Wednesday 9 May 2018
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Economies of the UK Islands
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the economies of the UK islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the Speaker’s Office for granting this debate, the Minister for coming to respond and all right hon. and hon. Members for joining me. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) for the important role he has played in instigating and securing this debate, and in launching the all-party parliamentary group for UK islands, of which I am proud to be a founding member.
Island geography has played a pivotal role in shaping Britain’s history, and has contributed to the culture, society, institutions and economy that we enjoy today. Similarly, the smaller islands that are part of the UK also have their unique history, communities and economic structures, stemming from their own geography. Nearly every aspect of life on these islands, including their economies, is impacted on in some way by their geography. The debate is about showcasing and celebrating the economic strengths of our islands, highlighting the challenges they face and exploring how central and local government can help our islands get fit for the future. We are all islanders in one form or another and we should work together to protect and enhance these extraordinary communities and their economies.
Within my constituency, Havant, I have the honour of representing more than 17,000 residents on Hayling Island, one of Britain’s most successful inhabited islands. The island has a fascinating history dating back to the iron age, stretching through the 11th century, the salt production industry and serving as a location for a mock invasion in preparation for the D-day landings. As important as Hayling’s remarkable past are the exciting possibilities for its economic future. Northney, West Town, Eastoke, Sea Front and Mengham all boast an array of strong, independent businesses. Some of these are small, such as the Hayling Island Bookshop, reputed to be the smallest independent bookshop in Britain. It was a finalist in the parliamentary best small shops awards. There are others, such as Bentley Walker, which started life as an electrical goods shop and has now diversified into a provider of satellite-based internet technologies, serving customers around the world. Others, such as Northney Ice Cream, the Coastguard Café and the Seaside Florist, are family-owned. All of these Hayling businesses and others have their own character. While owners and employers are always eager to help the local community, they also give the island its distinctive welcoming character and a strong sense of community, engendering a strong sense of loyalty among local residents.
That warmth has made Hayling a great place to visit and helped it to build a strong visitor economy. The tourism industry is worth more than £160 million to the Havant and Hayling area each year. Hayling’s beaches are award-winning; the three main beaches of the island have won both the European blue flag and the Keep Britain Tidy group’s seaside award flag for cleanliness and management. Eastoke Corner beach has been awarded a blue flag for more than two decades, attracting visitors from each of the three busy holiday parks across the island, which are also key employers.
Beyond the beaches, the island’s sailing clubs also bring in visitors who enjoy our natural environment. The annual Virgin kitesurfing festival also attracts thousands of water sports enthusiasts from around the world. The island’s remarkably low crime rate makes it a safe place for business to start and grow. The coastal and semi-rural nature of the island lends itself to the establishment of new businesses set up by local entrepreneurs such as John Geden, who established Sinah Common Honey. Each jar of honey is said to derive from nectar from more than 1 million flowers. Hayling’s rich rural environment provides a sustainable, natural dimension to Hayling’s economy. As of March 2018, only 115 of Hayling’s 17,573 residents were claiming unemployment benefits of any kind—just 1.2% of the population, compared with the English average of 2.1%.
Although Hayling’s unique geography is a source of economic strength and community spirit, the island and others around the UK also face unique challenges. There is a consistent need on Hayling Island and other islands across the UK to work harder to create sustainable and attractive employment opportunities for our residents, especially younger residents and school leavers. Any dip in opportunities for younger generations carries with it potentially destabilising knock-on effects for our wider economy. A brain drain, even a temporary one, can mean that our local businesses struggle to hire workers. The 2011 census indicated that there were 4,060 people living on Hayling Island who worked elsewhere, out of a working population of 9,934. Just under half our working residents commute off the island via a single road bridge most days of the week.
It is absolutely crucial that we equip all our islanders, especially our young people, with the skills to succeed in the economy of today and that of the future. I therefore welcome the fact that four of Hayling’s schools, Mill Rythe Infant School, Mengham Infant and Junior Schools and Hayling College are rated as good by Ofsted, with Mill Rythe Junior School rated as outstanding. As with many coastal communities, however, we still have pockets of deprivation and underachievement that hold back our economic potential and productivity.
Although schools across the whole Havant constituency, including Hayling Island, receive higher than the national average in per-pupil funding, I believe that the Government’s new national funding formula can do more to help pupils who suffer from the most extreme forms of deprivation, particularly in coastal communities. I have met the Minister for School Standards and the new Secretary of State for Education on several occasions to lobby them on this issue. I hope the Exchequer Secretary shares my desire to ensure that every young islander gets the best start in life so that they can contribute effectively to our economy in the future.
The other challenge our island economy faces is the over-exposure of our business community to changes in the island’s service infrastructure. We live in an age of digitisation, as I have emphasised in my other work this House on the economic opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution. As online banking increases, footfall in local banks will inevitably fall. This has led to the closure of Mengham’s NatWest and Barclays branches on Hayling, and I am sure other hon. Members face similar situations in their constituencies.
Although residents on the mainland can mitigate the closures by driving to a nearby branch that remains open, Hayling only had one branch of each main bank. In recent years, closures have forced many residents to travel to the mainland using the single road with increasing regularity. I am aware that this has been touched on and tackled elsewhere through the access to banking protocol, the Griggs review and the access to banking standard, and is ultimately a commercial decision beyond the Government’s control, but I want to raise it to emphasise the heightened sensitivity of the economies of the UK’s islands to changes in the economic infrastructure—they impact on us severely.
Public transport is key to a vibrant economy within an island as large as Hayling—transport between the island and the mainland, and in neighbouring areas, such as Portsmouth. Any diminution in service has a disproportionate impact on island communities for residents and visitors alike, especially on islands such as Hayling, which are both coastal and semi-rural. The Hayling ferry, for example, is a valued community resource that also helps the island economically. The ferry’s owners and operators are putting together a business plan to make it commercially viable in the long term, working with local councillors—something I support. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will join me in wishing them every success as they seek to secure a long-term solution to ensure that we have a positive local impact from the ferry. Road infrastructure is equally vital. High-quality road networks are important, particularly as new housing is proposed on Hayling Island to meet local demands. Digital, structural and economic services are vital to the economic wellbeing of our island.
We live in a world of unparalleled opportunity thanks to technological innovation and a host of businesses are now footloose thanks to the advent of the internet and online shopping. On Hayling Island, 96.9% of premises can receive superfast broadband, set against a UK average of 93.5%. We are fortunate to be close to the mainland with a strong digital infrastructure, but I know that many islands are not so fortunate. With services such as banking increasingly moving online, fast download speeds are essential. That should be an area in which the Government can support island communities.
I commend the Government’s efforts to date to support island communities. In 2011, the Government established the coastal communities fund and since then, four funding rounds have been completed, awarding a combined total of £173 million. Only 9% of that funding, however, has been awarded to projects based on islands, and 70% of that has been allocated to islands in Scotland. I do not begrudge any of the funds that have gone to those recipients. Instead, I seek to highlight our collective and continued need for sustained development and support for the UK’s islands, including Hayling Island.
In March 2015, the then Department for Communities and Local Government established coastal community teams in order to encourage,
“sustainable economic development and regeneration in coastal towns.”
Each of the 146 coastal community teams that have been established were awarded £10,000, yet only three were exclusively based on islands. I am delighted that one, the south Hayling Island coastal community team, was based on Hayling Island.
Although the coastal communities fund was established with the aim of providing funding to create sustainable economic growth and jobs, it has become largely project-focused rather than addressing the structural, systemic and strategic challenges faced by UK islands. Consequently, I hope the Minister and the Government will consider expanding or complementing the coastal communities fund so that it can provide stronger strategic and structural support to the economies of UK islands. The reformed fund would be exclusively available to island communities, such as Hayling Island, to apply for.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I strongly support the proposal, and I am glad that he is raising it with the Minister, because one of the problems is that islands are sometimes too small for the Treasury to be interested in as economic enterprise zones, which we need on the Isle of Wight and in the Medina valley specifically. With an enlarged coastal communities fund, perhaps one that looked specifically at driving economic regeneration, relatively small sums of money could make a great deal of difference and would go down very well.
I thank my hon. Friend for that sound intervention and again for his role in securing the debate. I entirely agree with his points. As I was saying, a reformed coastal communities fund would be incredibly important to coastal communities such as Hayling Island and his constituency. It would be exclusively available to island communities to apply for to help them to meet the specific and unique challenges they face as a result of their specific and unique geography. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, those challenges include an oversensitivity to changes in local infrastructure, expensive or sometimes congested transport connections to the mainland, a skills gap and a need to support local, independent businesses, all of which could hamper economic growth if not addressed.
In conclusion, we are all islanders. Britain and its satellite islands are a beacon to the world of how innovative, welcoming and economically successful islands can be. After all, the UK is one of the largest and most successful island economies in the world. However, to make our island economies sustainable and resilient, on Hayling Island and beyond, we must help to tackle the systemic and structural challenges they face. I hope that central and local government will play their part. By doing this, we can ensure that islanders across the UK enjoy the bright economic future they deserve, and that they not only are fit for the future, but get to the future first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) on securing the debate. It is a rare and welcome opportunity to discuss island issues. The hon. Gentleman said that we are all islanders. I am doubly blessed in that regard, because I am an islander by birth—I was born and brought up on Islay, off the west coast—and I am an islander by choice, having raised my family with my wife in Orkney. I have represented Orkney and Shetland here since 2001.
It is worth reflecting on what it means to be an islander and to live in an island community. Island communities are special places. Being an islander changes the way people see the world. One of my great bugbears is hearing people talk about insularity, meaning that islanders are somehow inward-looking. In fact, islanders are much more outward-looking, because they are dependent on their links with the rest of the world in a way that people in the larger conurbations on the mainland take for granted. To be an islander is not to be insular, however much that might offend the classicists, but to lead a different sort of life in a modern and connected world.
We are often excluded. Hon. Members have heard me speak before on the subject of all too often being excluded from or charged extra for deliveries that people in towns and cities take for granted. However, I do not want this speech to be a constant litany of the problems that island communities face. If nothing else, I hope the Minister takes away from the debate an understanding that our island communities have challenges, as every community in the country does, but we offer opportunities for the Government as well. Island communities can contribute in a whole range of ways to the work of Government, be it in Westminster, Holyrood or wherever else.
Many of the issues that we face as island communities are shared in common with communities across the whole country. Brexit is probably the dominant issue that I hear about when I speak to businesses in my communities. Orkney is a predominantly agricultural community and Shetland is a predominantly fishing-based community, where fishing still makes up about one third of the local economy. The shape of our future relationship with Europe—particularly in relation to the fishing industry and whether we will continue to have a relationship with Brussels and a common policy on fisheries, and the shape of future agricultural support, which is guaranteed only to 2022—is a big issue for our economy.
That highlights one of the biggest problems. As can be seen from the number of hon. Members present, there are not that many island communities in this country and we do not have that high a level of population, so we often fall off the end of the table because we need a slightly different provision and our island needs are not always understood. We are the most vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences.
Post-Brexit, as we move to reformed agricultural and fisheries policies, there are real opportunities to design them in a way that will work for farmers and fisherman across the whole country, and to build into them the flexibility that we have been denied over the years, which has been enormously detrimental to our fleet and the fishing industry.
The economic profile of most island communities is not dissimilar from that of Orkney and Shetland. We have an economy of predominantly locally grown small and medium-sized enterprises. For islands, as for all small communities, that is a good thing with real opportunities. It allows us to keep a lot of the money that we raise and spend within the island community.
The modern economy in our island communities, however, is a lot more than the farmers and fishermen that hon. Members might instinctively think of. In my constituency, I have several growing and successful software engineering companies. They offer well-paid and attractive employment opportunities to younger people who may have been away for higher education and want to return.
There is a role for Government, not just in terms of the economic development and growth of those companies, but in terms of the provision of infrastructure. One of the main hindrances to the economy in my constituency is the continuing poor level of broadband and mobile phone connectivity. The latter is slowly improving, but as the rest of the country looks towards 5G, most of my constituents can still only dream of 3G or 4G.
A different approach from the Government to rolling out that sort of infrastructure could be transformative for us. If we said to the big corporates such as BT, “Of course you can get a licence to roll out the next generation in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Birmingham or wherever else, but you have to start at the periphery and work your way in,” that would mean that, instead of constantly playing catch-up and always following on, as a community with the opportunity to benefit most from that sort of innovation, we could be at the cutting edge.
In recent years, one of the most important parts of our local economy, on both Orkney and Shetland, has been the growth of tourism. We have gone from the days when bed and breakfast was provided by a few farmers’ wives to supplement their farming income to a position now where tourism is a significant part of our local economy. Obviously, it is part of an economy that is enormously vulnerable to outside influences, for example currency fluctuations. Also, terrorism and the attractiveness of our country as a whole will have a very long tail by the time that they reach Orkney and Shetland.
Tourism is also an industry that has big seasonal variations. People work long hours during the summer months but will perhaps just keep their businesses ticking over in the winter. Now, if somebody is in receipt of tax credits, for example, such big fluctuations of income throughout the financial year can be occasionally enormously problematic. Again, that is another example of the way in which the decisions made at the centre, which might work very well for 95% of people, can cause real difficulties in the way that they affect the remainder. When we hear about something benefiting the 95%, those of us who are islanders know that we will inevitably be largely among the remaining 5%.
The biggest opportunity for islands to contribute to our future wealth and prosperity in this country comes from the development of renewable energy. The first generation of wind turbines was tested in a prototype on Burgar Hill in Evie, in Orkney. Ever since then, those of us within the isles have been enthusiastic in our promotion of the next generation of electricity and energy development.
The development of wave and tidal power brings another opportunity. It is still very much in its infancy, but again it would require just a little bit of tweaking to make the regulation and the development funding work. Development money for wave and tidal power sits in a pot for developing technologies, alongside offshore wind. It is pretty well accepted that offshore wind is no longer a developing technology but is now a fairly mature technology. However, as a consequence of that development and the way in which the price of offshore wind has fallen, the full funding for developing technologies is then scooped up by offshore wind and the money that should be there to help wave and tidal power to develop is simply taken by offshore wind.
I do not begrudge offshore wind a penny of that money, but some dedicated pot of development funding for wave and tidal power would be of transformative benefit to the industry, and it would certainly be of enormous economic benefit to the island communities that I represent. Predominantly, though, it would allow us to contribute to the rest of the country.
We are not looking for any special favours or special treatment. We are not even looking for extra money from the coastal communities fund, although people should remember that that money came from the Crown Estate’s marine estate, and so we have contributed plenty to that fund over the years, through our fish farms, marinas and piers. We just want the opportunity to be allowed to contribute to the rest of the country to the fullest extent that we possibly can, and in that way we can all understand that through good times and bad we will share the risks and the opportunities.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak) for securing this debate and for being part of the all-party parliamentary group for UK Islands. His presence here is very welcome and he spoke very eloquently about the needs of Hayling Island; once upon a time, when I was very young, I visited it and I remember how lovely it was. I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for his contribution: it is always good to hear of the experiences of other islands.
As we know, this is not a debate about places such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which are Crown dependencies. This debate is about islands that are fully within the governance of the United Kingdom, but clearly they have physical characteristics that make them islands and give them distinct traits. Indeed, our islands are unique and special places, and to represent my island is a passion and a privilege, which I am incredibly grateful for. I love being here, but I would not want to represent anywhere other than the Isle of Wight.
Islands are, by definition, at the fringes of our nation, but they also help to define us, and they have a special place in our geography and culture. However, my argument to the Minister who is here today—I am very grateful for his presence—is that islands do not always get their fair share, because they are overlooked. In the case of my island and my constituency—the Isle of Wight—that is especially true.
By way of example, the Scottish islands get the Scottish islands needs allowance, or SINA, which comes from the Scottish Government. So they get the Barnett formula money, which is generous, and on top of that they get the SINA. If I remember correctly and have my facts right—I am sure the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will correct me if I am wrong—the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland get an extra £6 million a year through SINA, in acknowledgement of the fact that supplying Government services on islands tends to cost more than it does on the mainland. The Isle of Wight gets none of that money, despite the fact that we have a population four times bigger than that of the Western Isles, for example, and two, three or four times bigger than that of Orkney, Shetland and other islands.
So we do not get our fair share, and when it comes to “fair” funding we are unfairly funded. The central reason for that is simple: it is the Solent. Government funding systems are not designed to deal with isolation by water. The rural isolation grant and the rural farming grants are all predicated on a sense of isolation, but isolation on land and not isolation by water. One of the arguments that I am trying to make, and I have already made it to the Minister’s colleagues in other Departments, is that a fair funding formula needs to take into account isolation by water.
I have gone straight into the meat of my speech; I will now go backwards a little bit. We are very much open for business on the Isle of Wight; we are trying to attract new businesses to the island; and our regeneration team and our council have a very ambitious programme, which I absolutely support, and I will work hand in glove with them.
In fact, we have a unique scientific heritage. Marconi set up the first experimental wireless station off the south coast of the island, on St Catherine’s Down, which, by the way, is one of the sunniest places in Britain; seaplanes were built by Saunders-Roe in East Cowes; and we have major employers and a cluster of defence, composite and high-tech industries, including companies such as Gurit, BAE Systems, GKN, which is now part of Melrose, and Vestas. Indeed, a high percentage of the world’s large offshore turbine blades are made on the Isle of Wight at the Vestas factory. Vestas is doing great work on the island, and I thank it, as I do all employers, for its presence. So we are very much home to high-tech businesses that are at the cutting edge of their industries.
As I have said, however, there is a problem with providing Government services on the island. A University of Portsmouth 2015 study said that the extra costs of providing Government services on the Isle of Wight were £6.4 million a year, because of the costs of being an island. The university broke that figure down into three: first, the cost of self-sufficiency, because of the lack of spill-over of public goods provision; second, what it called an “island premium”, which is the additional cost of conducting business on and with islands, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will know about; and thirdly, the sense of dislocation, which is the physical and perceived separation from the mainland and which could come from providing services to a smaller population and a smaller market.
I will give an example. At care homes, there was a clear mistake that we are rectifying. Elderly folks were put into care homes earlier than on the mainland, yet our care homes were costing more than the mainland because of the lack of competition between them. To some extent, another issue was their high quality. The cost was pushing additional burden on to our adult social care costs, which skewed our funding so that we could not spend the money on infrastructure to provide jobs and on a jobs agenda. That is absolutely vital in keeping our youngsters on the Island, which helps make us the vibrant and successful community that we are, and which we are building on as well.
In those three different ways—full self-sufficiency, the island premium and dislocation—there is an extra cost for Government services on the Isle of Wight. That has been estimated, in an academically rigid, peer-reviewed article, to be £6.4 million a year, and that does not include other factors that I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister. One of those is the Green Book estimate. Green Book estimates are the terms and references for Government investment, and they do not work for the Island because we are physically isolated. We cannot do the things that work for Southampton, Portsmouth or, indeed, for Havant, because we are physically separated. The Green Book estimates process counts against the Isle of Wight in providing infrastructure.
I have mentioned separation by water in terms of the rural isolation grant. For farming grants, things are prejudiced against us because we are in the wealthy south-east. In many ways, we get all the downside of being part of the wealthy south-east—we do not get that extra support as we are seen to be in the wealthiest area of the country— when in many ways our economy is similar to that of west Devon or Cornwall. There is some tourism, some culture, farming and little clusters of high-tech industry. Whereas lovely places such as Cornwall get money thrown at them through EU grants and Government support, we have had very little of that.
The amount of money we would ask for from central Government to make the Island even more of a success is really very small. I would love to sit down and have that conversation with the Minister in greater detail. The answer is not devolution, because the housing system sadly does not work for us, and we will be arguing why we are an exception. We want a modest, tailored package of support that recognises that we are an island. That £6 million extra in fair funding would be of benefit for the council, and would recognise that because we are an island, we need an A&E and a maternity unit, because someone cannot give birth on a helicopter going to the mainland, and the ambulance cannot wait for four hours to get the ferry overnight. Our funding in health services and many other things is skewed by the fact that we are an island, and that is not recognised.
We have many little clusters of excellence. Our tourism economy is significantly improving. We will very soon have one of the best broadband services in the world. Thanks to our wonderful local company, WightFibre, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—I thank them very much indeed—we are getting significant sums of money so that we will get ultra-superfast broadband for five out of six houses on the Island. If someone has a broadband business, the place they want to be is not London, Old Street, Moorgate or Brighton, but Cowes or Newport, where they will get broadband speeds comparable with Singapore. What I need to do, working with colleagues in the council, is determine how we get the other one sixth of houses in the more rural and very rural areas linked up to that as well, so that people can have Singapore broadband speeds in their little farmhouse in Newtown Creek, Brighstone, Chale or wherever.
Most importantly, education is critical to our future. It is improving and is becoming a success story. We probably need to work on restructuring our sixth forms, but most importantly, I would like to have a conversation with the Treasury and the relevant Ministers about getting significantly more higher education to the Isle of Wight, specifically a university campus. I would like that to be in Newport as part of our critical Newport harbour redevelopment. It may be that it goes elsewhere. Higher education would clearly lead to much higher levels of higher education, but it would also drive our software businesses, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland spoke about, and other key investments.
We have also won special status from the Arts Council, and we are building a much stronger cultural offer for tourism, education, aspiration and, critically, regeneration. It is important for the Minister to be aware of that. I would love to have a conversation with him about our farming and small businesses. I am having a conversation with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) about mobile slaughtermen. Once we leave the European Union, we will be too small to have an abattoir, yet our field structure on the Island is perfectly suited to animal husbandry, and we are very keen to support local food production, which is good for multiple reasons, over and above employment.
