Wednesday 28 November 2018
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed new integrated risk management plan for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. Judging by the attendance of right hon. and hon. Friends from Tyne and Wear and neighbouring constituencies, this debate demonstrates the importance of a good fire service, which is essential to our lives, our communities and the industries and services that we rely on.
I am grateful both to our chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and to the chair of Tyne and Wear fire authority, Councillor Barry Curran, for taking time to meet MPs in recent weeks to discuss the new integrated risk management plan, and for being so candid when answering our questions. I have no criticism of our fire and rescue service under our fire chief; it has done its very best to provide a high level of service to our communities in the last eight years, despite the massive Government cuts to its budget. Nor have I any criticism of our hardworking councillors who serve on the fire authority and are managing their way through particularly tough times for local government.
As a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, I am more than aware of all the problems that cuts to resources have caused, and I have nothing but praise for the commitment and dedication of each of our firefighters, to whom we owe a great debt for keeping us all safe, day in, day out. Over the past few years, they have worked diligently throughout a succession of cuts to services and staffing, as well as having to suffer an erosion of their own terms and conditions.
I am grateful to see that the policing and fire Minister is here, and I hope that he will be open minded as I talk about funding cuts to our fire service. I politely ask that, for the next hour and a half, the Minister puts to the back of his mind his claim that the fire and rescue services have the resources that they need to do their important work, and instead concentrates on only the very genuine concerns that I and colleagues will express.
I will spend a little time considering how we got where we are with the proposed new IRMP. I have already mentioned that Tyne and Wear fire authority has suffered funding cuts for the last eight years, and those cuts can only be described as inordinate, because they have been some of the worst cuts to any service in England since 2010. Does the Minister acknowledge that austerity measures have affected metropolitan and northern fire and rescue services disproportionately since 2010?
I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her excellent introduction. I absolutely concur with every single word. Will she ask the Minister to accept that, far from austerity being over as the Prime Minister claims, the impact of those cuts on our constituents will continue for many years to come?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I am sure that the Minister heard her question and I hope that he will give her a sound answer.
By the next financial year, the revenue support grant will have been reduced by £10.8 million, which is equivalent to 18.2%. There is also a projected gap in financial resources of £2.2 million in the next financial year, which will increase to £3 million by 2020-21, and to £3.6 million by 2021-22. The ability to increase income from council tax has been limited by freezes and caps imposed by national Government, and because Tyne and Wear is an area with high deprivation, there is no scope to raise income from business rates or council tax to the same extent as in more affluent areas, where fire and rescue services have benefited. With such regional differences, how can there ever be an even playing field?
On top of all this, Tyne and Wear fire service has had to manage higher costs, such as inflation and pay awards, which means that just over £25 million of total budget savings have to be met.
In the light of the dire case that my hon. Friend is making on behalf people in Tyne and Wear, I wonder if, like me, she thinks that there would be merit in holding a meeting between the Minister and a delegation of Tyne and Wear MPs, the chief fire officer and the chair of the fire authority, in order to discuss these matters?
I think that would be an extra way to present the case to the Minister, and I hope that he is open to that suggestion.
The new IRMP, produced under the Home Office’s fire and rescue national framework, has been prepared in the face of those reductions in spending and the projected gap in financial resources. Since 5 November, it has been out for public consultation, which will close in the new year, on 14 January. The proposals include the downgrading of wholetime availability at Hebburn and Wallsend to an on-call system, with up to a 30-minute delay between the hours of 8 pm and 8 am; the reduction in available fire appliances at Tynemouth and South Shields between the hours of 8 pm and 8 am, because of the need to provide fire cover for Wallsend and Hebburn; the reduction of two fire appliances—one each from Gosforth and Washington—by relocating them to Newcastle and Sunderland central, respectively; and the downgrading of an immediate wholetime appliance at Northmoor, Sunderland, to an on-call appliance with a delayed response. There will also be a reduction in the number of staff, with 16 posts lost in 2019 and a further 54 posts lost over the next two years.
My hon. Friend referred to the consultation. Given the serious risks to public safety in some of the proposals, does she share my concern that the consultation period falls over Christmas and new year and is unlikely to be fully engaged with for the full 10-week period, and that the Minister should therefore consider extending it to a 12-week period to allow for that?
That concern has been raised by the FBU, and I raised it with the fire chief at my meeting with him. The Christmas period means the consultation is shorter than it ought to be, but I am not sure that the fire authority would be minded to extend it. If it is possible, I hope that it can be done, because the public consultation needs to be just that—public.
The aim of the proposed changes in the IRMP is to ensure that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service can deliver a flexible and sustainable service to our communities, and focus resources on where the greatest risks are across the area, but the FBU, which will be meeting MPs on Friday, believes that the proposals will make all communities in Tyne and Wear less safe, because of the reduction in immediate response from a decreased number of immediately available fire engines with a decreased workforce over a greater area of the authority.
Furthermore, the proposed changes come on top of efficiencies made in recent years, which include the removal of six appliances across the service; the reduction of aerial ladder platforms from three to two; the stand-down of two fire appliances during quieter periods; and the introduction of two targeted response vehicles to attend lower risk incidents 24/7, and of two further targeted response vehicles to be staffed at night. There has also been a review of valuable fire and safety and community safety functions, which have proved to be so important in areas of high social deprivation to avert antisocial behaviour and increase fire prevention. From the beginning of June this year, crews in Wallsend, Marley Park, Hebburn and Birtley were reduced to four firefighters, which was described by the FBU as a dangerous move.
All the while, like neighbouring services, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service is called to over-border activity. In the past year, the number and frequency of incidents attended by Tyne and Wear with fire engines for Ponteland fire station was 53, and for Northumberland 195, whereas Northumberland mobilised fire engines in Tyne and Wear only 71 times. I hope that the Minister’s colleagues in Northumberland are aware of the need for extra resources in their area and that they have made representations to him.
The question is why are the cuts so necessary when the service has reserves of £28.5 million? The answer is that £24.5 million is earmarked: £16.5 million to prevent an increase in the revenue budget, £4.5 million to support service delivery requirements, and £3.5 million to fund the capital programme. Reserves are a finite resource, so the service has stated that they cannot be used to fund sustainability, meaning that there is no room for manoeuvre there.
We cannot ignore the stark warnings of the FBU about the implications of the IRMP proposals. We must remember that our firefighters’ lives are at risk, as well as those of the general public. How much more of a hit does the Minister think the morale of our firefighters can take? How will further reductions in the fire service affect our businesses and economic growth? How could we attract businesses to an area where their valuable assets might be lost because of the lack of adequate fire and rescue cover? The public consultation might result in a rejection of the IRMP and the drastic cuts to our fire service operations. What would be the result? What would happen next?
I feel strongly that the IRMP proposals go too far. I am sorry to say this, but Minsters will be held directly to account if the cuts worsen a major incident, or cause injury or death. I look to the Minister present for some hope that the Government will live up to their responsibility to the people of Tyne and Wear and work to make available some extra funding to prevent the need for the IRMP to be implemented in its current form.
Although I trust that the fire chief and the fire authority are doing their best to make the best of a bad job, it is true to say that ultimately their decisions are based on financial considerations more than on any other factors. On their behalf, I have some asks for the Minister, which I hope he will consider thoroughly. In developing a fair funding model, will the Government take a nuanced approach, based on the effects of area and family deprivation on community safety risk factors? Will the Government give more certainty about funding in the medium term, as that would strengthen the fire authorities’ ability to plan financially to ensure better use of resources and reduced reliance on reserves? The removal of capital funding is not sustainable; can that be reinstated? Also, will the Government fund national policy and decisions that impact on services, to relieve the burden on the already overstretched services that they offer?
I hope that the Minister has heeded me, as I asked at the beginning, and will give full consideration to what I have said. I am sure that he will hear further pleas from my colleagues about how important the subject is, and why we need to make changes to the resources given to our brave firefighters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), on securing this important debate and on making a powerful case for our local communities, as she always does. I, too, place on record my appreciation of the vital work of our firefighters in keeping us safe. We are about to enter the festive period, when many of us will, I hope, be safe at home with our families. We must remember, however, that the emergency services, including firefighters, will be on duty over that period, as they are every day, keeping us safe.
Recently, I too met the Tyne and Wear chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and a fire authority representative. More recently, I met Russ King of the FBU and firefighters at the fire station in Tynemouth. I therefore understand why the fire authority felt the need to propose the changes in the integrated risk management plan, given the financial constraints within which it has to operate, but I am sceptical and indeed critical of the suggested changes as they affect my constituency. To be clear, however, we should not simply fight for our own areas; this should be a whole Tyne and Wear issue, and the plan should be one that keeps every community safe, whichever constituency it happens to be in.
As my hon. Friend said, under one of the proposals offered, fire engines at Wallsend will simply be day-crewed, with an engine from Tynemouth taken over there to provide cover during the night. My first concern, therefore, is about the dilution of cover and the time taken for sufficient engines to arrive at a major fire incident. According to the consultation document, an average delay of simply 17 seconds will result from the change, but for someone who lives in St Mary’s ward in my constituency, with the second engine at Wallsend, the delay will be considerably longer in practice.
The fact is that, while the speed of response is important, the weight of response is crucial. For a fire involving people, at least three appliances are sent, so a thinner spread across an area would mean drawing engines from further away, and that adds time. In addition, as a result of previous cuts, as we have heard, some crews have already been reduced to only four members. For a person in the first engine reaching the fire and believing someone is in that fire, the enormous moral pressure to act is great, and that increases the risk. Under the proposed changes, that will get worse. Tynemouth station also has a mass decontamination vehicle to decontaminate firefighters and indeed the public. In theory—or in practice—that requires 28 operatives, but under the proposals that number will be reduced to only 16. To be clear, resources are already stretched, and the proposals will stretch them further.
Tyne and Wear appliances are already thinly spread, in particular when they are drawn into Northumberland. In recent years, Northumberland fire service has made cuts, and those at West Hartford, for example, mean that Tyne and Wear appliances are regularly drawn across the border into Cramlington. This summer, in Blyth, a major incident required five engines: three came from Tyne and Wear, and two of them were from Tynemouth fire station. Section 16 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 provides for mutual assistance, but the situation in Tyne and Wear is already stretched, so cuts might make mutual assistance impossible in future.
Even without engines crossing the border, the situation in Tyne and Wear is overstretched. Last Thursday, in North Shields, firefighters were called to a fire on the Meadow Well estate. At the same time, a further fire was reported in Cullercoats, which required an engine to be called from Fossway in Newcastle, seven miles away, leaving east Newcastle, an area of considerable industrial activity and housing, with a lack of cover. In April 2018, four engines were called to a fatal house fire in the Knott flats in North Shields—under the proposals, four engines will not be available locally. Earlier in the year, a fire at Hillheads in Whitley Bay was also, unfortunately, fatal. If the changes go through, the risk will be even greater. Firefighters tell me that it was becoming very rare to go to a house fire in which there was a fatality, but that has not been the case in recent times. Under these proposals, that could get worse.
Fire prevention is a crucial part of keeping people safe. The fire authority says that if the job losses continue in Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service as a result of these changes and what has gone before, 70 posts will be lost, and the FBU says 82 posts will be lost. Either number is considerable. One effect is likely to be a reduction in fire prevention work. There is already little time for fire prevention work in schools. Attacks on crews are also up by 25% nationally, and antisocial behaviour, which is increasing, is often linked in my constituency to fire raising. Uniquely, there was a bonfire night campaign this year, which is the first time I remember that being the case. There is an ever-diminishing resource and an ever-increasing risk. Although we see that in our constituencies, this is not about turning one area against another.
It is clear, not least from what my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside said, why we are in this position. Tyne and Wear is a metropolitan fire brigade; metropolitan fire brigades have taken 50% of the cuts since 2010. One of the root causes is the linking of funding to band D council tax. That means that better-off areas in the south tend to do better than metropolitan areas in the north, where the typical council tax band is more likely to be A or B than D.
There is a way that fire authorities could raise more funding. If they wanted to increase the precept by more than 2.99%, they could have a referendum, but I am told that the cost of holding a referendum would be greater than the money that would be raised to spend on the service. Understandably, that is not a route they would want to go down. Tyne and Wear has said that it has not had capital grants since 2010-11 and that equipment needs to be replaced. Reorganisation sometimes means that the location of fire stations has to be remodelled. It is important that the fire authority looks at reserves, but it must be careful because it cannot spend that money and still have the reserves in future to spend again.
I hope that the Government will reconsider changing the funding formula in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside described. I hope they will think carefully before they go too far down the sparsity route. Sparsity added into the funding will not do anything for metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear. I hope that we get some kind of equalisation. Whether it is business tax, council tax, or whatever other kind of taxation or funding, we have a habit of using a national model that does not look at needs in different areas. If fire authorities in the south have sufficient resources to run a good service, why are they being rewarded while other areas, such as Tyne and Wear, lose out?
The Government must face up to the consequences of the proposed cuts. The Home Office is responsible for fire and rescue—the police and fire Minister is in his place. It is odd that the funding still comes from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—perhaps the Minister will confirm whether that is true. It is very odd for one Department to be responsible for making decisions, and another to be responsible for going to the Treasury to lobby for money. HCLG has its own priorities, so I am not sure another Department’s priorities will be at the top of its list.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but the Home Office cannot perpetuate a laissez-faire approach where decisions on police cuts are the responsibility of the police and crime commissioners, and spending and decision making on the fire service are down to chief fire officers and fire authorities. If the Government do not provide the funding in the first place, fire authorities and police and crime commissioners will simply manage cuts. That must not be allowed to continue.
There is a consultation, but the period is truncated. Whether or not it continues to be truncated, I hope that residents in Tyne and Wear will find time to look at the consultation and to make their views known. I certainly will.
Order. I want to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than 10.40, to give each speaker at least 10 minutes to speak. If colleagues could ration their speeches to around eight minutes, that would be marvellous. I call Sharon Hodgson.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for securing this important debate and for her excellent speech outlining the issues.
Many people in the constituencies served by the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Services, whom we all represent apart from the Minister and the shadow Minister, are following this debate closely. A significant number of constituents have written to me in recent weeks to raise their concerns about the proposed new integrated risk management plan for Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, and the ongoing cuts to fire and rescue services more widely. People will be particularly concerned about this issue in the light of troubling events in recent weeks in which firefighters have been verbally and physically attacked—I will come back to that.
It has been noted in this debate that fire services across the country have felt the significant impact of funding cuts since 2010. As a result, almost 12,000 frontline firefighter jobs have been lost, including 285 in Tyne and Wear. Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service faces a number of unique funding challenges—we have heard about them in detail—and I want to bring some particular ones to the Minister’s attention. By 2019-20, the revenue support grant will reduce by £10.8 million, to £45.8 million. Based on all current information, the authority is on course to face a cumulative funding shortfall of £3.96 million by the end of 2021-22. Doing nothing is not an option. I am sure that colleagues will agree that is a huge shortfall, especially when pressure on all our public services is increasing.
The Minister may say that there are fire and rescue services across the country whose finances are growing—we heard that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell)—due to their ability to raise funds from business rates and the council tax precept. Unfortunately, that is another way in which Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, along with other metropolitan services, experiences serious shortfalls in funding, and shows why a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Although we have the highest council-tax band-D precept of all metropolitan authorities, at £79.94, the vast majority of households are in bands A, B and C. As a result, the council tax income generated by the authority is the lowest of all metropolitan fire and rescue services. That is extremely concerning.
Our communities in the north-east have suffered hugely as a result of austerity and its associated problems. It should therefore not be the case that the very deprivation that this Government have caused has the knock-on effect of preventing some of our public services from having access to the funding that they need to keep us all safe. Even worse, in areas with high levels of deprivation there is a higher risk of fire and fire-related deaths. Will the Minister take a nuanced approached when developing a fair funding model for fire and rescue services, based on risks related to deprivation and local needs? It is absolutely clear that the Government should trust local services to outline their own specific needs. Those who work for and in communities on a daily basis are best placed to know where resources are best deployed and how much they cost. Budgets allocated on the basis of scarcity alone will not provide sufficient funding.
Like many of my colleagues here today, I recently met the chief fire officer of Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, Chris Lowther, to discuss proposals for the new integrated risk management plan, and wider concerns about the funding available to him. He is doing everything within his power to manage the resources currently available, in a way that guarantees the safety of my constituents, and everyone across Tyne and Wear. In response to the consultation that the service is currently running, there has been some pushback from members of the public, who are understandably concerned.
Let me make it clear that I hold this Government solely responsible for their failure to provide sufficient and sustainable funding for our fire and rescue service, and I do not blame Chris Lowther, or the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service, for trying to make the best of a very bad deal. It is particularly frustrating that services such as ours are being put in such a terrible position. They are doing everything they can to deliver their services while coming under ever increasing financial pressure, and as we know, these are not the first round of such cuts in Tyne and Wear.
I also discussed with the chief fire officer the spate of recent attacks on firefighters, which I mentioned earlier. Last year, there were 148 attacks on firefighters in the north-east, and only a few weeks ago in Southwick in Sunderland Central—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott)—an incident took place that has been described as the worst attack of its kind in a decade. Firefighters were called to an incident in which a car was driven on to a bonfire, and they were pelted with bricks, bottles, and fireworks. The firefighters were ambushed and cordoned in by criminal “pool” cars. It is difficult to comprehend the mindset of someone who actively sets out physically to harm those on whom we rely to keep us safe, and I was pleased to see Sunderland Council back a motion just last week to call for a zero tolerance approach to attacks on emergency service workers.
The recent Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 will hopefully begin to have an impact, as the maximum sentence for such attacks has now been increased from six to 12 months. However, we must acknowledge that such things do not just happen or appear out of nowhere, and those attacks are a symptom of the underlying damage to the fabric of a community that has suffered almost 10 years of punishing austerity that has imposed cuts on all our public services. We know that when services engage with communities through education and outreach programmes, the long-term relationships that are forged can prevent such incidents from happening in future.
The successful preventive work undertaken by Tyne and Wear fire and rescue Service’s and its fast response times have, over the past nine years, reduced the number of injuries from accidental dwelling fires, and in two of the past six years it has been the only metropolitan authority to report zero accidental fire deaths. Its preventive work includes work in our communities on home safety, education and youth inclusion, and collaborative partnerships with other public services such as Sunderland clinical commissioning group and the Northumbria police and crime commissioner. I urge the Minister to ensure that all fire and rescue services are given the funding necessary not only to fulfil their statutory duties, but to continue engaging meaningfully with the communities they serve.
In conclusion, I wish to reiterate how important it is that the Minister listens to the concerns raised today by Tyne and Wear MPs, and to express my deep gratitude to Chris Lowther and the firefighters—some of whom are in the Gallery today—and everyone in Tyne and Wear fire service who works tirelessly day in, day out, serving our community and keeping us safe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing this important debate and setting out with such clarity and conviction the challenges we face. Let me pay tribute to the immense dedication of our firefighters in Tyne and Wear, and across the country, who take risks every day on our behalf. We owe it to those brave men and women to ensure that they have the resources they need to do their job properly and keep us safe. Our firefighters rely on excellent support staff, to whom we are very grateful.
Well-founded and real concerns arise from the proposed measures in the integrated risk management plan. On Friday I heard directly from firefighters at Farringdon community fire station about their fears regarding the risks that may be faced by the public under the proposals. The proposals would result in one fire engine at Farringdon being “on call”, which follows previous reductions in service across Tyne and Wear, as well as at Rainton Bridge community fire station in my constituency.
When firefighters are called to respond they do not fully know what lies before them, and it is vital that they have the resources they need to tackle the incident, so that the risk of harm is reduced as much as possible. Last Friday, and on every occasion I have met local firefighters, they impressed on me their determination to serve the community, whatever the circumstances. We discussed recent serious and tragic events in Sunderland, where firefighters have been called to respond and where there have been fire deaths. We cannot, and should not, expect those who put their lives on the line to be exposed to unnecessary risk, and the underlying factor in all this is the unfair funding settlement that leaves those areas of greatest need wanting.
