Wednesday 27 April 2016
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
Violence against Women and Girls (Sustainable Development Goals)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered violence against women and girls and the Sustainable Development Goals.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, on this fine crisp morning. I do not need to rehearse to many Members in the Chamber the importance of the sustainable development goals. Many Members and the Minister and his Department have worked hard on refining and developing the goals. Goal 5 is to
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
That is the most important goal in our efforts to combat violence against women and girls. A number of targets flow from it, directly addressing the issue. In particular, the second target under goal 5 is to
“Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation”.
The third target is to
“Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”.
May I suggest that we add breast ironing to that list of harmful practices? People do not know much about it, but it tries to damage the young breast to stop it developing because of a misconception that the child will then not go through puberty and develop. It is incredibly destructive. People do not know about it, in the same way that we did not know about FGM.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. So much work has been done under the sustainable development goals. We have a target that gives examples, and we now have awareness of other things that might well have been included as examples, such as breast ironing. Her point proves that the sustainable development goals should not be seen as frozen in cold print on the page. They are meant to be an ongoing, changing, ever-improving and ever-strengthening commitment on all our parts. Remember, they are universal goals. That is one reason why we need to demarcate the sustainable development goals from the millennium development goals in terms of their universality. We want to see the infrastructure of commitment, investment and intervention underpinning the sustainable development goals.
The Minister will face many questions and hear many suggestions in this debate on assurances that he can give on behalf of the Department for International Development and the Government more widely. He is responding on behalf of DFID, but the universal goals are not just about what happens in other countries. We should be supporting and helping to foster those goals, but the goals also involve commitments and standards in our countries and jurisdictions. That is not just the responsibility of Ministers and all of us who serve in this House, but people at other levels, including devolved levels.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that this is not just a DFID issue. These things happen in this country every day. The pressure group End Violence Against Women has pointed out that 146,000 domestic violence incidents were recorded in London in 2015. There were 5,500 rapes, 300 cases of forced marriage and honour-based violence and thousands of prostitution cases. Specialist support services for all those things are being cut. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to be looking at the issue at home, too?
Absolutely. The issues do not just happen elsewhere; they happen here, and we need to fully understand that. We also need to understand the range of interventions and support required not only to raise awareness and improve behavioural standards and expectations, but to respond better to violence against women and girls where it happens. We need to ensure that women and girls feel more empowered, more enabled, much better supported and truly vindicated and justified when they come forward to report and to tell. We have to give them that comfort and confidence.
There are huge issues that we need to address, and that is why the universality of the goals can be so important. It allows Governments and Parliaments in the developed world to make it clear to our colleagues in the developing world that this is not just about us saying that they have to catch up with us; we, too, are on a page of learning and a journey of understanding in our awareness of the issues. In that context, I acknowledge the range of briefings we have received from many different charities, non-governmental organisations and campaign groups.
I am sure many Members will have questions for the Minister, but we have to ask questions as parliamentarians about how we do our bit to ensure meaningful coherence around the range of sustainable development goals and their interpretation and application. We also need to ensure better adherence in their implementation and realisation. We therfore have to ask not only how Government will provide joined-up management and oversight of the issues, but how we as a Parliament can get better at providing joined-up scrutiny of and support for such initiatives and investments.
It will not be enough for us just to say, “The International Development Committee will be able to oversee all these things, and we are leaving domestic and sexual violence at home to the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee.” We need to think about something more bespoke and dedicated. We need to recognise that though some of the goals and targets will be amenable to particular scrutiny and oversight by respective Select Committees, others will fall in the shadows between Select Committees and perhaps need a more dedicated audit mechanism to pick them up.
My helpful advice to the hon. Gentleman is that leaving anything to the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will leave enormous gaps, because domestic violence and sexual violence commissioning are almost exclusively done by local government and devolved authorities. I suggest we call on the Minister to look for something that will tie everything together and not just leave domestic violence in its silos.
I am sure that the Minister will have heard that call and will ensure that others hear that call, but there are questions for us at a parliamentary level on what we do to ensure real parliamentary tracking and backing of what is happening with the goals, particularly with the vexed, serious and sometimes invisible issue of violence against women and girls.
I called this debate in response to a long lobbying campaign by ActionAid. I am just one of many MPs who responded to that fearless campaign by applying for this debate. I acknowledge the work of ActionAid and all its supporters in campaigning and the quality of the briefing it provided to us. I hope I can leave it to other Members to pick up on that in their contributions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he join me in condemning the state-sanctioned violence against women and girls in North Korea? Technically, that country joined in support of the SDGs last autumn, but it operates violence against women and girls as a tool of oppression. Even the UN has described it in a report as having human rights violations that
“reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
Those violations include sexual violence; exploitation; rape; forced abortion; human trafficking; institutional, economic and psychological violence; slavery; and torture, even until death. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK must use what limited engagement it has with North Korea—it is mainly via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to press for change? Also, will he join with me and other parliamentarians in putting on the record that the abused women of North Korea are not forgotten here?
Yes to all those points and questions. That is not to belittle or trivialise the seriousness of them, but as the chair of the all-party group for Sudan and South Sudan I want to address other countries’ specific issues.
I mentioned that we have received a strong briefing from ActionAid, and it has been working with Womankind Worldwide. The Minister will know everything that ActionAid is arguing for in respect of how we take forward the goal and the targets, including its work with Womankind Worldwide in advocating for a voice, choice and control fund. He knows the main argument: such a fund would take an integrated approach that would address the structural causes of gender inequality, giving women’s rights organisations the support that they need to lead the transformation of societies and economies towards an enabling environment, so that women can realise their full potential and enjoy their whole spectrum of rights.
A second objective would be to increase the quality of funding available to organisations and movements, including those led by adolescent girls, women with disabilities and LGBTI groups.
Yes, it is one of the best ways of fulfilling the “leave no one behind” principle. Investments and interventions to support women and girls would be one of the best multiplier contributions that could be made towards fulfilling not only those targets and objectives, but others as well. The enablement and empowerment that comes with advancing the position of women and girls, allowing them to counter the ravages of sexual and other violence, would be one of the most transformative things. So if we want a real change multiplier in any society, we must address the position of women and girls. Our own history and social experience demonstrate that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle on securing this important debate. Women and girls are rightly at the forefront and at the heart of DFID’s activities. I commend the Secretary of State at DFID for fighting so hard in the face of real opposition to achieve stand-alone goal 5, which is a gender equality and empowerment goal that is very important indeed. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the goals are to be achieved, including goal 5, we have to turn billions into trillions in development finance? For that to happen, we have to do much more work with the private sector.
I fully accept what the hon. Lady has said. Again, that raises the question of our long-term commitment. It is great that we are able to celebrate the sustainable development goals, but we have to plan for what will be achieved by them. Making commitments is important, but making the commitments work well and developing them and growing them is even more important, and that is what we need to do.
I want to acknowledge the briefings that we have received; I hope that other hon. Members will be able to do more justice to them than I can in the time that I want to take—and the time I do not want to take—in this opening speech. We have received an important contribution from UNICEF, which has done so much in terms of the sustainable development goals and on the whole question of violence in all its forms as it affects children, particularly girls. I say that as a parliamentary champion of UNICEF.
We have also had important briefings from Christian Aid and Amnesty International. I hope other hon. Members will be able to take up some of the asks suggested in those briefings to ask the Minister about how DFID will pursue these goals alongside the others. Similarly, we have a useful contribution from the Bond SDG group, which raises the question of the parliamentary commitment to oversight of the goals, rather than simply the governmental commitment.
I told the hon. Member for Congleton that I had a country-specific issue of my own to raise as the chair of the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to Sudan, may I take him across the world to Afghanistan? British troops made an enormous sacrifice in terms of lives lost in Afghanistan, but they also made a tremendous contribution to rebuilding schools for girls and women teachers to avoid the violence that had been meted out to them by the Taliban and others. Is the hon. Gentleman able to update us on the status of women and girls in terms of education in Afghanistan post the withdrawal of British troops?
I am not in a position to speak authoritatively on that, but I am sure the Minister will be able to answer those points. The hon. Member for North Down has drawn attention to the issue of education and schools, an issue that the all-party group on protecting children in armed conflict, which existed in the previous Parliament, addressed. In the context of conflict and humanitarian crises, education was not always to the forefront in the immediate interventions that were planned, and DFID acknowledged that it was not so much a lower order but a later order consideration in its response to crisis and emergencies.
The points in the report, which were well supported by the charity War Child when the APPG was chaired by Fiona O’Donnell, are being taken forward now in the APPG on global education for all, working with the Global Campaign for Education. The urgency of delivering children’s right to education during crisis is highlighted in the report, “Education cannot wait”. One of the points emphasised is that education investment in schools in conflict and post-conflict situations is good because it helps to save boys from falling prey to being recruited as child soldiers and then being corrupted into engagement in violence against women and girls. It also gives girls the opportunity of education and the transformative empowerment that that gives them.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to ensure that girls can be taught safely in Afghanistan, security is absolutely key? Will he urge the Minister to look at the situation in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan, the buffer zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Pakistani army is keeping the peace, but no one is sure for how long? Can we urge DFID to look into that?
I am happy to be a conduit to the Minister on that point. I know he understands that when any of us make points in such debates, we do so on the basis of urging rather than begrudging the very good efforts that have already been made by Government. We are urging the Government because they have earned the position of leading positively on various issues internationally.
As chair of the APPG on Sudan and South Sudan, I am conscious of the report by the charity Waging Peace last November: “Rape in Darfur—A History of Predation”. It had nine key recommendations and some telling observations. If I may advertise, hon. Members can sign early-day motion 903, which takes points from the report, before the end of this Session.
Waging Peace stated:
“Our testimonies indicate that in Darfur the measure that works best at preventing sexual violence is the physical protection offered by the region’s...United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission, UNAMID...However, it is in the immediate vicinity of the UNAMID-controlled compounds that our testimonies indicate that the worst abuses occur. Almost two-thirds of the victims report being raped upon leaving the relative safety of UNAMID-controlled zones: either to collect firewood, perform agricultural work while living in temporary accommodation near farms, or to collect personal belongings immediately following a displacement. The similarity in the accounts provided in the testimonies suggests that such attacks...have become routine.”
In the context of UNAMID, it goes on to suggest community liaison assistants on a model similar to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The criticism of what is happening near UNAMID’s location is supported by a former spokesperson for the African Union-UN mission in Darfur, Aicha Elbasri, who has effectively turned whistleblower. She says,
“Victims of rape, systematic rape and mass rape in Darfur suffer in silence, as the use of these horrible crimes as weapons of war no longer commands international attention. But brutal attacks on the bodies and souls of women and girls continue unabated, and may have worsened in the absence of public scrutiny.”
Reports by Waging Peace go some way to redressing the balance.
I want to draw particular attention to the law in Sudan and the issue of zina, which really affects victims there. Waging Peace says:
“While we recognise that international pressure contributed to the Sudanese government amending controversial laws around rape in early 2015, the changes did not go far enough. Formerly, under Article 149 of the Sudanese Criminal Code of 1991, rape was defined as ‘zina’, meaning intercourse outside marriage, without consent. If women or girls reported a rape but could not produce the necessary evidence, including witness statements from four males confirming that the act was ‘without consent’, they would instead be charged with ‘zina’ (adultery), and face being jailed, flogged or stoned to death. The law was changed in 2015 to reflect the fact that rape involves physical or psychological coercion, but Article 62 of the country’s 1994 Evidence Act remains unchanged, meaning four male witnesses are still required in cases of this kind. This places a prohibitive burden of proof on victims of sexual violence.”
It also means that victims still fear that they, not their attackers, will be punished if they reveal what has happened to them. In the context of the renewal of dialogue between the UK and Sudan and with Governments being invited to be involved in the wider Khartoum process, as it is known, there are issues that must be addressed.
If you will allow me, Mr Owen, I want to put in a further plug. One of the key reporters of the mass rape of girls in Darfur is Eric Reeves, who will meet the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan on 7 June, I think—certainly that week. He has called the continuing mass rape of girls in Darfur the “most heinous crime” that “generates no international outrage”. I hope that we can reflect some of that outrage.
The problem does not exist only in Sudan. A recent report by the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust—HART—addresses the issues in South Sudan. It says:
“Some 185,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought refuge in UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites, while around 90 per cent of IDPs are on the run or sheltering outside PoC sites…Nearly one in every three schools in South Sudan has been destroyed, damaged, occupied or closed, impacting on the education of more than 900,000 children, including some 350,000 who have been forced out of school by the conflict.”
Elsewhere in the report is the observation:
“An adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. Does he agree that it is really important that we obtain disaggregated data on young women and girls with disability? They are doubly at risk because of their vulnerability to violence and sexual violence and because they could be left behind.
I fully concur with the hon. Lady. Her point echoes one made in a previous Westminster Hall debate. The issue is not only girls with disabilities, but indigenous people and others who might be marginalised in their society.
I want to read out one more quote from the HART report:
“The overall death toll is unknown. In Leer, Mayendit and Koch counties of Unity State alone, an estimated 1,000 civilians were killed, 1,300 women and girls were raped and 1,600 women and children were abducted from April to September 2015.”
That was not so long ago. The report is aptly titled “They are killing us loudly, but no one is listening”. This debate is an opportunity for us to show that we are listening, and hopefully we will be able to show how we will follow through on the commitments and targets in goal 5.
We must show that we are not just listening but working effectively in support of those women and girls who are confronted by violence and those who are trying to be advocates for them. Let us remember that in many areas women who are active human rights and women’s rights defenders are particularly targeted. Violence and sexual violence are used against them in so many countries. I am sure that other Members will address some of those points in their contributions.
Order. Before I call David T. C. Davies, I should say that a large number of Members have requested to speak in this debate. I do not want to enforce a time limit, but if Members limit their remarks to five minutes, everyone who has requested to speak will be able to do so.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Owen. I will try to comply with your request.
I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for raising this very important issue. I became interested in the subject almost 10 years ago, when I sat on the Home Affairs Committee, which conducted an inquiry into honour killings, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on being one of the people who helped to bring this subject to the forefront.
Over the past 10 years, a lot of moves have been made to raise these very difficult issues, but I am still concerned that not enough action is being taken. We now have strong legislation against female genital mutilation, but I think we have had only one arrest and no convictions whatever. Around six years ago, I spent a lot of time trying to get information out of the Metropolitan police about how many investigations they had carried out. I eventually had to go to the Information Commissioner to find out that, in fact, they had done very little.
We all know that these are difficult issues to raise. There is a reluctance to raise them because of a perception that to do so is in some way racist. I do not accept that at all. I recently met some women of Islamic heritage, if I can put it like that, including Maryam Namazie, who said that one of the problems is that it is racist not to raise these issues. I have particular concerns about attitudes towards women within the Muslim community—not in general, of course, but certainly not enough is being done.
Does my hon. Friend agree that to achieve our goals and to stop the type of abuse he is describing, we need an absolutely massive leap in women’s economic empowerment? Although we have made good progress, there are still far too many glass ceilings that need to be shattered.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I shall mess up my speech a bit now by saying something I was going to say at the end. One of the more respected organisations in the Muslim community in the UK is the Muslim Council of Britain, yet looking at some of the organisations affiliated to it gives rise to a lot of concerns. For example, one affiliated group is the Blackburn Muslim Association—another organisation that is in receipt of public funds. My hon. Friend mentioned women in the workplace; the Blackburn Muslim Association says:
“It is not permissible for a woman to travel a distance exceeding 48 miles without a Husband or a Mahram (those men who can never marry the woman)”—
in other words, a close male relative. It goes on to quote from chapter 74 of the Book of Hajj, and then ends by saying—this is all in English, by the way—that
“it will not be permissible for a woman to travel individually or with a group of women except with a Mahram or her husband, and this ruling applies to any form of travel including the journey for Hajj”.
This is an organisation that is publicly funded and affiliated to allegedly one of the most moderate Muslim groups in Britain saying that a woman should not be able to travel more than 48 miles because, presumably, that is how far a woman would have been able to travel in three days in 7th-century Saudi Arabia. How on earth will we be able to integrate women in the workplace and encourage equality when there are publicly funded organisations putting out such nonsense?
I completely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. All of us elected officials in this Chamber must be wary of community leaders who command airspace and the ear of officialdom and purport to speak—I say this as, I think, the only elected Muslim woman in the room—for the faith of Islam, which is a worldwide religion. We should not give these people who speak in the name of an entire world faith the credence that they have.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Muslim women in London recently pointed out to me that whenever we see these organisations, we always seem to be talking to the men. We are not doing nearly enough to talk to Muslim women. Presumably, there are Muslim women’s organisations, but why are they not at the forefront, and why are women not at the forefront of these other organisations? The hon. Lady is absolutely correct that we need to address that.
Very quickly—I cannot see how long I have been speaking on this clock—[Hon. Members: “Four and a half minutes.”] In that case, very, very quickly, I am extremely concerned about sharia courts, which are spreading across the UK, because sharia law in some ways advocates violence against women and allows beating. I do not suggest that that is going on in the sharia courts that we have at the moment, but unless the people running them are willing to reject that notion absolutely, I have grave concerns about allowing sharia courts to make any judgments in the UK. I am particularly concerned to learn that one High Court judge sits on those courts.
I am also concerned about the rise of the wearing of the veil and the fact that it is going on in schools. I think the veil is a symbol of violence against women. It sends out a message to women that they are property and should not be looked at, and it gives men an excuse. It almost sends out a message that a man has a right to sexually attack an uncovered woman. I know that that happens on only a minority of occasions, although there was a dreadful instance of it in Cologne. The message has to go out to all men in all communities that they have absolutely no right to attack women under any circumstances whatever. The veil gets in the way of that.
There is much more that I could say. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle again. If we cannot get things right in our own country—
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that women have freedom of choice in exercising the right to wear a veil if they want to? The connection that he makes between attacks on women and the wearing of veils is worrying. I feel that he should retract some of those words.
No, it would not be fair to other people. I hope the hon. Lady gets a chance to speak later.
It is vital that we take up the issues that the hon. Member for Foyle spoke about in countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Sudan. If we cannot get things right in our country, and if we are not willing to challenge people in our country about their belief systems, we cannot expect other countries to take notice of us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for making such a coherent and detailed case.
Without doubt, women’s empowerment is crucial to achieving sustainable growth and development across the world, so we need to address that issue. According to the UN, more than one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly from an intimate partner. As my party’s equalities spokesman, I am very happy to contribute to this debate. The hon. Gentleman referred to goal 5, on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. That is exactly what I am going to speak about, and I will give a few examples.
The Home Office has published its refreshed strategy for ending violence against women and girls, and it has said that in 2017 a service transformation fund will be launched to encourage new approaches. It is most welcome that the Government are taking this issue seriously and are taking action but, as the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction, we cannot take our eyes off the ball. As I have said previously, it is all too easy to forget those who are thousands of miles away. Sadly, nations such as ours, which have the influence to make a difference, too often turn a blind eye.
Let me give a couple of examples of where equality for women does not exist. I could give dozens if I had the time, but I do not. This is the story of a 12-year-old girl—Kakenya Ntaiya, a member of Kenya’s Maasai tribe:
“When I was 12 years old, my family organized a ceremony to transition my sisters and myself to become women…I was first because I was the oldest. I was told to open my knees, so I opened them. A woman grabbed my clitoris and cut it off. I bled. I fainted. But I am so lucky I am alive, because so many girls die from this.”
She had no idea that the ceremony would include female genital mutilation until after the woman made the cut.
The second story is of a young girl from India. While still a teenager, Monica Singh had the courage to stand up for her rights and to say no to a marriage proposal from an older man. However, she paid a very high price for claiming control of her future. After the rejection, the man tried to intimidate her into marrying him by repeatedly stalking and harassing her on her way home from school. She was just a teenager. One day, the man blocked her path completely. She said:
“Before I knew it, a bucket of acid was thrown on me…All I could feel was searing pain. Ninety per cent of my body had no skin left, and 65 per cent was permanently disfigured. I had to undergo 46 surgeries and be fed through a straw for more than a year of my life.”
When we hear such horror stories from across the world—not film stories, but stories from real life—we cannot fail to be annoyed.
When it comes to sex, no still does not mean no in some parts of the world. In Singapore and India, non-consensual sex within marriage is not a criminal offence and does not constitute rape as long as the wife is above a certain age—15 in India and 13 in Singapore. In Yemen, where child marriage is rife, there is no lower age limit for defining rape in marriage. Laws affecting people’s national identity continue to discriminate against women. In Jordan and Lebanon, a child needs a Jordanian or Lebanese father to automatically gain citizenship; their mother’s nationality is not passed on. Again, that is clear discrimination against women.
There are 46 countries that do not provide legal protection against domestic violence. In Nigeria, it is within a husband’s legal rights to beat his wife for the purpose of correcting her, as long as it does not cause grievous bodily harm. What is grievous bodily harm, if not beating one’s wife? Whether it is done gently—if there is such a thing—or ferociously to the point of drawing blood or breaking bones, it is grievous bodily harm.