I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman says when he talks about the Island being too small to have an abattoir—we have the same issue in the Northern Isles—but I suggest that is not actually the case. The Isle of Wight is surely too small to have an abattoir only in the way we regulate and manage abattoirs currently. A more sensitive system of regulation would surely allow a good business there.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I am happy to take that correction. Post-Brexit, we need to change the rules for farming so that we have smaller abattoirs or mobile slaughtermen who can kill animals humanely on the farm to allow them to go into the human food chain in a way that does not exist at the moment.
Finally, I would like to have a conversation with the relevant Minister in due course about BAE and the need to have a complex radar technology demonstrator in Cowes. If we wish to keep radar technology in this country for the next 50 years—there is a critical national interest in doing so—the only realistic place to have it is where the aircraft carriers, the Type 45 and all the Royal Navy warships are made, which is in West Cowes at the BAE plant. I want to bring together BAE and Government to have that conversation. We are talking about small sums of money—£5 million, £10 million or £15 million—to secure a complex radar technology demonstrator, so that we can keep those high-tech jobs and high-tech knowledge on the Island. I will wind-up now, Mr Rosindell. I apologise; I have taken a touch too long.
The Island is a success story, but I do not believe the Government have engaged with us enough over the past 10 to 20 years to maximise our success in building a new economy and an advanced education system, doing all the things we need to do regarding our infrastructure, such as our broadband and all the high-tech jobs, and making the Island the economic success story that it is. I reinforce the point about the coastal communities fund and the importance of the Treasury spending a little time and effort to understand islands, their unique circumstances and the amounts of money—very small in the great scheme of things—that could help drive enterprise and economic progress. More than anything, I want my constituency, the wonderful Isle of Wight, to contribute economically, rather than being a place that gets handouts from central Government because we say we are poor and do not have this or that. With a bit of help from the Treasury and the Government, and greater integration and support, we can drive our success story further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak) on securing this important debate on islands of the United Kingdom. Island economies are particularly important to Scotland, which boasts almost 800 islands around its coastline. In 2011, some 93 permanently inhabited islands were recorded, and between them they host almost 2% of the Scottish population. That gives Scotland by far the largest number of inhabited islands in the United Kingdom.
I had the privilege of being the senior fire officer in Argyll and Bute for some five years. I pay tribute to the islanders who provide the personnel for the volunteer units and retained fire stations that serve those communities. They are very much on their own; getting support to them can prove almost impossible. I commend the men and women who support their fire service. At the time I was there, the island populations varied from around 100-plus on Coll and Colonsay to more than 3,000 on the island of lslay, which was mentioned earlier. To complement the population, Islay has eight distilleries, which are a great employer. As somebody said, there are no bad whiskies; some are just better than others. A neighbouring island is Jura, where we also have a distillery that produces a lovely whisky that bears the name of the island.
Tourism, food and accommodation figure strongly in many island economies, along with traditional incomes from crofting, farming, fishing, and, in some cases, fish farming. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) suggested there might be opportunities post-Brexit to adjust the system to assist the communities further. They really need that assistance. Oil and gas are players in a number of island economies mainly to the north of Scotland. Tiree, which is quite breezy, off the west coast of Scotland, is the most fantastic place in the United Kingdom for windsurfers.
In my time visiting the west coast islands, the provision of fire cover, education and medical services was a constant challenge just to secure the right people for the posts. The additional cost of providing those services is recognised and factored into the Barnett formula under the sparsity factor. May I commend the Scottish Government for the introduction of the road equivalent tariff, which, in conjunction with the ferry operator, Caledonian MacBrayne, has generated additional tourist traffic that in most cases—although perhaps not in all cases—must be welcomed?
My constituents would not forgive me if I were to allow this opportunity to pass. I must point out that in the northern isles, despite a raft of promises over the years, we are still to see the reduced fares promised by the road equivalent tariff.
I fully accept the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I hope that those endeavours will bear fruit and be recognised. I think that the NorthLink Ferries services do not attract the same support.
We also host the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer, the Waverley, based in Glasgow. She is a wonderful way to do what we say in Scotland is a trip “Doon the Watter” that takes people to various islands such as Arran and Cumbrae, which I am sure we will hear about later. It is a great opportunity to see the wonderful west coast. She also plies her trade off season down here in the Thames.
She has also spent much of her time on the Isle of Wight, where she was very welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention. I am sorry for missing out the Isle of Wight. The Waverley is a wonderful asset to the nation and is the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer, supported by a charity and the nation.
Though uninhabited, Ailsa Craig is an island that sits off my constituency in the Firth of Clyde and plays host as a bird sanctuary to gulls, guillemots and puffins. Most importantly, it provides the granite for the best curling stones in the world, hand-crafted by Kays of Mauchline in Ayrshire. When we see curling on television, the curling stone almost certainly originated from the island of Ailsa Craig.
It is important to note in this debate that island communities in Scotland and across the United Kingdom are diverse. No two islands are the same, and although they often face a similar set of economic challenges, they each have their own unique circumstances: for example, population. Scotland has four islands with populations above the 10,000 mark, and those islands’ economies have different needs from the many Scottish islands with populations below 100. In the case of many of those smaller communities, probably the most pressing economic issue requires acting to prevent depopulation and working to secure the long-term future of those communities. Retaining young people on the islands to give them continued vibrancy is important.
The population of Scotland’s islands increased by about 4% between 2001 and 2011. That is a welcome development that I hope will continue and even accelerate over the coming decades. In many cases it is very challenging to sustain island populations. Although Scotland’s four largest islands recorded an increase in that period, it is sad to note that communities of fewer than 50 inhabitants still experience, in general terms, the risk of a drop-off in population numbers. When we talk about the economies of the islands, therefore, we must be sure to include all the islands and not just the larger and identifiable ones such as the Isle of Wight.
Scotland’s small island communities are some of the most unique and beautiful places in the entire United Kingdom, and it is important that their future is secured as well as possible. Scottish islands of all sizes have great economic potential, and both the Scottish and UK Governments need to work together to ensure that that potential is fulfilled. The right level of investment and support, as mentioned earlier, is needed across the islands, but particularly in areas such as transport, fuel costs and maintaining the vital links that give islanders access to the basic services that people on the mainland simply take for granted.
Connectivity is vital for Scotland’s remote islands. For island communities as well as other rural and remote areas, broadband is necessary to ensure that the communities’ economies do not get left behind. I hope that the UK Government’s welcome intervention in the broadband roll-out in Scotland will deliver results sooner rather than later.
As was mentioned before, 4G and 5G connectivity are vital to local economies across the United Kingdom, and island communities are no different. If our islands keep pace in terms of mobile connectivity, they have a better chance of keeping pace economically, which is essential for a vibrant future for the islands. The Islands (Scotland) Bill, which is currently going through the Scottish Parliament, will be judged on the outcomes it produces, and I hope that islanders will not be disappointed. Our islands, of all sizes, can and should have a bright future ahead of them.
Finally, if anyone is minded to secure a tranquil, peaceful holiday, they would do well to visit a Scottish island.
I am very happy to speak in this debate today, and I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) for securing it. I also thank him for the celebratory tone with which he introduced the debate on our beautiful islands right across the United Kingdom and for recognising the unique challenges that our islands face, despite the many attractions that they offer both residents and visitors. Our islands are indeed beautiful, but, as we have heard today, they can be quite fragile, too, and deserve special and separate consideration, so I am delighted to contribute today as I have the honour of representing the beautiful islands of Cumbrae and Arran.
Our islands not only face unique challenges, but share common challenges. I want to say a few words about the comments made so far. The hon. Member for Havant painted a beautiful picture of the island of Hayling, which he has made me think about visiting because he painted such an idyllic picture of it. We have also heard about the beautiful islands of Orkney and Shetland and the Isle of Wight. We had a round-up from the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). I took a photograph surreptitiously as he paid tribute to the Scottish Government. Although the photograph will not have sound on it, it will be a moment captured in time as he went out of his way to pay tribute to the Scottish Government.
I represent the isle of Cumbrae, whose main population centre is the town of Millport. There are few people who grow up in the west of Scotland who do not have a childhood memory of cycling round Millport and this lovely island just off the seaside town of Largs, which I also have the privilege of representing. Cumbrae is a mere hop, skip and a jump from Largs. It offers the beauty and tranquillity of island life while being extremely accessible and a short ferry ride away. In the height of summer there are 40 sailings each way per day to the Isle of Cumbrae. People flock there not only for the beautiful scenery, but to visit the £4.2 million education facility, the Field Studies Council, which was built in partnership with the Scottish Government and has attracted visitors and scholars from across Europe, if not the world.
The Isle of Arran is a little more remote and offers towering mountains and luscious rolling landscape that can, in the right light, simply take your breath away. I mention such things not only for the sake of it, because it is such a nice thing to discuss, but because both islands enjoy a huge influx of visitors, especially, although not only, in the high season.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock mentioned the road equivalent tariff, whereby ferry fares are set on the basis of the cost of travelling an equivalent distance by road, including a fixed element to keep fares sustainable and to cover fixed costs such as infrastructure. RET was introduced to the island of Arran in October 2014. I hope that my setting out the benefits of RET will help the Minister as he deliberates about how to stimulate island economies and help them to grow.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) expressed some disappointment that Orkney and Shetland appear not to benefit from those advantages. He will be aware that the Minister for Transport in Scotland announced that RET would be rolled out to Orkney and Shetland in the first half of 2018. That announcement was very much welcomed by his colleagues Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will also, when he has time to reflect, wish to welcome the announcement.
I am on the record as welcoming the good intentions; I am just frustrated that, almost 11 years since the same opportunities were given to communities in the Western Isles, we still have not seen a single penny piece in the Northern Isles. Surely, the hon. Lady understands why our communities are so frustrated by the decisions taken by her Government in Edinburgh.
As I said, I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration, because we all want to fight for our constituents and secure for them whatever advantages we can as soon as possible. He will also remember that I said that the Isle of Arran got RET in 2014. From what he said, that was a considerable distance behind the first roll-out. The fact is that the roll-out is a process and a programme. Obviously, the islands that are not at the front of the queue will be frustrated and impatient, as they should be. The fact is that RET—as I suppose his frustration suggests—is a huge benefit to island communities, and any island would be mad not to want to secure those advantages as soon as could be arranged.
The object of road equivalent tariff is to increase demand for ferry services by making ferry travel much more affordable and more accessible, to increase tourism and to enhance the local and wider national economy. That is why the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and I are so excited about it. In order to be as helpful to the Minister as I can—I always try to be helpful to my colleagues—I intend to paint a brief picture to show him the positive impact that road equivalent tariff can have, in case it is something that he wants to consider rolling out in the rest of the UK. It helps to offset some, though not all, of the challenges that are faced by island communities, which we have heard a wee bit about today.
In the case of Arran routes, such as the Brodick to Ardrossan route and the route between Claonaig and Lochranza, stimulation of the economy has certainly been achieved. Arran’s economy—if you can believe this, Mr Rosindell—has grown by 10%, which is a faster rate of growth even than China. That is something to prize, and it can perhaps be best explained by the price of the Ardrossan to Brodick route tumbling by a massive 46% for foot passengers, with a 64% reduction for cars being transported on that route. That comes at a cost of a mere £2.4 million a year to the Scottish Government.
I will set out the advantages that RET has brought in practical terms to the island. Analysis carried out by Transport Scotland has concluded that RET has significantly increased resident ferry travel across all journey purposes, and increased the demand for ferry services. In addition, the number of tourists has increased substantially, with the season extended from Easter and peak summer to the equivalent of the whole summer timetable. RET has enhanced the island-hopping tourist market with neighbouring islands. The Scottish Government are investing £1.8 million a year to support RET for the route between Cumbrae and Bute.
We know that job markets on islands can be challenging and fragile—we have heard a bit about that today. For Arran businesses, the impact of RET has been extremely positive, with increases cited in footfall and turnover. The tourism sector has accrued the greatest benefits, with hotels, guest houses, campsites, golf courses and visitor attractions all highlighting the positive impact of RET.
Interestingly, RET has been particularly beneficial to the more remote areas of the island of Arran, particularly on the west coast. That is surely down to the increased numbers of visitors availing themselves of the opportunity to bring their cars on to the island at a much reduced cost, and exploring the farther reaches of the island, beyond Brodick and Lamlash. It is heartening to see a new £10 million distillery on Arran, and major expansion of the Auchrannie hotel and spa, which will enhance any visitor experience. RET has also allowed those who live outwith the island to take up jobs that have been challenging to fill, as students or seasonal workers can sometimes fill them. There is even a scarcity of staff to fill the increasing demand for workers in the hospitality industry, demonstrating the success of RET for the island.
Of course, there is no denying that RET has posed challenges for some businesses in the retail sector, because they are becoming increasingly exposed to competition with the mainland. However, studies show that the overwhelming consensus is that there has been a very positive impact on the island in terms of social, cultural and economic opportunities.
We know that connectivity is key, and that is very true of broadband connectivity for our islands. The Arran Economic Group reported last year that, based on cabinet installations, more than 90% of households and businesses now have access to superfast broadband, with take-up on Arran and Cumbrae at around 41%. There have been particular issues with the area of Machrie on Arran, but progress is being made.
We have heard some remarks about connectivity, regarding broadband and mobile phone signals. It is true that that is an issue, but as I always say to constituents when they raise such matters with me, the connectivity of broadband and mobile signal on this very estate sometimes compares to some of the difficulties that people have on the island of Arran and other outlying areas in our coastal communities. The broadband and mobile phone signal on this estate is sometimes, as you will be aware, Mr Rosindell, absolutely shocking. The fact that we have that problem in the middle of London, in the middle of the parliamentary estate, shows the scale of the challenges that our island communities face.
Arran also suffers from the lack of affordable housing. That is a challenge for future economic growth on the island, since it has an impact on the working-age population. One barrier is that 22% of homes on Arran are second homes, with a further 59 empty homes identified. We need to find ways of offsetting those issues, alongside plans to build new affordable homes on Arran. The Scottish Government have helped to fund 96 new homes in partnership working. That is a start, but clearly there is much more work to be done. The Scottish Government are investing £2.2 million on Cumbrae for amenity housing, but there is no room for complacency. Affordable housing remains a big challenge.
We know that there are pressures on Scotland’s budget. I was quite bewildered by the comments made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). He is standing up for his constituents, which is exactly what he is supposed to do, but I flinched when he called the Barnett formula “generous”, given that Scotland’s resource budget was cut by £211 million this year and will be cut by £538 million next year. I am sure that he wants more resources for the Isle of Wight, but I do not think that describing the Barnett formula as generous is the way to do that.
Will the hon. Lady admit that Scottish islands get two things that the Isle of Wight does not: the Barnett formula—whether or not she describes it as generous—and the Scottish islands needs allowance? They are twice as generously funded as the Isle of Wight.
The islands do not benefit from the Barnett formula; Scotland is allocated funding through the Barnett formula. I cannot describe it as generous. I do not believe for one minute that the hon. Gentleman is wrong to fight for his constituents, but comparing their funding unfavourably with any funding formula for Scotland is the wrong way to go. One thing that the islands in Scotland benefit from that the Isle of Wight perhaps does not is the priority that the Government give them. That might be a way forward.
There are clear challenges. Our island communities matter to us, as of course they should. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock mentioned, the SNP Government in Scotland has brought forward the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which seeks to build better national and local economic frameworks for island development and their unique needs. It seeks to ensure that any legislation that is passed will be “island-proofed” to make sure that islands are taken into consideration and not forgotten about. That will help our island communities to become more sustainable and vibrant as they face the future—something that we all wish to see. I hope the Minister will reflect on the benefits of RET and will investigate the provisions of the Islands (Scotland) Bill, and perhaps use that as a way of improving the lives, experiences and economies of the islands across the UK.
I end by urging all Members who are here today—and those who are not, but who have the good fortune to listen to the debate—to pay a visit to the beautiful islands of Cumbrae and Arran, where they will find the scenery breathtaking and the communities warm and welcoming. Like so many previous visitors, they will find that they wish to return again and again.
It is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) on securing this debate and bringing the issue to the House to chew over—it is very important. The contributions from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) indicate the complexity, diversity and multifaceted aspects that this issue throws up. It must be seen in the context of the type of islands that we have in this country—from the Isle of Wight, with its 140,000-odd population, right through to some of the inhabited Scottish islands, which have perhaps five or six inhabitants. It is not quite as simple as saying that an island is an island is an island.
There is also the diversity of economic activities on our islands. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock talked about windsurfing, and I also got the impression that he has tasted whisky. I look forward to hearing his experiences of windsurfing—if not seeing the photographs—next time we debate.
As the hon. Member for Havant mentioned, one of the greatest problems faced by the economies of UK islands is poor infrastructure. The rising cost of transport for people who live on UK islands clearly has a knock-on effect on jobs, suppliers and the population, as many young adults are choosing to leave their island homes in favour of finding work in the rest of the country.
Another challenge is the higher levels of unemployment; the unemployment rate on many islands is well above the national average. The Isle of Sheppey’s unemployment rate stands at 2.6%, while those on the Scottish islands of Arran and Bute are 3.8% and 4.1% respectively. As has been discussed, many islands are tourist destinations, which means that a large amount of the work is seasonal. In the past, that might have been less of a challenge, but with weather becoming increasingly unpredictable due to global warming, it is much harder for those economies to plan and scale. It is not necessarily a major factor at this point, but it is a factor. In relation to the grouse—I mean gross, though grouse is very appropriate for Scotland—the gross household disposable income on UK islands is lower for workers in the Orkney Islands, the Isle of Wight, the Western Isles and Anglesey than for those in much of the rest of the United Kingdom.
Given the increasingly technological nature of advanced economies, the hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) have quite rightly pointed out the vast differences in broadband connectivity and speeds between parts of the UK and the islands. That has a huge impact on island economies, particularly on the number of small businesses that operate remotely. Naturally, many UK island economies suffer from having less resources, which hon. Members have mentioned, and have a heavy reliance on a limited number of supply chains, which leads to the UK’s island populations paying more for goods and services. When combined with lower-than-average incomes, higher costs of household essentials are a key factor in driving poverty levels.
All those issues have been outlined with clarity by Members from across the House. We have had the analysis of the symptoms, but I am not sure we have had the practical things we can all do to help those communities—I hope the Minister will address that. It falls on me, as Opposition spokesperson, to refer to the elephant in the room: eight years of austerity. Many areas have suffered disproportionately from that because of the lack of investment in those communities, where they have struggled.
Let me take a couple of examples. I understand that Canvey Island has an independence party, with eight or nine councillors. I am not quite sure whether they are going to get to a referendum—but perhaps we should not go there, or talk about customs unions or single markets, as I am sure we have enough trouble with that at the moment. Canvey Island sits in the borough of Castle Point in Essex, a local authority that has seen nearly £1 million of Government grant disappear. Reports now suggest that Castle Point will be running a million-pound deficit in three years’ time.
Perhaps we should turn to Hayling Island, which the hon. Member for Havant mentioned and knows well, as it is in his constituency and covered by Havant Borough Council. A couple of months ago, his local paper, the Portsmouth News, reported that the local authority had been forced to increase council tax by the maximum of 3%. The local population will have to pay that—a population that, as the hon. Gentleman said, are already stressing and straining. Why might a Conservative council feel the need to increase taxes on the good people of Havant and the island of Hayling? It faces a £1.2 million reduction in central Government support as a direct result of the Government’s policies. There is no way to duck that particular issue. The council leader, when describing the measures being taken to try to rescue some services said,
“We didn’t want to go down this route but we had no option”.
The council faces a significant reduction in central Government funding through the revenue support grant, which in 2016-17 was £1.4 million, is now £290,000 and from 2019-20 will be zero. That is a factor in the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.
These are not isolated examples. If we consider any of the local authorities of the islands mentioned in this debate, the story is the same—deep and pernicious cuts that threaten the very existence of some of them.
Of course reductions in public expenditure are difficult for island communities, as they are everywhere. The real difficulty that they face is not just the amount of money that they have to spend, but the fact that so much of it comes with strings attached and local authorities are given so little discretion over how to spend the money that they have. What island communities need more than anything else is the ability to make decisions for themselves.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and his point feeds into the whole question of devolution within nations. Whether we like it or not, there is centralisation down here in Whitehall and Westminster. That is not a criticism, as it happens in all parties. In the past, I have called it—forgive the phrase, Mr Rosindell—the anal retention down here. It is not particularly helpful or productive. Local communities know their areas best and it is best for communities to get on and use their discretion, within as wide a parameter as possible, to provide services in their areas. They tend to know best.
Given how these local economies are often heavily reliant upon the public sector, following major structural changes to the economy of the last four decades, it is little surprise that some communities are under stress. The hon. Member for Havant referred to commercial practicalities. Sometimes, they will close down banks, pubs and other services. Do we permit that to happen, or do we do something to ameliorate it? It is sometimes the Government’s job to help and to intervene—not to direct or do too much, but to go in and help communities where such services are the lifeblood. In 10 or 15 years’ time, we will all be concerned that such services have de facto closed down, and we will ask what we could have done to support them.
Some islands are getting increasingly desperate about the way things are. All joking aside, some people on Canvey Island want independence because they do not feel they are getting the deal they should be getting. That underlines the point that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about devolution and about local communities being able to run themselves where possible.
It is important that the Government begin to invest in the UK island economies and engage with their populations. Whether that means the Isle of Wight or a small island off the Scottish coast, that has to happen. It could mean investing to stimulate employment opportunities on UK islands, as the increasingly unpredictable cycle of seasonal work is clearly not enough to sustain island economies. Anglesey and Orkney have demonstrated that investment in renewable energy can deliver sustainable jobs and put the UK on the path to energy security, as the right hon. Gentleman said. The Government have to stop being blinkered; they must look at these issues and at how they can work with communities.