Year after year the fire authority has had to confront difficult decisions driven by funding cuts from central Government, rather than what works and is in the best interests of our community. In 2012, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on that issue. In advance of this debate I reviewed what had been said then, and it is remarkable how little has changed, other than that the situation has got progressively worse. There has been an increase in incidents and fires, a massive reduction in the number of firefighters, and increased response times. If there were a backdrop of reducing demand, Ministers might find the rationale for these measures understandable, but demand is increasing, not reducing.
Since 2010, major cuts and efficiency savings have been made, yet we are facing even more. We have seen some of the worst funding settlements across fire and rescue services in England, and by 2019-20, there will have been a 19% budget cut at a time of rising cost pressures for the authority. I hope the Minister will listen to the concerns raised by hon. Members this morning on behalf of our communities and the firefighters who serve our constituents. I live in hope that the Minister will not just respond in the customary fashion, and say that these are local decisions and it is for local fire and rescue services to manage these cuts, or that local decisions fall to local decision makers to make better choices. That is not good enough when we know that the areas of greatest need have borne the brunt of austerity cuts. The Government should do the right thing for fire and rescue services, for firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way, and for the public who depend on the risks they take.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing this important debate about our fire and rescue services. I, too, thank the chief fire officer for taking time to brief me and other Members about the issues faced by Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service under these proposals, and I thank and pay tribute to members of our local Fire Brigades Union who have done a great job in considering these proposals and raising their concerns.
This debate did not begin this year, because as we have heard there have been earlier iterations of the IRMP. When I was a local councillor this issue affected the area I served, and it now greatly affects my constituency. Some years ago, in one of my local fire stations—Swalwell, which serves a largely rural part of my constituency—we lost what I used to call a fire engine, although I understand technically it is called a pump. We lost that pump from that station, which caused huge concern at the time. We had the introduction of new tactical response vehicles, which are response units for what are believed to be minor incidents. However, firefighters never know until they get there exactly what incident they will be facing, and the loss of that pump has led to a reduction in response times. One fire engine on its own cannot necessarily deal with an entire incident for safety reasons, and waiting for a second vehicle has had a detrimental effect on the service. Very real concerns remain, which have been demonstrated by the delayed response times.
Last year, further changes meant that the pumps were reduced to running with four staff members instead of five, again causing a risk to the service. That affected the station in Birtley, which is at the far end of my constituency. At that stage, staff were hugely concerned about the changes that were coming. As I reminded him when we met, the chief fire officer undertook to look at whether the numbers could be raised to five per pump in the future. Given the proposals and the budget gap we face, that is looking even less likely, but it is something I believe is important.
I very much understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends. The changes we are discussing today may not directly impact on my constituency, but there is a cumulative effect. Inevitably, a change in one part of Tyne and Wear, whether that is Hebburn, South Shields or elsewhere, will have an impact on the response in my constituency. In a concentrated area that relies on mutual support between teams, there will inevitably be an impact in staffing changes and the reduction and downgrading of vehicles. We cannot make the change in one area of Tyne and Wear without it impacting on other areas. That is a crucial point.
Earlier this year, I asked the Minister whether he would consider funding fire and rescue authorities by risk, not demand. He referred me to the reserves, which many Members have mentioned. I have asked the fire chief about those reserves and have been briefed on that. Will the Minister address the question of considering risk, not demand, and the number of incidents, which, given the nature of our communities, would have an impact on the Tyne and Wear rescue service?
As others have said, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue services are disproportionately affected by changes in council tax funding, because 75% of the properties in Tyne and Wear are below band D. While we may agree to increase the precept, that does not produce the same returns that more prosperous areas can produce. That issue affects a lot of our services, and I hope the Minister will address it seriously, because it is a real concern for us.
Will the Minister also take deprivation and its impact on the fire and rescue services into account? Will he look at reinstating capital funding for fire and rescue services? I know that reserves have been earmarked, but it takes a huge chunk, requires forward planning and there is a risk if the funding is not in place. Whatever Government Department makes a change, whether that is the Treasury making national insurance increases, pay awards or other increases, or another Department making other changes, that should be taken into account and be fully funded, so that we are able to meet the needs of the fire and rescue services. Certainty in funding is hugely important for all services, but especially for our fire and rescue services.
On Sunday, I will be meeting firefighters at Swalwell in my constituency to get their views on the latest proposals and to listen to their concerns. Many of them have been looking at the proposals over a number of years, not just this year, and expressing their concerns in a very measured way, pointing out the issues that they will cause. Some of those warnings have been borne out. When I meet them, and the firefighters and Fire Brigades Union at Birtley as part of the consultation, I would like to be able to tell them that the Government have heard their concerns and will take action to fund the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service properly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing this timely and important debate.
I put on record my thanks to the brave firefighters, not only in Tyne and Wear but across the country. We saw in the dreadful Grenfell disaster how, as members of the public run to get out of burning, dangerous, blazing buildings, firefighters run in to those buildings in an attempt to save lives. This debate is not only about the fire service and public service; it is about firefighters. The gratitude that this Government have shown to firefighters for the service that they give for the people of this country, by cutting their salaries by £7,000 and making them work longer for their pensions, is a disgrace.
Tyne and Wear integrated risk management plan has been brought about because of austerity. As we know now, austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. It is a political choice that has brought about a £25 million cut in resources to Tyne and Wear fire authority since 2010, with a further £3.5 million in the pipeline. By 2020, almost 20% will have come out of the fire authority budget in Tyne and Wear.
That means that we have 300 fewer firefighters than we had in 2010, with a cut of a further 70 in the pipeline. We have seen fire station closures; we have seen fire engines scrapped and numerous pieces of emergency rescue equipment put out of operation. What does it mean for what is, at the end of the day, a public service? It has meant a reduction in response times of two minutes per call, which will worsen by a further 20 seconds. As any firefighter knows, extra seconds cost lives.
The Government need to recognise that Tyne and Wear fire authority is overstretched and underfunded. They need to end the cuts. They need to increase the number of firefighters in Tyne and Wear. They need to listen to the fire service, listen to the firefighters, put public service first and end the downward spiral of Tory cuts that is putting the public at risk.
I repeat my earlier request. Will the Minister agree to meet a delegation of Tyne and Wear MPs, plus other representatives of the fire service, to discuss the very grave issues in Tyne and Wear?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing this crucial debate for the people in our constituencies.
The chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, the chair of the fire authority, Councillor Barry Curran, and the regional Fire Brigades Union, in particular Russ King and Tony Curry, who are with us today, and all firefighters are working together to try to find the best possible solution for the people we represent, while knowing all the time that if these cuts go ahead, people living in Sunderland and wider Tyne and Wear will be less safe. It is not possible to implement the cuts that are being proposed and not put people more at risk.
I question the timings in the consultation and worry about the number of appliances that will be available. It is important to remember that Tyne and Wear is a densely populated area, in parts very industrial, with two major ports and chemical and manufacturing plants. If something goes wrong, it can go quite catastrophically wrong quite quickly. The need to be able to get to an area quickly with the right number of appliances is absolutely crucial to the outcome of fires.
We have had two very serious incidents in my constituency in recent times. First, there was the one on bonfire night, which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) referred to, so I will not go through the details again. That was a worrying situation that fortunately did not escalate, but could easily have been catastrophic. Secondly, we had a huge industrial fire, which took weeks to get under control, at a former recycling plant in an area that is crammed with industry and has residential areas around it. Those are just two examples of how, if things go wrong, the type of area we live in is relevant to what is being said today.
I do not want to repeat what has already been said. Instead I will stick to three main points. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) said, funding choices are only real choices if we have the money to make them. Choices where we do not have the money are not real choices, and that is down not to local decision making, but to the amount of funding the Government are supplying to provide the service that saves people’s lives in our communities.
The consequences of cuts since 2010 are that there are fewer fire appliances across the area, over one third fewer firefighters than in 2010, and much less work being done in the crucial area of community engagement on fire prevention measures and education about the risks of fires. I feel strongly about that, because I think the incident on 5 November in my constituency might not have happened had there been more community engagement about the risks of fire.
I know the Minister listens to us when we bring issues to do with the fire service to him, because I met him recently with my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) to try to find a solution to the problems that Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service faced because of its pensions shortfall. A workable solution to that shortfall was found, but it is adding pressure to the service’s current financial situation. Although we totally accepted that we had to find a solution, that financial pressure is adding to the burden we have today.
Secondly, for me, the biggest problem is to do with council tax, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) went through in some detail. Using council tax band D as the denominator to work out budgets is simply unrealistic in our area. Tyne and Wear does not have a band D average—far from it. In Sunderland, there are 129,636 properties on the valuation list, of which only 8,962 are in band D. Hon. Members should not think that that is because all the properties are rated higher: there are only 5,012 in bands E, F and G put together. Almost 90% of properties in Sunderland, the largest local authority area within Tyne and Wear, are in bands below band D, so when the Government regard band D as the average, that has a significant effect on the ability to fund a service.
Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend also mentioned, I understand that the Minister here today is based in the Home Office, but the budget is in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That is a massive problem, because, as was said, for a Minister to lobby for funding in a Department he does not sit in is quite extraordinary. I have not come across it before; I am sure there probably are examples of it, but I find it extraordinary.
The Minister needs to look again at the funding formula, taking into account all the concerns about our real-life situation and the band D issue, which makes it simply impossible to raise extra funds as he might suggest we do. It is often said that this is a matter of local decision making, but as I said, local decision making is impossible against a backdrop where the funds needed cannot be raised. I ask the Minister in particular to address the concerns about funding.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for securing this debate. It is a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
Hon. Members have voiced concerns about a number of issues, and I hope the Minister will respond in full. We have heard concerns about the ideologically based austerity cuts and the disregard for the social deprivation that this Government have caused. We have heard concerns about the impact of the cuts on public safety, concerns about the risk to the safety and even the lives of firefighters, concerns about their morale, and concerns about the possible increase in response times and the increase in antisocial behaviour. It is a shame that we have also seen such huge cuts to the numbers of police officers since 2010. We have heard concerns about the robustness of the public consultation, given the inclusion of the Christmas period within that time, concerns about the impact on businesses, and concerns about the unrealistic suggestion of using council tax to increase revenues for the fire service. I would especially like to hear the Minister’s response to that concern.
The financial situation of fire services nationally and in Tyne and Wear is very concerning and the new integrated risk management plan places the brunt of the Government’s cuts on frontline operations. The Conservative Government oversaw a 30% cut to central Government funding for fire and rescue services between 2010 and 2015, and slashed firefighters’ numbers by nearly 12,000. The Government have clearly chosen the fire service to bear a considerable part of the burden of their destructive austerity agenda, and ultimately it is our communities that suffer.
Whenever Opposition Members question the full impact of the austerity agenda on the fire service, the responsibility for cuts is passed on to the fire authorities, when in reality it is the central Government’s allocation of resources that is to blame. The Tyne and Wear fire service’s proposed integrated risk management plan is being undermined by austerity, which year on year is squeezing the resources available to the service to keep its communities safe. That is the key—keeping communities safe. When a risk management plan becomes a strategy to implement cuts, it evades its central purpose and focus, which should be analysing the service’s capacity to respond to risk, not trying to deliver a service on the cheap.
Tyne and Wear has been heavily affected by the Government’s austerity agenda. The service now has 285 fewer firefighters and cuts are set to continue. This is a reckless Government policy, the possible consequences of which have not been properly thought through. The fire service should be funded on the basis of its community significance, not an arbitrary demand. It must be prepared for any eventuality, not put on life support with a shoestring budget; I think Grenfell demonstrated that.
I acknowledge that the fire chief and the fire authority have been put in an incredibly difficult situation. Since 2010, Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has been put under extraordinary pressure to make cuts. The cuts are principally of the Government’s making, yet I am very concerned about the proposals the fire authority have suggested, which include downgrading the availability of wholetime firefighters at Hebburn and Wallsend, a reduction in fire appliances at Tynemouth and South Shields overnight, two fire appliances cut from Gosforth and Washington and downgrading the immediate response wholetime appliance at North Moor in Sunderland. Each of those proposals accepts that the communities in Tyne and Wear will be much less safe. That is key. Effective fire response is contingent on a fast, well-staffed response, but the reality is quite the opposite.
The cuts also need to be considered in the context of available reserves. The service is under pressure to make cuts of £3.6 million, yet it has £3.9 million in unallocated reserves. I know the plan is about sustainability, but regularly when I stand up to speak in the Chamber, the Minister tells me that the fire service will not receive any more money, as it has reserves, and that fire responses are decreasing. Sadly, that seems to be his stock and only response. It would be nice to hear something different today.
That observation of the Minister’s is deeply flawed. As a service, fire and rescue is more than just fire response; it plays a vital role in our communities. Overall incident responses, rather than just responses to fire-related incidents, have increased every year since 2014. His response also overlooks the level of unallocated reserves available to fire services; it is important to recognise that unallocated reserves make up only a small percentage of overall reserves. I ask him to make a distinction between the two. I understand that reserves are a one-off, needed to deal with unforeseen pressures, and that this is money that has been hard-saved during the current Government’s tough budget squeezes. As the National Audit Office has stated, reserves are part of a robust financial strategy.
We simply cannot justify cuts to frontline or support services when the service has sufficient financial resources to prevent the service being downgraded. I urge the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue authority to reconsider its options. The community’s safety must be prioritised. However, it is vital to remember that the blame for this decision should not be pointed at local government, which is forced to deliver the cuts imposed by the Government. That is called passing the buck.
I remind everybody here today that the austerity agenda was and still is an ideological choice. Since 2010, this Government have underfunded all our public services, while continuing to hand out tax cuts to the very wealthy and large corporations. We never hear much about that. It is this Government who have actively chosen to reduce the capacity of fire services to keep communities safe across the UK. At the moment, all we ever hear about is Brexit. It is high time that we started to look at some of the serious things happening in this country, including having a fire service that is fit and prepared for the 21st century, which keeps our firefighters and our communities safe and well.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I start in a traditional and sincere way by congratulating the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing the debate. She spoke extremely sincerely, as is her way. I know that she believes every word that she said and the fact that she is accompanied by nine fellow Members from the area tells its own story about their strength of feeling. I wholly respect that and I have listened very carefully. It is in part testament to the lobbying skills of the chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, who has certainly felt the love of his MPs this morning.
Clearly, there is a keenly held local view about the importance of making sure that the fire service is properly resourced and equipped to do its extremely important work. Given the seriousness with which the case was presented, I am very happy to meet the chief fire officer and talk it through, as was suggested. As the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) observed, I have been responsive to representations from Tyne and Wear in the past, in relation to the overpayment of the pension top-up grant, where we reached a settlement that was designed to be helpful.
That recognises, in part, the fact that Tyne and Wear has had a more challenging settlement than other fire authorities over this spending review period—I have been candid about that. Spending power has been reduced by 2% over the spending review period, compared with a 0.3% increase for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities as a whole. Having reviewed the figures, Tyne and Wear will see the fourth largest reduction in core spending power, after the Lancashire, Cleveland and West Midlands fire authorities. I recognise, not just from the strength of feeling in the room, that the past few years have been challenging as a result of the spending review settlement that flows from the way in which the current funding formula works. I recognise the challenge, I have tried to help with the pension top-up grant, and I am more than happy to sit down with Chris Lowther and talk through the issues.
I will now talk about the future. We need to have some perspective on this and try to avoid excessive language, scaremongering or unsettling residents. We are talking about a fire authority whose core spending power this year has increased by 0.8%. A reduction of 2% over the spending period is not an enormous proportion. I think it is important to put this into the context of other organisations that have seen their levels of income fall, as well as the scope to improve efficiency. That applies to almost every organisation in the public and private sector. Labour MPs did not talk very much about efficiency—on the whole, they do not tend to—but we will have a better view about Tyne and Wear’s efficiency as a result of the independent inspection, which will be happening shortly.
Various Members talked about reserves. I do talk about reserves, because this is public money and there needs to be accountability and transparency around it. To be fair, Tyne and Wear has published a reserves strategy, which is quite clear. Across the system, the simple truth is that financial reserves held by single fire and rescue authorities increased by over 80% between March 2011 and March 2018 to £545 million. That means that across the system fire authorities are sitting on reserves worth 42% of their core spending power. In the context of the public hearing “cuts, cuts, cuts” and “we are short of cash”, the system has actually increased its reserves, which can be done only if there is flexibility. Those reserves of 42% of spending power compare with an average in the police system of about 13% or 14%. I feel absolutely entitled to raise the question about reserves.
The Minister is talking about the reserves overall, for all the fire and rescue services. He says he has seen the reserve situation for Tyne and Wear. Does he acknowledge that although there may currently be £28.5 million, 86% of that money is earmarked to meet key, specific financial risks? Does he also acknowledge that in four years’ time those reserves will be down to £11 million, so they cannot be used? That money can only be used once and the authority is spending it, so it will only be left with reserves of £11 million in four years’ time.
My point is specific to Tyne and Wear: I am pushing back on the assertion that fire and rescue authorities have been starved of cash, as the fire and rescue authority is sitting on reserves worth 52%. That is the figure for Tyne and Wear—52% of spending power. There is a lot of talk about this money being earmarked. Let us be clear that anything above general reserves represents active choices made by the fire and rescue authority and the leadership. Those are the active choices that they make. Looking at the numbers, that includes £6 million now for the transformation reform reserves, a capital development budget—these are active choices that they are making. It is public money. The simple point I make is about the need for greater accountability and transparency.
That does not in any way detract from the need to revisit the fair funding formula and the comprehensive spending review, which is what I want to address. I have been challenged on reserves and I am explaining that this is constituents’ money—public money—sitting in reserve. The public have a right to understand how that money is going to be spent to improve the service to them. I would struggle if anyone could challenge that premise.
Would the Minister agree that it is right that when looking at its reserves, a fire authority considers all of its commitments, to ensure that it can meet its forthcoming requirements? As he said, the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has been explicit in setting out what the reserves are for. There are reserves that are committed and need to be put to specific uses. Some of it is about capital replacement and some is about underpinning the integrated risk management plan, to make sure that we are as safe as possible. Talking about reserves is great, but we need to make sure that those reserves are being applied properly. We have all asked questions about the reserves and we believe that they are being used in a sensible and appropriate manner, to support the service going forward.
The point I am making is that levels of reserves are high, and in the past there has been insufficient accountability and transparency around their use. We are in a different place now, as a result of changes that we have pushed for, but reserves in this system have increased since 2011, even though the Labour party continues to talk about the system being starved of cash.
In the context of perspective—I hope I am not misrepresenting the hon. Member for North Tyneside—I would not want the people of Tyne and Wear to feel that they are getting a bad service from the current fire service. .The hon. Lady talked about “a high level of service”. I think that she is right and, looking at the data, I would certainly like to add my voice to those congratulating the firefighters and the fire service in the area, not least for their work in reducing the number of dwelling fires in the area by 9% during the past five years.
On that point, let me make it clear that the service given by Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service is the best possible service that we could expect, and that it will always strive to provide that. Only the finances are a problem. It would never be classed as a bad service, by me or by anyone else.
No. I made the point only because I would not want the people of Tyne and Wear reading about this debate in the local newspaper to have any sense of, or have, a lack of confidence in their fire service as a result of representations made by their Members of Parliament.
Let me address the heart of the issue, and subject of this debate, which is the integrated risk management plan that the fire authority is putting forward, and make several points. In case residents were not aware, the authority is required to do that. It is regular business for fire authorities: they are required to produce these plans and show how they plan to respond to a range of emergencies on the basis of risk assessment and management for their locality. Quite rightly, the plans are based on the professional and expert advice of senior fire and rescue officers and are made in consultation with local communities. The fire and rescue national framework requires authorities to produce a plan that reflects up-to-date risk analysis, including assessment of all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks.
