Thursday 13 January 2022
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
Water Quality in Rivers
Environmental Audit Committee
Select Committee statement
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with the current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
We begin with the Select Committee statement. Philip Dunne will speak on the publication of the fourth report of the Environmental Audit Committee, “Water Quality in Rivers”, for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement, and I will then call Philip Dunne to respond to these in turn. Questions should be brief.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to introduce the Environmental Audit Committee’s latest report, which, as you say, is on the topic of water quality in rivers. This is an issue of particular interest to me, as I had a private Member’s Bill in the last Session of Parliament that was not able to progress, and our Committee has worked very hard for over a year in taking evidence, including from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who I am delighted to see is in her place. As an Environment Minister, she has taken a particular interest in championing this issue in Government and in introducing measures to the Environment Act 2021, which became law two months ago and whose measures will in some respects pre-empt some of our recommendations. We are grateful to her for her interest in this subject.
I would like to take the opportunity—it is the first time we have been able to do so—to welcome our latest recruit to the Committee, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). We look forward to her contributions to our Committee in due course.
By way of introduction, we have been concerned about water quality because of the extraordinary evidence that we have received from campaign groups up and down the country. We recognise that we are presiding over a cocktail of contamination in our rivers, stemming from more than 60 years of under-investment in drainage networks, sewers and treatment plants, mostly because they are underground, out of sight and not at the top of public consciousness, other than when there is a disgusting sewage spill—an incident that captures public attention. For 60 years, however, we have been developing more and more housing, industry and agricultural buildings above ground, without putting corresponding investment underground to deal with the effluent that a growing population of both humans and animals creates. That is something that we absolutely have to put right.
At present, only 14 of England’s rivers are in good ecological health, and not a single one gets a clean bill of health for chemical contamination. Getting a full overview of the health of our rivers, and the pollution affecting them, has been hampered by outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring regimes, which is why it has taken our report to pull all the data together. Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a routine basis, often breaching the terms of the permits that, on paper only, allow them to do so in exceptional circumstances. That was one of the most significant findings. We think part of the reason is that they have been allowed to self-monitor for the last 12 years or so.
One of the Minister’s innovations in the Environment Act is to increase the amount of monitoring, using the latest technology, so that we can understand, in real time, the impact of discharging sewage into our river systems. We have not been able to do that until now, other than through individual lab testing. Monitors will be placed upstream and downstream of the outfalls, and that will have a transformative effect, not least in allowing the public to know whether there has been a sewage discharge before they intend to visit a river.
However, it is not all about sewage. Water companies have to deal with an increasing volume of plastic and other non-biodegradable material being flushed down our toilets, and that includes wet wipes. I support my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) in his move to promote a private Member’s Bill to ban the use of plastic in wet wipes, which act as a dam in the sewerage system.
A combination of excessive amounts of non-biodegradable material gets caught up in meshes and added to by fats, oils and greases coming out of food service establishments to create fatbergs—we had evidence that some are as big as blue whales. Those need to be removed from the sewers, and water companies are spending £100 million a year of their scarce resource on removing that material. Some 7 million wet wipes a day go into our sewers, so we as individuals can do something about that to try to reduce that problem.
The problem is not all about the water companies; it is also, we found, due to diffuse pollution from agriculture. That, in fact, accounts for slightly more of the causes of pollution than sewage from water treatment plants. Intensive livestock and poultry farming is putting significant pressure on particular catchments. I think there are 14 across England where development is on hold because of the nutrient load already existing in our river systems. One of the worst is in the River Wye catchment, where it appears that there has been particular pressure, building up over a number of years, from poultry farming. We have therefore called for a nutrient budget to be calculated for each catchment, and for the Environment Agency’s good resources to be used to review it so as to establish a framework that would allow development to take place without adding to the nutrient load in the receiving waters.
Going back to the water companies for a moment, we were alarmed by the degree of permit breaches, which were brought to our attention not so much by the Environment Agency or the water companies themselves but by citizen scientists doing their own investigations under freedom of information requests. We think it is important that the Environment Agency and other regulators get a proper picture of the true number of sewer overflow discharges, because we fear they may be higher than is currently permitted.
We have made a number of suggestions about how, in considering how to allocate resource from the spending review, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should consider giving additional resources to the Environment Agency so that it can adequately undertake its enforcement, which has, all too often, been slow—to put it mildly. We have seen an increase in fines imposed as a result of prosecutions in the last few years—two have been very significant—but, by and large, fines for enforcement of clear breaches, with discharge above permit levels, have been a routine cost of doing business. We do not think that that is appropriate, so we think that greater enforcement must be undertaken by the environment network.
We have also called on Ofwat to prioritise the long-term investment in waste water assets as a key outcome of its next pricing review period. As the Minister is here and will be finalising the strategic pricing statement guidance to Ofwat in the coming weeks, we strongly encourage her to consider giving greater priority in the next pricing review to capital investment by water companies, to allow them to invest more in improving the treatment capacity available across the network.
