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Volume 745: debated on Monday 19 February 2024


Monday 19 February 2024


Culture, Media and Sport

Ulverston Library

The petition of residents of the constituency of Barrow and Furness,

Declares that the Ulverston library offers a vital service to a local people from lending books to supporting literacy, to enabling community groups, and bringing local people together; further that Ulverston library must be re-opened as a matter of urgency.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to help ensure that Ulverston has a full library service restored as soon as possible.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Simon Fell, Official Report, 13 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 962.]


Observations from The Minister for Media, Tourism and Creative Industries (Julia Lopez):

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires all local authorities in England to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. Public libraries are, therefore, funded and run by local authorities. In considering how best to deliver this statutory duty, each local authority is responsible for determining local needs and how best to deliver a modern and efficient library service that meets the requirements of their communities within available resources.

The Government recognise the importance and value of public libraries for all members of the public. Libraries support the transformation of people, communities and society as a whole. They provide access to books, opportunities for people to learn and improve, and bring communities together to support integration and tackle loneliness. In addition, they provide practical help and guidance, including for literacy, digital skills, health and wellbeing, and business development.

We understand that Ulverston library has been closed since September 2023 following a routine statutory check which identified issues with the building’s electrics meaning it was unsafe for public use. We are aware that Westmorland and Furness Council established temporary library provision with a “pop-up” library in the Coro that offered a selection of books for borrowing and public access to laptops and printers. This has been supplemented with further temporary provision provided in early December at Ulverston indoor market providing more stock for borrowing, as well as spaces which can be used for community groups, meetings and events.

We further understand that the temporary provision has been strengthened following the management of the Coro reverting from Ulverston Coronation Hall to the council on 1 January 2024. This has enabled the council to extend the library opening hours at the venue, in line with previous library provision, including opening at weekends. The council is working on extending the temporary library provision further, using more space within the Coro and it hopes to launch this in early March.

We understand that the council is committed to finding a long-term future for a library in Ulverston and recognises that it is one of their most important library services. The council has confirmed that it is undertaking an options appraisal with a view to agreeing a permanent site for the library in Ulverston and for that to be in place and fully operating later this year. The options include the full repair and refurbishment of the existing library building, as well as options to relocate to alternative premises or co-locate within other council facilities in the town. The council has confirmed that on completion of the assessment of the options it will consult local residents to ensure they have the opportunity to comment and their views will be taken into account as part of the process.

We support the approach to restore a permanent location for the library service in Ulverston and note the council’s intention to consult on the preferred option. However, it is not for the Government to direct the council about how it should run or manage its statutory library service. It is for Westmorland and Furness Council to determine based on the needs of local residents and consideration of the resources it has available.

My officials have discussed with council officers the current position with Ulverston library and we will continue to monitor Westmorland and Furness Council’s library service provision, including arrangements for Ulverston residents. We thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) and the signatories of this petition for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.

Health and Social Care

Boots Pharmacy closures in Hull North

The petition of residents of the constituency of Kingston Upon Hull North,

Declares that the Boots pharmacies in Hull North should not be closed; notes in particular residents’ concerns about losing the pharmacies at 860 Beverley Road and 132 Chanterlands Avenue; further notes that pharmacies play a vital role in alleviating pressures facing the NHS and are relied upon by local communities.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to ensure that the Boots pharmacies in Hull remain open and that local pharmacies are sufficiently supported and easily accessible to residents.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Dame Diana Johnson, Official Report, 9 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 270 .]


Observations from The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Dame Andrea Leadsom):

The Government recognise that pharmacies are an integral part of the fabric of our communities, an easily accessible front door to the NHS, staffed by highly trained and skilled healthcare professionals. However, community pharmacies are private businesses that receive funding to provide NHS pharmaceutical services. Whether to open, divest, consolidate or close a pharmacy is a commercial decision made by the business owner, not by the NHS or the Government.

The Department continues to monitor changes to the market closely to ensure patients retain good access to NHS pharmaceutical services. In addition, the law requires that every three years, local authority Health and Wellbeing Boards undertake pharmaceutical needs assessments to identify if there is a need for improvement or better access to services. Contractors can apply to open a pharmacy where there is a gap or a need for improved access to services or if they can make a case for providing other benefits to the local communities.

When their usual local pharmacy closes, patients can choose to access any of the remaining pharmacies nearby. Patients can also choose to access NHS pharmaceutical services remotely through any of the approximately 400 internet pharmacies in England, which are contractually required to deliver medicines to patients’ home address free of charge.