I point out that the Tyne and Wear reserve strategy makes it clear that the actions proposed in the current IRMP, and which are being consulted on, represent a review of organisational changes required by the authority to operate more effectively—its language, not mine. That is the context for the plan. It is not laissez-faire but a fact that it is not the position of the Government to have a view on the efficacy of the plan. It is for local experts to draw up these plans, although over time, with the new independent inspection regime that we have introduced, all of us will have a clearer picture by being able to compare the operational effectiveness of individual fire authorities in a way we have not been able to in the past. It is not for me to have a view on whether this is the right or the wrong plan. To repeat the point made by various Members of Parliament, it is for local people to have a view.
Therefore, I wholly support and endorse the messages about the constituents of Tyne and Wear MPs being encouraged to engage with the consultation. If there are concerns about the length of the consultation period and the consultation running over Christmas, they need to be listened to very carefully, because this is a vital public service. Clearly, uncertainties and concerns are being raised by MPs about the changes, so constituents need to be aware and need to engage with the exercise. To repeat the point made by the hon. Member for North Tyneside, it needs to be a proper public consultation.
Let me make a bigger point, in relation to the future funding. I have recognised that Tyne and Wear has been challenged by the last spending review. I need to make this point at the start, because there is a point of differentiation to be made. I am not tribal at all, but I cannot let comments stand from at least two contributions to the debate. Austerity is not a political choice; it is not ideologically driven. The idea that Conservative MPs went into politics deliberately to reduce public expenditure is deeply insulting. The idea that austerity is somehow disconnected from the actions of the last Labour Government and our inheritance of the largest peacetime budget deficit is absolutely disingenuous. The public are not fools and should not be treated as such. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the fire service is properly resourced, while continuing to challenge it to be more efficient and to modernise and do all the things that we expect of a modern public service.
Will the Minister give way?
There have been concerns about whether the Home Office is somehow detached from the process. I can assure the right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) that we are not. Fire funding is part of the local government settlement, and that situation is not unusual: lots of health and education funding comes through local government. However, it is the Home Office that is responsible for the fire budget at the spending review and it is the Home Office that is working with the sector to update our understanding of demand and risk and to identify the evidence that we need to take into discussions on the next funding settlement. I am absolutely determined to ensure that our fire service has the resources that it needs, while continuing to be robust in challenging it on efficiency reform.
Mention was made of Grenfell. I am the Minister for Grenfell victims. That has been a huge part of my life for the past 18 months. One has only to listen to the podcasts from the public inquiry and hear the evidence of firefighters to understand what they had to work with and through on that night, in the most terrible of conditions. I have the deepest admiration for the work that they do and I want to be absolutely sure that they are properly supported by means of a proper understanding of the demand and risk that is in front of us, the past not necessarily being a guide to the future.
The fire funding formula is being reviewed, along with all other local authority formulas. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will shortly publish a consultation document on the review of local authority formulas. We have been working with the sector to understand what the new cost drivers for a new fire formula should be, and I strongly encourage Tyne and Wear fire and rescue authority—I will make this point directly to Chris Lowther—to get involved in that process and respond to the consultation. The review will also look at how council tax is used to produce funding allocations. MPs and fire authorities need to engage with the process. That work is imminent. We must engage with it and get it right.
That takes us to the comprehensive spending review. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has signalled that austerity is coming to an end. [Laughter.] There is laughter from MPs, but they laugh at their peril, because cuts are very much a consequence of the actions that they took when they were in power. Austerity has meant tough choices and sacrifices being made, not least by people working in the public sector. We all want to move on from that. The CSR is the right place for that and the right place to ensure that the fire service is properly resourced for the critical work that it does.
I want to close with a point that is not central to the debate, but which was made by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and is very important. We are talking about supporting the fire service. It is absolutely unacceptable that our emergency workers, including our firefighters, should be subjected to abuse, assault and attack. Given the risks that they take on our behalf, that is absolutely unacceptable, and the strongest possible message about that needs to go out from this place. That is why I was so pleased, in an age of tribal ding-dong, that there was strong cross-party support for the Bill that became the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 and the signal that that sends to the courts on additional protection and powers to deal with violence against emergency workers. We did good work on that measure to send that signal about how completely unacceptable it is to attack and assault our emergency workers.
There have been strong representations from Tyne and Wear. Of course I will sit down with the chief fire officer to discuss the issues in more detail. We do feel that the fire service has the resources that it needs. This is a case of stable funding alongside efficiency. I totally recognise that Tyne and Wear had a tougher settlement than most. In relation to the integrated risk management plan, I urge constituents from that area to get fully involved and engage with it. I give my undertaking to ensure that, in the reviewing of the funding formula and in the CSR, this Government will continue to ensure that our fire service has the resources that it needs.
I call Mary Glindon for a brief winding up of the debate.
Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank all my colleagues who have taken part in the debate. Every local authority in Tyne and Wear has been represented in the debate, and I think that everyone has spoken with one voice in support of our fire services and our fire authority. They have also spoken with one voice in expressing concern about the fact that our fire services might be in jeopardy in future. I am truly thankful for the compelling cases that have been made, because we have shown that we know and care about our fire services, and what they mean to the safety of each of our constituencies, and to Tyne and Wear as a whole.
I thank the Minister for concurring on the need to support our fire services when they are under attack, and for recognising how disproportionately Tyne and Wear has been affected by recent cuts. We will have to agree to disagree about the reasons for austerity. We will never change our mind and, sadly, I do not think the Government will change theirs. However, I am hopeful that if austerity comes to an end, we will see better funding, after all the consultations and reviews. Christmas is on its way and perhaps that is one of the things we all wish for. I do not wish to be flippant, but we cannot emphasise enough how important this is to us and how concerned we all are that we get this right, and that the people in Tyne and Wear, as well as our firefighters, are kept safe and sound in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposed new integrated risk management plan for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.
Universal Support: East Suffolk
I beg to move,
That this House has considered universal support in East Suffolk.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I welcome the Minister. The Government set up the universal support system to assist universal credit claimants in making claims and managing the payments they receive. The full roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft, in my constituency, started in May 2016. Shortly afterwards, under the leadership of Waveney District Council, the East Suffolk universal credit support partnership was created to provide universal support in east Suffolk, in the area covered by Waveney District Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council, which are due to merge next year.
From 1 April 2019, the service in its current form will be discontinued as a result of the Government’s decision to award a national contract for the delivery of universal support to Citizens Advice, which was announced on 1 October. I have no criticism of Citizens Advice and the great work it does locally and nationally, but I am concerned as to why the change has been made and whether it is in the best interests of universal credit claimants in east Suffolk.
From the start, the roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft has not been straightforward. Many people, often the most vulnerable in society, have been put under enormous pressure and have faced major difficulties in getting by day to day. Local Department for Work and Pensions staff have risen to the major challenge and have acquired new skills to work with people in a completely different way than they did in the past.
The roll-out is a massive task, which local DWP staff cannot deliver on their own. The East Suffolk universal credit support partnership has provided vital support to universal credit customers. The partnership has brought together various organisations, including Citizens Advice, jobcentre managers, the Anglia Revenues Partnership, the local housing department and housing associations, to support universal credit customers and local communities.
At the outset, the partnership identified barriers that needed to be removed and challenges that needed to be addressed. The barriers included the difficulties associated with managing a single monthly payment, the challenges that many claimants face in accessing a digital system, and meeting the requirements of households with complex needs. The challenges that needed to be addressed were an increase in rent arrears, private landlords consequently not accepting universal credit tenants, and managing a potential increase in homelessness.
As well as more access points, the partnership has provided personal budgeting, assisted digital support and special disability advice. With a large amount of private rented sector housing in Lowestoft, proactive work with private landlords has been vital in addressing their concerns about universal credit. There have been quarterly meetings, workshops and regular phone and email contact.
The general feedback is that the partnership has been successful in helping people with the transition from legacy benefits to universal credit. Earlier this year, the partnership won silver at the public sector transformation awards in London. The partnership has also been proactive in considering how the system could be improved. It has just funded a behavioural insight project to look at how nudge techniques could be used to increase the take-up of personal budgeting support ahead of managed migration and full service roll-out in the rest of the Suffolk Coastal area. Such an innovation would not have happened without local authority support.
Despite all that good work, on 1 October, Waveney District Council received a letter from the DWP advising it that, as from 1 April, it would no longer deliver universal support, and that Citizens Advice would do so from that date. It is disappointing that the council received that letter on the same day as the public announcement by the DWP regarding the new partnership with Citizens Advice and that there was no prior notification. Moreover, six months’ notice gives the council very little time to manage and prepare for the new arrangements. It will have to bring to an end its partnership agreements with third parties at its own cost, for which it has not been able to budget.
The ending of the partnership will have a significant impact across east Suffolk. Partnership agreements with providers of assisted digital support, including specialist disability advice services and social landlords, will need to be ended, as their involvement can no longer be funded by the council. Benefit liaison officers will no longer be able to arrange and chair universal support partnership meetings or operational assisted digital support and personal budgeting support meetings. The innovation project to boost personal budgeting support will not take place.
Assisted digital support, which has been offered at all local authority customer service access points from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, will cease. That will mean that the number of access points across the whole east Suffolk area will reduce significantly. The council’s digital resource map, which is often used by local DWP work coaches and universal credit customers, will no longer be available. The council will no longer be able to provide its staff’s energy and enthusiasm, which I have very much seen for myself, to ensure that the roll-out of universal credit goes as smoothly as possible.
Citizens Advice is an important partner in the current arrangements, but there is a concern as to whether its local network has sufficient capacity and infrastructure to be as effective as the service that has been provided until now. Two other concerns have been raised with me. First, why has the DWP not yet published its review of universal support, which presumably provides the explanation for ending the current arrangements and for whether the correct procedures have been followed? Secondly, why was there no consultation with those currently delivering the service? Should there have been a public procurement process and a competitive tender before the award to Citizens Advice?
I have spoken to Citizens Advice, locally and nationally, and it is committed to providing as high a quality service as possible from next April, although it has a lot of work to do to have the service up and running by then. It will try to build on the good practice that has been put in place locally in east Suffolk, but restrictions on resources, capacity and the number of outlets will prevent it from replicating many of the innovative initiatives that the partnership has put in place.
Further constraints are that the national contract is for only one year and that Suffolk County Council is proposing to cut its core funding to Citizens Advice across the county. Bearing in mind that the contract is for 12 months, and taking account of the managed migration planned from November 2020, the concern is that local authorities’ missing link with customers will increase homelessness and rent arrears in those council areas where the housing stock has been retained—that is, in the Waveney part of east Suffolk. When the Government made the decision, did they have regard to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the added responsibilities it places on local authorities?
East Suffolk Council is committed to providing as seamless a transition as possible, so that universal credit customers are not adversely affected. That said, as I have already mentioned, the service that is currently on offer will have to be reduced from 1 April. In future, the council will, in effect, act only as a signpost.
The draft model of universal support that Citizens Advice has developed looks very thorough. It goes above the assisted digital support and the personal budgeting support that is currently offered and that is central to the current package. There is some upset in the council that it has been criticised for not providing such a service, although it points out that it was never asked to do so.
The Citizens Advice offer includes a full advice and support service, as well as triage, call centres, face-to-face support, identity verification preparation for customers, and webchats. That is welcome, but as I have already mentioned the concern as to how viable this service will be, given the level of funding provided to Citizens Advice.
Nationally, the feedback I am receiving is that the quality of universal support across the country as a whole until now has been variable. The roll-out of universal credit has presented many challenges to everyone involved, which is certainly the case in Lowestoft. However, the one ray of light in Lowestoft, and one source of hope, was that local government and local charities had put in place a system of universal support that was an exemplar that could be replicated elsewhere, in line with the “test and learn” approach that the DWP recommends.
The fact that this system is being dismantled in a seemingly hasty way, and with no prior notice, is very disappointing. Local support requirements are best decided locally and not through a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. I ask the Minister to take on board the concerns that I have outlined, which reflect local exasperation and disappointment. In future, the Government should work more closely and collegiately with those who have the task of rolling out universal credit in local areas—at the coalface—right across the country. They have a responsibility and a duty to universal credit customers to do that.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hosie, to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. He is a real champion of his local community, and he continues to raise issues in the House that are important not only to himself and his constituents but more widely. I completely understand that he wants to ensure that his constituents receive the support they need in the welfare system and, if required, further support to help them into work.
Yesterday, my hon. Friend and I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Give us a Chance annual reception in Parliament, where the organisation launched its Communities that Work campaign to help even more social housing tenants into work, and I was very pleased to attend that event with him. Of course, across the Department of Work and Pensions network we already have jobcentres working closely with housing associations to support people in gaining new skills and to help them into work.
Let me turn to universal credit more widely. As my hon. Friend noted, universal credit rolled out in his area in 2016. I was very pleased to visit his local jobcentre in Lowestoft with him in September, and like him I was impressed by the commitment of the staff. In fact, I pay tribute to him, and I thank him and his staff, for the very real and positive interaction he has had over a long period with his local jobcentre.
My hon. Friend talked about issues that arose regarding the delivery of universal credit in his constituency in 2016. However, I hope he will also acknowledge that, over the last couple of years, we have made changes—positive changes—in supporting people on universal credit. I will just outline a few of those changes before moving on to talk in more detail about universal support, which I know he is keen for me to discuss.
In the 2017 Budget, we announced a £1.5 billion injection for universal credit. That came in earlier this year and meant that the seven-day waiting period before the activation of a universal credit claim was abolished. Also, advances of up to 100% of the estimated payment at the end of the first period are now available, interest-free and repayable over 12 months—that will be extended to 16 months in the future. There is also a two-week run-on of housing benefit, which is money that does not have to be repaid and that helps people who are currently receiving housing benefit with their cash flow.
In the Budget a few weeks ago, another net £4.5 billion over the scorecard period was injected into universal credit. I will pick out just two items. The first is that work allowance is increasing by £1,000 from next April, which will assist 2.4 million families. Secondly, as part of the managed migration process that my hon. Friend mentioned, there will be the two-week run-on of out-of-work DWP legacy benefits, which will assist around 1.1 million people.
My hon. Friend talked about the direct payment of rents. I know that he will welcome the fact that we now have the landlord portal in place. It was co-designed with a number of housing associations and allows for direct payments to social housing providers. By the end of this year, around 90% of all social housing stock will be covered by the landlord portal. Of course, work has also gone on to ensure that those who are in the private rented sector are also able to have their rent paid directly to their landlord, if that is appropriate. In addition, up to 85% of childcare costs are covered under universal credit, and it has been possible since earlier this year for individuals to upload information about those costs, so the process is much more efficient.
I hope my hon. Friend will agree that we have listened and acted to improve the system. He wrote to me some weeks ago, and I owe him a response, but I wanted to attend this debate and hear any further comments that he quite rightly wanted to make before I responded. If I am not able to give him satisfaction with my answers today, I will make sure that I do so in writing to him in the next few days.
Let me turn to universal support. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an incredibly valuable service, particularly when it is delivered in the right, targeted way. Since 2017, universal support has been delivered by individual local authorities. Some of them have chosen to deliver this service directly themselves; some—around a third of local authorities—have chosen to outsource the service to third parties, such as Citizens Advice. I believe that certain local councils have set up a model whereby Citizens Advice takes the lead in providing personal budgeting support.
Although I appreciate that some local councils are doing good work in the area of universal support, provision across the country is, if I may say so, mixed. My hon. Friend highlighted all the good work that has been going on in his local area, and of course I commend that work and all the key stakeholders who have been involved in it. I will come on to say how they can perhaps continue to work together.
However, based on the information we have received from local authorities across the country, take-up of universal support in 2017-18 was around 30% of what the DWP had forecast it would be. Clearly, what we needed to ensure, and what we want to ensure, is that we have a system in which more people receive this support and that we reach out and assist the people—particularly the vulnerable—who ultimately need it. My hon. Friend referred to the need for us to reach out to those who are particularly vulnerable.
I will just set out how the Department took this decision about the new partnership with Citizens Advice. As my hon. Friend and others will be aware, for some time now key stakeholders have been quite vocal that, in its current format, universal support was not delivering on its aims and that claimants were ultimately missing out on this key support. More recently, the Work and Pensions Committee opened an inquiry into universal support, and I provided it with oral evidence in July. The Committee has since published its report, and the Department will of course respond to all the points it raises.
In recent months, Citizens Advice and a number of other charities, think-tanks and MPs have shared evidence with the Government showing that the type of support available, and how people can access it, differs depending on where people live. As the Government have continued this “test and learn” approach to universal credit, the design of the support has needed to change.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was announced on 1 October that from April 2019 Citizens Advice will deliver a more comprehensive and consistent support service, independent of Government, to help ensure everyone can access the support they need to complete a universal credit claim, no matter where they live. Of course, the DWP maintains close partnerships with local authorities in many areas—for example, in identifying customers with safeguarding, housing and health needs, and in initiatives such as troubled families support.
Local authorities are funded for the current year to deliver universal support, and they will continue to do so until the end of March 2019. I raise this point because my hon. Friend asked what would happen in future years. The grant agreement for local authorities is only ever for one year, and there should not necessarily be an expectation that funding will continue beyond this year of allocation. Citizens Advice has been asked to run alongside the arrangement that local authorities currently have in place to get up to speed, so that it is ready to deliver from 1 April with no gap in service provision. My hon. Friend raised the issue of funding for next year. Some £39 million will be provided to Citizens Advice, and money is also going in this year to help it get up to speed.
Local Citizens Advice already has strong working relationships with key partners such as local authorities and housing providers, and will be working closely with them as the service is launched. Citizens Advice will build on where good practice exists, such as local good partnership working. From the perspective of Citizens Advice, it is of course independent of Government, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, the Citizens Advice in his area has strong working relationships with key partners. I certainly expect that it will work closely with those key partners as the service is launched, and build on where good practice exists, including local good practice.
The Work and Pensions Committee put out its report on universal support on 28 October this year, and I will read a short extract from it:
“The Department’s announcement that the contract for Universal Support will pass to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland in 2018/19 and 2019/20 will help take pressure off already-stretched local authorities.”
My hon. Friend talked about what will happen beyond that period. Clearly, we will look to see how the partnership we have in place with Citizens Advice progresses. I completely appreciate that, as we move into managed migration, we need to make sure we have an offer that is robust and sufficient to assist people.
In conclusion, the Department for Work and Pensions wants the strong partnerships with local authorities to continue. We want universal support to be delivered well and consistently across the country, and I certainly expect there to be continued local working between Citizens Advice and other key stakeholders on the ground. For me, this is the start of a conversation with my hon. Friend, and as time progresses and Citizens Advice develops its partnerships nationally and locally, I will be happy to continue this dialogue. As I said, I will, of course, write to him in the coming days about any of the points that I have not been able to answer.
Question put and agreed to.
Rail Services: North Staffordshire
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rail services in North Staffordshire.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the Minister back to the Department for Transport. It is fantastic to see him there again, and I thank him for meeting me earlier in the week.
I have called this debate on rail services in north Staffordshire because the issue is of particular concern in the local area. The nub of that concern is that, having once enjoyed one of the best rail networks in the world, north Staffordshire now has services that are too few and often very far between.
I will, however, set out how north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent are on the up. There are many opportunities for sustainably improving rail services across the area. All stakeholders must grasp those opportunities if we are to maximise fully the benefits of the vast taxpayer investment in High Speed 2.
I am not limiting this debate to tinkering with the day-to-day services we currently have, but I make no apology for focusing on services to and through my constituency, as an exemplar of the wider state of services in the north of the county. Strategic rail service improvements are needed both in and around Stoke-on-Trent. If realised, they will maximise opportunities for regeneration, freight expansion and serious productivity gains across north Staffordshire, allowing people to get around more easily and access the broader range of skilled opportunities we are seeing across the county.
Thanks to the Government’s industrial strategy, we are planning for a sector deal for ceramics, which can include a UK centre for ceramics research that will secure global Britain’s leadership in new-generation components. That includes high-tech automotive, aerospace, defence and digital industries, medical devices and implants, and renewable energy technology.
Our transport strategy needs to keep up with our economic ambitions. It is not just about getting people and supplies into and around Stoke-on-Trent; it is about getting much-needed and demanded goods out. For example, rail improvements can unlock fast and efficient supplies for the Government’s house building commitments. Our manufacturers of bricks, tiles, and household ceramics are the best in the world.
