Tuesday 21 November 2017
[James Gray in the Chair]
UK Amphibious Capability
[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 25 October on Work of the Department 2017, HC 439, and oral evidence taken before the Committee on 14 November on National Security Capability Review, HC 556.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK amphibious capability.
It is genuinely a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Let us be clear why we are here today. In recent months, there has been simply too much speculation on the future of our amphibious capabilities, from reports of staggering cuts to the numerical strength of our Royal Marines to the apparent proposed sale of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion to the Chileans or the Brazilians. All of that is seemingly without any consideration of why we have those capabilities or what our current commitments are.
It is clear, not only from the number of Members here on a Tuesday morning but from the growing concerns that emerged in the media over the weekend, just how important this issue is to people right across the House, across our forces and across the country, and why cuts to our amphibious capabilities are not only strategically bizarre but politically unwise.
I had planned to start the debate with an unusual comment for an Opposition MP. I wanted to welcome the statement of the Secretary of State for Defence, as reported in The Sun, that he was seeking an additional £2 billion for our armed forces from the Treasury rather than see our defences undermined. However, after yesterday’s reports in the Mail, I find myself a little confused as to whether the Secretary of State thinks we need more resource or not, and whether the Government recognise that our security may cost more money and that if we are going to operate on a global stage, we may need a proper military. Perhaps the Minister would clarify the current thinking of her new boss for us.
As we prepare to leave the European Union, we find ourselves looking towards an uncertain future in an increasingly turbulent world. The global order is facing a period of rapid and unprecedented change, and it seems that the post-cold-war consensus is disintegrating in front of us. In the last week alone, we have seen coalition talks fail in Germany and witnessed the long-awaited, if slow-motion, collapse of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. In the middle east, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has reached terrifying new depths in Yemen, with knock-on consequences in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. That is only in the last seven days.
There are other threats we need to ensure we can militate against, from our counter-Daesh efforts to, most importantly of all and most directly applicable to today’s debate, a resurgent Russian Federation, which—as you know better than anyone, Mr Gray—poses a renewed threat to our friends and allies in the High North as well as across eastern Europe. Old certainties are disappearing and new threats are coming to the fore. The world is changing, and so is our place in it.
That is why the timing of this mini defence capability review—which increasingly seems an excuse to cut our military, if the media reports are anything to go by—is so perverse. At this moment we should be looking to broaden our capability, not to narrow it; to invest in our armed forces, not to run them down; and to expand our horizons and our influence, not to retreat from our commitments.
In support of what the hon. Lady just said, may I remind her that when the former Secretary of State for Defence came before the Defence Committee, he said that the reason for the review was an intensification of the threats? We would therefore expect to have more resources put into defence, rather than fewer.
I could not agree more. At this point, we need to agree what capabilities we need, and then what the budget should be—not the other way around. That is what the former Secretary of State said to us, and that is what we need to do.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the black hole is of the Government’s own making? In 2013, they increased the whole great shopping list of new equipment, with no extra cash to pay for it. It was predicated basically on efficiency savings and land sales, which have not yet been achieved and will not be achieved.
We need to be very clear about how big the hole is in the equipment budget. That has not happened yet in terms of invest to save, what efficiencies will be made and how we are going to pay for things. However, that is not an excuse to cut the numbers in our military or to get rid of current capabilities and platforms.
It would be a matter of grave concern and a genuine national security risk if tomorrow’s Budget included cuts to our military or made necessary additional savings that put our operational capabilities at risk. It is not just me saying so. Over recent days we have seen MPs, former Defence Ministers and retired senior service personnel lining up to warn that our armed forces are being hollowed out and to condemn the proposed cuts to our amphibious capability, including the reported loss of up to 1,000 Royal Marines—one of our most elite infantry units.
That is why today we must send a united message to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that his decisions on these matters will have consequences, that we cannot do national security on the cheap, that we must ensure our armed forces have the resources they need to deal with the threats we face, and that any reduction in our amphibious capability or in our Royal Marine numbers would be the wrong cuts at the wrong time. His Back Benchers are telling him, his own party’s grandees are telling him and those in this room today will tell him, I am sure, that as we prepare to exit the European Union and chart a new course for Britain’s role in the world, we cannot play fast and loose with the defence of the realm. The stakes are just too high. Let us be clear: that is exactly what the loss of our amphibious capability and the suggested cuts to our Royal Marines would do.
Amphibious capability at its most basic means the ability to land troops from the sea. As an island nation, that is a core capability for the senior service and a central plank to our NATO contribution. In fact, we are the lead for NATO’s immediate follow-on group in 2019 and the main delivery partner for the Netherlands in 2020. Can the Minister tell us how we will meet those commitments with 1,000 fewer Royal Marines and no amphibious platforms? In fact, given the current threats from the Russian Federation, can she illuminate us on how she intends to defend our allies in the High North and protect our northern flank without our amphibious and cold weather specialists?
Our two landing platform dock ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, can carry 405 troops with amphibious vehicles and combat supplies. They are amazing platforms, as I can attest, having visited HMS Bulwark last year. They give us the capability to land our Royal Marines quickly and quietly in order to have maximum impact and to take land in hostile environments in the most effective way possible. Both those vessels are currently expected to remain in service until 2033 and 2034 respectively, which we have guaranteed by spending £120 million in the last seven years to refurbish both ships. In fact, HMS Albion only returned to service in April this year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only the cuts to equipment such as Albion and Bulwark that are worrying? The cuts that have been made to winter training for the Royal Marines, for example, take away a unique capability we have at the moment.
I could not agree more. Having visited our Royal Marines in the Arctic to observe their training, I know how important that is for not only our own capabilities but the partnerships we build with other marines from our allies.
It has been suggested that the role of HMS Bulwark and Albion could be replaced by our two aircraft carriers or a cheaper Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service offering, but that is not what either is designed to do.
This comes after the loss of a landing ship dock auxiliary from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Largs Bay to Australia in recent years and the pending decommissioning of HMS Ocean without any formal like-for-like replacement. The aircraft carriers are unsuitable for subsuming that role as a landing helicopter dock ship. Does my hon. Friend agree that that in itself—never mind the loss of the Albion and Bulwark LPDs—should be a matter of criticism and scrutiny in the House?
My hon. Friend has pre-empted the next paragraph of my speech. Why on earth, having spent £7 billion on new aircraft carriers, would we use them in this way? It is a waste of capability and an appalling use of the cutting-edge platform we have just built. As importantly, they do not have the capacity to carry or launch amphibious landing craft, and their holds are not designed to meet the specific requirements of the Royal Marines with regard to kit and platforms. They also cannot be used independently of the fleet and, as I think we are all aware, they cannot be deployed very quietly.
The hon. Lady is making an extremely powerful point, which makes me ask why we would cut the services of one of the finest forces in the world. I particularly want to mention 40 Commando in my constituency. These personnel are so important in humanitarian efforts. They recently went to the Caribbean to help with the disaster that occurred after the hurricanes. What was crucial was their fleetness of foot, being able to get in where there are no ports and being able to land helicopters where no one else could, with the amphibious equipment. No one else could go, so does the hon. Lady agree that we must think very long and hard before we cut a force as incredibly important as this?
I could not agree more. Our Royal Marines work day in, day out—40 Commando and all the others—to ensure that we are where we need to be, helping our allies as well as protecting the nation.
To return to my speech, when using the carriers, our troops would have to be deployed by air. Although it may make sense to deliver the first wave of troops quickly by air, that has its limitations. First and foremost, it is impossible to infiltrate enemy territory by stealth by means of military helicopter. Troops may also need heavy weapons, vehicles, fuel, food and ammunition, which cannot be delivered in sufficient quantity by our current complement of helicopters. In more intense conflict, armoured vehicles, artillery and even a few main battle tanks may be required. Unless there is a convenient port close by, the armour and logistical support must be delivered over the beachhead even if in a second wave after the helicopter-borne troops have secured the area. In the words of Admiral Sir George Zambellas:
“Nobody in the world of complex warfare, especially for an island nation that delivers force from the sea, thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
Another option, which has been floated for some time, concerns proposed cuts of 1,000 Royal Marines. I feel immensely privileged to have had the opportunity to visit our Royal Marines around the world and even to have sort of taken part in their Arctic training in Norway, or at least what they allowed me to pretend to do. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) can stop laughing at me now.
I have seen at first hand the Royal Marines’ extraordinary courage, ability, focus and fortitude. They are truly an elite fighting force. However, what really stood out for me and, I am sure, for anyone who has spent any time with them is the mindset that they bring to their role. “First to understand, first to adapt and respond, and first to overcome”—that is the mindset of the Royal Marines and it is reflected in their extraordinary ability and versatility.
It is no wonder that the Royal Marines are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our special forces. In fact, the Royal Marines constitute only 4.5% of defence infantry but produce 46% of our special forces recruits. It is clear that making any cut to this life force of the UK special forces would make no military or economic sense. It has been suggested that as the threats we face as a country have changed, the need for these sorts of capability has diminished. I do not dispute that we must be ready to adapt to new threats and challenges. It is absolutely true that cyber-attacks and asymmetrical warfare open up whole new theatres of war, for which we must be prepared.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fleet protection role that 43 Commando plays in securing our nuclear deterrent is a vital role and that, if lost, it would be very difficult to replace?
I could not agree more. I have visited 43 Commando and seen up close the work that it does protecting the deterrent. Without it, I would be concerned about how we would move forward.
Where I disagree in relation to changes to warfare is with the idea that our amphibious capability is no longer a strategic necessity and is not a core aspect of the military mix that we will need going forward. It provides the option for small-scale raids, interventions and humanitarian missions. We must surely recognise that the ability to land troops from the sea, potentially in stealth conditions, has such a wide range of applications and is so vital a capability for an island nation that to diminish it would be an act of gross irresponsibility.
The 1981 review, “The United Kingdom Defence Programme: The Way Forward” advocated a reduction in the quantity of Royal Navy ships and a refocusing of the remaining resources towards Europe. Just a few years later, the Falklands war highlighted the continuing need for both our naval strength and a global outlook.
We saw a further U-turn in our approach from 1998 to the strategic defence and security review in 2015, when we looked away from Europe and towards the middle east. We had to review everything after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I do not doubt that threats change and that our military must change to meet them, but the role of Government is to ensure that we have a well resourced, mixed defence capability that is strong enough to defend us at home and abroad to keep us safe. When we look at the lessons of history, we see that we can never truly predict what capabilities we may need tomorrow, never mind next year. The truth is that there has been no change in the strategic environment to justify the current proposals. It is cost-cutting pure and simple. To make cuts that risk undermining our amphibious capability now, not knowing what the future holds, would be deeply irresponsible and could have serious ramifications for our future readiness.
Many people in Westminster Hall today know my fondness for the Royal Marines, and I am proud to be your deputy, Mr Gray, on the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, but today is not about that or even about our wonderful commandos. It is about whether we have what we need to keep us safe. Tomorrow is decision time for the Chancellor. Will he listen to the concerns from my party and his, and from servicemen and defence experts, and hit the pause button on these reckless cuts to our amphibious capability and, for that matter, to our defence budget? Will Britannia still rule the waves, or will she yield to them in the name of austerity?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am so sorry; I have just finished.
Order. A glance around the room indicates that a large number of hon. Members are trying to catch my eye, and a swift bit of arithmetic suggests that something like four minutes each would be sensible. I do not believe in formal time limits, because that seems to me to sacrifice quality in favour of quantity, but if Members could show courtesy to one another and limit themselves to about four or possibly five minutes, that would be extremely helpful. I call Mr Mark Francois.
Mr Gray, I am grateful to be called in this important debate, which relates to one of the most important capabilities in our military armoury: amphibiosity. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on introducing the debate so well.
We are really here today because of the strong rumours that the Ministry of Defence is considering deleting the landing platform docks, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, from the naval inventory. The reason behind that, which seems in effect to be an open secret, is that the Navy top level budget, or TLB, is over-programmed and the First Sea Lord has been asked to come up with savings within his TLB.
I shall return to the budgetary challenge at the end, but the first thing to say is that the Queen Elizabeth carriers, highly capable ships though they are, cannot act as a replacement for the LPDs and do not have their highly specialised capability. Although the carriers could launch marines over the beach by helicopter, either Chinook or Merlin or both, the carriers do not have docks and therefore cannot host landing craft, which would be needed to bring the heavy equipment of a marine commando on to a perhaps hostile beachhead. If we abandon the LPDs, we are in effect relying on a friendly port to be available if we are to land a marine commando or, indeed, 3 Commando Brigade on the shore. It may be a convenient planning assumption to believe that a friendly port will always be available, but that may not necessarily always be the case.
In fact, history teaches us an important lesson about the need to maintain this capability. In 1981, the Nott defence review advocated deleting the Invincible-class aircraft carriers and the assault ships, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, from the naval inventory. At this stage, I have a small confession to make. Following the announcement of the Nott review, as a precocious 16-year-old, I wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1981 in which I argued that we should not sell our aircraft carriers to Australia because—I still remember the words—as history shows us, we never know when we might need them.
As we all know, in 1982, when the Falklands crisis blew up from almost nowhere, it was only because we still had our carriers and their Sea Harrier aircraft and the amphibious assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid, that we were able to mount an opposed amphibious assault and successfully recapture the Falkland Islands. No doubt very many intelligent people wrote very articulate staff papers that contributed to the 1981 review and a great deal of intellectual energy was put into the argument that we could do without these ships—but they were all wrong. Maintaining that amphibious capability should be an important part of our national armoury, and NATO’s as well, so what is to be done?
I believe that the alternative option of trying to cull 1,000 Royal Marines would be a grave mistake. The Royal Marines are some of the most elite infantry in the world and are, in effect, tier 2 special forces. We also derive around 40% of our tier 1 special forces, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service, from the Royal Marines. Not only do the Royal Marines have an incredibly proud history, having recently celebrated their 350th anniversary; they also have tremendous utility, and I can see no defence advantage at all in getting rid of 1,000 of the best maritime infantry in the world.
The Royal Marines are also extremely good value for money. That has to be included. They comprise 4.5% of armed forces personnel—whereas the Army is 57%—and from that we generate 46% of the special forces badge manpower.
I believe they are extremely good value for money and extremely capable, but this still brings us back to the problem of the naval TLB. As the previous Secretary of State was keen to stress, we have a rising defence budget, which is due to go up 0.5% each year in excess of inflation. That being the case, some of that uplift in the budget should be earmarked to the naval TLB, in order to ease the pressure and avert cuts to either the amphibious capability or the Royal Marines.
My final point is one I made to the former Secretary of State when he appeared before the Defence Committee last month, namely that given the furore that would likely result from trying to delete the LPD and our amphibious capability, and the relatively moderate savings this measure would generate, politically the game is not worth the candle. I humbly offer the same advice to his successor and to the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for securing this debate.
Amphibious ships are vital not only for our national defence, but for jobs, particularly in Plymouth and Devonport, which I am proud to represent. The case for preserving HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines and their exceptional capability was expertly and persuasively argued on 19 October in this Chamber, when the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) led a debate on defence capability. None of the arguments used on the Labour side or the Conservative side about how valuable these ships and the Royal Marines are have changed since that debate. If anything, those arguments have become more persuasive to hon. Members, because the Chamber is much fuller than it was in that debate.
I am sure the Minister will not want to hide behind the line that has been used, and been so pilloried, that cuts to our amphibious capabilities are just speculation. That is a weak line, which no one in this Chamber really believes. We are all here because we know that the possibility of these cuts is real. I realise the Minister will not be able to rule them out, because these cuts are being considered. That is of deep concern to people in Plymouth, those who serve on the ships, those who support the ships, those who work in the supply chain and those who have served in the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy.
Plymouth City Council estimates that getting rid of Albion and Bulwark would cost nearly 1,000 service jobs in the city and would result in a net loss of 1,320 full-time equivalent jobs, and that is before the cuts to the Royal Marines are taken into account. Plans to get rid of both Albion and Bulwark would undermine the purpose of Royal Marines Tamar, which was completed in 2013 at a cost of £30 million.
When the biggest defence review in 2010 reconfigured our defence capabilities, Plymouth was promised that it would be the centre of amphibiosity for the Royal Navy. That promise was given to us as submarines were moved and as changes were made in staffing and resourcing, and it is a promise that must be kept by this Government. Plymouth and Devonport in particular must remain a centre of amphibiosity, in name and strength. That means not only having it set forth in strategy, but having the ships and the Royal Marines that make that capability what it is today: a world-leading capability that is a deterrent to our adversaries and a support to our allies.
Let me be clear: the amphibious capability of the Bay-class Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships is not a substitute for the first-wave, considerable and specialist capabilities provided by these two Devonport-based war ships. To pretend that they can be delivered is simply false. The Bay-class ships are good, but they have neither the carrying capacity of Bulwark and Albion nor the specialist command and control facilities that these ships offer. We need first and second-wave capabilities. We cannot put troops and equipment ashore on soundbites, but we can with Albion and Bulwark.
We live in really uncertain times, and it is important in those uncertain times that we are clear about what our role as a country is. Post-Brexit Britain cannot turn its back on our allies who need help and support in deterring Russia in particular or our friends and allies for whom amphibious capabilities provide such an important humanitarian and disaster relief role. We have already seen the role that HMS Ocean—soon to be scrapped—performed in the Caribbean, which has been mentioned: first-class support from the capability and the Royal Marines. We cannot risk future hurricane and disaster relief efforts being hampered because the Government have taken a decision based on an accountant’s spreadsheet rather than the capabilities we need as a country. I implore the Minister to work not only in the Ministry of Defence, but with the Chancellor, to end speculation about cuts and to reaffirm our country’s commitment to HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines. Quite simply, our national defence cannot be done on the cheap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate. I know we share a passion for arguing about things to do with the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, but I did not realise we shared being readers of The Sun, which was quite a surprise.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). He will know that that was my birthplace and my father spent 37 and a half years in Devonport dockyard in his constituency, with his last job being on HMS Albion before he retired in 2010.
It is particularly apt that we are having this debate on the 99th anniversary of the German high seas fleet entering Scapa for the internment, following the armistice of that year. Edward Grey famously commented at the start of the first world war on the lamps going out, but he made another famous comment:
“The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy.”
That reflects how important amphibious capability was. Yet today is not about history. Wars are not won by emotion and we do not deliver aid by reminiscing about the times of the fleet defending the empire.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think today is about history. If we do not learn our lessons from history, we will keep repeating our mistakes, and our mistake has always been to cut at exactly the wrong time, when the risks are high, and we are about to do it again.
I partly agree with the hon. Lady. If we went back to history, we would still have cavalry, because it was decisive at Waterloo, but this is about why amphibious capability makes sense today, in the 21st century. It is not just about reminiscing, although it is still worth while looking at the history of why this capability was developed and, of course, looking back to the Gallipoli landings, where we did not have a proper amphibious capability and the results were disastrous for those first world war soldiers.
Today’s amphibious capability is about giving the choice to deploy troops in either a war-fighting or humanitarian role anywhere in the world, going on the global commons. It is vital that it can operate as a stand-alone force. That means having the ability of the docks that are provided just offshore by HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark when deployed. Some argue that the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier can provide this type of support. The reality is that a large aircraft carrier is a vital asset that is defended in depth and would never be taken close to the shore, or to any place where it could be at threat, to provide landing support. While it may go close to the shore in a completely non-threat environment to provide humanitarian aid, it would never do that for an amphibious landing because it is a very high-value asset.
While special forces can be deployed via submarine, that is clearly not a practical option for larger scale amphibious forces and also ties up a vital asset that can be used for so much more than providing what Albion and Bulwark can currently provide to forces. If we were without this capability, we would be an island nation unable to deploy our forces independently and stealthily on to another island. Looking at the growth of population by the coast across the world, which the MOD’s own analysis points to, it is clear we need to keep this capability. Therefore it is vital that we retain a corps dedicated to delivering this capability, not one we could rebuild from reserve.
When the new Defence Secretary was appointed, some people asked me what my views were. I said that the key battle for the MOD at the moment is with the Treasury. I hope the new commander at the MOD will be just the person to win that battle. It is vital that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor listen to his advice.
Today marks 99 years since one battle for the fleet ended, and hopefully tomorrow another battle will be won by our fleet—this time to maintain a capability that is as relevant in the 21st century as it was when Edward Grey made that comment so long ago.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this very timely debate. I want to make a few points and quote what other people have said about this issue to get it on the record again.
The point of amphibious capability is to land where the enemy is not. The idea that the Government think that we, as an island nation, should be cutting that capability seems absurd. Combined with the scrapping of HMS Ocean, it would severely impact our amphibious capability to enter a war zone by sea. Not just that; it would affect not only our warfighting but our humanitarian work. The first task of HMS Ocean back in the 1990s was a humanitarian task in the Caribbean when there was a hurricane in Honduras, and as we know it was deployed just a couple of months ago in the Caribbean once again. The amphibious capability has been used at least 10 times since the second world war. It was used in Korea, in Suez and then in the Falklands. As has been mentioned, in 1981 our amphibious capability was again under threat. Just think: if we did not have that capability in 1982 when the Argentinians invaded the Falklands on 2 April, where would we be now?
The decommissioning of HMS Ocean came after a £65 million refit in 2014. The Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), said:
“I am delighted that this contract will not only ensure that HMS Ocean remains a significant, highly-flexible and capable warship for years to come”.