A fatwa imposed in 1990 makes Saudi Arabia the only country in the world in which women are forbidden to drive. Although a fatwa is not an official law, it is a religious declaration that carries the authority of law and imposes strict modes of behaviour. There are more female fighter jet pilots in neighbouring Jordan than women who can drive in Saudi Arabia—that is a fact. Saudi Arabia’s recent progress on women’s rights offers some hope. Saudi women were allowed to vote in municipal elections, and 19 women gained seats in local authorities—a landmark moment in the country’s recent history. We have to be mindful of the need to respect sovereignty, but the international community has to come together to address this issue and put deserved pressure on Administrations, wherever they are in the world, to abandon such blatantly sexist legislation. Sadly, that is not even the tip of the iceberg. We have barely scratched the surface, although we will do so in this debate.
I will conclude on this point, because I want to keep to my five minutes. There needs to be pressure from a co-ordinated international effort to confine such blatantly sexist laws to the history books. We must condemn practices such as FGM and acid attacks. We have a lot to do, but this House can take a stand today. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing this debate, and I thank the men who have come to speak. It is very important that men speak up for women; it is great to see that.
I had the pleasure of representing this country at the United Nations negotiations at which the sustainable development goals were agreed. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for International Development, who has consistently pushed for a strong and explicit commitment to empowering girls and women and achieving gender equality. The SDGs are universal, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. We have to think about what that means for us here. There is no room for complacency. I pay tribute to ActionAid for its excellent Fearless campaign, which draws attention to the fact that this phenomenon affects countries worldwide, including the UK.
According to Home Office figures, up to 3 million women and girls in our country experience rape, domestic violence, stalking and other forms of violence every year. I set up a charity in my constituency to help the victims of domestic violence, so I can testify to the fact that it is very difficult to raise funds for that cause. We were able to provide a 24-hour counselling service with the help of volunteers. It was only then that I realised that domestic violence is no respecter of class or religion. It cuts across the whole community in every one of our constituencies. I also pay tribute to the fact that the popular media have done well in drawing attention to the fact that this happens everywhere, all around us and far too often.
I found it shocking that, when 18 to 25-year-olds were polled by MORI about their attitudes to violence in girl-boy relationships, one in five young men said they thought it is normal. Even more disturbingly, one in nine girls thought that violence is a normal part of girl-boy relationships. That set me on the course, with the charity, of trying to prevent that attitude from persisting in our society. We supported a charitable project called Keep Cool to teach youngsters at the top of primary school, before they move on to secondary school, that violence is not a normal part of relationships. Sadly, the funding for it no longer exists, so, through the good offices of the Minister present, I ask the Government to look at preventing the prevalence of acceptance of violence in our society.
Something that hon. Members might not know is where the phrase “rule of thumb” comes from. It has been said to come from a law of 1861 that allowed a man to beat a woman with a stick as long as it was no wider than a thumb. Luckily, it has been repealed, but it shows how accepted that was in our society, and how hard we need to continue to work to eradicate such acceptance.
The domestic violence statistics have remained stubbornly and depressingly high: sadly, two women and two children a week die as a result of domestic violence. I am using this opportunity for us to reflect on what the sustainable development goals mean for us, although of course I recognise that right around the world many women—many very poor women—are in a difficult position, in violent and abusive relationships.
On the brighter side, I commend the work of many British-registered charities in empowering women. Through Tearfund, I saw at first hand, in Bangladesh, how female garment workers are being empowered by mobile banking to return their wages to the homes and communities that they come from, without the middleman taking a cut, resulting in the transformation of those villages through solar power and sanitation, and in the opportunity for many of their siblings and families to secure an education.
As key decisions about the future funding of DFID’s key priorities approach, as part of the upcoming civil society partnership review, donor leaders such as the UK can prioritise and target resources effectively to help to end violence against women and girls. I strongly recommend that we do.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on bringing the debate to the House today. He said, rightly, that we should be listening, and raising our voice. I want to highlight in the UK Parliament the continuing plight of the Nigerian female students abducted by Boko Haram. I want to talk briefly about the specificity of the crime, which is worth narrating, and, more broadly, about violence against girls, in particular in education.
Simon Schama, the historian, wrote well when he stated:
“Education, the idea of teaching our children something other than the parroting of sacred texts, has become a target.”
That is not only aimed at girls, but they are a particular focus for radical Islamists.
On the night of 14 to 15 April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the government secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno state, Nigeria. Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by Boko Haram, an extremist and terrorist organisation based in north-eastern Nigeria. Over the next few months, 57 of the schoolgirls managed to escape, but the 219 remaining girls are still missing and have now been away from their families for 744 days, subjected to God knows what at the hands of the terrorists. On 14 April this year, a video was obtained showing 15 of the hostages in black robes. It was the first time they had been seen since May 2014. It is widely believed that the girls, who have forcefully been denied their education, are being held as a negotiating tool.
The wonderfully brave and inspirational Malala Yousafzai, who fled the Taliban in Pakistan, which wanted to deny her an education, came to learn in the great city of Birmingham. She wrote an open letter to the parents of the missing Nigerian girls on the second anniversary of their kidnapping:
“I write this letter with a heavy heart, knowing you have endured another year separated from your daughters…As I did last year, I call on President Buhari of Nigeria—and everyone who can help rescue the Chibok girls—to act now...Parents, thank you for having the courage to send your daughters to school. My dream is that one day they will come home, finish their education and choose their futures for themselves.”
I congratulate the Minister on his joint statement with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), on the two-year anniversary of the kidnapping of the girls. I urge him to ensure that, when we are, rightly, involved in bilateral aid for Nigeria, we impress on the Nigerians the need to use their military and intelligence to rescue the girls. Concerns have been expressed, in particular by United States officials, that the President is more focused on fighting political opponents than on fighting Boko Haram.
Will the Minister tell us what our Government are doing to ensure that the Nigerian Government focus on securing the release of the Chibok girls? Will he call on the Government of Nigeria to release the report of the investigation panel into the abduction of the Chibok girls? Will he also ensure that the British Government step up support for the Safe Schools initiative in Nigeria, set up in the wake of the Chibok kidnappings by a coalition of inspired Nigerian business leaders working with the UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, the Global Business Coalition for Education and A World at School?
The issue does not affect girls only. We have seen assaults on education by radical Islamist forces with a fear of enlightenment, autonomy and learning—a rancid assault on education and reading—which began with the Beslan school siege, when hundreds of young boys and girls were slaughtered by radical Islamists; we saw it in the assault on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the butchering of young boys who wanted to learn; and we have seen it with the Chibok girls.
My message is that the UK Parliament has not forgotten the 219 missing girls. As parliamentarians, we want to give our full support to UK Ministers pressing the Nigerian Government to do everything that they can to secure the girls’ release, so that they may fulfil their rights under the United Nations to an education and to autonomy.
I give credit to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing the debate. I, too, state my support for the ActionAid campaign to tackle violence against women and girls around the world.
We all in this Chamber long to nurture an environment in which everyone is empowered to live full and active lives, but more than one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly inflicted by an intimate partner, according to the UN. That is a scourge of society and I welcome every effort to achieve positive social change that will help all women of all ages.
Empowering women is crucial to achieving sustainable growth and development throughout the world. So much effort, as we know, is put into achieving that. Women have a right to be heard, but as we have heard already, so many girls and women in the world are silenced by violence and intimidation. We have no time to lose, and we must give greater support to organisations and to the networks established to ensure that the voices of women are heard.
Of the 17 sustainable development goals, I want to focus on SDG 5, which states:
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.
The goals are a wonderful set of agreements, but it will be a huge challenge to achieve all of them. SDG 5, in particular, would be a wonderful thing for the global population to achieve—gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Within the goal are nine targets, including:
“End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere”,
“Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”
Following the landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015, we must continue to break the supply chains that lead to the abuse of trafficked victims. We must ensure that the victims of trafficking are properly identified when they come into contact with public authorities and agencies. We must ensure that those authorities and agencies have the resources and training to enable such women to rebuild their lives and to support them as they re-enter society, giving them confidence.
I welcome the Government’s recently published strategy for the period from 2016 to 2020 to end violence against women and girls. However, a strategy is of worth only if there are robust tools in place to check progress regularly and hold to account all those responsible for delivering the goals that have been set. If we are to stamp out the violence we are concerned about, we need national and international bodies to pay continual close attention to the strategy to protect and empower women and girls. The Secretary of State for International Development spoke on 11 March about the urgency of the fight. We must systematically challenge the terrible harm being done to women and girls.
A key starting point must be to take a stronger lead about making any violence, discrimination and emotional abuse of women and girls socially unacceptable, in the UK and around the world. We must not tolerate any behaviour that is aimed at crushing and devaluing women. There is much to be done, and some may feel that the task is too great. I do not accept that, and I am encouraged that through the efforts of ActionAid we are discussing the challenge today. I recognise that there is a massive task ahead. It is a huge challenge to provide safety and opportunity for women and girls around the world, but I join those in this Chamber, and the UK Government, in making a commitment to do all I can to achieve that target.
Having done so several times before, I know what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate and on a thoughtful and perhaps shocking speech. The issue of violence against women is a question of fundamental human rights, and the prominence given to women’s empowerment in the UN sustainable development goals is absolutely correct. The focus of the fifth goal for development around the globe—after poverty, food, health and education —is women. The UN recognises and acknowledges the positive effect that women’s rights, safety, gender equality and empowerment will have on all its other goals. Yet I believe that the Government have not given adequate support to women in crisis.
I want today to raise the issue facing a particular group of women, who are being let down even more than the average victim of violence in the home. Last week the investigative journalism platform “The Ferret” published a report subsequently covered in the national press, with three linked pieces focusing on Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Each contained strong case studies demonstrating how badly the system has let down women with insecure immigration status who experience domestic abuse. I want to add my voice to those of lawyers, psychologists, campaigners, journalists and leading human rights experts, including the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They are all calling on the Government to take action to stop the lives of refugee women who are fleeing domestic violence being put at risk. As the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said, if we cannot get things right in our own country, where can we get them right?
The primary issue is that women who experience domestic violence and who have insecure immigration status are being discriminated against in access to protection and safety. By insecure immigration status, I mean women who are asylum seekers or women who have the legal right to remain but no recourse to public funds, such as women who have joined refugee husbands through family reunion. They do not have access to refuges because they cannot get housing benefit, on account of their immigration status. In some cases, lawyers are advising them to stay in violent relationships. They give that advice because Home Office guidelines state that women must be able to prove that they are experiencing violence for that to be taken into account. The Glasgow-based Legal Services Agency has a women’s project, which has supported 45 such women in the last year. Sarah Crawford, one of its lawyers, questions how women can provide proof. She says that
“the amount of evidence required is overwhelming particularly for a vulnerable woman who has been abused”.
The women have a choice. They can stay and be beaten, and often raped, or they can face life literally on the streets. Are those really the only choices we can offer them? Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid and the UK’s expert on the European Women’s Lobby Observatory on Violence against Women, calls the situation a “bureaucratic form of torture,” which
“re-victimises women and puts them in great danger.”
Nina Murray, of the Scottish Refugee Council, goes further:
“Sooner or later someone else is going to be seriously harmed, or even killed, because we have failed to ensure that there is adequate protection there.”
To keep within the time limits on speeches, I will not speak as I planned to do about any particular women. We have all heard the stories. Some of us have worked with women in situations of the kind I have mentioned, and some may have personal experience; we know who we are talking about. The Home Office does have a policy on responding to reports of domestic abuse from women it accommodates, but campaigners have been seeking a review of that for more than two years, because it is inadequate and applies only to certain women. The Home Office has accepted the inadequacy of the policy: in February 2015 it completed a consultation with refugee organisations as well as those working on combating violence against women. The consensus among all of them was that asylum-seeking women who report domestic violence should have access to mainstream domestic abuse services—refuges and all the support that they entail. The Home Office indicated acceptance of that, but today, 14 months later, it is still considering its response.
I have some questions to ask. I realise that the Minister who is responding to the debate cannot answer them all. However, perhaps he can help us to get answers. The shocking case studies in the media report that I referred to illustrate an unacceptable safety gap for particular groups of women. How can the Government possibly justify that? How is what I have spoken about today compatible with the Home Secretary’s violence against women and girls action plan and the Government’s stated intention to ratify the Istanbul convention? Will the Minister ask the Home Secretary to lead a rapid review of the Government’s arrangements for protecting those women survivors of domestic abuse and report her conclusions swiftly to Parliament, so that what we have heard about today will not be repeated?
No woman, man or child should have to live with violence in their home. There are question marks over funding for refuges for victims of domestic violence in some parts of the UK, but there is no question about entitlement. All victims, we all agree, should be and are entitled to support and protection and the right to be protected from violence—all, that is, apart from the women I have been speaking about today. I congratulate the journalists who carried out the investigations on behalf of “The Ferret”, and in particular Karin Goodwin. They have done their profession proud. Now it is our turn in this place to do our profession proud. As soon as possible we must do something to put an end to the discrimination and to women having to live in terror in their homes.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for finishing. The Front-Bench speakers have agreed to curtail the time they will take, and there are three other Members who want to speak. One made a request in writing and I will call him first. If Members take about three and a half minutes each, we will be able to hear them and the Front Benchers, and protect the Minister’s time.
I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate. I also congratulate ActionAid on its excellent Fearless campaign, and on asking so many of us to apply for the debate and attend it. The only problem, as you have outlined, Mr Owen, is that clearly the time given to the debate is completely inadequate. It should have had at least three hours and possibly, given the importance of the issue and the number of hon. Members present, a six-hour debate in the main Chamber. That is something we may consider.
To all the ActionAid campaigners I want to say that campaigning works. I say that as a former campaigner, and it is nice to see it happening, and to see the number of people here. The turnout shows how passionately Members across the House care about the issue. There is no denying that the sustainable development goals have the power to change the world as we believe it should be changed, but that requires politicians from around the world to adopt them, take them seriously and be accountable for their progress. We in Parliament accept that, and we must work with parliamentarians and Governments around the world to achieve that change.
In the limited time I have I will briefly remind the House of the types of violence that scar humanity and the world. Violence by an intimate partner remains the most common. Global surveys suggest that half of women who die in acts of homicide are killed by their current or former husband or partner. That is a shocking statistic and I am proud to wear the white ribbon, the badge of a worldwide campaign of men standing up against violence against women. In terms of the horror of sexual violence in conflict, the fact that rape is still frequently used as a tactic of war is shocking. I pay tribute to the previous Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague of Richmond, for the work he did in making that issue a focus of the Department. We were showing global leadership on that, and we have to keep pressing it.
Female genital mutilation has been mentioned. While we have been strong on that, rightly, in this country, the reality is that between 130 million and 140 million women and girls today are believed to have undergone that horrific form of sexual abuse. Three million girls—including, shockingly, 137,000 girls here in the UK—are still at risk of it every year.
So-called honour killings remain a problem, including, I am sorry to say, in this country. That must be stamped out. I pay tribute to the amazing Karma Nirvana charity, based in Headingley, which does wonderful work. I know there was a ministerial visit to that charity recently. There are also appalling risks for women who are victims of modern slavery and trafficking. I pay tribute to the Palm Cove Society, also based in Headingley, for the work it does.
I have only managed to touch on a few things, but I hope we can debate this further, because it is clear how seriously we take this issue here.
Thank you, Mr Owen; I will try to be as quick as possible. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on leading this debate. I have spoken with him a number of times in different debates on this issue, and it is always a privilege to speak after him. I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that the issue requires a longer debate on the Floor of the House; I am happy to join him in that call.
In a debate on the implementation of the sustainable development goals a couple of weeks ago, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), responded—very eloquently, as ever—and was quite clear that we should hold back and wait for the response. The Government are doing great things in introducing the 0.7% international aid target, and a report will be produced later in the year.
Since then, as the Minister who is present is aware, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), has given evidence to the Select Committee on International Development. As a member of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities, my interest in this debate focuses on sustainable development goal 5. Our Committee’s visit to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations a couple of weeks ago was one of the most eye-opening things I have done in my life.
At the International Development Committee, my right hon. Friend was quite clear that there is cross-party support on sustainable consumption, and he therefore believes progress can be made. He said that there are already a number of programmes, such as the troubled families programme, and others through which Britain is leading the way on sustainable development.
I was pleased to hear that a report is due to be published later in the year that will outline the Government’s position on co-operation between Departments in implementing the SDGs and on specific SDGs that Departments seek to address. However, further details of departmental co-operation will not be released in that report, and there will be no new body, committee or group of MPs to monitor progress. It would be good to find out the view of those in the Department for International Development on that point.
I must ask the Minister how he feels the Department will fit into the new structure outlined by my right hon. Friend at the Select Committee. It was intimated that the Prime Minister is responsible for international implementation and the Cabinet Office for domestic implementation. We are thus now not necessarily aware of where the Department for International Development sits in the wider scheme of things. I hope the Minister will use this opportunity to answer that question. As he knows, our responsibility as parliamentarians in the Women and Equalities Committee is to hold the Government’s feet to the fire in relation to goal 5 and ensure that we implement a strong strategy at international and domestic levels. Given that response, what can we do in our Committee to ensure we hold the Government to account on that specific point? I will end my speech there, due to the time.
I am pleased to participate in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for bringing this matter to our attention.
The level of physical and sexual violence perpetrated by men against women and girls across the world is simply staggering. Such violence does not respect national boundaries. That is not to say the extent of violence is the same in every country or that the mechanisms to tackle it are the same; that is clearly not the case. However, it is clear and unambiguous that such violence is endemic in many parts of the world. It is a daily act—it is routine in the most sickening way. For some women and girls it is virtually a way of life. It is administered by both individuals and patriarchal institutions. In some cultures, it is not simply tolerated but positively encouraged and endorsed.
The nature and extent of the violence are shocking. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study of global homicide revealed that 119 women are killed every day by an intimate partner or family member, and that is likely to be a significant underestimate. Between 100 million and 140 million girls and women have been subjected to female genital mutilation. As many as 70 million girls worldwide have been married before the age of 18, many of them against their will, and 150 million girls are sexually assaulted every year at or on their way to school.
Whenever and wherever violence is perpetrated by men against women and girls, in whatever fashion or form, it must be stopped. It should not and cannot be tolerated, nor should religious belief, cultural norms or expectations be used as an excuse or reason for its continuance. There must be no room for doubt or manoeuvre, no shilly-shallying and no ifs or buts. Quite simply, it must be eradicated.
We support campaigns to eradicate polio, malaria, hepatitis and many other diseases, so why not violence? Paradoxically, those in a position to help stop this violence are women themselves, but they must be empowered, encouraged and helped to do that with resources that, for example, assist women’s support organisations. That is not my prescription; I am not imaginative enough to think of that, but ActionAid is. It has indicated that:
“Women’s rights organisations have long been at the forefront of the fight to end violence—from providing life-saving services, raising women’s voices, to holding governments to account for their policies and practices.”
ActionAid, which I must thank for its briefing, highlighted a study across 70 countries over four decades that found the mobilisation of independent women’s rights organisations to be the single most effective way to tackle violence.
I will finish on this. As the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), suggested, the Government should grasp the opportunity presented by the civil society partnership review and the bilateral and multilateral reviews to put much more much-needed resource into this policy area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing this debate? This is an important issue for all of us, as evidenced by the fantastic turnout. Indeed, a number of my constituents have taken the time to write to me personally to make their feelings on this matter clear. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party.
As we have heard, one in three women and girls across the world will be victims of physical and sexual violence at some point their lives. Such atrocities know no borders; they are committed within our communities, throughout our country and across continents each and every day. It is right therefore that the international community comes together and works in a common endeavour to eradicate violence and discrimination in all its forms and to secure equality for women and girls in every corner of the globe. The UN sustainable development goals are an opportunity for countries the world over to come together and change the course of the 21st century.
I apologise for my late arrival and early departure. Will my hon. Friend welcome the commitment made by the Scottish Government, and particularly the First Minister, to women’s equality and early adoption of the sustainable development goals and the leadership that that shows?
I do, wholeheartedly. I was going to mention that, but I have cut my speech down due to time, so I welcome that intervention.
We have an opportunity to tackle the entrenched problems that afflict our world, such as poverty, inequality and gender-based violence, and we must seize that opportunity with both hands. In addition to the one in three women who will be victims of physical and sexual violence, 150 million girls across the world will be sexually assaulted at or on their way to school each year. Each and every day, some 159 women die at the hands of a partner or family member in so-called honour killings—killed by the very people that we would expect to care for them the most. It is simply beyond comprehension.
To date, only two thirds of all countries have outlawed domestic violence and only 52 countries have explicitly criminalised rape within marriage. We live in a world where human trafficking, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation and forced and child marriages still prevail. Throughout the world, 133 million women have been victim to the abhorrent practice of FGM and, sadly, millions of women and girls will be forced into marriages with men against their will.
There is absolutely no defence for these demeaning acts or disgraceful attitudes. The fact that violence against women is more prevalent in some other countries underlines the importance of the UK fulfilling its vital part on the world stage in this matter. At every opportunity, we must tell these countries, whether friend or foe, that violence against women and girls should never be committed and must never be condoned.
Needless to say, it is clear that the problem before us represents a significant challenge—but it is a problem that we cannot shy away from and a challenge that we must undertake to eliminate together, because behind the depressing statistics are many devastating stories, some of which we have heard today. Although the sustainable development goals cut across a diverse range of areas—from equality and education to the economy and the environment—we simply cannot succeed in a number of those areas without confronting the violence that is sadly perpetrated against women and girls throughout the world.