Looking to the future, we can learn much from our past. A century ago, north Staffordshire had one of the most comprehensive rail networks in the country, alongside one of the largest urban tram networks. Affectionately known as The Knotty, after the Staffordshire knot, it included the loop line, which was immortalised in the literature of Arnold Bennett.
Sadly, our local network emerged from the horror of war into the disasters of nationalisation. Like most parts of the country, north Staffordshire was hit by the post-war industrial decline, and those of our stations that did not fall during the war fell to the Beeching axe and its legacy. Indeed, Fenton and Fenton Manor in my constituency were already closed before Beeching began his report. Trentham, Meir and Normacot were lost as a direct result of it. Today, the only station to remain open in my constituency is Longton.
Unlike most other parts of the country, north Staffordshire has not seen any reversals of these cuts. Indeed, in May 2004, further stations closed at Wedgwood and Barlaston, though allegedly, 14 years later, these are still only temporarily closed. They are, I believe, the only stations nationally on the definitive map that do not have any services stopping. That is despite seeing significant new housing growth in the area and being sat next to the world-renowned tourist destination that is World of Wedgwood. At Etruria, the so-called Strategic Rail Authority got rid of the station altogether, crushing any suggestion that it might be reopened to serve constituents travelling from stations such as Longton to Hanley and Newcastle-under-Lyme.
These days, fortunately, Stoke-on-Trent is on the up. It is a city enjoying a modern industrial revolution. It is now one of the fastest growing and best places to start a new business in the UK. Traditional industries have been reborn, with some of our key ceramics manufacturers growing by more than 50% over the past few years. We are more than just ceramics; manufacturing more widely is booming in the city, making up a significant share of the economy. There are also significant advances in high-tech, digital and research. There is an increasing vibrancy in the wider area, with two universities—Keele and Staffordshire—both growing, one based right outside Stoke-on-Trent station. The city is increasingly a hub for logistics operations, and our industrial heritage has catalysed a burgeoning tourist industry.
As a result, our growing city’s roads are increasingly congested, as are many throughout much of north Staffordshire and across the wider economic sub-region. A revival of rail travel is not only sustainable, but essential and will further help to catalyse new housing and jobs growth without worsening the misery of road congestion.
However, while we bridge the northern powerhouse and midlands engine, in rail terms the city and the wider economic sub-region of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire sadly often fall between the stools of meso-level devolved authorities around Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham. This unaccommodating situation is exacerbated by Stoke-on-Trent’s geographical position on the Network Rail map. The city appears as a kind of bottleneck between Network Rail areas. It is in fact split across two Network Rail devolved areas, with two thirds in London North Western and a third in London North Eastern. That is totally illogical, and there is no clear leadership provided across the north Staffordshire conurbation. Currently there is no scope for the city to enjoy remapping and franchise transfers of local services to a more Stoke-on-Trent-focused body or a company, as was suggested in the case of local Birmingham services from Nottingham and Leicester and the move from CrossCountry to West Midlands Rail.
Things are moving in the right direction, and it is encouraging that Network Rail is now considering a route study focusing specifically on the economic geography of north Staffordshire and south Cheshire, recognising the importance of developing plans that adequately satisfy future growth demands.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is going to make this point, but while we had phenomenal and welcome investment in the Virgin west coast main line upgrade under the Labour Government, one of the consequences was that local services deteriorated because fewer services could be run while the faster trains were going along the route.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It is very true of stations that I have already mentioned. Etruria, Wedgwood and Barlaston all lost services as a result of those changes, so I would agree with him.
I am especially delighted that we will be receiving investment from the transforming cities fund, which I hope will take forward much-needed improvements locally. That includes Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Stoke station masterplan, which sets out the ambition to transform the station, vastly improving capacity and facilities; leveraging in significant new development in the wider area on the back of the improvements; ensuring that the station is ready to receive HS2 services; providing opportunities for additional local rail services; and making the main station the integrated hub it needs to be for the city.
It is certainly essential that more is done to improve the capacity and the offer at Stoke-on-Trent station. It is the main station that serves the Potteries conurbation of nearly 500,000 people, yet it has only very limited platform and concourse capacity, as well as poor-quality retail facilities. Improving our local transport infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for improving labour mobility in the city, increasing productivity and wage levels, and decreasing time lost to congestion. We need to ensure our railway corridor and its stations are fully connected with the towns that make up the city. In particular we need to connect Stoke-on-Trent station to public transport throughout the rest of the city and the wider conurbation.
A key part of the transforming cities fund will to be to integrate bus services much more effectively with the main station, providing a more comprehensive public transport network. As an HS2 destination, we have great potential to multiply the growth we have enjoyed in rail travel to the city in the last 25 years and to ensure all the communities that make up Stoke-on-Trent are linked into any future opportunities.
We should not limit our ambition. Light rail may also be part of the mix for restoring to Stoke-on-Trent some of the services we have lost and so better connect our communities. The line from Stoke through to Staffordshire Moorlands, which could serve Fenton Manor in my constituency, would be a good opportunity for that. Similarly, a future metro-style service could run through the conurbation from Blyth Bridge to Crewe to help relieve capacity and significantly improve services through the urban area.
Technology is moving on. Rolling stock is lighter and cheaper, and for restored routes there is the potential for rails that are longer-lasting and cheaper to run on. Alongside that, smart ticketing offers the opportunity to create a much more effective urban public transport network for the conurbation. However, local rail services, as we see through Longton on the north Staffordshire Crewe-Derby line, are far from meeting current needs, never mind our future ambitions. I stress that all destinations along the route are united in that cause. We regularly see people struggling to get on often single-carriage trains that run only once an hour, and local media have reported people having to get taxis due to trains being so overcrowded.
Despite that, annual passenger usage at Longton has doubled since 2009-10, and the station has higher usage numbers than commuter stations serving London, such as Dorking West, Morden South and Sudbury Hill. Indeed, they are not far short of the figures for Epsom Downs in the Secretary of State’s constituency. When I welcomed the Secretary of State to the city earlier this year, he travelled with me on the rush-hour commuter train from Stoke to Longton. I assure hon. Members that he did not enjoy that service, because of the cramped conditions. He could see for himself that overcrowding is a major issue, and I am happy that a specified requirement of the new East Midlands Railway franchise issued by the Secretary of State is for longer trains. We must ensure that that is delivered.
We also need the new franchise to deliver more frequent trains. One train an hour supresses demand and the potential of the line. Midlands Connect recognises the potential for more frequent services, which would be transformational for our local economy and give more people confidence in rail services as a viable alternative to the car and our congested roads.
Enhanced Sunday services are especially important. We currently suffer from having only afternoon services, due to there being only one shift in signal boxes. There is also a strong case for extending the existing services beyond Derby and Crewe to Nottingham, Lincoln or Norwich in the east, and to Chester or Manchester airport in the west. The line once served such locations, only for them to be cut back. However, signalling improvements, particularly around Derby and Nottingham, have created additional paths to make that much more easy to achieve. Extending to Nottingham would have the desired effect of allowing people to transfer more easily to services further east, rather than having to change twice, as they do currently. When Crewe is redeveloped for HS2, it is imperative that through services from north Staffordshire westwards to Chester and Manchester airport are enhanced, not hindered.
It would be great if we could secure an accessibility project at Longton station as well, through Access for All funding. Platforms at Longton are accessed only by steps—an often insurmountable challenge for people with limited mobility. The bid that we have submitted would significantly enhance the station. It would help shoppers to get into the historic market town, which relies on customers and visitors getting there, and getting back with what they have bought. That would complement the Government’s high streets initiative, as I was happy to discuss with the Minister for high streets, who visited Longton earlier this month.
Local volunteers are making superb efforts to keep local stations clean and welcoming as part of the North Staffordshire community rail partnership. I know that the Minister will thank those volunteers for their dedication and hard work. In fact, I will be speaking at a meeting of the partnership’s sister organisation, the North Staffordshire rail promotion group, tomorrow evening. That group does excellent work representing rail users and promoting greater improvements to our local rail network. Its members hope that the frequency, capacity and reach of services to and from Longton and many other stations will be increased, and that new franchisees will work with Network Rail to progress the reopening of stations. Stations at Meir and Fenton on that line would be especially welcome to those communities, restoring important rail links and recognising the significant economic and housing growth in those areas since the stations closed.
If we are to successfully deliver further new homes and jobs, the need for reopened stations at Fenton and Meir will become irresistible. The reality is that the limited frequency of services on the line mean that those stations could likely be reintroduced without much real impact to service patterns. Indeed, passengers from Fenton and Meir could help the line to thrive. I have lost count of the number of stations that, on reopening, have vastly exceeded the expectations of rail companies and the Department for Transport in attracting new people on to our rail network.
I now turn to the future of the wider rail network, to which Stoke-on-Trent is connected, and specifically to HS2. Local stations such as Longton need to be seen as key feeder stations for local HS2 traffic. Opportunities for employment and homes could be spread more widely, and the area could be a destination for tourists attracted to the authentic Potteries landscape of potbanks, many of which are in Longton. The Secretary of State knows from his visit exactly how ambitious we are. The scale of rail improvements that we are seeking and planning for is, like HS2 itself, unmatched since the Victorian era. We are keen to embrace the opportunities of HS2, which has huge potential in terms of new homes and jobs growth, delivering a significant uptick for UK GDP, and the potential to move the city from being a net taker to a net contributor.
For that to happen, the Government need to be clear about the best future services pattern to meet projected growth, and to recognise the importance of upgrades on the conventional network to fully enable comprehensive, classic, compatible services to a wide range of destinations. Unless we have full integration of HS2 with the conventional network, we will fail to deliver the full benefits of upgrading our rail infrastructure. I am afraid that a number of bottlenecks will remain on the network post HS2, permanently affecting what is possible in terms of service. That is most pronounced going north to Manchester or Liverpool, where we are yet to see effective solutions from HS2 or Network Rail. Those organisations have not been working together effectively to develop meaningful solutions.
It is imperative that Stoke-on-Trent continues to enjoy regular fast services to London—at least one every half-hour, as we have now, or more frequently. HS2 compatibility should offer my constituents improved quality of services and journey times, and not diminish those. Any future redevelopment of Stoke station must take full account of the importance of delivering the full advantages of HS2, helping us to maximise both housing and commercial development across north Staffordshire, and fully seizing the economic opportunities that Stoke-on-Trent offers.
Frustratingly, the current proposal is for us to have only one HS2 train an hour, terminating at Macclesfield. I am afraid that really is not good enough. Of course, it is welcome that we are to be an HS2-connected place. Although I would say nothing to denigrate the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), it is a reality that the majority of people will want to use high-speed rail to travel between the largest cities. I therefore urge the Government to focus on ensuring that proposed services go beyond Macclesfield and terminate at Manchester Piccadilly.
It is also essential to address the lack of fast, direct services between Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham, to match the good-quality services currently offered between Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester. HS2 has the potential to address the severe overcrowding and poor connectivity currently experienced on that route. One HS2 service every hour from Curzon Street through Stoke-on-Trent and further north would help to relieve significant bottlenecks to the north of Birmingham, especially through Wolverhampton.
In addition, there is potential to improve connectivity further by providing new, direct, inter-city services that are currently lacking, such as between Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool. Such a Birmingham service could do Curzon Street, Stoke-on-Trent, Crewe and Liverpool Lime Street. That would fully exploit the huge potential for economic growth from the midlands engine and northern powerhouse initiatives, with Stoke-on-Trent being the key gateway to the north.
Smooth connectivity on services that run from Stoke-on-Trent is important. Trains should, as far as possible, minimise waiting times for those connecting from stations such as Longton. It is not uncommon to have to wait up to 50 minutes for connecting trains, simply because only one train an hour goes to stations such as Longton. Operators need to recognise the potential for substantial passenger growth from the city. Many current services are extremely overcrowded and in desperate need of an upgrade.
At present, the most significant problem is with CrossCountry trains through Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford, which tend to be four to five-carriage diesel multiple units. We really need to double that. Bimodal eight-carriage units would be able to meet the real demand on that route. Longer, more frequent bimodal trains on the Manchester-Bournemouth line through Stoke-on-Trent would also open the possibility of increased travel to Heathrow via Reading for Elizabeth line services.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I entirely back him on all these issues, particularly on CrossCountry through Stafford and Stoke. I recently stood all the way from Oxford to Stafford because it was a four-coach train. That was not the first time I have had to do that; it happens pretty much all the time. Those trains obviously need to be doubled in size without delay.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I totally agree. From travelling on those routes myself, I know that they are very overcrowded—in some cases, so overcrowded that I would say they are unsafe.
The northern end of the route between Stoke-on-Trent and New Street suffers particularly from significant overcrowding, which has a knock-on effect on the reliability of cleanliness and catering availability. It is also concerning that overcrowding on trains is creating safety issues, especially at New Street, where limited numbers of doors and small vestibule spaces are simply not designed to accommodate the large volumes of passengers changing trains.
There is also real potential to expand services east-west, either through the CrossCountry franchise or by allowing entrepreneurial open access operators on that part of the network, resulting in better competition. As I mentioned, the Crewe to Derby line has the potential to facilitate east-west services well beyond those that already exist. It is worth noting that the journey time from Liverpool to Nottingham is virtually the poorest between any major cities in the country. Midlands Connect demonstrates the potential to facilitate a new inter-city service that could connect Crewe to Totton, as well as connecting other east-west destinations via Stoke-on-Trent. Essential to that is redoubling the line between Crewe and Alsager, which is the only single-track section of the line and is widely recognised as a major constraint on service enhancement. That will prove particularly challenging once HS2 is operational, but I am pleased that Network Rail now recognises this challenge and understands that it is far from impossible to overcome.
I am delighted that the Department has announced the Williams review, a much-needed root-and-branch review of how our railways work today and how they should be reformed for the successful future of the dynamic, customer-focused and more competitive industry that we want to see nationally and locally. It should tackle the issues highlighted in the excellent work of Transport Focus. The fare-paying public want value for money, punctuality and a seat, all of which should be reasonable asks.
I make several asks of the Minister. Will he continue to support transport improvements in Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund and support for accessibility work at Longton station? Will he commit to ensuring that HS2 benefits the whole of Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire, with improvements on the classic network to fully maximise the opportunities for Stoke-on-Trent? Will we get more services for Longton, new stations at Meir and Fenton on the east-west line that runs beyond the current artificial termini of Crewe and Derby, and franchises that provide longer, more frequent and better serviced trains and greater opportunities for open access providers to enter the market to enhance competition and better meet demand?
To achieve our potential, a new era of railway expansion is necessary. This is a national issue, but its local effects are particularly acute in north Staffordshire. I am delighted to have been able to outline many of the issues, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I call Paul Farrelly.
Thank you, Mr—sorry, Sir David. My glasses need adjusting, and so does my memory.
I applaud the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), particularly for his focus on once-functional railway stations in his constituency and for his call for light rail to go alongside bus improvements in his city, which lies next to my constituency in north Staffordshire. I will focus on something different: train operator Midlands Connect’s proposal to improve east-west and west-east rail services. That is important in itself, but the march of HS2 makes it crucial.
I was the first MP through the Lobby to vote against the HS2 extension from Birmingham to Crewe. It was largely symbolic, I admit, but there were two important reasons for it. First, at that stage the HS2 proposals largely bypassed Stoke-on-Trent. Without improvements, the lessons from overseas, not least from France, are hardly encouraging for areas bypassed by high-speed rail. Secondly, although we need more capacity, the driving motivation behind HS2 seems so often to have been for people to get out of London and back into it more quickly from north to south. Connectivity in Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and across the north-west is frankly woeful, and it very much deserves the priority that it is now being given under the working title of HS3.
Newcastle-under-Lyme is one of the biggest towns in the UK—perhaps the biggest—whose centre is not served by a railway station. In most advanced economies in Europe, that would be not only an anomaly but totally unacceptable. My Conservative opponent in the 2017 general election, with whom I get on very well, placed a new mainline railway station for Newcastle at the heart of his campaign; I do not know whether he knew this, but across the patch it earned him the nickname of “Choo Choo”. It is an admirable ambition, and I would certainly love a new light railway station to restore Newcastle to its former glory, but I do not usually put “Dear Santa” requests at the heart of electioneering, either in times of austerity or otherwise, which is why I have never called for the Government to step in and build Newcastle a new castle. A realistic and proper priority is to vastly improve rail links between Crewe, Stoke and Derby and beyond, not least with HS2 on the horizon.
Anyone who has taken the slow, crawling bone-shaker of a ride from Stoke to Crewe well knows what I mean. It is a joke—but it is no joke. It takes up to half an hour to travel the 15 miles to Crewe and another 50 minutes or more to traverse the 35 miles to Derby. That is an hour and 20 minutes, if you are lucky, to travel 50 miles in this day and age—practically what it takes to get from Stoke to London.
As for the quality, I must admit that I once missed that service, despite arriving well in time. I remember it only too well: it was St George’s day 2015, not long before the general election, and I was going over to Derby. I sat innocently sipping coffee in the newish gourmet café at Stoke station, forgetting that the one-carriage service cannot be seen through the windows. I watched it slowly sliding out of the station without me as I wiped the froth of my cappuccino away. I was tempted to chase it to nearby Blythe Bridge station, but slow as the train is, there would have been no chance of making it through the peak-hour traffic jams of Stoke-on-Trent to catch it.
That brings me to my next point, which Midlands Connect’s scheme highlights. Improvement to rail services in north Staffordshire must go hand in hand with road improvements, not least in relation to HS2. Years ago, we had one great road improvement: the A50. I remember interviewing Stan Clarke, the local and legendary chair of St Modwen Properties, for The Observer 20 years ago in his boardroom at Uttoxeter racecourse. I asked him what the proudest achievement in his life was, and the answer came as rather a surprise: it was driving the A50 from the M1 to Stoke, because it made the land that he had gathered around JCB much more valuable. It certainly improved the journey, but it is now time for rail improvement in our area and on the other side of the city to go hand in hand with improvements to the roads.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will therefore join me in congratulating the Government on the £50 million-plus that they have invested in road improvements on the A50 in Uttoxeter, which will make a big difference to all our constituents.
I will congratulate any Government on any improvements in our area, but they must go much, much further.
Like many of my constituents in Newcastle, I live pretty much halfway between Stoke and Crewe. Driving at peak times to Crewe—where the new HS2 station will be, with more frequent services and with services to Manchester as well as London—means hitting huge jams around junction 16 of the M6. If the Government are to make the huge investment in HS2 work for our area rather than against it, it will demand sensible investment in other road and rail projects in north Staffordshire.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South on securing this debate and I commend Midlands Connect for its plans to upgrade services. I urge the Minister and the Government not just to listen, but to act and invest.
As a Cheshire MP, I speak on behalf of residents of the town of Alsager, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) mentioned in his excellent speech.
Alsager station is just a mile from the Staffordshire border. The rail route from it passes through Staffordshire, runs to Stoke-on-Trent and beyond, and is served by the same rail companies: East Midlands Trains, London Northwestern Railway and West Midlands Railway. In his speech, my hon. Friend harked back to the days when many of the workers in the pottery manufacturing companies travelled conveniently to their jobs in the Stoke area, including from Alsager. I think trains are particularly valued by Alsager residents for that reason. One wrote to me that
“Alsager residents value their trains, particularly as bus services aren’t brilliant, but there needs to be better communication between train companies and better links between stations.”
I will come on to the detail of that in a moment.
Earlier this month, I held a surgery late one evening at Congleton station. I was impressed, though not entirely surprised, that no less than 30 to 40 residents came along on a dark wintry evening. I know from my postbag that there are considerable concerns in my constituency about train services. Many of the points raised by residents at that meeting are echoed by residents in Alsager. They include a lack of joined-up thinking by rail companies on the services and timing of trains; trains are too infrequent and often overcrowded, and they stop too early in the evening; and there is some confusion and a perception of unfairness about charges. Having held that surgery with Congleton residents, I now contribute to this debate on behalf of my Alsager residents.