We have a large number of recommendations. I do not have enough time to go into them all, but I will conclude by saying that one of our recommendations—which I think will have some resonance in this covid environment, in which many people have been using rivers for recreation—is that each water company should seek to get bathing water quality status in at least one river stretch or water body within its area before 2025, and then routinely seek to do so in subsequent pricing periods. I look forward to responding to any comments that Members might have on the report.
I thank the Environmental Audit Committee and its Chair for their comprehensive, detailed and extensive report. Of course, I have not been able to take all of it in yet, given that its publication date was today. My question is about the topic on which the Chair ended—namely, the capacity of the Environment Agency to deal with discharges into rivers, whether they are permitted or not. At the start of this week, we saw that the Environment Agency has been briefing staff not to pursue smaller-category incidents. I wonder whether the Chair of the Committee agrees that funding the Environment Agency to protect our rivers is crucial, and that it needs to be able to fully follow up on any incidents and not ignore even minor ones, which can later be found to be more significant.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee, and him in particular, on the campaign he has waged over the years on the issue of the purity of our water systems. I look forward to the Committee’s work on monitoring the implementation of these recommendations.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, however, my anxiety about the report is its timidity with regard to the operation of the water companies themselves. My view is very clear: as long as those companies operate as profit-making organisations, I do not see how they will act on long-term investment or, to be frank, the standards of behaviour we would expect of either a body in public ownership or a not-for-profit organisation. I wonder whether this report will result in opportunities for the Committee to look at the whole issue of ownership and management of the water companies themselves.
Thank you very much, Chair; I certainly would. I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for her contribution to this issue. I attended a debate, I think in this Chamber, in which she raised issues about the Tyne. She has been a strong champion in her area, trying to make sure that that river is cleaned up. In response to her specific query, the Environment Agency took the view that water companies could be relied on to self-monitor. It is palpable that that has failed, so we are calling for the Environment Agency to be adequately resourced so that it can perform its functions appropriately.
I do think there is help on the way through technology. Technology now exists, to an extent that it has not in the past, that allows for continuous monitoring of water quality within water bodies, and for that information to be passed through telemetry back to a database. That information can then become available to the public and the water companies themselves so that if there has been a sudden incident, they can pick up on it. There might have been a breakdown in a system, and if that information is available in real time, those companies will catch it much quicker than they have been able to do hitherto. That will not involve as many employees of the Environment Agency being on hand to do the testing themselves physically and then go back to their laboratory, so it will speed up the whole process of identifying problems in the system. I think that will ultimately be to the benefit of all of us, our rivers and all the species that rely on them as arteries of nature. I am hopeful that there are solutions and that the Environment Agency will receive a good settlement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
In response to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), I reciprocate by offering him my thanks for supporting my private Member’s Bill 18 months ago. He will not be surprised to hear that I take a slightly different view from him on the issue of ownership of the water companies. In the 10 years before the water companies were owned by the state—as they were up until 1991, I think—the collective capital investment of the water companies into water treatment capital expenditure was of the order of half a billion pounds a year. In the next 10 years, it was of the order of £1 billion a year, so under private ownership there was around double the investment in water treatment specifically.
Having said that, there are issues about the nature of current ownership and the fact that several of the companies have been leveraged through private equity ownership, which has caused some challenges regarding available capital expenditure. At least one of those companies has suspended dividends for the last three years, I think. There is recognition on those company boards that they need to change some of their behaviour.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will seek to promote the report’s recommendation that, in the event of persistent material breaches of permit conditions, it would be inappropriate for water company boards to pay themselves significant bonuses without taking proper action to remedy those breaches. I am sure he will agree with that and not regard it as timid.
As the Member of Parliament for Stafford, which has a number of significant waterways, including canals and rivers, I welcome this Environmental Audit Committee report. Does it address whether the recent Environment Act 2021 has done enough to tackle storm overflows and specifically water pollution?
That is an excellent question, which gives me the opportunity to highlight some of the things that have happened through that Act and beyond it, which the Government are doing to get on top of some of these issues.
First, amendments about monitoring and other amendments were made to the Act during the course of its passage, in particular the requirement on water companies to reduce sewage discharges progressively over time. That was added in the House of Lords and I very much welcome it, because it reflected the core of my private Member’s Bill.
Secondly, as we have just discussed, the Government will issue—as they usually do—a new strategic policy statement to Ofwat. We do not yet know what that statement will say, but we have seen a draft of it and all the indications are that the Government will consider adjusting the prioritisation of capital expenditure, so that at least some more, I hope, will go towards water treatment. We are currently at about £1 billion a year being spent on these issues through the water industry national environment programme. Personally, I would like to see that amount doubled, but we will have to see where the Government come out on that.