I am sure that Members from across the House will be pleased to hear that earlier this month, the Bulgarian Government decided that Bulgaria would be the latest state to sign the Istanbul convention. The Istanbul convention places an obligation on Governments to put appropriate measures in place to prevent violence against women in all its forms, protect victims and to prosecute perpetrators.
The UK Government signed the Istanbul convention in 2012; however, it has failed to ratify it to date. In January 2014, the Prime Minister stated that the treaty would be ratified in the “next few months”, yet here we are, almost two and a half years later, and the Government have yet to fulfil their promise. Ratifying the convention will send a strong message to the international community about the world that we seek to build and the improvements that we wish to make. The UK can—and should—lead by example on the issue of violence against women. We have been told for two years that the delay is due to an issue with extraterritoriality. In summing up, will the Minister tell us the latest on ratification and about any discussion between Home Office and Justice Ministers and their devolved counterparts?
As I stated, women and girls have an important role to play in all the sustainable development goals, because many of the 17 goals have female equality and empowerment at their heart. Therefore, ending gender-based violence and discrimination are preconditions for meeting many of the goals. Just as women have an important role to play in achieving the sustainable development goals, so too do men. White Ribbon is a global campaign that encourages men to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. The work of White Ribbon and other similar groups is invaluable and shows that men are able and willing to rise to the challenge of eradicating violence and discrimination against women and girls. That being said, Mr Owen, you, the mover of the motion and three Members summing up this debate are all men, so perhaps we are a tad over-represented today.
Finally, I commend the hon. Member for Foyle again on securing this debate and all the hon. Members who have attended it and spoken. Politics in Westminster is known to sometimes produce more heat than light. I believe, however, that a rare consensus has emerged today as we debate this important issue.
Beyond this Chamber, there is now growing consensus and support among international organisations, that to achieve the SDGs by 2030, investment in the work of women’s rights organisations is central to the implementation of this ambitious agenda. Such organisations are vital in attempting to tackle violence against women and girls. However, they are poorly resourced, receiving just under 1% of total UK aid for gender equality. The Scottish National party supports ActionAid in its calls for DFID to support and increase funding to grassroots women’s rights organisations working on the front line to promote gender equality and tackle violence. Will the Minister give a commitment to do that today?
We have a duty to never shirk nor shun an opportunity to end such violence and discrimination, and to secure equality and empower women and girls wherever they live throughout the world. Be in no doubt that, although that will not be simple or straightforward, the prize for it is a world that is less hungry and more healthy, more equal and more educated, safer and more secure, and more free and fair—indeed, the best of all possible worlds for women and girls to grow up and live in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for securing this very important debate and add my thanks to ActionAid for its continuing fearless efforts in this very important area. Violence against women and girls is truly deplorable and I applaud the Government’s efforts thus far to address the issue. Hon. Members from across the House have made excellent contributions today. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to speak about them all, but I will come on to one or two during my contribution.
Let us be clear that we face a huge undertaking. Awareness of violence against women and girls has grown considerably in recent years. I welcome the Government’s efforts to increase that awareness. I also recognise that the UK has often been at the forefront of raising the issue, as a key player not only in the development of the SDG, but in the girl summit 2014 and the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. However, the UN General Assembly says, and it is absolutely right, that violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations. One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which is an alarming statistic. Alongside that, 150 million girls under 18 experience some form of sexual violence; 80% of trafficked people are women, with the vast majority being trafficked for sexual exploitation; and the most common victims of conflict around the world are women and girls.
The UN has identified a variety of factors that are responsible for the increasing occurrences of violence against women and girls: poor education, economic inequality, community gender biases and proximity to conflict are just a few. Conversely, better education, later marital ages, gender equality and economic autonomy for women help to reduce violence. It is therefore clear that the Government need to focus their attention on boosting protective factors while minimising risk factors. Tackling this violence needs much more than just financial assistance. Factors such as gender inequality, impunity for offenders and insufficient data create the environment in which violence can take place.
The challenge is huge, of course, and there is significant work to do for the SDGs to be achieved and for the UK to implement them. That is why I am concerned that the Government have yet to issue a single, unified action plan and strategy for how the SDGs, and within them, the goal of tackling violence against women and girls both at home and abroad, will be implemented by the Government. Without the publication of that strategy, there will be considerable difficulties with transparency, and not having sufficient guidelines could hinder the implementation of the measures that would have the greatest success. I note that the Select Committee on International Development is leading an inquiry into how the SDGs are being implemented and I look forward to the publication of that report, as, I am sure, does the Minister.
It is also important to mention the millennium development goals. Although they were not as extensive as the SDGs with regards to women and girls, I believe that the UK’s work on them holds considerable lessons that will be invaluable in going forward on the SDGs. We should learn those lessons and go into the SDGs a little wiser. I recognise that DFID has included analysis in its annual reports and accounts, but that is not substantial enough. I therefore press the Minister for an answer on whether the Government will issue a single authoritative report on the UK’s contribution to meeting the MDGs.
Ultimately, I have several concerns about how DFID will be able to achieve success in reducing violence against women and girls. This is a challenge on an extraordinary scale and, without measures to address inhibiting factors, we cannot make sufficient progress. I am also concerned that, without a single unified strategy on the SDGs’ implementation, DFID will not have the necessary guidelines for its work, causing the goals to suffer. The lack of strategy and unification across Government already appears to be causing difficulties, with a divergence existing between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and DFID in work to address sexual violence in conflict. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on how DFID is working with those other Departments to create a unified strategy in this area.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate you on getting all hon. Members in. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on creating the opportunity for so many hon. Members of both sexes and from all parts of the kingdom to come here to put on the record and reassert the priority that this House attaches to tackling this incredibly important issue.
One of my most powerful experiences as a young Member of Parliament was listening to a young mother telling me how her life had disintegrated under the weight of systematic domestic violence. It has never left me, so I am delighted that this debate has rammed home the point that violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations worldwide.
The fact that, as we understand it, one in three women globally is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime is totally unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) was right in saying that we must never allow that to be considered normal. It is absolutely unacceptable wherever it takes place. We continue to have a very substantive problem in the UK and there may well be safety gaps that we need to be forensic about, whether it is sexual violence, intimate partner violence, so-called honour killings, female genital mutilation, rape as a weapon of war or child marriage.
As well as being a gross violation, violence again women and girls is fundamentally an issue of human rights and it would be enough to consider it simply in that context. It has not come through in this debate, but we should also recognise that it restricts opportunity by holding people back and limiting the potential of individuals, families, communities and economies in multiple ways. Girls who experience violence are less likely to complete their education and are at increased risk of dying when giving birth. Women and girls suffering from the health consequences of violence are less able to earn a living, which prevents families from escaping poverty.
No country can achieve sustained economic development if half its population is locked out of economic opportunities. World Bank data on the economic costs of intimate partner violence alone suggest that it accounts for a loss of 1% to 2% of GDP in many countries. So tackling violence is vital if we are to protect women’s rights and address poverty. It is also vital if we are to help to deliver the global goals and to play our part as a country in helping to shape a fairer, more prosperous world. That goes completely with the grain of British values, but is absolutely in our national interest. This agenda matters enormously, and the Chamber wants to know whether the UK is pulling its weight.
I am relatively new to this agenda. I do not lead on it in DFID. The Secretary of State does that superbly with Baroness Verma. When I assess the evidence I am proud of the role we have played so far, but there is zero room for complacency. There is a case for saying that Britain has been a global leader in tackling violence against women. That leadership can be seen in the priority we attach to it in our programming at DFID. Since 2012, we have doubled the number of programmes that address violence against women and girls. We currently have 127 programmes across 29 countries. In 23 programmes where the absolute priority is to focus entirely on this agenda, the funding commitment has been £184 million of taxpayers’ money since 2010. So there has been leadership in making this a priority within programming and in our commitment to advance our knowledge through research and development, as in our world-leading research and innovation fund, which is drawing together experts across the globe to test ideas and produce rigorous evidence on how to prevent violence. That will be a global public good, helping countries, Governments, donors and non-governmental organisations everywhere to address violence and to get the most from every penny spent on prevention.
We have a strong agenda about leaving no one behind, so our leadership also means reaching the most vulnerable, including women and girls living with disabilities, a point that was raised earlier. To give just one example, DFID is working with the United Nations and civil society groups to improve access to justice in Zimbabwe, specifically for girls and women with disabilities who have experienced violence. This process is hard enough for survivors to go through without the additional barriers that people with a disability face.
British leadership can also be seen in our absolute determination to improve access to justice. The UK is supporting Physicians for Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help women and girls who have experienced sexual violence to access justice. One physician said that
“this team work was not being done before...But they trained us together with police officers, magistrates, lawyers and now we understand that the collection of proofs regarding forensic data needed all of us to work together.”
In fact, over the last five years, UK aid has helped to improve access to justice for more than 10 million women and girls globally, which is a staggering achievement that I am very proud of.
Our leadership also means preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in humanitarian crises, not least in Sudan and South Sudan. Some people thought that policy area was too hard or not important enough to be a priority, but since 2012 we have invested around six times the previous amount in this area. For example, in the Syria response, UK support is providing specialist assistance to those affected by sexual and gender-based violence. That includes clinical care, case management and counselling. Our leadership has meant tackling issues where others were afraid to take them on, or felt they were too private a matter for a public forum—issues such as FGM, child marriage and domestic violence, both at home and overseas.
During the debate, hon. Members have pressed the Government to work more closely together. We are doing that on these issues more than ever before, including on the new Home Office-led ending violence against women and girls strategy, which brings together a set of actions in our efforts in the UK and internationally.
I am proud that we are the largest donor on female genital mutilation, investing £35 million across 17 countries over five years, alongside a £12 million programme in Sudan. Our programme to end child marriage, along with other donor support, will reach more than 2.5 million girls, giving them greater choice and control over their future. We can and should be incredibly proud of the UK’s contribution to these agendas. This is not just about spending or development programmes; it is about advocacy and using the full range of the UK’s assets to influence others to protect and to progress women’s and girls’ rights. I am delighted that cross-party this debate has recognised the work by many ministerial colleagues, not least Lord Hague and my Secretary of State, but Baroness Verma as our ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls and Baroness Anelay as our special representative on preventing sexual violence and conflict. Through them, we can drive action on the international stage and support it at national level.
There is British leadership not just in Government, but through our civil society networks.
Does the Minister agree that sustainable development goal 5 cannot be seen in isolation and that the contribution of goal 4 on education for all is crucial to reducing violence against women and girls? Will he commend the Global Campaign for Education and its Send my Friend to School and Send my Sister to School campaigns?
I agree with my hon. Friend and place on record my support for and congratulations on those campaigns, which are symptomatic of some of the powerful work by civil society to support and to challenge the Government in this respect. As a former Minister for Civil Society, I defer to no one in my admiration for that effort. We have invested in many new programmes working with grassroots women’s rights organisations in the past 18 months.
On the call for the creation of a new fund, we do not think that a new fund is the best value-for-money option. There is a strong case for supporting existing funds so they can draw on existing expertise and networks, and make the most of the economies of scale.
I want to give the last word to the sponsor of this debate. I will do my best to ensure that those who raised specific points receive substantive replies in writing. I close by placing on the record the absolute determination of the Department for International Development and the rest of the Government to sustain the leadership that Britain has shown on this agenda.
I thank everyone who has spoken. We have heard about the issue from so many different angles and with so many different accents. That is hugely important. As others have said, we need to take the matter further and to debate it for longer. Our task is to keep narrowing the gap between what is and what ought to be until we close it and eradicate it.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of ambulatory care.
I will start by referring to the NHS England publication that prompted me to call for the debate. NHS England has recently published a multi-agency quick guide and supporting information to support local health and social care systems to reduce the time that people spend in hospital. It acknowledges that people’s physical and mental ability and independence can decline in a hospital bed. For people aged 80 and over, 10 days in hospital equates to 10 years of muscle wasting. The report therefore recommends that people should seek to make decisions about their long-term care outside hospital and preferably in their own home or in a bed where their true long-term needs are understood.
The report was prepared not by the Government, but by the emergency care improvement programme of NHS England. It adds to the overwhelming clinical evidence that this approach is by far the best way of proceeding. The report goes on to say that care at home enables people to live independently and well in their preferred environment for longer. It contains checklists of questions for patients and commissioners to achieve that situation.
I am immensely encouraged by that, as it is on that basis that the number of beds has been worked out at Townlands hospital in Henley and the answer of up to 14 initially has been reached. Those beds are to be associated with the hospital, but in the care home at the side of the hospital. It is reassuring to know that we are at the forefront of current thinking and action. This approach is supported by organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society and clinicians throughout the NHS. It is the right way to proceed and in the best interests of the whole community.
Before I continue, I should probably say what ambulatory care is, besides what I have just described. Ambulatory care is medical care provided on an out-patient basis. It includes diagnosis, observation, consultation, treatment, intervention and rehabilitation services. This care can include advanced medical technology and procedures, the costs of which should not be underestimated. Under this new care model, outlined in the NHS five year forward view, GP group practices would expand and include nurses, community health services and, in particular, social workers. Those practices would shift the majority of out-patient consultations and ambulatory care to out-of-hospital settings.
Let us consider the effects of hospitalisation. For many older persons, hospitalisation results in functional decline despite cure or repair of the condition that took them into hospital in the first place. Hospitalisation can result in complications unrelated to the problem that caused admission or to its specific treatment, for reasons that are explainable and avoidable. Age is often associated with a number of functional changes—which I am sure you and I, Mr Owen, have no experience of at this stage in our lives—including reductions in muscle strength and aerobic capacity; diminished pulmonary ventilation; altered sensory confidence, appetite and thirst; and a tendency towards urinary incontinence, which I am not saying any of us suffer from.
Hospitalisation and bed rest superimpose factors such as enforced immobilisation, reduction of plasma volume, accelerated bone loss, increased closing volumes and sensory deprivation. Any of those factors may thrust vulnerable older persons into a state of irreversible functional decline, so hospitalisation is a major risk for them. I am talking particularly about the very old. For many, hospitalisation is followed by an often irreversible decline in functional status and a change in quality and style of life.
A recent US study showed that of 60 functionally independent individuals aged 75 or older who were admitted to hospital from their home for acute illness, 75% were no longer independent on discharge. That included 15% who were discharged to nursing homes.
By intervening, I am not of course in any way suggesting that my hon. Friend needs to take the weight off his feet after that sad list of symptoms. He is rightly concentrating on the needs and degeneration of older people who go into hospital, but does he agree that ambulatory care is also important for younger people? In our local general hospital, the Horton, there is a marvellous new children’s out-patient service, which is used by both his constituents and mine. Does he agree that that is a centrally important part of the offer of that hospital, which provides acute in-patient care as well as the out-patient care on the side?
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to have a rest and to make the most of that time—as I get older, I need that. I do agree with her; she makes a very valid point. I am concentrating on older people because traditionally that is where the population who have used the hospital in Henley have come from. I think that in the past year only one was under 55. But as I said, my hon. Friend makes a very valid point.
In many cases, the decline that people experience cannot be attributed to the progression of the acute problem for which they were hospitalised in the first place. An example is pneumonia. Even if the disease is cured in a few days or, indeed, if a hip fracture repair is technically perfect and uncomplicated, the patient may never return to the same functional status as they had before they went into hospital.
According to the US study, between 30% and 60% of patients with hip fractures are discharged from the hospital to nursing homes; 20% to 30% of those persons are still residing in nursing homes one year later. Only 20% of one large group of patients returned to their pre-operative functional level after a hip fracture repair.
Many hospitalised patients have difficulty implementing their habitual strategies to avoid incontinence. The environment is unfamiliar. The path to the toilet may not be clear. The high bed may be intimidating. The bed rail becomes an absolute barrier, and the various “tethers”, such as intravenous lines, nasal oxygen lines and catheters, become restraining harnesses. About 40% to 50% of hospitalised persons over the age of 65 are incontinent within a few days of hospitalisation. A high percentage of hospitalised older persons discharged to nursing homes never return to their homes or community. In one study, 55% of persons over the age of 65 who entered nursing homes remained for more than a year. Many of the others were discharged to other hospitals or long-term care facilities, or simply died. The outcome for many hospitalised elders is loss of home and, ultimately, loss of place.
It is most important that relationships among physicians, nurses and other health professionals reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the whole of this process. In particular, I am a great enthusiast for the integration of the NHS with social care. That needs to move ahead very quickly to give the clinicians the responsibility for commissioning the social care that is required. Maintaining wellness and independence in the community prevents conditions deteriorating and therefore results in better health outcomes. Emergency hospital admissions are distressing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this very important issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. Over the past five years in Northern Ireland, category A ambulance call-outs have increased by 30.9%. It is a devolved matter, but it does indicate a greater dependence on and need for ambulance responses. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts about the best way to ensure that the ambulance service and ambulance staff can do better for elderly people?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The costs need to be offset. This is a balancing exercise within the NHS. Costs that are saved by stopping people going into hospital can be spent on the treatments and services they require to get them better. That is a far better way of working.
Emergency hospital admissions are distressing. Better management that keeps people well and out of hospital should lead to a better patient experience. The King’s Fund estimates that emergency admissions for ambulatory care-sensitive conditions could be reduced by between 8% and 18% simply by tackling variations in care and spreading existing good practice. That would result in savings of between £96 million and £238 million, which, as part of the overall management of the NHS budget, could be allocated against the provision of the often quite expensive services that provide the necessary medical investigations on the spot.
A doctor in my constituency, Dr Andrew Burnett of the Sonning Common practice, said:
“Very few of my patients want to be admitted to hospital.”
Most people, if they need to be treated or, indeed, if they are nearing the end of their life, would like that experience to be located at home. I think that probably applies to us all.
There is a particular problem in relation to dementia. I spoke to the Alzheimer’s Society, which said that people are often admitted with an acute physical illness on top of their dementia, and the combination of the two can cause their confusion to become worse. They are then taken out of familiar surroundings and placed on a hospital ward with lots of strange people, noises and smells. That can be terrifying for them and they rapidly deteriorate. The advice from the Alzheimer’s Society is to try to keep people out of hospital for as long as possible. That is why we, and the Oxfordshire medical facilities, are striving hard to develop systems to enable people with physical illnesses to be managed out of hospital.
That is one of the rationales for the new Townlands hospital in Henley, where the clinical commissioning group, along with Oxford University hospitals, Oxford Health and, indeed, the county council, are members of the ambulatory emergency care network, through which organisations can learn from one another to develop robust pathways. Some good case studies are involved in that, but time prevents me from going through them at the moment. I draw the Minister’s attention to those if he needs some examples of how ambulatory care actually works.
Another clinician, Pete McGrane of the CCG, has said:
“Patients who were recently hospitalized are not only recovering from their acute illness; they also experience a period of generalized risk for a range of adverse health events.”
There have been cases in my constituency where the health of elderly people has deteriorated following discharge, or even in hospital, due to other conditions. The relatives have sought to blame the health service for poor care. After following up on those cases, the complaints investigation has shown that it is not poor care that has exacerbated the patients’ distress and symptoms; it is a direct consequence of hospitalisation.
I went to see a hospital in Welwyn Garden City, which has no beds inside. Instead, it has beds in an adjoining care home at the side of the hospital. The place was absolutely heaving with people. I met a gentleman there called Dave. I do not have his surname, nor have I asked his permission to use his name, so we will just keep it as Dave. He could not speak highly enough of the treatment he got. He called in every day for treatment and then got on with his life at home. It revolutionised the treatment he received, which, doctors had confirmed, would otherwise have required a debilitating 56 days of medication, staying in hospital. His experience of hospital stays had shown up their disadvantages, and he pointed out that people were so much more likely to improve, as he had, and to feel better, as he did, if they could stay at home. He was clearly a great enthusiast for this type of service.
In Henley, there is one issue, above all, which I have already touched on and want to emphasise. It was helped by some papers that were forwarded to me by the Health Foundation, which said that it is undertaking
“a joint research programme…monitoring how the quality of health and social care is changing over time.”
I have been very concerned by the way in which we move forward with the integration of social care and health in the county to ensure that it delivers the sort of services that are required in the full context of the patient.
I am pleased and proud that I have helped to deliver a 21st century medical facility for the people not just of Henley, but of the whole of southern Oxfordshire, and that that incorporates ambulatory care. It is clearly the way forward and it is a way forward that I am sure will work.
I thank my hon. Friends the Member for Henley (John Howell) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), both of whom have spoken with great expertise about the place that ambulatory care has within a developing and modernising national health service. I cannot better the description that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley gave of the purpose of ambulatory care and the place it holds in his constituency, which I will turn to at the end of my speech.
For the benefit of the House and the record, I will add some examples of what ambulatory care entails for patients around the country. There is a clinical decision unit in the Royal Free hospital that provides an alternative to admission to an emergency department for patients who may benefit from an extended observation period. The James Cook University hospital has an ambulatory emergency care unit that handles nearly a quarter of all emergency admissions and manages a whole range of medical emergencies, including cardiac failure, cellulitis, diabetes and low-risk gastrointestinal bleeds.
The university hospital of Leicester has a frailty unit, which supports patients who are over 70 and need treatment for conditions such as delirium, dementia and fractures. The rapid assessment and treatment unit at Queen’s hospital in Romford has greatly reduced the time between a patient being assessed and a care plan being implemented. Those examples are in addition to the example that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley gave of Townlands in Henley.