The Opposition have some transformative proposals, such as our plan for a coastal communities fund—a policy we have been consulting on since the election, and which we will begin to outline in due course. I believe it will address some of the issues that the hon. Member for Havant raised, deliver investment in a number of UK island economies and hopefully bring them back from the brink. In our grey book, “Funding Britain’s Future”, we set out an immediate increase in local government funding while we review council tax and business rates. That in itself will not prevent some communities from going over the edge, but we have to send them the message that we are here to help and support them, and that we will do everything we can to ensure they continue so that we maintain the diversity of our country. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome that injection of investment into his community.
We need a radical rethink to help communities that feel under pressure, left behind and under threat. Tinkering at the edges is not good enough, and will not help island communities, in their diversity, to succeed.
It is appropriate that you are in the Chair, Mr Rosindell, as you are Parliament’s greatest champion of a different type of island: our overseas territories and Crown dependencies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak) for raising this important issue and for enabling a range of Members from across the House, representing all parts of the United Kingdom, to participate and give a complete tour of the British Isles. One thing we have learned today is that, although the British Isles are a great archipelago of more than 6,000 large and small islands and isles, relatively few of our constituents live on them, and we are perhaps less appreciative of them than we should be. Perhaps more than at any other point in our history, we are disconnected from our coast and our coastal communities. The Government are keen to change that and to ensure coastal communities and islands are properly represented. Today’s debate is an important part of that.
We want to raise productivity, living standards and economic growth in all parts of the United Kingdom, and of course islands and island communities are an essential part of that. Members representing the Isle of Wight, Hayling Island, Orkney and Shetland, Cumbrae, Arran and others have told the stories of their communities, many of which have been very positive. An important part of what we have heard today is that, although living on an island can cause problems, to which the Government, at a national or a local level, must respond, there are also opportunities for economic growth. Wonderful benefits can come from living in communities that are close and, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, can be very outward-facing to the rest of the world.
We appreciate that the barriers to growth can include a lack of opportunity—which can be a barrier to social mobility—poor connectivity and relatively high costs for transport, public service delivery and goods in the private sector. Although living on an island has many benefits and wonderful opportunities, which anyone who has grown up on one no doubt always lives with, the mainland can exert a strong gravitational pull, particularly to the young, and can at times lead to a drain of talent and youth. However, we have heard today about a number of islands whose populations are rising, which is very positive indeed.
Many of the barriers that island communities face are obviously a natural consequence of their geography and are common to all. Crudely, there are three types of island within the British Isles. The Isle of Wight is unique, in that it has a very large population—more than 130,000 people—and no bridge linking it with the mainland. I will turn to its specific demands in a moment.
The islands in the second category are mostly in Scotland, but there are a few off England, such as the Isles of Scilly. The populations of those islands, such as those represented by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, can still be substantial. They have no bridge to the mainland, and their remoteness poses particular problems, which require solutions, although they have smaller populations than the Isle of Wight.
Third are the islands, such as Hayling Island, that are connected to the mainland by roads. I do not want to diminish the challenges and issues they face, but they have commonalities with rural areas of the United Kingdom that have issues relating to remoteness. They are, to an extent, different from the islands that are separated from the mainland and do not have road links. I will address each of the three types. I apologise that this is a crude way of dissecting the issue, but it is at least a lens through which to look at it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) talked about the challenges and the opportunities of the Isle of Wight, which has a substantial population and no road connection to the mainland. The Government must think carefully about how we can assist it in delivering public services and ensuring its economy continues to grow. With the exception of the Isles of Scilly, it is unique—in England, at least—and we need to think about that when preparing new formulas for schools, local government, policing and other matters. I want to consider that with my hon. Friend in the future. I will talk about some of those issues in the time available to me.
A common thread for the Isle of Wight and all the other islands we have discussed today is digital. Although they are somewhat—at times, very—remote, the opportunities presented by the new economy are huge. They can help us break down some of the barriers and enable those islands to be highly connected to the rest of the world. We heard about new broadband opportunities in Newport, and I am sure there are other examples elsewhere in the British Isles.
We are focused on improving digital infrastructure on the Isle of Wight, in particular. It is clearly a critical part of life today. The Government are investing some £1 billion to ensure our digital infrastructure is fit for the future. I believe that the Isle of Wight was one of the first areas to benefit from the £400 million digital infrastructure investment fund. That was when investors Infracapital channelled some of the allocation into WightFibre to help to roll out full-fibre broadband to more than 50,000 homes, to some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight might have referred in his speech. Alongside that, Infracapital will invest £35 million of its own money to fund the expansion of the company’s infrastructure across the Isle of Wight. That is very positive and shows what we can do working together—although of course there is more work to be done.
On transport, roads are another vital part of the Isle of Wight’s infrastructure. From 2013 the Government will provide up to £477 million to Isle of Wight Council for a highways maintenance project through a private finance initiative that is under way. That will allow the council to carry out vital improvements and maintenance to local roads over a 25-year period.
We also recognise that transport to our islands must be adequate. That was not really touched on in my hon. Friend’s remarks, but having spoken to his predecessor in the past I know of concerns about the Isle of Wight ferry. Such concerns are no doubt common in other islands served by a single ferry company. The Competition and Markets Authority is aware of those concerns, which I expressed in my first meeting with the new CMA chief executive, Andrea Coscelli. The CMA is independent and the decision to take forward any investigation is its alone—the Government have no levers to direct the CMA as to which investigations it should choose, but I have raised the matter with him and know he is fully aware of it.
I did not mention the ferries in my speech because I wanted to talk more broadly about the economy, but the relevant authorities are well aware that I would be keen to call for another investigation. However, I am not doing so at the moment because the new transport board on the Island is trying to work constructively with our ferry companies. I want to give that a chance to work first—for Wightlink, Red Funnel and Hovertravel to work together more closely and to be more supportive of the Island, driving our economy and being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. That is why nothing is happening at the moment, but there is that option.
I thank my hon. Friend for his constructive approach. I suggest that he engage with the CMA if he wishes to take anything forward.
Schools do not fall directly within my remit at the Treasury, but in advance of the debate I reviewed the performance of Isle of Wight schools. I appreciate that in some cases there are some long-standing difficulties. The new national funding formula will help to address that challenge. Under the new formula, the Isle of Wight stands to gain up to 3.2% for its schools, which represents an increase of £2.2 million, or £140 per pupil. Clearly the new formula’s interest in sparsity of population will help in some island cases, but not in all because some islands are relatively densely populated. In certain parts of the Isle of Wight, however, that sparsity provision will help—I believe two primary schools will be eligible for funding in that respect. Certainly the specific challenges of the Isle of Wight need to be considered in future funding formulations.
I shall turn briefly to the comments of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and to those islands that fall into the category of remote, or very remote, and without any of the direct transport links of a road bridge. Clearly, such islands require careful consideration by central Government. We shall work as constructively as possible with the Scottish Government in areas where we can collaborate. When the right hon. Gentleman was in Government, he created the 2014 island framework to encourage the UK Government to work closely with the islands around Scotland. We would like to see such initiatives continue.
The Government also recognise the issues with broadband, and we want to do what we can to assist in Scotland. For example, more than £50 million of the superfast broadband programme went to the Scottish highlands and islands to provide access to download speeds of at least 24 megabits per second. Recently, we announced the winners of phase 1 of the £25 million 5G testbed competition. That includes £4.3 million for the 5G RuralFirst testbed, which will be based primarily in the Orkney Islands.
As far as possible, we continue to support North sea oil and gas through continued Treasury investment, and a strong and stable fiscal framework for the oil and gas industry, most recently with the announcement of the transferable tax history, which has been widely welcomed by the industry. I take on board the comments of the right hon. Gentleman with respect to renewables and the essential role that they play, and will continue to play, in the future of islands such as the Orkneys and Shetlands. I shall take away his suggestion about wave and tidal funding.
Finally, on islands connected to the mainland by road, the most prominent one we heard about today was Hayling Island, which sounded like a wonderful place. I would love to visit the bookshop or the ferry and, on a day like today, we would all like to be on an island such as Hayling. Many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant are common in other rural areas elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and we are concerned about them. We are, for example, making further investment in roads. We have launched the large local majors programme, which is potentially transformative for market towns and smaller communities that require significant road investment projects. I encourage my hon. Friend to take that up with the Department for Transport, if applicable.
We are also aware of bank closures, which have been widely debated in the House and are common to a number of communities throughout the United Kingdom, although I appreciate that in islands the effect can be greater than elsewhere. The schools funding formula will help many island communities, as it will in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we would like to see that taken forward. Since 2012 the coastal communities fund has invested £174 million in projects focused on economic development, growing and regenerating coastal areas. The Isles of Scilly have benefited from the fund, as did the Hayling coastal community team in 2015, from £10,000. Funding round 5 is now open, with £40 million available to spend from April 2019 until the end of March 2021.
Will the Minister give way?
In a moment if possible, but I am conscious of time.
I encourage all Members present to take advantage of that fund, where applicable, feeding into it and putting in their applications as soon as possible. From the Treasury’s perspective, I shall continue to work with my colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as we proceed to consider what the next stage of the fund will be. I shall ensure that the comments about islands we have heard today are fed into that process. I would like to work with my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight and for Havant to ensure that the next iteration of the fund takes on those views and works for coastal communities.
I thank all colleagues who have attended the debate to discuss these matters. We are very committed to taking this agenda forward and to ensuring that island communities have the funding and support they require to have vibrant communities and economies. Over the course of the year, whether in making decisions about applications to the coastal communities fund or in shaping the UK shared prosperity fund—that is an important discussion to be had in Parliament over the year to come, and I again encourage hon. Members representing coastal communities to take it seriously and engage in it—we shall continue, I hope, to display our commitment to the islands of the British Isles and their communities.
We have had a very good and wide-ranging debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) was right to highlight the opportunities and strengths of islands in addition to the challenges. In an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) emphasised what special and unique places our islands are. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) gave us an excellent perspective from Scotland, and I commend him for his service as a fire officer on Argyll and Bute.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response and his commitments, on behalf of the Government, to increase productivity and living standards on all the islands of the United Kingdom, including Hayling Island. I would very much welcome his visiting my constituency. I thank both Opposition spokespeople for their responses, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) in particular. She, too, is welcome on Hayling Island anytime. Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for chairing the debate.
To conclude, we are all islanders and must all work together to ensure that all the islands of the United Kingdom, whether large or small, have a bright economic future. I am glad that the House, through this debate, has committed to ensuring just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the economies of the UK islands.
Order. The sitting is suspended for three minutes to allow broadcasting to switch their feeds to facilitate simultaneous transmission.
Support for Deaf Children: South Gloucestershire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for deaf children in south Gloucestershire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am delighted to have secured a vital debate about the issues faced by deaf children and their families in South Gloucestershire. I am grateful to the House authorities for ensuring that there is a signer today in the Public Gallery and live subtitles during the debate.
I secured the debate after meeting parents and families of deaf children in my constituency, and subsequently the National Deaf Children’s Society, to discuss the current review of service provision across the four authority areas in the west of England. I thank those families and the NDCS for discussing the matter with me in great depth, and for all the work they do up and down the country to make life better and fairer for deaf and hearing-impaired children.
Hearing loss affects more than 10 million adults and around 45,000 children in the UK. Of those, around half are born deaf, while others can acquire the condition later during childhood. Around 370 children are born with severe to profound deafness in England each year. Deafness in children can be temporary or permanent, and it can be mild or profound. It can be in one ear or in both. Regardless of its type, it is often a very high-need condition and it can have a serious impact on children’s development and their ability to achieve their ambitions. It can affect language development, ability to communicate and educational achievements and attainment, and it can increase the risk of isolation and mental health difficulties. Around 48% of deaf children fail to reach the expected levels of language communication skills in their early years. It is easy to see how this condition can go on to have a negative impact on children and affect their quality of life.
Local authorities and schools in England already are required to provide support for deaf children, to ensure that young children especially are not at a substantial disadvantage to their hearing peers. The fact that only one in five children passes GCSE English and maths in the south-west demonstrates that there is still much more to do. Deaf children in South Gloucestershire face the same issues. Despite the fact that deafness is not a learning disability, 44% of deaf children are likely not to do as well as their peers. It is clear that more needs to be done to close the gap, to support children and to ensure that they have a fair chance of maximising their educational achievements and fulfilling their potential.
Deaf children and young people in South Gloucestershire rely on support provided to them by the Sensory Support Service, which has served other neighbouring local authorities since 1996: Bath and north-east Somerset, Bristol and north Somerset. The service supports the educational development of children in the area who have sensory impairment and who are aged between zero and 16.
In November 2017, the four authorities decided to carry out a review of all the support services. That review is at an early stage. A stakeholder reference group has been created to enable parents, charities, children and carers to input into the review, and it allows anyone affected to have their say. The stakeholder group is meeting for the first time later this month, and it is timely to have this debate just days before that meeting is due to take place. The redesigned service will come into effect around September 2019, and it will continue to be jointly commissioned by the four authorities. Now is the right time to ensure that the new revised service is fit for purpose and is serving deaf children well in our community.
There are four main points that I would like to raise, which should be considered as part of the review: early years support, teachers of the deaf, speech and language therapy and, importantly, the provision of radio aids.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and pay tribute to the fantastic work he is doing on this important matter for children in our council area. I welcome more proposals, in particular to ensure that the new Sensory Support Service prioritises the provision of radio aids for children to use in nursery and at home. That would be hugely beneficial to the children and their families, who need that highly valuable resource.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I will talk about the issues he raised in a bit more detail, but he has hit the nail on the head about the need for hearing aids and other assisted listening technologies outside the school or nursery setting. I thank him for that, and for his important work in South Gloucestershire on behalf of the communities.
Early years support services can be vital in determining a child’s future success. Therefore, it is important that local children get the targeted support that they require as early as possible during their development. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many deaf children can face a lack of pre-school and early-years support. The foundations for communication and language skills are often laid during the earliest stage of a child’s life. Local parents have expressed their concerns about the uncertainty that comes with the review and about making sure that the outcome is right. Support for early years and pre-school must be prioritised and strengthened during the review period.
Support in the form of teachers of the deaf can be extremely useful for children with hearing loss. They provide specialist training and advice to teachers, parents and pupils on how to deal with the difficulties that come with the everyday challenges that people may face. Those teachers can give skilled assistance to pupils and their families and make a significant contribution to their academic progress and achievement later in life. Currently, there are unfilled vacancies in South Gloucestershire that are a source of concern to local parents, who want to ensure that the frontline delivery of services remains a priority after September 2019. Parents want to be certain that children in our community will continue to have fair access to help from those specialist teachers so that they can continue to make positive improvements in their development and learning. It is vital that the review protects frontline teaching of the deaf.
My third point is about therapy support—specifically, speech and language therapy provision—beyond key stage 1 in South Gloucestershire. Speech and language therapy—SALT—can help children to develop better communication skills, optimise their speech, build their confidence and improve their interaction with others. It is important to ensure that the appropriate specialised SALT support is provided beyond key stage 1, because it can make a real difference to the development of children’s communication.
It is important that local children can continue to benefit from the expert advice and assessment of the NHS SALT service after the review. This is, therefore, the perfect time for South Gloucestershire Council and other authorities to consider improving the joining up of provision and support between health and education organisations, especially following the Ofsted report. Although I accept that in some cases commissioning is delegated to schools, it is important to ensure that support such as the provision of teachers of the deaf and SALT is complemented, and that there are no gaps in the provision of services for deaf children. That is a real concern that parents and the NDCS in particular have raised with me.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He raises important points about education provision in South Gloucestershire, which is not as good as it should be. South Gloucestershire does not do as well as neighbouring local authorities such as Bristol, particularly for deaf children and people with special educational needs. On speech and language therapy provision and its funding, does he believe that the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group also has a role to play? Deafness is a special educational need and a physical impairment, and its detection can take place at GP centres and in hospitals, so the NHS and South Gloucestershire Council both have roles to play.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for all the work he does on behalf of people, including children, around South Gloucestershire. He is absolutely right: of course the clinical commissioning group and local NHS services have a role in ensuring that children around South Gloucestershire receive optimal support. He is right to point out that there are clearly ways we can improve in South Gloucestershire following the Ofsted report.
The need for improved access to assistive listening technologies such as radio aids—especially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) pointed out, for pre-school children outside the nursery setting—has come up time and again in my conversations with local parents. Radio aids help deaf children to hear speech and sounds more clearly, as they transmit sound directly to a child’s hearing aid or implant. That can be critical in the early years of a child’s life, when they are at the earliest stage of learning. Radio aids can play an essential role in language development and in improving parent-to-child communication in the home and outside nursery.
We had a fascinating day when the NDCS brought hearing aids here so that we could hear the remarkable difference, in a busy and loud environment, between having that technology and not having it. Such environments often make for difficult listening conditions, and radio aids can prove useful in reducing the effects of background noise and improving the listening experience. Using them in places such as the car, public transport, after-school clubs and the home can make a big difference in a child’s language development and improve their concentration and attention.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Is that not the critical point? Academics such as Leon Feinstein have shown that word acquisition varies: at the age of three, a child in a disadvantaged family might know 600 words but a child in a more affluent family might know nearly 6,000 words. For a deaf child, being able to acquire words early is vital. The success of the Government’s phonics programme in developing language acquisition has clearly been proven, but that cannot take place unless we have radio aids. Does he therefore believe that there should be universal provision of radio aids for deaf children in South Gloucestershire, and that children should be able to take those aids outside the school setting to ensure they are constantly learning and engaged in whatever setting they are in?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the success of the Government’s phonics programme and the disparity in children’s vocabulary. I will come on to an example of a child in my constituency who benefited and learned new words by being part of a trial in South Gloucestershire that made radio aids possible. I completely agree that it is vital for people to have access to radio aids outside the home.
Living with hearing loss is sometimes an isolating and lonely experience, and radio aids have been shown to have positive effects on children’s psychological and emotional wellbeing and self-confidence. Perhaps the best argument for the use of radio aids I have heard came from my constituent, Hannah, whose daughter has severe hearing loss and has been wearing hearing aids since she was eight weeks old. Hannah’s daughter was offered the chance to use a radio aid for a trial period. Hannah told me how beneficial that had been for her daughter, who started to pick up new vocabulary and became more confident and independent. That radio aid enabled her to have an experience of life that was much more like that of her hearing friends.
Local parents are concerned about the fact that although the provision of radio aids outside the school or nursery setting might be greatly beneficial, it is not a certainty for children in South Gloucestershire. In this review period, there is even more uncertainty about what will come post September next year. I therefore urge all four authorities to use the review to consider providing radio aids to all deaf and hearing-impaired children for use in the home and outside the school or nursery setting as quickly as possible.
I ask the Minister to urge South Gloucestershire Council and the other three authorities to take the review process as an opportunity to evaluate overall provision for local deaf children, and to have in mind the four points I have raised: prioritising early years and pre-school provision and ensuring that it is strengthened as a result of the review; protecting the provision of teaching of the deaf; joining up the teaching of the deaf and speech and language therapy services, which is particularly important and has been raised a number of times; and considering providing radio aids to all deaf and hearing-impaired children outside the home as quickly as possible. The review gives us the opportunity to improve the support we offer to deaf children, and to help children in South Gloucestershire to develop better communication skills, optimise their speech skills, build their confidence in interactions with their families and others, maximise their academic attainment and become more confident and independent. Taking those steps will make that possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on securing this timely debate, which follows my recent meetings with members of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness. I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position on supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including those who are deaf and hearing impaired, and to understand views about the services available in South Gloucestershire.
I am determined to ensure that children and young people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment receive the support they need to achieve the success they deserve. Our latest figures show that more than 21,000 pupils who have a hearing impairment as their primary special educational need are supported by schools in England, and 93% of children with a hearing impairment are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. I know that many colleagues are concerned that that group of children and young people is likely to receive a poorer service, and I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) about hearing aids in early years settings. However, I assure colleagues that it is not my expectation that those children should receive a poorer service. I expect deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people to receive the support they need to help them fulfil their aspirations alongside their peers. I hope that message gets home to the leadership in South Gloucestershire and neighbouring authorities.
The 2014 SEND reforms were the biggest change to the system in a generation, placing a new emphasis on promoting better involvement of parents and young people in the planning and support provided for their children. The Children and Families Act 2014 and the “SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years” in 2015 built on best practice developed over many years. The reforms are about improving the support available to all children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, which we are doing by joining up services for nought to 25-year-olds across education, health and social care and by focusing on positive outcomes in education, employment, housing, health and community participation. I want to be absolutely clear that that vision applies equally to deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people.
The completion of the statutory transition period in the SEND system is not the end point for the SEND reforms. We all recognise that we are only part-way to achieving our vision; the biggest issue we have to address now is changing the culture in local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and education settings. We must support organisations to overcome the barriers that prevent them from working together, focus on the long-term outcomes for these young people and ensure that our policies are delivering for families and supporting children to succeed. Supporting schools to respond to the needs of all their pupils is crucial to achieving that goal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate mentioned teachers and the training they receive, and that is very much part of the Government’s strategy. In the past five years, we have funded the National Sensory Impairment Partnership to provide a wide range of support to early years, schools, post-16 providers and local authorities to improve outcomes for children and young people with sensory impairment. The work has included the development of resources and training, which are now being accessed by practitioners across the sector.
Having developed those resources and many others relating to other specific impairments, we are shifting our focus to better supporting schools and working to embed the SEND reforms within the school-led system of school improvement. In that way, we aim to equip the workforce to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of SEN. We have recently contracted with the Whole School SEND consortium for a two-year programme to equip schools to identify and meet their training needs in relation to SEND. We are delighted that the National Sensory Impairment Partnership is very much part of that consortium. The consortium will, among other things, help to review the mandatory qualifications for teachers of pupils with sensory impairment to ensure that they remain fit for purpose. I hope that provides my hon. Friend with some reassurance on one of his points.
The Government have separately invested in a number of programmes to support children and young people with hearing impairments and their families. We have funded the development of an early support guide for parents of deaf children, which is available through the Council for Disabled Children’s website. In addition, we have funded the National Deaf Children’s Society’s I-Sign project and the development of a family-orientated sign language programme, which is available free on the society’s family sign language website.