Well, that did not last very long. With the bilateral partnership and accords that we have with other groups, such as the US, the cutting of perhaps 1,000 Royal Marines has led one US Marine Corps colonel to warn that it could impact on UK-US military ties. Bulwark and Albion, loaded with landing craft, provide command and control in a maritime environment. The colonel said, “That is what the UK will bring as a unique selling point to the party, alongside their world-class Royal Marines.”
Last week we had an evidence session with some retired generals and other force leaders. On the need for amphibiosity, General Sir Richard Barrons said:
“Are we really saying that we do not want the capability to put a force ashore over a beach—that we want to confine ourselves to ports? Are we really saying that we never want to be able to take British people out of a trouble spot except through a port? Are we really saying that we want to remove that capacity for humanitarian assistance? If we are saying that, we are ignoring how the world really operates. The second line of madness is the idea that if the Navy needs to adjust manpower and find more sailors, the obvious thing to do is to cull some of the finest infantry in the world—the Royal Marines. If the Navy needs more manpower, surely in defence there is a better way of finding it than culling your elite infantry, which in any case supplies people to our outstanding special forces. It is just folly.”
Finally, just two years after the SDSR, when we are having another review, it seems to me that the threats are developing quickly and unexpectedly. That is why, after two years, we are having another review. The Government will boast that the defence budget is increasing, but at the same time they still see the need to cut our capabilities. The more flexible we can be, the more versatile the defence postures we can take in a crisis. Are we ensuring that we will not be able to do that in the future? I believe that Britain is a force for good in the world. The Government need to be honest with themselves as well as with us. If they agree with me, the Government need to invest in our armed forces, because if they do not, and they continue to praise our world-class military, no one will believe that they mean it.
I call Johnny Mercer.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Mr Gray will do. Mr Speaker might object to you calling me that.
I am so sorry; I am half asleep. It is only a matter of time.
I want to make three really clear points to the House, to the Minister and to the Government. I have made my views on this clear. I am grateful for all the support that we have had from across the House because this is an issue of singular importance. However, it is very important that we do not dictate tactically what we ask our professionals to do in this country. What I mean by that is that our job here is to hold the Government’s feet to the fire, and to ensure that what they do is consistent with what they say. I do not think it is our responsibility to say, “You can never change this or that capability.” My attempts with the letter that has been signed by so many are simply a first stage in drawing a line in that battle.
What I am saying, though, is that I hope the Government, the Department and, critically, the Treasury and the Prime Minister now understand that there is a resilient cohort of Government MPs who will hold the Government to account on defence spending. Whatever our party or priorities, above all we are patriots, and it is not right to allow the Government to say something about defence on the one hand and yet under-resource it on the other. They cannot always say that defence is the primary duty of Government and yet hold their hands behind their back.
So why are you a Tory then?
That is an interesting intervention —in fact, I am just going to ignore it because it was pretty childish.
We must get our priorities right when it comes to defence. Over the weekend the Government announced that £2.3 billion would be put into artificial intelligence and driverless cars. Fantastic—great stuff—but when it comes to social policies such as those we cut our cloth according to what we can afford. When it comes to defence, we listen to the professionals who we ask to go and do the job for us and to wear the uniform. We ask them what we need and we provide them with what they need to keep us safe. As has been alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) time and again, the idea that we can come to this place and say, or sell it to the general public, that threats have intensified, diversified and increased so much that another security review needs to be conducted, and yet reduce the budget or capability for our armed forces to do that, is simply not credible. It will not be worn by the British public and it will not be worn by Back-Bench Conservative MPs.
Finally, all that I am asking for, and all that the MPs who have signed my letter, and MPs across the Conservative party, are asking for—we are the party of defence—is that we meet our manifesto commitment of a 2% of GDP spend and a 0.5% above inflation increase in the defence budget. That is the platform on which I stood at the general election, and I fully expect that commitment to be realised. We must get to a stage where we are being realistic about defence, and if the threats have increased, that must be met by a commensurate increase in money, commitment and willpower from both No. 11 and No. 10.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and fellow member of the Defence Committee for giving way, but may I slightly correct him? He said that the Tories are the party of defence. They are the party that talks about defence. I fully accept the bona fides and the genuine intentions of the hon. Gentleman and many of his fellow Back Benchers, but in fact under “Options for Change” after the end of the cold war, it was the Tory party that slashed the—
Order. In the context of UK amphibious capability, Johnny Mercer.
I take the point. All I will say to that is that while I am here, I am determined that we will see that manifesto commitment through. The Government have a very small majority and we will hold them to account on this issue. I am afraid that feelings are running high on this issue. We have to go back to our constituents every weekend and justify what we do in this place, and I am determined that we will see that commitment through and provide the country with the defences that we need.
Like everyone else, I want to start by thanking my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for securing this debate. It is important that there is absolutely cross-party consensus in this Chamber that we are about to do something extremely dangerous. The debate today is entitled “UK Amphibious Capability”, but it really should be, “Who are we? What role do we want to play in the world? Has the decline of the Royal Navy damaged our reputation and our capability as a naval power and an ally? And will the cutting of our amphibious capability and our Royal Marines finally sink our reputation as a naval power?”
We have been a naval power for centuries. A major part of that has been our ability to project force anywhere in the world, coupled with the ability to land personnel and equipment, using our amphibious forces quickly and effectively. Equally important around the world has been our ability to send humanitarian aid quickly and effectively everywhere. We have provided food and equipment and evacuated in humanitarian crises in a way that we should be deeply proud of, but we are about to lose that capability. As an island nation, our ability to conduct a conventional war in an effective manner hinges on our ability to deploy troops from our island to the theatre of conflict. That requires us to retain an amphibious capability.
We need to ensure that we can hold our head up high among our allies. Britain has a reputation as a serious maritime player. After the United States, the UK was NATO’s pre-eminent naval power. That reputation was not come by lightly and gave the UK a distinct and advantaged position, not just in NATO, but on the global stage—as a trading entity as well as a military force. Our amphibious capability played a vital part in forming and maintaining that reputation, but our allies are reassessing it.
Let me quote from an article by an ally. It was by Jonathan Foreman and was published in the April-June edition of the Australian Navy news. It stated:
“The paper proposes in essence that the Royal Navy cannot be saved in its current form, that the problems…frequently noted in recent years by other, often non-British, publications…are likely to be terminal. Given that the RN is already little better than a token force…manifestly unable to carry out many of the missions expected of it in home waters as well as distant seas…and that UK decision makers are unwilling to face up to the decisions and obligations required of a major maritime power, the best that Great Britain can hope for may be to field a moderately capable North Sea flotilla as part of a combined UK Defence Force.”
That was from our allies. That is how we are beginning to be seen. Let us wake up and recognise that.
Recently, The Times carried an article in which James Mattis was highly critical of our decision to cut two of our four minehunters from the Gulf. We are beginning to hollow ourselves out, as has been said repeatedly, including at last week’s sitting of the Defence Committee by the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Zambellas, who described us as a third-world nation militarily. We have to wake up.
We in this Chamber totally support the Royal Navy and its personnel, and I think I speak for us all in saying that. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are all proud of its successes, its traditions, its long history of bravery and its capability to face down overwhelming force. We will not, and cannot, sit by and be silent while the Navy is hollowed out and while the Ministry of Defence spins stories of our retaining greatness, when even our allies are mocking our inability to project effective and enduring force in defensive and humanitarian actions.
The Navy must retain its amphibious capability and its Royal Marines. The spin and misrepresentation of the weakness of our Navy must be recognised. If we are to hold our role in the maritime world, which we once proudly ruled, it is time to tackle the weakness that we have all allowed to happen to the Royal Navy. Britain’s ability to deploy a full range of naval capability, including an amphibious option, plays a vital and central role in our security, capability and reputation. Without that, Britain’s Navy lacks the critical ability to project power and authority beyond the sea and, as such, limits the effectiveness of what a naval task force is capable of, as well as what this country is capable of doing in defending itself.
We have 15 minutes left for five speakers. I call Leo Docherty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for securing this important debate.
We have indeed been here before. In 1981, the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, scheduled in his review, “The Way Forward”, the decommissioning of our then amphibious capability, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. Those vessels were only saved because they were critical in Operation Corporate and the liberation of the Falkland Islands the following year.
That lesson from 1982 still stands today. The simple lesson from the Falklands conflict was that when projecting power from a carrier force, we cannot rely on helicopters alone. That was cogently encapsulated in a book, “No Picnic”, which was written by the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, Major General Julian Thompson. In fact, he also highlighted it more recently in a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 28 October. He wrote the letter with Captain Michael Clapp, who was the commander of the amphibious task group in the Falklands, and I will quote from it because it is entirely pertinent. They reject the notion that today, we would be able to project power from a carrier by a helicopter force alone. They considered it back then, but
“rejected it on the grounds that we did not have air superiority, or enough helicopters to land enough troops and their supporting artillery in sufficient strength, in the time required, to fight off counter-attacks by the Argentine army. The only way to achieve a quick enough build-up was by landing craft. The landings were opposed on the ground by very few enemy troops. The main opposition came from the Argentine air force. Had we attempted major helicopter moves in daylight, the Argentine fighters would have had a turkey shoot among our helicopters.”
That lesson still stands today.
I will conclude with a word on the review as a whole. As has been said, the global threat level has increased and, given that, it is illogical to have a capability review that does anything other than increase the resourcing to ensure that we have the required capability to meet the threats. Surely we must maintain the capacity to project force over a beach. Surely we would not want to rely on having a port or an airfield. Surely we must not rely solely on helicopter power, and surely we must maintain some of our finest fighting soldiers in the Royal Marines, who make a disproportionate contribution to our special forces.
Given the global circumstances today, strong defence is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. We await further details from the National Security Adviser, who is running the review, and reassurance from the Minister. As a member of the Defence Committee, I hope that the National Security Adviser will come to that and offer reassurance. However, if the review undermines our capability in any way, it could be dangerous to our armed forces, to our national interest and to our standing on the global stage, and we must guard against that.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for bringing this issue to the House. I declare an interest as a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier and Territorial Army soldier for 14 and a half years. Our armed forces are unquestionably the best in the world; we are second to none. As much as I respect our allies the Americans and Australians, among other nations, it is clear that our brave boys and girls top the table in ability and training. Our abilities and capability act as a deterrent to those who might consider undermining our authority. The Falklands war lasted 74 days and 255 British armed forces personnel died. We were attacked on 2 April and responded by 5 April. We had the capacity to re-route ships and personnel to an area that had no plan in place for an unexpected invasion of a Crown colony.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Department, the Minister and the Treasury understand the cross-party consensus and the unanimity that exists, not just in this Parliament but in this country, about the adaptability required by our forces in times such as this?
Yes, that is exactly right. We in this debate are all saying the same thing.
Our Royal Marines have close international ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States and Netherlands marine corps. Those ties are imperative to keeping us on the global stage. Although the reduction in the Royal Marines has not been confirmed, it has not been denied either. Any reduction must not even be considered.
Recently, during Hurricane Irma, the Royal Marines were where they were needed most, with the auxiliary boat Mounts Bay followed by HMS Ocean. Help and aid such as that given in the recent crisis are an essential part of our responsibilities to our colonies and Crown holdings, as is our ability to carry out those duties and responsibilities.
I agree wholeheartedly with the former Commander of Joint Forces Command when he told the Select Committee on Defence that it was
“cull some of the finest infantry in the world”.
We should take note of those words. The Royal Navy needs its three amphibious assault ships HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. I understand that HMS Bulwark is in port in a state of low readiness and is not expected to return to service until 2021; some media reports say that it might not return at all.
Never in history have we had our fingers in so many pies fulfilling international responsibilities. To be able to do so, we must have the force in place. If the reports on what might be proposed are right, it must be opposed.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate. It is nice to speak in a debate where there is such consensus in the room.
The year 2017 was supposed to be the year of the Navy. As the former Secretary of State said, it was
“the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain’s influence globally and delivering security at home.”
This year has seen unprecedented levels of building and investment in the Royal Navy, creating a backdrop for the first ever mounting of a guard by the senior service at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Undeniably, this has been a year of historic significance for the Royal Navy and British sea power.
A key part of our sea power and a key strategic part of our non-nuclear deterrence is our amphibious capability. As former First Sea Lord Admiral Zambellas told the Select Committee on Defence:
“Nobody in the world of complex warfare…thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
Unfortunately, in a year that has otherwise been positive for the senior service, that is in fact what we are discussing.
Only four other countries in the world can boast such a strong amphibious capability: the United States, China, Russia and France, which happen to be the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. That capability is integrated into NATO, serving a key role there. Its primary role for much of the cold war was reinforcing our northern flank; it was strategically crucial in controlling access to the North sea and the Atlantic. Who can tell whether such a role might not be required again in the near future?
We know how any downgrading of our amphibious capability will be received in foreign capitals: with great delight, I am sure, in Moscow, and with great disappointment in Washington. Only last week, General Ben Hodges of the US army said of potential cuts to our amphibious capability:
“I’d hate to lose that particular capability...Whenever you take something off the table unilaterally, then you’ve just made the job a little simpler for a potential adversary.”
What we are debating is the potential loss of 1,000 marines and our landing platform dock vessels HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion. I urge the Government to discard any suggestion of decommissioning either of those specialised world-leading ships. If we got rid of our LPDs, would we ever recover that lost capability?
Although in this debate we are making the case for protecting the Royal Marines and the fleet, we must also be clear that any progress on the issue must not come at the expense of other areas of military spending. Last week, in an answer to my written question, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that quick reaction alert Typhoon aircraft launched from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby intercepted aircraft on 12 occasions in 2016. That shows beyond any doubt the importance of our Typhoon squadrons and why we must not eschew the need for our new F-35s, which are planned to become a core part of our defence capabilities in that area.
It must also be recognised that the Government will struggle to make any significant savings from the Army without jeopardising our capability on that front. In an answer to another written question—
Order. This is a little wide of the topic.
I found out two weeks ago that of the Army’s current strength of 70,000, almost 18,000 soldiers fall into the medical deployability standard categories “medically limited deployable” or “medically not deployable”. We need to spend more on our armed forces. In an incredibly uncertain and unstable world, for our allies and dependencies, we must fund our armed forces properly so that they can do the jobs we need and ask them to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for bringing this debate to the House. I declare an interest; I am the incredibly proud mum of a commander in our Royal Navy.
Winston Churchill said that we shall defend our island, but it is not just one island that we need to defend, or local islands. Parts of the British family all around the world look to us for their defence. Many of them are islands, but all of them are connected to the sea. I am talking, of course, of our overseas territories—places such as Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands and Gibraltar.
It is essential that we continue to have an amphibious transport dock facility within our Royal Navy if we are to show that we have the ongoing capability to defend our islands and lands. We need only look back, as my colleagues have said, to the two Fearless-class landing platform docks during Operation Corporate. The Falklands war showed how important those ships are, as well as showing any potential aggressor that we have the capability to strike back, making our current Albion class an essential part of our conventional deterrents. The landing platform docks Fearless and Intrepid both played an important role in the landings at San Carlos during the Falklands conflict. Indeed, it was on Intrepid’s deck that the surrender ending the conflict was signed. It was also one of the warships used to imprison Argentine prisoners of war.
Those ships also have an important role to play as command facilities. The 1982 HMS Fearless was fitted with modern satellite communication equipment, and during the Falklands conflict, it hosted the staff of amphibious force commander Commodore Michael Clapp and the commanding officer of 3 Commando Brigade, Brigadier Julian Thompson, and his staff. The ships have uses beyond conflict. They are well suited, as has been mentioned, to providing humanitarian aid and relief work. The capacity of our landing platform docks can save lives too.
Both our current landing platform docks, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, are based at Plymouth. Her Majesty’s Royal Naval dockyard at Devonport is the largest naval base in western Europe and the sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy. It is an incredibly important source of employment for my constituency. As the managing director of the naval base has acknowledged, more people from south-east Cornwall work in the dockyard than work from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I am against any scaling back of the capabilities of this important base.
We are a seafaring nation, and we need the naval capacity to back that up. It is essential that we maintain a strong amphibious transport dock facility within our Royal Navy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I shall be brief; there are just one or two points that I want to make. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for the second time in two debates, for securing this debate.
I look at this debate through the prism of what kind of country we want to be. If we want to be a country that can project force and influence around the world, we need certain military capabilities. One of them is heavy airlift capability, such as at RAF Brize Norton—I had to get it in somewhere, Mr Gray. The second is maritime patrol capability, and the third is the amphibious capability that we are debating. If we lose that, we lose a great deal of flexibility.
We are all aware of the use of this power. This debate has concentrated largely on opposed landing and the military force, but the ability to take off British nationals other than at a port—that is, from beaches—is also extremely important, as is the humanitarian relief that such capabilities allow us to take part in. We ought not to fool ourselves that the carriers will be any kind of substitute for the ability that Albion and Bulwark bring. Although they are outstanding and necessary capability, they do not have the command and control capability or the heavy-lift amphibious capability of Albion and Bulwark. We cannot rely simply on helicopters, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) has given.
Even if we had the V-22 Ospreys that the Americans have, we would still need the heavy-lift capability that can only be given by taking heavy equipment across by water. Apart from anything else, in a contested environment, we would keep our carriers as far offshore as we could, as in the Falklands war. If we were to lose that capability, there would be unintended consequences. Our relationship with the US marine corps is extremely close, as hon. Members who have served actively will confirm, and it serves side by side with the Royal Marines. At a time when the United States, Spain, Italy and Australia are all investing in amphibious capability, losing it would make it very difficult for us to remain a global player and a NATO partner and to stand alongside our allies.
We have been here before with the 1981 review and what happened in the Falklands. We do not need to learn those lessons all over again; history provides them for us. The unique capability provided by those ships and the marines will not be replaced by a combination of carriers and Chinooks. Our status as a NATO partner, an ally and a country that projects its influence around the world is crucial. If Britain withdraws from its ability to project force on an amphibious basis around the world, we will wake up in a different country. That decision would have epoch-making consequences and we ought to step away from it.
I congratulate hon. Members on their self-restraint. We have heard 11 Back Benchers between the opening speech and the first Front-Bench spokesman.
It is very good to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank my colleague on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for securing this important debate. We have both seen from our work on the Committee how important it is, and the turnout for the debate—although I would have hoped for more—shows the depth of feeling that exists in the House for the Royal Marines.
It is quite astonishing that we are here—that an island state is seriously contemplating, and has been debating at the highest levels, the possibility of letting go of its ability to make opposed amphibious landings. I am glad that hon. Members have spoken well on behalf of the Royal Marines, in particular the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. I also commend the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who made salient points with gravitas on this issue and should be listened to, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who perhaps has the Government’s ear more than I ever will, and the other hon. Members who have participated.
I will mention some of the areas that deserve a little more attention. In the strategic context, the Royal Marines have been a fulcrum of so much positive work in the broader sweep of the armed forces, whether through the number of marines who serve in our special forces or the great example of joint working that they set with our European and NATO allies. Albion and Bulwark are strategic assets that other nations rely on. Getting rid of that vital command and control capability would be nothing short of an abdication of that responsibility and would undermine UK leadership after Brexit, when it will be under the most scrutiny.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that the Government designated 2017 as the “Year of the Navy”, it would be a somewhat perverse act to rid ourselves of Albion and Bulwark?
Of course I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
Let us turn to our allies. The Kingdom of the Netherlands sees the UK-Netherlands amphibious force as a symbol of what it considers to be one of its most important bilateral agreements. It has allowed the Royal Netherlands navy to take important procurement decisions, such as to build the Rotterdam and Johan de Witt amphibious vessels, in the expectation of reciprocal agreements continuing. What consideration has there been of undermining such a relationship by reducing our own capabilities?
Our extensive history of co-operation with the US marine corps, which has been mentioned, was particularly prominent in the cold war, when the Royal Marines were a key component in the plan to reinforce NATO’s northern flank in Norway. It is the Norwegian dimension that first brought the current crisis facing the Royal Marines to my attention, when winter warfare training was scrapped to cut costs. It goes without saying that the reassurance that those joint exercises have given our allies and the skills that they have given the marines exceed any impact on that spreadsheet in the MOD Main Building.
Winter warfare training brings me to my second topic. Traditionally, marines have prepared for their Norwegian exercises in the Grampian mountains, which they have accessed from their base at RM Condor, the home of 45 Commando. There are worries in Angus. I had expected the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) to be here to speak for that beautiful part of the world, but as ever it is left to the SNP to fight Scotland’s corner in this place. The possible closure of RM Condor is a story almost as old as the Grampian hills. It was mooted in 2004, again in 2009, and almost went through in 2013, before a Government U-turn. Finally, in last year’s defence estate review, it was announced that the runway at RM Condor would be sold off. I echo the words of my friend and colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Graeme Dey, who said in a debate about the plan:
“By any measure, the UK Government’s approach to Condor is haphazard and unsettling”.—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 20 April 2017; c. 79.]
I would go further: it is a perfect case study of the dangers of salami-slicing our armed forces.
People in Arbroath will not be reassured if closing the airfield is the last we hear on the issue. Quite simply, a community that is already reeling from the effects of Brexit on its soft fruit industry does not want to read headlines about the jobs of 1,000 Royal Marines being cut. As an aside, I would ask whether the Minister has given much consideration to the Scottish Government’s suggestion that the runway at RM Condor be used to build veteran’s housing. That is vital in an area with a strong tradition of recruitment into the armed forces, particularly the Black Watch.
Following this debate, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and others will rush to a Defence Committee evidence session to hear from the MOD’s permanent secretary on the subject of the MOD’s accounts. I expect that we will hear an awful lot about the MOD’s budgetary black hole, which has precipitated this debate. While many will talk convincingly—
Order. The hon. Gentleman’s speech must be on the context of the UK amphibious capability.
