong. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Neath. We need to encourage more people to ask that question: could it be sepsis?

I am pleased to add my support to the announcement made by the Health Secretary that the NHS will be exploring the introduction of Martha’s rule in the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State is meeting Martha’s family later today and is looking at how this could be implemented. I am sure he will be updating the House and I am happy to update Members on the follow-up from that meeting and the work that is being done to look at this.

We anticipate that Martha’s rule will be similar to a system in Queensland, Australia, known as Ryan’s rule, which is a three-step process allowing patients and families to request a clinical review of a patient’s condition if they are deteriorating. Such a system would build on initiatives already being tested in the UK, including the Call 4 Concern scheme introduced in the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Evidence from the scheme suggests that patients and their families find it useful, and that it can make a real difference in outcomes for patient care.

In the light of the fact that people suffering from sepsis can rapidly deteriorate, will the Minister ensure that a review of a patient could also be undertaken really quickly, without it becoming a bureaucratic process?

Absolutely. That is the point: if families want a review, it needs to be done as quickly as possible. If we are going to look at Martha’s law, those processes will need to be looked at. It must not become bureaucratic to make a request. It must be a really practical process that makes a difference.

Sepsis is not a single disease and it cannot be diagnosed with a single test. It varies in presentation depending on the source of infection and the individual. I pay tribute to the UK Sepsis Trust, which today has reiterated the signs and symptoms for people to look out for, including: fatigue; not passing urine; breathlessness; skin being discoloured, which is particularly important for ethnically diverse communities, because the skin colour may be different in different communities; fits and shakes; confusion; and shivers. All those symptoms are signs of potential sepsis, so it is really important that people understand to look out for them. We will never fully eliminate the risk of sepsis or other forms of acute deterioration, but we must do everything we can to ensure that clinicians and other NHS staff working on the frontline can recognise a very sick patient.

As many Members know, 100% of ambulance trusts and 99% of acute trusts in England screen for sepsis using the national early warning score or NEW score, which is carried out in clinical care. Following recommendations from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, we are working to update national guidance on sepsis. I very much take the point made by the hon. Member for Neath about the importance of ensuring that that information is all in step and aligned with guidance across the board, so that there is one clear narrative about recognition of sepsis and the targeted use of appropriate treatment.

Research is key to improving outcomes the detection of sepsis and finding more effective treatments. We are committed to driving the evidence base to improve our understanding, and the Department is providing funding of over £1 billion a year through the National Institute of Health and Care Research to drive forward research studies in these areas. Since 2017, the national institute has funded 14 research projects on sepsis, with a combined total funding value of £27 million, but further applications will be welcomed, so if there people out there want to undertake research studies, please encourage them to come forward and put in applications.

It is important that I touch on antimicrobial resistance, as the issue is inextricably linked to sepsis. It is critical that we conserve our antibiotics so that if an infection occurs, they remain as effective as possible when they are really needed, including for sepsis. In line with the asks of the declaration, the Government are delivering a five-year national action plan and a 20-year vision to contain and control antimicrobial resistance by 2040.

I am pleased to say that we are working collectively, across the UK, with our counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on that antimicrobial resistance national action plan. Hon. Members have touched on international collaboration, because no country or Government can tackle this issue alone. A study published last year by the Global Research on Antimicrobial Resistance Project shows that resistance was associated with the deaths of 4.95 million people worldwide, and many of those cases will be because of sepsis related to antimicrobial resistance. By working together with international partners, we can protect ourselves and help to treat sepsis more quickly and easily.

World Sepsis Day is an important reminder that there is more work to be done. In recognition of that and as a reminder of the importance of the issue, the Department is lit up in pink today. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Neath. I am happy to meet her and anyone she wants to bring with her, because there is still work to be done. We have made great progress, and she is touched on work that is being done, including on Martha’s rule, but I am happy to meet her and the APPG to ensure that, by next World Sepsis Day, we have made further progress with this significant condition.

Question put and agreed to.

Energy Supply Market: Small Businesses

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the energy supply market and small businesses.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. Tourism and hospitality are vital to the local economy of my north Wales constituency. Arguably, it is a centre of tourism in Wales, with attractions that draw millions of visitors each year. We are home to Llandudno, the queen of the Welsh resorts, the UNESCO world heritage site of Conwy castle, and we are a gateway to Eryri, Snowdonia national park.

Welcoming visitors to Aberconwy throughout the year are hundreds—if not thousands—of hotels, restaurants and pubs. Those businesses are at the heart of our local economy and communities. They showcase our local produce, which is among the finest to be found anywhere in the UK, and they provide employment and training opportunities to thousands. The warm welcome that they provide and their consistent high standards are a key reason that people choose not only to visit Aberconwy but to come back.