To support local areas to improve and to reassure families that services will be held to account, we have introduced joint local area inspections. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) alluded to the fact that South Gloucestershire is challenged, certainly. The inspections, which started in May 2016 and will see every local area inspected by 2021, are carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. Parents’ views of services are an important part of the inspections. The inspections are playing an important role in our reforms, not least by bringing together education, health and social care services, and I am pleased to see services working collaboratively with families to act on the inspections’ findings.
By the way, I have written to South Gloucestershire, which has been asked by Ofsted and the CQC to produce a written statement of action and is required to update me on progress in the action it is taking to address its weaknesses. We will, of course, support South Gloucestershire to respond to the written statement of action through the Department for Education’s professional SEND adviser team and NHS England’s regional adviser team. I understand the local authority is working hard to address those weaknesses.
The duty to commission services jointly is vital to the success of the SEND reforms. We recognise that unless education, health and social care partners work together, we will not see the holistic approach to a child’s progression and the positive outcomes that the system was designed to deliver. Joint working is also one of the best ways of managing pressures on local authority and NHS budgets. Looking for more efficient ways to work together, to share information and to avoid duplication will work in favour of professionals and those who are most important: families and their children. The child or young person and their family must be at the centre of that joint commissioning approach.
Some areas are demonstrating excellent joint working. For example, Wiltshire received positive feedback on the effectiveness of its local area’s joint commissioning arrangements. It was reported that senior officers across education, health and care worked together effectively, adopting a well-integrated, multi-agency approach.
What might all of that mean to the deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people in South Gloucestershire? As my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate articulated, South Gloucestershire, along with its neighbouring local authorities, is considering the best way to support sensory-impaired children and young people through its Sensory Support Service. It is important that parents, carers and young people have and take the opportunity to feed into that work. My hon. Friend, by securing the debate, has provided a wonderful opportunity for his constituents and local authority to hear from colleagues and the Department on what needs to happen, and to shape those services for the future.
I am very supportive of local authorities working together to provide effectively for children and young people in their areas. Working in that way is not about local authorities abdicating their responsibility; rather, it is about achieving a better service and better value for money by working together and sharing knowledge and expertise for the benefit of all.
How local authorities choose to allocate their funding is a matter for them, and each authority will carefully consider how best to meet the needs of its children and young people. I understand that South Gloucestershire has funded radio aids for children to access their learning in early years and schools settings from its equipment budget. I am encouraged that it is working closely with children, young people and families to make decisions on how local funding is allocated to overcome barriers and improve access to education for the children in its area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned closing the word gap by improving children’s vocabulary. Last week, we announced a fund of £8.5 million to which local authorities can apply for peer-to-peer review of what really works in terms of whole learning. We now need to assess and collect evidence for best practice from a number of projects, and then we will begin to work out how we scale that for the whole country. I am proud of what has been achieved so far and I look forward to working with the SEND organisations, delivery partners and practitioners to ensure the vision becomes a reality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate also mentioned speech and language therapy at key stage 1 and how local authorities should look to expand that and take it forward. Early years provision was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke. We have a pretty comprehensive strategy in early years interventions. We currently invest about £6 billion a year in childcare, with the disadvantaged two-year-old offer of 15 hours a week and the universal offer of 15 hours a week for three and four-year-olds. All of that is very much part of our overall strategy for early years intervention.
I thank the Minister for making that absolutely vital point. We have these accusations of school funding cuts and less money going to young people. Will he finally nail this lie once and for all? Across the country and in South Gloucestershire more money is being spent on special educational needs and our primary schools. Cuts are not taking place; the Government are investing in our future.
Order. We are running out of time. The Minister needs to wind up very quickly.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, who wonderfully articulated the position of the Government. It is absolutely correct.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Office for Product Safety and Standards
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of the Office for Product Safety and Standards.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
The Minister will be familiar with my interest in electrical safety and, in particular, household electrical goods. I am sure he has familiarised himself with all my previous debates and correspondence on the issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and I am keen to hear from him what he will do with some of the serious issues around product safety, and specifically electrical goods. Disappointingly, there has been no parliamentary scrutiny of the functions of the office to date, and I was disappointed that no Minister came to the House to explain what it would be. It was irritating that the Government made the announcement on a weekend; perhaps today we can hear an explanation for that.
The previous Minister, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), came to the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety in December last year, to explain and to listen to the way forward that members of that group wanted. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work as Minister and her willingness to listen to parliamentarians and stakeholders about the changes required to electrical product safety in the UK.
The APPG on home electrical safety is an excellent forum for many parliamentarians and stakeholder attendees to discuss the priority issues concerning electrical safety. Stakeholder attendees include Electrical Safety First, which assists me with the administration of the group, the London fire brigade and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, of which I am a vice-president, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group and others. I would like to think that our combined effort and knowledge have kept these matters high on the parliamentary agenda.
Special mention should also be given to my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who have both worked for a long time to protect people from fires and white good damage in their homes. The APPG’s next meeting is next Tuesday, and I extend an invitation to the Minister to come and listen to a presentation from eBay on what it is doing to prevent counterfeit electrical goods from being sold on its platform—an issue that has got wildly out of control in recent years and, if I am honest, piqued my initial interest in the subject when I held my first debate on this matter in this very room.
I welcome the creation of the office, which is long overdue, and I hope it will help not only to co-ordinate across Government, but to bring together a range of stakeholders to help and advise the office, such as Electrical Safety First, the British Standards Institution, the fire brigades, CTSI and Which?, and many others that are on the frontline of preventing fires caused by faulty products, and that exist to educate the public. The office now needs to reach out to those organisations. I question what it will do to engage stakeholders.
The Minister will be aware that I have previously corresponded with the Department on what I think should be the priority areas. Although I appreciated the Minister’s response, I wonder whether today is an opportunity to share when the strategy will be published and whether electrical product safety will be a priority.
Electricity is one of the biggest causes of fires in our homes, but I see no real Government strategy to help mitigate that risk. Is the office working on a cross-Government strategy? The Home Office has its own “Fire Kills” campaign, but there needs to be a longer, sustained campaign, which Electrical Safety First has been calling for. What is the priority consumer campaign to prevent electrical fires in the home—or where is it? I would like to know what discussions the office is having with the Home Office about fires caused by faulty electrical goods. The Home Office seems to have its own unit, and now the Office for Product Safety and Standards exists, so where is the co-ordination? Can we have some reassurance that there will be joined-up thinking?
I note from the office’s website that one of the first announcements last month was on teaming up with BSI, the UK’s national standards body, to launch the first Government-backed code of practice for product safety recall in the UK. That is a welcome step and is backed by Government, but can the Minister outline whether there will be a Government campaign for consumers on product safety in the strategy? Although initiatives such as “Register my appliance” exist, where is the Government-backed consumer campaign on electrical goods?
There have been significant consumer awareness campaigns from organisations such as Electrical Safety First and the London fire brigade, particularly on plastic-backed fridges, white good fires, counterfeit electrical goods and why recalled goods are openly being sold. The office must get to grips with that issue. From my personal perspective, I do not think it is right that counterfeit electrical goods are sold openly online by the likes of Amazon and eBay. As I have said, the latter will be given an opportunity next week to reassure the APPG meeting, but Amazon has consistently refused to engage and washed its hands of any responsibility, and even though it was invited to next week’s meeting it has declined to respond.
At the last debate, the previous Minister promised a roundtable discussion with Apple, BaByliss, ACG and others to discuss the serious problems they face with counterfeiting and its safety aspects. I keep saying to Ministers that this goes beyond intellectual property; it is about the safety of the public. It is about fire in their homes. It is about the death of my constituent Linda Merron, who bought an electrical product on eBay that burned her house down. It is unacceptable that eBay and Amazon can sell goods that are unsafe and basically get away with it. That would not be allowed on the high street, and the issue will only get worse with the collapse of high street electrical stores such as Maplin, which shows that consumers are increasingly buying online. I want to hear today that the office will tackle those companies that break the law by selling substandard, counterfeit or recalled products.
A closely related problem is the private sales of electrical goods via eBay and Amazon, particularly on Amazon Marketplace. It is my understanding that the Consumer Rights Act 2015 does not cover private sales, so anything faulty could be sold person to person without legal protection. Can the Minister look into that and perhaps write to me about the situation regarding private sales of electrical goods between two individuals, their rights and the consumer legislation? If there is a loophole, I would expect the office to look at it.
It is all very well my calling for greater attacking of the issues and enforcement, but who will enforce this? As the Local Government Association stated in its trading standards review, between 2010 and 2015 there have been cuts of more than 40% to local government, and trading standards has taken the brunt of those cuts. As CTSI has informed me,
“the Office for Product Safety and Standards is a step forwards for consumer protection in the UK. However; there is still a pressing need to ensure frontline trading standards services have the resources to fulfil their duties to protect the public as was noted by the BEIS Select Committee, Lynn Faulds Wood and the National Audit Office.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she has done to identify these serious issues. She mentions trading standards. The National Audit Office has identified the funding gap there, but I think there is another issue. Local trading standards are responsible for businesses in their area. In Peterborough, where Whirlpool is based, the local trading standards office is responsible for the quality of goods for Whirlpool nationwide. There is a conflict of interest and it does not work, because the local trading standards office does not have the resources to police a multinational company such as Whirlpool.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is my understanding that Peterborough actually has fewer than three trading standards officers.
Will the Minister please outline how trading standards will be boosted and supported by this new office? Will there be monies for the training of more trading standards officers? Surely the Government realise that more people are needed on the ground, and now. Will any support for trading standards be backed up with a proper database of injuries that stakeholders can access?
I am not surprised to hear that there are three trading standards officers in Peterborough, who of course have to cover everything that trading standards does. The time spent on electrical safety will be perhaps part of one post. We need to know from the Minister how the new office will actually fill that gap. At the moment, nobody regulates what is happening. It required Which? to start legal action before Whirlpool or the Government responded at all on this.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Like him, I have struggled greatly with Whirlpool. Communicating with the company has been extremely difficult.
The APPG will shortly produce a report on what we believe the Minister and the new office should look at, in terms of electrical safety, based on evidence received from a wide range of organisations. I will invite the Minister to the meeting in July, but he is welcome at any meeting. As we did with his predecessor, perhaps we could have a roundtable discussion—perhaps along with his officials—on these issues, the strategy and our report. I hope the Minister will indicate whether that may be possible.
As I stated earlier, I welcome the new office, but there are concerns about its priorities and strategy and what it will do to protect consumers. Electrical product safety must be a priority area, given the tragic consequences we have seen of white goods fires. I wish the office well, but as I am sure colleagues will raise, more needs to be done to reassure consumers, stakeholders and the electrical products industry that the office will provide the necessary strategic vision, have real power for consumers, support trading standards and be listened to across Government to help to protect the public from electrical product safety problems and fires in their homes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and congratulate her on securing this important and timely debate.
Product safety standards is a subject on which we should all be focused. It is not so long ago that I wrote a column for my local newspaper, the Stirling Observer, which focused on product safety—especially of tumble dryers. I received an unexpectedly high response to that article compared with others I had written on more current constitutional issues that we might debate in the House and in Scotland.
I also reflect on the first ever surgery I attended as a newly elected Member, in the Mayfield Centre in Stirling. We advertised the event but only two constituents came along to speak to me, so I had some time to speak to the caretaker. He was delighted to speak to his new MP, because he wanted to point out to me an issue that, so far as he was aware, no one was speaking about: the regulation and safety of tumble dryers. Little did I know that, within a few weeks of that, I would be a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and that we would be conducting an inquiry into the safety of tumble dryers.
This is an important subject, as has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Swansea East. Our inquiry found, as can be read in the published report, that companies such as Whirlpool have not made enough of an effort to take responsibility for their products and the consequences of their use when they are deemed dangerous. In fact, the report identified that a million faulty tumble dryers are in everyday use in this country. We also identified in the report gaps in the regulatory regime.
I should mention that, during the hearings that we conducted, Whirlpool made commitments about its willingness to respond to the concerns that we raised. We asked it to resolve issues with defective machines within two weeks. It said that it would do it within a week, but we have no way of measuring whether the company has been true to the commitment that it made and put on the record.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on our Select Committee in probing Whirlpool and Ian Moverley, who gave evidence—or at least answered a few of our questions, but not all of them. On the 1 million faulty tumble dryers that Whirlpool knows about, is the hon. Gentleman also concerned that Which? said that it had found as recently as last month through its mystery shopping that customers with these faulty tumble dryers were still being given the wrong advice? That means there are potentially still 1 million tumble dryers in our homes that could catch fire, like the ones we in the Committee heard about and the ones other hon. Members have given evidence on.
I am grateful to the chair of the Select Committee—I have the privilege of serving on it—for her intervention. She is absolutely right, and I share all those concerns—specifically in relation to the Which? report of recent weeks that suggested that Whirlpool customers were being advised that they could continue to use their defective models, even though they were known to be defective and presented a danger to the safety of the people who lived in homes where they were in use.
Similarly, I am also concerned to hear that the BBC and Which? have reported that some of the machines that have had their defects corrected have then caused fires. This is a significant issue and, as I said earlier, is something that should concentrate all our minds—particularly those of Ministers. I am sure that the Minister will wish to address these specific issues in his reply.
Questions need to be asked, and it is vital that the regulatory regime that we have meets the need that we currently place on it. As we take more products into our lives and rely more on technology, the more we need a regulator with teeth. The new Office for Product Safety and Standards is a promising development, but it will need to be tested against reality—the lawyers and the corporate spin machines that defend the spin cycles of the manufacturers.
I should at this point deviate to tell the House that I had a most interesting experience in the last few minutes while visiting a constituent of mine who is here in Parliament. She is at a drop-in event in Portcullis House sponsored by Genetic Alliance UK, which is a charity that works to improve the lives of patients and carers. I told her that I was coming to Westminster Hall to participate in a debate on tumble dryers—that is how I expressed it, even though the debate is broader—and she volunteered that her tumble dryer had been faulty. It was a different make from the one I have discussed. She returned the machine and was offered £100 and a new machine, but that machine was faulty. This product seems to have endemic issues.
I hope Members will forgive me if I dwell a little more on an issue that has bothered me a great deal since being elected: the apparent ineffectiveness of regulators. For example, Ofgem constantly failed to take on the electricity markets, which were obviously broken, and I have found Ofcom to be generally unresponsive to the wireless telephony and broadband connectivity issues of my rural constituents. The list goes on. The debate is not about that, but I am concerned that the new office could be another ineffectual regulator—toothless, ineffective, and sometimes even, sad to say, supine—instead of a body that the Government, and us as parliamentarians, have put good faith in to defend the best interests of people.
In some cases, regulators fail not because they do not have enough power but because they lack the will and suffer from organisational atrophy that causes inaction. The regulator in this field, the OPSS, must not fail. If it does, there is the possibility of lives being lost—actually, that is beyond a possibility; it is a fact—consumers being ripped off with faulty goods, and untold damage being done to property.
The situation regarding Whirlpool, which I have already mentioned, is one in which our Select Committee expected action on the part of the company. To our knowledge, that has not been forthcoming. Its actions have been inadequate. Instead of responding to the concerns that we raised with it and those of my constituents and others who have raised issues with me that I have passed on, it has resisted action and, in my view, done the bare minimum that it can get away with. An activist regulator would put paid to the inaction, and a test of the ability of the new regulator will be how it pursues this. It is essential that when questions are raised about products, companies act transparently. That is what we would expect, and what we would expect a regulator to insist on.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.
Order. I was remiss in not saying anything at the start. This is a heavily subscribed debate, so to be fair to one another, colleagues should take about five minutes at the most, before the winding-up speeches start.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David, for two reasons. One is that you are a fellow West Ham supporter. They have survived in the premiership for another year, so you will obviously be in a good mood. Secondly, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety rescue, you take a keen interest in these matters yourself, so it is good to see you here and following the debate as closely as you are.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). He made another of his trademark thoughtful speeches, which he is becoming known for. I am delighted to welcome the Minister to his position. He arrives with a fair wind. He is held in regard across the House and much is expected of him, so we are all looking forward to his response to this debate, which will be my first experience of his winding up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate and on not taking undue time in opening the debate, as some colleagues in these debates do. She has left lots of time for the rest of us to contribute. I also congratulate her on so ably chairing the all-party parliamentary home electrical safety group and leading us on this issue so effectively. She has been so well supported by our hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on these issues. I will try to keep to your time constraints, Sir David.
I thank Electrical Safety First, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Which? and the London fire brigade for all their efforts in this area and for their briefings. Like the previous two speakers, I look forward to the Minister’s response, as well as the Opposition speeches. The tone of the briefings that I have received is best described as positive and welcoming but with a sceptical edge, and I think that the simplest thing I can do is to quote from the material with which I have been supplied.
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute asked two main questions. How would the OPSS add to the current market surveillance and enforcement functions to improve the system and, if there was a repeat of the recent white goods scandal, how would the office support local authority trading standards to ensure that the system was robust in protecting consumers? I am sure that the Minister has all these briefings and will be well prepared to respond to them.
The first two points made by Electrical Safety First in its briefing are that the charity welcomes the debate and the newly established Office for Product Safety and Standards, as it represents a key opportunity. It says that
“the OPSS is fundamental to creating better cross-government co-ordination”.
Then it asks a number of questions. On product recall, it states:
“Through collaboration with stakeholders there must also be significant effort to improve product registration”.
With regard to online retail, it says that
“consideration should be given to bringing forward additional legislation”.
On counterfeit electrical goods, it says:
“This issue must be looked at closely”.
On data collection, it says that
“product safety in the UK is fragmented and incomplete.”
And it says that an injury database is
“Key to an effective intelligence system”.
That is hardly a ringing endorsement, but Electrical Safety First is more upbeat than Which? is.
Which? is probably the most sceptical. It states:
“Which? welcomed the Government’s recognition that the product safety system needs to be fixed. However, the announcement of the OPSS falls short of the full overhaul the product safety system so desperately needs…Which? is calling for fundamental reform that stops unsafe products from reaching UK households.”
It reminds us of the history, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). I am talking about the Peterborough trading standards challenge, which was brought about only because of the London Fire Brigade report and because Which? basically took legal action to make Peterborough trading standards challenge Whirlpool.
The London Fire Brigade, in its briefing, is also welcoming, but asks questions. On progress and powers of the new office, it asks:
“Could the Minister give further detail on what measures will be in place to ensure the Office has technical expertise and the resources to support…Trading Standards…will the OPSS also consider criminal prosecution if a manufacturer of white goods lets consumers continue to use a known dangerous product?...will the new Office encourage and facilitate information sharing by manufacturers and insurers following fires so that fire and rescue services and trading standards are in possession of key data”.
“Could the Minister give an update on what progress has been made on the recall register?...Could the Minister confirm that there will be an obligation on manufacturers to inform government of all recalls…what will be done to communicate the new register to consumers”.
Much is expected of the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and certainly the fanfare from Government is that this is a positive step forward. It should be and very well could be. I look forward to the winding-up speeches from the Opposition spokespersons, but this is, more importantly, an opportunity for the Minister to explain how the new office will help and what he expects it to achieve. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have contributed.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will not repeat what my hon. Friend said, except to say that we are all grateful for the expertise and support that we get in trying to deal with these issues, for your involvement over time and for the Select Committee’s involvement now.
It is probably right to say that the announcement of the new office was rather subdued. I think that it came at a weekend; we were all expecting an oral statement or at least some explanation of its role, but we have had to wait really till today to address that matter. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for initiating the debate and for her expertise on the matter.
We know what needs to be done. We had the Lynn Faulds Wood report two years ago. We had the Government’s own working party report. We have had much expert advice, including from the London fire brigade, Which? and Electrical Safety First. The difficulty is that not much is happening. There is a fear—if I can be blunt with the Minister —that this is really window dressing; it is simply a way of being seen to do something. We are told that it is a new office and has additional funding—£12 million. Can the Minister confirm, first, that that is additional money? Secondly, I think that that is when it is fully operational. When will the office be fully operational in that way? Its remit appears to be quite limited. It appears to be mainly the same people doing the job, and it appears to have the same limitations because of the reliance, still, on the local network of underfunded trading standards organisations.
Perhaps I can put the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest. I can confirm that we are talking about £12 million of additional resources for the Office for Product Safety and Standards. In this first year, we envisage there being an additional spend of approximately £9 million; that is as it staffs up and gets itself ready. But there will be £12 million of new money, in addition to the work that the officials have already been doing within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
I am grateful for that answer. Perhaps, because of the limited time, I will limit myself to making one point. Will the new office pass the Whirlpool test? Whirlpool is untypical in some ways, because one particular design fault has affected 5.5 million tumble dryers; I think it was estimated that one in six homes in the country is affected. That is not the only problem with Whirlpool. We have also had the issue that led to the Llanrwst inquest and the sad, tragic deaths there. The Whirlpool reaction has been extraordinarily unhelpful. If the office can deal with Whirlpool, it can probably deal with a number of other issues.
I remind members that over 12 years a number of different brands manufactured tumble dryers that were liable to catch fire and did in many hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. The concentration was initially on the slow speed at which they were repaired or replaced and then the fact that half of them were not identified at all. That threw up the lack of a registration or recall process. Whirlpool persistently resisted a recall or even giving the correct safety advice. That is bad enough, but through Which? and the BBC’s “Watchdog” programme—which has done an incredible job in exposing this negligent behaviour by Whirlpool and is now being broadcast weekly—we have discovered that that was not the only problem.
The replacement and repaired machines were themselves faulty and large numbers of them are now catching fire. We could well be back where we were, except for the fact that people have been lulled into a false sense of security in the belief that they now have safe goods in their home when they often do not. How does the Minister intend to approach the Whirlpool issue and learn from it? Will we have a proper registration process? Will we have a clear database of products that are at risk and are recalled? Will we insist on recall, rather than this rather botchy repair method? Will that be within the remit of the new office?