The Government have also set up a storm overflows taskforce, which is doing important work in advising the Government on other things that can be done. One of the elements in the Environment Act is a requirement for a report to be published by September of this year that will give the Government an opportunity, and a focus within DEFRA, to require an update and to get all the actors in this area—all the different water companies and the regulators, as well as the campaign groups that are helping the Government—to pull together to come up with other measures that can be taken outside of legislation.
There are other matters—as the Minister might prompt, there are a lot of other issues—but those are the ones that leap to mind. As I said at the outset, she has put a great deal of personal commitment behind this process and I hope that, for her own sake and that of the rivers, during her tenure we start to put in place the building blocks to transform the quality of rivers across the country.
Global Vaccine Access
I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global vaccine access.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the time for the debate. I thank those Members who are here and those who have given apologies—a number who intended to speak are speaking in the other Backbench Business debate in the Chamber—for their support. I also thank those members of the International Development Committee who are here.
In preparing for the debate, I looked back at the Backbench Business debate focused specifically on covid-19 vaccine access that I secured all the way back in November 2020. It is an odd achievement, but I was the first Member to use the phrase “vaccine nationalism” in the House. On reflection, I am saddened that, more than a year later, we are having a similar debate relating to covid and other vaccine programmes, with a number of issues unresolved.
I will focus the majority of my remarks on covid-19; it is difficult not to. In some respects things have changed considerably in the past 14 months. We now have a number of licensed vaccines in the UK, 90% of over-12s have had at least one jag or jab—whatever you prefer to call it—and more than half are fully boosted. I commend and thank all those who have worked tirelessly to create these vaccines and to ensure that they reached the public and those who need them. However, it has sadly not all been good news.
In November 2020, we were only just hearing about the delta variant spreading in India—a strain that would not enter the UK until February last year. We almost never talk about it now, as in a few short weeks from the end of year, omicron spread throughout the world and entered the UK. It was a stark reminder of something that has been said many times before: we are simply not safe until everyone is safe. While 90% of over-12s in the UK have had at least one vaccine—my own children are part of that number—that falls to 60% of the world overall.
Many countries—it will not surprise Members that it is mainly low-income countries—have hardly any access to covid vaccines. Some 2.3% of those in Nigeria have had a vaccine, 1.4% in Ethiopia, 9.8% in Afghanistan, 5% in Syria, 1.2% in Yemen and only 0.1% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name just a few; I could obviously go on. It is unsurprising that the consequence of this is that new variants emerge elsewhere and spread quickly through those unvaccinated populations, eventually reaching the UK. No borders, physical or otherwise, can prevent that in what is an interconnected world.
That is why we are having this debate. In that previous debate, the Minister responding, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), told us:
“The UK is proud to be at the forefront of international efforts to develop vaccines, treatments and tests and ensure equitable access for the world’s poorest countries”.—[Official Report, 5 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 575WH.]
Clearly, the situation has not moved at the pace required. I am sure the Minister will point out that the UK has pledged to donate 100 million vaccines, and that the Government reached their target of donating 30 million of those before Christmas. However, we know that getting vaccines out of the UK is only the first part of the story. We have to think about what happens to those vaccines when they arrive. Organisations on the ground report that vaccines arrive in an ad hoc manner, sometimes with little notice. Too often, they arrive with a limited shelf life, leaving in-country health teams—already overstretched, as health teams all over the world are—scrambling to get doses out to people in time. There is also no requirement currently for donations to be sent with necessary supplies, such as syringes and dilutant in order to administer those doses. Without those, a vaccine in a tube is arguably completely useless.
The United Kingdom donates vaccines that it has purchased and deemed surplus to requirements here in the country. That might suit the Government as a way to marry up vaccinations at home with meeting our commitments abroad, but sadly it leads directly to the position that I have just described, so I ask the Minister to address the following questions. Who decides what donations will be made, and when? What processes are in place to ensure that doses are sent in a timely, regular and predictable fashion? Will the Government commit to end the policy of over-purchasing vaccines and donating the surplus, and will they instead commit to putting a policy in place whereby vaccines are donated in large volumes and in a predictable manner, to allow countries to plan their roll-outs?
Will the Government publish the timelines for expected donations from the UK in the coming months as the UK sends the additional 70 million donations that it has pledged? Will they commit to ensure that donated doses have a minimum 10-week shelf life when they arrive in a country, with the exception of when individual countries have stated that they are prepared to take doses with a shorter shelf life? It is clear that in several of the countries that I have described, there are simply not the internal mechanisms in order to be able to deliver vaccines before they expire. Finally, will the Government commit to donate syringes with the vaccines, to ensure that they can actually be used on arrival and that that is something else for countries not to worry about?
I would be grateful if the Minister could address accounting for the cost of the donations. If doses of vaccine are purchased by a country for use on its own population and are then donated, which is exactly what is happening in the UK, the donations are being accounted for in our official development assistance—ODA—budget. To put it more clearly, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have budgets. The Department for Health and Social Care is using some of its budget to buy vaccines, and when it cannot use them, the FCDO donates them.