This summer I launched my Aberconwy pub of the year competition, and over 1,000 people took their time to vote—perhaps a reflection of the importance and value of pubs to our communities. They are truly at the heart of what makes Aberconwy such a great place to visit and, more importantly, a great place to live. But their energy costs are soaring; those same businesses are concerned that non-domestic energy suppliers and brokers are taking advantage—concerns that I have heard echoed by members of the British Beer and Pub Association across the UK. I am sure that these issues apply to small and medium enterprises in all sectors of the economy and throughout the UK. However, I want to take this opportunity to concentrate on the impact of the energy supply market on businesses operating in the hospitality sector.

Let me deal first with pricing. A recent sector-wide survey by UKHospitality found that the average energy price paid by hospitality businesses doubled between 2022 and 2023. A quarter of businesses had to tie in to prices at the peak of the market between October and December 2022, when energy rose from the fifth to the second highest cost to hospitality businesses. Those rises are accounted for in part by an artificial level of risk assigned to hospitality businesses, arguably unfairly, which has been used to inflate energy costs and reduce competition in the markets. I will return to that point a little later.

It is my good pleasure to serve as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary beer group. Last night we hosted a Welsh beer-tasting reception here in Parliament. If Members were not there, they missed a treat. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the quality and diversity of Welsh beer. I was delighted to welcome Dave Faragher, the owner and managing director of the Wild Horse brewery in Llandudno, a producer of some superb beers, including my favourite pale ales. Speaking with Dave, I heard once again that same pattern: the brewery’s electricity costs nearly two and half times more than it did in May 2021 and gas costs three times more. Based on its current usage rate of 109,000 kWh of electricity and 24,000 kWh of gas, its energy now costs about £22,600 a year. That is £1,900 a month more than in May 2021.

Businesses—and I—accept that there is a trade-off between price and certainty when entering into a contract. I cannot see an effective way for the Government to intervene in contracts that have been voluntarily entered into. However, I note that wholesale energy prices have fallen considerably since their 2022 peak. I also note that they remain high compared with pre-pandemic prices. I hope the Government keep a close watch on the new prices of renewed deals over the coming months. I cannot move on from pricing without mentioning the increase in standing charges. North Wales has seen some of the highest increases across the whole UK. Surely, there must be some explanation and justification as to why those eye-watering increases were introduced. Surely, we must expect to see a fall in those standing charges when new deals are negotiated.

Secondly—and in many ways a bigger concern—are the behaviours and practices of non-domestic energy providers. The same UKHospitality survey found alarming reports of the behaviours of energy supply companies, including: a refusal to quote to hospitality businesses; increased prices for hospitality businesses, with risk premiums added in; excessive deposits levied on businesses; inflexibility in negotiations; a lack of transparency from brokers; and a refusal to renegotiate contracts agreed at the peak of the energy price spike.

In June, in response to those concerns, I worked with colleagues to launch a “common sense energy supply contracts” campaign—it just trips off the tongue. At the launch supported by UKHospitality, Kate Nicholls, the chief executive, summarised accurately—and, I must say, eloquently—the importance of hospitality and the campaign to the wider economy by stating that

“Hospitality is…the canary in the coal mine”

of the economy when it comes to energy price increases. She said that it is the first to be impacted and the consequences can be seen in the sector before spreading further afield. Those things have compounded the challenges of a global pandemic and a conflict-induced international energy crisis.

Those observations, together, lead me to my third point: I question whether the non-domestic energy supply market is not now operating as a quasi-monopoly. Since launching the campaign, I have heard from colleagues, SMEs and many in the hospitality sector from throughout the UK, who echo what the hoteliers of Aberconwy are telling me.

Glenn Evans is the director and general manager of two hotels in Aberconwy, the Royal Oak and Waterloo hotels in Betws-y-Coed. These businesses provide hundreds of jobs and strengthen our local economy by welcoming tens of thousands of guests each year. Glenn has made clear to me the impact of the failing energy market, saying:

“Our experience of the Non-Domestic energy market is that there is very little if any real competition with suppliers able to name their price and business having to accept on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis with suppliers able to act effectively as a Cartel.”

That should be a great concern if, in fact, it is true that businesses have no bargaining position or ability to negotiate, or that supply periods are extended under pressure from suppliers. Is it perhaps the case that the energy market was created for a time of stability, and is proving ill-equipped and ineffective in times like these—times of greater uncertainty and turbulence? It cannot be that businesses are forced to raise prices, which increases pressure on inflation, or to enter a game of Russian roulette depending on when they must renew their contract. Suppliers will not fight for customers who cannot go elsewhere. They will not renegotiate contracts as an act of good faith when there are no alternatives for the customer to turn to. I turn, then, to the question of what Governments can do.

In May, at Treasury questions, I said:

“The Treasury was quick to act during the pandemic when hoteliers in Aberconwy told me that banks were directing them to their premium lending products instead of the Government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. Now those same hoteliers are telling me that the energy supply market seems to have failed…They fear that the supplier’s thumb is on their side of the scales.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2023; Vol. 732, c. 187.]