Finally, we are coming up to the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which we are dealing with on a daily basis. It was started by a particular type of fridge freezer. If the Minister cannot answer this question now, I would be grateful if he would write to me. I have had contradictory answers from his Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. When will we get a verdict on that? Is it coming through the police inquiry or his Department? When will we know exactly which fault caused that fire? We know it is in a particular model of fridge freezer, but we need to know more, because if there is a further risk, it needs to be demonstrated and publicised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) who has done so much work on this issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate.
Like everyone, I welcome the establishment of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, but it needs a role for consumers as well as businesses. Consumers need to be front and centre in this. I will not go into the Whirlpool affair, which has been dealt with, although I hope lessons will be learned from that. I would like to know, however, what support will be given to trading standards. We have heard about the Peterborough problem. Will there be a centralised team under the national trading standards remit on product safety? That seems like a good way of working.
I want to concentrate on the recall register. How will consumers know about it? If I had time, I would do a little test and ask people if they could tell me the model number of their fridge, freezer and washing machine—apart from the make—because I could not. Where are these numbers? Usually they are at the back of machines in completely inaccessible places. If there are fitted units, the whole cupboard has to be taken apart to get to the model number. What is the point of publishing a register of model numbers that most people do not have a clue that they own? How will we get around that one?
What about people who are not on the internet? How will they know about a recall? Surely, the way to do it would be through a register at the point of sale that would only be used in the case of a recall. It should be given to the manufacturer with strict instructions that there is to be no marketing or contact unless there is a recall. If the machine is sold on, online traders who deal with it, such as eBay, Amazon, Gumtree and Shpock, could also register who it is sold on to. That would get around the fact that we cannot get to second-hand goods or the people who sell them. We know that few people fill out registration cards, because they are frightened of getting marketing calls all the time.
It is illegal to sell second-hand and fake goods subject to recall in the US. I do not see why we cannot have some form of legislation on that here. We need to tighten up the online platforms. I do not want to stop the sale of second-hand goods. I do not want people to be forced to go to BrightHouse—heaven forbid—as the only place they can buy these goods, but they have to be safe. The online platforms must be made responsible for the goods. They are not simply equivalent to landlords who let a shop that sells goods. They are considered to be the same as the sellers. People who buy from Amazon Marketplace consider that they are buying from Amazon and are covered by that. That applies to fake goods as well. They are equally responsible for the sale of fake goods, which all too often cause fires. Fake chargers, fake hair straighteners and all the fake goods sold on such websites are the responsibility—I would say—of the people who provide the platform for the sellers. The minimum they should do on recall is highlight that there is a recall. When it comes up and somebody is looking at white goods, a warning should flash: “These products have been recalled.”
Finally, will we still be in the European rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products, or Rapex, system after this? It is important we co-operate with Europe, as many of the goods are European.
I welcome the establishment of an office dedicated to product safety, but the devil will be in the detail. When will it publish its action plan? When will it publish its priorities? Will there be a timeline for these priorities? Will consumers be at the front, centre and heart of this office?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and to speak in this exceptionally important debate, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).
As we have seen on too many occasions in the last few years, product safety can be the difference between life and death. According to the consumer magazine Which?, faulty goods can cause as many as 3,120 fires a year. That is 60 fires a week or one fire every three hours. Since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, Britain has led the world in workplace and consumer safety. High standards have ensured that we can to live and work safely without risk of death or injury in our daily lives. British safety has been a global success story, with our standards adopted across the middle east, Asia and the Commonwealth. It is right, therefore, that we welcome the introduction of the Office for Product Safety and Standards as the next step in ensuring that product safety in the UK remains world class, that it is placed right at the heart of the economy and that we avoid any sense of a race to the bottom on regulatory standards.
To do that effectively, as well as all the actions mentioned by my hon. Friends, the Government need to take a couple of extra actions as well. The Office for Product Safety and Standards must be properly financed, resourced and staffed. I welcome the £12 million that the Minister has already mentioned. The motto at the heart of the office must simply be that safety cannot be done on the cheap. The Government must provide the resources to allow it to attract the talent that it needs in order to be effective in maintaining and reinforcing the high-quality regulation that exists for consumers.
The points raised by all my hon. Friends are absolutely crucial in dealing with these problems with white goods and electrical safety. Having a new office gives us an opportunity to expand its remit and include workplace safety items as well. A company called Arco, based in my constituency of Hull, supplies health and safety equipment and services. It tells me that it has seen worryingly levels of non-compliance in a wide range of workplace safety items, including things such as high-vis jackets and non-steel toecap boots. It has carried out some tests on some of these products in a laboratory in Hull. It has revealed that up to 50% of boots containing steel midsole protection on the consumer market are actually made from brittle or mild steel, which is subject to corrosion. Many of these products have passed the CE branding procedure at the test stage, but they simply do not protect employers or consumers to an adequate standard.
We all know that protective equipment is often the last line of defence for consumers and workers against serious injury or fatality, so I think the Office for Product Safety and Standards should expand its remit to reflect this urgency. The Government should also act to give a new legislative footing to products and workplace safety that is fit to meet the evolving challenges of product safety, reflects the concerns of the industry, and gives the office real teeth to make it really effective. Product safety and standards are one area that all of us, regardless of party, can get behind. We all want to see consumers protected and safety promoted. I hope that the new Office for Product Safety and Standards can be a resounding success, which it will be if the Government follow all of the recommendations mentioned in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate on the new Office for Product Safety and Standards and on the powerful case she has set out.
The Minister may know that my interest in these issues stems from my constituency’s historical links to white goods manufacturing. I am very proud of our legacy. Hoover washing machines, dishwashers and even the Sinclair C5 were all made in my constituency. Secondly, I am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, chaired by my hon. Friend. I want to focus my brief remarks on three issues—communications with the public, old white goods and elderly electrical products being sold online, and support for trading standards in Wales.
I have seen the briefing from Electrical Safety First that was distributed to hon. Members before this debate, and I am grateful for it. I welcome, as other Members have, the creation of the OPSS. I see it as protecting consumers from electrical hazards, particularly fires caused by white goods. As Electrical Safety First states in its briefing,
“there needs to be expansion of government campaigns on electrical safety in the home throughout the year.”
I very much agree with that statement when I look at the fires caused by white goods in homes and those who are affected.
Some 1,719 fires in Wales were caused by an electrical source of ignition last year. In the past three years, according to the South Wales fire service, 43 fires were caused by tumble dryers and washing machines, with over 55% of those instances attributed to Hotpoint, Indesit or Creda machines. Seven of those 43 were in my constituency. Will the Government consider a consumer campaign on fires caused by white goods targeted at vulnerable families who might buy cheaper white goods online and in marketplaces, some of which may be recalled or second hand, with unsuspecting consumers not even being aware of their recalled status?
Many people used to buy products specifically manufactured in the UK, stamped “made in the UK” or “made in Great Britain”, because they were often seen as a trusted product. As I have mentioned in previous debates in the House, many manufacturers, including Hoover, decided to send production overseas and now import electrical goods into the UK. We need to look closely at online platforms such as eBay, Amazon, Gumtree and Facebook that allow, without any regulation or enforcement, second-hand and in particular very elderly electrical products to be sold, as my hon. Friend the Member outlined. What will the new office do with the online platforms that allow the sales of very elderly electrical goods to the public? Is it right that old electric heaters and washing machines from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s should be allowed to be sold to the public via sites such as eBay as safe to use? I do not believe that should be allowed. Furthermore, manufacturers should take action to prevent their very elderly products from being sold online and work with the likes of eBay, Amazon and so on. What plans are there to look at second-hand electrical goods sales by the new office?
Second-hand goods and recalled products being sold online or in marketplaces need proper enforcement. Information from the Welsh Local Government Association shows that owing to austerity and the pressures placed on local councils, regulation activities were cut by 47% in the past five years, which includes trading standards responsibilities. As the WLGA suggests, there is a loss of expertise and ability to enforce electrical product safety, particularly in the most vulnerable communities, which is potentially where the cheapest electrical goods would be bought and sold. Will the Minister agree with me that the new office—this also addresses the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves)—needs to support local trading standards on the ground to ensure proper market surveillance of the sales of electrical goods in the community? I refer not only to old products, but to new, particularly dodgy mobile phone chargers and e-cigarettes, which the WLGA says that trading standards departments get the most complaints about.
I hope that the Minister will look closely at those issues and ensure that the new office works for the most vulnerable consumers who need to be protected from dangerous electrical goods in their communities. I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister on what has been done and what further he can do to address the issues and offer reassurances.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. I congratulate her on raising this important issue that matters to so many of us and our constituents. Also, a bit cheekily, I take this opportunity to congratulate her on her recent election as deputy leader, although I am not sure whether that is allowed.
The move to establish a new Office for Product Safety and Standards is welcome, but I will echo a few of the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) has said about how there will be only limited improvement should the Government fail to establish an effective product register site for all UK recalled products.
I am part of a group of mothers in my constituency who often talk about how we keep our babies, toddlers and newborns safe. We are usually awash with information about the best nappies to use, whether to use formula or to breastfeed, and which car seat should be used, but one of the things that we struggle with is finding out which products that we use for our newborns should be recalled: for example, tumble dryers, which most of us use; baby monitors, which are often fitted to the cots that children sleep in or are at least in their rooms; or bottle or milk warmers that in the past have been recalled, which we do not have much information about.
If we want to find out information about those products, we have to go through individual websites to try to find out which one is faulty and which one we should use, at the same time as trying to look after our young children, which is not the easiest of things to do. We found out that the communication from manufacturers about faulty products is simply not good enough. In a consumer survey carried out by Electrical Safety First, only 21% of people said that they had ever responded to a product recall, and 47% had never even seen a recall notice. That is certainly the experience that I have had, along with the constituents that I am speaking about.
Manufacturers often fail to be clear about what dangers their product poses. If they said more clearly what accidents, deaths and fires were linked to the product that they have recalled, more people would act on the recall notice. In fact, in a survey, 77% of consumers said that if they knew what was exactly wrong with the product that they were using and what dangers it could pose to them and their families, they would be more likely to take the product recall notice seriously.
It is shameful that recall success rates are rarely more than 10% or 20%. If we sincerely want recalls to be successful where necessary, we should not leave it up to consumers to hunt through thousands of websites to find out information. It is not reasonable to expect new parents who are already dealing with newborn children to check every website of every manufacturer from whom they have ever bought a product. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield talked about how many people actually know the product’s serial number or what is on the back of every product that they have bought: what make it was or in what year it was bought. It is simply not possible for consumers to have such information at their fingertips.
We must make sure that consumers are equipped with information about the products they have bought to ensure that they can keep themselves and their families safe. Will the Minister agree that it is vital that the OPSS outline the detail behind its commitment to establish a single national database for UK product recalls? In particular, we need to know what resources and funding the OPSS will have to publicise the site’s existence. After all, we know that public awareness is key to successful product recall.
As always, it is a pleasure to speak in a Westminster Hall debate, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who always speaks with a real passion and belief in what she says. I commend her for that. I always look forward to debates that she is involved in. It is because of her that we have this debate and are able to speak in it, so I thank her for that. I also thank all the hon. Members who have made contributions and the Front-Bench spokespersons for the Scottish National party and for the Labour party who will speak later. I believe their contributions will be significant as well. I am sure that the Minister, who is taking notes, will take on board Members’ questions and concerns, and I hope that we can obtain some reassurance from him as to how things stand.
I received a briefing from Electrical Safety First, a charity dedicated to reducing the number of deaths, injuries and fires from domestic electrical accidents, and I commend it and fully support it. We should note its recommendations, and the hard work that the charity does. Over the years I have debated this topic, including in Adjournment debates in the main Chamber with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), among others, and it keeps coming back. That is because there seem to be continual problems with electrical safety. Electricity causes more than 20,000 house fires a year; that is almost half of all accidental house fires. Every year in the UK, around 350,000 people are injured through contact with electricity and 70 people are killed.
An example, if anyone needs a reminder, of what electricity can do when it goes wrong, is the Whirlpool case. I spoke in the debate on that matter obtained by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. I remember the debate well, and the issue even better. Afterwards I learned from one of my constituents who had such a dryer that she had been told to stay in and watch the dryer when it was in use. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard that. It is an unusual and strange thing to say: “Don’t watch TV; watch your dryer.”
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. What alerted me to the issue in the first place was a serious tower block fire in Shepherd’s Bush, two years ago, when the victim was watching—she was in the same room as the fire and did everything right, including unplugging it. It still completely destroyed her flat, and Whirlpool would still not change their advice about using the machines, until they were threatened with legal action.
The hon. Gentleman has been a warrior on these issues and speaks well about them, and what he said illustrates the point. “Watch your dryer”—my goodness, watch it as it burns and the house catches fire. It will be too late then, but that is by the way.
I thought that what was happening was not the way to handle an electrical safety unit, and I am pleased about the setting up of the Office for Product Safety and Standards. There has been no long-term strategy to tackle fires caused by electricity in people’s homes. At present, only the Electrical Fire Safety Week held in November each year—we all go along—exists to provide a concentration of communication to the public from Government. Communication campaigns such as the Home Office’s “Fire Kills” campaign have been under Government review for some time. Perhaps the review is coming to an end; I hope so.
Electrical Safety First believes that Government campaigns on electrical fires must be expanded. There should be more advertising, probably on television, and through councils, and more safety measures should be taken. An average success rate of 20% of products being recovered or repaired means that millions of potentially dangerous products remain in people’s homes. We may not know it but we might have such things in our own homes. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) mentioned phone chargers, and it is an important point: teenagers laugh if their phone charger, or even earphones, catch fire, but those incidents are not reported. Teenagers do not know where to report them, or who to contact. It is easier to buy a new one, which is probably what they do. They discard the old one, without considering why the fire happened. We must realise that someone who falls asleep with their earphones on may not find it so funny. It is definitely not a funny matter.
Clearly, consumers need confidence that the Government are taking appropriate action to protect them, particularly given that five fires a day are caused in the UK by white goods alone, and in view of the dangers posed by counterfeit electrical goods. In her opening remarks the hon. Member for Swansea East made many good points, but the one I want to reiterate is the rise in the number of people buying online. It continues to be a problem, and it is frustrating because the attraction is price, and customers do not see the safety issue. Is the safety perfect? No, it is not. Is there a safety-conscious attitude? No—or rather, as that is not fair, not in every case.
A big issue, which must be addressed, is the need to look at authenticity and proof of origin. I completely agree that an action plan must be developed, and backed up with an enforcement operation strategy to target the growing problems. Consumers are being put at risk by inaccurate and misleading advertising of electrical goods, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Products claimed to be genuine often contain counterfeit or substandard components. They might look good, but that does not always mean that they are. That has a significant impact on consumer safety, creating a culture of acceptability in selling counterfeit electrical goods online. It undermines legitimate UK business—those who are doing it right. What does the Minister think can be done further to address that issue?
We live in a technologically driven world that is over-reliant on technology. We depend on such things in our lives. We test-drive cars and research the safety of vehicles in crashes, but we do not do the same for electrical goods that we use in our homes. We must, through the new office and today’s debate, send the message that it is important for people to safety check everything in their homes, and that they can have recourse to a way to report defective goods. That must be done not simply to complain—that is not what it is about—but for the safety of others in the future. That is the motivation of every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate. We look to the Minister, as we always do, for a satisfactory response.
Order. I commend colleagues on their excellent timekeeping, which is an example to others and has resulted in plenty of time being left for the Opposition spokesmen and, particularly, for the Minister.
I am pleased to take part in a debate with so much consensus, which does not happen often. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) who has done a power of work on the issue and continues to champion the cause, as we all recognise. I thank the consumer organisation Which? for providing an excellent briefing, as has Electrical Safety First.
The Office for Product Safety and Standards is welcome, of course, as we have heard from a number of Members. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) pointed out, it is important as a way of strengthening our product safety regime and making sure that customers are aware of and, importantly, can have confidence in the availability of an effective system, should products need repair or replacement. However, caution is required about the impact. In its report the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee regretted the Government’s limited response, and the lack of urgency about acting on recommendations to address product safety issues. It found that reductions in funding for local trading standards and national trading bodies were having the negative effect that might be expected on the adequacy of the existing product safety system.
That finding, combined with the fragmentation of the current system, makes it difficult for consumers to have confidence in the consistent enforcement of the required standards across the UK. We have heard today of responses from the manufacturer Whirlpool to a defect in its tumble dryers, which clearly show the limitations of the existing system. Indeed, as a direct result of its slow response, 1 million homes still contain potentially dangerous appliances, as set out by the hon. Members for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who explained the dangers that have dogged consumers who have those machines and has, of course, been a champion in the area in question.
There is no doubt that progress in improving the safety of electrical goods has been too slow. I suspect that the Minister would probably agree with that, in his quieter moments. That is despite a widely supported set of recommendations, made in Lynn Faulds Wood’s independent review, published two years ago. That review, which had a national product safety agency as its central recommendation, concluded that that was needed as part of a long-overdue overhaul of the entire system. All hon. Members welcome the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, but as we have heard, it must have sufficient scope and resources to deal with issues of product safety across the UK.
Despite what I am about to say, I do not wish to introduce a tone of discord, but I was distressed last week when, in the Scottish Parliament, our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, answered a question from Miles Briggs MSP regarding genuine concerns about the safety of babies being permitted to sleep in baby boxes. The response he received did not indicate to me that the First Minister shares any kind of genuine feeling for the fact that people are sincerely concerned about product safety and baby boxes.
That question is a bit leftfield, but I am happy to take it head on.
It is about product safety.
If the hon. Gentleman googles the Scottish Cot Death Trust, he will find that it has no concerns about baby boxes. However, if cardboard is set alight it does catch fire—there is a revelation for the hon. Gentleman—and the trick is not to light matches around cardboard. That is probably the safest thing for a baby.
As I was saying, the Office for Product Safety and Standards must be given sufficient scope and resources to deal with issues of product safety. It must be independent and have real teeth to protect consumers and prevent dangerous products from doing them harm. The Minister will be interested to hear that the consumer organisation Which? has expressed concern and disappointment that the full overhaul and fundamental reform needed to stop unsafe goods from reaching or remaining in our homes does not appear to be on the table. Disappointingly, it seems that the new office has not engaged with consumer organisations such as Which?, which I am sure the Minister would agree has some standing and calibre. I wonder why that is, and how consumers would view that lack of engagement. What does it mean when an organisation of such status cannot get the new office to engage with it? Perhaps that is something the Minister could unblock.
It seems a missed opportunity that the Office for Product Safety and Standards will apparently not address the systematic weaknesses in the existing enforcement framework, as set out by Which?, and it seems that no action is planned for the new office—Which? has expended considerable effort in trying to elicit such an action plan, but without success. This matter is fairly straightforward because we know about the ongoing failures in the product safety system, and recent product safety issues have brought into even greater focus questions about the adequacy of the current regulatory and enforcement system in the UK. There are concerns about a lack of effective co-ordination and direction in the new office, and if local authorities have no regulatory enforcement staffing resource, that might be a big problem. We know how under pressure trading standards officers are locally, and their role is extremely important for safety in our community.
The OPSS must also consider product recall as part of its strategy—as the hon. Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) pointed out, product recall has an average success rate of only 20%, and potentially, millions of unsafe products remain in unsuspecting homes. It must also consider online retail, as that must be held to the legal standards that apply to other forms of retail shopping and product safety—that point was also raised by the hon. Members for Makerfield and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.
Counterfeit goods are a huge problem, and we need a way forward to counter that issue. As the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn pointed out, data collection and sharing for product safety is fragmented and incomplete, and we need a true picture of the scale of the problem of unsafe goods. An injury database could be used to help collect intelligence and quickly identify dangerous products, and that would be a positive step forward.
We have the opportunity to address current weaknesses in the system and make sure that it is fit for purpose in the potentially more diverse trading environment that the UK will be part of in years to come—that point was set out by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). We have the opportunity to introduce a new national independent regime for product safety to ensure effective enforcement, market surveillance, and appropriate standards for goods. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us, getting product safety wrong will, and indeed has, cost lives.
The post-Brexit world raises challenges, and we cannot have a situation where the UK diverges significantly from the rest of the EU, as that would only be to the detriment of consumers—I hope the Minister will reassure us on that point. We all agree that the new office is welcome, but we are concerned to ensure that it has the power, resource and strategic direction to help it achieve what we want, which is a safe environment for our consumers who buy products in good faith and have a right to expect that they are safe.
It is, yet again, a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir David, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important and extremely topical debate. I also thank the all-party group on home electrical safety, Which?, Electrical Safety First, and the BBC’s “Watchdog”—I apologise to anyone who I may have missed, because many people are interested in this issue.
The safety and security of their citizens must be the No. 1 priority for all Governments, but in recent years we have witnessed a series of fires that have haunted the nation. The Grenfell tragedy is suspected to have been caused by a faulty fridge freezer, although, as several hon. Members have said, we are still waiting for the independent inquiry to verify that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) has raised with Ministers the tragic case of the Wilson family in her constituency. John Wilson was killed, and his wife and daughter seriously injured, in a house fire and explosion caused by a faulty fridge freezer. The model in question was known to be a fire hazard and was subject to a product safety notice. However, the family had not been informed, and the coroner found that the manufacturer had not taken sufficient steps to warn customers. Those are just some of the tragic stories.
After years of reviews and consultations, in January the Government finally announced the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, a new body that will
“enhance protection for consumers and the environment”.
Given its name, I was somewhat surprised when I checked its website and found that “product safety” featured at the end of its list of priorities. Indeed, when scrolling through OPSS’s social media account, there is little mention of the steps that it is taking to enhance product safety, or how it is tackling current product safety issues. I am therefore delighted to join other Members in seeking clarification from the Minister about what the scope and nature of the OPSS will be.