I have four points, and I apologise if some appear to be somewhat technical in detail, but the detail of timing can make all the difference to a daily commuter, and the detail of charges can make all the difference to young people for whom finances are a big consideration. The main issue is that, with only two trains an hour each way from Alsager, they are timetabled too closely together—only five minutes apart. I have raised that with train operators to no avail, so I hope that the Minister might be able to do something. I know he is a very hard-working and earnest Minister, always smiling, whatever is put before him.
Here is an example of the problem: the 11.11 am from Alsager to Stoke is followed by the 11.16 am from Alsager to Stoke, provided by a different service. The next train is at 12.11 pm. The trains that arrive close together from Crewe can also cause problems for cars and congestion at the barriers at Alsager, because the barriers can be down for 10 minutes or more. Passengers who aim for the later of the two trains, but arrive a little short of time, albeit with enough time to make their train, can be stuck on the other side of a barrier that has been down since the earlier train, and they miss their train.
My second point is on ticket pricing. An advance single ticket from Stoke to Manchester can cost as little as £6.10, but an anytime ticket from Alsager via Crewe, which is two stops closer to Manchester, costs £12.70. I asked the young person who raised this with me, “Can you not buy an advance ticket from Alsager?” They said, “Yes, technically you can buy an advance ticket from Alsager to Manchester, but it is not economical. You buy the £6.10 advance ticket from Stoke to Manchester, and to make use of that, you pay £5.10 to travel two stops back on the line from Alsager to Stoke.” The difference in price for a young person travelling regularly is a big one.
My third point is about the lack of connectivity and joined-up thinking. To get from Alsager to Congleton on the train, a passenger would have to go via Stoke or Kidsgrove. I drive that in about 10 minutes by car, but travelling by rail can involve long waits for connecting trains. The connecting trains are not well timed or organised. I apologise for the figures here, but to get to Manchester, National Rail recommends the 11.16 am to Kidsgrove, which is one stop further away from Manchester, which gets in at 11.21 am; there is then a 40-minute wait for the 12.03 pm to Manchester. The passenger might as well drive to Kidsgrove and park there—if they have a car. Again, that is not always practical for young people. Alternatively, there is a 24-minute wait at Crewe station, but the ticket is about £1 more expensive, so it is cheapest and quickest to pay £5.10 to go two stops back to Stoke, then catch a quicker and cheaper £6.10 train to Manchester from there. That is all too confusing unless someone is very familiar with the way the trains work.
My fourth and final point relates to a promise made in August 2017, when a West Midlands Rail spokesman said:
“The new franchisee, West Midlands Trains Limited, will continue to run direct services to London from Stone, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent and Alsager.”
Alsager passengers all hope that they will still be getting the service in December this year—three days’ time—as suggested then. The franchisee representative continued:
“The only difference from December 2018 is that these services will go to Euston via...Birmingham...rather than Tamworth and Lichfield on the Trent Valley Line. The change of route for London bound services so they run through the heart of the West Midlands Conurbation follows a major public consultation in 2015 where the majority of passengers said they wanted more trains from Stone, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent and Alsager to Birmingham.”
My constituents tell me that not much has been said about that since then. It would be very helpful to know whether the service to London is going to go ahead in three days’ time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing such a timely debate.
North Staffordshire is perfectly situated in the centre of the country, and we currently benefit from good direct lines to both Manchester and Birmingham, as well as an excellent service to the capital, but while those connections to other major economic hubs remain strong, beneath the surface there is another story, which Members have already touched on. Lack of capacity on certain routes and historical under-investment in our smaller local stations has left the Potteries with a rail system that does not always meet the needs of travellers and commuters. Those limitations have a knock-on effect on our local economy, and with our tourism industry continuing to increase—who would not want to visit Moorcroft Pottery, Ford Green Hall or Burslem School of Art?—it is more important than ever that people can get to and from our city as swiftly and efficiently as possible.
The hon. Gentleman made particular note of the Crewe to Derby line. The lack of capacity on that route is a matter of regular complaints from my constituents. The size of trains, often consisting of just one carriage, is frequently insufficient to meet the needs of passengers. The problem is particularly acute at peak time for people working in and travelling to Derby or Crewe, as well as on race day, as revellers on the way to Uttoxeter find themselves squeezed shoulder to shoulder throughout the corridors and vestibules.
Capacity is also a problem on the CrossCountry service to Birmingham, Bristol and Bournemouth—a particularly expensive and appalling service. I do not want to rant about my own experiences, as that would be an abuse of the Chamber, but they have not been good. More importantly, my constituents are regularly subjected to spending the entire journey jammed into the vestibule with dozens of other passengers. That is made worse by incredibly poor customer service and a disgraceful attitude towards passengers from rail staff. On one occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and I were forced to intervene when staff refused to allow a heavily pregnant woman to sit in the only seat available, which happened to be in first class, to avoid the sweltering crush of an over-packed vestibule, with people being forced to stand in the toilet. That was a shocking incident and one which, more than a year later, CrossCountry has never adequately responded to.
It is clear that capacity is an issue on the line, even on those more frequent services, but I wish to make another vital point about the under-investment in, and under-utilisation of, our smaller local train stations. One such example is Kidsgrove train station, a well-used local station that provides vital transport links with the wider area—although I am sad that some people have to travel back and forth, because everyone should visit Kidsgrove. In 2010, the station’s usage was 100,000 journeys per year; today it stands at 228,000. Despite the evident demand for a local transport hub, it has taken nearly a decade to secure the additional investment that residents have long campaigned for. At this point I must thank Jon Honeysett for his advice and support during the campaign.
When I was first elected to Parliament in 2015, one of my first acts was to meet the then Transport Minister to make clear the importance of the investment. At that time the issue had already been rumbling on unresolved for seven years, but at last the long-awaited improvements to the station have begun, and I want to put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for his direct intervention in support of the project. Work is now under way to improve and expand the station car park, which will include an hour of free parking for local residents to support the local town centre. The improvements to the access bridge, which will make it fully disability accessible, are on course to be completed by next summer. No one will now have to travel from Stoke to Crewe in order to come back to Kidsgrove to get off the train.
I am delighted that after years of campaigning, the investment was finally secured, but it is indicative of the Government’s attitude to transport infrastructure outside of the major conurbations that it took so long. Such lack of focus on the importance of smaller stations can also be seen when it comes to Longport station, located in Burslem in the heart of my constituency.
Burslem is the mother town of the Potteries and plays a key part in our city’s cultural renaissance; it is also a big draw for tourists visiting Stoke-on-Trent to explore our proud ceramic heritage. It is home to Middleport Pottery, a beautifully restored Victorian potbank and the home of the iconic Burleighware pottery. It is an architectural showcase of our town in its own right. It is also the station that services Port Vale football club. Given Burslem’s obvious importance to our city, it would make sense to make greater use of Longport station as a way of getting people easily to and from the town, yet that station is served by only a small number of routes, including the previously mentioned Crewe to Derby line and one early morning service to Manchester. By improving connectivity within the six towns as well as routes in and out of the city, we could provide a huge boost for the local economy and begin to tackle the immense strain on our road infrastructure.
A truly effective public transport system is one that is tailored to meet the needs of local businesses and local residents. Currently, we simply do not have that. We should begin to make timetabling more responsive to people’s needs, not just with regard to the daily commute, vital though that is, but with an eye towards bringing more people into the local area, especially for major events.
In the summer I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful Weeping Window exhibition on display in my constituency. The installation attracted more than 100,000 visitors, but many more could have come if additional rail services had been offered to get people to and from Longport station. Sadly, given the Government’s long and depressing track record when it comes to infrastructure investment in the north and midlands, I fear such improvements will be stymied. Despite years of talk about the northern powerhouse, the Institute for Public Policy Research North found that Government spending on transport in London has risen twice as much per person compared with the rest of the country since 2014. While London receives £1,019 per head in public spending on transport, the west midlands receives less than half of that—just £412 per person. That imbalance cannot continue. Our rail services are vital to my constituents, but our transport infrastructure will achieve its full potential only when residents’ concerns about quality are matched by the Government’s urgency to invest.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Sir David. It is also wonderful to welcome the Minister back to the Department. It is particularly good for me that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) talked about the Government’s record in investing in infrastructure. As I alluded to earlier, in my tenure as the Member of Parliament for Burton I have seen more than £50 million of Government investment in the A50 upgrade. I was also lucky enough to receive some £6.1 million from the Minister. When I went to him with a proposal to upgrade St Peter’s bridge in Burton, he listened carefully and considered the case that I put to him. He got out his pen and wrote a cheque for £6.1 million, which has made a huge difference to St Peter’s bridge and helps with traffic flow in and around the town.
Although I am the MP for the constituency of Burton, I represent both Burton and Uttoxeter, or, as the locals call it, Utcheter, and I rise today to speak about the problems of transport in Uttoxeter. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned Uttoxeter racecourse. Uttoxeter is famous for many things. It is the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson and those mighty yellow diggers, JCB. It is also the home of Uttoxeter racecourse, one of the country’s finest. As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) said, it was formerly owned by Sir Stan Clarke. It provides a huge boost for the local economy in Uttoxeter. On midlands grand national days—if you ever fancy coming, Sir David, I would be delighted to host you—some 16,000 people descend on Uttoxeter to enjoy the fabulous hospitality provided by David MacDonald, who runs Uttoxeter racecourse, and his brilliant and dedicated team. With recent investment, the racecourse is going from strength to strength. We have regular meetings on Sundays that start at 1 o’clock. Racegoers are keen to attend the races, have a flutter and enjoy the day. With thousands of people wanting to attend, one would think they would be able to hop on a train and arrive at the handily located train station right next door to the racecourse: a 30-second walk. However, the first train to Uttoxeter on a Sunday is at 2.30, which means racegoers have already missed at least an hour and a half of good betting. That causes the racecourse great concern and racegoers great frustration.
I have been campaigning for some considerable time for improvements in the service. The problems with the single-carriage train that rattles along have already been discussed. Clearly, there is no way that that service adequately serves the numbers of people that want to come to Uttoxeter to enjoy our hospitality. When the earliest train to Stoke from Uttoxeter on a Sunday is the 1503 and to Derby the 1454, it is simply not sufficient. I have been banging that drum for some time and I had some good news. I am pleased to relay it to colleagues, who will be interested.
I wrote for the 20th or 30th time to the Minister’s predecessor and he wrote back in the summer to say that
“there will be an extra carriage (or carriages) operating on the route. This will be supplemented by additional early and late services and improved Sunday services.”
I was cock-a-hoop that the campaigning had led to a promise of increased services on a Sunday, so I wrote back to the Minister to see if I could winkle out a little more detail, and he wrote back:
“To clarify the position on Sunday services on the Crewe-Derby line, we have specified that an early morning Sunday service is to start from 2021.”
That is wonderful. Rather than, as we had hoped, modernised signalling facilities, what is being proposed is extra signalling staff to change the signals manually. That solution is very welcome. It will mean that my racegoers in Uttoxeter will be able to get there in plenty of time, perhaps to have a pint or two of Marston’s Pedigree, which is served at the racecourse, and enjoy the facilities. It will improve the service for residents in Stoke and Derby, too. Never completely satisfied, however, I have a question for the Minister: I am really pleased that the service is to be improved and that we shall benefit from that, but why wait until 2021? I urge the Minister to do as he did for me previously and get out his chequebook, and see whether he can bring the date forward a couple of years. Let us have a date of 2019 rather than 2021. If that happens, the Minister can come on the first service on a race day, and have a flutter with me. I will even give him a fiver for a bet.
I have met all three people who are bidding for the new franchise and have made the case for improved services. I think that if the Minister casts his beady eye over the bids and measures them against the requests that I have made for improvements in carriages, quality and punctuality, we can have an improved service. I know, given the rigour and commitment that he brings to his role, he will do that.
I have one further question before I conclude. It concerns the other of the two towns that I represent—Burton—and I want to talk about the station, maintained by East Midlands Trains. When I showed the former Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), a picture of Burton train station he said it was the ugliest train station he had ever seen. He was being quite polite. It is hideous—an eyesore. The Prince of Wales would, I think, call it a carbuncle. It is important that the station, which is the gateway to Burton—and Burton is the gateway to the national forest—should be improved rapidly. We need to improve its aesthetics and quality. I am pleased to say that East Staffordshire Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council are committed to trying to improve the quality of the station, but we need a helping hand. May I ask the Minister whether he would be prepared to come to see for himself the wreckage that is Burton train station? Perhaps together we can put on a bit of pressure to make sure that Burton has the pretty and attractive train station it deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. In view of the time, I shall try to run through my comments at relatively high speed. Without wishing to repeat comments made by my hon. Friends and colleagues this afternoon, I want to reiterate three points of particular interest. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), on securing this debate on matters of infrastructure and transport. I think that we speak with one voice about our city, as we all recognise the importance of such investment and what it can unlock for the economics of both the city and the wider North Staffordshire area.
Every Monday morning, my journey to Parliament place starts at Stoke-on-Trent railway station. I can get on the 10.12 train and pretty much be in Portcullis House just after midday. That is a two-hour door-to-door journey. It is a fabulous journey time, considering the distance. However, some mornings it takes me 45 minutes to get from my home to the railway station in Stoke-on-Trent—a journey of not more than four miles—if I hit peak traffic. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, and other colleagues who mentioned it, about the wider infrastructure around Stoke-on-Trent that allows people access to the rail network.
Stoke-on-Trent railway station deals with more than 3 million journeys a year. If Kidsgrove, Longport and Stafford and the stations that immediately serve the conurbation are included, we are easily talking about 4 million or 5 million journeys a year. That is not an insignificant number, but getting to a station at peak travel time can be the most arduous part of the journey, irrespective of where someone is going on the rail network. I would welcome comments from the Minister about what plan the Government have to deliver the integrated transport system that we need, which would serve North Staffordshire well. I am not only talking about driving a car, but about local bus routes. Bus services in North Staffordshire serve the places they need to serve; but they do not necessarily go to the places passengers want to go to. For someone who lives in Staffordshire Moorlands, trying to get to Stoke-on-Trent railway station—which is the one that serves the community—from Leek, Werrington or Cheadle would be a struggle on public transport at the key times when people seek to travel. Likewise, moving around the city becomes difficult.
I want to focus particularly on the Crewe-Stoke-Derby line. I think that the theme for today’s debate has been hinted at. It is not necessarily the greatest service in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) was right when he called it a single-carriage boneshaker. It is a single carriage that trundles through Stoke-on-Trent—an embarrassment to a rather impressive railway station. People going to Derby or Uttoxeter can often be seen squeezing on to a single carriage. The only other time I see that is when I try to get on to the Northern line at busy times when I come to this place. At least then there is another train coming in two minutes, rather than an hour.
We know—and it is what Midlands Connect has done with its services—that with an increase in frequency and a doubling of carriage size there could be a 72% increase in use of the line from Crewe to Derby. That would result in new passengers using the line for access to the services available in Derby and Crewe. It would also, for Stoke-on-Trent’s purposes, mean more people coming to the city to take on the new jobs that will be coming as part of the local growth programme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) mentioned, we are missing a trick by not having services that work on race days. The A50 may now be resurfaced, but it can still only take as many cars as it could before. The roundabout halfway along, with the hotel that JCB uses, remains a snagging point. Regardless of how smooth the roads to it and around it are, more cars cannot go through that neck than will fit. We are therefore missing a trick in the matter of alleviating pressure on the A50 as well as boosting the economic activity of one of the county’s largest employers, and one of the largest contributors to the economy.
I can get from Stoke-on-Trent to London in about an hour and 25 minutes. That is without stopping at Milton Keynes; with that stop, it takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes. However, when people come from London to Stoke-on-Trent they often say to me “I didn’t realise it was this close.” They mean they did not realise they could get there so quickly. Sometimes we forget that Stoke-on-Trent’s position on the rail network and its proximity to London make for good timing, which businesses can make use of. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I mention that the issue was pushed to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), when she was talking about High Speed 2. There are still things we are unsure about, with respect to HS2 provision in Stoke-on-Trent. We know we should be served by the compatible work, and that there will be a train stopping at our station. We do not know what the cumulative impact will be on our existing fast services and our existing commuter service to the rest of the county. The hon. Lady gave us as much information as she could at the time, I think, but there is still a question, on which we should like some guarantee, as to whether the additional HS2 service will in fact be additional—that it will not be in place of our existing fast train service. That could be cost-prohibitive, and there are issues as to whether it will serve intervening stations, and as to how sustainable it is.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley)—and we have discussed the matter. Lovely as Macclesfield is, if the train is going north it should go from Macclesfield to Manchester, and, ideally, to Manchester airport. If that cannot happen by way of high-speed rail, a local service that can take people from Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester airport would be a huge boost to the local economy. We already have the direct link through Birmingham International station to Birmingham International airport, but we do not have a similar link going north.
I want to touch on freight, as we have talked quite a lot today about passenger services. Stoke-on-Trent relies heavily on freight, particularly for the ceramics industry. Clay coming from Cornwall travels up the west coast main line to be deposited at a repository just south of the city, from where it can be taken to the various wonderful potbanks we still have in the city. There is an opportunity, through the ceramic valley enterprise zone and the Blue Planet site with JCB, to consider spur lines that could allow the direct delivery of a rail service to those areas where economic growth and new jobs will be delivered in the city. When JCB took on the Blue Planet site, it said that the spur line that exists on a map is still technically a registered railway. There was even an opportunity for it to consider moving additional work there, so that it could compile its well-identified brand of diggers, put them on a train, and send them straight out—that would alleviate some of the stress and strains placed on the local road network when big loads move through.
Finally, what can we do with existing railway lines that are not used? As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, many of the trackways used by the Knotty, the old North Staffordshire loop line, still exist. They would not be usable or functional for reopening a railway in their current state, but there are examples—not least the line that runs from Silverdale to Newcastle and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme—of lines that have been turned into cycle routes or pedestrian-friendly routes away from the main line, and where alternative forms of transport can use the infrastructure that was once laid down to allow people to cycle or walk. If we could consider those issues, we could take some of the history and heritage of our railway infrastructure in North Staffordshire and put it to better use for pedestrians.
Finally, those Members who, having heard this debate are on their way to Stoke-on-Trent and cannot wait to get on a train, will now find when they get to the station a wonderful new establishment called the bod.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was concluding my remarks by inviting anybody who is on their way to Stoke-on-Trent on a train to stop at the new bod, the establishment that has been put together on the station by Titanic Brewery, replacing the first-class lounge. They have made the station safer by doing that, because the traditional cafés that were there closed around 5.30 pm or 6 pm. That meant that if people were catching a train after 6 pm, they sat in a cold, wet station with no access even to a cup of tea, and with very few people around. That new provision is open until quite late, meaning that there are people keeping an eye on what is going on there. There is a safe place to sit and, importantly, it is showcasing one of the best employers and businesses in Stoke-on-Trent—according to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, it is based in Burslem. I congratulate once again the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South on securing the debate.
Owing to the Division, this session will now finish at 4.16 pm—colleagues should bear that in mind. I call Rachael Maskell.
Thank you, Sir David—it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I welcome the Minister to his place. It seems that he has so much power in his pen already, and I will certainly be joining the queue to make bids for my constituency.
I welcome the debate, which has been led by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). It has been really crucial for the future of Stoke, and he presented his case very comprehensively. Ultimately this debate is about connectivity across our rail services, which is vital. We must remember that that is the purpose of our rail service: this is not about rail itself, but about ensuring that passengers and freight can move across our country smoothly and have the interconnectivity that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) raised in terms of intermodal connectivity, which is vital for ensuring that our systems work.
We have heard today about the need for station upgrades and reopenings, as well as improvements to routes. Those are absolutely vital for the economy in and around Stoke. It was a pleasure to talk to the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) earlier in the week, and he reminded me of the history of Stoke’s rail services and of how local MPs and pottery owners did not want stations in Stoke, because they would mean that pottery workers’ wages would have to be put up. Today, we have the reverse situation, with MPs campaigning to ensure that we have good-quality rail services for that very reason—so that wages can increase for the local community. How things can change over time.