It is an important point, Mr Gray, about the accounts—
Order. That does not matter. The hon. Gentleman’s speech must be on the context of the UK amphibious capability.
While many will talk convincingly about the need for tough decisions to be made on amphibious capability—you do well to remind me, Mr Gray—I can only conclude from all that I have read in preparing for this debate that the UK’s amphibious forces are being squeezed for one obvious reason, which few, other than SNP Members, are willing to raise. The simple and inconvenient truth is that amphibious capability is being sacrificed to maintain the nuclear enterprise. Let us look at the top lines of the 2015 strategic defence and security review:
“The Royal Navy delivers our nuclear deterrent, projects our maritime power”—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must contain himself to the UK amphibious capability. He may not talk about nuclear capability or anything else. UK amphibious capability is all he may discuss.
I think I was, and I will continue to do so.
Three distinct and unique capabilities underpin the strategic context. As General Sir Richard Barrons elucidated, the failure of the 2015 SDSR was that
“at no time in that review has the amount of resources provided to defence matched the programme”
of which defence capability through amphibious programmes is a part. The talk that I hear from people who know a lot more about it than anyone here is that the First Sea Lord has been presented with a scenario whereby one of these capabilities must be sacrificed. Admiral Sir George Zambellas’s comments in the Committee last week have been quoted, but I will quote what he said in full:
“I imagine the First Sea Lord has a choice between having his left arm cut off or his right arm cut off. Nobody in the world of complex warfare, especially for an island nation that delivers force from the sea, thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
On the practicalities of the SDSR, no one would expect projecting maritime power, such as the plan to commission HMS Queen Elizabeth next month, to be considered expendable. I also place it on record that the carriers are in no way adequate as replacements for Ocean, Albion or Bulwark, as has been mentioned. That leaves two arms to be cut off. I am not sure that we would have had as many hon. Members along to talk about the Royal Marines had the subject for debate been, “Why the UK’s amphibious capability should be prioritised over the continuous at-sea deterrent”. My SNP colleagues and I have been quite consistent on the ring-fenced MOD budget as it stands: every penny spent on Trident is a penny less spent on conventional forces. Hon. Members need not take just my word for it; at the end of October, an article in The Times by defence editor Deborah Haynes stated that the armed forces would have to find £300 million of savings this year because of cost overruns in the Successor programme. One source quoted said:
“All that is now left to cut is capability”—
amphibiosity. That is why we are here today.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Certainly. I am looking forward to this.
Hon. Members have already mentioned the reaction of our allies, especially the Americans, to potential cuts in our amphibious capability. I do not think that they will be that happy about our cutting our nuclear deterrent either.
I will just let that one hang there—
It is where you are headed. You choose!
Yes, the United States recognises that you will not have one, because you cannot afford it.
Order. Please finish briefly, Mr Docherty-Hughes.
I know that many hon. Members—including the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who is present in the Chamber—would like the defence budget to be increased, but unless the Chancellor pulls the rabbit to end all rabbits out of the hat on Wednesday, that ain’t going to happen. I applaud the willingness of my other colleagues on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), to stand up to their party on this matter. The Royal Marines and the unique capabilities they provide must be protected; no one on the SNP Benches disagrees with that.
I conclude—to your delight, Mr Gray, I am sure—by asking the Minister three questions. First, will she reassure our allies, particularly those in northern Europe, that the forthcoming defence review will not damage existing relationships? Secondly, will she give assurances to those who work at RM Condor that 45 Commando is safe? Finally, will she tell us why an island state is prioritising the maintenance of a weapons system that it will never use over its ability to adequately deploy amphibious forces?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this important debate and on her first-rate speech.
This is one of the few Westminster Hall debates I can recall in which there has been unanimity—well, virtual unanimity—among contributing Members, a point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). Every Member who has spoken in this debate holds the firm view that the defence of this country requires an amphibious capability; if HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are scrapped and 1,000 Royal Marines are lost, that capability will effectively come to an end. We have heard from right hon. and hon. Members with great knowledge and expertise, whose views largely echo those of leading figures in the armed forces, including the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas. His evidence to the Defence Committee last week has already been quoted, but I shall quote it again:
“Nobody in the world of complex warfare, especially for an island nation that delivers force from the sea, thinks that a reduction in the sophisticated end of amphibiosity is a good idea.”
General Sir Richard Barrons, former commander of the Joint Forces Command, said that we run
“the risk of a ridiculous zero-sum discussion...the nonsense of culling marines to buy more sailors”.
He also described
“the idea that if the Navy needs to…find more sailors, the… thing to do is to cull some of the finest infantry in the world—the Royal Marines”
as a “line of madness”. A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), have quoted those words, which I am sure we all agree were powerful and well considered.
Since the end of the second world war, our amphibious capability has been used more than 10 times in military action, from Korea and Suez to the Falklands and Sierra Leone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) noted, it has also been used to great effect in humanitarian efforts, including recently in Operation Ruman in the Caribbean. The Royal Marines have been in almost continuous operation in 30 different campaigns. There were pressures to remove our amphibious capability after our withdrawal from east of Suez in the 1970s and early 1980s, but common sense has always prevailed.
Let us not forget that our amphibious shipping and the Royal Marine command brigade were crucial in liberating the Falkland Islands—a point made well by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and in the powerful speech of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). After the Falklands war, it was agreed that the UK needed to maintain a minimum amphibious force, but since the 2010 SDSR we have seen gradual reductions in capacity.
Labour’s 1998 strategic defence review defined the optimum capability for amphibiosity in the UK as not just two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, but six Point-class sea-lift ships, one landing helicopter dock on HMS Ocean, two Albion-class landing platform docks and four Bay-class landing ship docks. That assumption should not have changed; why has it? Why has the capability been cut since then? We have had no explanation from the Minister.
My hon. Friend makes his point well; I agree absolutely. Let us also bear in mind that the marines have recently lost 400 personnel, and it is rumoured that the newly refitted HMS Ocean will be sold to Brazil for a very modest £80 million.
That brings us to where we are today. We learned from the press last week that the new Secretary of State for Defence did not believe that the cuts to Albion, Bulwark and the marines could be justified, and was asking the Treasury for an extra £2 billion to help to fill the gap in the MOD’s finances and ward off cuts to the Navy. However, we read this weekend that the Treasury had given him the cold shoulder, saying emphatically that no more money would be available. Some reports have even suggested that he did not even make such a request to the Treasury.
Will the Minister clarify exactly what is going on? Is it the MOD’s view that—as all hon. Members in this debate have argued and so many defence experts have stated— there is no rationale for effectively ending the Navy’s amphibious capability? If she is prepared to say that, she will have the support of all her party and the Opposition. Surely we all need to recognise that this issue is above crude party politics; it is about our country’s ability to defend itself effectively, which it cannot do without an amphibious capability.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this debate—the second debate of hers that I have replied to in a week, which truly demonstrates her passion for and dedication to our armed forces. She is not only a member of the Defence Committee, but chair of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant and deputy chair for the Royal Navy of the all-party group for the armed forces, which you chair, Mr Gray.
The 11 Back Benchers who spoke in the debate unanimously supported the UK’s amphibious capability in the 21st century. As so many right hon. and hon. Members said, our amphibious capability is a vital component of our nation’s power projection capabilities. The Royal Navy’s LPD-class ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark provide afloat command and control facilities and capabilities needed to deploy and sustain the lead commando group ashore by air and sea. They can embark one large helicopter or up to three medium helicopters on the flight deck and carry the equipment required to support aircraft operations. In addition, Lyme Bay, Mounts Bay and Cardigan Bay, the Bay-class ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, provide the capacity and capability to deploy our expeditionary strike forces. I am sure all hon. Members present thank the crew of RFA Mounts Bay for their incredible work over the summer and autumn, having been pre-positioned for hurricane season in the Caribbean. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
The UK’s amphibious capability will be further enhanced by our new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. As we stated in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, we will enhance a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier to support our amphibious capability.
Colleagues have asked about HMS Ocean. Just to clarify matters again for the record, SDSR 15 allocated £60 million to optimise the QEC carriers, to meet the demands of the landing platform helicopter role, including the communication systems for amphibious operations, improving services on carriers for the Royal Marines, providing ammunition storage and expanding helicopter operating capacity. The initial operating capability for the helos is in summer 2018. This commitment demonstrates the importance that the Government place on the future of our amphibious forces and the vital role that they will play in the defence of our nation.
An essential part of that future is, as we have heard, our elite amphibious commando force, the Royal Marines, and Members have rightly paid tribute to them. The Royal Marines are held at very high readiness, trained for worldwide rapid response and often operate in difficult or dangerous circumstances. So far, they have given us 353 years of unbroken service, in support of the UK’s national interests and often in the defence of others.
Members should note that, as of 1 October 2017, the Royal Marines’ full-time trained strength is approximately 6,520, which is 99.3% of its 6,570 liability. We will continue to have the appropriate number of frontline Royal Marines to achieve all taskings, and we will ensure that the Royal Marines are properly trained and equipped to perform a wide range of crucial tasks that we ask them to undertake.
This debate has no doubt been prompted by speculation in the media on the future of the amphibious ships. As Members will be aware, the Government have initiated work on a national security capability review, which is being conducted to ensure the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible for the threats that we face in the 21st century. This work is being led by the National Security Adviser, with individual strands being taken forward by cross-departmental teams, and the Ministry of Defence is contributing to this review and considering how we can best spend what is a rising defence budget, in order to support it.
We are indeed committed to increasing the £36 billion defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year for the rest of this Parliament. Indeed, we are one of only six NATO allies who are currently meeting the guideline to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, and we are also one of only 13—
Will the Minister give way?
I am very conscious of time here, but I will give way very briefly.
I thank the Minister for giving way. She has talked about speculation, but will she confirm or deny the press reports that the new Secretary of State for Defence has asked the Treasury for more money?
I can confirm that there have been press reports. [Laughter.] I can also confirm that we are one of only 13 NATO countries that meet the guideline to spend 20% of our defence budget on major equipment and research and development. I can also confirm that the Ministry of Defence will spend £178 billion on equipment and associated support between 2016 and 2026.
Will the Minister give way?
Members are eating into my time, but I will give way to the Chair of the Defence Committee.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but she does seem to have moved into discussing general expenditure issues and away from the specific topic. Does she remember writing to me on 25 January this year to say:
“There are no current plans to decommission the ships”—
that is, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark—
“early, and I can reassure you that their out of service dates are 2033 and 2034 respectively…HMS Bulwark continues to prove a vital asset to the Royal Navy…HMS Albion…is programmed to replace HMS Bulwark as the high-readiness ship this year”?
Does that remain the position?
I can indeed confirm that I not only wrote those words but recall writing them.
Does that remain the position?
I have already made it very clear on the record what today’s position is. [Interruption.]
We can all see that the global security context is challenging. So, Members would expect us to ensure that, as we spend our growing budget, we focus expenditure on those capabilities that are most effective at keeping us and our allies safe, and at deterring or defeating our adversaries or potential adversaries.
Will the Minister give way briefly?
Members are very much eating into my time, Mr Gray, but I give way.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way. Of course, the resources that keep us safe are unable to do so just now, because there simply are not enough of them. We now regularly see Russian submarines and warships in our waters, and we have nothing that we can throw at them to keep them out.
Well, Mr Gray, I really do not know where to start with that intervention, because the hon. Member and I disagree so profoundly on what we need to spend money on to ensure the security of this nation. Frankly, she might want to ask the former leader of her party why he wants to take a gig on Russia Today. [Interruption.] That is my response, because that is how we send out a strong message in terms of the strength of this country.
Mr Gray, I really do not know where to start in terms of the Scottish National party’s priorities, but I will say a few words about ours. [Interruption.]
Order. If I may, I will nudge the Minister gently back towards UK amphibious capability.
Indeed. In our national security capability review, we seek to understand how to spend that growing budget in the most intelligent way, by further modernising our armed forces against the traditional and non-traditional threats that we now face. In that context, it is only right that all areas of business across defence—
On a point of order, Mr Gray. We have had a very good debate this morning. A lot of questions have been asked by Members across the Chamber. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I thought it was the role of the Minister when replying to a debate actually to reply to it and not just read out a prepared statement.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. Of course it is not a point of order; the Minister may indeed say what she likes when replying to the debate. However, if she replies inadequately, that is of course a matter for the record.
Mr Gray, in considering how I respond to this debate, I am very conscious of the lack of time available to me, but I will respond to a few of the points that were raised in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) both spoke about the important role of HM Naval Base Devonport and the particular importance of the south-west of England, which continue to be so vital for the Royal Navy. Also, I was very pleased to learn that the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) had served on HMS Albion.
I want to leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to speak at the end of the debate, so I will conclude by saying that the national security capability review is ongoing work. I can say that no decisions have been put to Ministers and, at this stage, any discussion of the options is pure speculation. I emphasise that, while the review continues, the naval service continues to meet all of its operational commitments. I further affirm to hon. Members that, in order to protect the UK’s interests at home and abroad, the Government remain committed to the future funding, support and capability of our armed forces.
First, I thank all right hon. Members and hon. Members for contributing to this broadly consensual but vital debate. It has been incredibly disappointing not to have confirmation from the Minister that there will not be cuts to our amphibious capability. It is the day before the Budget and it would have been incredibly helpful for all of us if we could have gone forward to tomorrow knowing that that capability will not be cut.
To clarify a couple of points for the record, I am a Mirror reader and not a Sun reader. [Laughter.] It has also been incredibly important that everyone here today has recognised that the views of our allies are key in terms of our capabilities in the future, as are our NATO responsibilities, which we have already committed to; unfortunately, they were not touched on by the Minister. We have commitments in the next two and a half years that we will not be able to fulfil if we do not have HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark.
I urge the Government not to dig in; instead, they should recognise the advice of the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)—this simply is not a political battle that is worth fighting.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK amphibious capability.
Shepton Mallet Community Hospital
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the temporary closure of in-patient beds at Shepton Mallet community hospital.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the Minister and her team not only for coming to respond today but because they, like me, have been speaking to local health authorities in Somerset in preparation for the debate.
There are two parts to today’s discussion: the temporary closure of the in-patient beds at Shepton Mallet and the longer-term future of the site—the redevelopment of existing facilities to create a community health campus.
The decision on temporary closure was announced very late indeed. Only about three weeks’ notice was given to patients and the community and, worst of all, to the staff. The reason given for temporary closure was that insufficient nurse cover was available. Understandably, that was very vigorously challenged by the staff at the hospital, who knew that the overall rota statistics for both day and night shifts were 100%. Shepton Mallet Community Hospital was fully manned, was running well and had some of the lowest agency costs in the entire county. Under scrutiny at an excellent public meeting held in Shepton Mallet two weeks ago, Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust was forced to accept that actually, what it was seeking to do was to break up a team that was working well and was fully staffed, in a hospital that was fully operational and able to deliver all that it should in the beds that it had, in order to fix rotas elsewhere.
I do not know about you, Mr Gray, but I have always believed that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a pretty good motto to live by, and that would appear to make the trust’s decision to close temporarily a hospital ward that was functioning well to try to fix the system elsewhere somewhat nonsensical, not least because when the temporary closure comes to an end—I am sure the Minister will agree that the local health authorities are adamant that the closure is temporary—the trust will have to reconvene those staff and get everything up and running again. What everyone is agreed on—it is important to emphasise this—is that this is not a financial measure. No one—we are told—is seeking to make a saving from it. Indeed, the chief executive of the Somerset clinical commissioning group told me on the telephone yesterday that if there was an option to just put more money into this he would have done so.
The reality is that there is a challenge with nursing availability elsewhere in the county; I understand that about 34 vacancies within the county need to be filled. That clearly cannot be sorted overnight. It does not excuse the temporary closure of Shepton just because it had a full rota, but I accept that there is a wider county issue and, if my disagreement with the decision over Shepton is lodged, there is clearly a challenge for the local health authorities, for NHS England and, indeed, for the Government in filling those nursing vacancies in the county as quickly as possible.
One area where there has been some disagreement, and where I think Shepton Mallet Community Hospital has been left unnecessarily vulnerable, is that for the past few years, urgent repairs to the fabric of the hospital building, including the boiler, have been postponed by NHS Property Services, under cover of an enthusiastic discussion about redevelopment on the site and the creation of a health campus. That would have meant the addition of a new build extension to the Shepton Mallet treatment centre, into which the in-patient ward, the out-patient clinics, a GP practice and some public health facilities would have gone. However, we are now in a really frustrating position where the outgoing chief executive of the trust said at the public meeting the other week that when the staff of the trust were looking at options for managing the shortage of nurses, they looked around and, as Shepton Mallet and Chard were small hospitals and the fabric of their buildings was causing them concern, they made the decision to close them, regardless of their success in filling their rotas.
My constituents’ anger is understandable. They know that NHS Property Services, which is responsible for the maintenance of the existing community hospital, knows that there is a big maintenance burden and has chosen not to maintain those buildings, on the basis that we were going to get a new hospital. In the process, however, that decision has meant that Shepton has been a soft target for temporary closure.
That leads me to my first ask. The Minister will hopefully agree that, from this moment on, no matter what the prospects for redevelopment into a community health campus, NHS Property Services should be required to get in there and urgently fix the buildings, as they are—the local health authorities have been clear that this is just a temporary closure and, therefore, an in-patient bed facility at Shepton Mallet Community Hospital is expected to resume in the near future. The conversation about redevelopment can go on concurrently, but repairs can no longer be postponed on the basis that something new might be built.
My second ask is that the nonsensical decision is challenged once more. I hope that the Minister might just go back and ask, as I have on a number of occasions, “Really?” There is an opportunity here to put back in place a team that was succeeding. The Minister will be keen to know, I am sure, about the excellent crowdfunding campaign in the town. It has raised thousands of pounds for a legal challenge, because there is a suggestion that the temporary closure may be illegal, in that it has not been properly consulted on. I encourage the Minister to go back and ask again whether the hospital can really be closed when it was succeeding so well.
Thirdly, I hope that the Minister will direct NHS England and her colleagues in UK Visas and Immigration to make it as easy as possible for the immediate needs of the staffing rotas for nurses in Somerset as a whole to be met by migrant nurse labour as urgently and quickly as possible. Of course, we would like to say that it would be great to bring British nurses who have left the career back into service, but the reality, in trusts all over the country I believe, is that the most immediate way to supply nurses at short notice is to go overseas. I understand that the Government have previously been able to expedite the visa process and I hope that the Minister will be able to assist in that.
Fourthly, if the temporary closure decision must stand, will the Minister agree to work with me to ensure that, first, the local health authorities are required to give us, in writing, a clear timeline for the reopening of the beds in Shepton Mallet? Secondly, will she agree to meet me in early January and again in early February, after speaking to the Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, so that she and I may take stock of the progress the trust is making in filling the vacancies, and so that we may satisfy ourselves that the temporary closure will end on the date to which the trust has committed? Will she ask the Secretary of State to agree to a meeting in March, shortly after the date on which I believe the trust says the temporary closure will come to an end? I would hope that such a meeting would not be needed, but at least it would focus minds, and should the ward not reopen on the agreed date, all those responsible for the failure could come up and explain to the Secretary of State why the deadline had not been met.
As I said in starting this speech, with the temporary closure of the ward—as frustrating as it is and as much work as there is to do to ensure that it is genuinely temporary and as short term as possible, so that the ward is reopened as early as possible—there is a wider discussion about the future of the Shepton Mallet Community Hospital. The vision for a Shepton Mallet health campus is exciting. While I was campaigning for election in 2013, the Secretary of State visited Shepton Mallet Community Hospital and met with the league of friends. He was excited about the plans they and local health authorities had for a health campus on the site. There have been years of meetings to discuss that vision.
The idea was that there would be a GP surgery, out-patient clinics, public health and a pharmacy on site in addition to the hugely successful Shepton Mallet treatment centre, which is run by Care UK and does elective procedures as commissioned by the health authorities. The idea also included two ambulatory care beds, two assessment beds and eight in-patient ward beds. That was the vision. All of that made it into Somerset’s sustainability and transformation plan, and we were hugely pleased to have that vision there. Since then, the GP practice has fallen by the wayside because there are issues over releasing the GP practice from its mortgage on its current site. That is a private business issue for the GP practice and NHS England, and it has been frustrating that that has not been unlocked. I hope that the clouds may part and the sun will shine and it will somehow still happen, but that is a separate issue, which I do not want to labour today.
Other than the GP practice, everything else was still in the plans. As recently as January, I sat down with the hospital director for Shepton Mallet treatment centre and the then chief executive of the Somerset clinical commissioning group, and I was shown the plans for this amazing health campus. It looked fantastic. It felt so close that you could smell the freshly painted corridors, Mr Gray. The problem is that since then things have gone horribly wrong for Somerset clinical commissioning group. From nowhere, it is now forecasting a significant deficit, which has brought with it the requirement for a change in leadership. Worse still, it turns out that after years of work, the STP needs to be revised because NHS England has reservations about the strategy underpinning it. I understand that when Simon Stevens visited a couple of weeks ago, there was not much coffee being served at the meeting.
The situation is a very bitter pill to swallow for me and for those in the community who have been working so hard to secure the vision of a health campus. I now understand that everything is back under review. I look forward to resuming the debate with local health authorities about what that health campus should look like. Nothing has changed, in that the vision is obviously for community hubs to deliver healthcare. I accept that there is some discussion about the validity of in-patient beds, but with a population as sparse and a demographic as challenging as Somerset’s—along with the acute pockets of deprivation within the county—the demand for beds in Somerset has perhaps been higher than elsewhere, and those occupancy levels might indicate why Somerset has maintained a higher level of in-patient beds than some other places.