That the product safety regime is out of date and not fit for purpose has been evident for some time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, only a couple of weeks ago after a widespread investigation by Which?, it was revealed that, further to previous investigations, companies such as Whirlpool are
“failing to give full and appropriate safety advice when contacted about fire-risk tumble dryer models”.
That is a clear breach of Whirlpool’s legal obligations under the safety notice and could mean that it is breaking product safety law.
That investigation is part of an ongoing two-year campaign that calls for a full recall of those unsafe products. The fact that the matter has not yet been properly resolved represents an abdication of the manufacturers’ and the Government’s duties to consumers. The OPSS presents an initial opportunity to ensure that that is dealt with, but despite the Minister’s promise to get to work right away, there has been no response. I understand that the body is still new, but if that reflects how it will operate in future, that is disappointing and a far cry from what consumers need to protect themselves against faulty goods. Shockingly, 1 million Whirlpool tumble dryers subject to a safety notice are still in the homes of consumers, and I fear it is only a matter of time before the next tragedy.
I have some pressing questions for the Minister. Is the OPSS looking into the claims made by the Which? investigation, and, if so, what steps is it taking to respond to that urgent investigation? Will the Minister set out clearly the process through which this body will deal with any future investigations? I am pleased that the Government are soon expected to launch their strategy for the OPSS—my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith strongly expressed his views on that. Will the Minister confirm the timeline for the publication of the strategy and outline its key priorities?
Given the shambles around the product recall system, I urge the Minister to ensure that part of the OPSS’s remit is playing a key role in dealing with product recalls swiftly. More broadly, the strategy must also address how the body will work with local authorities on the ground. Since 2010, they have suffered severe cuts, as the Government’s consumer Green Paper admits. On page 57, it says:
“the capacity of Local Authorities to take national cases has reduced. Two-thirds of English local authorities have reported not having the expertise to cover fully the range of statutory duties required of trading standards teams. For example, only half of authorities now have specialist skills in e-crime, a national priority area.”
The Government openly admit that they are letting consumers down.
Undoubtedly, the lack of resources has left trade bodies bereft of the crucial expertise they require to deal with such cases, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). The Government’s strategy should set out how they will close the gap in the enforcement mechanisms, so that trading bodies are sufficiently supported to enforce consumer law.
I understand that work has already begun on a database of unsafe products, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) eloquently drew attention. However, there is little detail about it. How are the Government conducting the database? Will we be able to see which goods have been recalled? Who will have access to the data? How will third parties be able to access the data in a responsible manner? I hope the Minister will answer those questions in his response. Furthermore, the database needs to be in place by 29 March 2019 in preparation for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Can the Minister guarantee that it will be in place by then?
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), raised the issue of second-hand goods and online purchases. How will the Government address that important issue?
The OPSS is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough in addressing the fundamental issue of the product safety regime. Clearly, the current policy is out of date and not fit for purpose. If we are to keep citizens safe, the Government must take firmer action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Sir David, with your vast experience of this place. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House for their thoughtful input. The hon. Lady is a true champion for her constituency, as I know from my work on the private Member’s Bill in relation to parental bereavement. She has made a huge contribution to the lives of people across our country, and I commend her not only for the work that she does, but for the way in which she does it.
Let me be clear that there is no doubt about the Government’s commitment to maintaining the highest level of consumer protection. I have a wide and varied brief. As the Minister responsible for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, I cover postal issues, competition policy and retail. I lose track of the number of things that should be on my business card, but it would not fit in my pocket if it had everything on. I reassure the Chamber that consumer protection is of the utmost importance, however, and if anything keeps me awake at night, it is ensuring that this country has a product safety regime that keeps us all safe. The Government’s commitment led to the first ever national technical expertise to support local authority trading standards teams in their vital work of enforcing product safety.
There were some questions about the announcement in relation to the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I put my hands up; it was my first week as a Minister. I thought it was better to get the information into the public arena and for people to be aware of it. If there are suggestions that I should have come to the House or done it differently, I take them on board. We are always learning.
I announced the establishment of the Office for Product Safety and Standards on 21 January. That announcement responded to the central recommendation made by the working group on product recalls and safety. That group was set up by the Government to advise on the practical steps that could be taken to enhance the UK’s approach to product safety. It identified a need for a national technical and scientific resource to support decision making in local authorities and in the businesses they regulate. We will deliver that national capability through the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I have high ambitions for what the office will be able to achieve, and I am determined that the capability will be established quickly.
Since establishing the office, we have taken steps to deliver improvements, which I will say more about shortly, but it might be helpful to remind hon. Members where the responsibilities within the product safety regime lie, so we are clear about exactly where we should expect the office to deliver improvements. It has not been set up to do what others are already doing or should be doing.
Businesses are legally responsible for ensuring that the products they place on the market are safe, and for taking effective action to address any issues that arise once those products are in circulation. The Office for Product Safety and Standards does not take those responsibilities away from businesses, nor does it lessen them in any way. It gives us the scope to better enforce those requirements more consistently across the country.
Day-to-day enforcement of product safety is led by local authorities, which have teams of officers on the ground across the country, as we have heard. In that role, they provide vital services, such as being a point of contact, giving advice to consumers and businesses, and leading on investigations into potential non-compliance. I pay tribute to the work that trading standards officers do across the country. The establishment of the office does not move, alter or reduce that role. Local authorities remain front and centre in the delivery of effective protections.
The office will provide additional support for those local teams, who will be able to draw on the national testing facilities, leading scientific advice and technical expertise to help them to deal with the complexity of the issues they encounter. We have heard about the challenges in relation to resource, but this is a new, additional resource of additional expertise to help and support those trading standards officers across the country.
To clarify, the new office will have a budget for new product safety activities of an additional £12 million a year. As I said earlier, the budget for the first year in operation, 2018-19, is about £25 million, which includes £9 million of additional funding. In the following year, that £9 million will increase to £12 million. Those are substantial amounts of resources. The office will employ about 290 people, of whom 180 will be existing staff and 110 will be new posts. I hope that reassures right hon. and hon. Members.
Will the new office that the Minister is describing in great detail have the power to hold to the fire the feet of big organisations, such as Whirlpool, in favour of consumers?
I absolutely reassure my hon. Friend. I think he won the prize for the best pun today when he talked about the spin cycle of those large companies. I noticed it, if nobody else did, and laughed internally. Clearly, the office has to have the teeth and the capabilities to hold those businesses to account. I reassure him that it will.
I think the Minister has said that one of the office’s duties will be to maintain a recall register. How is that progressing, and will manufacturers be under an obligation to ensure that the register is notified of all recalls?
I confirm that there is an obligation in place for manufacturers to notify the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I will come on to how the database will work further on in my speech.[Official Report, 15 May 2018, Vol. 641, c. 2MC.]
Within the office, we are applying lessons from regulators such as the Food Standards Agency, which is a national regulator that deals with significant volumes of product incidents and provides national scientific expertise to local authorities. So we are not creating something new; we are learning the lessons from previous regulators to ensure that the office works properly. We are also applying the lessons learned from international comparators—the OECD and American counterparts—and we are in the process of building national capacity.
Through the OPSS, the Government have already led the development of a code of practice for product recalls and corrective actions, working with the British Standards Institution. The code provides greater clarity for businesses on what they should do in such cases. It also provides a framework for local authorities when they engage with businesses to support and enforce programmes of corrective action.
There was a question about how the OPSS will support trading standards officers. I can confirm that so far, more than 250 local authority officers have received training on the new code and as a result they are now better equipped to deal with incidents.
Although the Minister said earlier that there are 290 posts at the OPSS, it looks as though there is little resource in terms of extra staffing or extra funding for local trading standards officers. Is that correct?
To clarify, as I said before, there are 110 new posts at the OPSS, with an additional resource of £12 million; I think that is a substantial amount of money. The Government are properly resourcing what we accept is a vital facility.
As we build the office over the coming year, the Government will continue to consult on aspects of its functions and on its long-term scope. I think there has been some question about whether it should remain in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or be an independent body. We will consult on that and on the case for changes to its legal powers.
The hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned the work of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety, and I commend that work. I have read a number of the reports and documents that it has produced, and they were helpful to me. I also pay tribute to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for the work that she has done. That work demonstrates the desire to work across parties and to ensure that we get this matter right for all our constituents.
In the spirit of cross-party working, the Minister might remember that on 29 January he responded to a Westminster Hall debate on a petition calling for greater regulation on the sale of fireworks. In response to an inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), he said that, regarding the sale and regulation of fireworks, “this new body” would
“—where necessary—come forward with suggestions and advice to Government.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 261WH.]
He also committed to arranging a meeting with all those Members who were interested in the regulation and sale of fireworks. Has there been any progress on that particular issue?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She has reminded the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who said that this debate was the first time that he had heard me speak as the Minister, that this is actually the second time that he has done so; that was a very useful debate. My understanding—I look to my right, at my officials—is that officials were in the process of setting up that meeting. If they have not done so, I will chase that up; it should take place, because it is an important meeting and I want it to happen.
The hon. Member for Swansea East asked what the OPSS was doing to discuss electrical fire safety with the Home Office; that is important. The OPSS is building up its intelligence-gathering capability and will use a database and evidence to help to identify and prioritise products that pose higher safety risks to consumers. The OPSS is also represented on the Home Office’s fire statistics users group and we are in regular—almost daily—contact across Government to ensure that these activities are properly joined up.
The hon. Lady also specifically mentioned online selling, which is very important. Action is being taken by law enforcement agencies against the sale of counterfeit goods at local markets and car boot sales, through social media channels such as Facebook and facilitated by fulfilment houses.
The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of Amazon giving evidence to her all-party parliamentary group. I put on the record that I understand the point she made, and I agree with her that it would be valuable for the APPG to engage constructively with Amazon. I am sure that others outside this place have heard her comment and will respond to her in the near future; she should let me know if they do not.
Existing legislation applies to online retailers and they have a responsibility for the products they sell. As we have heard, the Intellectual Property Office works closely with Electrical Safety First; I commend the work that that charity does to highlight how to identify fake electrical goods that are being sold online.
One of the reasons for creating the OPSS is to enable the UK to meet the evolving challenges of product safety by responding to the increasing rate of product innovation, the growth of online shopping and trading portals, and expanding international trade.
I was asked whether private sales—consumer to consumer, on websites such as eBay—are regulated. Consumer-to-consumer sales are not covered by the Consumer Rights Act, other than in relation to things such as secondary ticketing. However, as we have heard today, there is a current consultation—a Green Paper—that I have launched, which specifically asks whether more protection is needed in this area. If the hon. Lady would like to contribute to that consultation, I would certainly be interested in hearing her views.
Over the past three years, National Trading Standards has had a core budget of £40 million to work with local authorities to tackle harm in this area. There was also a question in relation to the injury database. The injury database was scrapped in 2002, and at present there are no plans to reinstate it. However, the OPSS is considering how to ensure that it has access to the best information, and we always keep abreast of these things and will consider the future as we go forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) raised the issue of regulators and their powers. The White Paper specifically asks whether regulators need more powers, so he might want to have a look at it.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse asked whether businesses will be required to notify the OPSS; I think that I have already confirmed to him that they will absolutely be required to do so.
Then there is the issue of selling second-hand goods subject to recall. Under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005, there is a requirement for sellers of second-hand goods not to sell goods that they know are unsafe.
I was asked what will happen on our exit from the EU. Of course, unsafe products will remain a serious risk. UK enforcement authorities are currently reliant on EU systems, such as Rapex, as the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned. However, BEIS is developing new systems to enable regulators to identify new threats quickly, to mount co-ordinated and rapid responses, and to target and intercept products, including imports.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) raised the issue of boots. I can tell her that safety boots are regulated under the personal protective equipment regulations. Manufacturers have a legal obligation to ensure that they are safe, and trading standards officers have the powers to act if necessary. If the hon. Lady provides me with the details, I will ask the OPSS to work with trading standards officers to look into the case for her.
What else have we had? I think that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has pointed out that we intend to undertake a further upgrade of the Government’s product recall website; that issue was raised earlier. We recognise that this website is important and we will put extra work into it. I hope that reassures the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). She mentions that mums are concerned about bottle warmers and baby seats. I would say that it is not only mums who are concerned; as a new dad myself, I know that dads are also concerned. I can correct her by saying that they are no longer called baby seats; I think they are now called travel systems. That was news to me, but we are always learning as we go, are we not?
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some very important points. I commend him on the fact that he has spoken in some 379 debates in the last year. If only our products were as reliable as he is, we would not need this new office. However, I point out to him that currently the number of questions that he has asked stands at 666, so he might want to ask another question shortly.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned Which? I think we all recognise the important role that Which? plays in consumer protection. I can confirm to her that I am meeting its managing director next week and I can also confirm that the OPSS is working closely with Which? in a number of areas and has had regular meetings with it. I hope that reassures her.
I was also asked about the Grenfell fridge. Clearly, that issue is a priority. A thorough safety investigation has taken place and I hope to be able to come forward with information for the House in the very near future.
In closing, I reassure the House that this Government take the issue of product safety incredibly seriously. We have to get this matter right for all of our constituents. As the Minister responsible, I confirm that the Department and the new OPSS will continue to engage with parliamentarians to ensure that we get it right. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of the Office for Product Safety and Standards.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
DWP Offices Closures: Merthyr Tydfil
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that the debate is now scheduled to finish at 4.45 pm. I call Gerald Jones to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed closure of DWP offices in Merthyr Tydfil.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Early in 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that it intended to close many of its offices, sites, and jobcentres across the UK. About 250 staff work in the DWP office in Merthyr Tydfil town centre, and they clearly make a contribution to spending in the community and our town centre. The office is well established and is close to the town centre, so our local economy would really notice the loss of this large workplace.
I have a very similar situation in Cwmbran town centre, as Cwmbran pension centre makes that type of contribution. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is economically illiterate to take such jobs out of local economies across the valleys?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree with his point, and will comment on that further in the course of my contribution.
Job opportunities for local people would be limited if the DWP pulls out of Merthyr Tydfil. Such a proposal goes against what I believe the Government should be doing: helping to support local communities, the local economy and local jobs. The proposed move could mean services being more difficult to access for claimants and hundreds of jobs being moved out of deprived communities, where every job counts. In 2008, the Welsh Government moved several of their Departments out of Cardiff and located one of their regional offices in Merthyr Tydfil, bringing secure jobs to the town and supporting the local economy. The UK Government would do well to follow the Welsh Government’s example in that and, if I may say, many other areas.
If the closure goes ahead, the potential loss of jobs and incomes in the town would have a huge impact on Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding communities across the heads of the valleys.
A number of towns throughout south Wales will be affected similarly to Merthyr Tydfil. I refer in particular to Caerphilly, where the local authority has told me that retailers and businesses will be hit badly if the DWP moves its office out of Caerphilly to Treforest.
I agree with my hon. Friend. His point, similar to that made by other colleagues, highlights the fact that many towns across the south Wales valleys are in a similar position. Their local economies are supported by such jobs, and any move to remove them would be detrimental.
My hon. Friend talks about the valleys. Does he agree that Newport is also affected? We are very proud of the civil service jobs we have in Newport; there are hundreds at Sovereign House, the DWP office. Does my hon. Friend agree that in a drive to centralise the Government are overlooking the importance of local jobs and local expertise from local people? That would be lost, given the travel difficulties that people are experiencing getting to Treforest.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I see Newport as part of the south Wales economic area. Job losses in that community would have a similar effect there as they do in other areas across south Wales.
To highlight the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), I have constituents who commute to Sovereign House in Newport who will now face disrupted travel from having to go so much further to Treforest, rather than down the road to Newport.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I will come on to some of the travel pressures that I have recently experienced myself.
As I said, the closure would have an impact on the surrounding communities across the heads of the valleys —an area trying its best to regenerate itself amid ongoing austerity pressures, which have created a difficult financial situation for our area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In my constituency, in Gabalfa, the DWP office is set to close. Does he agree that such job losses take away something very valuable from our local communities? There is a lack of understanding from the Government on the transport challenges that will be faced by my constituents and many other people across the south Wales valleys.
The geography of south Wales is quite unique and daily people have to navigate the transport difficulties to which my hon. Friends have alluded on a daily basis. There are huge difficulties in access across valleys and from parts of south Wales to others and the transport links need to be addressed.
If the closures go ahead, they will decimate the economies of town centres across south-east Wales—town centres that are already struggling to cope. The DWP is planning to relocate staff to a site that, until last week, was known only as “north of Cardiff”. Last week, we had confirmation that it has signed a lease for a site on Treforest industrial estate. It was probably the worst-kept secret, but anyway it has now been confirmed.
In January, I and my Welsh Assembly colleague, Dawn Bowden AM, along with members of the PCS union, undertook an early morning journey on public transport to the proposed new site. It proved that to get to the new location by public transport will, for some existing employees, involve travel by train and bus, and walking a distance through a poorly lit industrial estate, which will undoubtedly be a major challenge in the winter months. The journey took all of two hours.
The site has poor access from the nearest train station along a narrow road with no pavement and my understanding is that it will have 1,700 full-time equivalent roles, but initial observations show that the car parking provision would be limited. There is a clear expectation that members of staff will travel by public transport, but it is also clear that many would find it extremely difficult to make that daily journey by public transport. Some members of staff already commute long distances to get to their workplace in Merthyr Tydfil as a result of previous DWP workforce reorganisations. Having to travel even further would, in many cases, cause hardship.
The construction of a brand new building with a view to lowering costs seems a little confused. In many communities across south-east Wales, there is an opportunity to look at existing buildings, which would undoubtedly have a competitive financial case and retain jobs and viable office space in town centres. Alternatively, if a large employer such as the DWP pulls out of town centres, buildings such as the former tax office in Merthyr Tydfil, which closed nearly a decade ago, will remain empty and become dilapidated over time, often becoming a blight on the local community and impacting heavily on the wider public purse in the medium to long term.
UK Government offices are currently based in a number of towns in south Wales, supporting local jobs and economies. I am bound to highlight the opportunities that exist in Merthyr Tydfil. The option of retaining current jobs and having an enhanced presence is more than worthy of consideration. The current DWP office in Merthyr Tydfil is well-established and the staff turnover rate is low. Many employees have worked in that location for a long time and are committed to providing a good service to the public, and the local jobs market means that vacancies in Merthyr Tydfil are filled quickly and applicants remain in jobs. The DWP office is modern and has space for additional staff. Traffic congestion coming into Merthyr Tydfil at peak times is minimal in comparison with larger towns and cities and would mean that staff and customers would gain easy access, whether for employment or accessing the service.
I hope the Minister will comment on the concerns I have raised. Has the DWP yet undertaken an equality impact assessment regarding members of staff? DWP announced the proposed closure of Merthyr Tydfil benefit centre along with others in the south Wales area, yet, to date, local, district and senior managers state that equality impact assessments have not been completed or even commissioned. I received a letter in July last year from the then Minister for Employment, stating that an equality analysis was due to take place, so I would be extremely disappointed and annoyed if, after nearly 12 months, that had not happened. I cannot understand how the decision to close a site that provides quality jobs in such a deprived area of south Wales can be made without an equality impact assessment being carried out and its findings being considered. Surely carrying out an impact assessment on such a move is an essential first step.
An announcement was recently made that staff on fixed-term appointments in Merthyr Tydfil benefits centre will not have their contracts renewed, meaning that there will be at least 40 fewer staff by the end of the year. Yet the work will still need to be processed. Staff at the centre are concerned that current workloads will be exported to other sites, some possibly outside of Wales. They are concerned that something is being kept from them. Does the DWP have plans to close the site earlier than originally announced?
Just last week, Virgin Media announced its intention to close a flagship site in my constituency of Swansea East, with the potential loss of 770 jobs. Jobcentre Plus will be the first port of call for all of those people who will be seeking new opportunities. Does my hon. Friend agree that any attempt to minimise local access to Jobcentre Plus can only add to the fear and frustration of those vulnerable people, who are already very fearful for their futures?
I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend’s point reinforces the point about having access to quality jobs and services in local communities.
The plans for the Merthyr Tydfil office have caused real concern in my community. The workforce are clearly concerned. The local and regional branches of the PCS union have raised objections. I and a number of Parliamentary colleagues from across south-east Wales have raised concerns. My Welsh Assembly colleague Dawn Bowden and many of her Welsh Assembly colleagues have raised concerns. Local traders and employers in the town are also concerned.
Although the Minister may ignore some of those concerns, I feel sure that he would not wish to ignore the concerns of the newest Conservative Association in the UK, the Merthyr and Rhymney Conservative Association, which stated in March that it also objects to the relocation of those jobs. I understand that the association has written to the Minister to raise its objections:
“Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney Conservatives are against this move as we believe the 200 jobs should be kept locally and not moved down the valley. We believe this would have a negative impact on workers by increasing commuting times and adding extra travel costs which would impact their cost of living.”
The deputy chairman for membership also said,
“I believe the proposed move of the DWP office to Treforest will have a detrimental effect on the current 200 strong workforce. I am a strong believer in the idea that local jobs should be for local people hence why we have contacted the minister in a bid to get him to re-think this decision which could potentially have a wide impact on the wider economy.”
Perhaps the Minister will share his response and confirm whether he agrees with his Conservative colleagues.
I have serious concerns that such huge changes for staff and customers are being taken forward at a time when universal credit is about to be rolled out in the area. Universal credit has proved to be challenging in many other areas. For the staff to be worried about their future while dealing with a major policy change is not a constructive or a timely mix.
Will the Minister confirm whether an equality analysis has been carried out regarding Merthyr Tydfil benefit centre? The DWP prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive employer and has many disabled and vulnerable workers. As we know, the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 requires public authorities, including Government Departments such as DWP, to consider the potential impact on people with protected characteristics when making policy decisions and delivering services. The PCS union has been vocal in demanding that a full equality impact assessment and health and safety review be carried out.