We need to ensure that the vital economy around the ceramics industry—we have heard how the industry is moving into wider manufacturing and digitalisation—is serviced by a good transport system. I felt the pain of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South as they talked about the one-carriage bone rattler on the Crewe to Derby line and about the time it takes to move along the tracks. In fact, it can take as long to travel between Stoke and Derby as it does between Stoke and London, and it can take even longer to travel to Nottingham. We have a real problem with connectivity between our east-west services, particularly in the midlands and the north, and it is vital that we address that. Labour has said that that is a priority for us, and that is true not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central touched on, of Crossrail for the north—often referred to as HS3—and making sure that we get a full upgrade, because that will really build the northern powerhouse.
I felt the frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) when he highlighted that although HS2—super high-speed rail—is being built, there is little point to it if we cannot connect into it and travel to it, bar at a snail’s pace. It is important that we think those issues through when enhancements are projected.
The debate has made it clear that the fragmentation across the railway service has created much of this pain. Stoke-on-Trent railway station hosts five different rail operators, and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) highlighted the lack of joined-up working across those services. That is why Labour has put on record that we should have one railway system—a new model of nationalisation, which does not go back to the past, but which moves forward to make sure we get that connectivity on track and train, but also across the whole network. People’s journeys do not start and stop where operators do, and we need to ensure that the whole system works.
There must also be transparency on fares—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned—so that people actually know what they are paying for when buying tickets. Let’s face it: we all feel we are being done when we buy our train tickets, so we need that transparency.
We also need to make sure that we have proper planning when operations, maintenance and enhancements are brought into rail services, to make sure those services are integrated and properly planned so we get the services we need. We need to look at not only track and train upgrades, but electrification and digitalisation, to move our railway system into the new era.
We should also ensure that every station is accessible. I remind hon. Members that many stations are still inaccessible 23 years after the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That is a real disgrace. If they are accessible for disabled people, they are also accessible for parents with little ones in buggies, shoppers and everyone else who wishes to use the railway network. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on her tenacious campaigning for access improvements at her station, Kidsgrove, which has clearly born fruit. MPs have campaigned for that for years, but she has delivered it for her constituents, and she must be congratulated on that.
We need to invest in the right places, and we need to reopen stations—especially given the opportunity that light rail could bring to places such as Stoke—to make sure we see a modal shift out of cars and away from congestion and polluting the environment, and on to well-connected rail services and good buses. We in this House have a duty to drive forward the debate against climate change, and we do that not just by talking about it—we have talked much—but by the decisions and actions that we take.
It is so important that Midlands Connect, the transport infrastructure body, really works on this agenda with local Members and the local authority. We want the best in the UK—not just the best for places such as Stoke, but the best in Europe. There are so many great examples out there of how connectivity and cleaning up rail and transport systems can be done, and we are ambitious about making that happen.
In concluding, I will just touch on HS2, because it has been mentioned in the debate. We need to ensure that there is good connectivity into HS2. During its construction, we need to make sure we maximise the opportunity for rail links to ensure that places such as Stoke and beyond end up with the connectivity they need. I heard the plea made very clearly about having links into Manchester airport, which is absolutely vital for the local economy, but it is also about making sure we have the connectivity map. My fear about HS2, which I have articulated a number of times, is that it has become about HS2 itself, as opposed to about enhanced rail infrastructure across the country. We need to move the debate forward and ensure accountability to make sure we get the rail service we need across our country. HS2 comes with opportunities—we have heard how Crewe could be revitalised as a vital railway town—and we must make sure that Stoke does not miss out.
We have had an excellent debate this afternoon, and many issues have been raised. I am sure the Minister’s pen is poised, given the multiple requests he has had this afternoon. As we move forward, I am confident that Labour has the right plan for the future of our railways. We do not need the Williams review; we have done the work with all the stakeholders on the railways. We are ready to run—we just need to have the Minister’s pen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing the debate. The speeches we have heard from Members on both sides make clear the ambition for the area, and we have had some very informed contributions detailing how that ambition might be delivered.
There have been some common themes, including the connectivity and, in particular, the capacity of the north Staffordshire rail line. That reflects historical under-investment in our railway. That accusation can be made against Governments of all colours over a considerable number of years, but I do not think it is an accusation that can be made against this Government. We are looking at the biggest period of rail investment since the Victorian era. Just next year, from April onwards, we will be starting what is called control period 6, which will bring a £48 billion package of investment—a record in British history and the biggest since the Victorian era. Nobody can accuse this Government of failing to recognise the importance of rail or of not matching that in our Budgets.
As all the contributions to the debate showed, we can all agree on the tremendous importance of the region, whether in terms of industrial growth, passenger growth, the opportunity that has been presented by HS2, or the importance of passengers reaching the HS2 hubs so that they can access that new service, right down to the rail user groups as well. Would I share in congratulating those groups? Yes, I most certainly would. Rail user groups up and down our country do fantastic work, whether it is looking after stations or promoting services. This morning, I was at Hadley Wood railway station in north London, meeting some of its rail user groups, which have taken on a significant environmental project. Those groups and their work have changed our national policy. I was there to launch the Department’s review, carried out by John Varley, of Network Rail’s vegetation policy—how to make our railway lines more environmentally friendly. Rail user groups of course have a big role to play.
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I have listened carefully to representations about rail services and other matters, in particular about the services between Derby and Crewe. Overcrowding, especially during peak hours, is clearly a major problem, which has come about for a variety of reasons. Simple passenger growth along on the line has been compounded by the need to take some trains out of service in order to carry out accessibility improvements, alongside the regular maintenance cycle. I fully recognise that that has compounded the problem, but it is anticipated that overcrowding will ease as the new rolling stock is procured or released from elsewhere in the network. I recognise that that has caused inconvenience to communities represented by colleagues in the Chamber, and I regret that.
We seek ways in which to improve services in future. The Department and Network Rail are fully engaged with Midlands Connect, which has recognised the importance of the north Staffordshire line in its transport strategy. The Government have committed £12 million to fund Midlands Connect to the end of the next financial year, with additional investment to further develop focused transport proposals throughout the midlands.
With that support, Midlands Connect plans to produce a strategic outline business case next year, to assess how service capacity and frequency might be improved significantly on the north Staffordshire line, including consideration of infrastructure upgrades such as improved signalling or alterations to level crossings, rolling stock improvements, and operational measures such as changes to stopping patterns. The business case will look at ways of doubling existing service frequency and reducing journey times by 20 minutes. Midlands Connect estimates that increasing service provision in that way could increase passenger demand on the line by 72%, which is a figure quoted earlier.
Investing in that corridor will complement the midlands rail hub proposals, which seek to increase capacity radically and reduce journey times across the region. The work to develop the scheme is supported by the Department, which has provided a further £5 million. The work is intended to double the frequency of services between Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham and Lincoln.
Further to that, as part of the strategic development corridor work, Transport for the North is reviewing options to improve connectivity in the Crewe to Derby corridor as part of its strategic transport plan. We fully recognise the need to invest in modern infrastructure to support better services—the two go hand in hand, which is why we have the biggest upgrade of the midland main line since it was completed in 1870, in an investment worth £1.5 billion.
Ambitious works to modernise and improve the railway at Derby station were recently completed. In fact, I am to visit it tomorrow morning, and am very much looking forward to doing so. That once-in-a-generation upgrade includes 17 km of new track, 55 new signals, 79 sets of points and nine new overhead gantries. The previous complex and inefficient track layout has been simplified to allow for more direct train movements to and through the station. We are not investing in our railway network purely because we want the network to be invested in; we are investing to increase capacity. It is all focused on passengers, who are at the heart of what we are doing.
The next East Midlands franchise is a piece of live work. Through our ambition and the invitation to tender, we intend to get new capacity coming on stream using some of the capabilities that we have been discussing. The invitation to tender published in June specifies an ambitious programme of benefits and improvements, including a brand-new fleet of longer, quieter, comfortable and more efficient bi-mode trains, which will provide additional seating and improved on-board facilities for long-distance services. The three bidders for the franchise are Abellio, Arriva and the existing provider, Stagecoach. On timing, we anticipate the announcement of the winning bidder in the spring, with services to commence in summer next year.
To focus on the Derby to Crewe corridor, the north Staffordshire line will benefit from increased capacity, which was at the heart of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. Trains will operate with at least one extra carriage to help to satisfy local demand. That will be supplemented by additional early and late services, and improved Sunday services. I cannot immediately promise the timing wanted by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), but I undertake to take that question away, look at it and come back to him.
As my hon. Friend is aware, however, Ministers are not directly involved in assessing bids, which is a piece of work done anonymously inside the Department, with the information kept secure because it is market sensitive. Bidders have nevertheless been incentivised to enhance existing direct journey opportunities, including east-west connectivity or the Crewe to Derby service. Passengers will also benefit from high-quality wi-fi and mobile connectivity on trains and in stations.
I have attended many transport debates, but never before has a Member highlighted the ugliness of their station; normally Members talk up their local area. Due to the miracle of parliamentary wi-fi, I have had a look at Burton station. It is not an architectural masterpiece, I recognise that. My hon. Friend was kind enough to invite me to visit his constituency, and I would be delighted to do so. Perhaps we could visit the St Peter’s bridge of earlier discussions, as well as looking at the station. He also mentioned a local brew on the way—always a pleasant thought.
Smart ticketing will be another feature of our modern railway. Smart ticketing options will be introduced for leisure and business journeys, including fares that offer better value for money for passengers travelling regularly but less often than five days a week. The new franchise has specified exemplary passenger satisfaction targets for trains, stations, customer services and dealing with delays. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) spoke about customer service, and I agree that we must have the highest levels of customer service on our railways. The East Midlands competition has attracted a strong field of companies, all of them determined to operate that vital franchise. The winning bidder will be the one that impresses the most, while obviously ensuring value for money and a good deal for taxpayers.
One particular feature of colleague concern has been communication and collaboration between the different parts of our rail network, whether on the detail of the 12.11 and the 12.16 at Alsager, or on the services to London—which I believe will continue but, from May next year, are likely to go via New Street station in Birmingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) highlighted a number of other questions, as have a lot of colleagues, and I will go through the record of the debate to ensure that I write to everyone with the detailed answers they sought. From May next year, however, she may at least expect an attractive service via New Street.
As part of our strategic vision for rail, the new franchise will introduce new ways of working that put passengers first. The historical separation of track and train, no longer suitable for the challenges of today’s intensively used railway, will end. In its place, we will introduce a new “one team” approach to embed shared incentives between Network Rail and the new operator that will ensure that passenger interests come first in all decision making. I hope that colleagues agree that the vision for the new franchise to serve the east midlands will ensure a service that is far more ambitious than that which it replaces, and will play a significant role in securing the long-term prosperity of the region.
HS2 has been mentioned by many colleagues in this debate. It is a fantastic project, and I look forward to it enormously. It will transform transport connections right across our country. Looking further ahead to its local impact, the second phase of HS2 will deliver considerable benefits for the region and has the potential to support growth right across the UK. Crewe is a key station for connectivity; HS2 will generate significant opportunities not just there but, because it is such a hub, for Wales, Cheshire, Warrington, the Wirral and the immediate area around Staffordshire. Crewe will be the hub that connects those areas, the north of England and the west coast mainline. It will totally revitalise the area with new opportunities, bringing businesses, jobs and housing to the wider region. Through HS2 connections at Crewe, passengers will benefit from shorter journeys to London and vice versa, as well as improved cross-country journey times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South highlighted the importance as a key feeder of Longton station in his constituency. That is entirely understood. The question now is how we maximise the benefits that HS2 will bring. This is a £50 billion-plus scheme; right across the country, contracts will be won by engineering businesses to deliver this fantastic scheme. The project now is how we maximise the opportunities and minimise the disruption to local communities during the build. We should be in no doubt, however, that HS2 is a fantastic, exciting project serving more than the immediate area; it is important for the whole UK. I certainly want Stoke-on-Trent to be served by HS2.
There have been a number of comments on timetabling, ticket pricing, local delivery plans for Staffordshire and whether the line from Stoke to Stockton Brook will be reopened. The rail strategy published in November 2017 includes a section on exploiting opportunities to restore capacity lost under Beeching where that unlocks housing and growth. Any potential reopening would need to be supported via a strong business case to demonstrate an economic return. Who might be the best people to produce those plans? That would be local councils and local enterprise partnerships. They know their areas best; they need to decide which transport schemes will bring the most benefit. We will work very closely with LEPs and authorities to help them with that work. Any proposal must be brought forward in line with the rail network enhancement pipeline, but we are keen for capacity to be increased and we recognise that reopening closed lines will be a feature of rail’s future.
The transforming cities budget was highlighted; that is a significant opportunity. Stoke is one of 10 English city regions chosen to work with the Department to design innovative public transport packages to make it easier and quicker for people to get around. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) said that the journey from his home can take him up to 45 minutes; this fund is designed to help Stoke and other regions tackle some of their internal transport questions. They will be eligible for a share of up to £1.28 billion from the transforming cities fund and from funding as a future mobility zone. Each shortlisted region will have to develop its own plans, but regions are given some budget to help them make their bids.
I will go through the record carefully to see whether there are any questions I have not answered, but I have tried to answer as many as possible. I want to leave with hon. Members the message that we fully recognise the need for increased capacity on that service, as has been made extremely clear in this debate. The rolling stock needs to be improved. That improvement can help to unlock economic opportunity—that has been made clear by colleagues on both sides speaking with one voice on behalf of their region. That voice has been heard and I will do all I can to make the transport of the area much improved.
It is nice to see you in the chair, Mr Pritchard. I very much thank the Minister for his response, particularly about the need for additional capacity and more carriages. It is welcome that there will be more carriages and better services, particularly on evenings and weekends. There is not time to go through all colleagues’ comments but I thank all those up and down the route who have contributed to the debate. Various stations have been mentioned, from Kidsgrove to Stoke, through to those in Congleton, Alsager and Uttoxeter. There are many colleagues further afield along the route who have not have the chance to contribute but I know they are all very much in favour of improved services.
We must improve services for the rail network around Stoke-on-Trent to build on, as the Minister said, our ambition as an area for growth, housing and jobs. Improved transport will bring opportunities and important connectivity for all communities across Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire to our main station once we receive those HS2 services. Through improved rail services, communities will benefit from growth in wages, skilled job opportunities and housing.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Heat Networks Regulation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regulation of heat networks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am pleased to have secured a debate on this issue, which is of great importance to residents of Catford Green in my constituency, as well as those living at three other sites in Lewisham borough and dozens of others across London, the south-east and south-west.
District heating networks power entire estates by sending hot water and steam via insulated pipes from a central generator, instead of a boiler being installed in each home. There are around 14,000 heat networks in the UK, serving an estimated 450,000 customers and providing around 2% of heat demand in UK buildings. Types of heat network vary widely, from local authority and other not-for-profit schemes to private networks. Their use is increasing more rapidly in London where developments are required to be carbon neutral.
Such systems, which are often fuelled by natural gas or biomass, could provide part of the answer to a lower carbon domestic energy mix, for which we should continue to strive. However, their potential benefits are completely undermined by fundamental consumer rights issues. Unlike other domestic energy services, these systems are not regulated. As a result, residents pay over the odds for their energy, have few ways to track or control their usage and no opportunity to switch to a cheaper tariff or provider. I am here to address that problem on behalf of my constituents. Regulation for district heating systems must be brought into line with electricity and gas to provide residents with adequate protection.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Like her, I have thousands of constituents locked into those schemes who are paying over the odds and have no means of effective redress. The Competition and Markets Authority recommended in its report in July that the Government regulate this sector by statutory regulation, as my hon. Friend suggests. Does she agree that the Government must act to legislate that statutory regulation, rather than allow months or even years to roll on while customers are not handed a fair deal?
I agree that the Government need to readdress this issue and make regulations—I will speak about that later.
I was elected to the House in June. One of my first pieces of casework was from a resident representing a group of public and private tenants in a relatively new block of flats that is served by a district heating network. The tenants’ main concern was the unsustainably high cost and wild unpredictability of the bills they received. I understand that those are often up to triple the average.
One constituent told me:
“My hot water bill for July 2018 was £97.07—and this is just hot water”.
He wrote that his bills
“range from £29 to £97 each month. I haven’t used the heating since the spring, as I live on my own and I use hot water sparingly.”
The amount he describes having to pay is very high given his needs. Because of the communal nature of the supply, there is no real way for residents to monitor their usage, which means they often receive unexpectedly large bills.
People who live in buildings with district heating systems tend to be locked into long contracts with their suppliers. The term of my constituents’ contract is 25 years, following which it will be retendered. Those customers do not enjoy the same benefits as gas and electricity customers, for whom it is now easier to switch supplier to find the best deal. With no motivation for suppliers to compete, the monopoly becomes further entrenched, and it is residents who lose out.
There appears to be a lack of transparency and information about district heating systems. My constituents contend that they were not explicitly made aware until the day they moved in that their building was heated by such a system. They kindly provided me with a copy of their lease. Although numerous clauses provide legal support for the implementation of the system, at no point has there been a sufficient attempt to clarify what it actually is, how their homes are heated or the terms to which they are subject. The housing developer contends that it made efforts to tell residents as they moved in, but it seems to me that a more substantive intervention needs to be made, earlier and in good faith. At the very least, there was an omission, which needs to be corrected immediately; at most, there was a deliberate attempt to obfuscate. Of course, aligning the regulations with those for gas and electricity would resolve the problem.
Following pressure from consumer groups, the Heat Trust was set up in 2015. It remains the closest thing to a regulator the sector has. It aims to support common standards for the quality and customer service that heat suppliers provide their customers, and it gives customers access to the energy ombudsman for complaints. However, a closer look reveals a different picture. Membership of the Heat Trust is completely voluntary, meaning schemes that do not want to join are under no obligation to do so. Although the trust is managed by a not-for-profit organisation, its board is made up almost entirely of developers, suppliers and supporting services. There is no clear consumer representation. It appears that the Heat Trust is not fit for purpose. If the Government continue to rely on it, they will allow a system that systematically disadvantages residents to develop unchecked.
My constituent put it best when he described the “hidden” but very real consequences of the district heating monopoly on residents. For those lucky enough to own their home and have a good job, it is a significant financial inconvenience and may be a hindrance when they come to sell their home. However, for social housing tenants who receive universal credit, people holding down several part-time jobs or those who just run a tight household budget, it poses a much more fundamental problem, which threatens to destabilise lives. Such a monopoly, with its punitive impact on residents, represents the sort of injustice I thought we had done away with years ago.
That lack of fairness was recognised by the Competition and Markets Authority, which published a report on the industry in July. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), who has eight of these systems in his constituency, had called for that, and I am grateful for his support. Among other things, the CMA recommended that the Government should introduce consumer protection for all heat network customers so they get the same protection as customers in the gas and electricity sectors; address low transparency so customers know they are on a heat network and there are clear agreements or contracts between customers and heat network operators; ensure that customers are aware what they are paying for, which is often unclear; and protect customers from poorly designed, built and operated heat networks by preventing developers from using cheaper options, which end up being paid for by the customer over the long term, to meet planning regulations.
I understand that the Minister and his Department are developing a heat networks market framework, which will form the Government’s response to the CMA review. I see no reason why the Government should continue to allow an industry that they hope will grow and support our green ambitions to develop with built-in disadvantages for consumers, and I see no reason why a double standard should continue to exist between residents using district heating systems and those who heat their homes with electricity and gas. I urge the Minister to adopt the recommendations in the CMA report, regulate these systems properly, require a culture of transparency, and give consumers the protections that have long been standard for other domestic heating fuels. Only then will we realise the full benefits that these systems can provide.
I believe this is the first time I have had the honour of speaking in a Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I am very pleased to do so. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing a debate on this important issue.
When I started thinking about heat networks, I realised that when I first moved to London, which I respectfully say was probably before hon. Lady was born, I lived in an old block of flats with a big boiler in the basement. We were all either freezing cold or boiling hot, and we paid far too much for heating via our service charge. My understanding is that that is really what a heat network is—obviously not just in one block of flats but in an area—so I immediately sympathised with her cause.