Where ambulatory units are collocated with an emergency department, patients arriving at A&E by ambulance or as walk-ins are triaged according to clinical need and directed to the unit for treatment or tests, effectively bypassing the main emergency department. Patients identified as needing specialist treatment, tests or monitoring at the hospital, but who do not need to stay overnight, can also be referred to ambulatory units by a general practitioner. Patients with long-term conditions can be booked in for regular treatments such as dialysis.
Ambulatory care units can also focus on returning patients to their homes after treatment as quickly and safely as possible, as my hon. Friend outlined. As a result, patients are more likely to have good health outcomes because they avoid unnecessary overnight stays. He outlined beautifully the principle behind ensuring that people do not stay in bed any longer than they need to. The statistics on that developing area of academic study are stark, and he put them plainly to the House for its attention, but at their core they encompass something rather encouraging for many, although not all, patients. The best principle is to keep on going. We have all seen that with our elderly relatives: the minute one stops prematurely or unnecessarily, one precipitates a decline in condition, rather than an improvement.
Ambulatory care is an exciting and important approach to providing patient care, just as my hon. Friend outlined, and it will be central to the development of the national health service in the years to come. It has not come about by accident. It is based on good science and academic study. We in the Department are led by the Royal College of Physicians’ acute care toolkit and NHS England’s “Safer, faster, better”, which is based on the royal college’s advice.
While ambulatory care units may vary between trusts, both the royal college and NHS England have provided guidance on what a good unit looks like, so the underlying principles that all units are built on are the same. The principles fall into three main categories. First, the units must be patient-focused, meeting the needs of patients through timely treatment and discharge, and bringing together secondary and primary care services to avoid admission where beneficial. Secondly, effective clinical decision making is key, ensuring not only that patients in ambulatory units receive the high standards of care we expect from the NHS, but that the patients who would benefit from an ambulatory setting are identified early and directed to the service. Finally, ambulatory care needs to form a coherent part of the hospital-wide health system and structure to improve the patient’s journey flow through the hospital. Gaining support from other parts of the system, including clinical commissioning groups, as in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and primary care more generally is key to ensuring that the potential benefits are realised.
Ambulatory care units work well as independent units within acute trusts, but they work best when they are part of an integrated system. That is why I am pleased to see that there is an ambulatory emergency care network, which allows trusts to share best practice and to understand how to improve their services further. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that more than 30% of patients admitted for medical, as opposed to surgical, reasons could be treated in an ambulatory setting. By treating and discharging patients on the same day, emergency admissions are reduced, leaving hospital beds available for those patients who need them the most. There is therefore an advantage not only to the patient but to the system as a whole, because we are freeing up capacity for people who really do need the beds.
Increasing the numbers of patients seen in ambulatory care also has the potential to reduce waits for patients in A&E, which in turn decreases pressure on wards and increases bed availability, providing benefits to patients in other parts of the system. A whole number of benefits therefore come from ambulatory care. My hon. Friend mentioned the urgent and emergency care review and the place that ambulatory care has in that. I turn quickly to his experience of it at Townlands, where some features are particularly impressive. The first is the way in which the service has been brought together in the rapid access care unit—I imagine it is called a RACU, but I am sure the people of Henley pronounce it with a soft C. I found the integration of that with the Orders of St John Care Trust next door exciting.
It is clear that the clinical commissioning group in my hon. Friend’s constituency has been thoughtful about commissioning the care needed, involving other providers of care and using beds only when absolutely necessary. It is an ambulatory care setting without beds, but if beds are needed, it has 11 beds on a three-year contract, purchased from the trust next door, and if that number needs to increase still further, it can procure such beds through the CCG’s usual spot purchasing arrangements. For people who are admitted to an ambulatory setting, beds are available if needed for step-up care—or for step-down care for people coming from the John Radcliffe or from other acute trusts that serve my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Ambulatory care allows for a far more subtle approach to people needing care. As my hon. Friend outlined, it provides much better patient outcomes, is better for the health system as a whole and is much more flexible, ensuring that resources go precisely where they are needed. That opens out a much wider point, which he alluded to elegantly—I will say it rather more vulgarly than he did—namely the serious question of how we frame community services in the future. In parts of the country, we have a far older model of community service provision based on large bed capacity in community hospitals, which are much loved by their local communities, often funded in part by the local communities and in almost every instance founded by the local communities. We know, however, that in many cases they are not providing the best care for patients. It will often be a difficult transition to a better standard of care for patients, providing them with better outcomes and releasing resources for better outcomes for all patients across the health system.
By bringing the experience of Townlands hospital to the House’s attention, my hon. Friend has shown that we can be thoughtful and direct with constituents about the implications of change, and can explain carefully how improvements that might be challenging on the face of it, because it might seem that a benefit is being lost, can produce a whole series of additional benefits that enable better patient outcomes and a better distribution of resources within the system. He has allowed the House to understand how the benefits could be more widely spread across the NHS.
I turn finally to NHS England’s plans for ambulatory care. My hon. Friend will know about the vanguard sites in place across the country. Many of them involve the use of ambulatory care systems. There are many different kinds of ambulatory care settings involved in the vanguard sites, but the principle remains broadly the same: to try to identify those areas and experiences that replicate the positive experience that he, with the co-operation of his clinical commissioning group and primary care and acute trusts, has brought to Henley, and to ensure that that is tested on a system-wide basis. We can then roll that out across the rest of the country. We have 50 vanguard sites involved in one way or another in community care settings across the country, and I hope that that will inform a far wider transformation by the end of the five year forward view period, which concludes at the end of the Parliament.
I am sorry to come in at the end of the debate, but I was delayed by traffic. I congratulate my colleague from Oxfordshire, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), on securing this important debate. Does the Minister agree that in the roll-out it is important that the ability, training and qualification of home careworkers is raised, so that they can complement the changes in services?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and subtle point. That is absolutely the case, and that is partly why, as part of the workforce review that I instigated, we are looking at apprenticeship and nursing associate models that will help to upskill nurses and care practitioners in not just acute but community settings. The result will be an ability to provide a far better, more holistic service to patients when they turn up at an ambulatory care setting, or indeed at the John Radcliffe, or, hopefully, when they are looked after at home before that happens, and when they return from either of those places. All that taken together provides a far better service to constituents.
I welcome the approach that Members have taken in this little but important debate. If we are positive about these changes and have a will to explain them to constituents, they will quickly understand why this system is better for them. Those Members who wish to pursue a cruder campaigning method that looks purely at the number of beds provided in any one setting, based on the model inherited from 1948 rather than one relevant to 2018, will be doing their constituents a disservice. In being brave and direct with his constituents and in explaining clearly the benefits that he has endeavoured to get, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has delivered a far better service for the people of Henley than the one they had last year. It will continue to improve throughout the course of the Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
Coal-fired Power Stations
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of coal-fired power station sites.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank hon. Members and my hon. Friends for attending this afternoon’s debate. My hon. Friend the Minister might be wondering why he is to respond to a debate that, on face value, may seem to be within the remit of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is because my contribution will focus on the future of coal-fired power station sites once the plants have ceased to operate. The issue will affect all coal-fired power stations over time, as the Government have announced that they plan to phase out coal-fired energy generation by 2025, given our commitment to reducing our carbon emissions.
For many coal-fired power stations, 2025 is a long way off. Five stations across the country have announced either their closure or part-closure over the past few months. There is now a real need to consider the future of those sites. The remaining coal-fired power stations face an uncertain future, too, and I am sure that there will be hon. Members who would like to address the issue of using the existing energy generation infrastructure for biomass conversion.
Rugeley B in my Cannock Chase constituency is one of the five power stations to announce its potential closure. In February 2016, the station’s owner, Engie, announced the likely closure of the plant this summer. The potential closure has come much sooner than expected and was accelerated by deteriorating market conditions. There are various issues: the future development of the site, given its size, location, connectivity and strategic importance to the west midlands; the need for the site to be developed speedily to create new jobs, as well as to mitigate the financial impact on the local council due to the loss of business rates; and the need to consider the planning process for building combined-cycle gas turbines where power stations already exist.
I will start by setting out the story of Rugeley B to date and how we find ourselves in a situation in which the power station could potentially shut in a matter of weeks. Cannock Chase was once dominated by mines and power stations. Now, Rugeley B is the last remaining reminder of our mining heritage. At one time, Rugeley A and B were the centre of innovation in coal-fired power generation. Rugeley A was home to a dry cooling tower and was a test-bed for locating power stations in areas with no water supply. Rugeley B saw the testing of different coloured cooling towers. Ms Ryan, if you happen to pass the Rugeley B cooling towers, I encourage you to take a good look at them, as you might notice that they are made from two different colours of brick. The intention was to assess which colour blended more effectively into the countryside and landscape. To be honest, I am not sure that either achieves that aim.
A few years ago, the owner of Rugeley B considered conversion from coal to biomass. In 2013, however, it decided that conversion was not commercially viable. Like many other hon. Members, I have spoken about the benefits of biomass as a fuel for energy production.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know of her close interest in this issue. Those of us who are members of the all-party parliamentary group on biomass have continued to push the fact that biomass is the cheapest form of renewable energy in this country, but under the contracts for difference scheme it is currently outside of future bidding. Does she agree that it makes sense to go for the cheapest source of renewable energy? We get biomass from secure sources in the US and Canada, and biomass will secure jobs in this country in a way that some other technologies that have been deployed do not.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I agree. We need to create a level playing field to allow us to compare biomass with other renewable sources, such as solar and wind. Unfortunately, as regards creating a level playing field, I fear that this debate comes too late for Rugeley B.
On a positive note, where there were once mines and Rugeley A, there are new homes, business parks and logistics centres, which have created thousands of new jobs. The change in the industrial landscape demonstrates the area’s resilience in adapting to the challenges it faces. The chairman of the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire local enterprise partnership referred to the area’s resilience in a recent letter to me, citing the changes over the past few decades since the closure of the pits. Over recent years, under a Conservative-led Government, Cannock Chase has been doing well. Unemployment has fallen, with the claimant rate falling by 75% since March 2010. Apprenticeships are on the up, and new business start-ups are increasing. However, despite the local success story over the past few years, the news that Rugeley B may close this summer is a blow to all of us who live in Rugeley.
My hon. Friend mentioned Rugeley A, which happened to be in the Lichfield constituency, so I have a personal interest in this debate. Does she agree that, as tragic as the closure of Rugeley power station will be, it can be changed into an opportunity for new homes, which we know we have to build in the Lichfield and Cannock Chase districts, and for employment? Although she has a deep love for the cooling towers, the views across from Lichfield to Cannock Chase will be improved by their removal, and greatly enhanced by low-rise industrial, commercial and housing opportunities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for attending this afternoon’s debate, because two of the cooling towers sit in his constituency; we share the cooling towers. He is right that there will be opportunities for homes and enterprise on the site, and later I will discuss some of those opportunities in a bit more detail.
In the short term, the closure of Rugeley B is a blow for the employees, the contractors and the wider supply chain, as well as for the local community, with many clubs and groups using facilities on the site. We cannot be complacent and assume that the area’s resilience will see us through this difficult period. We must be proactive and plan for both the short term and the long term. Of course, my first priority has been to help those people who are directly affected by the potential closure: the workforce, both employees and contractors, and the supply chain. We must ensure that they all get all the support they need at this difficult time.
To give a sense of the scale of the impact, Rugeley B has 150 employees and at least the same number of contractors from across Staffordshire and the midlands; I am pleased so many Staffordshire Members are here this afternoon. Those employees and contractors have worked at the plant for decades. Others with young families have recently bought a home. There is also the wider supply chain, which goes far beyond Rugeley. The impact of the potential closure will be felt in ports and by freight services that serve the power station, and it cannot be overestimated.
The mines and the power stations have been a central part of our local community, with Rugeley B housing facilities including a sports and social club, football and cricket pitches, and even a model railway. If the plant shuts, over the coming months we must find alternatives for the various clubs that will be affected and their 2,000 members. I call on other local community facilities and groups to come forward and offer their support to those clubs and groups that will be affected, and to rehome them, at least for the short term.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, and I apologise for being a few minutes late. In my neighbouring constituency of Stafford, we face the prospect of losing sports pitches at Shugborough Hall and at Staffordshire University, because of its transfer up to Stoke, so there is a real crisis for sports facilities in the Rugeley and Stafford area.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is absolutely right: we are losing facilities, not only at the Rugeley B site but at Shugborough, a few miles up the road. We need to look at leisure provision across the area. One thing that we need to include in any kind of site development at Rugeley B is leisure facilities.
Since the announcement on Rugeley B, I have visited the site and met the owners and unions several times to discuss practical ways in which we can support all those affected. I will hold a jobs fair in Rugeley in June, and I encourage any members of the workforce who might be affected by the potential closure and who are seeking new employment to attend this event. A couple of weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government accompanied me on a visit to the site, to understand the situation we face, to tour the site and to understand its potential future uses and the issues that we face in realising them. I take this opportunity to thank him for his time and support.
Whether the plant closes this summer, next year, or even in a few years, it is essential that we speed up plans for Rugeley’s future, and in doing so develop and implement a strategy for the site. The same is true of other coal-fired power station sites that might face closure. We need to mitigate the loss of jobs and create new employment opportunities for all those affected and for the wider economy.
The Rugeley B power station site is of national strategic importance, as it is unique in size, location and connectivity. It is a 374-acre brownfield site that could accommodate a range of different developments, including housing, commercial and industrial units, and a gas turbine; it could help to deliver much-needed homes, jobs and electricity. I will talk about each of these in a bit more detail shortly.
A taskforce that includes the district councils, the county council and the two local enterprise partnerships has been set up. It has held its first meeting to discuss ways of supporting the workforce during the consultation period and to establish strategic plans for the future use of the site if the plant closes. The site is in the heart of England, and it is incredibly well connected by road and rail links. It is close to many of the major motorways and trunk roads, including the M6, the M6 toll road, the M42, the A50, the A38—I could go on. It also sits alongside the west coast main line and has its own siding. The fact that there is an Amazon fulfilment centre on the land opposite Rugeley B demonstrates how well served the location is by various transport links.
Then there is the site’s connectivity. Naturally, as a power station is situated there, the site has national grid connectivity, so there is a strong case for using the existing infrastructure and building a gas power station, which would help to create jobs for the highly skilled workforce at Rugeley B. I also understand that fibre-optic broadband runs down the railway and along nearby canals. This connectivity crossover opens up new enterprise opportunities relating to innovation and technology.
I have been busy on my iPhone, but for good parliamentary reasons: I have just been looking up on Google Maps the exact location of the site, not that I have never been there; I have obviously made many visits to the power station. I see that, as my hon. Friend says, the site is right alongside the River Trent. As a keen narrow-boater, I suggest that she adds to her list of possibilities that of the site being a very good tourism destination for narrow-boaters in the area. As the president of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust—
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are also tourism opportunities, because we have not only the River Trent, but the canals and the beautiful Cannock Chase, which he referred to when talking about the views from Lichfield.
The Rugeley B power station is where roads, rail, power and technology all come together. To realise the site’s economic and regeneration opportunities, we need to develop it as quickly as possible if the plant is closed. However, before the site can be redeveloped, the plant needs to be decommissioned and demolished, the site needs to be decontaminated and infrastructure improvements need to be made, including the creation of a new access road.
As I have said, the site presents opportunities for multiple uses, and I will take each one in turn. It is no secret that we have a housing shortage, and the Government are committed to building a million homes during this Parliament. Brownfield sites such as Rugeley B present a real opportunity to deliver some of those homes without building on green-belt land. Where Rugeley A power station used to be, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), there are many new homes. Building homes on part of the Rugeley B site would help to support the Government’s plans.
To address employment losses, the regeneration of the site will need to include significant commercial development to attract enterprise and create new jobs. In my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget in March, new enterprise zones were announced in the midlands, including in Loughborough, Leicester and, as was raised in Prime Minister’s questions only today, at Brierley Hill in Dudley. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to support me in putting forward the case for creating a Rugeley enterprise zone.
As I mentioned, Rugeley was once at the centre of innovation in the power generation industry. I believe there is an opportunity for the site to be a new home of innovation. With the connectivity crossover of national grid and broadband infrastructure, there is an argument that the site could become home to data centres, which in turn could attract other businesses in the technology and innovation space.
The need to ensure that the site includes commercial development is important not only in creating jobs, but in filling in the gap in business rates that Cannock Chase District Council will face if the power station closes. The local council is set to lose £1 million in business rates, which represents 9% of its business rate income. Over time, this gap will be met by rates from the new Mill Green designer outlet village, which is due to be built in Cannock, and which is another good reason for people to visit Cannock Chase, but the short term looks really bleak for the council. The Labour-led council faced financial difficulties before the announcement about the power station, as it has a net deficit of £1.2 million. I am told that the power station’s closure could lead to the council cutting front-line services. Will my hon. Friend the Minister therefore consider supporting the request for transitional relief funding to help the council manage its short-term financial pressures?
Finally, there is the possibility of building a gas-fired power station on the site. The national grid infrastructure there means that it would be the ideal location. The development process for a new-build combined-cycle gas turbine includes obtaining a development consent order. Such an order is required when developments are categorised as nationally significant infrastructure projects. Engie, the owner of Rugeley B, has raised concerns with me about the length of time and costs associated with obtaining a DCO. It says that the timeframe is anywhere between 26 and 32 months. There are large up-front costs associated with the preparatory work required before an application can be submitted. If any information is missing from the application after it is submitted, the process stops and the applicant must begin the process from the start. The applicant does not have the option of providing further detail once the application is submitted. The ability to make minor design changes during the process is therefore limited. That can add to the timeline and costs of a new-build project and create delay in an application for a capacity contract.
We would all agree that the planning process must be robust and effective, but power station sites such as Rugeley B are brownfield sites where there would be no change of use from power generation. We need to make the process of applying for a DCO faster and more flexible for such sites. With my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, I recently met the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and raised that issue. I am pleased that the Planning Inspectorate will hold a workshop for potential applicants before the end of June, with a view to explaining how they can use the pre-application process to ensure that applications are progressed as swiftly as possible once submitted. That said, will the Minister undertake a review of the DCO process to ensure that it is both robust and flexible, so that coal-fired power station sites can be speedily redeveloped into gas-fired power stations?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is the time it takes to decontaminate land, but there is also the cost associated with that.
Cannock Chase may be a resilient area, but Rugeley has big challenges ahead as it faces life after coal-fired power stations. We have adapted to the changing industrial landscape over the last few decades, and we face the same challenges again. The redevelopment of coal-fired power station sites such as Rugeley B provides an opportunity for such areas to play their part in delivering the Government’s priorities: encouraging enterprise, creating jobs, providing new homes and generating energy. When coal-fired power stations such as Rugeley B close, we need to prioritise their wholesale and speedy redevelopment. Given the strategic importance of the site to the west midlands and to the nation, will the Minister work with me to ensure that the plans for Rugeley B’s redevelopment are accelerated, so that the economic benefits of the site’s redevelopment can be realised?
May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for securing this timely debate? Indeed, for Scotland it could hardly be timelier, given last month’s closure of Longannet power station in Fife. That closure ended coal-fired electricity production in Scotland completely. Longannet is a landmark that is highly visible from many parts of my constituency on the other side of the River Forth. It directly employed 236 people and supported another 1,000 jobs within the supply chain. The plant was Scotland’s largest power station, capable of producing 2,400 MW of electricity for the grid, accounting for about 15% of the country’s electricity capacity. Its premature closure will inevitably leave an energy capacity gap in Scotland during peak demand, and that gap now needs to be filled.
Decommissioning will continue until December, and ScottishPower’s plans for the site are expected to be known by the end of the year. Can the Minister provide some clarity on the support and fiscal incentives that can be provided to stimulate investment in the conversion of former coal-fired power plants?
Despite the UK Government’s commitment to ending coal power by 2025, they have failed to produce the financial backing and subsidies necessary to ensure that the UK energy market undergoes a productive transition towards viable alternatives. Energy firm Carlton Power was awarded a subsidy contract by DECC to build a new 1.9 GW plant at Trafford in Greater Manchester, but it was unable to meet its start date as a result of a failure to secure financial backers. The company pinned its failure on a combination of long-term policy decisions that skewed the market and uncertainty caused by recent cuts to wind and solar subsidies.
The Government’s decision to slash the fiscal infrastructure surrounding carbon capture and storage has failed to facilitate the UK’s coal industry. A report by the Energy and Climate Change Committee earlier this year warned that the opportunity to develop CCS infrastructure in the UK by the early 2020s is likely to have been missed.
In conclusion, I echo the comments of Fergus Ewing, Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism at the Scottish Parliament. He pointed out that, with the closure of Longannet, the margin of spare capacity will get even tighter, but the Tories have put the brakes on the development of replacement capacity in Scotland; onshore and offshore wind power; and the carbon capture and storage project that would have resulted in increased low-carbon thermal generation at Peterhead. As Fergus Ewing said,
“They need an urgent rethink of their failing energy policy.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing this timely and important debate. I know that this subject takes up an awful lot of her time. Having been elected only last year, the last thing she wanted to find out about a few months into her new role was the closure.