However, the FCDO then gets to say that it has purchased those vaccines from its ODA budget, thus artificially reducing the amount of money left to spend elsewhere. Even more concerning is the fact that the UK Government could account for those doses in the ODA spend at a higher price than they paid for them, thus effectively saving money that was committed elsewhere. I ask the Minister to clarify whether this is indeed her Department’s approach. Will she commit to account for the donations outside the ODA budget? If her Department is not in a position to do so, will she commit to ensure that the donations continue to be accounted for as part of ODA at their actual purchase price?
These are partially problems of oversight as we respond to a global pandemic at speed, but they are related to the problem of the Department for International Development being subsumed into the Foreign Office. They are problems that I warned about when the merger was first proposed, and I secured an urgent question on the merger in June 2020, but here we are, potentially dealing with some of those problems at a time when efficacy is key to successful delivery.
I welcome the fact that there remains a Select Committee dedicated to scrutinising international development work. I have already referred to its Members who are present, and I wholeheartedly commend their work, but it says everything about how the Government are treating international development that when I was preparing for the debate, it was not initially clear which Minister would be answering. That is because there is no longer a Minister responsible for international development. I am delighted to see the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean here today, and I look forward to her remarks, but it is not the same as having a Secretary of State or even a named Minister responsible for international development as a portfolio.
This is part of a broader narrative—a narrative of the Government stepping back from our commitments to the wider world. I am sure the Minister will say that we are better than other countries in this space, but that is just not good enough when we are stepping back and damaging our historical reputation as world leaders. As we all know, we have cut ODA spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. It is an action, but not the right kind. Yes, there is a promise to restore spending at some point in the future, but there is no clarity about when that will be. The Chancellor was not as clear as he could have been, and an increase in the future does not help those in need now.
Cutting ODA spending hurts us all. The Minister will know the importance of having soft power on the ground, making friends and being trusted. Cutting spending, programmes and assistance simply does not do that. I have previously spoken in this place about the impact on the British Council. It is the same thing, because such actions break that trust. They destroy our friendships and reduce our power. We cannot be global Britain when the Government choose to step back.
I want to refer briefly to the fact that ODA cuts also hurt us at home. The University of St Andrews in my constituency of North East Fife receives funding for research projects through ODA spending. I have spoken previously about how cuts in that spending have put research projects at that university at risk. I am sure the Minister will say that our scientists have led the way in getting a vaccine in the first place, which is right, but what message does it send about how we value this research when its funding is at risk? Without that funding, will we be prepared for whatever comes next?
While we can improve how we are donating vaccines, this will not be the whole solution. COVAX does not aim to vaccinate whole countries. We will be safe only when countries are able to vaccinate their populations themselves. I have just spoken about the importance of incentivising and paying for research, but it is not contradictory to say that we must also engage with discussions about how low-income countries can manufacture their own vaccines.
The trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights waiver has been on the table for discussion for months. Why are the Government not at least engaging with these discussions? What do the Government plan to do to meet the covid vaccination need without such a waiver? If there is a plan about this, I would be keen to hear it, as donations will simply not be enough.
In a debate about global vaccine access, it would be remiss of me to talk only about covid. While covid has dominated the health agenda for the past two years, other diseases continue to spread. When it comes to routine immunisation services, the UK has a commendable record and is the largest sovereign donor to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, but the pandemic has severely put back GAVI’s work.
In 2020 alone, 3 million more children missed out on a measles vaccination than in 2019. Yes, it is vital that low-income countries get urgent access to covid vaccines, but once that is done, we must tackle the backlog of missed immunisations. It is money well spent, as $1 spent on immunisation is estimated to save $21 in healthcare costs, low wages and lost productivity. Put simply, we keep people alive. Will the Minister today commit to maintaining the £1.65 billion donation to GAVI that the Government have committed to between 2021 and 2025?
Having praised our work with GAVI, the UK’s record with other vaccination programmes is sadly less laudable, with a 95% cut in our commitment to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The Minister might say that they committed £100 million as planned, but with only £5 million actually delivered, there is no other way to describe this as anything other than a brutal cut that will have a catastrophic impact on the delivery of services. Do we really want to see polio return in the 21st century? Is the legacy of battling covid-19 going to be tens of thousands of people infected with a disease that we were close to eradicating? Will the Minister commit to reinstating this funding as a matter of urgency?
It is very simple. What we have learned in the past two years is that health is a global issue. It is not just right to support worldwide health initiatives, but it benefits us too. When it comes to covid, we have seen that a global pandemic is exactly that: global.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate on global vaccine access.