After so many years of discussion, the situation is disappointing. So many hours have been spent in committee developing first the STP and then the plans for a community health campus in Shepton Mallet. First, because of the nursing shortage, which must have been known about months and months ago by the Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, a successful and winning team at Shepton will be broken up to try to plug gaps elsewhere in the county. Secondly, the plans we had for a health campus in Shepton were hugely exciting. It is surely the model we should be transitioning to for a community-based healthcare system that keeps people out of acute hospital facilities and facilitates their discharge from acute hospitals as quickly as possible. That is not to mention the fact that the geography of my constituency lends itself to such community facilities, because I have no significant hospital in or very near my constituency. My constituents divide in equal measure between Weston-super-Mare and Bristol to the north-west, the Royal United Hospital in Bath to the north-east, Yeovil to the south-east and Taunton to the south-west. Having those community facilities when hospitals are all 20 miles or so distant in each direction is an important part of maintaining the right health network for my community and ensuring that we get people out of acute hospitals or stop them going there in the first place.
The argument for good, well-developed community healthcare facilities is easily made, and I am disappointed that after years of trying to develop such facilities at Shepton Mallet, the Somerset clinical commissioning group appears to have failed. I am disappointed that the STP is now up for revision, especially when we had won the argument over having eight plus two plus two beds in a redeveloped Shepton Mallet health campus. I hope very much that the Minister will join me in applying as much pressure as she can to the Somerset clinical commissioning group to ensure that the STP is revised as quickly as possible, and that Shepton Mallet does not lose out in that process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is also a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), who has brought the required amount of passion to this argument. He is doing exactly what he should do to stand up for his constituents after the local health establishment made a very rapid decision regarding his hospital. It certainly came out of the blue for many people, but I would like to give some explanation as to why the decision was made and perhaps a message about where we may go in the future.
In the short term, we have the closure, but what happens beyond that is very much up for review. I commend my hon. Friend on the constructive way in which he has engaged with local health practitioners while still giving them a challenge. That is always the way to go with these debates. As we all know, the challenged situation we are facing is not only in terms of money. As he acknowledged, in this case the issue is not money; it is workforce across the trust. The challenged situation means that we will have to make some difficult decisions, and we should make them on the basis of constructive dialogue, not who shouts loudest. I certainly agree to his request to have more discussions on this matter in January. Although the decision-making process is independent, we as Ministers will want to satisfy ourselves that processes are being properly followed and representations are being properly heard.
The reality is that any decision of this kind has to be taken with full transparency and full accountability. Robust argument will withstand challenge. I look forward to taking the dialogue with my hon. Friend further. I also welcome the forward-looking points he made about the future campus and looking at future needs. All too often in such debates we look at the immediate short-term challenges without addressing the long-term ones. If we looked more at the long term, we might come to better decisions, rather than short-term ones.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the impact that changes at Shepton Mallet Community Hospital will have on his constituents. I reassure him that changes will always be in the best interests of patients and the local community. Decisions must be driven by what is best clinically, what is best for the health service in the area and what is of most benefit to the greatest number of people in the area. He asked me to direct the trust to reverse the closure. We are very much of the opinion that it is right that such matters are addressed at the level where the local healthcare needs are best understood, rather than in Whitehall. I give him the assurance that I will join him in holding local decision makers to account to ensure that their decision making has been properly accountable and robust.
It is worth reiterating that all proposed service changes should meet the four tests for service change: they should have support from GP commissioners, be based on clinical evidence, demonstrate public and patient engagement, and consider patient choice. In addition, NHS England introduced a new test applicable from 1 April 2017 for the future use of beds. It requires commissioners to assure NHS England that the proposed reduction is sustainable over the longer term and that key risks, such as staff levels, have been addressed.
I will first outline what led Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to announce on 11 October the temporary closure of in-patient wards at two of its 13 community hospitals across the county. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the decision was not financial; it was based on patient safety. Overall, Somerset Partnership provides 222 community hospital beds, spread out over 13 community hospitals. Plans drawn up for an expected increase in patients over this winter made it clear that although sufficient funding was in place to maintain services, the trust was facing vacancies in a quarter of its registered nursing posts, meaning that the trust nursing workforce was spread far too thinly at the time. Following a review, it was found not to be sustainable to continue to safely deliver in-patient services across all 13 sites.
To address safety concerns, the trust made the decision to move 10 beds at Shepton Mallet hospital and 14 beds at Chard hospital, along with their staff, to other community hospitals in Somerset. I fully appreciate the case that my hon. Friend has made about the services at Shepton Mallet being robust. I understand why the move feels particularly unfair, but we will have to address that in consultation as we take the matter forward.
The trust has said that the two in-patient wards are likely to be temporarily closed until at least the end of March 2018, but that the current total of 222 community beds and all current services across Somerset will be maintained. Somerset CCG has endorsed the move and is in the process of considering community hospital services and provision as part of a wider clinical services review across the county next year.
We talked earlier about criteria and how trusts should come to decisions: in full openness and consultation with staff and the public. I understand that the trust communicated with a wide range of staff and stakeholders on its plans to temporarily close the wards, including with the local county council, which supported the action taken by the trust on the grounds of patient safety. I am also pleased to say that the trust held all day face-to-face drop-in sessions with members of the public, as well as a public meeting organised by the League of Friends of Shepton Mallet Community Hospital, which was attended by 120 people, including my hon. Friend and local councillors.
The trust has also organised a workshop event in the town for key local stakeholders on 30 November to seek the views of patients and carers while the ward is temporarily closed, and has developed a wider consultation document to inform its next board meeting on 6 February. I urge my hon. Friend and his constituents to engage in that process and make their voices heard. I want to reassure him that Somerset CCG has not put the trust under any financial pressure to temporarily close the wards at Shepton Mallet Hospital.
As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the issue is not about money. It is solely down to the issues around nurse recruitment, and the trust is working hard to improve on that. It has recruited two specialists who have extensive experience of specialised nursing recruitment. It is also offering more intensive support for potential recruits to increase the rate at which they take up posts. It is also working with Yeovil District Hospital to recruit nurses from the Philippines. I am pleased to learn that already there is a large number of interested nursing staff, which the trust hopes will be recruited and in post from April 2018. Furthermore, the trust is revisiting its current golden hello bonus of £1,000 to see how it can be better tailored to individual needs and it is looking at how else it can attract nurses to the trust.
Owing to staffing issues, the CCG supports the closure on the basis that, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is temporary and has been made on patient safety grounds, not on financial ones. It has been made clear that there can be no permanent closure of the wards at the community hospitals without prior patient and public engagement and formal public consultation. The CCG fully expects the beds to be reopened after the winter.
By taking planned measures now, the CCG is reassured that that represents the safest way of avoiding the potential risk of disruption to patient care should we see severe winter weather or the predicted higher than average levels of sickness from flu.
There is some concern locally about what the consultations look like. The Minister, briefed by local health authorities, has relayed that a “consultation” was conducted in the last few weeks of November ahead of the temporary closure. The reality is that that, including the agreement of Somerset County Council, was done after the solution was presented as a fait accompli. Can the Minister reassure me that the health authorities will be explicit with the community and all other stakeholders when having such a consultation about permanent closure and that the discussions going on right now about the temporary closure will not in due course be dressed up as the consultation leading to permanent closure?
My hon. Friend has the nub of the issue completely. To inspire confidence among his constituents, we as decision makers need to be very clear about the basis on which the decision was made and how future decisions will be made. The short-term consultation was about a decision made purely to get us through winter for patient safety reasons. For any long-term closure there would have to be a full consultation, fully transparent and fully accountable. I know he will hold me as well as his local trust to that. I do not think I can be firmer. We inspire confidence in the public and in patients who use the services only if we are fully transparent in making decisions. It is unfortunate that the speed with which this particular decision had to be made in order to get us through the winter will have undermined confidence. Of that there is no doubt, but rest assured I will continue to engage with him to make sure we can restore public confidence among his constituents in future.
As I have mentioned, the decision taken has allowed the trust to consolidate beds and staff into fewer hospitals, but larger wards. Closing the wards has reduced the number of unfilled shifts by 60 shifts a week: the equivalent of 13 nurses. Regrettably, since the closure, three Shepton Mallet patients have been admitted to surrounding community hospitals—one patient is in West Mendip and two are in Wincanton. I am advised that, as a result of the temporary closures, the trust has provided support budgets to enable carers and relatives who need financial assistance to visit patients. I should also add that all of Somerset CCG community hospitals have free car parks, so if people are visiting their loved ones, they will not have to pay. I should point out that that is not a privilege enjoyed by many other areas.
My hon. Friend talked about the long-term plans for a health campus. Both Chard and Shepton Mallet have been assessed as requiring significant redevelopment. Chard Community Hospital infrastructure was assessed as not fit for purpose by a 2015 Care Quality Commission inspection. As he pointed out, Somerset CCG is developing a clinical services review that will take into consideration the views of patients before developing a series of service proposals, which will ensure that family doctors, community hospital and district hospital services are joined up with social care services and provide financially sustainable and high quality care. It expects to engage with the public on those proposals in the new year. I know he will engage in that process.
The decision to temporarily close wards at the hospital is an important issue and the decision was not taken lightly. However, the decisions made by the trust have not been made because of financial concerns, but because of nurse recruitment issues. I know that the decision will cause concern to the residents of Chard and Shepton Mallet and the surrounding villages, but I urge my hon. Friend to encourage his constituents to attend the trust’s local public meetings and listen to what is said about addressing the issues that have caused the temporary ward closures, as well as making sure their voice is heard. We will all understand each other better with that dialogue. The people affected by the changes need to be involved in expressing their views and making key decisions.
Our starting point for discussing service change is that no permanent changes to the services that people currently receive will be made without formal public consultation. I reiterate that strongly to my hon. Friend. I conclude by encouraging him to continue to engage with Somerset Partnership Trust, Somerset CCG and me in the new year as the proposals are brought forward.
Question put and agreed to.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of medicines regulation.
What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I am very pleased that you have been elevated to the Panel of Chairs. Yesterday, the European Parliament agreed to move the European Medicines Agency from London to Amsterdam. Today, we are asking the Minister to tell the British Parliament what will happen to medicines regulation in this country after we have left the European Union. My concern arises from the fact that I have a GlaxoSmithKline plant in Barnard Castle in my constituency that employs 1,200 people. Winston Churchill decided that production should take place in the middle of the Durham countryside, so it would not be hit by Hitler’s bombs; I certainly hope that it will also survive the Government’s Brexit.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate, and declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on off-patent drugs. Does she agree that, irrespective of what happens with the Brexit negotiations, the Government should guarantee that any patient who needs access to drugs will not wait any longer as a result of Brexit?
In one sentence, my hon. Friend gets to the nub of the issue; I will probably take 20 minutes to reach it. He is absolutely right. The problem is that the Government did not make a plan, and as yet have not resolved how they will regulate medicines from 1 April 2019. I have been asking about that for a year. We have had no clear explanation, no policy statement, and no impact assessment. The Government refused to debate the matter in the course of the legislation for triggering article 50. We have not been able to debate it properly as part of the scrutiny of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is in Committee today, in parallel with our debate.
We are therefore extremely interested to hear what the Minister will say, especially as two months ago there were leaks from the Department of Health that the Secretary of State was flirting with the idea that we should leave the EMA and join the American Food and Drug Administration. I was particularly surprised that that was being floated, because the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has said consistently that it thinks that we should be aligned with EMA standards. Alignment with Europe on regulation of medicine does not simply mean having the same rules on exit day; it means having a mutual recognition agreement with the EMA, and continued alignment of future regulations as they change, which they inevitably will.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on what she is saying. Obviously, as a Brexiteer, I probably have a very different opinion about what will happen on 31 March, but that is by the bye. Does she agree that it is imperative that the phenomenal work done by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the EMA, which she referred to, can continue? Ensuring that we are able to supply safe and effective medication not simply to the UK but to all nations worldwide must be high on the priority list of the Brexit team. That is something that she and I very much agree on.
The hon. Gentleman truly is a gentleman, and I agree with him entirely. We want to see continued UK participation in EU regulatory and medicine safety processes as well. The ABPI has also said, reasonably enough, that it wants to maintain trading terms equivalent to being a full member of the customs union, and to have a common system for VAT.
In May, the EMA and the European Commission issued a statement saying that if the United Kingdom does not stay in the single market, stick with the EMA, or join the EEA—the European economic area—but goes for a clean break, drugs made in the United Kingdom will no longer be authorised for use in the European Union, and drugs made in the European Union will no longer be authorised for use in the UK. Tackling that would involve costly and time-consuming checks. It could even mean that the availability of drugs would diminish dramatically.
What response have the Government made to that statement? What practical steps have Ministers taken? All we have seen is a letter from the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to a newspaper, which said that they want a “close working relationship” with the EU, and that patient safety matters, as does certainty, long-term stability, and innovation. The letter said that Ministers will set up a regulatory system with competitive fee pricing. This afternoon, we would like the Minister to explain that.
Currently, the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—MHRA—contributes to the EMA’s work, and the UK pays approximately a fifth of the overall costs. It is universally acknowledged that the MHRA could not take on the task of licensing all drugs without astronomical costs for the industry and the taxpayer.
Is part of the problem not that there appears not to have been a specific assessment of all the health-related impacts of leaving the EU?
I agree entirely. We tabled amendments when the article 50 legislation went through requesting impact assessments on many things, including the effect of possibly leaving the EMA, and we have not heard about them. That is extremely alarming, because it gives the impression that Ministers are basing decisions not on fact and analysis, but on prejudice and assertion—not a very good basis when it comes to health or economics.
This issue matters because life sciences and pharmaceuticals is one of the UK’s most successful industries. The combination of first-class scientific research in our universities and high-quality manufacturing means that we have been exceptionally successful. The life sciences employ 220,000 people—of which pharmaceuticals accounts for 90,000—in good quality, well-paying jobs. They are careers, not gigs. The industry is innovative and internationally competitive. In fact, it has the highest manufacturing gross value added, which means that every employee contributes £330,000 to the British economy every year. The value of our exports is £30 billion. Obviously, the industry wants to continue in those collaborations and develop new medicines.
One of the major costs in pharmaceuticals is research and development; another is complying with regulations. Inspections take several days, and internationally there are two dominant regulators: the EMA, which looks at about a quarter of all drugs globally, and the American FDA, which looks at about a third. Clearly, we do not want regulatory complexity, because that would simply add to costs. As Andrew Witty, the former head of Glaxo said, when the regulatory systems of 27 European countries were unified into one, that was a big deal.
Ministers need to keep in mind that the pharmaceutical industry is international and highly mobile. There is world-class production in France, Switzerland and America, and generics are made across the globe, in China and India. Senior executives answer to their shareholders; if it is cheaper to move, they will, so we need to do everything we can to keep costs down in this country. Quite honestly, I cannot understand why Ministers do not just commit to staying in the EMA—it is so obviously the cheapest and simplest solution—but their crazy ideological obsession with escaping the European Court of Justice means, to quote the Secretary of State for Brexit, “putting politics above prosperity”.
What is even worse is that Ministers are cutting across their own stated principles and are creating a highly uncertain environment. Business needs certainty to invest. For example, in my constituency, a new production facility was started a year ago. It will cost £120 million and will take four years to come into production. We are now only 16 months away from 1 April 2019, but yesterday, AstraZeneca wrote to Members of Parliament to say that it needs a transition period of two to three years.
The Prime Minister made things worse—I do not think she intended to, but she undoubtedly did—when, in her Florence speech, she said there would be a transition period. Everybody imagined that there would be time to look at what the post-Brexit regime would be, to have clear negotiations and to make a plan—to go through everything in a systematic way. Her insistence on putting the March date into legislation shrank that time overnight, from 40 months to 16 months.
Industry is taking decisions now. One plant has already closed in Southampton. GSK is implementing its contingency plans nationally, which include relocating some members of staff to other European Union countries. In Barnard Castle and Ulverston, it is reviewing the production of cephalosporins, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) will talk more about later in the debate.
But this is not just about jobs; it is also about health. Every month, the United Kingdom sends 45 million medicine packets to Europe and we receive 37 million medicine packets from Europe. Some 80 million people need those medicines. Border delays in the medical supply chain will affect not just the final product but intermediate production, especially where we are talking about time and temperature-sensitive drugs, such as for cell and gene therapy. More than 2,600 final products have some stage of manufacture in the UK. Delays as they cross the border during production could mean the loss of lives. That is why the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and its European counterparts wrote a joint letter to Monsieur Barnier, the European negotiator, and the Brexit Secretary of State, to sort this out promptly. Ministers should put patients and public health first, and should start co-operating with the European Union on solving this problem. Given the long lead times, they need to speed up the work and sort out the transition phase.
I have seven questions for the Minister. Will he rule out introducing a freestanding, new, regulatory structure? Will he rule out incorporating the MHRA into the American FDA? Will he confirm the Government’s stated aim of keeping British regulation aligned with the EMA’s European regulation? Will he tell us what moving the EMA and setting up a new regime will cost? Will he set out the legal basis for our continued co-operation and participation in the EMA system from 1 April 2019? Will he say how he intends to legislate? And will he commit to more than another 90-minute debate on an affirmative statutory instrument? If he cannot even do that, half of the debating time that Parliament will have on this important subject will be this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing the debate and on introducing the topic in such a comprehensive manner.
This debate is both timely and hugely important. It is timely due to the announcement yesterday that Amsterdam is to become the new home of the European Medicines Agency when it leaves London—a relocation that is necessitated by our departure from the EU, and which also symbolises the changing regulatory environment—and it is hugely important because, although the word “medicine” conjures up images of bottles of cough medicine being bought over the counter, it encompasses the whole range of drugs and pharmaceutical products used to treat the many different illnesses, diseases and chronic conditions that could affect each and every one of us over our life course.
If we think the EMA leaving London is bad, the potential implications of the UK leaving the EMA are far worse, and we should be clear—leaving the EMA is precisely what the Government envisage happening. As the Health Secretary said when he appeared before the Select Committee on Health in January this year, he does not expect us to stay in it. The Prime Minister’s ideological red line on European Court of Justice jurisdiction makes it impossible. The loss of 900 jobs and all the associated economic activity brought to our country as a result of the EMA being headquartered in London pales into insignificance when we contemplate the possible consequences of withdrawing ourselves from the EMA’s pan-European drug-licensing processes and its supervisory and compliance mechanisms, which have a key role in ensuring that medicines on the market here are safe and effective.
The Government have given little information about how their desired future close co-operation with the EU might work on medicines regulation. Indeed, as recently as July, the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the national regulatory body that works alongside the EMA in the UK, suggested that two options were being considered by the Government. One is a partnership approach, where presumably the UK would seek to mirror future EU authorisations in order to maintain regulatory equivalence going forward; the second is a stand-alone system, whereby the UK could diverge from EU regulations, perhaps aligning itself more closely with American, Australian or Canadian systems.
Would the hon. Lady agree that, whatever route the Government decide to take, one of the things that we must protect—this was alluded to earlier in the debate—is the excellence of the research and development facilities that we have across the United Kingdom? That must be paramount in the considerations by the Government, as we go beyond March 2019.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but when I speak to scientists at institutions across the UK, they are already seeing the effect of last year’s referendum result in terms of EU-wide partnerships being withdrawn and being harder to secure.
It would be helpful if the Minister could update us on which of the two approaches the chief executive of the MHRA talked about in July the Government now favour. It would also be helpful if he could tell us what discussions he has had with Ministers in the Department for Exiting the European Union or with the EU negotiating team about future co-operation on medicines regulation. Has the Minister or anyone from the Department of Health had contact with Australia and New Zealand about potential alignment with their regulatory systems?
I have a lot of questions for the Minister today. Can he be clear about the Government’s plans for the so-called transition period that the Prime Minister thinks will follow the conclusion of the article 50 negotiations? After all, it is a mere 16 months away. If pharmaceutical businesses will have to deal with only one set of changes, as the Prime Minister promised, presumably the licensing arrangements for new drugs will stay the same for that period.
I see two main problems in setting up some sort of stand-alone replica system to fill the gap vacated by the EMA if we leave the EU. First, will UK patients get the same quick access to new innovative drugs that come on to the market? Secondly, will UK patients benefit from the same high levels of safety and compliance checks that the EMA currently performs for already-authorised medicines in its role in enforcing standards in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process and at clinical trial sites?
I fear that we could see delays in new drugs being launched in the UK. If a small pharmaceutical company has to choose between paying to get a licence in the EU, which accounts for 25% of the global pharmaceutical market, and paying for one in the UK, which accounts for 3% of the global market, which will it choose? The UK is currently a priority location for launching new innovative treatments, but how long before we become a second-tier country?
What guarantees can the Minister give about the next phase of immunotherapies, which are three to four years away from coming to market? They are potentially twice as effective as current immunotherapies and could give cancer sufferers an extra three to four years of life. Will UK patients in a post-Brexit regulatory environment get them as quickly as they would if we were still part of the EMA? Can the Minister guarantee that adverse effects among uncommonly used drugs will be picked up as quickly if the expanded patient pool that would be available for checks across the EU is limited to the UK? Will the UK still have access as quickly to orphan drugs to treat the rarest of diseases, for which pharmaceutical companies have less of an incentive to develop products? What about the participation of UK patients in pan-European clinical trials, which are critically important, full stop, but all the more so for rare diseases and illnesses in children, for which the patient pool is smaller? At the moment, a quarter of cancer research clinical trials involve one or several European countries. Will we comply in the future with the new EU clinical trials regulations, which have been postponed and may not be implemented until March 2019?