That is a whole different debate. It is timely that we are discussing this issue today. Members may have seen the news earlier this week that Aberthaw power station, Wales’ largest coal-fired power station, will reduce its operating hours from 1 April next year. That is just the latest in a long line of announcements from power stations up and down the country that have decided either to downgrade their operations significantly or to close their gates completely. Such announcements inevitably have severe and wide-ranging consequences.
We often refer to the trilemma when discussing the pros and cons of UK energy policy, but the widespread closure of our coal-fired power stations presents its own trilemma. The first challenge is the clear impact the closures have on the communities in which the power stations are based. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase outlined that. She speaks passionately about the uncertainty facing her constituents who work at Rugeley and the distress that uncertainty inevitably causes locally and regionally.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed similar scenes in my constituency. Eggborough power station, which employs almost 300 people, was on the brink of closure earlier this year—it had announced a consultation on plans to close—until its new owner, the Czech group EPH, managed to secure a contract with the grid to provide extra capacity this winter. But it is just a year’s contract. It is a stay of execution; we cannot ignore the fact that a cloud still hangs over Eggborough’s future.
By contrast, Ferrybridge power station, which is right on the border of my constituency—I know it well—was not so lucky. It was forced to close earlier this year, to the detriment of the hundreds of workers based there. If that is added into the mix with the closure of Britain’s last deep coal mine at Kellingley colliery, which is also in my constituency and which closed last year, these are unquestionably very challenging times in my part of north Yorkshire.
As well as the socioeconomic impact of the closures, we need to consider the consequences for the nation’s energy security, which is the second element of the coal trilemma. At least 2.5 GW of coal closures have been announced in recent months, in addition to the 4.9 GW announced last year. That power would otherwise be supplied to millions of homes throughout the country. By losing those units, we are diminishing the resilience of our grid and its ability to absorb unforeseen risks.
Our margin of capacity, particularly when it is cold in winter, is already worryingly low. We are also significantly reducing the number of power stations that can provide ancillary services, such as system balancing, frequency response and black start, which allows us to turn the lights back on in the event of grid paralysis or partial shutdown. In the absence of coal-fired power stations, how will we procure such essential, often under-appreciated, services in future?
Because of the technical nature of this subject, I find there is a lack of understanding of the comparative capabilities of different types of power generation. Intermittent renewables, along with nuclear, are simply technologically incapable of delivering the services I have described. The lack of nuance in consideration is leading us blindly to risk our energy security.
The third element of the coal trilemma is cost. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), has rightly said on many occasions that securing electricity at the least cost to consumers is an absolute priority. We totally buy into that—it is a commitment the Conservative party made in our general election manifesto and it is one we should keep.
If we are to pursue an orderly transition away from coal, as the Government intend, it is only right that we do so in the most affordable way possible. That is why it is so important that, when we consider which technologies to promote to fill the gap left by coal, we do so on a whole-system cost basis. Such an approach more accurately reflects the costs that intermittent generators pass on to the system because they are not available all the time.
I understand that during yesterday’s meeting of the Energy and Climate Change Committee my hon. Friend the Minister of State noted that the latest analysis her Department has commissioned on whole-system costs is currently being peer reviewed and is nearing completion. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on pushing ahead with that and urge her to make the findings available as soon as is practically possible, so that they can inform the growing debate on this incredibly important issue.
We face three key challenges associated with coal coming off the grid: the socioeconomic impact, the security of supply impact, and the cost of filling the gap. On the face of it, it seems a particularly daunting task, but I am pleased to say that it is not insurmountable. Nowhere is that more vividly illustrated than at the Drax power station in my constituency—if you think you have cooling towers in your neck of the woods, Ms Ryan, there are certainly plenty more in my part of north Yorkshire.
Many Members present will be familiar with Drax. It is the largest power station in the UK and generates approximately 8% of all the UK’s electricity. Over recent years it has gone through an incredible transformation by converting and upgrading some of its generating units to use sustainably sourced compressed wood pellets instead of coal. In doing so, it has addressed the three core issues I mentioned earlier.
On socioeconomic impact, switching from coal to biomass has helped Drax to protect and secure the 850 employees who are based at the power station. It has also created new employment opportunities across the biomass supply chain, which has attracted hundreds of millions of pounds of private investment.
On security of supply, thanks to the conversion it has already undertaken, Drax has become the UK’s single largest source of renewable electricity. Around 12% of the UK’s renewable power came from Drax in 2014. Crucially, this power is not only renewable but flexible and dispatchable, like coal or gas. It is available as and when we need it and can be ramped up or down to respond to the requirements of the grid at a moment’s notice.
On costs, as I have stated often in Westminster Hall and many times in the main Chamber, on a whole-system costs basis biomass is the cheapest and most affordable renewable technology available to us today.
I declare an interest: I live opposite the Drax power station and a small wind farm. People are taxed by the wind farm, which does not create any jobs, and very supportive of the power station, which does.
Does my hon. Friend agree that biomass makes sense, not only on a cost basis, but because the industry supports jobs in the UK in a way that some of the alternatives do not? He mentioned the many power station workers, but the whole supply chain goes all the way through our region, including to the ports, which have taken a big hit in the Humber because of the loss of coal imports. Support for biomass makes sense on so many different levels. We need Ministers to work cross-departmentally to get a proper assessment of the industry’s true value to the whole UK.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The regional impact on supply chain jobs is huge, not just for the ports, which are hugely important, but for rail as well. The wagons that Drax has commissioned to transport biomass—I had the great honour of launching them at the National Railway Museum—were built by a British company.
With respect to costs, we have to remember that it was the taxpayer who built these power stations right across the country under the Central Electricity Generating Board. We have already paid for these stations, so it makes absolute sense that we should—to use an unpopular phrase—sweat these assets as long as possible to ensure that we get the best possible value out of them for the taxpayer.
Reusing the existing infrastructure at a power station essentially eliminates the substantial grid connection costs and upgrade work that are associated with new builds, and that might have contributed to so few new stations being built. It also reflects the value that dispatchable power adds to the energy grid by balancing the system while the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining—we all remember the problem with the grid last November.
Going from being western Europe’s largest coal-fired power station to being its biggest de-carbonisation project in less than three years has made Drax an incredible success story. The question is, then, how can we build on that success and, where possible, replicate it at other sites around the UK? It may be too late for Rugeley, but other stations could certainly benefit from conversion.
A sensible and practical solution would be to allow coal power stations to compete for Government support to convert to biomass in upcoming contract for difference auctions. The auctions could operate on a whole-system basis to allow the stations to compete on a level playing field against other renewable technologies. The biomass industry—I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on biomass—is not looking for any special treatment; it just wants the opportunity to bid on a level playing field along with other technologies.
Alternatively, funding could simply be provided through the dedicated biomass pot that already exists to support biomass conversions. That pot does not currently allow bids from those who are looking to convert, only from new station builds, which are very costly. That does not seem to make a lot of sense when we already have the infrastructure with coal power stations.
I recognise that the Minister has previously indicated that £730 million has been committed to supporting less-established technologies in the CfD process through to 2020. However, research recently completed by NERA Economic Consulting and Imperial College London has shown that DECC could save consumers up to £2.2 billion by supporting biomass alongside offshore wind as part of a more cost-effective renewable energy mix.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to work closely with his colleagues at DECC to consider how further biomass conversions could also be facilitated in the near future in the light of the significant benefits that I and my hon. Friends have outlined here today. Biomass is simply the quickest and most cost-effective way to get coal off the grid. As a nation we should look to promote its deployment further through additional station conversions while we still have a window of opportunity to do so.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I would like to make two or three points in response to the very fine speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling). First, I congratulate her on securing this important debate and on focusing her remarks on Rugeley B power station. It is no surprise that she has been supported by our hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), and has had very vocal support from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and me, because we all recognise Rugeley’s importance to our local economy.
I know Rugeley and the power station well. In the days before satellite navigation, it provided a handy navigation device for those trying to find their way toward Rugeley. More seriously and importantly, it provided many jobs for local people, including my constituents in Tamworth. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase in her determination to hold a jobs fair to help those people who may lose their jobs in finding new gainful employment. In our part of Staffordshire, we are lucky that new jobs are being created to fill the gap that may be left by the closure of Rugeley B.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of housing and the development of housing on brownfield sites. I agree with that. In our part of the west midlands, we need to build some 88,000 new homes to cater for growing demand, and Rugeley B could provide part of the solution. I commend that thought to the Minister. She also mentioned the importance of local infrastructure and roads such as the M6, the M6 toll road and the A50. One road she did not mention that I think is important to the local infrastructure—my hon. Friend the Minister will know this all too well—is the A5, which runs through Leicestershire and Warwickshire into Staffordshire and up to Cannock. Part of the A5 is not dualled. If we are to build new homes on the Rugeley power station site, we need to make sure we have the infrastructure to cater for those new homes.
I hope the Minister will use all his artistry and invention to prevail on our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to include in the next road investment strategy the development of the A5. That would help not only Rugeley but my constituents in Wall; Highways England could fix the problem it created at Wall Island. Also, residents would be able to get more effectively on to the A5 and up to Rugeley to benefit from the retail park that may be developed there.
I will conclude as I began: by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on securing this debate. She spoke passionately and eloquently, and I trust the Minister will listen to her.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing this debate. I know that the impact of this issue on her constituency has troubled her extremely over the past few months and that it has been at the forefront of her mind.
I represent the south of the country, but I know what my hon. Friend is feeling. In Rochester and Strood, we had two power stations that closed: our oil-fired power station on the Isle of Grain in 2012, and the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in 2013. Luckily for the Rochester and Strood constituency, we have been able to maintain the energy industry in that part of my constituency with gas-fired power stations. Obviously, that has been some solace to people who were able to transfer to the gas-fired industry. I support all my hon. Friends here who are encouraging us to look at the new energy markets for biomass and more gas. It is absolutely right that we look at how the old coal-fired power station sites can regenerate the new energy industry.
There has been discussion around the cooling towers and how they look to my hon. Friends’ constituents. We are waiting with bated breath in Rochester and Strood for the Grain chimney to be demolished at some point in the future, and I have been told by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), whose constituency is on the other side of the river, that people in Essex will be sad to see the chimney go. As a keen yachtsman, I know the chimney of Grain is often used as a navigation mark; we all know that we are not far from the Medway when we see the old chimney of the Isle of Grain.
In my constituency, the people who have worked in the power stations for a long time feel passionate about the energy industry and their skills, which they want to keep up. It is absolutely right that we should be able to keep those skills and utilise them. We need to do whatever we can to encourage the decommissioned sites to change, but to stick with energy.
I am pleased my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase highlighted the planning process and the need to make sure it is easy for decommissioned sites to regenerate quickly, or change the power type that they produce quickly. In my constituency—this is not a bid, I promise—I would like an Isle of Grain energy island enterprise zone for my constituents, but we will leave that for another time.
Constituencies in the south of England are not unlike those in the midlands. There are a lot of similarities that I have heard about today between the constituents in Rugeley and the issues around Rugeley power station, and the issues in my constituency of Rochester and Strood. We have been lucky in the sense that we, too, have seen a fall in unemployment over the past five years. It is absolutely right that commercial sites be used for the development of new houses, but with regard to our high-tech industries, we need to use the skills and expertise that are around, so that we do not lose them forever. We still want to be able to create the jobs that we need in the midlands and the south around these sites.
My hon. Friend mentioned that Rugeley was strategically placed, and I can also say that about the peninsula in my constituency. We have always benefited from the energy industry because of our strategic position, and because we are able to feed into the grid and can supply energy to homes. I call on the Minister to support my hon. Friend in her calls for help in regenerating Rugeley, so that there will be a positive outcome for the constituents of Cannock Chase.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for obtaining a debate on this issue. Clearly, the imminent Rugeley power station closure prompted it, and I applaud her for her efforts in seeking retraining packages and jobs for staff, as well as financial aid to decontaminate the site for redevelopment. I wish her the very best in her endeavours. None the less, the Conservative Government’s commitment to a decade of austerity continues to strangle development, competition and investment in the UK’s energy sector.
There have been some excellent contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase spoke extensively, passionately and eloquently about reuse of the site after demolition and decontamination. Her points were reiterated and supported by the hon. Members for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) and for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst); but I offer words of caution, if the hon. Lady will have them. In the constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw, which neighbours mine, we have made great use of the land that was vacated following the destruction of the Ravenscraig steelworks by a similarly right-wing Conservative Government; but our experience is that enterprise zones, houses and sports and leisure facilities are no substitute for jobs. I will focus on that and related issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) recounted his experience of the failure of a specific energy provider, Carlton Power, to build a power station. That was due to legislative changes, among other things, and it was frustrating to investors. My hon. Friend quoted Scotland’s Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism, and spoke about the Longannet closure, which resulted in the loss of key jobs and problems for the community.
Given that so many Staffordshire Members have spoken, I am surprised that there has been no mention of Shakespeare yet, but I am sure—[Hon. Members: “Warwickshire!”] Is it Warwickshire? That is why, then. I stand corrected. It all sounds the same to me.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned, in March, Scottish Power closed the Longannet coal-fired power station. More than 200 direct jobs and more than 1,000 in the supply chain were lost. The problems and devastation that such closures can cause to the families and communities that are all too often heavily reliant on such large power plants are evident to many in Scotland. Having seen the detrimental impact in Scotland, I sympathise with those affected by the Cannock Chase closure. Geographically based transmission charges were much to blame for the closure of Longannet, but the commitment of the Secretary of State for Climate Change and Energy to overseeing a consultation on ending unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025 doubtless played its part in both closures. As the Financial Times reported last November, the Secretary of State wants more gas plants to replace the coal plants.
What of the future of coal-fired power stations? That, after all, is what the debate is about. The shorter answer is that without carbon capture and storage alongside, they appear not to have a future in the UK. Carbon capture and storage, for anyone not familiar with it, is a technology that can currently capture about 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes, preventing the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. It is seen as essential alongside coal-fired power stations, to enable UK and world climate change targets to be met. There are working CCS plants such as Boundary dam in Canada and numerous others in the US and Norway, but the world seeks its first large-scale operational plant to further prove the viability of that rapidly advancing technology and the opportunity to improve emissions capture to above 90%, which is the current target.
The previous UK Government created a £1 billion fund to seize the opportunity to have fully functioning CCS projects in the UK. Until last year, we were set to proceed with CCS projects at the White Rose coal-fired power station in Yorkshire—in the constituency of Selby and Ainsty, I believe—and at the gas-fired power station in Peterhead in Scotland, which I was fortunate enough to work on for Shell. The Chancellor’s cancellation of the CCS funding late last year was the latest in a long line of greener and renewable energy cuts that set us yet further back on our journey to cleaner energy.
In November 2014, the BBC reported on how changes in Government energy policy were likely to increase CO2 emissions rather than reduce them, citing—my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned a few of these—the block on solar in the countryside, the cut to the industrial solar subsidy, cuts to solar subsidy for homes, cuts to biomass subsidy, scrapping the green deal, cutting zero-carbon homes, imposing carbon tax on renewables, blocking onshore wind, increased tax on small cars, tax breaks for the oil and gas industries, cutting zero-carbon offices and support for community energy and selling the Green Investment Bank, to name just a few changes. Ironically, those short-term savings will cost us in the long term.
The UK Committee on Climate Change told the Secretary of State that the cost of meeting the 2050 decarbonisation target will be twice as high without a carbon capture and storage programme. The CCC points out that the proposed budget to 2032 is a minimum and suggests that the Government be prepared to do more, not less, to reduce total UK domestic carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement objectives. The committee also noted that greater decarbonisation ambition will be needed by the European Union. In short, we need to make more reductions. For that, CCS is essential, and an urgent plan is needed for a minimum of 7 GW of clean power by 2030, together with support for industry-wide decarbonisation.
Professor Stuart Haszeldine, director of Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage, commented:
“To stay on track in the ‘high ambition coalition’ of leading nations agreed in Paris climate talks, the UK needs to do a lot more on UK electricity, and a lot more on UK low-carbon industry and low-carbon heat. But now this government is doing a lot less.”
He went on:
“There is no sign yet that facts, unbiased scientific evidence and rationality are regarded as more important than lobbying by corporations and colleagues wishing to take the UK back to the 1960s energy mix”.
That would be a retrograde step. Professor Haszeldine said there was a choice—and it is a stark one—
“between spending £40 per household in 2016 or spending £200 per household each year from 2050. We can afford it.”
The Times reported in December 2015, during the Paris climate change conference, that worldwide more than 2,400 coal-fired power stations were under construction or planned, mostly in India or China. Without CCS, that makes a mockery of the world’s climate change commitment. The UK was in prime position to have a positive effect in the ongoing reduction of the world’s coal-fired power station emissions. Given the progress made in CCS, we had the opportunity to become the world leader in large-scale CCS project design and construction, something that would have been great not only for UK businesses, but also for the world at large, as the UK would have been able to provide a substantial decrease in global CO2 emissions by providing more efficient and affordable CCS schemes, with ever-rising emissions capture figures.
We cannot discuss the future of coal-fired power stations without thinking about ethical coal mining. The UK Government’s decision to import coal, rather than investing in an export-led energy market in the UK, has had detrimental consequences on human lives and the environment. According to Government figures, nearly 4 million tonnes of Colombian coal was imported to Hunterston in North Ayrshire alone in 2013. Rogelio Ustate from the Federation of Communities Displaced by Mining in La Guajira stated:
“The coal which is used to warm your houses on cold nights is the same coal which has taken our homes from us.”
Workers face poor and dangerous working conditions in mining much of our imported coal. It is not lost on the few British miners who remain that we no longer have deep mines in the UK, as hon. Members remarked earlier. That is despite the fact that the UK has massive coal reserves to draw on, especially in Scotland. At least if we mined the coal locally it would be ethically sourced, and it would also create jobs.
I must point out the differences in policy between the UK and Scottish Governments. The UK Government have failed to provide the fiscal incentives necessary to stimulate investment in conversions of former coal-fired power stations. Despite a commitment to ending coal power by 2025, the UK Government have failed to produce the financial backing and/or incentives to enable the UK energy market to transition from its heavy reliance on fossil fuels to being the more renewables-based energy market we seek, as per our climate change targets. The Scottish Government are concerned that the UK will continue to import energy despite the vast untapped potential of the UK’s energy market, especially in Scotland. That is especially pertinent given the potential disaster of the Government’s “all your eggs in one flawed basket” energy policy, and the French and Chinese nationalised companies at Hinkley C nuclear power station.
The Scottish Government believe that we must carry out comprehensive research into the viability of the conversion of plants to carbon capture and storage. Experts deem that prospective site planners may favour sites that are already equipped with a grid connection and immediate infrastructure. As a member of the CCS advisory committee, I concur with those findings. Industrial hubs where there is power generation, and which are linked to existing CO2 transportation and storage systems and the power grid, are deemed the most likely locations to succeed.
Dr Jenifer Baxter, the head of energy and environment at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the lead author of the report, “Engineering the UK Electricity Gap”, said:
“The UK is facing an electricity supply crisis. As the UK population rises and with the greater use of electricity use in transport and heating, it looks almost certain that electricity demand is going to rise…However, with little or no focus on reducing electricity demand, the retirement of the majority of the UK’s aging nuclear fleet, recent proposals to phase out coal fired power stations by 2025 and the cut in renewable energy subsidies, the UK is on course to provide even less energy than it does at the moment.”
That does not bode well for energy users.
Unless we reverse the abandonment of the cleaner renewable energy incentives for the failing Hinkley C nuclear power programme, and the Government’s rash dash for gas—fracking—this country will face an energy supply crisis. We will become ever more reliant on imported energy, despite the massive resources and skills at our disposal.
The UK Government’s decision to slash the fiscal infrastructure for carbon capture and storage has failed to facilitate matters for the coal industry in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish Government believe that financial backing and subsidies must be put in place to give the energy market the fiscal incentives necessary to stimulate investment in coal-fired plant conversion to CCS-converted plants.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the proposed White Rose project would have been sited in my constituency. It would have created many thousands of jobs—not just construction jobs, but hundreds of ongoing jobs, too. I want to clarify a point: is it the Scottish Government’s policy to convert every single coal-fired power station into a CCS plant?
As other hon. Members said, some plants are more susceptible to conversion than others. As the hon. Gentleman said, it makes sense to sweat out the value of power stations that we have already paid for. It very much depends on the technology. We must evaluate whether power stations are fit for purpose on a case-by-case basis. The secret is to create a world-leading industry. We had the opportunity to do so through carbon capture and storage, which would have enabled us to sell CCS, develop it, increase it from 90% of emissions to 92%, 94% and 96%, and create an industry and a supply chain in the UK for exportation and exploitation around the world.
Ironically, the Chancellor said explicitly that his latest Budget was
“a Budget for the next generation.”
It is not, and the bleak legacy left for the next generation is nothing to be proud of—skills shortages; a lack of research, development and innovation; and the wider economic implications of the UK having an import-led energy sector. Those are the results of the Government’s complete mishandling of energy. The failure to seize the opportunity that carbon capture and storage presents to the UK and rest of the world for managing the effects of the continued use of coal-fired power will sound the death knell for coal-fired power in the UK. That missed opportunity is one more failure in the long list of the Government’s energy policy failures. It will create a toxic financial legacy, which will be a problem for future generations.