Many of our local businesses have also told me how vital the help of the UK Government has been throughout the pandemic. For example, all the jobs at Wild Horse brewery, which I have mentioned, were protected by the furlough scheme. They have told me how important the Government’s support with energy costs was last year at the peak of energy prices, but if small businesses are to flourish, they still need support and to be supplied by an energy market that is supportive, competitive and adaptive.

I leave on record my comments about pricing and standing charges, and market failure questions. I lament the reported unwillingness of suppliers to blend and extend existing contracts. I want to focus, instead, on solutions from the Government-commissioned report from Ofgem into the energy supply market. That has now published, and it identified a series of recommendations. I urge the Government, Ofgem and energy suppliers to implement the recommendations at the earliest opportunity —something that is endorsed by both UKHospitality and the BBA.

The first recommendation is to encourage suppliers to work with hospitality businesses to resolve the issues that many are facing with prices fixed at levels far above current market rates. That should include direct, immediate communication to suppliers from Ofgem.

The second is urgently to enact Ofgem’s proposals to secure greater transparency to customers, deliver more timely responses to customer complaints and drive better practice in setting deemed rates. The third is to deliver wider access to the energy ombudsman to redress the imbalance of power between energy suppliers and businesses, which currently lies too heavily with the suppliers.

The fourth recommendation is to put in place measures to prevent the blacklisting of entire sectors, particularly hospitality, as that dramatically reduces competition and unfairly penalises business; and the fifth is to improve regulation of energy brokers, including extending protections to more businesses, the introduction of a formal redress scheme, and greater transparency around fees.

I want to end by paying tribute to businesses in the hospitality sector, both in my constituency and throughout the UK, for the invaluable contribution they make to our communities and our economy. I thank the Minister for her engagement to date. I know she is keen to address these points. I can assure the businesses of Aberconwy, and those represented by my colleagues in the common sense contracts campaign, that we will continue to do all we can to support them.

It is a pleasure, Ms Fovargue, to serve with you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) on securing the debate.

Bath’s small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. They create jobs and are the heart of our local community. In recent years, SMEs have had to deal with the uncertainty of Brexit, the shock of covid and then the energy crisis. What they need is a supportive Government to help them through tough times, but many of our small businesses feel badly let down.

Several companies in my constituency have expressed disappointment that the Government have decided to remove energy support. One pub’s energy bill went up by £35,000. Had the energy bill support scheme that was in place until April continued, the bill would have been reduced by £30,000. However, the Chancellor’s decision to replace that scheme meant that the pub now receives only £3,000. That big gap in support is putting small businesses in my constituency at risk of closing.

Politics is about choices. The Government chose to prioritise cutting tax for big banks over helping small businesses in my constituency. Under Liberal Democrat proposals, small and medium-sized businesses would have been offered Government grants covering 80% of the increase in their energy bills for one year, up to a maximum of £50,000.

As we move into winter, the Government must step up. Suppliers, such as E.ON, have noted that some companies will become unsustainable without Government support, as 15% of small hospitality businesses fear that they might collapse in the next 12 months, with 96% of them saying that energy prices are a significant contributor. Local firms that agreed to new energy contracts in the second half of 2022, have been paying premium prices for their energy since April. That is absurd; they have not benefited from the drop in wholesale prices.

I agree with UKHospitality that the Government must urge suppliers to work with business to resolve the issue. One potential solution from the Federation of Small Businesses is a blend and extend scheme. Blend and extend contracts enable customers to take advantage of the lower wholesale cost under their current contracts: the original contract is extended by a further 12 or 14 months, for example, and today’s rates are then blended with the original contract rates. That will reduce a firm’s energy bill and help to improve its cash flow.

Additionally, the Government must accelerate the review of electricity market arrangements to ensure that households and businesses benefit from lower-cost renewables. That should involve decoupling electricity from wholesale gas prices. Renewables are now the cheapest source of energy, but their price is artificially linked to expensive natural gas. It is incomprehensible that businesses were unable to benefit from the lower cost of renewable energy last winter.

The Government could also reduce energy bills by decreasing demand. The UK has some of the leakiest buildings in Europe. The Government must give a strong commitment to businesses to improve their energy efficiency. We Liberal Democrats will continue to push the Government to do more, so that businesses become more energy-efficient.

The Federation of Small Businesses suggests a Help to Green scheme to provide direct financial support and advice to companies. That would include a grant of up to £5,000 to allow SMEs to invest in energy efficiency or microgeneration. The independent review of net zero also championed the idea. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have considered it.