The Minister needs to answer many questions if the Government intend to diverge from European processes, but there will be basic problems no matter what new system is put in place. How much will all of this work to reinvent the wheel and beef up our regulatory bodies cost? Will we have to ask UK taxpayers to pay a greater amount for this process, given that we currently share the cost with 27 other member states? What preparatory work has the MHRA done to ascertain what the impact of leaving the EMA will be on both its income and its future staffing requirements? What training of staff will need to be done so they can take on responsibility for tasks they have not previously performed? What impact will the relocation of the EMA have on medicines regulation across the whole of Europe?
I read the EMA’s Brexit preparedness business continuity plan yesterday, and I admit to having a feeling of utter shame about the disruption that our decision to leave the EU has forced on that agency. The huge upheaval will undoubtedly have an impact not just on this country but on others, too. As anyone who has ever moved office knows, projects get put on hold and the basics become harder to deliver.
There are so many questions to ask, and I am sure I have not touched on even half of them. I would like to finish with some more general observations. In 10 years’ time, when we have delayed access to new cancer treatments, compared with, say, France or Germany, will the fact that we have blue passports make up for it? Children with rare diseases will not be able to get new drugs as quickly or easily as they can now, but is that a price worth paying for coming out of the jurisdiction of the ECJ? This is all utter madness. Ministers can bang on about creativity in the negotiations all they like, but we need certainty and clarity. Pharmaceutical companies and patients need certainty and clarity, and the mums and dads of seriously ill children need that, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is unfortunate that I am following two superb contributions. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this important and timely debate. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) spoke powerfully and persuasively about the risks that the UK pharmaceutical industry in its entirety faces. I am not going to attempt to add to what they said and the questions they asked. Rather, I am going to focus on the cephalosporins business, which is carried out on three sites, two of which are in the UK—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland and in Ulverston in my constituency, where there is a genuinely world-class sterile facility where the drugs are created. They are then placed in a powder form in Barnard Castle and in vials in Verona.
As the Minister is surely aware, there was great celebration in Ulverston, and it was heralded by the then Prime Minister and Chancellor, David Cameron and George Osborne, when David Cameron visited the day after the 2012 Budget and made a Budget roll-out announcement that GSK was going to be investing at least £350 million in a new biopharm pharmaceutical facility, largely as a result of the patent-box tax legislation, which the Conservative Government continued from Labour’s innovative tax policy, introduced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In July, GSK announced—out of the blue, for all intents and purposes—that it is going to pull that investment and scrap the entire project, leaving our community devastated. Not only that, but it is launching a strategic review of the existing cephalosporins business, which has been running for decades across both sites and is growing in profitability and potential.
Although cephalosporins are not a new product, they are well established. British manufacturing of such products in Ulverston and Barnard Castle, and across into the EU in Verona, has enabled them to penetrate new markets and benefit many more critically ill patients in hospitals. They are the very strongest antibiotics, and are typically used in hospitals for people with very serious vulnerabilities and infections. That business had and has a great future, but GSK has clearly signalled at a corporate level that it wishes to divest. Officially, that is a review of the business, but the company at the highest level is clear that it wants to find a new buyer.
When the company dropped its bombshell in July, it was clear and categoric that the decision was not as a result of Brexit. The company took care to say that, and we have to take it at its word. We can detect the thinking of the new chief executive officer, Emma Walmsley—a Barrovian, by the way, which has made the decision all the more stinging—that GSK wants to focus on fewer products, completely cutting some and potentially divesting itself of others. Although Brexit may not have triggered that deeply worrying blow to pharmaceutical manufacturing in the north of England, however, it is certainly a significant factor in whether we will be successful in finding a new buyer for the plant who is prepared to invest and to take the business to new heights, sustaining the employment of people in my constituency and in Barnard Castle, as well as creating more jobs in the decades ahead.
Every business, in no matter what sector, operates on the basis of wanting certainty and stability and of not liking uncertainty or the potential risk in what is at the moment the complete lack of clarity that the Government can give on the future of the regulatory environment for medicines in this country. I therefore really hope that the Minister is listening to what we are saying.
In another sector that is enormously important to our regional economy, civil nuclear, we do get a sense that, at the ministerial level at least, the Government are working hard to overcome this—I absolutely agree with my hon. Friends—absolutely nonsensical decision to rule out anything based on ECJ jurisdiction, thereby creating all the problems. We need to hear from the Minister that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that the transition is seamless. He should not only produce something a year down the line but give a level of certainty now, ready for GSK in Ulverston to attract new buyers to the site.
The Minister might be aware that I have formed the GSK Ulverston taskforce—which brings together community stakeholders and the site directors, with input from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the local authorities—to ensure that we all maximise the chances of attracting a new investor. The decision will principally be a commercial decision, of course, but the Government can help in many ways. I would say that they have a duty and a responsibility to help, given the level to which they heralded the new jobs that have now been cancelled.
Other important areas include infrastructure, but I do not expect the Minister to go into those today. He can, however, acknowledge the difficulty that uncertainty causes to attracting new investors. I hope he will give more certainty today, and he should certainly undertake to go away and come back in short order to inform Parliament of what the relationship will be, so that the Government and we as a taskforce can better communicate that to the stakeholders.
My final request is that the Minister or his counterpart in the other place, Lord Howe—
Lord O’Shaughnessy—apologies, the previous Minister in the Lords has moved on. I thank the Minister here for the correction. I hope that he or Lord O’Shaughnessy will meet with me, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland and other members of the taskforce. Lord Prior was really helpful when he spoke to me on the day of the announcement but there has been significant progress since then and many more challenges need to be met. If the Minister undertakes to make that happen, it will be very helpful.
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing such an important debate. Unfortunately, it is competing with the main arena, so this Chamber is not full.
I do not think that people yet recognise what the impact of Brexit on medicines regulation will be. The EMA represents all the countries within the European economic area, their drug-licensing bodies having come together in 1995, and it has been based here in London. That has been of huge benefit to London, not only as a result of the 900 jobs mentioned but as a result of world pharmaceutical industries—especially Japanese and other Asian ones—basing their European hubs here.
There is no question that the biggest challenge will be the impact on patients. The EMA assesses and licenses new drugs, and safety-monitors all drugs. It provides the service of pharmacovigilance. Recently we have had debates on the Primodos and valproate syndrome situations, where things have not been spotted early enough. For us to end up outside the European pharmacovigilance system will be a real danger.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) alluded to the possible delay. As I raised in Prime Minister’s questions way back in January, countries such as Canada and Australia get access to new drugs approximately six months to a year after the UK. The reason why we get early access is that we are part of a market of 500 million, on a similar scale to America. Without that, we slide way down the pecking order.
I am hearing from pharmaceutical firms that it is not just the size of the UK population but the fact that accessing the NHS in the UK takes several years. Given the budget impact assessment that has been added for new and expensive drugs, some firms are beginning to say, “Well, it won’t just be six months to a year; it might be several years, because what’s the point of paying to go through the process early but getting knocked back?” We might have to wait until our price has dropped, in which case Canada, Australia, Japan and so on will all be ahead of us.
Patients get access to new drugs that are expensive through the cancer drugs fund or the New Medicines Fund for rare diseases in Scotland. They also have opportunities through individual patient treatment requests. If the drug is simply not licensed in the UK, however, accessing it would be really problematic.
The EMA has obviously been a driver and organiser of research. As was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham East, in particular with rare diseases, we would be trying to recruit for research from a population of 50 million instead of 500 million—there is no comparison from the point of view of getting answers. Purely because of such research, breakthrough drugs for rare diseases, in particular children’s congenital and rare diseases, have come on stream over the past 10 years.
The EU is the biggest research network in the world because of Horizon 2020 and all its forerunners. Until last year, the UK was its biggest beneficiary, but we have already slipped down the pecking order to behind Germany. People who lead international research teams are already being asked to step aside; they may take part and co-operate, but they may no longer be the principal investigator. The whole drive of academic, medical and clinical research in the United Kingdom is sliding down. The impact of that is significant.
There are a whole lot of different reasons. We have been talking about certainty, but universities and EU nationals need certainty. We have seen disruption to the EMA, which estimates it will lose 20% of its staff. Many have already left because they have been in limbo, like my husband, a German GP, for the past 16 months. They have therefore jumped before they might be pushed. Others might not choose to move to Amsterdam, even though it is quite an attractive place. As a member of the Scottish National party, I wish the people of Scotland had voted yes in 2014, because Edinburgh and Dundee would certainly be bidding to be a site for the new EMA, as we are also major pharmaceutical researchers.
The loss of the EMA from a business point of view is significant, but the main thing is the impact on patients and people. We will become a third country, and the idea that we can somehow leave the EU and yet keep all the bonuses that we have had is frankly naive. In my constituency I have Merck, a pharmaceutical company that develops drugs, although its main role is providing materials to other pharmaceutical industries—cell growth medium. It is therefore involved in all sorts of complex supply chains. This is just like aerospace. Components and ingredients move backwards and forwards as the drugs are constructed.
The other parts of Merck’s business are quality control and lot release. When drugs arrive in huge quantities they have to go through strict quality control testing, again under the EMA. Up until now such work has been carried out only inside the EU. Merck has three big BioReliance centres in Scotland, which carry out work for other firms. Other firms in my constituency such as GSK—again, I have a big plant—do that in-house. If they have to start moving some of that work to Europe—many pharmaceutical industries are already looking at having bases in Europe for their lot release work—other jobs tend to trickle after them, because gradually the refrain becomes, “We would do better to put everything in one place.”
I am sorry for the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who is losing such a great production centre in his constituency. I wish him well in finding a solution, but in the current uncertainty it is really hard to see what kind of pharmaceutical business will open a new plant in this country. For the big global multinationals weighing up where to put future centres, they might put a small centre in the UK, but sadly they are likely to put their main centres on mainland Europe. We need to deal with these things going forward.
The issue of quality control means we could have drug shortages as well as job losses. Anyone on medication—I put my hand up; I am on multiple medication—will often be handed something in the pharmacy that could be in any one of the EU languages with a little sticker in English on the top. That is because drugs move around all the time. The most important thing is to ensure that we do not get into a no-deal Brexit. Ultra-Brexiteers keep standing up and saying that World Trade Organisation rules are not so bad and would be quite good and advantageous—but that is not the case from the point of view of drugs supply.
The 0% tariff drug list has not been updated since 2010, so on any new drugs developed in the past seven years there would be automatic tariffs. The potential of trying to hang on to things such as BioReliance jobs would simply be impossible because there would be no chance of negotiating mutual recognition agreements or parallel agreements. Going forward we need an assessment of the impact of Brexit on health: everything from EU nationals, the potential threats to health, reciprocity, right through to research networks and how we get our drugs.
What will the MHRA do? It provides about 25% of the assessments for the EMA and it therefore has expertise, but it would need funding if it was to replace the EMA for drugs within the UK. How would we attract big global firms to go through the process when they might not sell any real quantity to the NHS for several years? Would it be suggested that we simply would not charge them? If that were the case, how would we fund it? I assume that in the position of getting a sensible deal around Brexit, the MHRA would try to mirror everything from the EMA, but that simply would not solve all the problems.
We are still in a separate situation. The strength has been in co-operation. There was no discussion before the referendum and no recognition of the benefits we have had from the EU in the past 40 years. Those were never discussed and are being thrown away. The EMA did not increase bureaucracy, but decreased it. Imagine a small firm trying to go through 27 regulatory agencies in multiple languages. That will not happen. The EMA created one thing. The trials regulation system, due in the next year or so, does exactly the same for research: one trials portal.
We also have to tackle the issue of data protection and data sharing. If the UK sees Brexit as the potential to go off the reservation and cuts standards or is sloppy around data and sells the data or does not protect it, we will become a pariah, which will not do our patients any good. The issue is ideologically driven. Nobody with any sense of what brings the biggest benefit for patients within the United Kingdom would think of leaving the EMA. It is driven, as was said in the Health Committee in January, by the need to leave the European Court of Justice, the decision to leave the single market and the decision to leave the customs union. I have a simple plea: why don’t we just not do that? Why not just stay in the single market and accept that we need an arbiter, and that the ECJ is as good an arbiter as any other? We should hang on to the fantastic benefits that we have had from Europe for 40 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this extremely important debate. It is sad there are not more Members here, but—as always—there are competing interests. She has been assiduous in asserting the rights of Parliament to scrutinise the terms of our exit from the European Union, and today’s debate is no exception to that.
In common with the vast majority of Members—whatever our views on the European Union—my hon. Friend spoke with a genuine desire to ensure that our departure happens on the best possible terms. I am sure we can all see that one priority is to ensure that our economy is able to thrive and that patients are able to access all the medical treatments that they need, as every hon. Member has said. Most of them also mentioned the decision to relocate the European Medicines Agency from London to Amsterdam. I do not know whether the debate was timed with that in mind, but it is certainly apposite.
When my hon. Friend began her speech, she said there had been no explanation, no policy statement, no impact assessment and no opportunity to debate the many issues we have discussed today. Of course, she has a considerable constituency interest in this subject area, but, as we have heard from most Members, the issue affects every single person in this country. The importance of it cannot be downplayed.
My hon. Friend said that regulation is one of the major costs to the industry. I share her frustration that we do not have a clear steer from the Government on what the future of that vital component of the industry will be. As she said, investment decisions are being made now and we are already beginning to lose out. I totally agree with her that the Minister should make it clear that we are putting patients and public safety first.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) gave a passionate and well-informed speech on the merits of the EMA. She summed it up very well when she said that the EMA’s leaving us is bad, but our leaving the EMA will be far worse. She was right to highlight the risk of delays for patients accessing new medicines. She said that business and patients need clarity, which is something that has come through clearly from all the Members who spoke today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) spoke with great sincerity about the important business in his constituency. He is a fervent advocate of other businesses and sectors there, so we know that he will not let the matter lie. The announcement in the summer must have come as a real blow, given that Ulverston, and his constituency, are quite isolated from other populations, and in the light of the potential for damage to the local economy when so many high-skilled jobs are at risk. My hon. Friend will obviously want to ask the Minister to be clear about the assistance necessary to get the best from a pretty bad situation. The conversations that he will want to have with Ministers will be similar to those that every Member will have about industries in their constituencies affected by the Brexit decision.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) spoke, as always, with great authority on health matters. She highlighted the fact that we are already slipping down the pecking order, and spoke from personal knowledge. In addition to the certainty that patients and businesses need, she highlighted the fact that universities, as well as EU nationals, need certainty. We should not forget, either, the 61 people working for the EMA who may be transferring to Amsterdam. They, too, need certainty about their future. The hon. Lady noted the risk of tariffs being introduced on drugs that have come into the market in the past seven years, if we crash out of the EU on WTO terms. It would be useful to hear from the Minister whether any assessment has been made of the potential cost of the tariffs, and whether he envisages that that cost would be dealt with by the Department of Health, or that individual patients would be expected to pay more for the inevitable additional cost of the drugs.
I doubt whether, when our constituents cast their votes in the referendum, the many issues that we have discussed today would have been at the forefront of their minds. Regulation of medicine is an integral part of our relationship with the EU, but it was not mentioned on any buses. The closest that we got to any debate on the impact of Brexit on the health sector was the £350 million a week that would be spent in addition to existing expenditure. It is sad to see that no advocates of leave are here today to explain how the situation fits into the big picture that they were so keen to propound at the time. Of course it has become apparent since June 2016 and from today’s debate that there is a threat to jobs and investment in the science and research sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) succinctly pointed out at the start of the debate there is also a threat to access to new medicines; that is a serious unintended consequence. I certainly have not heard any Brexiteers suggesting that our current system is not advantageous to us as well as the other 27 EU member states. It is therefore difficult to overstate how critical the future of medicines regulation is to the economy and, more importantly, to the millions of patients in the UK who will need the medicines whether we leave the EU or not.
It might seem a long time ago now, but in July last year, just after she was appointed to her present role, the Prime Minister said:
“It is hard to think of an industry of greater strategic importance to Britain than its pharmaceutical industry”.
That of course remains very much the case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland said, we have been exceptionally successful in that sector. The industry has a turnover of more than £60 billion per year, generates exports worth £30 billion and gives us a trade surplus of £3 billion. It employs 220,000 people in this country, and 25% of the world’s top prescription medicines were discovered and developed in the United Kingdom. It is of huge economic importance, and it says something about the sorry state of affairs we are in that Members feel the only way to get any clarity on the future of that vital industry is to have Ministers come to Westminster Hall to debate the issues.
Together with the direct economic impact is the effect on millions of patients, who rely on our co-operation with the rest of the EU to get access to safe, effective and affordable medicines. As we have heard, 45 million patient packs of medicine a year move out of the UK to the EU and 37 million move in the opposite direction. That is an awful lot of movement on which we need the Government to provide clarity. Those benefits, and others that hon. Members have spoken about today, are under threat not only from the relocation of the EMA, but from our exit from the EU if that is not handled more carefully.
Losing the EMA from London is of course a huge blow, not just to the economy of London but to our pharmaceutical sector more widely, for the reasons we have heard. The benefit that it brings to any national economy is evident from the fact that 19 other cities across Europe were in the running to become its new host. In addition to the loss that we will experience from the agency’s physical removal, it also poses a number of challenges and threats to medicines regulation across the EU. Indeed, The Pharmaceutical Journal recently warned that
“a worst-case scenario could permanently damage the medicines regulatory system, leading to a public health crisis”.
Although the EU27 decided not to relocate the EMA in eastern Europe, after a survey of staff found that an alarming 70% to 94% of them would not be willing to relocate there, the move to Amsterdam could still present a risk, in the sense that the survey found that up to 40% of those currently employed at the agency would not be prepared to move.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East said, it is not an easy process to move an office wholesale. Some things will stop, and there will be a loss of some highly skilled specialist staff, who will be difficult to replace. An EMA spokesperson said that
“while some job losses can be absorbed within the business continuity plan...beyond a critical threshold, the Agency will no longer be able to fulfil its mandate to protect the health of European citizens.”
I am sure that no one voted for that on 23 June 2016. Good staff will inevitably leave the EMA rather than relocate their homes, their children’s schools and the careers of their partners. That will be an important factor. As the journalist Dr Ben Goldacre put it,
“these highly specialist staff are like trees: they take a long time to grow, and they put down roots.”
In the short term we may benefit from some of those specialist staff staying in the UK, possibly at the expense of the EMA and the future success of European regulation; but let us be in no doubt that in the long term it will be to our detriment, because we will struggle to attract the best.
Before the Brexit talks even move on to the future of medicines regulation, the Government have a duty to act now to protect our vibrant life sciences sector. One of the key reasons why so many countries were competing to host the EMA is that its presence makes pharmaceutical companies far more likely to locate in the host city. Many of those companies will have a UK base, and, as has been mentioned, will be beginning to think about future plans; so what steps are the Government taking today to persuade those companies to stay in this country, and not just to retain their staff but to make investment decisions that will benefit the economy? As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland said, the industry is international and highly mobile, and we cannot afford to lose investment through the big hole of current Government policy. When we leave the EU, we will potentially face a divergence from the current medicines regulation system across Europe. The challenge for the Government is to keep that divergence to a minimum or eliminate it altogether.
One of the first issues, which we have already discussed, is the likelihood that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will lose up to a third of its income, as that comes from its work as a rapporteur body for the EMA. Can the Minister confirm that that funding gap will not have to be bridged from the existing, already insufficient Department of Health budget? What estimate has been made of additional resources that may be required in the worst-case scenario?
We have already heard that in July a letter from the Health and Business Secretaries in the Financial Times confirmed that the Government will prioritise achieving regulatory co-operation in the article 50 negotiations, and that was welcome, although, as the Financial Times is not a party to the negotiations, it could be argued, from a cynical point of view, that it was merely window dressing. We take it at face value, however, and as a clear commitment to try to achieve as much co-operation as possible. Perhaps when the Minister responds he will say what progress has been made since that time. Will he also say whether Ministers or officials from the Department of Health form part of UK representations in negotiations with the EU? I appreciate that he will not be able to go into some of the details, but given the shared desire across the House to make progress and achieve as much harmony as possible in that area, can he put some flesh on the bones and say what exactly the Government will seek to achieve as we move forward? The Minister will understand that the big pharma companies are looking for a clear indication of the likely shape of the future relationship as soon as possible, and as we have heard, decisions are being made now. I hope that he can shed some light and provide clarity on that when he responds.
Will the Minister address Members on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? If it cannot be used to adjudicate on licensing appeals, as appears to be the Government’s position at the moment, how will the two systems closely interact? Is there any possibility of a joint adjudication process? Operating alone in our own separate market would be not only extremely costly, but inevitably disastrous for patients. If pharmaceutical companies are forced to go through a separate regulatory system, as well as the NICE process, just to access what will be, in the big scheme of things, a fairly small market, we could find ourselves at the bottom of the list when new medicines are released. Pharmaceutical companies might view the UK as a lower priority than getting drugs into the bigger markets of the US, the EU or Japan. That might be a particular concern where the potential market for medicines is naturally small, such as with those for rare diseases. As already stated, we are already becoming a less attractive market for the life sciences sector, both for companies in the UK and for future investment decisions.