I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) three times. First, I congratulate her on securing this important debate on the future of coal-fired power stations. Secondly, although I would not like it to be thought that I have an unhealthy interest in her website, I congratulate her on her hard work on the future of the Rugeley site—not just on whether it continues as a coal-fired power station, but on the other possible uses for the site, including conversion to a gas-fired power station.
Thirdly, I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing to the debate an interesting category dilemma. I am responding as a member of the shadow energy and climate change team, and the distinguished Minister represents the Department for Communities and Local Government, so between us we may be able to provide a complete landscape of discussion in response to her concerns. I will concentrate particularly on the energy issues and the future not just of Rugeley but of coal-fired power stations across the UK.
As the hon. Member for Coatbridge and—
I will get the entire title of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency right one day. He will have to forgive me for not getting the various parts entirely correct. As he said, coal-fired power stations in this country will not have a future unless there is a clear programme accompanying their development to capture 90% of their emissions through CCS.
It was with considerable regret that we saw the termination of the UK’s two potentially world-beating pilot projects for comprehensive CCS; among other things, they would have paved the way for a much more widespread implementation of CCS for new and existing power stations across the country. I do not think that the route to CCS in this country is dead, although I was sad that the Opposition’s call for a comprehensive new CCS strategy from the Government, which we made during the passage of the Energy Bill and which was supported by the Scottish National party, was not incorporated into the Bill. In the light of the termination of those projects, there is an urgent need to develop a viable new way forward for CCS, whether exclusively in this country or in collaboration with other countries, to keep alive the idea that it is possible to attach CCS to power stations in future.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees that there should be a way forward for CCS, but does he not also agree that, although the Government funding allocation has disappeared, the industry itself could step up to the plate and drive forward a UK CCS industry?
I hope the industry will be involved in that. However, the hon. Gentleman ought to bear in mind that, although a great deal of intellectual property remains from the project that was to take place in his constituency, for example, the project itself was not at all progressed—the CCS industry in this country remains nascent, so for the industry to take on the load of developing itself to any extent over the next period seems to be quite an ask. It is therefore essential for the Government to become involved in strategising and underwriting the development of CCS. I hope that that will now be done, even if it is not at the same level of expense as in the original two projects supported by the Government.
On the future of coal-fired power stations in the UK, it is important to be clear. The proposal is to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, which has been mentioned this afternoon. The Government have suggested that there should be a consultation leading to the closure, subject to the caveat put forward last autumn by the Secretary of State in her energy reset speech:
“we’ll only proceed if we’re confident that the shift to new gas can be achieved within these timescales.”
That is the caveat on the proposal to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025.
The estimate is that only something like 1% of our electricity will be supplied from coal by 2025 because of the closures of coal-fired power stations for various reasons, other than the Government saying that they should close by 2025—those reasons include the European large plant directive, the age of the plants, the running out of the plants, and the economics of running them. Therefore, those plants are likely to close by that date anyway. One way or another, we face the prospect of pretty much all coal-fired power stations in the UK being closed, and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase rightly raises the issue of what will happen to those sites. What should be done with all of them, not just Rugeley B power station?
A number of us can sympathise with the issue of what happens to a large site that is vacated in or around one’s own constituency. Recently, a Ford transit van plant located on the edge of my constituency closed, creating a 600-acre site. We need to think carefully about assistance for the people who have been displaced from the site by the closure, the different possible uses for the site, and the best use given its connections and how it is going to work in future. Those are all important considerations, and the hon. Lady is clearly alive to all the issues to do with what can be done with the Rugeley B site.
No other world car manufacturer is hovering in the wings, waiting to occupy the Ford site near my constituency and to build cars instead of the Ford Motor Company. However, as far as Rugeley B is concerned, the hon. Lady has looked at whether it could remain, if not as a coal-fired station, then as another form of power station. That particular line of reasoning makes considerable sense. Her suggestion is also germane to the issue of our energy mix in future years: could Rugeley B be converted into a gas-fired power station?
Like the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who I am afraid is no longer in his place, I looked at Google Maps and a large National Grid gas line runs right alongside Rugeley B power station. So the question of changing the configuration of Rugeley B from coal to gas is, in principle, very doable as far as the supply of gas to the power station is concerned. The issue would be the circumstances in which any such conversion could take place. My concern is that, in particular instances, the mechanisms in this country for encouraging the development of new gas-fired power stations, assuming that we need a number of them over coming years—
Indeed, Ms Ryan, I am about to conclude my remarks, having revealed my thoughts on the idea a gas-fired power station at Rugeley. However, before I do so, I want to spend a minute on the question whether that conversion is feasible under existing arrangements in the capacity market. At the moment, the market provides either underwriting for existing power stations to continue to supply, or the possibility of contracts for new power stations, but there does not appear to be a category within them to enable conversion to take place—certainly not in the 15-year period.
I encourage the hon. Member for Cannock Chase to talk to DECC about whether the capacity market might be amended to take account of such arrangements. A number of coal-fired power stations have been converted to gas recently in the United States, so it is technically feasible. It depends on the kind of power station. Nevertheless, it certainly makes sense—if we are to have new gas-fired power stations anyway, why not have a gas-fired power station where a coal-fired one was? We would not then have the problem of how long the gas-fired station would need to operate over the next period. If that can be done, it would be a positive addition to our fleet of power stations and might be a solution that could apply to other former coal-fired power stations.
Given that CCS technology is proven and that the hope for Government funding is not entirely lost, does the hon. Gentleman agree that Government investment in research and development and stable legislation are key to the industry confidence necessary to develop CCS in the UK?
I agree. That is something for the future that applies to the whole power sector. We need a series of stable policy bases on which to proceed with future power provision.
Finally, given the well-known interest of the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) in biomass and his leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on biomass, he must be aware that Rugeley B was scheduled to be converted to biomass in 2012, but that the company that took over the power station decided to pull the idea. Perhaps a reopening of that interest might be appropriate, although he must also be aware of the question about contracts for difference and how they may or may not come to the aid of biomass in future, given the budgets available.
In conclusion, I encourage the hon. Member for Cannock Chase in her pursuit of alternative uses for the Rugeley B site. If it can be given new life in a different form, that would indeed be a good outcome for the power station.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing this important debate. In her speech she alluded to the fact that just over a week ago my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accompanied her on an inspection of this major site, and I warmly endorse his determination to ensure that the planning system operates quickly and effectively to assist the local authority in reaching prompt decisions on any planning proposals that may come forward for the site.
I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s discussions with other Ministers and with the owners of the Rugeley B power station. She has also met members of the taskforce of local government and local enterprise partnerships, and trade union representatives, to discuss the future of the site should the power station close.
My hon. Friend has underlined the national and strategic importance of the site and the implications of its closure. She is doing what I would call a very good sales job in promoting the site as the asset that it is, given its size, location and connectivity, which make it an attractive location for redevelopment for a range of uses. Both she and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) mentioned the site of Rugeley A power station and I am sure that lessons can be learnt from the redevelopment of that site, where there are now homes, business parks and logistics centres, which have created thousands of jobs for the local economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, under this Conservative Government many more people in her constituency are in work and many fewer people are unemployed than was the case in 2010.
I will cover three specific areas mentioned by my hon. Friend. Before I do so, on planning issues, because of our formal role in the planning system, Ministers are not able to comment or advise on any particular planning applications, nor would we wish to fetter judgments to be made by decision makers in the future. However, I may say the following.
My hon Friend mentioned enterprise zones. We have no current plans for new enterprise zones, but we would be happy to work with her local enterprise partnerships to look at what options might exist for Rugeley. I note that Cannock Chase is covered by both the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnerships. As part of the growth deal round three negotiations, it will be for her local area to put forward a bid in relation to its priorities to secure investment for future growth. She might want to consider discussing that with her local councils and local enterprise partnerships. My Department is certainly willing to have a conversation with her and those organisations in that regard.
Consideration will also be given to local development orders, which can be used to relax planning controls for particular areas or categories of development where the impacts would be acceptable and where that would promote economic, social or environmental gains such as boosting enterprise. Bearing in mind that I am short on time, I will write to my hon. Friend to say more about how those orders can be used.
My hon. Friend also mentioned transitional relief to help with a local council’s short-term funding pressures. Before 2013, local councils could not benefit from growth in business rates because money raised from rates was returned to central Government to be redistributed, but that is no longer the case. At the moment, councils may keep up to 50% of any growth in their business rates. Before talk began of the closure of Rugeley B, the council estimated that it would retain just over £4 million of its business rates under the retention scheme in 2016-17—a 46% growth since that scheme started. Although it would lose more than £1 million in business rates income following the power station’s closure, the ability to retain income from business rates will put the local authority pretty much back where it was in terms of baseline funding.
There is a safety net: in circumstances where losses are so significant that they exceed 7.5% of the local authority’s baseline funding, the Government top the local authority back up to its baseline funding, although that is not the situation currently in my hon. Friend’s constituency. There are, though, a number of other financial support mechanisms that she may want to consider. I would like to set those out—they include the support that we are offering for brownfield development and the remediation of brownfield sites, particularly for new housing development—but I am extremely short on time, so again, I will write to her about that important issue.
My hon. Friend also raised nationally significant infrastructure planning. I recognise what she said about gas-fired power stations and conversion and that the planning regime must be robust, but it must also be flexible. As she knows, we reviewed the Planning Act 2008 in 2014 to ensure that it was still delivering a streamlined, fair and faster nationally significant infrastructure planning system. Respondents to that review felt that the system was working reasonably well but suggested some practical improvements, many of which we have implemented, including the publication of a prospectus by the Planning Inspectorate setting out help and advice to applicants before submitting an application for development consent. I also welcome the Planning Inspectorate’s intention to hold a workshop in June to ensure effective pre-application discussions, and my hon. Friend talked about how that could be beneficial to her area.
I apologise that I have been too short on time to cover in more depth some of the questions asked by my hon. Friend and others, but I assure her that I will write to her about the items that I have not been able to respond to. If the coal-fired power station she referred to closes, she can certainly come back to my Department to discuss further the challenges of that site and the development that the local area may aspire to.
I thank all hon. Members who attended the debate and the Minister for his comments. I look forward to following up on them and going through the issues that I have raised.
In this short time, I would like to thank hon. Members, in particular my hon. Friends from Staffordshire, who were here en masse. I add my support to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) for the dualling of the A5, because, as he rightly said, it affects Cannock Chase, too. I thank my neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who have been incredibly supportive throughout this pretty difficult time with the power station.
The debate has demonstrated that this issue affects Members from across the UK, from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst). I noticed that cooling towers seem to have a role as a navigation device, whether for drivers or for sailors. I want to refer specifically to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), who has demonstrated that his constituency is the original northern powerhouse. I thank everyone for their time this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of coal-fired power station sites.
Electoral Participation (Media)
[David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of the media in encouraging electoral participation.
Today’s debate is very timely. With the EU referendum only a few weeks away and elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections in some parts of the UK only one week away, this issue really has become a focus.
I will give my opinion on how the media can and should be involved in electoral participation—an interest of mine that developed through the Scottish independence referendum, when the media had so much impact. That became an influence on my work as an MP, and now as co-chair of the all-party group on democratic participation. I intend to talk today about matters such as electoral turnout and how it can vary between groups in society; the role the media had in the Scottish independence referendum and the subsequent impact on voter turnout; changes in demand and how the media need to reflect those; what support politicians can give to an evolving audience; and how media of all platforms have a responsibility to their audiences.
With the general election almost a year ago, when we saw an overall increase in electoral turnout, now seems the right time to pause and reflect on the many different factors that influenced that rise, the role the media undoubtedly played in it and how we can best support efforts to encourage electoral participation.
Since 1950, when electoral turnout was 83.9% across the UK, there has been a steady decline in voter turnout, ending with a staggeringly disappointing low turnout in 2001 of just 59.4% across the UK. Although we have seen the beginnings of a rise in turnout, it is not rising equally across all sectors of society or, indeed, all parts of the UK. While I am sure there were a variety of reasons for the increased turnout in 2015, there has been an increase in media engagement of the electorate and a platform shift in not only the types of media that reach out to engage and influence but the platforms from which people seek their information.
While many Members present today may expect me to use this debate to have a pop at biased media during the Scottish independence debate, I have bigger points to make than to shame the BBC, the Daily Record or the Daily Mail. The media no longer influence the electorate just through traditional party political broadcasts or biased newspapers. It is not only a question of leaders’ debates on the telly, although they are important. The media have evolved and begun to recognise the role they can play in not only voter registration and turnout but overall engagement. As people have become more politically aware, there is a far higher demand of media. I believe broadcasters realise that and want to meet the expectations of their audiences.
Engagement in politics can be a difficult factor to measure. Even more complicated is how and why people are influenced and how the media can contribute to that. Recent findings of the Audit of Political Engagement 13 in 2016 concluded that
“the public’s perceived levels of knowledge of and interest in politics have reached, respectively, the highest and second highest levels recorded in the history of the Audit tracker.”
However, that is not the case across the whole of the UK, with notable variance regionally and in relation to class and ethnicity. The audit also found that in terms of an interest in and knowledge of politics, those who ranked themselves with the lowest indicators were black and minority ethnic adults, women, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and non-homeowners.
In Scotland, we have seen an unprecedented level of electoral participation, with the percentage of people who claim they are either very or fairly interested in politics standing at 74%, compared with just 57% in the general UK population. That trend has continued to grow after the referendum.
There are so many lessons we can learn from the experience of the Scottish referendum, in which people themselves took to the issues. Information was exchanged peer to peer far more than by interaction with traditional media. Some media outlets caught up with that and embraced it, which fed a real enthusiasm for politics that we had not seen a lot of in other parts of the country. That was a good thing, and it shows that if people are genuinely engaged and interested in politics, we can get beyond the, “Oh well, it’s only politicians; they don’t really count” mentality.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the engagement inspired by the referendum in Scotland has continued to the present day? We, as Scottish National party Members, are very much aware of that, as constituents continue to interact with us through social media, even while we are taking part in debates in the House.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is certainly something we have all had to adapt to, because there is still an expectation of availability, accessibility and the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas with us. It puts a great responsibility on us, but all politicians should look to live up to that responsibility. After all, we in this place are the representatives of the people.
Voter turnout in the 2015 general election across the UK was 66.1%—a rise of 6.7%, which, on the face of it, is not too bad. At a regional level, voter turnout was 65.8% in England, 65.7% in Wales, 71.1% in Scotland and 58.1% in Northern Ireland. However, if Scotland is excluded from that overall figure, and we look across a number of years, turnout in elections has not changed very much. The average combined turnout in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was 62.9% in 2001, 62.2% in 2005, 62.6% in 2010 and 63.2% in 2015. That helps to demonstrate the difference in engagement we have seen in Scotland because of the referendum and the grassroots movement of people accessing information in different ways, and the ways that that has been taken forward.
It is clear to many—I suspect many of my colleagues from Scotland will agree—that we need to learn the lessons from the referendum and understand and encourage all types of media to engage with people politically. We must look to and support a host of platforms to enable that, from the arts and social media to self-gathering grassroots media, which was such a factor in the Scottish independence referendum. It was not simply traditional and social media; the arts got involved in the debate. There were theatre productions on all sides of the argument and on no side of the argument, allowing people to engage in politics in ways that were suited to them individually. It created a far better level of engagement than could otherwise have been hoped for.
It cannot be the case that people in the rest of the UK have any less desire to have a say in how their country is run or do not understand how politics affects them. I campaigned in the referendum and spoke to people who did understand, but many had either lost trust in politicians or political systems. During the referendum, those myths were blown out of the water. Politicians were replaced by neighbours, family, friends and colleagues. Trust in Scotland’s politicians—certainly those in some parties—has begun to be regained.
I actively encourage and celebrate campaigns such as those run by Bite the Ballot, Use Your Vote and Rock Enrol!, which have played a huge part in engaging and encouraging people up and down the country to register to vote. I draw particular attention to campaigns designed to capture people who are disfranchised and targeted media campaigns, such as those run by the National Union of Students, Gingerbread—a charity for single parents—and Crisis and Shelter, which give a political voice to homeless people. Those campaigns give a voice to those who most need to be engaged in politics.
I also recognise the role of other forms of media, including the recent efforts of TV programmes such as “Hollyoaks”, “Coronation Street” and “River City”. They have shown politics as an everyday thing affecting real people in their communities, with characters, certainly in “Coronation Street” and “River City”, becoming councillors and being directly involved in the political process.
I mentioned the TV debates earlier. This week in Scotland we have seen a very new approach to the debates, with a character from Scotland’s own “Gary: Tank Commander” interviewing each party leader in the run-up to the Scottish elections. That has, in a way, allowed party leaders to present their messages in a forum that is so different from anything that any of them would have ever experienced, and it has made politics relevant and accessible to people who might otherwise have thought that they had no interest in the subject. Suddenly, because it is a character that they enjoy, they look at things from that point of view and watch politics almost accidentally—much in the way that “Gogglebox”, another example of a great piece of innovation from Channel 4, manages to promote politics in what does not feel like a traditional way of accessing it.
Following the Scottish independence referendum, and because of the thirst of Scottish people to be engaged and to participate in political decision making, there has been a huge growth in peer-led, grassroots media. Initiatives such as Common Weal and CommonSpace have seen people from across the political spectrum unite in their desire to participate. That has been felt on a local level in my constituency, where media platforms such as Midlothian View and The Penicuik Cuckoo have become sources of information about what is happening as much as our local newspaper, the Midlothian Advertiser.
People are looking to access information in different ways. Those media that are on the ball and keeping up with things are listening and reacting, but we as politicians have a responsibility to encourage that and promote it across all levels of the media.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. In my constituency we have two excellent local newspapers: the Surrey Advertiser, which is branded the Woking Advertiser in Woking, and the Woking News & Mail. They cover local and national politics in a very considered way. However, so many towns are now without a local newspaper—never mind two—and I wonder whether local radio stations should also be covering local and national politics more than they do to make up for the very unfortunate decline in our traditional local press.
I absolutely agree; this is a responsibility of all media platforms. My constituency is very fortunate to have two community radio stations—Black Diamond FM and Crystal FM—that take an active interest in politics locally and that do their bit when it comes to elections by hosting hustings and such. Coverage should absolutely be across all platforms.
Although the media, social media platforms and broadcasters must participate, politicians also have a part to play. They need to rebuild trust within their constituencies and communities and listen to how voters want to be engaged. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are helpful, but are not enough—after all, not everyone can be quite as popular as Nicola Sturgeon.
When we see huge swathes of the population disfranchised because their vote never influences election outcomes, we should be worried. When steps are taken to refuse votes at 16—even though, as a demographic, they are more engaged—we should be worried. As well as exploring how the media engage with politics, we should also consider how politics engages with people. Reforms are certainly needed.
The key message that I would like the Minister and others interested in the debate to take away is that we should all take steps—every step we possibly can—to engage all aspects of the media and encourage them to be involved in politics. The meaning of the word “politics” translates to “of, for, or relating to the citizens,” and it is high time that we all paid attention to that.
It is good to have you looking after us this afternoon, Mr Crausby, and making sure we all behave ourselves and have a productive debate. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing it. As he said, he is involved in the all-party group on democratic participation, which does incredibly important work. We need to develop a better cross-party approach in this area, particularly on such things as voter registration; we do better together than we do separately. Political parties no doubt have a place in getting their normal demographic supporter base to get registered and to get out, take part and use their vote on polling day. More than that, however, if we can co-operate on a cross-party basis, it is often reassuring for voters because they can see that it is being done from purer democratic motives, rather than just for party advantage. That can make a difference, so the all-party group’s work is in that proud tradition and is hugely to be supported and applauded.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned various surveys of democratic engagement and democratic involvement. Interestingly, the results that he quoted pretty closely match—directionally at least—what we see if we start to compare levels of voter registration. Voter registration is not a perfect proxy for democratic involvement, because someone can be registered to vote and then not use their vote on polling day, but it is not a bad one. It was very interesting to hear him mention that some BME community groups are under-represented and less likely to be registered. Incidentally, others are extremely well represented—there are some parts of the Asian community in this country whose registration rates are well above average—but as he rightly mentions, some are below average.
Equally, we have problems with people who live in short-term rented accommodation and perhaps move regularly. There is some debate about whether their reason for not registering is that they are disaffected and do not believe in the idea of democracy being relevant to them, or whether it is just inconvenient because the registration folk do not keep up with them as they move around—it may be a bit of both. There are some queries about that. Students can be a problem in terms of levels of registration, although interestingly, a degree of evidence now shows that quite a lot of students are registered at their parental home address as opposed to their university address, so we need to be careful about how that set of figures are taken.
The single worst group for registration is one that we often forget about—expatriates. There are between 1.5 million and 2 million Brits currently living abroad who are legally entitled to vote. At present, they lose the right to vote after 15 years, and we aim to change that in due course. However, as the law stands, there are perhaps 1.5 million people, or even more—estimates vary, but there could be up to 2 million—living abroad who are legally enfranchised, but the level of registration among that group was just over 100,000 at the last general election. Therefore, only between 5% and 10% of them are registered, at most. They are by far the least well-registered group and are therefore the least well-represented group among all the different ones that we need to get involved and bring into the fold.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the role of media is incredibly important. He pointed out that the way in which social media has changed democratic debate is important not only for us as practising politicians, but for the overall body politic—for the state and how our democratic consensus is forged, and how democratic debate takes place—and I particularly liked that. He is absolutely right that more of that is now peer to peer, which I think was the phrase he used. I venture to suggest that in the past, peer-to-peer debate was basically what people said to their mates down the pub, but the advent of social media means that Facebook groups, Twitter streams and, I dare say, even Snapchat groups of one kind or another, are now all over the place. They mean that people with very disparate interests and opinions can come together much more easily and share their points of view.