Winter is fast approaching. We need the Government to provide the short-term help that small businesses need now and the long-term solutions to stabilise energy costs. The energy crisis has the potential to kill many small businesses in my constituency. We need a Government who are willing to help small businesses to provide the goods and services that are so crucial to our local communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and an equal pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) on securing the debate. My constituency, like his, is reliant on and very much defined by the tourism sector.

Tourism is an iconic part of Torbay’s economy; we are called the English riviera for a reason. It is certainly safe to say that the services that the hundreds of tourism businesses in my constituency provide to the tens of thousands of visitors we get every year are much better than those provided in the comedy series “Fawlty Towers” by our most iconic hotelier, Basil Fawlty. He is based on a real person, but some aspects of the real individual were not included in the character because they would have been too ridiculous even for a comedy. It is safe to say that the hotels, guesthouses and attractions of Torbay offer a much better service than the one that those who had to endure Mr Fawlty got.

Earlier this year, it was useful to work with the team at the English Riviera BID Company, which is the champion of the tourism sector in Torbay, on conducting a survey of businesses’ energy costs. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of responses were from the hospitality and tourism sectors. It is worth saying that there are bigger businesses in the sector: of the 60 replies I received, seven were from companies that turned over more than £1 million. Some of our biggest hotels, which are a key part of how tourism operates in the bay, have experienced big challenges. However, half the responses were from those under the VAT threshold, because there are many family businesses in Torbay. Perhaps we could have a separate debate on the impact of that threshold on the growth of family businesses.

It was particularly interesting to see the range of energy prices that were being paid. The lowest price was about 19p per kWh; the highest was 76.3p per kWh. That is a massive difference between businesses in the same sector, which was mostly driven by when they signed their energy contracts. It will be no surprise to hon. Members to hear that those who had to sign a new deal in the latter part of last year were paying the highest fees, with the majority paying between 30p and 50p per kWh for electricity.

Many respondents said that their monthly energy bill was double or more than double their previous energy contract. Nine respondents experienced an increase of more than 200%. That is pretty eye-watering, but the respondent with the biggest jump in their bill had an increase of 567%: their bill went from £60 a month to £400 a month, placing quite a burden on a small business.

Some said that they found it quite difficult when they came to the end of their contract. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy recalled, many were presented with a “take it or leave it” outcome. A range of complaints were made about brokers and some of their behaviours; some people felt that they had to pay up front, and others found that they literally could not get hold of them. One had their broker go out of business in the process of their trying to renew the energy contract, and some cited some fairly underhand tactics. One said that they did not particularly want to extend the contract—certainly not for the whole period suggested—and then found their voice notes being used to claim that they had signed an agreement for three years.

There are some sharp practices, on top of the obvious impacts. For some hotels and businesses, it sounded similar to the challenges they faced with banks during the financial crisis, when they suddenly had to refinance or take out swap products that they did not want or need, but the only alternative in the middle of a credit crunch was to find multimillion-pound financing deals literally overnight. Some businesses say that exactly the same tactics are being used now. Brokers knew these were distressed purchases, so they exploited them rather than working with customers.

It is not all negative. Some cited being offered things like blend and extend, which in one case cut a gas rate from 23p per kWh to 8p per kWh. Some providers are making a difference, but it is clear that far too many are not. These costs just cannot be easily absorbed. Yes, consumer prices can be put up, but that will inevitably have an impact on the number of people who can take a holiday or use a business, particularly given the wider issues in the economy.

From the survey, the question that occurred to me—I am particularly interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on this—was what thought is being given to extending access to the energy ombudsman. As has been touched on, although many of the businesses are commercial customers, they are not far off being a family looking to buy energy. Some businesses will also be the family home—for instance, a guesthouse that doubles up as the family home. They are not complex corporate organisations that can avail themselves of a wide range of advice when signing up for a deal. What thought is being given to the regulation of brokers? We have already heard examples of sharp practice, and that certainly came up in my survey.

I join the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) in her comments about finally breaking the link between gas and the electricity price. More types of generation, both renewable and, in the very foreseeable future, major non-gas generation—that is, nuclear power at places such as Hinkley Point C—will make the specific link between gas and the electricity price increasingly irrelevant and outdated. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

This has been a useful opportunity to outline some of the impacts on businesses in Torbay.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Hon. Members have suggested a range of options, including reducing the energy price for small businesses, but in my constituency I have found that SMEs in particular have looked to turn from being consumers to becoming suppliers by installing renewable sources, for example solar panels. Those would not just reduce bills, but provide extra supplementary support for the local grid. Esher Theatre is just one example in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as support with bills, that kind of transitional support, particularly given the high capital costs involved, would go a long way?

I could not agree more. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that for some businesses there is an option not only to be a consumer of electricity but to become a generator. One business that responded to my survey said that it wanted to look at solar, but it got turned down for planning permission by the then Lib Dem-independent coalition-run council. Some businesses say that there is therefore a need to look at planning rules and the balance there.