Why is the DWP ignoring the Government’s green policy, which is trying to reduce the number of cars on the road, by relocating service centres to an industrial estate with poor public transport links? Why is the DWP ignoring the Welsh Government and the TUC’s “Better jobs in local areas” campaign by relocating away from local communities to centralised locations in cities or remote industrial areas?
Finally, why is the DWP suddenly not renewing the contracts of staff on fixed-term contracts, leaving sections decimated and unable to function? Is it planning to close the site earlier than announced? I would be grateful for the Minister’s answers to those queries in the hope that he can quell some of the concern, anxiety and growing anger about the decision, which does nothing to support local town centres and economies, or to protect local jobs.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this important debate.
The level of employment in the United Kingdom is at a record high. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the employment rate is 70.1%—an increase of 7 percentage points since 2010. That trend has been replicated across Wales as a whole, where the employment rate has increased by 5.8 percentage points since 2010, and now stands at 73%. I know that all hon. Members will welcome those jobs figures.
It may be helpful if I explain the background to the changes in the DWP estate, which have led to this issue. In March 2018, the 20-year contract covering the majority of the DWP’s current estate of more than 900 sites came to an end, which gave us a significant opportunity to re-evaluate what we need from our estate, taking into account the impact of universal credit, the increased use of online services and the improving employment rates. It is therefore right that we reconfigure our Jobcentre estate and make jobcentres fit for the 21st century. This is not about reducing services; it is about taking the opportunity to stop spending money on empty space, so we can spend more on supporting those in need.
In July 2017, we announced our plans for the majority of sites in the DWP estate. As part of that, we announced that five sites in south Wales, all with a focus on back-of-house activities, including Merthyr Tydfil, would be moving to a new single strategic processing site from 2021. As the hon. Gentleman outlined, the current office in Merthyr Tydfil is a mixed site, with a customer-facing Jobcentre and a back-of-house processing function. I can confirm our intention is to keep the current site in Merthyr Tydfil for the next three years. Thereafter we will transfer the back-of-house staff to our new consolidated site for back-of-house operations, which, as the hon. Gentleman noted, we recently formally confirmed will be in Treforest.
Will the Minister confirm what conversations he has had with the Welsh Government about the closure of those centres and the moving of the office to another site?
I will talk about the Welsh Government in a moment.
By choosing Treforest, we will be securing quality jobs for the next generation in an area that still lags in terms of employment rates. The hon. Lady talked about the Welsh Government, and the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney talked about following the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government recently set out their “Our Valleys, Our Future” strategy. Their ambition is to see more public sector jobs relocated to the south Wales valleys, and we believe our investment in Treforest demonstrates our commitment to that. The announcement of the move to Treforest was welcomed by Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council.
Does the Minister recognise that the Welsh Assembly’s “Our Valleys, Our Future” strategy is about bringing new jobs to the south Wales valleys, not relocating jobs from existing communities, thus decimating the economies of those town centres?
Of course, the Welsh Government’s Welsh Revenue Authority has also chosen to base itself in Treforest. The DWP’s site is able to house 1,700 jobs, which is more than the number of people who are moving, so there is the potential to locate more new jobs at that site in the future. I know hon. Members are keen on that, and of course I support it.
Will the Minister answer my initial question? What conversations has he had with Welsh Government Ministers about this move?
I have been in post for a number of months, and I personally have not had a direct conversation with my Welsh counterparts, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady after this debate to set out the conversations that have been had with the Welsh Government. As I say, with this move we are supporting the strategy that the Welsh Government have set out for additional jobs in the valleys.
Does the Minister accept that those jobs are being moved from the heads of the valleys area—the north—to the south towards Cardiff? It is the area around Merthyr, and further east towards Tredegar, Ebbw Vale and Brynmawr, where jobs are needed most.
When we make changes to the estate, of course we have to take into account the impact on jobs, but new jobs in other areas will be created as a result, and it must be balanced with the savings we will get as a result of the reconfiguration of the DWP estate. That money will be ploughed back into helping those most in need.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me continue for a little while.
In arriving at Treforest as the new site, we conducted a comprehensive postcode mapping exercise of the home locations of all potentially affected DWP colleagues. I have a set of figures for how long it will take individuals located in the five sites to reach Treforest by public transport. The latest personal travel report published by the Welsh Government—I think it is from 2013—set out that eight out of 10 journeys to work are by car. The proportion has remained broadly unchanged for 10 years. The timings I have been given suggest that the journey times will be about 20 to 25 minutes in most cases—perhaps less.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. Has he actually been to the south Wales valleys?
Certainly not during my time as a Minister in this role.
There is a train station at the edge of the estate, where the new site will be. We understand that the Welsh Government have ambitious plans to enhance the transport links throughout south Wales, and that they will further improve access to Treforest, which is one of their key priority areas for the south Wales metro. We will work closely with colleagues in the Welsh Government and the local council on those transport solutions.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney said that there is insufficient parking space at Treforest. The DWP has made provision for substantial car parking on site to complement the park-and-ride development led by the Welsh Government.
Based on current estimates, moving our back-of-house functions to Treforest will impact about 239 DWP staff in Merthyr Tydfil. As part of the move, we want to maximise the retention of DWP colleagues, along with their valuable skills and experience. To do that, we will consult fully with colleagues and trade unions and have one-to-one conversations with staff to understand the personal impact of any changes on them.
Has the DWP made any objective assessment of the impact that moving people out of a number of communities will have on those communities?
The question was asked in terms of the staff who will be required to move, as I said, although we did do a postcode mapping exercise. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney also asked about the impact on claimants, but a jobcentre will continue to be located in Merthyr Tydfil—I confirm that again.
We shall seek to redeploy any staff, wherever possible, who are unable to move to the new location. We are also prepared to pay colleagues’ excess travel costs for up to three years to assist their transition. When it comes to the front-of-house staff, as I said, I reassure Members that we are committed to retaining a jobcentre in Merthyr Tydfil, so in terms of the impact on claimants, it should be minimal, because there will still be a jobcentre there. We are looking for alternative premises, and we want to be in the new location by the end of March 2021.
The Minister mentioned the discussions with staff and the impact assessments for those staff. Will he give us more information as to when those impact assessments are likely to take place? As I said, it would have been advantageous to the Department for that to have been done before the final decision was made—a case of the proverbial stable door being bolted after the horse has gone. Will he give us some indication of when the assessments are likely to take place?
We are talking about a move three years from now so, clearly, informal conversations will start now—that would be natural—and staff will be evaluating where they want to be located. We expect the formal process, however, to start nine months before the actual move. The reason for that is simple: individual circumstances may change during the period leading up to a move, so we want to deal with people and their circumstances in real time.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of equality impact assessments, and I confirm that we have been mindful of our equalities duties throughout the process. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) asked me whether I had visited any of the sites. I said that I had not. I confirm that I have visited Newport jobcentre but not any of the back-office sites due to be relocated to Treforest.
The move from the existing site at Merthyr Tydfil will be a change for the Department and for our claimants and staff. By choosing Treforest, however, the DWP is making a long-term commitment to providing quality jobs in an area of need. In securing the site on a 25-year lease, we shall provide job security for our staff. We are also committed, as I said, to retaining a jobcentre in Merthyr Tydfil itself.
Question put and agreed to.
Electric Vehicles and Bicycles
Before we begin, let me point out that this debate will now end at 17.45. I have been notified that six people want to speak, so you can probably do the maths yourselves, otherwise I shall have to impose a time limit.
On a point of order, Mr McCabe. Will you speak to the House of Commons authorities about whether it is possible to have the Westminster Hall monitors display the end time of the debate? That would be particularly helpful to Members when there has been a Division—or Divisions—in the main Chamber.
We shall look into that. Thank you.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered take-up of electric vehicles and bicycles.
I am extremely grateful to Members across the House for their support for what I believe to be a very important debate. This is the third time that I have secured a debate in this Chamber on the take-up of electric vehicles. It is such an important issue for many reasons: electric vehicles will help us to reach our carbon commitments; they are the answer to low-cost, pollution-free motoring for our constituents; and, perhaps above all, it is essential for the United Kingdom to grasp global leadership of this key industry of the future, so that a new and up-and-coming industry’s jobs and investment will be here in the United Kingdom.
In the case of conventional vehicles, the UK is passing £5 billion from sales of conventional vehicles on to foreign economies. Partly because of how supply chains work, a country such as Germany has a significant advantage.
Picking up on the point about those conventional vehicles, although I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for electric vehicles and know the importance of reaching the 2040 target, we need to bear in mind the 170,000 jobs in car making in this country. In the medium term, clean diesel—which is less polluting than petrol—should be part of the strategy as we go forward.
If we get this strategy right, there will be more than enough jobs for everyone. I am absolutely with my hon. Friend in wanting enough good-quality jobs.
In 2016 a fifth of all electric vehicles sold in Europe were produced at the Nissan plant in Sunderland. Looking forward, the United Kingdom has a genuine opportunity to capture a significant part of the global market by 2030, which could be worth an estimated £95 billion to the UK economy—lots of jobs for lots of car workers by 2030.
This is a timely debate, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the electric vehicles made in my constituency, such as those made by Jaguar Land Rover. On the outskirts of the Rugby constituency, we have the black cab makers, which have made some tremendous advances. The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) mentioned that we need a transitional period for diesel engines and, unless we get a proper transitional period during which to make the transfer from diesel to petrol or whatever clean fuel, there will be a lot concern in our area about jobs.
I understand the concerns. However, if Members for constituencies that make conventional vehicles will bear with me, by the end of my remarks they will be optimistic about there being more than enough jobs for everyone.
Bringing forward the electric vehicles target to 2030 from 2040 would enable the United Kingdom to reduce our oil imports by almost 50% by 2035, saving £6.3 billion annually. Paris banned fossil-fuelled vehicles from the city centre and air pollution fell by 40%. Second-hand conventional diesel cars are losing a lot of their value, but it is possible to upgrade the batteries on electric vehicles. The key point for a lot of our constituents is that electric vehicles should be cost competitive with petrol and diesel cars by 2022. At the moment, their running costs are already lower, but up-front cost parity is expected to come as early as 2022. That will be a huge tipping point for our economy.
I believe we should always embrace new technology while cherishing the past. Does my hon. Friend accept that, for people like me who have a journey of more than 220 miles to undertake, for the moment at least, an electric vehicle is not an option?
With some of the new chargers, an electric vehicle range of 300 miles is entirely possible. At the moment, I agree with my right hon. Friend, but if we play this right it will not be long before he will be able to motor up to east Yorkshire in comfort in an electric vehicle.
Nissan claims that by 2030, widespread adoption of a vehicle-to-grid service could save consumers up to £2.4 billion in reduced electricity costs. I am impressed by some of what the Government have done so far, but the 2040 target is too far out. We need to be bolder. The target for Scotland is 2032; for China, it is 2030; for Germany, it is 2030; for India, it is 2030; for Austria, it is 2030; for the Netherlands, it is 2025; and for Norway, it is 2025. I want the United Kingdom to be a world leader. The Government need to signal their intent to be at the front of the pack and not a best of the rest person coming up the rear.
Bringing forward the 2040 target will destroy the new car market, because no one will spend £50,000 on a Land Rover if they think it will be worth peanuts in five or eight years’ time. That is simple economics. I caution my hon. Friend that it is great to have the ambition, but setting an arbitrary date before 2040 would be a grave mistake.
I have to very respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend. I bow to no one in my defence of high-quality British jobs. I absolutely accept the anxiety, but we can sustain those conventional jobs. Very soon, there will be so much pent-up demand for electric vehicles that the car workers in his constituency, and that of the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), will not be able to keep up with the demand for these new energy vehicles—as they are called in China—from our constituents when we reach that 2022 tipping point. It is the obvious thing for our constituents to do.
The transport sector is now the largest source of carbon dioxide in the country. Emissions in the transport sector went up in 2017. If we bring forward the 2040 date, that would address a large part of the gap to which the Committee on Climate Change has drawn our attention.
We need to make huge progress in the fleet sector, and we can do that now. There are about 25,000 central Government fleet vehicles in the UK. The Government say a quarter of those should be electric by 2022—that is a much less ambitious target than India and China have announced for their fleets. Let us go for a 100% Government electric vehicle fleet by 2022, including those run by local councils. We have a long way to go; only two of the Ministry of Justice’s 1,482 vehicles are electric. Let me praise Dundee City Council, which has 83 electric vehicles—the most of any UK local authority. It has also brought in a charging hub for the public and taxis, with four 50 kW and three 32 kW chargers. Well done, Dundee.
There is the serious issue of company car tax. There is a lunatic progression: at the moment, the rate of company car tax for zero-emission vehicles is 9%, which is due to rise to 16% before going down to 2%. Let us get it down to 2%; let us signal our intention, not make it worse for the area that we are trying to encourage.
We should be ambitious on sales targets. Let us go for 15% by 2022, 45% by 2025 and 85% by 2030 and get on with electric charging infrastructure.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point. We have the objective for 2040—I agree that it is not very ambitious compared with other targets that we could have set—but we do not have any adequate milestones to get us there. My hon. Friend has laid that out, and that is exactly what the Government need to do.
I have great confidence in the Minister. I think he gets it, and I am genuinely trying to be helpful to make sure that Britain is a world leader in this important industry of the future.
I said that this is the third debate on electric vehicles, but we are making history today, because I am informed that this is the first House of Common debate on electric bicycles. Hon. Members who have read their Order Paper carefully will have seen that the debate is also about the take-up of electric bicycles. Most people probably do not know anything about them. Six weeks ago, I knew nothing about them, until I was asked to chair a meeting of the all-party parliamentary cycling group—I am delighted to see my co-chair, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) in the debate. I found out about them and I was lent an electric bike for 10 days or so by the Green Commute Initiative, for which I was very grateful.
In my constituency, I live on a hill. I cycle with a conventional bike in London, but at the grand old age of 56, I found that extra boost helped me to get to and from my constituency office on a daily basis, and on one day twice. With my electric bike, I took more exercise that week than I have probably taken all year. That is the thing about electric bikes: they open up cycling to older people, and people who are anxious about ability or fitness, people wanting to arrive somewhere sweat free when there are no workplace shower facilities. They can deal with carrying luggage and shopping; even commercial cargo is easy on an e-bike.
I am deeply excited about electric bikes. Being a cyclist from Muswell Hill, which has a perpendicular hill, I would benefit from an electric bike. In my constituency, there is very little uptake of cycling compared with in the wider Yorkshire and the Humber region. The electric bike will encourage people with disabilities, people who want to go further and not get changed and people for whom it may not be in their culture to ride a bicycle. It is a fantastic and exciting step forward. I celebrate the electric bicycle.
I agree with every word that the hon. Lady said. Journeys by e-bike are longer, with an average of 5.9 miles compared with 3.9 miles. Importantly, 18% of disabled cyclists own a bike with electric assistance. It is fantastic to get more disabled people cycling, too.
Let us think of all the deliveries from internet shopping; 51% of all urban motorised trips related to carrying goods have the potential to transfer to cargo bikes. I think that Sainsbury’s has six e-bikes, which I believe the Minister may have seen recently. There is a huge opportunity, although I learnt yesterday that the legislation on cargo e-bikes is confusing. We can do more.
How is the United Kingdom doing with e-bikes compared with everyone else? In 2017, we had 63,000 sales, but Spain sold 66,000, Switzerland sold 87,000, Austria sold 120,000, Italy sold 155,000, Belgium sold 245,000, France sold 255,000, the Netherlands sold 294,000 and Germany sold a whopping 720,000 in 2017. That is more than 11 times the number in the United Kingdom, so we have a little catching up to do.
What can my good friend the Minister do to help? I checked the Office for Low Emission Vehicles’ definition of “vehicle”, and I think it could include a bicycle. Let us be a little less siloed. Electric bikes have huge potential to change the way we travel for the better. They reduce congestion and pollution, and get people fitter. Let us see them in that sense and give them the recognition they deserve. Let us also recognise that the cycle to work scheme, although it is excellent, does not reach older cyclists, people who are not in work or other people who would benefit hugely from electric bikes. As with all cycling, we need to ensure that our roads are in good condition—dangerous potholes are a big disincentive to cycling whether someone uses an electric bike or an ordinary bike.
Germany offers a subsidy of up to €2,500 for the purchase of an e-bike. In France, a modest €200 subsidy for a 12-month period led to a 31% increase in sales. There is huge potential in this area, and I say to the Minister: let us be at the forefront of the electric bike industry as well as the electric vehicle industry.
Order. If Members stick to five minutes or less, we will get everyone in. I call Jim Shannon.
I will certainly do that, Mr McCabe—you have my word. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on bringing forward this debate. I know this subject is a passion of his. I do not know very much about electric bikes—unlike the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), obviously—so I will speak about electric vehicles.
I am going to show my age by saying that I am a “Doctor Who” fan. That takes me back a long time. Some people in the Chamber will know what that means; others will say, “What’s he talking about?” Years ago, we always wondered whether the electric cars and all the other things in “Doctor Who” would ever happen. Well, they have; they may have been a wee bit beyond our dreams back in the ’60s and the early ’70s, but that is a fact.
We must learn to rely less on petrol and diesel, and look to environmentally friendly methods of transport. We encourage people to use public transport and to car-pool. Condensing five vehicles heading from Newtownards to Belfast into one, or getting 50 cars off the road through vibrant, frequent and reliable public transport, would certainly be the most effective way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Nissan has already said that we are not being ambitious enough, that we will be overtaken by the provision of things such as electric charging points, and that electric vehicles will be here sooner rather than later?
I heard Nissan say that, so I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman refers to.
The Library briefing for the debate states:
“Though concerns have been raised about the extra demand EVs will add to the electricity grid, the system operator National Grid have said many predictions are exaggerated.”
We need some reality in this debate, and I hope that we can get it. The briefing continues:
“EVs have lower emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants over their lifetime compared with conventional vehicles. Although EVs generally have higher manufacturing emissions than conventional vehicles, they have lower emissions from use, meaning that generally they have lower emissions than the equivalent conventional fuel vehicles.”
EVs are not a perfect solution, but they certainly are better than what we have. We should look towards them and—I say this gently—perhaps be a wee bit more positive about what we put forward.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that electric vehicles are the answer to pollution-free travel, but that the Government need to promote that mode of travel much more effectively?
I agree wholeheartedly. The idea of electric vehicles is taking root in Northern Ireland. Although most electric vehicle drivers charge their car at home, there is a network of 336 public charge points across Northern Ireland, which are owned and operated by the Electricity Supply Board. More and more councils are looking to provide charging points in council-owned car parks, in an attempt to encourage people to understand that if they decide to buy an electric car, they will be able to charge it when they are out and about or away on their holidays. I am conscious of the time—I will keep to the limit, Mr McCabe—but perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of how we can encourage the provision of charging points. If we do not have charging points in rural areas, we cannot encourage people who live in the countryside to participate.
I commend the tax breaks that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Minister were involved in providing. Those tax breaks, which the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire and other Members mentioned, have incentivised businesses to be involved in electric cars. A business can get a 100% first-year allowance for its expenditure on new and unused electric vans. That is critical to making this happen, and it is important that we move it forward. That allowance applies to expenditure from 1 April 2010 for companies that pay corporation tax, and from 6 April 2010 for businesses that pay income tax.
All that is an attempt to ensure that we encourage individuals and businesses alike to take the forward step of buying electric vehicles where possible. We can do more to encourage people to look at that idea by offering non-business owners greater tax breaks on new cars for personal use. Let us encourage people by incentivising them. As the Minister probably knows already, we can do that with tax breaks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for bringing this worthy issue to the Chamber. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on fair fuel for UK motorists and UK hauliers.
People who live in constituencies such as mine, who are fortunate enough to enjoy a beautiful rural setting, know only too well that it is through careful protection of the environment that we will ensure that future generations experience similar sights. Unfortunately, pollution and climate change have come to pose serious threats to everyday life. From the poor air quality in our cities to the growing concern about plastics and the coastal erosion that affects constituencies such as mine, it is apparent that more needs to be done.
I welcome the positive steps that the UK Government have taken, but it is imperative that every member of the British public acknowledges their responsibility to reduce their impact on the natural world. To that end, the mode of transport that a person chooses could not be more important. Although the production and assembly of electric cars still generate harmful emissions, the lower pollution they produce during their lives, especially compared with their petrol counterparts, means that they should be supported—alongside important interim measures such as alternative fuels, as other Members have suggested.
In 2017, there were approximately 800 electric cars across Scotland—just 0.1% of all cars registered in the country. Invariably, electric cars are likely to be confined to major cities. In Angus, which lacks the necessary facilities and impetus to engage with electric cars, we have been unable to realise the possibilities offered by such vehicles. I strongly believe that that needs to change. As was mentioned, the Scottish Government have sought to bring the target further forward than the UK Government, but I believe—excuse the pun—that they are miles behind in delivering on that target. We need clear objectives to ensure that the public get behind these important measures and know where the Government are going with them.
The hon. Lady is probably aware that it was announced that £160 million from the national productivity investment fund would be invested in charge point infrastructure. Does she agree that Scotland must get its fair share of that £160 million, based on its rurality and geography?
Of course I agree. The Scottish Government also had a scheme for people who wanted to upgrade their cars, but that funding dried up very quickly. If the Scottish Government are to get fully behind this issue, they too must put money forward and engage the public to get involved.
On that point, the Welsh Government are investing £2 million in infrastructure to get a network of rapid charging points on the major roads across Wales. We want the UK Government to make that type of investment and keep it rolling to encourage such infrastructure.
The hon. Lady is right. We need to get infrastructure built quickly, specifically in rural areas, but also in main towns and on roads, so that people can get geared up for this transformation.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) mentioned the Welsh Government, but in the whole of Wales there are only 31 publicly funded charging points. In Scotland, there are nearly 1,000.