Of course there is a lot more to it than that. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s assertion that we need to ensure that all heat network consumers are well protected and benefit from fair bills, which is not the case at the moment. On the plus side, heat networks are a valuable part of our commitment to decarbonising heat, and we expect the sector to expand significantly with continued support from the Government. That does not mean it should continue as it is now, but the principle of heat networks is good if they work properly, and they can be of mutual benefit to the Government’s decarbonisation projects, to energy and local authority suppliers and to consumers in all our constituencies.
More than 400,000 consumers across the country are already on a heat network, and most report a largely positive experience. They are currently covered by general consumer protection and competition law and by the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014. In addition, consumers on a Heat Trust-registered scheme, which the hon. Lady mentioned and I will come to in a moment, have free access to the energy ombudsman’s services.
In 2017, my Department commissioned a large-scale survey to quantify consumer experiences of heat networks in England and Wales for the first time. The results show that heat network consumers are as satisfied as non-heat network consumers with their heating system, and that on average they are likely to pay less for their heating. That is supported by analysis from the Competition and Markets Authority, which I strongly welcome. However, both our consumer survey and the CMA found evidence that some consumers get a poor deal on price and do not receive the quality of service we expect. That is exactly what the hon. Lady said, and she was backed up well by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), whose constituents have clearly had a similar experience.
In its final report in its heat networks market study, the CMA makes important recommendations about how to strengthen consumer protections for heat network consumers. My Department has been reviewing the CMA’s findings alongside the recommendations of the industry-led taskforce that reported at the beginning of the year. Very soon, we will set out our priorities for establishing the long-term market framework that the hon. Lady mentioned, with—I stress this—a key focus on protecting consumers.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on introducing the debate. She made some very good points. On the point that the Minister has made, the Government have highlighted and responded to the unfair hiking of leasehold charges, and have dealt with that issue. The examples are from the few rather than the many, if you like. We are discussing district heat schemes. A few unscrupulous providers of those schemes are trying to exploit the people they are provided for. I think it requires legislation, rather than a good-will scheme or framework to deal with that. Would the Minister put that into his thinking when the Government respond?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree with him. It seems to me that legislation is exactly what is needed. In my three years as a Minister, I have learned that it is easy to talk about legislation, but it is all in the detail. We have to make sure that it does exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned, which is to protect consumers, but at the same time provide a basis for the industry to expand. As I said, for decarbonisation and for many things, the structure can be a really good one for consumers.
I agree with the Minister. At the moment, technology and confidence in it is being put at risk by the fact that consumers on many schemes—not all—are not getting a good deal. Would the Minister give us a sense of the timeline that the Department is thinking about for legislation and providing that extra protection? I have been campaigning for more than three years, ever since I was elected, and my constituents are not willing to wait another year or two years until that protection is brought in.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I wish I could wave a magic wand and say that it is going to be done the week after next. It is in the pipeline; I can assure him of that. It would be wrong of us to jump into something without giving it considerable thought. I fully accept his frustration and that of his constituents, and that is paramount. To him and the hon. Member for Lewisham East, that may sound like I am waffling and prevaricating, but it is just how it is. I would be very happy to meet them in the early part of next year to discuss progress, if that would help. The Department is not putting this on the back burner or anything like that. I give them that undertaking.
I believe that heat networks, if done properly, represent a significant opportunity to upgrade part of the whole UK energy infrastructure and seize the opportunity for British business that the technology presents. Heat accounts for about a third of UK carbon emissions. We have to cut our emissions to meet our carbon reduction targets. Heat and heat networks can play a critical role this. We have made considerable progress generally through renewable heat incentives and energy company obligations, which have provided an incentive for heat networks to install lower carbon heat sources. The investment of £320 million in heat network projects, which is a mixture of grants and loans, is to be encouraged. Again, we have to ensure that where the Government are providing that support, adequate consumer protection measures are in place by requiring projects to demonstrate Heat Trust or equivalent standards when operational.
There are many heat network suppliers that provide strong consumer protections, such as Energetik, established by Enfield Council to provide better value, reliable and environmentally-friendly energy. I hope that the service charter that Energetik provides to its customers sets out clearly the minimum standards of service they can expect, what measures they provide to those vulnerable customers needing extra help and how they can be contacted should something go wrong.
We have worked closely with industry and consumer groups to support, through funding and guidance, the development of the UK-wide Heat Trust scheme, which is an independent consumer protection scheme designed specifically for customers. It draws on the terms of service offered to gas and electricity consumers. That said, I reiterate the comments made by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. I agree with him that it is a voluntary scheme and does not protect all customers. I accept the assertion made by the hon. Member for Lewisham East that it does not protect all consumers, which I am sure is correct. However, I do not think it is all bad; I think it has been an improvement as well.
Where sites are registered with the Heat Trust, such as the Catford Green development in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewisham East, they are not offered protections on pricing and contracts. Although we can learn some things from the work of the Heat Trust, that does not remove the need for further action. That is particularly the case as heat networks often operate as natural monopolies and customers can be contracted for very lengthy periods of up to 25 years, as the hon. Lady said. We want to ensure heat network consumers are able to make informed choices about whether a property on a heat network is right for them, and to feel confident that if issues relating to their heating systems arise, they have recourse and there is a way to redress them.
The role of Government is to ensure that we are providing clean and secure energy at an affordable price to the consumer. We need a long-term market framework that places consumers at its heart, that still delivers sustained investment in the sector and maximises the potential economic and environmental benefits of heat networks. I hope that I have outlined a number of measures that the Government have already put in place and I hope that industry, consumer groups and all interested stakeholders will work closely with us as we develop our plans for further interventions.
Question put and agreed to.
Offence of Sex for Rent
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the offence of sex for rent.
It is an honour to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am also grateful to the Minister for being here. I have known him for a number of years in different capacities, and I know this is a subject that he will have a great deal of interest in.
I am grateful to have been granted the debate, because it gives us the chance to highlight a pernicious, exploitative and pervasive phenomenon that too few people are aware of and too little is being done to tackle. The issue of sex for rent was brought to my attention by Lauren Moss, a BBC journalist. She showed me evidence that people were accepting accommodation from landlords in return for not money, but sex.
We do not have to look hard for the adverts. They are not hidden deep in secret corners of online platforms. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of this is how open and explicit the adverts are, and how integrated they have become into the advertising landscape for accommodation. Some adverts simply imply what the landlord is expecting:
“Free accommodation for attractive female”.
Others are more explicit:
“You do not have to pay any rent for your stay with me in exchange for some mutual fun times together”.
Many go into much more detail about how much sex is involved:
“You agree sort of like a couple of times a week, pop into my room sort of thing, but as far as the apartment’s concerned, it’s like completely as if we’re flatmates. It’s all the bills, the rent, free.”
The majority of the ads are aimed at women, but I have also seen them targeting young men. Ads describe in detail the age, look and demeanour expected of the tenant, as well as the amount and type of sex that is expected. People moving to towns and cities such as Brighton and Hove, which I represent, are uniquely vulnerable to sex for rent exploitation. Two universities, a housing crisis and ubiquitous access to online platforms such as craigslist mean that some young people are led swiftly down a path toward exploitation.
For some, there is a veneer of harmlessness about it. Because this is such a new phenomenon, understanding the extent of exploitation is hard, but emerging evidence shows that it is a much larger problem than anyone first thought, and it is getting worse. Last year, the housing charity Shelter conducted a tenant survey that addressed the question of sex for rent for the first time and provided the first quantitative data. It asked the question, “Have you ever been offered ‘sex for rent’ while renting?” The estimated number of women affected by the arrangement was shocking. More than 100,000 women have been offered sex for rent in the last year alone, around 250,000 women have been offered sex for rent in the last five years and more than 300,000 women have been offered sex for rent in the time that they have been renting.
I raised this issue with the Ministry of Justice last year to get clarity about the law. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), wrote to me in July 2017 confirming that it was his belief that sex for rent fell foul of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and carried a maximum prison sentence of seven years. I sought further clarification of the law, working with Queen’s counsel from Cornerstone Barristers, who offered the following opinion:
“We believe that the practice of ‘sex for rent’ meets the definition of the criminal offence of causing or inciting prostitution for gain. The Offence is established by Section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which provides as follows: ‘(1) A person commits an offence if—(a) he intentionally causes or incites another person to become a prostitute in any part of the world, and (b) he does so for or in the expectation of gain for himself or a third person.’”
It is clear that the incitement to sex in return for accommodation is a criminal offence.
I praise the hon. Gentleman for rightly highlighting this disgusting activity. Does he have a feel for why this is increasing now?
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. A little later in my speech, I will highlight the fact that we have a perfect storm in certain cities and towns in our country. The housing crisis and the high cost of accommodation, combined with access to online platforms and the fact that university towns draw young people in, have created a perfect storm for exploitation in this way.
As I say, it is clear that the incitement to sex in return for accommodation is a criminal offence. There is no question. The sex itself does not need to happen for the law to be broken. That prompts a very important question: considering there are hundreds of live adverts online right now, today, and many thousands have been placed in recent years, why, to the best of my knowledge, has there not been a single arrest, let alone conviction? It is likely that thousands of people, mostly young, in Britain have been victims of sexual exploitation, yet not one perpetrator has been brought to justice.
Seeing that this was no longer a matter just of clarifying the law but of enforcing it, I also contacted the Home Office last year. The then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), took time to meet me on several occasions to discuss the matter and investigate ways forward. I am grateful to her for spending that time with me, and particularly for the effort she put in subsequently. It is my understanding that under her direction a work stream was established in the Home Office to look into ways of enforcing the law and bringing offenders to justice. However, to date there is no evidence of success. It is my hope that the new Home Secretary shares his predecessor’s concerns, but such matters must be judged on outcomes, and as this exploitation continues unabated, there is no ground for optimism yet.
I implore Ministers to look seriously at two distinct aspects of sex for rent. The first is bringing perpetrators to justice. There are hundreds of adverts online right now, clearly inciting people into the exchange of sex in return for services—there can be no doubt about that. The question is, why are those who place the advertisements not being locked up for it? Why are people left so exposed to exploitation, simply because the law enforcement agencies seem unable to adapt to the new trends in exploitation fast enough?
I realise that there are challenges. It seems that many people lured into these arrangements are middle class, emerging into adulthood, and they are exploring new freedoms, such as starting at university and moving to a new town. Thrown into that mix is an offer of free accommodation. The emotional impact and the price that they will pay for it may not be felt for years to come. It is unlikely that many victims would feel comfortable identifying themselves as prostitutes, which is how the law currently classes them, so most would be extremely unlikely to go through with a prosecution. Will the Minister consider a new legal definition for victims of sex for rent, in order to enable more victims to come forward? Ideally, the exchange should not take place at all.
I know the Minister personally places great emphasis on the prevention aspects of policing. Difficulties are posed when adverts are placed in areas covered by different police authorities from the areas where the offence is potentially taking place. Those are continual challenges for our policing across the UK. Can the Minister tell us which law enforcement agency is best placed to lead on this and when we can expect results? I am actively working with barristers from Cornerstone, who have generously given their time pro bono, to look into the possibility of a test case. That could provide a way forward to ignite a response from our law enforcement agencies, but it is not ideal. I would like to see our forces act first, and act fast.
Secondly, action must be taken against the websites hosting the adverts. Within a week of my first raising the issue, Gumtree, which had previously had such adverts on its website, came to see me in Parliament. It immediately instigated a policy to monitor and eradicate such adverts from its site, which has largely been successful. I know that Members from across the House will join me in thanking the company for taking such swift action to protect its own customers. Craigslist has chosen a different path. It has ignored my attempts at emailing, writing and calling. It has ignored the media outlets, such as the BBC, the Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror and, as far as I know, it has ignored the Home Office too. Not only is craigslist profiting from facilitating the sexual exploitation of young people, but it is treating our country and our Parliament with contempt.
I do not understand why craigslist is allowed to act like a pimp but is not treated like the pimp that it is. When police come across pimps in the streets, they act. They have the power to act and they know what to do with that power. However, because craigslist pimps via an online platform, we seem spellbound into inaction. Just because the pimps are sandal-wearing, cappuccino-swilling Californians does not mean that we should let them get away with it. Being allowed to trade and profit in our country is a privilege, and I do not see why, when that privilege is so blatantly abused and profit is made from sexual exploitation, we should stand idly by simply because tackling it is difficult.
We have a problem. It is a growing problem that will not go away. I look to the Government for decisive action to enforce the current law, to enhance the law to make it more accessible for victims of sex-for-rent, and to take action against craigslist, whose intransigence and amorality in the face of sexual exploitation should shame each and every one of its employees.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this important debate.
I first came across this issue while watching “Victoria Derbyshire”, on a Monday morning, I think. I was surprised that such an exploitative and vile practice could thrive in our midst, and that nothing seemed to have been done about it. Only subsequently did I understand that the hon. Gentleman had tried to do something about it a year and a half ago. It is frustrating that the then Home Secretary took an interest in the issue and looked into it, and it was established that sex for rent was a criminal offence, yet within the year and a half since it was first raised the practice seems to have continued, and in fact spread. Why is that? Why should we in this House be so powerless to do anything about it? We need to raise and talk about the issue and make sure that different Government Departments talk to each other, and then go into the core of why the problem continues.
As we have already heard, sex for rent is when a landlord solicits sex—as opposed to currency—in exchange for shelter. Many arrangements are informal and thrive in the shadows, taking advantage of young people who do not initially realise that they are doing something that will envelop them in an exploitative situation. I emphasise that the underlying problem of all this is the acute housing shortage. With very high rents, people find themselves unable to find accommodation. There are also more vulnerable people who cannot get on to the social housing ladder and who then find themselves in these arrangements, which ultimately become very exploitative and distressing. The situations tend to spiral, becoming mentally and physically damaging to victims, who find it impossible to escape that cycle and who fear reporting it to the police because they might be implicated in a crime.
The Government have stated that sex-for-rent arrangements are illegal and that landlords can be prosecuted, yet prosecutions for this crime remain incredibly rare. Why is that? When I met a Justice Minister, I learned that, interestingly, sex for rent is not a specific sexual offence but is within other sexual offences, so we do not actually know the number of cases. Finding out the exact numbers is important. Landlords can exploit legal grey areas that allow them to advertise directly to vulnerable people and to not-so-vulnerable—middle class or whatever—people who then become very vulnerable. We have already heard that websites such as craigslist give perpetrators of sex-for-rent crimes a platform to draw in their victims.
In the meeting with that Justice Minister, we established that we should look at the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines. I am very pleased to say that I was in contact this afternoon with the CPS, which confirmed that it is revising those guidelines and will include a new section on sex-for-rent arrangements and advertising. That is a win and a step forward, but we will need to monitor whether it will make a difference. We in the House and in the Government must stay on top of these crimes, which continue to thrive because they are a new phenomenon—a perfect storm, as the hon. Member for Hove pointed out.
I very much welcome that the Minister is listening, and I hope that we can make progress. I met the former Home Secretary, who has been very supportive and who suggested that the issue should be looked at by a Select Committee—probably the Women and Equalities Committee. However, although the victims are mainly women, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is also particularly vulnerable; this is not only a crime against a women. A work stream has been established, but I will very much welcome a Select Committee’s looking into this. I have engaged with the Chair of that Committee, who has also been very supportive. Working across the House to investigate and end this terrible exploitative practice must be in all our hearts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for setting the scene, as he often does, on issues of particular importance the House and to myself. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and to have heard her contribution.
I look around and see in the Chamber the familiar five Members who attend debates on all these issues, and I see the Minister, who is always there to respond. I have to say that, on the issues we have recently sought his interest in and his support and help for, he has been very responsive. I put that on the record at the start. I also thank the hon. Member for Hove for the hard work he has put into bringing this issue to light and into searching for answers. Perhaps in my contribution I can make some gentle suggestions from a Northern Ireland perspective, based on what we have done in the past, which might be helpful in bringing this forward.
That any person in our free, modern society should think it is okay to ask for sex as a payment of any type is absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable. That should be the starting point of the debate. This subject reminds me of something the BBC would put together: a gritty historical drama set in the Victorian era, in which an enlightened few try to bring about freedom and safety for people of all classes. The problem is that it is not a gritty historical drama but real life in 2018 in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We have women and men who have nowhere to live and no money to rent and who have escaped the social security system and feel that they have no other option. As the hon. Members for Hove and for Bath said, if we put ourselves in their position and grasp that, we will realise just how far down the level of acceptability they have gone. They are doing something that they do not want to do but that they feel they have no other option but to do. They allow their body to be used so that they have a roof over their head. Sometimes it is as basic and as cold as that.
There are students who cannot afford to do it all and who make the decision to rent a room for free in exchange for sexual favours. I suspect that we all know stories from our constituencies and from further afield—the media is certainly full of them—of the unacceptable price of rental accommodation and of students with vast student loan debts. That puts some students in a position in which they are wondering, “How on earth am I going to afford this?” In desperation, as a last resort, they are driven towards these unacceptable, but for them sometimes very real, situations. The thought of my grandchildren being put into this kind of situation makes me feel physically ill. I find it abhorrent that anyone would put a person, either a young woman or a young man, in this situation. It is unjustifiable and we must address it. That is why I welcome the opportunity today to make a small contribution on this issue.
Technically, it is an offence to do what we are discussing. The previous Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice told the hon. Member for Hove that
“an offence is committed when a person offers accommodation in return for sex, as they are inciting/causing another person to have sex with them in return for ‘payment’.”
That is technical terminology. It appears to be a reference to the offence of causing or inciting prostitution for gain under section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. However, that has yet to be tested, which is why I welcome the indication by the hon. Member for Hove of what solutions there could be. There certainly needs to be a prosecution—a test case. If the case is not winnable, let us change the legislation to stop this abhorrent practice once and for all.
So-called landlords feel that this is a grey area in which they can get away with exploiting vulnerable and needy people or young people, depending on their circumstances. We must send out a very clear message from this debate—a cross-party message from the hon. Members who are here to support the debate. How do we do that? That question was addressed first by the hon. Member for Hove and then by the hon. Member for Bath. Now I will pose it to the Minister, but in addition to posing it, I will—very gently and positively, I hope—put forward some suggestions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is useful when media outlets pick up these issues, because that spreads the message and encourages people to come forward? It helps them to understand that this practice is illegal and that if they go to the police, there can be prosecutions, but people need to come forward.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We need co-operation, and we perhaps need someone to take a lead by making a complaint to the police that can then be taken forward. Sometimes police also need help to bring about prosecutions and set the example that the hon. Member for Hove referred to in his introduction.
As I was saying, how do we send a clear message? I look to the Minister and offer my humble opinion that we should strengthen the law so that no one can feel that this is a grey area any more, as the hon. Member for Bath mentioned in her intervention. Let us in this debate, with a statement from the Minister, and more generally from the House, make this a black-and-white issue and keep men and women from being exploited in this way.
In Northern Ireland, we have sought to address issues such as this through the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. The legislation was brought forward in the Northern Ireland Assembly by my colleague in the other place, Lord Morrow. The Minister will be aware of this as part of the background to the issue, and I hope others are also aware of it, but Northern Ireland became the first part of the United Kingdom to make paying for sex a crime, when the legislation came into effect in June 2015. Anyone caught breaking the law can be jailed for up to a year and face a £1,000 fine. That is the sort of legislation that we need here; it is the sort of legislation that the hon. Members for Bath and for Hove, and indeed every one of us in the debate, would wish to see in place.
Let me give an idea of what can be achieved with such a law. I should say first that allegations may be made, but an evidential base has to be there as well. Figures released by the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland in August 2016 showed that seven people were referred to the PPS: no action was taken in three cases, two men received cautions, and the remaining two cases were being considered by a senior prosecutor. We have had events at the House of Commons and in the House of Lords at which we have made information about that legislation available for Members to look at.