No one is going to argue that a listed heritage building should suddenly have something inappropriate added to it, for example, but we need to think about how we can make it a practical proposition for companies to mitigate the impact on their own bills by generating from their own buildings where possible. Solar power is the obvious option that some people will reach for but, given how diverse this area is, there will potentially be other opportunities for generating their own renewable power and having support to do so. I fully agree with my right hon. Friend’s excellent suggestion.

Tourism is an iconic industry for Torbay. The summer months have shown us some of the challenges facing the leisure industry. I am really keen to ensure that people who had to sign fixed-deal contracts at a time when the market was at its highest are not now unduly penalised, particularly given some of the sharp practices in the sector. That must not become a reason for those who are locked into high energy costs to have to switch the lights out on their business.

I thank the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for setting the scene so well. He has done so with knowledge and expertise, as have other Members who have participated. I look forward to the shadow Minister’s contributions and particularly to the Minister’s.

Across the United Kingdom, we have all witnessed a dramatic increase in energy prices, both domestically and for our local businesses. I have been contacted regularly—I suspect it is the same for you, Ms Fovargue—by numerous local business owners about their energy bills. The increases in what they are expected to pay are financially destructive. There is much more to be done on the issue as we approach the cold winter months ahead.

I have been contacted by Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster and Glyn Roberts of Retail NI, who are spokespeople for the food and drink sector. Just last Friday night, I had the opportunity to attend an event. It was one of those idyllic occasions—we did not get many of those this summer, or not in Northern Ireland anyway. It was a promotion by the Ards and North Down Borough Council, which employs an officer to promote local food and drink and eating out in venues across the whole council area and in my constituency of Strangford.

It was a lovely sunny night in Orlock, just off Groomsport. We were able to sit out in the fields with all the tables set out. It was almost regal, to tell the truth; it was beautiful. Unfortunately I could not stay for the meal, which was a terrible pity because Stephen Alexander—the farmer who organised the event with his wife and family, in conjunction with the council—had beef from Dexter cattle on the menu and there is nothing quite as tasty, but I had forgotten that I had another event to go to later on. My point is that my council is committed to promoting food and drink and the hospitality sector in my area. That can only happen in a way that produces jobs and an economic boost if there is support.

It is right to put on record our thanks to the Minister and the Government for what they have done so far, but when the hon. Member for Aberconwy was setting the scene, he indicated that we need to take a significant and specific look at how we can do it better. I hope to work alongside the council to promote tourism, economic benefits through jobs and gains in people’s wage packets, but we need that help. The spike in energy prices since the start of the war in Ukraine has hit hospitality particularly hard. The hospitality industry saw large falls in turnover because of the restrictions, and consumer spending has fallen. UKHospitality estimates that the average energy price paid by hospitality businesses doubled between 2022 and 2023.

I will give two examples, to give hon. Members an idea of some of the causes. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) referred to an increase of some 560%. A new Japanese restaurant started in my constituency about a year and a half ago. Its electricity bills went up to £7,000 per month—£84,000 a year, which is impossible to cope with. The electricity bills of a restaurant in the town of Holywood, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), went up to some £10,000. Those are examples of how it is just not possible to sustain these energy prices.

As well as the increases in energy prices, there have been inflationary pressures on key cost lines, particularly food, drink and labour costs. Food and drink inputs have risen by some 22%, and wages are 11% higher than last year. Many businesses in the hospitality sector have engaged closely with the Government and have made policymakers aware of the issues they face, including the refusal to quote to hospitality businesses, inflexibility in negotiations and increased prices for hospitality businesses, with risk premiums added.

Ofgem has published its review into the energy supply market and has identified a series of recommendations, including encouraging suppliers to work with hospitality businesses to resolve any outstanding issues, to deliver wider access to the energy ombudsman in order to address the imbalance of power between energy suppliers and businesses, and, most importantly, to offer greater transparency to customers.

With all those things in mind, I want the hospitality sector in Strangford and across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to do better. We need Government help to make that happen. The Government have previously stepped in, and we need some input from them, because energy suppliers do not always understand the real issues in the hospitality sector.

The hospitality industry and our high streets are only as strong as we enable them to be. So many businesses have suffered financially from the impacts of the Ukraine war and the pandemic, neither of which is the Government’s fault. As we approach this winter, we must ensure fairness and greater communication between our local businesses and the energy providers. If we want to see our society succeed, to promote jobs and to put wage packets in people’s pockets, which we do, we need help. I look to the Minister for that help.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) on securing this debate on energy and small business.

Wholesale energy prices are falling, which must be welcomed, but this cannot be used as a reason to justify reducing support for businesses’ energy bills. Despite the falls in wholesale energy prices, many businesses—there are thousands of them in Scotland alone, and this is an issue right across the UK, as we have heard—are still stuck on contracts based on prices that were fixed during last year’s energy price peak. If businesses are to survive, the energy support from the UK Government will continue to be vital. The UK Government must also work with energy suppliers to ensure that they offer more flexible contracts so that businesses benefit from falling prices, rather than being trapped in more expensive long-term fixed contracts.