I start by thanking the healthcare workers, NHS staff and volunteers who have helped Britain to have one of the most successful coronavirus vaccination programmes in the world. I also pay tribute to our scientists who have worked to develop coronavirus vaccines, and thank the Government for funding this vaccine development. I was grateful to receive my vaccines at the Kingston Centre and St George’s Hospital in Stafford, and I was delighted to hear that over 2.5 million vaccines were given in the west midlands in December alone. Seeing the vaccine roll-out in my own Stafford constituency has made me passionate about the need for global vaccine access.
Britain has always been at the forefront of global healthcare. The efforts of consecutive British Governments and the generosity of the British public has helped to eliminate many diseases globally. Britain was a founding member of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, and this Government are continuing to champion access to vaccines.
As Chair of the International Development Sub-Committee, I welcomed the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s recent information note on GAVI that highlighted the need to establish worldwide vaccination programmes for dangerous diseases, such as polio, as well as rolling out coronavirus vaccinations. In September, I met with GAVI at its headquarters in Geneva, to discuss the coronavirus vaccine roll-out, and to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised communities in the world are not left behind.
I welcome that Britain is one of the most generous donors to GAVI, pledging £1.65 billion from 2020 to 2025. During the height of the pandemic in June 2020, Britain led the hosting of the GAVI replenishment conference, and I was pleased that fundraising target the was exceeded, with world leaders pledging $8.8 billion. That was a crucial step in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, which, as we know from experience, shows that vaccines do work in protecting us from infectious illnesses.
Polio provides another example of how vaccines can be used to tackle terrible diseases. In 1988, over 70 million people worldwide were infected with polio, and more than 350,000 people developed paralytic polio. The Government’s generous financial support for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative meant that 2018 saw only 33 cases of polio worldwide. That represents millions of people being saved from the perils of polio by one simple vaccine. That is a real example of how vaccination programmes do work, and why we must follow this model and continue to provide global access to vaccines in order to end the coronavirus pandemic.
I will not take interventions at the moment. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, and having visited numerous health programmes across eastern, southern and western Africa, I have seen at first hand the devasting impact that diseases can have on people already living in challenging circumstances. I welcome the recent breakthrough with the malaria vaccine which, like the coronavirus vaccine, has the potential to make a real difference throughout the developing world.
I repeatedly raised the importance of COVAX with the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), and have done so again with other Foreign Office Ministers, including raising the issue in the Chamber and in International Development Committee evidence sessions. I welcome that Britain took the lead regarding COVAX when hosting the G7 last summer, committing the UK to providing 80 million vaccine doses and helping to secure commitments to COVAX of nearly $10 billion from other developed countries. The Government should be commended for meeting their ambitious target to donate 30 million vaccines to COVAX by the end of 2021.
On my visits to Kenya, as trade envoy, I have seen at first hand the difference these COVAX vaccines have made. On my most recent visit in November, I went to the Kenyatta University Hospital and met with Kenyan doctors and healthcare professionals. This hospital in Nairobi works in partnership with the University of Manchester in order to improve healthcare treatments and tackle infectious diseases. The British also developed the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which has helped to save lives and improve the life chances of people living in Kenya; I am pleased this has been replicated across the Commonwealth, with over 2.5 billion doses being used in over 170 countries. At the G7 the Prime Minister said that we need a plan to vaccinate the world. If we want a definitive end to this pandemic, then I agree with him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this debate at a time when the pandemic is wreaking devastation on the poorest and most vulnerable nations on earth and brutally exposing their lack of access to vaccines. I know that she is a longstanding campaigner on the issue of equitable access to vaccines for everyone. I also thank organisations such as Global Justice Now for the important research they have done to raise awareness of this issue. I am a member of the International Development Committee; it is good to see other colleagues from the Committee attend this popular debate. The Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has done a lot of good work on this issue.
One of the reasons for the pernicious spread of coronavirus, and the high global death toll, is the failure of Governments, such as ours, to support the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights waiver, proposed by the Indian and South African Governments last summer, just months before the omicron variant emerged. That was despite India and South Africa proposing, as far back as October 2020, that a waiver of intellectual property rules on covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments would allow low and middle-income countries to manufacture life-saving tools. Despite most countries, including the United States, supporting the waiver, the UK, the EU and Switzerland all prevented progress.
Action at the time would have led to life-saving covid vaccines, medical equipment and medicines all being produced licence-free. However, more than a year after the start of the global vaccination drive, our Government are still putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk by not supporting the waiver. The reality is, as we all know, that no one is safe until everyone has access to vaccinations and all nations are immunised.
Sadly, instead of supporting lower and middle-income countries, our Government have actively blocked them from making their own vaccines and have continued to oppose a waiver on intellectual property rights. I would therefore like to hear the Minister respond to the concerns that she and her colleagues are continuing to block solutions to the covid pandemic, given the severity of the crisis affecting both the NHS and the economy as a result of rapidly escalating levels of omicron cases. Denying lower and middle-income countries full, unfettered access to vaccines is incredibly short-sighted and will lead to a situation whereby our own population will remain at risk.