The fact that the Police Service of Northern Ireland used the legislation to arrest men at the outset sent a very strong message that this behaviour and abuse of power is not acceptable and never can be. That message must be sent out UK-wide, and I sincerely but gently encourage the Minister to take steps to do that today: he should make it crystal clear not only that it is not okay to do these things and that advertising them publicly as if it were is not acceptable, but that if a person is found to be exploiting someone for sex in return for a room, that person will be arrested, will be fined and will go to jail. The Minister should give the police something to work with and give vulnerable people something to cling to. They are protected by law and, more than that, they are worth more than just a room for hire.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for bringing this issue to the House, because it is very important, and for his tenacity in campaigning on it and continuing to raise it. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for her work on the issue.
First, I would like to quote Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid:
“There is an intersection of poverty and violence against women. You cannot address one without the other and…I support anything that helps address those issues.”
The issue that we are discussing is part of the wider context of violence against women and the misogynistic treatment by men of women; we need to see it in that wider context. People are much more likely to find themselves in this kind of situation now than 10 years ago, because austerity has meant that the real incomes of many people are much lower than they were and people are turning to more and more extreme measures to make ends meet. It is now a well-trodden and established fact that austerity has affected women and young people disproportionately.
I condemn without reservation this phenomenon and those who would perpetrate it. If all of us here today know that women and young people are more likely to be desperate for a roof over their head, we can be sure that predatory sexual abusers are also well aware of that fact. In recognition of that, more than a year ago, the Scottish National party conference passed a resolution condemning this behaviour. I pay tribute to my colleagues Stuart McMillan MSP and Math Campbell-Sturgess, who introduced the resolution.
Our Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart MSP, has been trying to make progress on the issue as well. The situation with Gumtree and Craigslist described by the hon. Member for Hove also rings true in the Scottish Parliament: Gumtree was quick to come to the table on the issue and say what it was doing, but Craigslist again would not co-operate, would not turn up and would not engage with it. There needs to be stronger action by Ministers here to look at that.
This kind of “survival sex” is spilling out into the lives of increasing numbers of people who would never have considered selling sex and would probably not see it as such—people who may not see the vulnerability to exploitation, coercion and violence that they may be getting themselves into. “Rent for sex” adverts are easily found online. It takes seconds to discover them via a Google search. This is not a practice that people are trying to hide, and there are clearly very few negative consequences for those who would exploit others in this way, despite it potentially being a crime, as the hon. Members for Hove and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out.
The adverts themselves give the impression that there is an equal and mutual, if not quite consensual, exchange of commodities: “You have something I want; I have something you want.” For people facing destitution and homelessness, it could seem like a rational solution to their problems. On the face of it, taking up such an agreement could, for some, be a way of alleviating financial difficulties or a stopgap to get them through a difficult time.
However, it is unlikely that the situation would ever unfold to be a mutually beneficial exchange—it is a gateway to exploitation. It is my fear that rent is offered in exchange for consent, effectively buying it, which diminishes completely the validity of that consent. Once those boundaries have been worn away, the potential for further abuse is huge.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned students getting into this situation, and the National Union of Students Scotland has been campaigning vociferously on the issue. Students, perhaps moving away from home for the first time, could be very vulnerable to being exploited in this way. I am concerned that the behaviour of these landlords could well be a path into an even more sinister situation, because once the relationship is established, the concept of choice can soon disappear. The clear and indisputable imbalance of power could lead to coercion, control, and physical as well as sexual violence. A tenant, for want of a better word, in this situation is at the mercy of the landlord’s whims, simply because there is nowhere else to go and little by way of choice. Apart from the practical considerations, there is a risk to that person’s reputation and status. It may be difficult for them to seek help to escape the situation, because of the shame and stigma associated with exchanging sex for rent, as well as the risk of conviction, as the hon. Member for Hove wisely pointed out.
The wording of the adverts themselves reveal a predatory, entitled attitude, which is extremely concerning. Here are a few examples of adverts I found in Glasgow from decidedly creepy men. All of these have come from Craigslist and some of them went up in the past few days. The first says:
“Temporary free room for open-minded females. Please get in touch with a picture of yourself to discuss further.”
A second says:
“Ideally you would be bi or curious and of course respectful”,
with possibly free accommodation for the right person. A third says:
“Looking to share with the right girl with mutually beneficial agreements meaning adult relationship. All board lodgings amenities are free.”
A fourth, which went up on Craigslist only yesterday, says:
“Free room available for a female on occasional basis…discreet.”
Those placing the adverts evidently feel entitled to make demands and emboldened enough to set out their intentions clearly. There is no ambiguity, if we read between the lines. Most are aimed at women, although some are looking for young men. Young people seem to be at particular risk, and this has not come about for no reason. The hon. Member for Bath mentioned housing shortages.
Is it not the case that that while offline advertising is clearly illegal, online advertising is the biggest problem? That is why I welcome the news, as I understand it, that the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines will be reviewed in the new year. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome that too.
I absolutely would, because it is clear that people are able to get away with things in this grey area. For some young people, the threat of homelessness is very real. Under the UK Tory Government, the safety nets have been all but decimated. Housing benefit has been restricted. Even though the UK Government U-turned on their plans to restrict it to 18 to 21-year-olds—something that we never did in Scotland—there are still limitations on single people renting privately under the age of 35. I am 36, and I am not even sure that I would count as a young person, but that seems to be the UK Government’s definition of being young and, therefore, having less choice in the options one can take up.
Those under the age of 25 are not entitled to the same minimum wage as other people, despite the unfairness of this situation being brought to the attention of Ministers by me and by others on umpteen occasions. I draw the Minister’s attention to the Young Women’s Trust “Paid Less, Not Worth Less” campaign, and to the video on its Twitter account of Nia’s story, which outlines how she had to move back home due to low wages. She had the option of moving back home, but not all young people have that option. They may have moved out because of overcrowded housing or other issues, but not everybody can go back home. Some young people may be forced to take more drastic steps. For vulnerable young people who do not have the support of their family, there is an increasing risk of being drawn into a cycle of sexual exploitation and abuse. Once that is behind closed doors, it can be very difficult for young people to seek help.
Evidence from other countries shows that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are a much higher risk category and we should think of them specifically. It is a heart-breaking reality that although legislation and many attitudes have changed, some people’s attitudes have not. A study by the Albert Kennedy Trust showed that LGBT young people make up 24% of the homeless population, which is hugely disproportionate, and often this is due to rejection by their families. That leaves them at a much higher risk of sexual exploitation, and we should be doing more as policy makers to address this.
There is also significant risk to those who have insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds. People in that situation are very vulnerable and often under the radar, and may face a choice between sleeping rough or doing what they have to just to keep a roof over their head. For women, the prospect of sleeping rough or at least having a roof over their head is a no-brainer. They will take what steps they can to keep themselves off of the street, because the risk there is so much greater. This is a further symptom of the hostile environment, and the UK Government ought to be taking the impact of that seriously.
While the flagrant advertising of sex for rent is worrying and upsetting, what is really concerning is the under-the-radar predatory activity that is difficult to find, difficult to measure and difficult to prevent. It seems to me that the best course of action is to make sure that the safety nets are put in place, so that fewer people face the risk of homelessness in the first place. The UK Government must absolutely clear up this grey area in law. It is encouraging that, as the hon. Member for Bath said, CPS guidelines are changing, but we need to see the details and how it will tackle the issue.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the strength of the law in Northern Ireland, which is encouraging. I urge the Minister to engage with the Scottish Government and the “Equally Safe” work that we are doing, which looks very closely at how we can tackle exploitation and violence against women and girls. I thank the hon. Member for Hove for introducing this debate and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this debate and thank him for his pioneering campaign in bringing this issue to the attention of the House.
Rogue landlords are taking advantage of the housing crisis by offering rooms, quite openly, for free in exchange for “company” or “benefits”—or, to put it more bluntly, for sex. Frustratingly, despite confirmation from the Government that sex for rent is in breach of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, there is little evidence to suggest that any action has yet been taken to punish those preying on innocent victims. I find it unbelievable—despite the Government’s assurances that they are tackling this—that the perpetrators do not even seem to hide what they are doing, and yet there seem to be no arrests. If someone goes online it does not take long to find blatant adverts:
“Free rooms to spare for women willing to carry out household chores naked”
“Flats to rent, tenants with benefits. Must reply with a picture.”
That is illegal. It is sickening exploitation of people who are caught in a spiralling struggle to find the funds to keep a roof over their head, and I ask the Minister how it has been allowed to happen without more thorough investigations and prosecutions.
Action needs to be taken not only against the landlords placing the adverts, who should be prosecuted, but websites such as Craigslist, about which we have heard. On the streets, a pimp would be charged for profiting from the sale of sex, so why is this any different? There is a serious shortfall in the law in this area, which needs to be addressed quickly and effectively, whether by reviewing the law itself, to make it more robust, by better enforcement, or—as I suspect—a mixture of the two. The Government need to look very carefully at just how many people are victims of this exploitation, and do something about it.
I am pleased to say that in Wales there is a strong campaign to tackle the problem. While that campaign has highlighted the sad prevalence of the issue across Wales and the scale of the work required to tackle the problem, it has also been an opportunity to show what can be done when the right people work together effectively for a common goal. Particular recognition needs to go to Katie Howells of Merthyr Valleys Homes, who was a leading figure in the campaign, along with my colleague, Welsh Assembly Member Dawn Bowden, who will take part in the launch next week of a new phase of work to tackle sex for rent with a Wales-wide campaign led by women in the housing sector. Here I stand, again telling the Chamber how good the Labour Government in Wales are.
We all share a responsibility to provide a climate of safety where constituents can find a place to live without fear of what it will cost them, and where those who are being exploited have a place to turn to and confidence that the system will prosecute the perpetrators. We need some assurances from the Government that they will commit to strengthen the law and improve levels of enforcement, so that those offering and facilitating sex for rent receive appropriate sentences and punishment, and so that ultimately we end the scourge of sex for rent in all our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, for what I am sure is the first time. You and I came into this place on the same day, and it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair.
I hesitate to curtail a promising political career by describing the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) as a friend, but he and I go back a long way in his previous life. We have worked together extremely well over many years, and I have a great deal of respect for him personally and for how he, as others have said, has tirelessly led this campaign and shone a spotlight on something that is genuinely shocking. I thank all Members who have placed on the record some of the language used in some of these advertisements. It is striking how brazen it is. That is a real concern, because it is a sign of perceived normality, which is something we have to reject and counter vigorously, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said so powerfully, because of the cost and the damage that flow from it.
The hon. Member for Hove highlighted that sex for rent is part of a broader challenge for us as a society, which is that the internet in particular is enabling a whole set of activities that exploit the vulnerable in ways that are moving extremely fast and that are difficult to control. Anyone who visits the team working against child sexual exploitation inside the National Crime Agency will understand how fast the landscape is changing and the degree to which the internet enables the most pernicious activity and makes it extremely hard to detect and follow the villains.
I have learned a lot in the debate and I share the concern expressed by hon. Members. On the point made by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), I would welcome further scrutiny by Parliament and by the media. As we know, those mechanisms help to focus minds, sharpen priorities and catalyse action. One thing we cannot do is let this become normal. In London, we are having to counter the profound challenge of the sense of normality around young people carrying knives, which is in a broadly similar space. We cannot let young people grow up feeling that this is normal behaviour, not least because it is against the law.
Let me place on record the Government’s specific position on the offence, rather than relying on ministerial correspondence. Offering accommodation in return for sex is illegal and those who do it can face up to seven years in prison. As the hon. Member for Hove said, in 2017, the previous Secretary of State for Justice confirmed that the practice is illegal by virtue of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Under sections 52 to 54 of the Act, an offence is committed when a person offers accommodation in return for sex, as they are inciting another person to have sex with them in return for payment. Section 52 prohibits causing or inciting prostitution for gain, and section 53 prohibits controlling prostitution for gain. I should make it clear that we expect every report of this offence to be taken seriously.
It is also important to note that the acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which are offences, including activities linked to exploitation.
The Minister suggests that any reported offences will be investigated and pursued, but does he accept that one problem is that many people entering into those relationships do not realise the exploitation that they are undergoing or where the law stands, and when they are made aware of it, they are reluctant to come forward because it would mean identifying themselves as a prostitute? Does he accept that we need to tackle the adverts and the people placing them? An offence is committed the second they place them, because that is incitement.
Yes. To be clear, the law applies equally online and offline. I will come on to the particular issue of websites. The hon. Gentleman also makes an important point, which should be part of the conversation with the social media companies, about education and information—not just about the law, but in terms of signposting avenues of support for extremely vulnerable people in this situation. We have to counter any suggestion that it is okay, normal or lawful.
To the hon. Gentleman’s point, which was also made by others, about why there have been no prosecutions even though we are clear about the law—I hope I have clarified the Government’s position on the letter of the law and our expectation that it will be enforced and that every report will be taken seriously—the honest truth is that we do not know how many prosecutions specifically relate to sex for rent. In 2016-17, there were 99 prosecutions for controlling prostitution compared with 100 the previous year, but at this point, our data does not provide the details about how many of those prosecutions relate to sex for rent, as opposed to any other controlling prostitution offence. I suspect that the number is very low.
Informed by this debate, I say to the hon. Gentleman that the policing of the matter is led by police forces, with a certain amount of flexibility as to how they apply the law. Obviously, their prioritisation is set by the local crime plan, which is set by the local police and crime commissioner. However, I undertake to the hon. Gentleman to engage directly with police chiefs and PCCs to get a better understanding of their understanding of the law and their approach to enforcing it. Some areas, such as the city he represents, will obviously have much higher levels of activity and risk than others.
We all understand that we are dealing with a landscape of lots of challenges and pressures on the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but given the seriousness of the issue and our concerns, I undertake to engage with the police chiefs and PCCs to get their understanding and feedback on their interpretation—or rather the interpretation of the law—the priority they attach to it and some of the challenges they face in enforcing the law. The hon. Gentleman unpicking the underlying psychology and the difficulties that some victims of this crime will have in coming forward and collaborating with and contributing to a prosecution was particularly thoughtful and telling.
I thank the Minister for what he has said so far and for his positive response to our contributions. I remind him of Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, if he would make this practice illegal on the mainland. We are looking for a way forward, so if he has the opportunity, I suggest that he looks at that Act and what was brought in in Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Assembly when the opportunity was there. It would work very well here. There has been cross-party support for it at the events we have held here, so I believe it is something that we could move forward on.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the law is clear. The question mark is around how the law is being enforced and what difficulties or challenges our law enforcement community and the criminal justice system have. That is what I would like to understand better. My undertaking to the hon. Member for Hove is that I will go and ask those questions to get better information.
I would like to pick up the points the hon. Gentleman made about websites, technology and the online community. Obviously, we have to work closely with those digital technology companies, but it fits into a broader context where there has been movement. Whether it be the previous Home Secretary’s activity, which I observed directly, to challenge the social media companies on their hosting of terrorist propaganda, or what the current Home Secretary is doing to challenge the social media companies to take more responsibility for their content in relation to child sexual exploitation and serious violence, I can see that that is an ongoing and escalating conversation and a challenge to those enormously powerful companies. They were reluctant to engage with us at the start, because they are desperate to avoid taking responsibility for the content on their platforms, but gradually, month by month, year by year, we feel that we are beginning to make progress at last.
The hon. Gentleman compared and contrasted a couple of websites. He described the very quick, active and socially responsible response of Gumtree to his campaign and his correspondence, and contrasted that with the response of craigslist. Clearly, he has a prejudice against sandal-wearing, cappuccino-swilling Californians, which I urge him to put aside for a minute. [Laughter.] However, there seems to be an issue with craigslist regarding its willingness to engage on this issue. I can say that officials have been frustrated in that respect as well.
I put this issue in the context of the other issues where we have been persistent in challenging digital technology companies to wake up to their responsibilities. That is what we are talking about here, particularly if it involves them in some way enabling an illegal act. If they are doing that, they need to be challenged. Again, I give an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman that I will personally engage with craigslist and discuss the matter directly with the Home Secretary, to see what pressure we can apply from the Home Office and the Government to make the leadership of that organisation engage with this issue in ways that up to this point they have absolutely failed to do. I suggest it will cause quite significant reputational damage for them in the future as awareness of this problem grows, both in this place and outside it.
I thank the Minister sincerely for the way that he has responded, particularly on craigslist, but what will he do if the leadership of craigslist do not engage with him? He says that he will engage with them, but the problem so far is that they will not engage back. When I explain this issue, a lot of people simply cannot understand why we can deal straight away with a brothel or criminal activity on their streets—we can close down buildings and we can move people on—but when such activity takes place online, we seem powerless. That is eroding faith in politics and faith in the ability of the Home Office and our Government to get a grip on a problem.
I accept the challenge. As a Government we are very clear that more needs to be done to tackle online harms. Following the consultation on our internet safety strategy Green Paper, we are committed to introducing further online safety legislation. A joint White Paper on online harms will be published this winter by the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, setting out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures to tackle online harms and setting clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep UK citizens safe.
We are considering the full range of possible solutions and the White Paper will address a wide range of harms, including those that are illegal as well as those that are harmful but not necessarily illegal, and we will develop an approach proportionate to the risks and harms involved. Meanwhile, as I have said, we will continue working to ensure that technology companies meet their responsibilities. We expect all platforms, including craigslist, to have robust policies to remove any adverts promoting exploitation. In general, our approach is to convene, challenge, persuade, and then gradually to lift the big stick of regulation, as far as we can and where that is appropriate. We cannot afford to be complacent. I will engage with the senior leadership of craigslist on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and I will expect a response from them. If there is scrutiny from parliamentary Committees, I will expect similar respect to be shown to British parliamentarians, representing as we do British citizens, who are not least the company’s customers.
As the hon. Gentleman and other speakers said, although we are talking about the law and enforcement of the law, surely the key to this issue is, as always, prevention and tackling the root causes. The problem is clearly underpinned by the strata of very complicated big issues, such as financial resilience, including that of young people, income and wages, but also—critically—access to affordable housing.
This is not a housing debate but there is a huge amount of activity across Government to increase the supply of affordable housing. We have increased the size of the affordable homes programme, reintroduced social rent and lifted the housing revenue account borrowing cap for local authorities, and we are setting a long-term rent deal for councils and housing associations in England from 2020. We are also very clear that housing associations and local authorities now need to accelerate delivery and build more affordable homes. We know that takes a bit of time, which is why we are committed to making housing for rent more affordable now, including banning lettings fees paid by tenants and capping tenancy deposits. We have to tackle the root causes of this issue.
I will conclude today by making it very clear that the Government share Members’ concerns. The practice of advertising accommodation in return for sex is clearly and profoundly worrying. We are talking about a breach of the law. It is our duty to enforce the law and protect those who are vulnerable from exploitation. And as I have said, the Government will continue to engage with the police to better understand the extent of this practice. I have given some undertakings today, which I will certainly follow up on, and I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Hove and all those who have taken part in this debate for raising awareness of an extremely important and growing issue.
I am extremely grateful to every Member who has taken part in today’s debate. We have shone light on the issue of sex for rent in some detail, not just specifically in the policy area but also geographically; I think we have the whole of the United Kingdom covered here today. This problem affects our entire country, with different parts of the country affected in different ways.
I thank the Minister for the open-hearted way in which he has engaged with the debate and for the commitments that he has given. I am not quite sure how he will respond to me, but I suspect—indeed, I hope—that it will be in writing, and perhaps we can follow up with a meeting. He has given a commitment to speak to chief constables and law enforcement agencies up and down the country, for which I am very grateful, so that we not only clarify the law and the response of our police forces to this issue but tackle in a strident manner—in any manner that will make a difference—craigslist in particular.
If we can crack the craigslist problem, I think that would restore a lot of people’s faith that we in this country can do whatever it takes to protect vulnerable people and that we are entirely on their side. At times like this, people too often feel that we are powerless in the face of global companies, and right now is the time when we should be asserting ourselves. I am therefore very grateful to the Minister and to every other Member who is here for participating in this debate, and I am particularly grateful to you, Mr Pritchard, for your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the offence of sex for rent.