Energy prices reached record levels in the third quarter of last year. Wholesale prices have reduced since then, with prices halving between January and June this year. However, the average wholesale gas price was around double the price in June of the five years up to 2021. The energy bills discount scheme provided much less support than the previous energy bill relief scheme, despite the fact that companies on fixed contracts signed during a period of record high energy prices. The impact of falling wholesale energy prices on small businesses is inconsistent and varied. Indeed, the Federation of Small Businesses found that 13% of small firms fixed their energy bills between July and December last year, which means that they are paying three times the current rate per kilowatt of electricity.

Far too many small firms are now entangled in high fixed tariffs, and 93,000 of them say that they could be forced to close, downsize or radically restructure because of a reduction in support with their energy bills. Every single MP in the House of Commons will have had small businesses contacting them every week because they are so concerned about the impact of energy costs on their viability. Of course, energy bills are only one—a vital one—of a tidal wave of challenges that businesses are currently facing, with high interest rates, low investment, high costs, and labour and skills shortages. That is even before we factor in how customers have less money to spend on non-essential items during the cost of living crisis.

Eighty-two percent of businesses in Scotland admitted to being concerned about energy costs going into the third quarter of this year. That is hardly surprising when one considers that non-domestic energy customers in Scotland have higher energy prices than any other country in the UK. Prices in north Scotland and central and southern Scotland are the second and third highest of any region in the UK, with central and southern Scotland also paying the highest standing charges of 89.5p per day.

It is particularly galling when Scotland is an energy-rich country producing more energy than it uses, yet Scottish businesses are offered above-average market prices, unlike their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Figures released by the National Grid highlighted that by 2026-27 Scottish generators will have to pay around £465 million per year in transmission charges, while renewable developments in England and Wales will receive a subsidy of around £30 million per year. How can that be anything but a barrier to renewable energy companies setting up in Scotland?

As for the beleaguered hospitality sector, which we have heard much about today, the situation continues to be critical, with almost half of those who signed an energy contract at the peak of the energy crisis fearing that their business is at risk of failure. Pubs, bars and restaurants saw their energy prices surge by 81% in the year to May 2023, on top of the soaring cost of food and wages rising. Attempts to absorb those costs has bred unsustainable business practices that cannot indefinitely continue. Every day we know of players in the hospitality sector going to the wall, sometimes after a lifetime of building up a business.

It is vital for small businesses across Scotland and throughout the UK that the UK Government fully recognise the scale of the challenges. They must work with Ofgem in the wake of its review of the energy market and take on board its range of recommendations for changes to regulation, to increase transparency and rebalance the power between the energy supplier and small businesses. I look forward to the Minister agreeing with that when she gets to her feet.

I have said this in a number of debates: it remains the case that there was little point in the UK Government supporting businesses as they did during the covid pandemic only for those businesses to be broken on the rocks of unsustainable energy charges shortly thereafter. As the Minister will know, businesses need some certainty after these tumultuous times. I hope that when she gets to her feet she will provide some of that certainty.

It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for bringing this important debate to Parliament. He came up with quite a comprehensive list of asks for the Minister, so I hope she has time to respond to them in full. I endorse many of the things he said.

As the hon. Member for Aberconwy suggested, the energy supply market seems stacked against hospitality businesses in particular, and we need both short and long-term action. Today’s debate has reflected the fact that although the actual peak of the energy bills crisis has dampened a little, the problems are still out there. Just because it is not on the front page and we are not having urgent questions every other day in Parliament, that does not mean to say that the problem has gone away.

As has been said, small businesses in the hospitality sector have faced an onslaught of difficulties over recent years. We had the pandemic, which obviously hit them very hard, we have had a rise in rents and interest rates, and we have had soaring inflation, yet sky-high energy bills remain one of small businesses’ main concerns. I have certainly seen that in my own constituency and across Bristol.

The Christmas period should be a boom time for hospitality companies, but in Bristol we saw several go under, including a brewery that was forced to stop production after a 500% increase in energy bills. That was the last straw after everything else they had had to contend with. Thankfully, there are other businesses that are just about surviving, although they are very much struggling with their bills. An independent bakery contacted me to say that it had received a final demand for an energy bill that was in the thousands—way more than they had been paying in the past. It managed to get the money together to just about pay when the final demand came in, but the bailiffs were still sent in and disconnected it. It is now having to rely on a noisy generator, which is understandably upsetting the neighbours. That is not how it wants to conduct its business, but it has no choice.