That is a very serious and bleak picture, and I hope that when the Minister responds he can reassure the House that ideology will not trump the best interests of our economy and our health service. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland had seven questions—I lost count of the number asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East, but there were many. I have a few of my own, and hopefully they will be a little more straightforward to answer—yes or no will probably do for most of them. In particular, I would like the Minister to guarantee today that after 1 April 2019 patients will have the same access to medicines as they do now, and that they will not face longer waits to access new treatments. Can he also guarantee that another part of the Department of Health’s budget will not be used to make up any shortfall in MHRA’s finance?
The Minister may not be aware that we held a debate on this subject just over a year ago, and many of the concerns raised then have been raised again today. All Members today have spoken with one voice about the need for clarity and certainty, and I hope that the Minister can provide us with that now.
A lot of questions have been asked, and fortunately we have the time for a lot of answers.
I will do my best, Mr Davies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this debate. Medicine regulation is a critical issue that I know she has raised many times in the House. This is probably the quietest Westminster Hall debate that I have responded to, but that does not mean that it is not one of the most important—there are competing issues in the main Chamber today. The fun that we are missing!
Modern medicine is transforming. We are moving from an era in which drugs and devices were mass produced and marketed to millions of patients globally, to one in which new medicines and therapies will increasingly be designed and personalised for individual patients. The chief medical officer’s annual report earlier this year on genomics was a landmark piece of work, and it set out how that will revolutionise our ability to diagnose and treat illness in the future. It is within that context that we discuss medicines regulation. Put simply, if the future regulation of medicines does not keep up with the pace of development for those medicines, patients in the UK, and internationally, will not have access as quickly as they should to transformational new treatments. That would be a bad thing.
While answering as many questions as I can, let me outline the world-leading work of our domestic medicines regulation, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, as well as our plans for the future in the context of Brexit. The MHRA has been our national regulator for more than 30 years, and it has acted as the lead regulator for more than 3,500 medicines now on the EU market. It is recognised globally as an authority in licensing, inspections and batch release and through its pharmacovigilance—a great word—and medical devices regimes. It plays a leading role in protecting and improving public health through the regulation of medicines, medical devices and blood components for transfusion services. In addition, the agency hosts two organisations that, although little known, play an important role in supporting the development and use of medicines. The agency’s clinical practice research datalink uses anonymised NHS clinical data to keep patients safe and aid the development of new drugs, and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Controls develops global standards for the use and control of more than 90% of biological medicines used globally.
When preparing for this debate, it occurred to me that some of these issues apply also to animal health. Is there any responsibility for animal health in these institutions, or do we need to ask DEFRA Ministers about that separately, on another occasion?
I think it is the latter, but I will check and come back to the hon. Lady on that point.
The veterinary medicines division is part of the EMA, so it comes under that—I am not sure whether that is what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) was asking.
I thank the hon. Lady; she is always there when we need her.
As I was saying, those skills and expertise have allowed the MHRA heavily to influence global practice and regulations, which is why I say it is a world leader. A majority of medicines available in the UK—around 90%—already receive a national UK licence issued directly by the MHRA. It also leads the assessment of more than 20% of new medicines licensed by the EMA, with particular expertise and specialism in more complex new drugs that come to market. Similarly, on medical devices, five of the EU’s 55 notified bodies are in the UK, and they undertake a disproportionate amount of work. We estimate that they assess between 50% and 60% of the highest-risk devices on the EU market—a big player.
The strengths of our world-leading regulator are similarly reflected in the UK’s life sciences sector. The UK has one of the strongest and most productive life sciences industries in the world, with more than 5,000 companies, more than 233,000 employees, and an eye-watering turnover of more than £63.5 billion each year. It also provides products that the NHS and patients rely on every day—I know that the constituency of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has seen the benefits of that productive industry.
GlaxoSmithKline announced this year an investment at its Barnard Castle facility in Teesdale, as part of a wider £140 million investment in the expansion of manufacturing HIV and respiratory medicines. However, we cannot be, and are not, complacent, and we must continue to work hard to support the industry, and we have done just that. The industrial strategy Green Paper was launched in January this year, and it set an “open door” challenge to industry to come up with proposals to transform their sectors through various sector deals.
I am grateful to the Minister for his exposition of the current state of life sciences in the UK, all of which we could probably find out if we typed a few words into Google. May I bring him to one of the first questions, which is of pressing importance? What will the regulatory environment be for pharmaceutical companies that wish to get a pan-European licence in April 2019, during the so-called transition period envisaged by the Prime Minister, following the conclusion of negotiations on article 50?
I will come to that.
Please, come on. Just get straight to it.
We should always try to be courteous to one another in this House, if we can manage that. To refer to the previous point, DEFRA is responsible for animal medicines policy; EMA covers both human and animal medicines. The Department of Health and DEFRA work incredibly closely together; therefore, DEFRA Ministers answer on applications for animals. I can assist with that at any time.
We are working with Sir John Bell and others in the life sciences sector to consider the industrial strategy in more detail, and specifically what action can be taken by Government and industry in partnership through an ambitious sector deal. At the launch of “Life Sciences: Industrial Strategy”, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who has been much spoken of already in this debate, reiterated the Government’s commitment to the sector by announcing the first phase of their investment—£146 million for leading-edge healthcare, which is expected to leverage more than £250 million of private funding from the industry.
Leaving the EU, with all its challenges, allows us to make fresh choices about how we shape our economy and presents an opportunity to deliver a bold industrial strategy that prepares us for the years ahead. Our approach to the EU exit negotiations for medicines regulation is focused on building on the strengths of the MHRA and the UK life sciences sector that I have just set out. As the UK leaves the EU, both parties will have the shared aim to protect the health of patients across Europe and to ensure the safe and timely access to medicines and medical devices that I know concerns hon. Members as it concerns me. It is in the interests of patients and the life sciences industry for us to find a way to continue UK-EU co-operation and to ensure continued sharing of data, even if our precise relationship with the EU will, by necessity, change.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published an open letter in the Financial Times setting out Government’s aim to retain a close working partnership in respect of medicines regulation after the UK leaves the EU. Our approach is underpinned by three key principles, which are worth stating. First, patients should not be disadvantaged; secondly, innovators should be able to get their products into the UK market as quickly and simply as possible; and thirdly, the UK should continue to play a leading role in promoting public health.
Yesterday, obviously, the new location of the EMA was announced; in 2019 it will move to Amsterdam. Both the UK and the EU have a collective responsibility to make sure that the process is as seamless as possible, in order to minimise disruption to existing regulatory procedures and public health protection. There are no benefits to UK or EU patients in tearing up the sort of close working relationships that get crucial drugs on the market as fast as possible, share early alerts about problems with medicines or allow patients to benefit from new scientific discoveries earlier. As the Prime Minister has said, there is also no need to impose tariffs where we have none now, which is the case for medicines and medical technologies.
Continued collaboration is in the interests of public health and safety across the continent of Europe, and in the UK for our constituents, because we all know that health is different. Medicines and med tech are different from other consumer products. Patients who need an innovative treatment cannot simply pay more or consume less but otherwise carry on as they were, marginally worse off. We recognise that it could be the difference, as has been said, between life and death. We look forward to discussing these issues as early as possible with our EU counterparts as part of the negotiations.
Presumably the Minister recognises the need for cross-border manufacture with European nations to remain absolutely seamless. The issue of cephalosporins in GSK affects not only in Barnard Castle and Ulverston but Verona, which obviously is in Italy.
Yes, of course. I want to come on to the many different questions asked. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said that Scotland would have bid for the EMA if it had voted yes a couple of years ago. I do not think that it would have done, because it would not have been a European Union member state.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Mr Davies, I hope that it is not out of order to say that the Minister does not quite seem himself. If he is poorly, and my earlier remarks were somewhat curt, I apologise for them.
It would help everyone here to understand the Government’s overriding objective for medicines regulations in a post-Brexit environment. Do we intend to automatically follow EU authorisations in future, or does the Minister foresee divergence from EU regulations?
On a point of order, Mr Davies. If the Minister is struggling and feeling unwell, is there a way in which we could bring the debate to an earlier close and he could write to us in response to our questions? I am concerned by how he seems.
The Minister is the last speaker. He can stop the debate at any time, at which point I will ask Helen Goodman to make her closing remarks for two minutes. Feel free to end whenever you feel is appropriate, Minister.
Thank you; I am not feeling unwell at all.
In the event that it is not possible to reach a deal that secures ongoing, close collaboration between the UK and Europe, we will set up a regulatory system in the UK that protects the best interests of patients and supports industries so that they can grow and flourish, as set out in the letter in the Financial Times. We will ensure that our system is robust and does not impose any additional bureaucratic burdens. Our successful past should give us confidence in achieving a prosperous future, whatever form that takes. I want to be clear that that is not a threat to the EU27. I must be honest and transparent in saying that if it is not possible to secure close collaboration, we will of course look to put in place an effective system and work with international partners in a way that best protects patients and supports industry and innovation.
I will attempt to answer some of the many questions that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland put to me. I can rule out a free-standing structure incorporated into the FDA. She asked how much the EU expects us to pay towards the cost of relocating the EMA. The arrangements for withdrawing from the EU, including any financial settlement, is a matter for the withdrawal agreement, as she knows, as part of the ongoing article 50 process. The Government are absolutely committed to working with the EU to determine a fair settlement for Britain’s exit and the best deal for UK taxpayers. As part of the exit negotiations, the Government will discuss with the EU and other member states how best to continue co-operation in the field of medicines regulation, in the best interests of business, citizens and patients in the UK and the EU. I do not think that it would be appropriate, nor is it possible, for me to prejudge the outcome of those negotiations. There are many who would love that crystal ball, but I do not have it.
One can envisage a situation in which medicines are assessed in the European Union and in the UK and there is an agreement for mutual recognition between those institutions. That, one can picture. But what I cannot understand, if we are not all in one system, is how—down the track when medicines are used—if something goes wrong, the Europeans can have a claim on us or we could have a claim on them if we do not share the ECJ institutional machinery.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern. As I said, so much about this is still subject to negotiation. I cannot give her the exact assurance that she wants at this time.
The hon. Lady also asked about the EU exit transition. The Government are clear that we want to continue collaborating with the EU in the interest of protecting patient safety. The detail of any future relationship is, of course, subject to that negotiation. That is nothing new. We recognise completely that new arrangements can take time to implement, and we will work closely with the industry and key health system partners to ensure smooth implementation. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is going through the House at the moment, will ensure that a known legal framework is in place immediately after we leave the EU.
The hon. Lady talked about the Secretary of State “flirting” with leaving the EMA for the FDA. Earlier this year, the Secretaries of State for Health and for BEIS published a letter in the Financial Times setting out our aim to retain a close relationship in respect of medicines regulation. The FDA has been clear that it would not let another country “join” FDA processes even if we wanted to, but if we are outside EU processes, we will certainly look at how we can co-operate more closely with other global regulators.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) asked whether we had had contact with Australia and New Zealand. The chief executive of the MHRA chairs the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities, and we of course have had discussions through that group on a contingency basis with Canada, Australia and others about the potential for greater collaboration once we have left the EU.
The hon. Lady asked whether I can guarantee that the adverse effects of drugs will be detected quickly. She also asked about orphan drugs and clinical trials. Increasingly, information about the adverse effects of drugs is shared at a global level. The EMA collaborates with many third countries. There is no need for a broad deal to agree to share safety information. We want to continue collaboration with the EU on orphan drugs for rare diseases, which she rightly pointed out are a subset of the wider issue. If we are outside EU processes, we will need to consider incentives for orphan drug development, and we are doing that. Clinical trials all receive national approval today, and they will receive approval under the EU clinical trials regulation, which is due to come into force in late 2019. The UK will remain a leading centre for clinical trials. There is no reason why multi-country trials cannot include the UK after Brexit.
Several Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), asked about MHRA resources. Some 90% of medicines on the UK market already have a national licence from the MHRA; fewer than 10% come via work that we do for the EMA. We have world-renowned scientific assessors at the MHRA. Some work and workloads may change post-Brexit, but I do not think that claims of fundamental change are correct. MHRA has full contingency planning in place.
On that point, can the Minister confirm that Department of Health budgets will not be used to fund any additional MHRA costs?
I know that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. I cannot confirm that today—I am sorry—but when I can, I will.
A couple of Members, including the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, talked about the absence of impact assessments of the health implications of leaving the EU. I fully concur with Members’ concern that complex discussions about the future of medicines regulation were not at the forefront of the referendum campaign. That is obvious. That is the problem with referendum campaigns. That is about as far as a diplomatic Minister can go. Sadly, the subject did not feature on the side of any buses. However, as part of our work on preparing to make a success of our departure from the EU, we are carrying out a full suite of economic analyses, as any Government would be expected to do. That means looking at 58 sectors, including life sciences, and at cross-cutting regulatory, economic and social issues. It will of course take time to collate that information and ensure that it is informative and accessible. We will provide it to Parliament as soon as possible.
Is the Minister aware of whether an impact assessment is being done with regard to health, not as part of the economy but as a benefit to people in the UK?
There is a huge body of work going on in the Department about the impact of Brexit on every single area of every single Minister’s responsibility.
What assessment has the Minister made of how staying in the European economic area might impact medicines regulation, were we to go down that route instead of the one the Government are currently pursuing?
The hon. Lady asks me to visualise all the different scenarios for the current negotiations. We have been clear that we want a comprehensive deal. A number of Members mentioned that no deal is some sort of ideological obsession for some Government Members. That may be true, but they do not speak for Government policy. We are not looking for no deal; we are looking for a comprehensive deal.
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked about meeting my colleague Lord O’Shaughnessy. I cannot speak for my colleague’s diary, but I will speak to him. If he cannot meet the hon. Gentleman and his taskforce, I will. The hon. Gentleman always speaks passionately for his constituency, and I am more than happy to try to sort that out for him.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire raised a concern about safety data. That absolutely should always be shared at a global level. The MHRA leads about a third of the EU’s pharmacovigilance work. The EMA already shares data with third countries. It is in all our interests for that to continue. If we are outside EU regulatory procedures, we will ensure that the UK remains an attractive market and that regulation does not delay patient access. A number of Members expressed concern about that, and it is a concern of mine, which is why it is a priority for us.
Does the Minister recognise the data protection issue? Some people have suggested that the UK will be in a position to follow its own line on utilising data. Ending up on the outside as an untrusted country—or as an untrusted set of countries within the UK—would obviously kill our ability to take part in clinical trials and research.
It would. That is why, as the hon. Lady knows, we are working extremely hard not to be in that position. As ever, she makes her point well.
Whatever our future relationship with the European Union on the regulation of new drugs, the MHRA, our world-leading regulator—I have mentioned some of the reasons why it is world leading—will be empowered to protect patient safety both in the UK and internationally. We will also ensure, as everyone said, that patients are at the forefront of our thinking and do not get new drugs any slower than they do now.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who took part in the debate. The Minister clearly understands why medicines regulation matters and shares our interest in making it work, but I and other hon. Members asked many questions and, to be honest, the only conclusive answer that he gave was that we will not join the American FDA. I would therefore be grateful if officials provided us with written responses to those questions. I know that the Minister does not deal with this area on a day-to-day basis, but I am concerned that the Department seems to have made little progress since 4 July, which was four months ago. That will not do. Hon. Members present would like a private meeting with Lord O’Shaughnessy, the Minister’s colleague in the Lords with day-to-day responsibility for this area, who obviously was not able to participate in this debate, so that we can press him on some of the details.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of medicines regulation.
City of Culture 2021: Sunderland Bid
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Sunderland’s bid to be City of Culture in 2021.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour for me to be here to talk about my home city of Sunderland and its bid to be city of culture 2021. It came as no surprise to those of us who have had the privilege of calling Sunderland home that we were shortlisted for the coveted title alongside Coventry, Stoke, Swansea and Paisley. I understand that the Minister has listened to a number of these debates, but I am going to tell him all about Sunderland and why we should win.
My city has a long and proud history. It is a city built on industry and hard work, but which has struggled over the past 30 years to recover from the body blows of losing our shipbuilding and mining industries. When I was growing up, virtually every household had somebody working in one of those industries. Fuelled by a determination to renew itself, and after a decade of thinking and planning, the reawakening of my home city has begun.
As a city and a community we feel at a crossroads, and that the pathway leading to renewal and a brighter future is within our reach. Becoming city of culture would put us on the right path, enabling us to prosper and grow while showing the nation how culture can transform a city. If we win, it would be the culmination of 10 years’ preparation.
For those who do not know our city very well, we are often called a big village, because everybody knows each other. We are almost 300,000 in number, but we all have relatives living on the next street, and most of us live within a mile or two of where we were born, right across the social spectrum. So we are quite a special city.
Over the years, a revival has begun: a renaissance shaped and powered by culture. We have embedded arts and culture at the core of our economic master-plan and invested heavily in both infrastructure and people’s creativity and talent. We have done that with the generous help of others, particularly through valued partnerships with Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, who have bought into our vision and supported us.
Those who visit Sunderland will see physical regeneration happening on a scale I cannot remember. We have the New Wear Crossing nearing completion. Keel Square gives us a public space that we can gather on and hold events in, which was brought about by the realignment of Livingstone Road. The realignment of a road may not sound significant, but it is something I have been working on trying to get for more than 30 years, and it has opened up a number of possibilities.
The first building on the Vaux site is nearing completion, and there has been the recent reopening of the Victorian fire station, regenerated for modern use—it is not fighting fires any more—incorporating a bar and restaurant, and dance and theatre studios as well as a heritage centre to the fire service. All of those developments are at the centre of what is called the music and arts quarter redevelopment. Building works on the new theatre, next to the existing Empire theatre, will start soon.
Sunderland needs 2021 to make sure that our resurgence continues, so that the next generation can see every reason to stay in our city and no reason to leave. Our bid has galvanised and united the city. Businesses, our university, our college, our local housing group, our football club and organisations throughout the city have stood as one with the people of Sunderland in supporting the bid.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. While she is right to talk about much of what is happening in the city centre, does she agree that the bid takes in so much more than that? It will bring together all our distinct communities and showcase all the talents in our area and our rich and vibrant cultural heritage. Hopefully, all of our constituents will continue to benefit from this regeneration and growth.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend in the neighbouring constituency represents an area that has the beautiful Herrington country park, developed on the site of a former pit heap. There are many wonderful things in her constituency, as indeed there are in the constituency of the other Sunderland MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland—
The names have changed a lot over the years. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has the F Pit Museum and Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of George Washington. Things of a cultural nature are happening right across the city.
There is not lukewarm support but passionate backing for a project that the people want and the city needs. Our bid has also garnered the support of people from across the north-east region. Even the old rivalries between Sunderland and Newcastle have been put to one side on this one—anyone who understands rivalries in football will really know how passionate those rivalries are at times. Newcastle City Council passed a motion in support of our bid.
Neither the city of culture nor the European capital of culture has ever been awarded to a city in the north-east of England, despite strong bids by our neighbours Newcastle and Gateshead for European capital of culture 2008 and Durham for city of culture 2013. We are hoping it will be third time lucky.
Sunderland gets what a difference it would make: we understand that change would be fundamental and long-lasting. It is not just about the huge investment that would follow. Hull—some people say Hull is a north-east city, but it takes more than three hours to get there from Sunderland—forecasts that more than £3 billion will have flowed into its city thanks to being this year’s city of culture. Attracting an extra 1.6 million visitors, being the UK city of culture would change the way Sunderland is perceived regionally, nationally and internationally. The city that to some has become the symbol of Brexit would once again be seen as the warm, welcoming, modest, hard-working, tolerant, creative and innovative city we know it is.
Winning city of culture would be the catalyst for growth in our creative industries. We believe it would enable the growth of 150 new creative businesses, bringing in 750 sustainable jobs that our city needs. We understand how a successful bid would improve our health and wellbeing and help us become a more cohesive city. It is widely known that engagement and participation in the arts can have a positive, long-term effect on improving someone’s health and wellbeing—and particularly someone’s mental health, which is very much in the spotlight at the moment. An extended and improved cultural sector delivering more opportunities for people to engage in the arts would therefore have a meaningful impact on the city’s wellbeing.
Sunderland struggles with some of the most acute health challenges in the country, partly because of lifestyle choices but also significantly from our heritage of industrial working. The injection of cultural opportunity would do more for communities in Sunderland than anywhere else.
Communities become stronger and more understanding when working together on artistic projects. The participatory and collaborative nature of the arts and their informality promotes friendships and greater tolerance across cultural divides, even bridging language barriers.
Our city-wide conversations have inspired three creative themes: light, inventiveness and friendship. Those themes connect our past and future. They resonate with our local communities and would provide the stimulus for world-class cultural activity throughout 2021. They would strengthen the three strands of any successful city: its society, economy and culture.
Our opening season would be themed around friendship, bringing together communities across Wearside and welcoming visitors from around the world to a programme of art and culture inspired by questions about how we live together, both locally and globally. Our middle season would take inspiration from innovators, inventors and trailblazers past, present and future, to create a programme that will tackle the questions of how we make and shape the future of the world around us through our creativity and ingenuity.
Sunderland was home to Joseph Swan, the inventor of the electric light bulb, although he lost out on the patent to Edison; and before him to the glass makers, who brought stained glass window making to this country more than 1,300 years ago. Nowadays, we “Mackems” continue to innovate and invent, particularly in the IT and digital sector, as well as having the most productive car plant in Europe, which is often talked about in this place. Our final season would be inspired by the theme of light, and would be a celebration of the power of art and culture to enchant, inspire and illuminate new possibilities. Sunderland has long been an inspiration for artists and writers such as L.S. Lowry and Lewis Carroll, and painters talk of the special light that casts a glowing warmth over our fantastic beaches and coastline.