That is relevant for campaigning groups: people who have a particular interest in anything from saving hedgehogs through to democracy in Burma, and everything in between—the sorts of things that, actually, are frequently covered by all-party groups in this building. It allows them to organise nationally much more effectively, much faster and much more cheaply than they ever used to. However, we need to be careful: if someone is always surrounded by like-minded people online, or physically in the offline world, they risk finding themselves purely in an echo chamber where everybody always agrees with them. I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that nothing is more dangerous for a politician than to hear the opinions only of people who always agree with them. That can lead to dangerous waters, including the belief that they are always right and, if not careful, they may become impatient with people who have the temerity to hold a different point of view. Part of the weft and warp of good democratic debate is that someone can disagree honestly, fervently and strongly without being a bad person. They may just be incredibly principled and happen to hold different views.
One danger of the echo chamber effect is that people become more likely to be short-tempered with one another if they hear competing views. None the less, digital media and the vastly extended scope of peer-to-peer debate is incredibly important to the way our democracy functions—not just our democracy, but every democracy.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the effect of broadcast media and we should include TV, national radio and local radio. I thank him for introducing me to Gary of “Gary: Tank Commander”, who does not make it quite as far down in the south-west as where I live in Weston-super-Mare. I am resolved to try to find him because I am told that he is very funny and has done some interesting stuff as a comedian interviewing politicians in Scotland, which is an interesting cross-over that has not been done commonly, certainly not in this country or much more widely. If it has, it has been done more along the lines of taking the mickey out of unsuspecting politicians, rather like Sacha Baron Cohen, which is different. It is potentially very interesting, but there are other areas where the broadcast media have historically done great things.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
The temptation to restart by just saying “‘Gary: Tank Commander’ and” is very strong. However, I remind everybody that we had just finished talking about the effect of social media and the way it has changed our democratic discourse mostly for the better, but with some caveats. I was moving on to talk about broadcast media—national TV and radio, and local radio—and the arts. The hon. Member for Midlothian was rightly taking pains to emphasise their contribution.
I think we are all familiar with the national contribution of broadcasters in current affairs and news programmes, but there are many other aspects. The hon. Gentleman mentioned soap operas. Voter registration and political involvement have played into the plotlines of “Hollyoaks”, “River City” and various other programmes. Those are examples of drama portraying what should be normal life—normal political involvement, whether that is, for example, someone standing for the local council or getting involved in a campaign to save their local theatre.
Those examples bring home to people that political involvement is part of the normal way in which the world works—what ordinary, normal people do—and reduces the distance between politics and people. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the two should be synonymous. The roots of the words are the same. Such examples stop politicians being seen, necessarily, as a slightly weird class of other people who have different interests and motivations from everybody else, and remind us all that politicians should be the same as everybody else. We should be the same as our next-door neighbours and live in the same world as everybody else. Drama can do that in a very powerful way.
Broadcast drama obviously has huge reach and theatre can also make a difference, as can other arts such as the visual arts. For example, Weston-super-Mare recently played host to a world-class, world-famous exhibition organised by the street artist Banksy at the Tropicana lido on the sea front. It was fascinating because much of the art produced by Banksy and some other artists featured had a political message. It was mainly the politics of protest, interestingly; none the less, it will have driven political involvement.
I was asked by a number of journalists whether I was comfortable with those politics of protest—in many cases, they were slightly left-wing political statements—as part of the art in the middle of Weston-super-Mare, to which my unhesitating answer was, “Yes. I’m very happy indeed, if only because it makes people think.” One of the things that art is supposed to do, of course, is to make people think. If it made people think and made them realise that such issues affect us all, not just politicians and a class of other people, it is all to the good.
Comedians can do the same. We have mentioned “Gary: Tank Commander”, and political comedy and satire has a long and respectable history, although it is probably wrong to call satire respectable. As politicians, we need to be careful because satire is partly, by its very nature, a distancing thing. It creates the distance that we need to collapse, so some forms of comedy can add to the problem, as well as subtract from it. We must acknowledge that comedy can be a double-edged sword.
Going back to national TV and radio, and local radio, we are all comfortable and familiar with news and current affairs programmes. More recently—this has been a huge adornment and improvement to our national political discussions—the leaders’ debates have made a great deal of difference. Although we are used to those, there is a broader approach in drama and things other than current affairs, which the broadcast media should use.
More broadly, there are other media, particularly the material used in schools. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, for example, the Rock Enrol! school materials, which are produced in the Cabinet Office by people in my team and used widely in schools across the country to teach pupils about democratic engagement as part of a broader programme of citizenship. All those materials and media are important for making democracy part of what everyone is brought up with. If people are brought up with democracy, and if it is explained to them even before they are of voting age, and certainly when they have just achieved voting age, it becomes part of their normal life in the same way as owning a tablet PC or phone might be nowadays. Like breathing, it becomes part of their life, which makes a huge difference.
There are two final groups. Civil society groups can make a huge difference, and many of them produce their own media, either written or, in many cases, online. Many civil society groups are tightly focused and deeply engaged with specific groups of voters, many of them the hard-to-reach, under-registered groups that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Operation Black Vote, Bite the Ballot and many others, for example, are incredibly effective, and if they are not incredibly effective, they are more effective than anybody else. They are leaders in their field at persuading people in those groups that it is worth while getting involved in the democratic process.
As we were saying earlier, part of the difficulty is that some groups are under-represented or under-registered because registration is inconvenient. For example, the system may not keep up with people who move house frequently and ensure that their registration moves from one house to the next. There are also groups where that inconvenience or bureaucratic friction is not the whole story. In some cases there is a high degree of distrust in democracy, in the democratic process, in politics and in politicians of all kinds and of all political persuasions. All of us, as politicians and in these various groups, therefore need to develop a poetry of politics to persuade people that politics is something that can be effective in improving their lives, rather than something for other people.
Finally, no debate on the media would be complete without mentioning the print media. It is noticeable that the hon. Gentleman barely touched on the print media, perhaps partly because it is no secret that although many newspapers are still immensely powerful and widely read, many are suffering from declining circulations. Although it will always be a huge mistake to write off the newspaper industry, it has broader problems, even though it still carries an enormous amount of weight and heft. All our comments on the broadcast media, although with some differences due to the nature of the medium itself, also apply to the print media.
The much maligned council newspaper or magazine can also help. We have an excellent council newspaper in Woking, and it always encourages registration and participation. It explains, in a grounded, proper way, how the electoral process works and when the elections are.
Devolution (East Anglia)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government proposals for devolution in East Anglia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister, who in his relatively short time in post has done an excellent job of driving the Government’s regional and devolution agenda, particularly as the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse.
I come to this debate wearing two hats: one as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough for the past 11 years; and one as someone who is genuinely asking the Government to explain more coherently their rationale for this policy as it pertains to East Anglia. Obviously, we are a proud municipal entity in Peterborough. Our local authority was first incorporated in 1874, and 20 years ago we were liberated by throwing off the yoke of Cambridgeshire County Council to become, like other notable cities in England, a unitary authority as the city and county of Peterborough.
I am not ideologically against devolution in any sense, but it is incumbent on the Government to explain their position. It would be remiss of me not to draw the House’s attention to the excellent National Audit Office report published on 20 April, which was considered by the Public Accounts Committee on Monday in unison with another excellent report, produced on 23 March, on local enterprise partnerships.
Obviously, devolution is predicated on Government functions being moved to local areas and local entities. It is very much a bottom-up, not a top-down, process. That has certainly been the case in the majority of the 34 English local government areas that submitted bids following the Government’s invitation in 2014—the successful bids were announced in the 2015 autumn statement—but the policy of devolution must be seen within a wider context.
When the coalition Government were elected in 2010, we expressly set our face against regional government. We got rid of regional assemblies, having seen the mess made by the regional policy of the previous Labour Government, the rejection of regional government by the people of the north-east and, particularly, the rejection of the regional spatial strategies that had been trying to force inappropriate housing on many largely rural areas across the country. That was the basis of the Government’s position, and the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), specifically said at the time that there would be no further local government reorganisation.
It seems strange that, in what is essentially a financial statement, the Government disregarded the good work being done in places such as Manchester and Birmingham to announce, out of the blue and with limited consultation and collaboration with key stakeholders, local enterprise partnerships, local authority leaders and majority groups, three further devolution schemes in Greater Lincolnshire, the west of England and, of course, East Anglia. Given that the overall tone of the NAO report is that the process is a potential risk, and complex, the Government need to explain why that happened.
The policy involves 16 million people across 10 deals, and it arises from the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. I can understand why the policy is attractive to local authorities. It involves a cumulative sum of £7.4 billion over a 30-year period, or about £246.5 million per annum, but in the east of England it is only £30 million, which has to be set in the broader financial context. Currently, the three counties in the East Anglia scheme already spend £660 million in capital infrastructure funding and have already received £37 million of growth funding in the last financial year. The deal promises officially the lowest per capita funding of all the 10 devolution deals: £13 a head. That compares, for instance, with £22 a head for Sheffield, £20 a head for Liverpool and £23 a head for Tees valley—I am sure the Minister will have something to say about Tees valley.
If it were genuine devolution, I would be a bit more sanguine. I agree, of course, that it is not an ignoble aspiration for any Government to integrate and promote collaboration between key public services to improve them in sectors such as transport, business support, further education, housing and planning, although, incidentally, we are not devolving to any great extent the work of the Department for Work and Pensions, which has never been very agreeable to having any kind of subsidiarity or devolution. Also, the area of health is pick ‘n’ mix; some of the deals will have some health funding devolved and some will not.
A number of key issues cause me concern. One is about synergies. Is there really a synergy between the Suffolk coast, south Suffolk, St Neots, King’s Lynn and the city of Peterborough? I do not think there is. We should remember that the regional policy of the Labour Government was about reducing inequalities in the economies within regions and between regions, but the local enterprise partnerships that were established by the previous coalition Government were intended to take into account infrastructure and economic growth in travel-to-work areas, which, incidentally, are not coterminous with these new devolution deal areas.
I do not believe that there is any synergy. In fact, this is unprecedented. Unless we count Boadicea and Hereward the Wake, no one has ever decided it would be a good idea to have an overarching governance structure for the whole of these three counties in East Anglia. This is different from the other schemes. Of course, the Greater Manchester scheme and the Birmingham scheme effectively reconfigure the old Greater Manchester County Council and the West Midlands County Council, and they make sense. But regarding economic, demographic and social links, the East Anglia scheme does not stack up and it looks like a back-of-an-envelope calculation by someone in the Treasury.
That is an issue that concerns me. Another is duplication. Let me give just two examples. What is the point of LEPs now if some of their key functions in sectors such as skills and training are devolved to an executive elected mayor and a cabinet, with the numbers, powers, duties and responsibilities unspecified? We read that the combined authority will have an education committee. What will happen to Norfolk County Council’s education committee, or Suffolk County Council’s education committee and the cabinet functions that they discharge as local education authorities?
These are important issues and I do not believe that the Minister or the Government have addressed the potential for duplication across four tiers, and that is not including parish councils. The four tiers will be the LEP, the combined authority with the elected mayor, county councils and district councils. Quite reasonably, each of those bodies—particularly the district council and county council—is saying, “Which one of us is going to be abolished?”
My hon. Friend is presenting a superb case. Where would the police and crime commissioners, who have only been going for four years and who the Government now say are doing a very good job, go in all this? They are another elected tier and are doing well. Chances are that, if the elected mayor comes in, the PCC will disappear, as will the LEPs. Those two initiatives, which are actually working very well, would effectively be scrapped.
That is a superb point about competing mandates, which was eloquently made in an erudite fashion by our hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk on the “Today” programme this morning. It is a very important point.
We also need to look at democracy and accountability. I repeat the point that there was very little discussion or debate with important people in local government before this deal was announced at the Budget, and I deprecate that. It is not right when we are talking about a potential expenditure of £7 billion that will affect 2.3 million people. We do not know what primary legislation will be needed, and we do not really know what the powers, duties and responsibilities of the elected mayor will be. I will develop that point a bit later.
There is also a question about resilience. One of the issues that the NAO brought out in its report was whether there is the resilience in the civil service at departmental level—between the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government—to manage this very complex issue of different deals across the country, because of the heterogeneous nature of each of the areas involved. I am referring to the Cities and Local Growth Unit in central Government, but also to local government. The NAO wondered whether there was the capacity to deal with this sustainably. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) knows that on the Public Accounts Committee we have seen that, in straitened financial times, when we do not have a benign environment, there have been significant problems about the sustainability of big projects, whether they are projects involving fire control, the fire service and fire authorities, the police, further education in particular, or of course local government. That is the case now, so what will it be like when we have really big budgets and functions across different boundaries?
The question is this: will devolution of the
“planning and organising services across institutional and geographical boundaries…lead to more integrated and efficient services”?
That question was put by the NAO. One only has to look at the health economy in the eastern region—at the problems at Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, at Hinchingbrooke hospital, and at Peterborough City hospital—to see how difficult it has been to align geographical areas to clinical care and to work between acute district hospital care and primary care trusts. But we are looking to do something on a much bigger scale in the future.
Of course, I welcome some aspects of the proposal—the devolution of local transport budgets, skills, adult further education and business rate retention. However, there is a lack of specificity, as well as an ambiguity, about these proposals. The Government say that over time funding streams will be put in a single pot in sectors such as transport and local growth. However, the NAO says that
“the government needs to provide a clear statement of the new accountability arrangements…aligned and coherent across government…many of the assumptions about devolution deals are untested.”
That raises great concerns about scrutiny and oversight. We got rid of the Audit Commission six years ago. We do not have a body that can look in detail at the spending priorities of the elected mayor and his cabinet. It is no good saying that we will have a scrutiny panel of, frankly, under-resourced Back-Bench MPs and small district councils to oversee these huge budget decisions and infrastructure projects. That does not really wash. We only need to look at some of the problems about cronyism and inappropriate contracts in some academy chains, and most recently the problems with the fire and rescue service in Cambridgeshire, to see that without proper accountability and oversight things can go wrong.
We need to ask questions about why there is not a proper timetable and timeline. Also, there is no clear statement of objectives. The NAO says that the Government do not have
“a clear framework for how the deals will link to other ongoing localism initiatives.”
That is an important point. The NAO also says that
“The expected…pace of future devolution deals is not known at present.”
I do not want to take too much longer, but it is important to put this point to the Minister. It is not good enough to rely on good will and a statement of intent, which is what most of the deals now are relying on. As I said, we got rid of the Audit Commission and despite improvements there is not an effective process for accountability system statements. It is no good the DCLG saying that it is reviewing accountability system statements and that it does not require any more primary legislation for oversight. I do not think that that is good enough.
More importantly, given that this major issue is about driving up economic performance and macroeconomic strategy—that includes infrastructure, regeneration, new housing and so on—no performance or cost data are outlined at the centre so that economic performance can be properly measured. In particular, no data are outlined for the proposal’s value for money to be assessed.
I will finish with a few questions for the Minister. I know others want to speak. I say in passing that we are in the middle of the EU referendum campaign, and we take different sides. I believe that in politics most things are a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, but I have to say that it is strange that those most in favour of the European Union are those most in favour of this regional governance scheme. I wonder why that is. They include the council leaders who wrote to the East Anglian Daily Times saying how wonderful the European Union was about six weeks ago. The small print says that the new East Anglian combined authority would be the intermediate body for the European social fund and other European structural funds. I see the fingerprints of a well-known former Deputy Prime Minister all over the proposals. I am young, but I am way too cynical.
When will we see primary legislation come forward to allow the mayor to fund infrastructure through business rates? What non-statutory spatial framework and what local plans will be put in place? What non-statutory supplementary planning documents will be produced? What will the joint investment and asset board do? What will its powers, duties and responsibilities be? When will we see a garden town in Fenland or west Norfolk? When are we going to see a taught degree university in the city of Peterborough? That has been an omission by the Peterborough Development Corporation over the past 30 or 40 years.
Will the Minister tell us about flood defence and coastal management? Will he tell us about the potential role of the regional schools commissioner? A lot of people are concerned about that. Surely the employment and skills board will duplicate some of the work of the local enterprise partnership. There is also the Orwellian-sounding, Stalinist tractor organisation that is the productivity commission. No doubt the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) would like that organisation; it is right up his street. The productivity commission—very Fidel Castro.
I generally welcome what the Government are doing, but I think there is a compromise.
I thought I would try to get there before my hon. Friend started his peroration. He reminded me of a meeting I had with the Italian Minister for productive activities in Rome some years ago. Curiously enough, he was not responsible for fertility in Italy, although one might have thought he was.
Because I cannot stay until the end of the debate, I felt inhibited from making a speech, but I want to ask my hon. Friend one thing. Also, I do not want to have to listen to the Minister, who is a noted Eurosceptic, torturing the English language in defending the deal. Unfortunately, I have other commitments.
We have 330 district councillors in Norfolk. There are 293 in Suffolk and a further 286 in Cambridgeshire. That is a total of more than 900. There are 228 county councillors for the area, and 57 councillors in the unitary borough of Peterborough. That is a total of nearly 1,200 councillors in the three counties, which feels a little top-heavy. There are also the 6,000 or so parish councillors. That is something like 7,500 councillors altogether. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough had people queueing at his constituency surgeries—I certainly have not—demanding more elected representatives?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The need for an executive elected mayor is not the talk of the Dog and Duck in Peterborough, it is true. We have enough government and enough councillors. We do not need another tier of governance, as he has probably gathered from the tenor of my remarks.
Having said all that, the Government can rescue the situation with all the Cs: collaboration, consultation, clarity and coherence. If they can explain the role of the elected mayor, explain in a timely way how the passage towards powers and duties will work, create a timescale and show us that it is in the financial interest of our constituents to accept this new governance structure, we will be mindful of that and be prepared to be broadly supportive.
There is an alternative model, which would be to effectively have two greater local enterprise partnerships: one for Norfolk and Suffolk and one for Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and the city of Cambridge. That is a perfectly reasonable alternative model if the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government do not get fixated on population numbers, but instead go back to first principles, which is economic sustainability.
I offer my remarks with good will and a degree of cross-party support. I am not yet persuaded, but I may be in the future. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks. I hope he can specifically answer some of my queries and concerns.
Order. Due to Divisions, this debate will end at 5.54 pm. I intend to give the two Front Benchers 10 minutes each, so I will call the first at 5.34 pm. Six Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Doing the maths, they have around three minutes each, including interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate. Unusually, we might find ourselves in agreement on one or two issues today.
From my very first contribution in the House, I have been banging on not about Europe, but about the real and immediate challenges facing Cambridge on housing and transport. In the last year, the problems have only become more acute. We have some of the fastest rising house prices in the country—they are even outstripping London—and too many occasions when the city has been near gridlocked.
I am sorry to say that the policy response from the Government has made the situation worse. Cambridge City Council and local housing associations have rightly been horrified by the range of Government housing proposals that will dramatically reduce the already limited amount of affordable housing in the city and undermine the only recently agreed long-term business plan underpinning the building of new affordable homes for rent. Moreover, the much-vaunted city deal plan inherited from the previous Government has morphed into the mess before us today.
The devolution deal at the heart of this debate, while much trumpeted by the Government, is not much welcomed by anyone else. It is a devolution deal for Norfolk and Suffolk, with Cambridgeshire bolted on as a last-minute add-on, with an unwanted elected mayor bolted on top of that. Let us be clear: Cambridge and the surrounding area need the freedom to make the investments needed to tackle the housing and transport challenges.
A detailed case has been developed by the local business-led organisation Cambridge Ahead, and I urge the Minister to revisit it. “The Case for Cambridge” enjoyed strong local support across councils, local MPs, all sectors of business, the LEP, the chamber of commerce and our universities, which are a unique asset. Unfortunately, instead of responding to that locally agreed and developed proposal—the very bottom-up proposal that the Government sought—the Government instead came back late in the day with a completely different solution. They basically said, “You’ve got three weeks to take it or leave it.” The reaction was rightly furious. The LEP rejected it, business leaders rejected it, Cambridge City Council rejected it and Cambridgeshire County Council rejected it. So far as I am aware, only one district in the area has any real enthusiasm.
I do not have much time, so I will jump straight to my final conclusions, although I note in passing that the National Audit Office highlighted a discrepancy in funding between regions. Why does the west of England get £27 per capita additional investment per head, while in East Anglia we are offered just £13?
As a more optimistic conclusion, may I say that we need to get more flexibility and funding into the region? I suggest that the Minister look again at the suggestions coming from Cambridgeshire and the very special opportunities in Cambridge in particular. Why can those two deals not be folded into one? No one really wants your mayor, Minister. If we have to have it, I dare say they can be safely ignored. There is a much bigger prize for Cambridge. We can be the catalyst for UK prosperity. We are already hugely successful, but that future success is at risk. Of course there are always risks with major investments—we know that, and we have explained how those can be underwritten. Cambridge is up to the task, but as it stands we do not have the powers we need.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), with whom I agree entirely. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate.