An independent café told me about the problems it was having. The neighbouring café is part of a big nationwide chain, which can negotiate an energy bill contract that goes across all of its outlets. The little independent café found that the energy companies do not want to talk to it at all because it is not a big enough customer. As we have heard, too many small businesses are locked into expensive multi-year energy supply contracts that were perhaps taken out at the peak of the market. The fact that many of them have been denied service altogether because they are deemed to be too high risk is an issue on which we need to hear from the Minister.

The Government and Ofgem must work in tandem with suppliers to ensure that the disproportionate hit that hospitality is taking does not continue. The hon. Member for Aberconwy quoted the CEO of UKHospitality, Kate Nichols, talking about a canary in the coalmine; last month she said:

“The Ofgem review last week was crystal clear that many of the issues facing businesses lie at the door of the energy suppliers. Whether it is refusing to renegotiate contracts, demanding enormous deposits, or simply refusing to supply the sector, it’s clear that some energy suppliers are mistreating the sector.”

We have heard about how extortionate security deposits and unfair contracts are holding businesses back. Labour’s view is that we need to start reforms to the market to ensure that the cheap price of low-carbon energy is passed on to consumers. We also support calls for decoupling gas and electricity, which is something that we have mentioned many times before.

It is good to hear that Ofgem has been encouraging suppliers to work with hospitality businesses to resolve the issues they are facing with fixed prices that are far above the current market level. However, that sort of voluntary approach is not good enough. The British Beer and Pub Association has been calling on Ofgem to ensure that, beyond voluntary measures for suppliers, there is also

“recourse to more binding mechanisms to ensure expected standards of conduct and behaviour are met and maintained.”

The context here is important. It is not a crisis that has come out of the blue. The situation in Ukraine has had an impact on global energy supplies, but that is not the only factor. From getting rid of our gas storage—unlike any of our European counterparts—and slashing energy efficiency installation rates, to banning onshore wind and crashing the market for solar, the Government have failed to prepare and protect Britain. It is families and businesses that have paid the price.

The extent of that failure was laid bare last week during the auction round for contracts for difference for offshore, which saw zero bids because the price was set at an unrealistic rate. There was the potential there for 5 GW of wind, which could have powered nearly 8 million homes and saved consumers £1.5 billion a year compared with the cost of electricity from gas. That is a real lost opportunity to bring cheap and clean power to many more houses. We had an urgent question on that in Parliament yesterday.

Hospitality businesses need immediate short-term support, and we heard good examples from the hon. Member for Aberconwy about delivering that within the supply market. Until we transition to clean, cheap and secure renewables, however, we will remain exposed to the same energy market that forced the Government to cap energy bills. Analysis from Labour revealed that over the summer 300,000 businesses have been forced to cut hours directly as a result of inflation, with 17% of hospitality firms reporting reducing staff work because of price rises. I think we have all seen that: anyone who went down to places like Cornwall or Devon over the summer will have seen cafés that we would expect to be open at the peak of the tourist season having to close early because they cannot get the staff to maintain seven-day-a-week opening.

Despite record energy profits, the Prime Minister continues to refuse to implement a proper windfall tax, which we have been calling for. Our green prosperity plan would cut £53 billion off businesses’ energy bills by 2031. In the short term, we would help businesses to cut their plans for good, with vouchers for energy efficiency measures. The hon. Member for Aberconwy is right to raise the deficiencies in the energy supply market. Soaring energy bills are a threat to livelihoods up and down the country. I reinforce his calls for the Government to not just sound sympathetic but actually take action to help SMEs to survive.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for securing this incredibly important debate, and I thank all who have taken part.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy has been working tirelessly to try to ensure the best outcomes for businesses in his constituency and more widely. I was a beneficiary of that when I went to Conwy earlier this year on holiday with my daughter and granddaughter. He will know from our recent meeting that for me, as Minister responsible for energy consumers and affordability, it is really important that both domestic and non-domestic customers get the service they deserve. That is and always has been one of my priorities. Yesterday I met Kate Nicholls from UKHospitality, whom I have met on many occasions. I will continue to meet representatives from all sectors to understand their experiences and find out how we can support them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy knows that the energy crisis has impacted households and businesses alike. Despite volatility in the energy market, exacerbated by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the non-domestic energy market has remained more stable than its domestic counterpart. In part, this can be attributed to the factors that differentiate the non-domestic market from the domestic market, such as different supplier hedging strategies, risk sharing with customers, and bespoke contracts for businesses with different energy requirements.

However, we do recognise the difficulties that businesses continue to face, with energy bills much higher than historical norms. That is why the Government have stepped in to provide unprecedented levels of support for business energy costs. The energy bill relief scheme provided £7.4 billion of support for more than 1.9 million energy contracts. Obviously, it would have been unsustainable for the Government to continue to support such large numbers of businesses at the level of the energy bill relief scheme. The Government have been clear that the levels of support provided under the energy support schemes are time-limited and are intended as a bridge to allow businesses to adapt.