A global disease needs a united, global effort to eradicate it and reduce the risk of further mutations. An intellectual property rights waiver is therefore a vital way to achieve that, and we must follow the lead set by the Biden Administration in supporting that. The Government abolished the Department for International Development. That was extremely short-sighted and regressive, and will ultimately cost many, many lives. What happened was shameful. To put the situation into context, in a six-week period over November and December, the EU, UK and US all received more doses than African countries took stock of in the entire year. That is truly shocking.
Some 700 million doses of the vaccine were delivered instead of the 2 billion that were promised through the COVAX programme by the end of the last year. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that what is inherently wrong with the COVAX programme is that it has an unequal distribution embedded in it, and for that reason ensures that facilities that are given exclusive licences are over-relied on. Facilities can also implement export bans in their countries to stop the vaccine being distributed more widely.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I fully agree with her.
I will finish on the point that, despite having already made billions in profit, Pfizer and Moderna continue to refuse to share the new generation of vaccine technology with the World Health Organisation’s mRNA hub in South Africa. That is a major concern, and little appears to have been done since Amnesty International urged Governments, including our own, to deliver 2 billion vaccines to low and middle-income countries before the end of 2021. The continued failure to act will fuel an unprecedented human rights crisis and lead to an untold number of deaths in those countries. We must do more, and the Government have to do a lot better.
I will try to be as quick as possible, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this debate.
I want to report to the House from my privileged position as chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. When we had our first in-person gathering of the Parliaments of the world in Madrid in November, one motion came out top of all of the motions put forward from all the Parliaments in the world. Over several days we were able to come up with a form of words that every single politician from every single Parliament that attended was able to sign up to. I want to share it with the House because it demonstrates the value of the work across Parliaments, and also addresses some of the points that the hon. Lady raised in her opening remarks that would make it difficult for me or perhaps even the Government to support everything that she asked for. If Members look up on the internet the Inter-Parliamentary Union minutes of the meeting, they will find links to the motion. I call upon colleagues to look at that because I do not have enough time to go through all of it.
The motion’s crucial wording is around the issue of the World Trade Organisation. There were German parliamentarians at the IPU who would not have been able to support the TRIPS waiver wording, but parliamentarians did work together and came up with some wording that everyone was happy to endorse. It implores parliamentarians to work with their national Governments to exert a global, collective influence on the World Trade Organisation to eliminate all export restrictions and other trade barriers on covid-19 vaccines and the inputs involved in their production. This issue is so important because, as we heard in the opening remarks, we will not be safe until everyone in the world has been vaccinated. The more parts of the world lag behind us on vaccination rates, the more the virus will be able to mutate.
Extensive covid-19 immunisation is a global public good. Although the Government are doing much good work in this area, I call on them to do even more, because it is so important to our health. It is a development issue; it has never been so obvious to everyone in this country that by helping others around the world, we help ourselves. Let us do it. Please read the motion that we all agreed.
Thank you, Mrs Murray. Last month, the former Prime Minister and World Health Organisation global health ambassador Gordon Brown said that the global vaccine roll-out was a
“stain on our global soul”.
The numbers are stark: three quarters of health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated; less than 5% of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated. Companies such as Pfizer have made huge profits from their vaccines, but just 1% of its global supply has been delivered to COVAX.
Corporate philanthropy is not going to solve this crisis. We cannot sit back and hope that the pharmaceutical giants will do the right thing; to do so is a death sentence for millions of our fellow human beings. I have to say, in terms of the Government’s performance, that the UK has disgraced itself by voting to block the temporary TRIPS waiver that would put human life above private profit.
As has been said time and again, we live in a global world and we will not be safe from the virus until we are all safe. We know that the more there is transmission anywhere in world, the more likely that new variants will emerge; some will be more virulent, and others may be more lethal than omicron, although hopefully most will be mild.
As campaigning group Global Justice Now has said:
“Until we allow low and middle-income countries to access covid-19 vaccines, we will be trapped in an endless cycle of variants”.
If we want this pandemic to end, we have to stop its global spread—that means vaccinating everybody. The first way to achieve that is for the UK to stop blocking the TRIPS waiver at the WTO; secondly, to encourage UK pharmaceutical companies to share their technology with the World Health Organisation covid technology access pool and the mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa.
A lot has been said about windfall taxes in recent days. Pharmaceutical companies have made windfall profits, largely derived from public funding. If they do not start sharing their vaccines and technology and start saving lives, I can think of no better circumstance for a windfall tax, with every penny used to fund vaccines around the world. If any Conservative Members are anxious about that, let me just say that it was Rab Butler who introduced a windfall tax 70 years ago this March.
I believe the time to act is now. The Government can do the right thing—they can save lives. If they do not act, their inaction will be, as Gordon Brown said, a stain on our global soul.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this debate.