I want everyone to know just how special Sunderland is and, more than that, what city of culture status would do for our city. My city is a truly wonderful place for creativity. It is ambitious, brave and collaborative, like our bid. Winning UK city of culture 2021 would bring so much to our city and would help to reaffirm that Sunderland’s best days are not behind us, but most definitely still to come.
I will start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate on Sunderland’s bid to become UK city of culture 2021. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed. It is surprising not to see hon. Members from Swansea, Stoke, Paisley or Coventry here, intervening aggressively, but that says something about the spirit of this competition. As the hon. Lady said, it is an exciting time for Sunderland and for the other four towns and cities shortlisted to be the next holders of that transformative and quite prestigious title.
Before I go further into my speech, I would like to say a few words about Councillor Paul Watson, who was the leader of Sunderland City Council until he died earlier this month. From the many tributes I have been made aware of, it is clear that Councillor Watson was a passionate and influential campaigner for Sunderland and the wider region, and always fought hard to get a good deal for the people of the north-east. As the Minister, I would like to express my sincere condolences to his family and colleagues. I understand that Councillor Watson was an enthusiastic supporter of the UK city of culture programme and of Sunderland’s bid, recognising not only the importance of the title and its ability to help regenerate and bring economic benefits, but its importance as a vehicle for expressing a city’s pride in its heritage and helping to build a new future.
As the Minister for arts, heritage and tourism, I see the UK city of culture programme as one of our nation’s crown jewels. The winning area must build a high-quality arts and cultural programme of national significance that reaches a wide variety of audiences and participants. As the hon. Lady said, and as we have seen with Hull, winning the city of culture also acts as a catalyst that can help to regenerate and transform an area for the people who live and work there.
It might be helpful if I update the House on where we have got to. This year, 11 places made an application to become UK city of culture 2021. Following a recommendation from the independent panel chaired by the excellent Phil Redmond, I agreed a shortlist of five in July. I have been deeply impressed to see how all the places bidding have engaged so fully in the city of culture process. Even more gratifying is to see how making a bid can in itself be transformational in raising a city’s profile and helping it to develop a clear set of cultural aspirations for the future. The hon. Lady has outlined some of the themes that are clear in Sunderland’s bid. Feedback from the places that did not make the shortlist—Hereford, Perth, Portsmouth, St David’s, Warrington and Wells—confirms that to be the case. I met representatives from some of those areas in September and heard how their participation in the UK capital of culture process is the start of a journey, not its end. Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry and Swansea, the other shortlisted places, are nearing the end of the process along with Sunderland, and I will announce the winner next month.
There is clearly much to be gained for the winning city of culture. We know that taking part in the arts can improve self-esteem and confidence. Arts and culture, through their ability to engage, inspire and challenge us, are instrumental in helping to break down barriers to participation and engagement across race, disability, age, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic disadvantage. The economic and social importance of culture to place-making, as underlined by the Government’s White Paper on culture last year, is evident in emerging data and evidence coming from Hull, the current incumbent UK city of culture.
Before I address Sunderland, I thought it might be helpful to set out some of the benefits the title brings. I will set them against what we know has happened in Hull. Hull City Council estimates that the local economy has benefited by £3.3 billion in total investment since being awarded the title, four years ago in 2013. Seven out of 10 Hull residents say that the UK city of culture status is having a positive effect on their lives, largely because of the opportunities made available through its volunteering programme and participation at events across the city. Hull’s 2017 volunteers have already undertaken more than 300,000 volunteer hours, the equivalent of 34 years. City of culture status has restored local pride. Who can forget Hull City fans singing, “You’re only here for the culture,” at a premier league match earlier this year?
Finally, and very importantly, Hull has seen brilliant engagement with the arts. Nine out of 10 residents attended or experienced at least one cultural event in the first three months of the year—more than double the number engaging in such activities before the city’s bid. Those are amazing achievements, of which Hull City Council and the Hull city of culture company can be hugely proud.
I now address the substance of this debate, Sunderland’s bid to become the UK’s city of culture 2021. One of the great sincere pleasures of my job is learning about the history and culture of towns and cities across the UK. For example, in preparing for this debate I found out that England’s first ever stained glass window was created in Sunderland, almost 1,400 years ago. I also learned that Sunderland was one of the first places outside London to have a municipally funded museum. It has always been a place that showed cultural leadership. Like many other people, however, I am more familiar with Sunderland’s recent history as one of the world’s great shipbuilding cities. As the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said, the decline of shipbuilding and the coal industry has had a huge impact on the people of Sunderland. In common with Hull and other city of culture candidates, the city has needed to reinvent itself, and in this context it is using arts and culture to forge a new identity.
Sunderland now has a strong network of existing museums and galleries in the area, particularly the National Glass Centre, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. There is also good partnership working and engagement with other major regional museums, including Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and I know that Sunderland is keen to use the city of culture bid to develop its existing partnerships with other national and international museums. Last week we had an independent review of museums, and that was one of the themes we will be taking up in the Department. Whoever wins will have the opportunity to derive some benefits from that work. The National Glass Centre and the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art receive funding from Arts Council England of nearly £350,000 per year, as well as funding from the city and the University of Sunderland.
The organisation leading the bid is Sunderland Culture, which has been formed by the University of Sunderland, Sunderland City Council and the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust. Sunderland Culture will become a national portfolio organisation that receives annual funding from the Arts Council from April 2018. Sunderland has also received £3 million from the Creative People and Places programme and £1.25 million from the Great Places Scheme.
Looking forward, it is absolutely clear that there is a clear cultural vision for Sunderland, including for a new music, arts and culture quarter and the restoration of significant heritage sites, such as Hylton castle and Roker pier. Sunderland is home to Europe’s largest free international air show and will next year host the Tall Ships race, which I hope will bring people to the city in huge numbers and be a fantastic boost to the visitor economy. I hope many of those visitors will also experience the Great Exhibition of the North, which will take place at the same time in nearby Newcastle and Gateshead.
It is clear from what we have heard this afternoon that, in common with the other shortlisted areas, Sunderland has the heritage, vision, infrastructure and cultural leadership to be the next city of culture. I conclude by wishing the city of Sunderland the best of luck in its bid. It has been so well supported by all its MPs here today. The good news for them is that they have only a few weeks to wait.
Question put and agreed to.
State Pension Age
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the state pension age.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am not minded to take many interventions, because I have a lengthy set of remarks, and I want as many colleagues to be able to speak as possible.
It is a pleasure for me to lead my first Westminster Hall debate since being elected to serve the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in June. I am grateful to colleagues for joining me this afternoon. It demonstrates our collective commitment to older citizens in the four nations that make up our United Kingdom. I want to talk about the sort of policies we need to see to honour that commitment to our older people.
I have initiated this debate for many reasons, which I will set out in my remarks. The main motive is to highlight the fact that all sections of our community are feeling the effects of the decisions made by this Tory Government. For example, we had a debate two weeks ago on lowering the voting age and empowering our young people. I was there to support the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and was disappointed to see the Tories talk it out.
Today, I hope our debate will highlight the rough deal that those reaching pension age in our country have been dealt. We have a social security system at breaking point, with local authorities being asked to lead the provision of social care but at the same time having their hands tied behind their backs by this Government. We are seeing older people staying in their own homes, often without the support to downsize to a small property if needed or even find the basic help and assistance needed to stay in their own home.
I remember the Tory slogans and arguments from the general election. They were heard loud and clear in the United Kingdom. This Conservative Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, say they want to build a country that works for everyone. It is very clear to me and many Opposition Members and, through us, the people we represent, that the truth is that the Prime Minister and her Government are building a country where working people are pushed to breaking point. The only thing working is the clock ticking on their time in Downing Street.
Let us be clear: the Tories, backed by the Democratic Unionist party, are asking the British people to work longer—I say this very clearly—to pay for failed Tory austerity measures and their internal obsession with a hard Brexit. Parliament has a responsibility to call the Government out on this, and that is why we are here today.
When I was elected to this House, I made a pledge that not only was I on a five-year career break from my job at Royal Mail but, importantly, I was going to stand up loud and proud for working people. I promised to do all I could to ensure that the arguments for better pay, better working conditions, decent support rules and regulations and a secure retirement are heard loud in Parliament and across Whitehall. I stand by that commitment today.
I am delighted that my party has committed to maintaining the state pension age at 66 years of age, while a review takes place to look at the most recent evidence on life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and the impact of a higher retirement age on those working in jobs with long hours. These are hard-working people with low pay who are often on the frontline, providing much needed public services. The longer people live, the better and more organised Government need to be when it comes to providing for all our people. It is a matter of political will. We can provide for all our people—young and old—if we choose to and if we want to. This Tory Government have the ability to act, but we have to ask, do they want to? If we close tax loopholes, scrap unnecessary vanity projects and work hard for a deal on Brexit that sees Britain retain the benefits of the customs union and the single market, we can fund a decent retirement for all our workers.
From the 1940s until 2010, the state pension age was 60 for women and 65 for men. Colleagues will know that three different pieces of legislation saw the state pension age increased in 1995, 2007 and 2011. That was done without any meaningful engagement. I have been in the House for six months, so I was not here to have my say on that, but I am having it now.
One recent report on public health I read described how the average pensioner will now have to deal with a “toxic cocktail” of ill health throughout their whole retirement and for some considerable years before they retire. That is not how things should be in one of the largest economies in the world. I support calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for a new review of the pension age and a rejection of the Tory proposals to increase the state pension age above and beyond 66, as it will be by 2020. I do not want to see thousands of older people with serious health conditions pushed into old-age poverty, living on state benefits before they are entitled to officially retire. I hope other Members will join those calls.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The John Cridland report recommended that the pension age should extend to 70. Does he agree that we need an evidence base on the impact that will have? In nations where people work longer, they have proper flexibility in their work and career breaks built in. They prepare for their pensions from day one of work, as opposed to reaching the retirement age and then finding it falsely extended. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
I support those points.
I have spent my career to date working for Royal Mail. Those 30 years saw early mornings—in Scotland, cold mornings—and lots of stairs and walking. I am lucky; I am now a Member of this House and spend more time being able to rest my knees, but many of the men and women I worked with are getting older. We all are, and age has an impact on our ability to do our job.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There is a particular issue regarding women, which I hope he will come to. We have had six or seven debates on the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign and the position of those women. Does he agree that women in this country are bearing the burden of the recession, let alone some of the other problems they have? Many of those women were not able to plan for their retirement because the Government created this situation. Many of them have elderly parents and need to look after them, which is causing severe hardship. Does he agree?
I will come to the WASPI situation later on.
I now have a platform to speak up for the people I worked with, who are still working until the age of 66, 68 and beyond, and their rights and futures and the future of all working people. That is why I am here. The same goes for the nurses that keep us, our families and constituents alive, the firefighters who do what they can to keep us safe from horrific events like Grenfell and the policemen and women who keep our communities safe.
We need to be realistic. At 68, we will not be as fast running down the road chasing criminals or as alert and awake on a night shift in our hospitals. This is real talk, and it needs to be heard. That is my view and the view of the people I talk to in the streets.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the nature and legacy of work, particularly in working-class areas, and how those people rely on the state pension to a disproportionate degree. We have neighbouring constituencies. There is a 15% higher premature mortality rate in Glasgow. Indeed, one in four Glaswegian men will not reach their 65th birthday. That is the reality people face in Glasgow. If the state pension age goes up, those people will be disproportionately affected, and that would be shameful.
I agree and thank my hon. Friend for making that point. In Scotland, life does seem a wee bit harder and people experience more wear and tear.
What a disgraceful situation we are in. The Government not only want our public sector workers, those on the frontline, to work longer, but refuse to lift fully the public sector pay cap. Since 2010, NHS professionals such as paramedics have seen their pay fall by £3,800 a year, firefighters are down nearly £2,900 and nuclear engineers and teachers are down approximately £2,500 a year.
The Government recently announced that the public sector pay cap would be lifted for police and prison officers. It is a disgrace to play off worker against worker. I strongly condemn a sector-by-sector pay rise. I did not come to this House to sit back and stay silent when such games are played. Shame on the Government! Tomorrow, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give his Budget. I call on him, even at this late stage, to do the right thing and lift the public sector pay cap not just for certain public sector workers, but for all public sector workers.
The WASPI women have been mentioned. Those inspirational women are fighting for fairness; they are the Women Against State Pension Inequality. I wholeheartedly support their calls for fairness, for action and for a basic level of decency and respect.
I thank my hon. Friend for being generous in taking interventions. I speak to many of my constituents about that unfairness in the state pension age increases. Does my hon. Friend agree that what compounds the unfairness is that many of those women, when they were in work, did highly physically demanding, low-paid work and they had to fight just to be paid equally for that work?
Yes, I do. For your sake, Mr Hollobone, I point out that I will not take any more interventions and will finish my speech, but I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) has applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the WASPI women. I am a sponsor of that request, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) and hon. Members in other parties. I very much hope for a full debate on the issues and a vote on the Floor of the House. I believe that comments on the WASPI issue are best made in a debate such as that, but I will say a couple of words here.
First, the lack of communication from the Government to the women affected was crazy. The Cridland review recommended that the Government wrote directly and in time to the women affected by changes to the state pension age. Secondly, things do not have to be this way; we should not have citizens of our country paying a price because of their date of birth.
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. He came before me and the other members of the Backbench Business Committee last Tuesday to ask for the debate, as he said. Today we met and we have allocated a debate, with his divisible motion, for 14 December, if the Committee is allocated time on that day, which has not yet been confirmed. I hope that that is the news that my hon. Friend was looking for.
I am very glad that I took that intervention; I thank my hon. Friend for that news. I am sure that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) will feel the same.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House rightly feel strongly about the impact of changes to the state pension age on women who are affected purely because of their date of birth. That is obviously not fair or appropriate. We need to see action, and I hope that we will see action now that my good friend has mentioned the date for the debate.
I want to mention the social care crisis in our country. The longer people work, the more likely they are to be pushed to breaking point, and therefore the demands on our fragile and under-resourced social care system become even more pressing. However, the issue is not just those in work, but those out of work. If older people are out of work because of long-term conditions or ill health caused by their occupation and are currently able to claim their state pension, that is good. It maintains dignity and respect. But what happens to those who now see their ability to claim their pension pushed further away? What safety network is in place for those older people not able to work?
I am also concerned by the roll-out of universal credit and older people being pushed on to universal credit. It has already failed and has the potential to cause real and lasting damage.
I am very grateful to Age UK for its briefing on the issues facing older people in our country. Like Age UK, I recognise that we need to look at the pension age, but we need to do so properly, fairly and effectively. I am pleased that 13 years of good Labour government saw pensioner poverty fall, but I fear that that trend is in reverse. Some 1.9 million pensioners live in poverty across our United Kingdom, and figures show that 25% of the over-65s find it hard to make ends meet. It is important to remember that 37% of women, and about 20% of men, between the ages of 55 and 64 do not have a private pension.
Let me make it clear: the state pension remains the most important source of income for the majority of pensioners, and any increase in the state pension age will present many challenges for people who already have difficulty working longer. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, representing seats in all four nations that make up the UK, will know the pressures that local government funding cuts have placed on councils’ ability to deliver decent, funded and effective social care provision.
I echo the comments made by Baroness Thornton in the other place. She made an important set of remarks in a debate on the human rights of older people that was introduced by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. She noted:
“Human rights do not lessen with age.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 November 2017; Vol. 785, c. 2206.]
It is a human right to have a decent retirement, and in my view it is a human right to have a decent state pension too. I also echo Baroness Thornton’s comments regarding the injustice done to all women born in the 1950s who are affected by the changes to the state pension laws in the Pensions Acts of both 1995 and 2011. I hope that the Minister will give some indication in his response of what the Government plan to do about that. Will there be any transitional arrangements for the women affected? I might say, as a new parliamentarian, how delighted I am that the WASPI women are seeking a parliamentary solution; they are right to do so.
I called this debate because I want this House to discuss the pension age, but also the issues related to any increase. It will not happen in isolation, and we need to consider the impact of any decisions taken on every part of public life. I am committed to fighting for a better deal for our young people, not just in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill but across the country. I am equally determined to fight for a better deal for our older people, and I hope that this afternoon’s debate will be the start of that.
The debate lasts until 5.30 pm. I will start to call the Front Benchers at seven minutes past 5, with the guideline limits being five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. Mr Gaffney gets two minutes at the end to sum up the debate, and six hon. Members wish to speak, so I will have to impose a time limit of three minutes, which will ensure that everyone gets a chance to contribute.
Another day, another WASPI debate, albeit by another name. Still the Government remain intransigent, still we who know this is wrong remain hopeful and still the WASPI women fight on. Today, I ask the Minister not to talk about apprenticeship programmes for WASPI women. I ask him not to talk in a circuitous way about how we are all living longer, which is often trotted out—the great, “You know we’re all living longer, blah, blah, blah.” That bears no relation to what is being debated and what the WASPI women want to be debated, which is that women born in the 1950s were given little or no notice that their pensions would be delayed by several years.
That means retirement plans thrown into chaos, caring responsibilities presumably to be ignored and, for women who have worked their whole lives, financial hardship on a scale that is simply unacceptable. No cognisance seems to have been taken of the fact that this also hits the generation of women which suffered from pay inequality relative to their male counterparts, so this is a cruel double whammy—one that has hit 4,800 of my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran very hard.
I am tired of the endless debates on this issue. Any fair-minded person would agree that this is a huge injustice. Let us get on and sort it out. The WASPI women, as I am sure the Minister knows, are not going to stop their campaign, because they are in the right and they know it. It is the Government who must change their position. I keep saying this: WASPI women are not going to go away, because there is nowhere for them to go. It is their money; they paid into their pensions in good faith and it is morally correct for the Government to pay out.
I know that the Minister knows, but I remind him that this is not pin money; these are pensions that those women have paid for and they need it for rent, food and basic necessities. The fact that the Government have so far turned a deaf ear to these women and all these cries of injustice shows that the Government have a brass neck. If this injustice is not addressed, the Government really should hang their heads in shame. We need to have a grown-up debate about pensions—of course we do—but until this is sorted out, we are whistling in the wind. I urge the Minister to put this outrage right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on setting the scene. We are all here for a purpose: to speak out on behalf of those who are disadvantaged through the pension scheme. I am very pleased to be here as a member of the Democratic Unionist party and express the view that many others will express in this Chamber.
I want to speak out specifically for those women born in the 1950s who are having to work longer and longer. Just last week my colleagues in our DUP group met with the WASPI women and had a good chat and discussion with them; we had a very constructive and positive meeting. We are here to underline the fact that we agreed that this massive jump from expecting a pension at the age of 60 to having to wait until 66 is a terrible gap to bridge.
I read a Northern Ireland Assembly report focusing on women’s economic transition to retirement, which was released in September and clearly outlined the changes in Northern Ireland. Life expectancy in Northern Ireland has increased by nine years for men and seven years for women. Just to give a bit of perspective, that places women at the forefront of demographic ageing and makes them particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of demographically driven policy change. They have on average poorer career progression, higher rates of casual, part-time and low-status work, and receive lower pay. We cannot ignore that.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. On the issue of life expectancy, does he agree that while we need to resolve the issue of the WASPI women now, this Government and future Governments need to think long term, rather than reacting to immediate pressures in the short term?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I agree with him.
All those things for ladies are exacerbated by poor availability of affordable childcare, especially in Northern Ireland. Women also make up the majority of those receiving later life care and the majority of those providing it. This makes them doubly vulnerable, as receivers of low pay or no pay, both on the frontline of late-life care and as the clientele of a social service and care system under increasing pressure.
I understand that the finances are stretched, but I also see the human side of women in their mid-60s who scrub floors for a living or do heavy lifting in care in the community, who have no plan in place and are now expected to work to an age at which it is almost impossible to do their job. Will the Minister say where these women can source a job which it is possible for them to do and whether his Department will take responsibility for transferring those women who have done manual labour all their life and are no longer fit to do so, but who are expected to work? These women need help, and we are looking to the Government to step in and provide the necessary interim support for a generation of women who feel cheated and lost in the mayhem of a system that is all new to them. We have put them on this journey—I say “we”, but it is the Government—and we must help them through it, and currently that is not being done.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this profoundly important debate.
The state pension age has been discussed for over 70 years. I appreciate that we only have an hour to add meaningful contributions, which is why I wish to speak about the handling of the state pension age. As hon. Members are aware, both the Pensions Act 1995 and the Pensions Act 2007 looked to stagger the equalisation of the state pension age over a series of years. Regrettably, there has been an unfair acceleration of this process, trapping half a million women, who must wait at least an extra year to receive their state pension. It is estimated that over 6,000 women in my constituency of East Lothian alone have been affected.
Let me make it clear: this is not about the principle of equalising the state pension age; it is about the practical roll-out of the policy. In 2005, the Pensions Commission argued that any planned increase to the state pension age should carry at least 15 years notice, the same timeframe that was contained in the 1995 Act. The 2014 Pensions Act established, however, that 10 years notice of state pension age increase was appropriate, and the Pensions Act 2011 gave just five years to plan for these changes. Age UK have been very clear on this, saying that it gives
“insufficient time to prepare for retirement.”
There is also the question of how the information was brought to the attention of those affected.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the notification period that people have been given. Does he agree that it is a scandal that women such as my constituent Winifred Setzekorn only found out about the increase in their state pension age four years before turning 60?
Absolutely, and the point is very well made.