The statistics published by the NHS Business Service Authority show that there are 24 pharmacies, including one distance selling pharmacy (DSP) in Kingston Upon Hull North.

NHS Humber & North Yorkshire integrated care board, responsible for commissioning NHS primary care services, reports that there are six pharmacies within 1 mile of 860 Beverley Road and 10 pharmacies within 1 mile of 132 Chanterlands Avenue.

Community hospitals

The petition of residents of Axe Valley in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency,

Declares that community hospitals play a vital role supporting health and wellbeing in rural communities; further that the hospital in Seaton was built with active support and fundraising efforts by residents across the Axe Valley; and further that plans to turn the wing of the hospital building over to NHS Property Services puts the future viability of the hospital at risk.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to take into account the concerns of petitioners and take action to return the facility to the local community, so it can be repurposed to provide better care for those living in the area.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Richard Foord, Official Report, 16 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 800.]


Observations from The Minister for Health and Secondary Care (Andrew Stephenson):

The Government are aware that the NHS Devon integrated care board (ICB) is seeking to review its future requirements for community hospitals. We understand that the building of Seaton Hospital in 1988 was only possible with significant public fund-raising and that the continued availability of healthcare services delivered in community hospitals are strongly valued by the communities they serve. However, they also need to be able to adapt to changing clinical needs.

Between 2015 and 2017, NHS Devon clinical commissioning group (now the ICB) undertook a review of community services which resulted in the transfer of ownership of the North Devon community hospitals estate, including Seaton Hospital, to NHS Property Services. At the same time the service delivery model was changed, resulting in a reduced requirement for community hospital beds and leading to some properties such as Seaton being significantly underutilised.

The ICB is responsible for meeting the costs of continuing to run this operational property and in seeking to address its significant financial challenges is now considering how best to rationalise its property needs.

Ultimately, whilst the long-term healthcare commissioning requirements for Seaton Hospital is for the ICB to determine, the operational costs of running the property have to be paid for and therefore a long-term sustainable use must be established. The ICB is currently working closely in partnership with NHS Property Services to identify and evaluate suitable options to achieve this objective. Whilst the property remains an operational healthcare facility, it is not surplus to commissioning requirements and there are no current plans to sell the facility.

The Government believe that ICBs are best placed to make decisions on commissioning services for their communities, working with local authorities, stakeholders and local populations to meet people’s needs.


Grove Station Reopening

The petition of Residents of the constituency of Wantage and Didcot,

Declares that Grove station should be re-opened, further that this is required due to the growing population in the local area; notes the economic benefits of improving connections to local businesses; notes the environmental benefits; and further notes the social benefits of ensuring people in the local area are better connected to friends and family.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to ensure that Grove station is reopened.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Official Report, 7 February 2024; Vol. 745, c. 1P.]


Observations from The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Huw Merriman):

I am grateful to see the continued support for the potential reopening of Grove station among residents in Wantage and Didcot.

A bid for Wantage and Grove station was made to the second and third rounds of the restoring your railway (RYR) ideas fund. The bid proposed opening a new Wantage and Grove station around the site of the former Wantage Road station on the electrified Great Western main line between Didcot Parkway and Swindon. Unfortunately, the bid was unsuccessful, and detailed feedback was provided to stakeholders in October 2021.

Whilst there are no further RYR funding rounds planned by my Department, the Government believe that local authorities and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are best placed to decide on, and take forward, transport schemes that will most benefit their local areas. I encourage campaigners to engage with these bodies and work together to bring forward a revised bid to be considered for development under an alternative source of funding.

Local businesses and the closure of the Botley Road in Oxford

The petition of residents of the constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon,

Declares that the closure of Botley Road due to ongoing works at Oxford rail station is having a significant and detrimental effect on local businesses; notes that local business owners report they are experiencing up to 60% drop in income; further notes the vital contribution of small businesses to the UK economy.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to take immediate action to ensure local businesses are able to access a business support fund during the extended closure of Botley Road.

And the petitioners remain, etc. —[Presented by Layla Moran, Official Report, 23 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 270 .]


Observations from The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Huw Merriman):

The Department is funding a £160 million programme of works to improve physical and operating constraints both at Oxford station and along the rail corridor in the area. The scheme is being led by Network Rail with the support of Oxford City and Oxfordshire County Councils and with funding contributions from the local enterprise partnership (LEP) to not only address railway constraints but to improve road, pedestrian, and active travel provision in and around the Botley Road/western side of Oxford station. In addition, a new western entrance adjacent to Botley Road is being constructed which will make the station more accessible to residents living to the west of the station, reducing the current walking time.