I want to take this opportunity to remember my friend, the former Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who made his last speech last Thursday while I was in the Chair. Our thoughts are with his family. He was a wonderful colleague and friend to so many of us, and he was a powerful advocate for international justice and standing up for those who are vulnerable; his last speech was about the settlement of Afghans.
Today, we debate the need for vaccinating the world and protecting people in some of the poorest communities around the world. In that spirit, I want to highlight a number of points. First, we are all incredibly grateful to the NHS and all those who have been involved in the vaccination effort in our country. As we mark the tragic milestone of 150,000 fellow citizens having lost their lives in our country, let us not forget that the battle against covid is not over, as many hon. Members have said. That is why it is important that we recognise both the moral imperative, as has been pointed out already, and the economic imperative. It is in our self-interest, as well as in the interests of the rest of the world, to work to vaccinate the world.
The UN Secretary-General said,
“COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity–and so the whole of humanity must fight back.”
Sadly, many Governments across the world have been found wanting, including our own. We have seen the failure to meet the target that has been set to vaccinate sections of the population in different countries. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, said,
“More than 5.7 billion doses have been administered globally, but only 2% of those have been administered in Africa.”
That is the case in many parts of the world. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has been quoted today, pointed out the many huge economic benefits that the UK and other countries would gain if we vaccinated the world. That is why it is important in terms of preventing new variants from taking hold and from undermining our economy, our security and our own health, as well as global health, but also getting out of this continuous battle with the pandemic.
We will not be able to end the pandemic if we do not act together. We must remove the barriers and ensure people around the world are vaccinated, backed by resources from our Government. That is why it is important that the Minister addresses the issues that have been raised so far.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate. During yesterday’s vaccine statement, the UK Government Minister dodged an issue of vital importance to international vaccine security by choosing to hide behind commercial sensitivity rather than answering my questions about Scottish vaccine company Valneva. The UK Government Minister showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the issue. Let me be clear that my questions are not centred on the commercial considerations, as important as they are. The challenge that we face on vaccines is centred on public health and meeting our international obligations and responsibilities.
The UK Government’s overemphasis on vaccination as the sole plank of infection management is deeply problematic, but even with the vaccine success delivered by Dame Kate Bingham, they have placed all their eggs in the mRNA basket. That is the wrong move. The Valneva vaccine is the only adjuvanted, inactivated whole virus covid-19 vaccine candidate in clinical development in Europe. The UK Government pulled the contract just before the phase three results were published, which demonstrated the vaccine to be highly effective and safe.
In addition, the safety and efficacy of the Valneva vaccine was questioned by the Health Secretary, who said in the House of Commons on 14 September that
“it was also clear to us that the vaccine in question that the company was developing would not get approval by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency”.—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 820.]
That statement was untrue and had to subsequently be corrected. We have had the correction, but the company is still awaiting an apology. Importantly for the purposes of the debate, I will focus on the clinical advantages, over solely relying on mRNA. Inactivated vaccines are a well-established, tried-and-tested technology used over the last 100 years to vaccinate billions, including for seasonal flu, hepatitis A, polio and rabies, so the Valneva vaccine could play a vital role in tackling vaccine hesitancy among the general UK population. From a purely public health perspective, its availability and use could help to close the vaccination gap by increasing coverage among those who remain unvaccinated or are hesitant about novel mRNA technologies.
All of this is important, but the great advantage for global vaccine access is that the Valneva vaccine would allow the UK to meet its global humanitarian responsibilities by supplying such vaccines to COVAX, the international vaccine-purchasing agency. The Valneva vaccine does not require the same complex cold-chain infrastructure, making it easier to store, distribute and deploy internationally. Dame Kate Bingham said that the decision to cancel the Valneva contract was “problematic on various counts” and “short-sighted” and, in her lecture on 23 November, she said that it was “inexplicable”. Do the UK Government not get that?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate; I was pleased to support the application.
We are deeply lucky to live in a country that can afford and has access to the newest vaccines in sufficient quantities. Millions, indeed billions, of people around the world would beg, borrow or steal to have only the issues that we do. We are always griping about healthcare—the long waits and the crowded surgeries—but we know we are the lucky ones. I am ashamed of the speed of our response to the need for vaccines in other countries. Human Rights Watch estimates that about 75% of covid vaccines have gone to just 10 countries. Vaccines are key to preventing innumerable diseases but, sadly, eradication is often not possible because not enough profit is on offer.
Tuberculosis is a prime example, and I am pleased to declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global tuberculosis. TB was mostly eradicated in this country 50 years ago, although several thousand cases still occur yearly. Across the globe, however, millions of lives are blighted by it. That is because there is no economic impetus to develop a vaccine, but that is what the world needs. Investing in vaccines is cheap in comparison, so let us use this horrific pandemic as a wake-up call that strengthening health systems is cheap compared with what could happen.