My hon. Friend is right. There is very much an onus on the devolved Administrations to put that infrastructure in place as swiftly as possible.
I welcome the UK Government’s decision to create the new charging infrastructure in the UK as well as facilitating greater uptake of electric cars and supporting research into charging technology. In total, Westminster has earmarked £340 million towards those endeavours, with a further £200 million promised from private bodies.
However, battery-powered vehicles are just one solution. Although less advanced, the merits and charms of the ordinary bicycle cannot be understated. From cycling to work schemes organised by schools and offices, to communal bicycle groups, more and more people are beginning to appreciate the options that exist on two wheels.
I sincerely hope that Government actions continue to foster a shift in the British public to engage with their daily commute and indeed any other commutes. By making alternative methods of travel more accessible, especially in more remote areas, we can seek a change that is beneficial to not just us but the planet as a whole.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. The take-up of electric vehicles and electric bikes is vital in our fight against irreversible climate change and to improve our air quality—especially in cities, given that so many of our cities exceed both EU and World Health Organisation safe air quality levels. I represent a constituency with no public electric vehicle chargepoints, which is an issue I have raised with the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), both publicly and privately. I can now add this Minister to the list of those I am raising it with.
I want to use the debate to make public ideas that I have put to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that I now put to the Department for Transport. This is timely, following the joint report by the Transport Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Health Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee—I sit on the Environmental Audit Committee—which included a recommendation that
“the Treasury introduces more ambitious measures to encourage the take-up of low emission vehicles”
and electric vehicles, including
“a revision of Vehicle Excise Duty rates to better incentivise both new purchases and support the second-hand market.”
Those points were made brilliantly by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who did not make any points in his speech that I disagreed with.
I have ideas in six areas that would improve the take-up of electric vehicles and bikes. First, we should align Office for Low Emission Vehicles residential chargepoint grant residential funding with the Joint Air Quality Unit funding to provide a match for local authorities, to make OLEV residential funding feasible. Currently, we have very low take-up of that OLEV grant. At present, local authorities have no repayment mechanism for residential OLEV, so they need to find a matched funder. A list of potential match sources would unlock the fund. Local authorities will not currently commit their scarce funding to fund OLEV residential chargepoints; they need that matched funding.
Secondly, we should regulate the electric supply so that three-phase power supplies are included in building codes for all new homes, offices, shopping centres, public buildings and other areas where public parking is available. Only a small number of EV charge stations may then be necessary. At present, retail and commercial sites may rapidly increase the number of EV chargepoints on their premises without having to make major investments into new power supply, but power supply is one of the great barriers to increasing EV chargepoints. Further to installing wires, it would doubtless encourage take-up if we regulate so that all new workplaces—particularly those of large employers—have a minimum number of EV charging facilities on site.
Thirdly, clean air zones such as the one coming to Leeds next year are a powerful policy tool. However, one concern is that those in social grades D and E who have kept an old vehicle running are likely to be charged, and they are least likely to be able to make use of the Government’s ultra low emission vehicle grants. We could test extending the ULEV grant into the secondary market. Plenty of electric vehicles will be fleet cars, and one or two-year-old vehicles in the secondary electric vehicle market could be purchased by those in the lower earning quartiles. That should be encouraged via an extension in ULEV grants. The Government should test such a policy in areas where they are bringing in clean air zones, because that is where charging will start.
Fourthly, we should encourage EV charging more broadly. There is considerable scope for soft measures to encourage electric vehicles, which could include free parking electric vehicle-only bays on the high street, with free charging, which would incentivise those bays to be used and normalise electric vehicles among people who use the high street.
Fifthly, we should provide support for the city centre parking levy—a levy on businesses with parking spaces—to encourage a modal shift to other measures, including opt-outs for EV charging. We would put a levy on businesses, but if they put in an electric vehicle space, that space would not be charged for, to incentivise them to put in electric vehicle chargepoints.
Sixthly, on licensing and planning, we should make regulations to ensure that when granting new planning or licensing of some commercial premises over a certain size, EV spaces must be installed at a certain density per resident or parking space. This area has fallen through the gaps: we see many planning permissions across the country with no electric vehicle spaces or chargepoints. We should therefore legislate to ensure that all UK car parks with more than 50 spaces must have a minimum of one EV space per 25 spaces. Therefore, a car park with 50 spaces would have to provide a minimum of two EV chargepoints. That would be incredibly easy to implement in quite a short timescale.
Those are my immediate points for improving our EV infrastructure. I understand that we are looking at 2040, but we need a timetable. I agree that we need to look to 2030 or even 2025—the Norway model. My suggestions are not in conflict at all with deadlines or implementation dates and could be considered now. They would hugely incentivise take-up of electric vehicles.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate and on his impressive and powerful speech. I am a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into electric vehicles, so that is a subject that I could speak about for a long time. In fact, I have chosen to speak not about electric cars but about my new-found enthusiasm for electric bicycles.
I would like to tell Members about the Stirling Cycle Hub, which is an organisation that knows about how to get people on to their bikes. It encourages and facilitates cycling throughout Stirling from its base at Stirling train station. It is a superb organisation that works through the Forth Environment Link to help Stirling to pursue a greener, healthier future.
Stirling Cycle Hub has acquired a number of electric bicycles for its cycle hire scheme at Stirling station. Last week, it let me have a ride on one. To be frank, it was a revelation. I have a bicycle, and, to be honest, it rests rather serenely in my garden shed, untouched in a very long while. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] Shame indeed. I had never been on an electric bicycle. Emily Harvey, the development manager, guided me on a cycle route using the bicycle’s electric assistance to Stirling Sport Village and back, and it was a sweat-free, pleasant experience—it felt like I had never stopped cycling.
While the bike asked me to pedal, the ride was as effortless as a cycle through the flat lands of the Dutch tulip fields, yet we were negotiating all the hills and obstacles of an urban cycle. I would love to use one of those bikes to traverse the great peaks and troughs of my constituency, which as all Members know is the most beautiful in the country, and do so without breaking a sweat. The purists in the cycling fraternity may see that as cheating, but it is a great way of opening up the joys of cycling to a wider audience.
Stirling Cycle Hub has had a great deal of success: it has rented the bikes out 202 times in the last year. It tells great stories about how grandmothers are now able to cycle with their grandchildren and how, as I mentioned earlier, people are using electric bikes to make deliveries. It is a great way to get into cycling and, for those who are perhaps not as fit as they could be—I will move quickly over that passage, and I must say I include myself in that number—or, more importantly, those who are recovering from mobility difficulties or have disabilities, it is a great way of getting back on a bike and getting around.
It makes it possible for a wider range of people to commute, and makes it a more positive experience for those of us who live in constituencies, as I said earlier, with hills. The motor in the bicycle assists with pedalling, making it like a gentle cycle while going up a steep hill. I invite all my hon. Friends, and hon. Members from all parts of the House, the next time they are in Stirling—they should make that a regular trip—to go to the Cycle Hub at the railway station and hire one of those fantastic bikes, which will allow them to experience Stirling without breaking sweat. As colleagues know, my constituency is famed for its beauty and its glens.
I repeat the point that, for those with any kind of mobility difficulty or low levels of physical fitness, these bikes are a boon. I ask the Minister what more we can do to encourage the take-up of electric bicycles. The nextbike scheme in central Scotland, which includes my constituency, has seen over 40,000 journeys made by bicycle because of the work of those such as Stirling Cycle Hub, but can the Government play a more positive role in encouraging people? As we have heard, we are lagging behind the Germans, among others. Surely, we can rise to the challenge and get us all on electric bicycles.
I also congratulate my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), on securing this debate. The purpose of the APPG on cycling is not to be a cycling club; we seek to engage with Government and stakeholders to get more people cycling more often, and safely.
As has been said, cycling has many benefits, public and personal. It reduces congestion, improves air quality, improves personal health, improves mobility for people who are frail or disabled and reduces journey times for those who, like me, are London-based. It improves street design and local trading in town centres and town environments.
I am also a new convert to e-bikes; like the hon. Gentleman, I also trialled an e-bike over the Easter recess, thanks to the Green Commute Initiative. As somebody who cycles fairly regularly and has two and a half bikes myself, I was a little bit purist about such things and wondered if it was cheating, but I am definitely converted. It meant I could do the nine-mile trip between here and home without breaking too much of a sweat, but still get more exercise than I would have done sitting on a train. It was quicker and easier, and the few hills there were certainly seemed a lot less. It meant pottering around my constituency was much easier, and the main thing was that I did not have to wear different clothes, which I normally would if I were getting on my road bike and riding any distance.
I would advise all hon. Members to test an e-bike. Transport for London, through a range of London cycle stockists, is running a test scheme at the moment, and there is nothing in the blurb that says that people must be London residents—although, in fact, most Members of Parliament are London residents some or all the time. I advise them to try it and have the same experience that my colleagues have already mentioned.
On top of cycling, e-bikes in particular will get different people and different users cycling. Hon. Members have already mentioned older people, those with mobility problems or health problems for whom the energy of a main bike would be too much, and people with balance problems. E-bikes are good for cargo, particularly in cities, and for people in hilly areas for whom cycling is just too much effort. They also extend the commuting distance that normal people can do on a bike. Men in Lycra around London are a different issue, but we are not trying to get those people on to e-bikes; we are trying to get everyone else on to e-bikes.
There is no doubt that the extent of cycling and e-bike roll-out in other countries in Europe has been massive and that the UK is behind the trend, so I have some recommendations for the Government that could help us to catch up. First, OLEV should recognise e-bikes as low emission vehicles, which would unblock some subsidy options that are available to other types of e-vehicles. Secondly, the Cycle to Work scheme limit should be increased to £2,500 for e-bikes, since very few e-bikes come in below the £1,000 current limit. Thirdly, for registered disabled people, cycles and e-bikes, including e-trikes, should be incorporated into the Motability scheme to provide more mobility opportunities for people with disabilities. Only through a step change in the number of people cycling and using e-bikes will, for instance, Transport for London be able to achieve its target of taking non-private vehicle transport options up from 63% to 80%. If we do not do that in London, with an increased population it will grind to a halt.
I will go back very briefly to electric vehicles. Tesla’s showroom is in my constituency and I have also had the pleasure of looking at the new electric black cab. I have had a test drive in a Tesla, which was absolutely fantastic. I cannot afford it because they are very expensive—they are nice cars—but Tesla is also bringing out a mid-range car soon. Its big concern is the shortage of three-phase electricity. The barriers are not necessarily blockages by local authorities per se. There is an issue about getting three-phase electricity to the roadside or to industrial estates such as Tesla’s base out at Heathrow. There are issues of way leave, common-law problems of getting access over land and issues of getting access to the high-voltage transmission network.
However, I have to say to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), who was concerned about long-distance travel, that with an adequate network of fast charging points, one can take an electric vehicle several hundred miles—across to mid-France—without the journey taking any longer, because with fast phase charging one can charge the car in the time it takes to have a comfort break, something to eat and a cup of coffee. That is perfectly possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Like everybody else, I commend the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for introducing the debate. He spoke really well and knowledgeably, and gave a fair and balanced presentation. He said it is his third debate on electric cars, so I would like to ask him how he goes about achieving his tabling success—it is a tip I could maybe use for the future. I have spoken in every one of those debates. I served on the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill Committee, as did he, and I see a lot of familiar faces here from those debates and from the Bill Committee.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that 2040 is too far away on the horizon for the phasing out of the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles. I agree with the point about more ambitious stage targets, in order to get there quicker. I disagreed—as I think he did too—with the intervention of the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who was concerned that people suddenly will not buy Land Rovers, because they will see in the future that they might decrease in value. It is certainly my experience in my constituency that if someone pays £50,000 for a Land Rover they can afford to drive that vehicle, and they are not looking at a second-hand market down the road. I think luxury vehicles will not be affected by the stage targets, and I urge the Government to think about stage targets in that earlier phase-out of carbon vehicles.
I am unsure about the suggestion by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire that 2022 might become a tipping point for the sale of electric vehicles as costs come down and upfront costs become more competitive. My concern is that we have heard for a while that we have reached the tipping point. Every so often there are Government announcements that say, “We have reached the tipping point. The sale of electric vehicles has gone up 50% compared with the year before,” but the reality is that less than 2% of vehicles on the roads are electric, so we are some way from that tipping point. Norway is a small, independent country, yet somewhere between 18% and 25% of vehicles on its roads are electric, so more can be done here. The Government need to look at what is happening elsewhere.
The hon. Members who spoke about electric bikes had a common theme, which was the access they provide to getting out and about in the great outdoors for people who are older or vulnerable, or who perhaps have a disability. I certainly echo those sentiments.
In Scotland, a third of all car journeys are actually for less than two miles, and a further quarter are for a mile or less. People take very short journeys in cars, and if we can get them either out of their petrol cars and into electric vehicles, or ideally on to bicycles or electric bikes, it would make a huge difference to carbon emissions and obviously to people’s general fitness.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The hon. Gentleman will need to be brief.
Would the hon. Gentleman encourage similar programmes to that in Sweden, where they put in a 25% subsidy to encourage people to switch to electric bikes? It has been massively successful.
I would fully support that. I do not think I will be able to respond to all the points that hon. Members have made. It is fair to say that I agreed with most points. The enthusiasm for electric vehicles and electric bikes shone through.
The hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) mentioned the Scottish Government’s money running out quickly. I point out that Scottish Tories actually criticised the Scottish Government’s bringing in a loan system that allowed people to apply for loans to buy electric vehicles. It has been a success, to the extent that it has been oversubscribed, so the Scottish Government are looking at providing additional funding for that. Her comments should be a compliment, not a criticism. I urge the UK Government to extend their grant scheme, because that has a short horizon as well. We really need to look at extending that further.
I commend the Kilmarnock Station Railway Heritage Trust in my constituency, which has completely renovated and occupied a number of rooms and basement areas of Kilmarnock railway station. It provides a huge number of third sector support services. Like the Stirling Cycle Hub, which the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) complimented, it operates a cycle hub and undertakes led runs to encourage other people to take up cycling. It also takes referrals from people recovering from addictions, making cycling part of their recovery process and giving them motivation and fitness and getting them out and about. It is a fantastic scheme. It also has a volunteering and mentoring operation.
The trust also operates a cycle hub at Whitelee wind farm, which is the second biggest onshore renewable energy site in Europe. It encourages people to get out there and cycle in the great outdoors, which is a fantastic co-location idea, harmonising renewables with getting people out and about. I pay tribute to my constituent, Alan Vass, who led the expansion of the cycle hub. It is getting bigger and better, and I wish him well for the future.
Much has been said about making the UK a world leader. The truth is that the UK has a long way to go and needs to look elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with ambition, but we need to put strategies in place to match that ambition.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who was incredibly helpful in the advice that he gave the Government. Whether in the Paris agreement, Committee on Climate Change reports or numerous High Court rulings, the Government have clearly had serious warnings about how pollution is killing our planet—and is also killing us. Of course, transport is the major pollutant.
I place before the Government a big question about inconsistencies in their policies and the lack of connectivity between different announcements across Government. I also say this as an MP representing the highly polluted city of York. Certainly, announcements that we will see the end of the electrification of trains, and that a new generation of diesel trains will be put on the tracks, seem to clash with the Government’s ambitions—or perhaps, as we have heard, the lack of ambition—for electric vehicles.
We heard that, by 2030, India will no longer sell petrol vehicles. For Norway that will be in 2025, and for Scotland it will be in 2032, yet for the rest of the UK it will be in 2040. We also know that cities such as Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens will ban dirty fuels in their cities by 2025, as will Copenhagen from next year. Meanwhile, air pollution causes 50,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. When will the Government’s Road to Zero plan actually see the light of day? It has been long promised but not yet seen.
The Government’s spending around active travel is woeful. Cycling and walking must come centre stage and must be seen as the mode of choice for shorter journeys, supported by more public sector options. We also need to address the strain that the increased use of electric vehicles will put on our national grid and look at the options available to decarbonise our energy at the same time. We need to ensure that investment goes in the right place. We heard how investment in our manufacturing sector will give a real boost to our economy, but we must not ignore the threats, particularly from China and the investment opportunities that it will see in the future.
We need to look at all modes of transport when looking at electric vehicles—not just rail, as I have mentioned, but buses, taxis, trucks, vans, motorcycles and bicycles. We need to see the Government now put their foot on the accelerator to bring forward the electric vehicle revolution, as opposed to creeping forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) mentioned the need for infrastructure. If we look at places such as Denmark and the Netherlands, we see real investment in infrastructure, and we need to see that here also. What has actually happened to the £400 million invested in the charging infrastructure investment fund? It is deeply embarrassing that the Government announced that but did not have any equity behind it. What other incentives will the Government put in place to encourage people to switch, whether through scrappage schemes, grants or, indeed, looking at the Mayor of London’s toxic vehicle charge? The market share for plug-in cars was less than 2% last year. Why have the Government cut grants for plug-in cars and for home charging? What impact will that have? Again, I believe that puts forward a mixed message.
On electric bikes, it is incredibly important, as we have already heard from so many hon. Members, that we get people back on to their bikes with confidence. We need to take on board the shocking obesity figures that are continually presented to Members and to see that, while electric bikes can be a real step up to exercise, they can also help other people to step down without having to revert to cars.
What consideration has the Minister given to the cycle to work scheme and the opportunities that that could bring for electric bikes? The Cycle to Work Alliance has clearly said that there should be £1,000 grants for bikes and safety equipment and £2,500 for electric bikes. Will the Minister look at that proposal and report back to the House on how we will move forward? If grants from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles are available for electric cars and motorbikes, why can they not be available for electrically assisted bikes, too? The benefits of that would be even greater in the future.
The Opposition have been clear: we will be ambitious, whether on development, manufacturing or use. I trust that the Minister will want to match our approach as we clean up and green up our transport system.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I am only sad that I have, now, four minutes, until 5.43.
But do I not have to allow two minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)?
You do not have to.
I will give you one of those minutes.
I do not have to, but I have been ceded one of those minutes. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. That will allow me to cover at least a tiny fraction of the many points that enthusiastic colleagues have raised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on convening this third debate. I doubly congratulate him on adding the vital topic of e-bikes to his original subject. That he has managed to add e-bikes to the subject for the third debate is proof that Parliament can evolve in its thinking. As I said, I congratulate him.
We have had mention of Dutch tulip fields and men in Lycra and a lot of references to sweat. That is a little unsettling, but I will try to make progress either way. I have been very impressed by the lobbying energy, if nothing else, of the e-bike industry in relation to so many of my colleagues, who have the feel of latter-day converts to a new religion. As a man who has been riding a bike for 45 years and riding an e-bike for some years, I am delighted that colleagues have come to the table and I congratulate them. Of course, I invite them to submit any of these newfound revelations and the evidence for them to the cycling and walking safety review, which addresses precisely these issues, including air quality and health effects, in a very holistic way.
The Government want to position the UK as the best place on the planet to develop, manufacture and use zero-emission vehicles. I think that that is perfectly clear from what we have said. It will clean up our air—
Will the Minister give way?
Of course I will, but I have to make progress at some point.
Can the Minister please update us on his discussions with the German Government about holding Volkswagen to account for the emissions scandal?
Yes, I would be delighted to. I have recently written to Volkswagen to draw attention to the continuing dissatisfaction that I and my colleagues have with its performance. I have raised the matter not merely with the operating personnel but with the supervisory board of that company, and I understand that my colleagues in other parts of the Government are in touch with their German counterparts, to make it clear that we remain exceedingly dissatisfied on behalf of consumers, Volkswagen customers and the general public in this country by the performance of the company and we expect it to continue the process of making amends through the scheme it has in place, extending it as and when that may be required.
Let me proceed. I have said that we want almost every car and van to have zero emissions by 2050. We have said that we will end the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire asked whether that target was too far out. I say to him that it is not. If he reflects on the experience of the past 12 months, he will see that one of the results of the Volkswagen scandal has been that diesels—in many ways, diesel is a thoroughly excellent technology, which is rapidly improving and is useful especially for journeys of distance and between cities in particular—have taken the brunt of that. The result has been a worsening in performance on air quality or rather on emissions, and that is precisely the kind of counterintuitive response that would come from a failure to manage the process effectively. I draw his attention to that.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister give way?
I will give way once more, but tragically I will not have a chance to address any of the other points that were made.
The Minister has just mentioned air quality. Does he agree that electric buses, which are, so to speak, rolling out in Harrogate this year, are critical to providing a solid public transport system that will tackle the air quality in our towns and cities?
I can only yield, in these circumstances, to a person so distinguished as my immediate predecessor in this job. I congratulate him on raising the profile of electric buses in Harrogate and using them as a template for further developments in the bus industry around the country. He is right.
In the minute and a half that remains to me, let me just say this: we also believe that e-bikes can play a very important part in the decarbonisation of our transport system. As I have said, I am a great believer in e-bikes. Colleagues will be surprised to learn that we have been thinking about this issue for some time. It is important to draw a distinction between e-bikes, the price of which is falling, the diversity of which is increasing and the market for which is working quite satisfactorily in many ways—although I can understand that colleagues recently discovering them might like a subsidy from the Government —and e-cargo bikes, which have a very important potential public purpose in substituting for diesel-using small vans, especially in urban contexts. We will be looking very closely at that particular issue as part of the wider picture.
Let me quickly respond to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who I know is also a cyclist. She asked when the Road to Zero plan would be published. The answer is that it has, for very proper reasons, been held up by purdah, but we expect to publish it fairly shortly.
I now yield to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire.
It just remains for me to thank hon. Members from across the House—from four different parties—for coming to contribute to the debate. I hope that the Minister has seen the enthusiasm. We are generally willing the Government to make a success of both electric vehicle and electric bike take-up. We will carry on scrutinising this issue in the months and years to come and we look forward to further success and progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered take-up of electric vehicles and bicycles.