Across the UK, the profound unfairness of the changes has influenced and empowered local action groups working under the WASPI campaign. This debate was sought not only because of the inherent unfairness of the accelerated change, but because it offers an opportunity to pay credit to the diligence of some of the WASPI women in the work they do—women such as Pat Milligan, a local WASPI co-ordinator in East Lothian, who puts it far better and more eloquently than I. She tells those women she meets who have been trapped by these changes that they need to be active, write to the Minister and take their complaint to the Government. In her words:
“This is your pension; this is your fight.”
I am therefore tentatively pleased that the Minister has promised to create a dedicated team to handle these complaints, but it will be interesting to see what response complainants get.
On a wider note, the way that we parliamentarians handle this issue is also critical. Among the 6,000 women affected in East Lothian, those aged between 60 and 62 will see their incomes fall disastrously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In pension terms, what we have witnessed over recent years is an attempt to take away dignity in old age. The plans formulated to take the pensionable age beyond 65, 66 and, now, 67 simply outline this Government’s direction of travel. For any national pension scheme, dignity should be at the heart of retirement. Speaking for the Scottish National Party: that is where our values lie.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), for example, has been at the sharp end of the debate on behalf of the WASPI women, as we all have. Despite the calls for fairness and dignity for the WASPI women, despite the majority of MPs saying that they would support the WASPI women in a vote, we are still in the situation that women born in the 1950s are expected to work beyond their original pensionable age and are having to work into their retirement years—those who still can.
For a Pensions Minister to come to this Chamber, as he did last July, to suggest that women get themselves an apprenticeship at the age of 63 or 64 is laughable and shows how much this Government appreciate the difficulties that people have adjusting to retirement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that my constituents, such as Lorraine McColl and Nancy Rea, who have campaigned relentlessly for the past two and a half years since I became an MP, have yet to hear any satisfactory response from this Government? I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing this debate, but how long must we continue endlessly to have this debate?
It certainly feels like, “How long is a piece of string?”, because this debate has gone on and on. Frankly, some of the conditions and situations described by other Members are totally unacceptable.
As my hon. Friend points out, it is absolutely ridiculous that women born in the ’50s have to wait for another six years before they can collect their deferred wages through the state pension. The situation is not getting any better; in fact, it is getting worse. The Cridland review recommended that the expected rise in the state pension age to 68 be brought forward to 2037. For many hard-working Scots, whose life expectancy is not high because of historical and deeply ingrained health challenges, this means fewer years for them to enjoy their retirement. The picture is no different in parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where industrial injuries and a high level of poverty impact on life expectancy. At no point were the Scottish Government, which raised the issues with the Cridland commission, given the opportunity to put their point forward in a proper consultation on this proposal. Again, that is totally unacceptable from the point of view of Scottish pensioners.
It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I am sure that many of the Members present have had the same experience as I have in representing their constituents: that woman after woman born in the 1950s has come and told them stories about having planned for their pension since they were young and having put money aside. In one case, someone took redundancy from a well-paid white-collar job because she would get her pension in two years, only to discover that that was not the case. In the intervening years, the savings that she had built up for her pension and the redundancy money that would have seen her through those two years had been spent. That constituent is now out working two jobs in order to make ends meet.
Regardless of what the Government might think, there is no class divide, no voter divide and no geographical divide in this. The mismanagement of the introduction of the new pension ages has trapped women all over Scotland and the United Kingdom in a poverty trap. They are being pushed into hardship by mismanagement. As my colleagues have said, we come here time after time, we make the same case, which is completely justifiable, and we hear nothing back from the Government.
An all-party parliamentary group Bill will come before the House in April next year. I hope that on that occasion, Members on both sides of the House will remember that this is not a political issue: it is about justice. It is about justice for women who were unfortunate enough to be born in the 1950s, who suffered the mismanagement of the introduction of a change in the pension age, and are now in circumstances over which they had no control. We do have control; we can change it, and I hope that every Member in the House will remember that when it comes time to vote.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I sincerely hope to see movement from the Government on the default retirement age for civil nuclear police, which is an issue that has remained unresolved for far too long, as has the unresolved matter of overseas pensions freezes, but for the purposes of this speech, I will focus on another epic struggle: WASPI. In Hartlepool, an estimated 5,500 women have lost out thanks to changes to the state pension age. Women in the town who were born between December 1953 and October 1954 and expected to retire at 60 now have to wait 18 months or two years longer to draw their state pension. For my constituents, many of whom have contributed to this scheme for 44 years and expected to retire at 60, this is simply not acceptable, and in some cases is causing genuine hardship—including, for one of my constituents, the forced sale of her home. The women were either given no notice of the changes by the Government or given inadequate notice, and the changes are causing a lot of worry and anger. It will be the poorest women who suffer the most as a result of the Government’s implementation of the changes to the state pension scheme, and I for one stand shoulder to shoulder with the Women Against State Pension Inequality activists, who are rightly challenging this injustice.
In 2013, my predecessor Iain Wright said that,
“many of the women affected by these…changes might have worked part time to raise families and might have not had the opportunity to pay into an occupational scheme. Women in Hartlepool…who are often the foundation of a household’s budget, are certainly not in a position to prepare properly for a sudden two year rise in their pension age”.
Sadly, it is now 2017 and the fight goes on. I fully support the WASPI women, as does my local authority, passing a resolution as recently as October this year demanding Government intervention to help.
I have many constituents who have come to me for help, and many of them are WASPI women. They are nearing pension age but many of them have had to leave work early because of physically, mentally and emotionally demanding jobs, and they are really struggling. Many of them are also facing the difficulty of the fully digital universal credit system. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are victimising, and making life harder for, our mature citizens?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and it is a point well made.
Hartlepool women who have been left worst off will not be able to afford to bridge the pension gap. The WASPI campaign recognises that the equalisation of the state pension age is necessary, but the manner in which it has been introduced has been unfair, unjust and has had devastating consequences for the retirement plans of thousands of women in Hartlepool and millions across the country. I strongly support the demand for this matter to be debated in the Chamber and voted on so that this intolerable situation can be resolved once and for all if the Government continue to refuse to take action. I am not so well, Mr Hollobone, so I do apologise for my manner.
Thank you. We now come to the first of the Front-Bench speeches. The guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for the Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister.
Because of the constraints on time, I will rattle through this fairly quickly. We have basically got three main concerns that are relevant to this debate.
First, we want to make it clear that we oppose plans to increase the pensionable age beyond 66. That is a reckless move just now, and is not reflective of how long people are really living. The other element—which was touched on by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who I am very grateful to for securing this debate—is that Scotland has a very different demographic to many other parts of the UK. Even within the UK, we have different demographics in different areas. As was mentioned, some people in Glasgow barely see their 65th birthday, never mind live long enough to receive the pension that they have paid into.
This is a very important debate, and women play a considerable role in society, but will the hon. Lady accept that statistics from the National Records of Scotland put the life expectancy for women higher than that for men? In fact, it is 77 years for baby boys and 81 years for girls.
No, and I will tell the hon. Lady why. Yes, I recognise that physically human beings are living longer, but the inequalities that exist within our society are not moving with that. We have a situation where some folk in Glasgow or Paisley barely see their 50th birthday. They are doing well if they get to 65. That is the reality for many of our constituents and it has to be reflected when we make new policy.
When I first laid eyes on the issue of pensions, when I was elected, I just thought, “This is such a mess.” What strikes me most about the issue is that I do not think the Government have sat and cruelly decided who the most vulnerable people are and how they can attack them; I do not think that has happened. What I think has happened is that we have realised that pensions have become a bit of a mess, and we are so worried about—I do not know—what Channel 4 is going to report the next day or whatever, that we have to grab the headlines and have to be seen to be doing something good. All that is doing is trying to stuff this big problem back into the closet, rather than taking it out and going, “Let’s have a serious look at this.” That is what I had hoped the Cridland review would do. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Scottish Government and I made many appeals to the Cridland review, raising our concerns about how the rise in the pensionable age could affect different areas. It is really disheartening to see it so swiftly dismissed, considering how big an aspect it is of the lives of my constituents.
Secondly—surprise!—I want to touch on the issue of the WASPI women. I have honestly lost count of the number of debates we have had on this issue, so I will not do the usual stuff of saying how terrible that is, because I have accepted that that is just how this place works, but I will say that this is a real chance to get something right with pensions. It is not a political thing. I know that many Conservative Members will say, “The WASPI women are just a stick that the Opposition are using to beat us with,” but it is not. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) said earlier, this issue is affecting women in every constituency from all different backgrounds. Their only crime is that they were born in the ’50s. That is unjust, and it cannot be allowed to happen. The Government should do something right and inspire us a wee bit. They should do something good for pensions. When we add to that a further rise in the pension age, when they have not even dealt with the WASPI women, it is downright insulting and shows that the Government are putting the final nail in their coffin in terms of pensioners. If this issue is not dealt with, people will remember.
The third thing I want to touch on is frozen pensions. I met the International Consortium of British Pensioners and, to be honest, my knowledge at first was very much on the surface. The group explained that this is not just a bunch of pensioners who went away to Spain, to the Costa del Sol. These are people who, when they were of working age, were encouraged to go to Commonwealth countries. They were offered work and deals and told, “Go, and the bonus is that you will retire in sunshine. Brilliant—go!”, but because of some ancient bilateral agreements, we now have people in Canada and Australia whose pensions are still at the same rate as they were when they left in the ’70s. It is so mad that their pensions get uprated when they physically land here. A guy was in the UK for two weeks and his pension was uprated because he was physically here. It is ludicrous.
I am conscious of the time, so let me just say this: pensions are a mess. Please work with us to get it right.
Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, which has seen more than a dozen people take part in this short debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing his first of many Westminster Hall debates. I very much believe that he is loud and proud. I love that voice, which reminds me so much of home, although I left the area when he was just three years old. He made an excellent speech; it was a trip right through the social security system and how it is failing so many of our people.
We could talk about many things today, from the plight of the ’50s-born women whom the Government are continuing to ignore, to the ill-advised increase in the state pension age that was brought in by the Tory Government and which hits the poorest and most vulnerable people hardest. Several Members have addressed the WASPI issue and the Minister will probably be pleased to hear that I will not dwell on the ’50s-born women. However, as I said in the House last week, this issue will not go away and the Government need to act, starting with an extension to pension credit, giving women the option to claim their state pension two years earlier at a slightly reduced rate. That is not a complete solution, but it would provide something for that very wronged group.
Then we have the issue of increasing the state pension age. Age UK said that it is reasonable to look at the state pension age as longevity increases, but it needs to be accompanied by support to enable people to work longer and protection for those who cannot. I share Age UK’s view, but I must stress that longevity is not enough. We need to consider quality of life and health. That said, University College London’s Sir Michael Marmot says that increases in life expectancy have slowed down or halted, but even if we might be living a little longer but not living healthily for any longer, increasing the state pension age is bad news, particularly for the poorest in our country and those with ill health.
The inequalities are not illustrated better anywhere than in my constituency, where a man in the poorest ward can expect to live 16.4 years less on average than a man in the most affluent ward. The man in the poor ward may have started work at 16 and paid national insurance contributions throughout his adult life, and is more likely to have been in a physically demanding job and to have experienced ill health at a younger age. He may even be lucky to get the state pension for a handful of years before dying. Contrast that with a more affluent, professional person, who may not have started work until his 20s, who retired at 60 because he could afford to, and who then picked up his state pension when he was still fit and healthy enough to enjoy it. The manual worker will have worked more years and may have paid contributions for 50 years—perhaps 10 more than the professional. How is that just? How is that fair? We have heard that people die younger, and the illustration from Glasgow of somebody dying aged 63 and never reaching state pension age is very relevant.
The Cridland review, which will effectively cost 7 million people £10,000 each, failed to come up with an answer to this question, but even John Cridland spoke of the need for greater support for people in hard physical jobs that offer them limited chance, if any, of a few years of healthy retirement.
We have not yet heard anything from the hon. Gentleman about costs. Does he accept that unless we raise the retirement age, the system of paying for the state pension will be financially unsustainable?
Cost will always be an issue, but some have made the point that we need to base decisions on fact and new data. The data are changing. People will not necessarily live longer, so the cost might not be higher in the longer run.
We believe that we should have a variable state pension age whereby a person’s work background, health and income are considered, with their retirement age being based on their life expectancy, not just the national average. The proposal to raise the state pension age even further all but wipes out the chances of many of our people enjoying a few years of retirement in good health. The state pension should be flexible and recognise the contribution that people have made to our country, and the system should be designed to work for everyone.
I really worry about the pressure facing older people in our country. The cost of living is going up and their pension is getting further away. At the same time, many are unwell and unable to work, or they may be caring for even more elderly parents or young children, making a very different but relevant contribution.
I wonder whether the Minister is even aware that 1.9 million pensioners now live below the poverty line. That means more struggling older people on social security and extra strain on the NHS when vulnerable people are living in poverty, all within a system that has seen that value of income shrink since 2010. I referred to older people with caring responsibilities. Many will fall short of the 35 years of contributions that are needed to secure a full pension. We need to do things for all those people, for all the different groups in our community, because that would be the fair and right thing to do.
If the Minister can finish his remarks no later than 5.27 pm, Mr Gaffney will have time to sum up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing today’s debate on the state pension age and welcome him to what I think is his first debate here.
Since world war 2, we have seen dramatic changes in life expectancy. We are living longer and staying healthier for longer, and we are leading far more active lifestyles, regardless of our age. Although increasing longevity is to be celebrated, we must also be realistic about the demographic and fiscal challenges that that creates for us as a society. Faced with significant increases in life expectancy and compelling evidence of demographic pressures, it is right that successive Governments took action to secure the affordability and sustainability of the state pension system for current and future generations.
To answer the point raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who wanted us to think long term, in July the Government published their first review of the state pension age, setting out a coherent strategy targeted at strengthening and sustaining the UK’s state pension system for many decades to come. It accepts the key recommendations of John Cridland’s independent review, which consulted a wide range of people and organisations, proposing that the state pension age be increased from 67 to 68 in the years 2037 to 2039.
The Cridland review was independent and is very clear. It stated:
“In 1917 the first telegrams to those celebrating their 100th birthday”
were sent. There were 24 that year. The review continued:
“In 2016 around 6,000 people will have received a card from Her Majesty the Queen. In 2050, we expect over 56,000 people to reach this milestone. Three factors are at play here: a growing population; an ageing population as the Baby Boomers retire; and an unprecedented increase in life expectancy. A baby girl born in 2017 can expect to live to be 94 years and a boy to be 91. By 2047 it could well be 98 and 95 respectively.”
The reality, therefore, is that the
“world of the Third Age is now a very different one”
and that those who receive the state pension
“will on average spend…a third of their adult life in retirement, a proportion never before reached.”
Given that the Minister has spent so long talking about life expectancy, will he do me the honour of telling the House what the life expectancy in Glasgow East is?
The reality is that life expectancy has increased repeatedly across the country—[Interruption.] It most definitely has increased across the country in all socioeconomic groups over the past 30 years, and for all constituent countries of the UK. Mr Cridland, who was independent, did extensive work on that point, concluding that a universal state pension age remained the best system, and the Government agree with that point.
The Opposition spokesman said that Labour supports a variable state pension age. Does my hon. Friend think that that would survive legal challenge?
I will make two points about that. The first is that anybody who proposes a situation involving framing new legislation that lacks equality between men and women will have to deal with the Equality Act 2010, because any new transitional provision runs the risk of creating a new inequality between men and women and being subject to challenge.
Further to the proposal made by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, the Labour party’s position in its manifesto, as agreed with by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and presumably the Scottish National party, is to reject any increase in the state pension age above 66. That would involve scrapping the Pensions Act 2007, the work of the Labour Government in the Blair-Brown years. Costs have been mentioned; let me be clear that the costs of capping the rise in state pension age at 66 in 2020 would be £250 billion higher than proceeding according to the timetable set out by John Cridland.
The Minister referred to Labour policy, but he edited it to a few words. We actually said that we wanted to freeze the pension age at 66 and set up our own commission to consider longevity and pensions issues and how we could help the more vulnerable in our society.
I will quote the hon. Gentleman’s party manifesto to him, just so we are utterly clear.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not. The manifesto says:
“The pension age is due to rise to 66 by the end of 2020. Labour rejects the Conservatives’ proposal to increase the state pension age even further.”
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the shadow Secretary of State made it clear in July, as the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said, that 66 was the proposed utter limit for an increase.
I want to make a little bit of progress.
I turn to the legislation passed over the last 22 years, during which time Labour, the coalition and the Conservatives have all been in government. Back in 1995, after two years of debate and consultation, the Government legislated to equalise the state pension age to eliminate gender inequalities in state pensions. That was a result of welcome increases in life expectancy, combined with the anticipated increase in the number of pensioners in the years to come.
The Minister has talked about the number of people who are living longer, getting telegrams from the Queen on their 100th birthday and so on. That is fantastic, and I am sure that we are all happy about it, but can he not see that it does not help the women who have been told, with very little notice, that they will not get the pension they thought they would get at age 60? Telling them that they will live longer does not ease their hardship now.
Over the past 22 years, the Government have gone to significant lengths to both communicate and mitigate the nature of the state pension age changes, and that included a campaign in 2004 to educate people about their state pensions and extensive debates in the House of Commons on a multitude of occasions under a number of different Governments.
Will the Minister give way?
No; I am answering the question. Beyond that, over the last 17 years, the Department has provided more than 19 million personalised state pension estimates. In addition, the Department wrote to women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1953, informing them of changes to their state pension age.
Will the Minister give way?
I am still finishing this point. Following the Pensions Act 2011, the Department wrote 5.77 million letters to the people directly affected, to inform them of changes to their state pension age. The reality of the situation is that during the passage of the 2011 Act, the two-year acceleration originally proposed was revised to 18 months. It was a concession worth more than £1 billion, which reduced the delay that anyone would experience in claiming their state pension to no more than 18 months, compared with the previous timetable from 1995.
The Minister seems to have a distorted view of history. The reality is that most women did not receive a letter, most letters that were received had incorrect information and many were sent to completely the wrong address. It is important to put that on record in the first instance.
Secondly, I have been listening to the Minister intently. He talked about birthdays and people living longer, and that is fine. He brought up Labour Governments, and I understand why he did so: it is important to remember that both Conservative and Labour Governments let this group of women down. That is why we must rise above the politics of the issue and come up with a reason. Please do not give platitudes about letters.
I feel that I have already answered the point about notice.
The proposal made by many is to revoke the Pensions Act 1995 and all subsequent Acts, which would cost the public purse more than £70 billion, to be paid for by younger people, as today’s pensions are paid for by today’s worker. It would represent a cost of more than £38 billion to the public purse in the next year alone.
On that point, will the Minister give way?
No; I have a minute and a half in which to finish. If we consider that in combination with the ever-increasing demographic pressure—the number of people over state pension age is set to rise by almost one third in the next 25 years—it quickly becomes clear that we cannot afford to back away from the responsible choices that successive Governments have made. Although the state pension has risen significantly since 2010 under the coalition and this Conservative Government, and although auto-enrolment has succeeded in increasing eligible female employees’ participation in a workplace pension to 80% in 2016, the reality is that the Government face a key choice when seeking to control state pension spend: increase state pension age or pay lower pensions, with an inevitable impact on pensioner poverty.
The only alternative is to ask the working generation to pay an ever-larger share of their income to support pensioners. Although increasing longevity is to be celebrated, we must also be realistic about the demographic and fiscal challenges that it creates for us as a society. Given the increasing fiscal pressures described, we cannot and do not intend to change a policy implemented over the last 22 years and supported by all three major political parties.
I thank everybody who took part in this debate. I was disappointed by the lack of Tory Back Benchers taking the opportunity to speak and maybe defend themselves, but I counted 21 people involved in this hour-long debate. Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing that to happen. It shows the seriousness of this debate.
This debate has not finished. It has not stopped. We will continue. I see a large number of the WASPI women here with us, and I thank them for coming to hear this debate. I hope that we can do them justice and do them proud. They will have heard most Members mention the WASPI debate. We will deal with the WASPI issue and continue the fight for the WASPI women.
We will also speak for every single pensioner out there, and for workers, who are now being worked harder and harder. Jobs are going and not being replaced. Redundancies are happening everywhere. Local authorities everywhere are cutting jobs, and more and more pressure is being put on people to work harder and harder. I know that as a postman. I am only 54, but I am starting to suffer from that job when I climb the stairs, and I have many good friends and workmates still doing that job today.
I thank the fire brigade, whom I mentioned earlier, and the hospital workers and all those people. We all age. We all get older and older, but we are now going to make people suffer as they get on in life, because the pension money will not see them through their lives. People are worried. The next generation are not even bothered about pensions; they are looking for mum and dad’s house to sell. That is how they will get by in this country.
This debate will continue. We will continue to fight for the WASPI women. To finish, the Government found £1 billion for the DUP; find the money for the pensioners.
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. As a new Member of this House, I am perhaps not acquainted with the procedure, so I wanted to ask whether you could clarify. During the course of the debate there were a couple of rather pathetic, in my view, interventions from Government Back Benchers. Can you clarify whether any information was given to you beforehand about Conservative MPs coming here to take part in the substance of the debate?
It is open to any Member of the House to attend any Westminster Hall debate. Members can choose to apply to speak, or they can ask to intervene on the Member speaking. It is entirely in the hands of individual Members whether they attend a debate or not.
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. Can I clarify something for the avoidance of doubt? A number of generalisations were made about young and old people, and who cares more or less about pensions—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).