Ministers have done an excellent job on devolution. I support devolution, which is an absolute natural partner to localism—I think that was the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge—and localism is all about buy-in from local people. In Norfolk, we have an affinity to Norfolk. We love it and are passionate about it. The same is true of people in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We have no affinity to a concept such as East Anglia. In a metropolitan area, people have a sense of belonging to a city. The idea works very well in London, Manchester and Birmingham, but the proposal for an elected mayor of East Anglia will not gain public support, and that is why it is my red line.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough mentioned, we opposed Lord Prescott’s regional assemblies. We were very anti the regional spatial strategies. According to the agreement signed by the 23 council leaders, the mayor will have some reserve powers over housing. Any change has to command public support. At a time when local government is cutting back on many third sector organisations—I can think of the citizens advice bureau in my constituency, transport for the disabled and mental health charities—it is not going to look kindly on us for putting in place a very expensive fifth tier of local government.
When council leaders say that the proposal will be cost-effective, that some of the personnel will be stripped out of existing councils and that it will not cost anything extra, what planet are they living on? This will be an opportunity for empire building. It will be a very costly tier of local government. The Government say that they will take out another tier. I am a veteran of at least three campaigns on unitary government. They are very divisive and difficult. It is far better to have collaboration and co-operation between councils. We can then move forward on that basis.
Ministers overlook the political sovereignty of MPs. We have sovereignty on our own patch to convene meetings to get things done or to stop things happening. Frankly, I do not want an elected mayor barging into my constituency and saying, “Henry, you’ve been a bad boy. You don’t want these houses or this incinerator in your constituency, but we would like you to have them. I am a regional mayor with a mandate from a turnout of all of 5%.”
I am afraid I will not because I must press on.
I put it to the Minister that there is an alternative. There are 23 council leaders, two LEPs and three PCCs. They can get together and select or elect a head honcho to carry forward the devolution process and oversee the strategic transport fund that is going to be put in place. It will be seen as an administrative arrangement, not another tier of government. It will be a Tory solution to the demand that we have devolution. If the Government go down that route and let it work for perhaps two, three or four years, we can see whether there is a democratic deficit and people are crying out for an elected mayor and revisit the matter. But if they insist on pushing ahead with the elected mayor part of the proposals, I fear they will fail. There is an alternative, and I hope the Minister will embrace it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and a privilege to speak after my fellow Norfolk MP, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham).
When the devolution initiative was first proposed, I had an open mind. Like Councillor George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, and Councillor Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, I wanted it to work. Lord Heseltine’s devolution report, which was published a little while ago, was quite clear that previous devolution attempts had failed because they were top down. He said that it would be different this time because local areas would write their own deal. That was what was promised, and it was on that basis that many councillors approached the initiative with a good conscience, thinking they could work with it, whatever their political party.
Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Councillor George Nobbs was a staunch supporter of the initial efforts. He wrote a letter to Lord Heseltine in which he said:
“Like you I have been an enthusiastic believer of devolving power from central to local government all of my adult life. However I feel that I should share with you, not just my views, but those of some of my fellow councillors, and ask for your help…You will know that there is widespread opposition to the concept of an elected Mayor, disquiet about the perceived rush to meet government deadlines and concern about a consultation to be held in July and August of all months. The financial incentives that are dangled in front of us, only to be threatened with withdrawal if there is any dissent, are in any case considered inadequate by many.”
We have to accept that if we are to have real devolution, we need real financial power for our local authorities and communities, which is not on offer in the deal. The past 35 years have seen centralisation by Whitehall and Westminster. In 1979, local authorities raised 75% of their own funding; they now raise less than 20%. The deal on the table goes nowhere near the level of fiscal independence required—a fact that so many councillors can now see. The meagre amount local authorities can raise from business rates was undermined in the most recent Budget when the Chancellor took money from them.
For cities in our region—economic powerhouses such as Norwich, Cambridge and Ipswich—there is little to no incentive for devolution.
Of course! I am sorry. How could I forget Peterborough?
Where is the control for local authorities over their own housing revenue accounts? Where is their control over the right to buy or the right to stay? Those would be the most effective ways to allow local authorities to build more of the affordable homes that are so desperately needed by so many people and that are acting as a bottleneck to economic progress.
Ultimately, if we want real devolution, we have to devolve control from central Government, which is increasing, to local government, and give local government the financial ability to do something with it. It is about empowering local authorities and local communities. As things stand, that is simply not happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this timely debate. Many concerns have been expressed and points raised, and I agree with many of them, particularly the point about police and crime commissioners. We are about to have a PCC election in Suffolk. As I understand it, the Mayor of London is the PCC for London. In a year’s time, are we going to be electing someone who will take over the functions of the three recently elected PCCs? I would like to know, because among the biggest concerns of all Members present are the layers of government.
I cannot go into too much detail—I have had to remove layers of my speech—but, notwithstanding all the concerns we have heard, we do need to be aware of the big picture. The Government have got it right—if not in all the detail then certainly in the thrust of the policy—on two points. First, let us not forget what happened in the referendum on the future of the United Kingdom. After that referendum, a promise was made to the people of Scotland and, at the same time, a promise was made to the people of England that we would get devolution—real power in local areas. The Conservative party is trying to deliver on that promise, and that is absolutely right.
Secondly, this country has a long-standing fundamental weakness: it has been completely over-centralised in London and its economy has been over-centralised in London and the south-east. We have paid a heavy price for that, with many parts of the country far poorer than London and the south-east. It would not be easy to deliver, but the key to solving the problem is infrastructure and long-term, sustainable economic growth for our region. If devolution could deliver that, it would be a victory for young people in our communities.
My final point is about rail. I think it is fair to say that the biggest economic weakness in our region is our railways. They are very poor, but we have a franchise going through. There has been talk of the reunification of the track and the operator, so that they would be run by the same body. If that were introduced, I would certainly support it, because the fragmentation between Network Rail and whichever franchisee is a problem. The regional government could then have a role, which would give us far greater strategic control over rail. That would be a welcome benefit. We must remember the potential positives, while asking questions on the key issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing the debate. I am a supporter of devolution, but on the feedback I receive from Suffolk, and from my constituency in particular, a lot of work needs to be done to ensure that the devolution deal has local support and will work. There is concern that the deal is being rushed in a way that adds bureaucratic complexity and blurs the lines of accountability.
As we have heard, much of Cambridgeshire is opposed to the deal at present and the idea of an elected mayor does not currently have public support. There is concern that another layer of local government is being added and the challenge of considering removing a tier is being sidestepped. If there is to be a mayor, we need to consider carefully their role and responsibilities, and how those will tie in with the work that councils will continue to do. What happens to the police and crime commissioners? Who will be responsible for the other blue-light services? How can national and local government best work together to meet the health and social care challenge of an ageing population, which is a huge issue in East Anglia?
There are many unanswered questions. There is a need for a pause to allow us to work with local people to produce a long-term strategic plan for East Anglian devolution. We must confront the devil in the detail now, and come up with a proposal that will have public support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for bringing forward this important debate. Much of what I have to say has been gone over by other Members, but I reiterate the view of my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) that devolution in principle is the prize, and we should not lose sight of that prize. It is highly important that we get there.
On the NAO report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough alluded, there is the retort to it that a lack of structure gives areas the ability to drive their own futures. That is an important point, because as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, we have slightly different structural pressures. The need for housing in Cambridge is acute, and that bears down on my constituency, but the partnership working that devolution offers us gives us the ability to move that forward and to help each other positively and productively.
We have the benefit of living in one of the best areas of the country—one of the primary areas for health, wealth, food and energy. We are an area for bioscience innovation. We would like what is put forward to be innovative. Innovation in devolution is an exciting concept. With Cambridge University sat in the heart of our region and the University of East Anglia in Norwich leading in life sciences, and agri-tech in particular, we ought to grab such opportunities and drive them forward, because that is the innovation that will help with the health and social care issues that we will have in the future.
We have infrastructure needs in broadband, housing, roads and rail. Nothing has been given back to us, while we have contributed to the Treasury for years—we will give it £2.2 billion this year and up to £8 billion by 2020—so we would like a little more. The potential lever of £900 million is great, but we would like to know what else there is. Unlocking the potential of businesses throughout our region is the prize here. We want to drive forward entrepreneurship and access markets through measures such as enterprise zones, growth hubs and productivity plans.
Innovation can be a game changer, and I am glad to see Andy Wood’s appointment as an independent chair, because that is a huge move forward. I was pleased to learn that, only this morning, a positive meeting of leaders from across our region was held; they are starting to build a shared vision. Work is going on to look at monetary value. There are problems, but if we can have a common vision, with layers of government, business, universities and civil society working to shared goals, we could really set the scene, as a first mover.
One of our primary problems is the lack of love for yet another layer of government. We have gone over that, and I am sure that we can discuss that going forward, but I do not want us to cut ourselves off at the knees and not give ourselves the chance for discussion. There are many concerns about the proposal; I am sure that the Minister will say whether there is a more moderated approach. Whatever the arrangements, it is important that any leader has defined powers but entertains a collaborative role and works with other local leaders to deliver.
I advise caution on the points that have been made. We must put meat on the bones of this deal to see whether it stacks up for people in our constituencies. I would like to know whether there is one deal for the combined area—Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire—or no deal. That sharp focus might incentivise us to get to the point of devolution: it should be iterative, and it should unlock potential and opportunity. As in Manchester, we should be able to come back to the table to ask the Government for more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for securing this important debate.
I have listened carefully to the debate, and I hope the Minister responds clearly to the genuine concerns raised by hon. Members, many of whom are on his side of the Chamber. When the Chancellor stood up in the House on 16 March to declare triumphantly that his Government had agreed a single powerful East Anglia combined authority, headed by an elected mayor with almost £1 billion of new investment, he was of course wrong. There was no agreement in place. There was only a document signed by council leaders agreeing that they would run the proposed deals through their respective councils and perform public consultation. That was enough for the Chancellor to stand before the nation and declare that the devolution revolution was taking hold. Just days later, the East Anglia devolution agreement began to fall apart.
The Conservative-administered Cambridgeshire County Council voted overwhelmingly, by 64 votes to zero, not to accept the plans. The Minister will be aware that that is not the only deal in disarray. This is more a rebellion than a revolution. Of the 38 devolution proposals from cities, town and counties across England, only 10 have materialised into plans. Many fell at the first hurdle because they disagreed with the Government’s insistence on a directly elected mayor. As we have heard today, this is one of the main problems with the East Anglia deal.
The whole point of devolution is to move away from over-centralised governance, to award more powers to local areas, to create more accountability, to improve the democratic process and to open up a dialogue between central Government and local government about what will work best for an area to bring decision making closer to its people. Council leaders have told me, as they told my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), that they were promised that devolution would be a bottom-up process based on those principles, yet the Government have taken a heavy-handed, top-down, dictatorial approach.
The geographical area covered by this deal makes it the largest of all devolution deals; it covers the three counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and spanning almost 5,000 square miles. No other deal comes near the expected collaboration requirements. Of the 23 local authorities, 22 have been lumped together. That is more than double the number of local authorities working together in any of the other deals. Common sense should dictate that it is ridiculous to expect 22 local authorities to work together, headed by one elected mayor, when each county has vastly different needs.
Suffolk was promised its own deal, but that was reneged on at the last minute. Cambridgeshire requested its own devolution deal, but was told that the Chancellor would not accept one-county deals. Then Greater Lincolnshire was awarded its own one-county deal. Norfolk and Suffolk asked for £75 million per annum for 30 years. Instead, they gained a county at the last moment, when Cambridgeshire reluctantly joined the deal and everyone was offered £1 billion over 30 years. That might sound good, but when one drills down, it is a modest sum of just over £30 million a year, over 22 local authority areas.
In short, this deal, like many others, is a complete shambles. It is all smoke and mirrors—giving with one hand and taking away with the other. There is huge unease at the speed with which the deal is being pushed through. There is significant pressure on local authorities to develop and complete the necessary work to set up the combined authority before they have had a chance to consult their councillors, let alone the public. Will the Minister comment on the timetable and confirm whether this proposal has been processed so quickly because of the Government’s obsession with having elected mayors in place by May 2017?
Places such as Manchester have had half a decade to progress their deals, but the councils in the east of England have been given seven months. Why will the Government not give those councils adequate time to allow the process to be democratic and fair? Having an elected mayor for a large rural area covering three counties is an unprecedented constitutional innovation. It is untried and untested, and that mayor is likely to be democratically remote. It is difficult enough for counties to get behind the idea of having one mayor covering one county, and unthinkable that one person could cover the needs and demands of three counties with diverse communities, complex internal geography, and varied urban and rural hubs.
Councils have made it clear that they do not want such an arrangement. The Communities and Local Government Committee has said that elected mayors are not an “easy fit” for non-metropolitan areas, and it believes that councils and their local populations should have the right to choose whether to have one. We heard today about some of the many alternatives, such as the one in Cornwall, but the Government continue to insist on elected mayors.
The East Anglia deal is insubstantial. Although the Government entice signatories by promising to devolve more powers at some unspecified future date, those powers are subject to negotiation with the Treasury, not enshrined in statute. Promises can and, given this Government’s track record, will be withdrawn. The elected mayor is the only statutory creation, and once elected, the mayor will be a fixture on the political landscape, even if these devolution deals, as they are currently envisaged, collapse.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, housing is critical in the east of England, but it was offered as a devolved power only as an afterthought, just two days before this deal was signed. The £175 million housing investment fund was thrown in on the condition that there was a fast-track timetable in place for an elected mayor by 2017, but that was not the only condition. In the draft deal, that £175 million is earmarked largely for shared-ownership homes—homes that we know are beyond the means of many people and will not address the issue of the affordability of housing. This Government’s assault on council housing continues. That is yet another example of how their version of devolution is actually about delegation.
There is no real fiscal devolution here. Cuts will continue to be made to local authority budgets, yet councils will be expected to support a combined authority with reduced resources and capacity. Draft deals have only been signed because council leaders who genuinely care about their areas want real devolution and want to make it work. For that, they need a Government who want the same thing, but I fear that this Government do not.
When it was in power in Scotland and Wales, Labour achieved real devolution. We did not rush things through at lightning speed, and we did not expect huge decisions to be made that would affect communities and governance for decades. We had robust public consultation, and we would not have introduced new tiers of governance without allowing time for scrutiny and due diligence. We certainly would not have conducted devolution veiled in secrecy behind closed doors, or imposed last-minute changes from the centre.
The sad truth is that the appetite for devolution among councils and the public is incredibly strong, but this Government are failing to harness that or, as noted in a recent National Audit Office report, clearly articulate what exactly they are trying to achieve through these deals. The upshot is that we, local authorities and, most importantly, members of the public, on whom such deals will impact, do not know what the Government are trying to achieve. Yet again, we are seeing a masterclass in undemocratic process, which is leaving councils feeling like they are engaged in a Faustian pact.
I know that several Members here are not in favour of the devolution plan that is on the table. Is the hon. Lady aware, however, that some councils are in favour of it? Her speech is a little one-sided. For example, I represent two district councils, including one for East Cambridgeshire, which is very much in favour of the deal. Some questions must be asked, and we would all like some more money, but will she acknowledge that there is some support for devolution?
I will acknowledge that there is some support, but my role is to scrutinise the Government and to express concerns, so that is what I am using my time for today.
To sum up, will the Minister, once and for all, come clean about the real purpose of the deals? How do they serve the interests of the public, rather than of the Government?
We have had an interesting debate, with a wide range of contributions from Members with different party backgrounds and outlooks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing it. He is greatly exercised about the issue, but that is because he is well informed about it. He has asked some important questions, as have other hon. Members, and I will try to address them as best I can in the limited time available.
I will reconfirm one point for the record, which is that any accusation that I am a European Union stooge is far from the mark. I stand here as a Minister speaking on behalf of the Government, but the EU is a matter on which the Government and I have rather different views. I have maintained my view for some time, and it continues to be my position. That feeds into the comments my hon. Friend made about intermediate body status, because as it happens, I am also the Minister with responsibility for the European regional development fund—an interesting role to have at this time. I assure him that on this point there is no conspiracy, and the intermediate body status is not part of a greater plot, as he might suspect. I am happy to talk to him on another occasion, at as much length as he might desire, to reassure him of that.
Devolution is exciting. It has been offered to the country as a whole; 38 different areas have said they want to be part of it, and this Government are doing it differently from the Labour Government, who in previous attempts tried to force regional assemblies on to people, first of all in the north-east, where I am from. At the time, I was very much involved in the campaign against the regional assembly, and I was close to the detail, but I am closer still to the detail of what we are doing now and discussing today, and I can assure hon. Members that this devolution really is quite different. It is driven by people in the areas to which devolution is being offered, and it is based on geographies that they determine, through discussion, and on the powers that they want.
I am happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. The Government have made a deal, and signatures were added to the document. We want to deliver on that deal and to meet the obligations to which we are committed by the deal, but we do not expect or plan to reopen discussions and to start again. Other areas want to talk about devolution and to secure deals of their own. It is very positive that East Anglia is forging so far ahead with that policy agenda, but we must recognise that if areas want to go back on deals that have been agreed and want to reinvent them before they have been enacted, we will have to look at the allocation of our time and resources to other areas that have not yet reached agreement and need attention and focus.
To be absolutely clear, I thought I heard music to my ears a moment ago—that devolution deals should come from the regions that want them. Given that all the parties that have signed a tentative document are not happy, for whatever reasons, what is stopping us from going back to the drawing board? I think what would work for us all would be Suffolk and Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire-Peterborough-Huntingdon. With that, we could find real traction and make things happen quickly.
I am conscious of time, but I want to be very clear: a deal has been agreed, on a geography that has been agreed, and it is not the intention of the Government to reopen discussions of geography. We will not compel any area to agree a devolution deal, and we do not have that power—the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 does not allow the Government to do so, and nor would we want to. If devolution is to last, it must be done with local agreement. When those agreements are reached, however, just as local areas expect us to meet our obligations as a Government, we expect them to deliver the devolution deals to which they have agreed.
In principle, I am signed up to devolution, but is this issue worth considering? The first step towards delivering a deal that works for all is recognising that there are some initial natural synergies that can be delivered through local councils working much more effectively together at both regional and local level. Some of the mergers that are planned—for example, between Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils, and perhaps in the future Babergh and Mid Suffolk—may be a very desirable way of bringing about closer working in a way that also delivers something that local people want.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We want to see collaboration—local authorities working together. We want to see local authorities finding and driving efficiencies, so that they can focus on the services from which our residents benefit. Devolution is part of that picture—it can facilitate and encourage that process—but we want local authorities to do that regardless of the devolutionary landscape. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) talked about collaboration and co-operation, and rightly so. That was born of his experience of local government, of which he spoke. It is important that local areas look to see where they can best co-operate and what the right areas of co-operation are for them in their particular circumstances.
I have to make progress. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) asked particularly about police and crime commissioners. The legislation is quite clear. It is possible for elected mayors to take on the roles currently exercised by police and crime commissioners, but only where the police forces in question are coterminous with the devolution areas. That does not mean that if a devolution agreement is for an area that has more than one local police force or crosses the boundaries of different forces, it would be impossible to go down that route, but it would require a number of additional steps, in terms of local force reorganisation, that are not currently planned for by the Government. If there were demand from the local area to do something along those lines, of course we would welcome any discussion that would help to meet the desires and ambitions of that community.
That question was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who made the very important point that we must work for local support. We must explain why devolution matters. We must explain to people that this is not about taking powers up and away from local authorities. The previous incarnation of local government mayors, created under Labour, very often took powers from local authorities into a single elected person. This is about a single elected person taking powers down from Government, away from civil servants and away from Ministers—even ones as benevolent and helpful as I can be at times. Instead, there is recognition that perhaps sometimes decisions are best made by people who understand and are from the communities most directly affected by them.
A number of hon. Members asked about the scope of the deal. Is it sufficiently ambitious? Does it cover the areas that it would want to? What does it actually mean if the area finds additional things that it wants to do? Greater Manchester is indeed a case in point. These processes are iterative. The deal, the election of the mayor and the implementing of devolution are steps on a journey, and that journey can continue to expand. Greater Manchester is now, I think, on its fourth round of asks for additional powers. We would look to—and, indeed, want to—continue to talk with areas that have agreed devolution about the further powers that they might want, and the things that they could do with those powers to improve their economy and the lives of the people who live in the communities served by—
I apologise to my hon. and learned Friend, but I must wrap up, given the time constraints. We can see that there is great interest in this process—great interest in devolution. Devolution is an important part of Government policy. We know that it must be done with local support. Deals are two-way processes. If we are to deliver deals that last, we need that local support and understanding. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues on both sides of the House to ensure that this important policy objective, which can benefit the communities that we all represent, is not only delivered, but lasts the course.
It is clear that there is a broad welcome for the central concept of devolution, albeit multi-speed and multi-layer. It is clear, though, that unlike places such as Cornwall and Manchester, East Anglia is not based on established geographical and institutional arrangements and things such as coterminous local enterprise partnerships and healthcare economies.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).