It is unfortunate that complexities arose following the discovery of a Victorian inverted brick arch under Botley Road where the new railway bridge which will enable additional rail capacity is to be installed. The brick arch is 100 metres in length and suppresses rising ground water from the nearby River Thames. The presence of the arch has required a change in the delivery methodology for the railway bridge including the arrangements for relocating utility services and this has unfortunately resulted in the continued closure of Botley Road until October 2024. I have stressed the importance of getting this work completed as quickly as possible so that the road can be re-opened to the public and businesses.

Whilst it is not Government policy to compensate businesses for the impact of such critical works, I understand that Network Rail has engaged with the councils, the Federation of Small Businesses and with the Oxfordshire local enterprise partnership to support the business community as best they can. This includes production of promotional videos and the use of dedicated social media groups to highlight that Oxford remains open for business throughout the period of the works. This started in the run up to Christmas 2023 and Network Rail advises that it is continuing discussions with the city council and the Federation of Small Businesses about other ways they can continue to help. Network Rail is regularly keeping local residents and businesses informed of the situation through newsletters and social media.

Network Rail has assured me that such engagement will continue throughout the period of the road closure.

Work and Pensions

Frozen British pensions

The petition of residents of the constituency of Linlithgow and East Falkirk,

Declares the UK pensioners deserve a full uprated state pension wherever they choose to live; further that UK pensioners who have paid their fair share of NI contributions should not suffer the consequences of successive UK Governments’ failure to establish bilateral agreements with certain countries; notes the new report “UK-Canada: An Unequal Partnership” that highlights the stark contrast in engagement between the UK and Canada on the frozen pensions policy, which impacts half a million British citizens worldwide and 127,000 in Canada alone; and further declares that despite Canada formally requesting negotiations on the policy four times between 2013 and 2022, the UK has refused to engage.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to engage with the Canadian Government on the issue and finally remedy this injustice and reflect respect and courtesy for our British citizens and our Commonwealth neighbours. —[Presented by Martyn Day, Official Report, 12 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 866 .]


Observations from The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Paul Maynard):

The United Kingdom state pension system is primarily intended to provide support for pensioners who ordinarily reside in the UK. State pensions are, however, up-rated overseas where there is a legal requirement to do so, such as a reciprocal social security agreement. This long- standing policy has been supported by successive Governments of all political persuasions for over 70 years. It has been the subject of parliamentary debates and has been approved by Parliament and the courts. This Government concurs with that position.

There are two separate social security agreements between the UK and Canada made in 1995 and 1998. Neither of these provide for state pension uprating in Canada and the UK Government has no plans to revisit the social security relationship with Canada.

A decision to move abroad is a voluntary one and will depend on an individual’s circumstances. Ultimately, individuals have a responsibility to fully understand the implications of their decision to move abroad. For a number of years, the UK Government has provided clear information for people moving to and living overseas, including Canada, which sets out that the UK state pension is not up-rated overseas except where there is a legal requirement to do. Therefore, any impact on state pension is just one factor in considering whether to move overseas.

Furthermore, the rate of national insurance contributions paid (or credited as paid) by an individual has never earned entitlement to the indexation of a state pension. The national insurance system is financed on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, which means that today’s contributions fund today’s expenditure. This means that the rates and levels of contributions are set each year to ensure that the overall income to the national insurance fund is enough to pay for the full range of contributory benefits.

An individual’s contributions provide a foundation for calculating entitlement to future personal entitlements. The contributions do not actually pay for those entitlements directly. Twenty per cent. of national insurance contributions go towards the national health service, the remainder fund contributory benefits, the vast majority of which goes to the state pension. National insurance contributions are pooled and people do not have an individual pot which funds their own state pension.

Cost has also been and remains an important factor in deciding whether state pension increases should be paid in overseas countries. In drawing up expenditure plans for pensioner benefits, the Government believes its responsibility is primarily toward pensioners living in this country. Uprating overseas state pensions to the rate payable in the UK would cost approximately £900 million a year.

Successive Governments have maintained the view that it would be unfair to place additional burdens on UK taxpayers to fund increased pensions for people who decide to live abroad. The Government have no plans to change the current arrangements for payment of the UK state pension overseas.