We believe that the energy bills discount scheme provides balance. With wholesale gas prices now at lower levels than before Putin’s invasion Ukraine and having almost halved since the energy bill relief scheme was announced, the energy bills discount scheme supports businesses until April 2024 and limits taxpayer exposure to volatile energy markets. The Government are also committed to providing the right tax environment for businesses to invest and grow. In his autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that the Government are going further to support high street businesses by reducing the burden of business rates with a package worth £13.6 billion in total over the next five years. This included freezing the business rates multiplier for another year to protect businesses from rising inflation, and increasing relief for retail, hospitality and leisure from 50% to 75% for 2023-24—up to £110,000 per business.

In addition to financial support, I have been clear in numerous meetings with energy suppliers and in my ongoing meetings with Ofgem that it is essential for energy suppliers to provide all customers with clear communications to enable them to understand their energy contracts and the options available to them. I continue to encourage all suppliers to proactively reach out and speak to their customers. As a result of our work with suppliers, we have seen some offering, as has been discussed throughout the debate, a blend and extend option, where some costs are reduced and payments are spread over a longer period. It is, of course, the responsibility of the supplier to ensure that customers can make an informed decision, including understanding the impact of the renegotiations—such as blending and extending their existing contracts—and what that means for their entitlement to energy bills discount scheme support, and the costs and benefits over the short and longer term.

I know that specific concerns have been raised about the hospitality sector, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy raised them again today. As I discussed with UKHospitality yesterday, although these are commercial matters I will continue to press suppliers to ensure that they treat all businesses based on their individual circumstances and do not take a blanket approach to the sector. The changes that Ofgem is already making following its recent non-domestic market review, and the work that we in the Government are doing, will improve the situation for all sectors, and I know that UKHospitality is supportive of all the measures.

The non-domestic energy market has not required much intervention in the past, as it broadly delivered good outcomes for business customers. However, the energy crisis has exposed areas where consumer protections can be improved for business customers, especially our small and medium enterprises, as everybody in the debate has mentioned. Ofgem conducted a review into the non-domestic energy market. It published its report findings in July, alongside policy consultation questions related to its proposals. We welcome its findings and believe it is vital that businesses receive good customer service and support from their energy supplier and any third-party providers.

Ofgem is investigating potential breaches of licence conditions and rules for certain suppliers through its compliance processes, and it will not hesitate to take enforcement action if necessary. However, we know that it is not just about compliance against existing rules. We want to ensure that businesses understand how they receive their energy. Ofgem’s non-domestic review findings proposed several regulatory changes that will improve a business customer’s experience with their supplier and energy broker, such as expanding transparency on energy broker commissions to all businesses and expanding access beyond microbusinesses to the alternative dispute resolution service for third-party intermediaries such as energy brokers.

The changes, along with other initiatives—such as a new code of conduct for third-party intermediaries being developed by the Retail Energy Code Company—will address some of the key challenges we have heard from businesses. We will closely monitor progress in this space to see whether further Government action is needed. We understand that the Government can play an active role in improving the experience of businesses with their energy contracts, which is why we are exploring how the energy ombudsman can support more businesses with their energy issues by expanding access to dispute resolution between customers and suppliers to more than just microbusiness customers. We plan to consult on any proposed changes to ensure that stakeholders can express their views before any final changes are enacted. We are already in discussions with interested groups and will continue to engage proactively.

I reiterate that the Government and I are committed to improving the retail energy market for households and businesses alike. We have recently set out a new vision for the future energy retail market to ensure that it works better for all consumers, while guaranteeing that the market returns to a resilient and investable state and supports system transformation. I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for securing the debate and for the work he has carried out on supporting businesses with their energy concerns. I look forward to continuing to engage with him on this incredibly important matter to ensure that our British businesses can thrive.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions; I have learned from the debate and some really helpful points have been made.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who continues to impress with his diligence on behalf of his constituents and with his grasp of the relevance of this matter to them. In particular, I highlight the observation of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) that every MP in this House will have had businesses writing to them about this. I confess that I am surprised that more people have not been involved, considering how vital this issue is.

I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for her comments about the unsustainability of this situation for businesses, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who reminded us of “Fawlty Towers”—perhaps he described quite well the faulty powers that are at play in the variety and indiscriminate effect of energy price rises.

I thank the Minister for her recognition that the energy market does need improvement. Implicit in that is an acknowledgement of flaws. I welcome the reassurance that she will not seek a blanket approach and will encourage a better approach from the energy supply businesses, as well as her acknowledgement that consumer protections can be improved and that Ofgem will undertake the investigation of third-party providers, leaving the door open for future Government action. I have not thought that Governments should ever compensate businesses for loss, but I do believe in fairness in a sector and market that businesses did not create and cannot control.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the energy supply market and small businesses.

Sitting adjourned.