In what little time I have available, I want to speak further on fulfilling our international responsibilities. The amazing work of multinational teams of researchers and scientists in British laboratories and, indeed, those everywhere have taken vast strides for humanity in the last two years. The knowledge, though, must be shared—not kept as a trophy, but used to spread health. The World Health Organisation set a target to vaccinate 40% of people in Africa by the end of 2021, but 92 countries missed that target because of lack of access. Sadly, in relation to Nepal, the real impact, despite the warnings of civil society and the requests from Kathmandu, was that no doses came forth when they were required.
The Minister may have prepared commitments to share today, but better than that would be an admission that commitments have not always been met in the past and that action is preferable to fine words.
I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for initiating this debate on an issue that I know she and others have been highlighting since covid vaccines became a reality. The roll-out has been incredible across these islands. It has been a real victory for science and for the national health service. In public policy, it is not often that we get a silver bullet but, for covid-19, the vaccines are just that. They save lives—as vaccines have done over decades—and they help, in this context, to prevent the emergence of variants and to break the cycle of lockdowns.
News of breakthroughs in the science and the race towards vaccines for things such as malaria and HIV are bright spots on what is otherwise a fairly grim global horizon, and designing in access to vaccines will be important as that research advances, too. We are absolutely blessed to live in countries that enable us to access vaccines so efficiently and allow us to get back to some sort of normality, notwithstanding the challenges that health services continue to face.
However, the inequality of access to vaccines is stark. It is now a cliché to say that nobody is safe until everybody is safe, but it is true: inequality of access is inherently unfair, and if that alone does not move people, we know that it undermines getting back to normal in this country. Uneven access to vaccines is not unprecedented: during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, rich countries again bought up global supplies. Back then, too, self-interest dominated, despite the known risks of not getting a grip globally, and despite the fact that the interface of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations is a recipe for disaster. As others have pointed out, vaccination rates remain dangerously low, despite the fact that vaccine makers worldwide have produced enough to vaccinate the world several times over. Not only are poorer countries left without access but they are more vulnerable due to weaknesses within their health systems, and inherent weaknesses due to other diseases that present challenges.
COVAX is key, but as we know, it has not worked to best effect. It had delivered only 700 million of a planned 2 billion vaccines by the end of last year, and as others have said, three quarters of health workers in Africa have not been vaccinated. Some 16% of the world’s population live in countries that have bought up more than half of vaccine supply, and suggestions that we are choosing between our own populations and those of poorer countries are simply not true. As others have said, it is vital to ensure that the logistics are in place. This really exposes how penny wise and pound foolish the recent cuts to aid have been, leaving health services unable to vaccinate their populations.
The TRIPS waiver, as others have made clear, is an absolute no brainer. As has been beautifully said, this technology should not be kept as a trophy: claims that it would stifle innovation are bunkum. It is hard to see how we do not all benefit from access to this technology, and it is really important that this country does not stand in the way of it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this important debate and for her opening remarks, most of which I definitely agree with.
The emergence of the omicron variant signifies the truly global nature of the coronavirus pandemic. In just a few weeks from the announcement of the first omicron case on 24 November 2021, this variant was running my constituency of Vauxhall ragged, with an estimated one in 20 people in London having covid-19 on 16 December. That is a truly staggering timeline, which proves that tackling this global pandemic requires a global response. Unfortunately, what we have had is a patchwork response divided along national lines: while richer countries have been able to offer at least one dose of a vaccine to 77% of their population, poorer countries have been able to offer the same treatment to just 8%. That is profoundly unjust to some of the poorest people in the world.
We do not know who will be patient zero for the next variant, but we do know that vaccinations will help stop the spread of covid-19 within our society. We also know that in many of the world’s poorer countries, the global HIV pandemic is a serious health problem in society. Although sustainable development goal 3.3 aims to end AIDS by 2030, many countries are struggling to get to grips with the virus, and 1.5 million people acquired HIV in 2020. For those living with HIV, covid-19 can be devastating: those living with HIV are twice as likely to die after being infected with covid-19, and many people with HIV who live in poorer countries cannot get access to the vital treatment or therapy that they need.
The presence of covid-19 within immunocompromised people is not only dangerous to them but can make the pandemic more dangerous for us all. While we do not know where variants will emerge, we do know that the ability of covid-19 to persist longer in the bodies of immunocompromised patients may give it time to evolve and mutate, so tackling covid-19 in the long term may be intrinsically linked to tackling diseases such as HIV. However, rather than a step up in our efforts to tackle HIV, screening in Africa and Asia has dropped by 40% and the UK Government cut funding to UNAIDS by 83%. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Treasury about reversing this cut for UNAIDS so that we can tackle these two deadly viruses together?
First, I apologise to you, Mrs Murray, and to the Minister as I will have to leave straight after I have made my remarks to address a sensitive issue in the Chamber on behalf of one of my constituents. It was a year ago that the first covid-19 vaccines were approved—a moment of hope that humanity could overcome this disease. Scientists did their duty and played their part, but I am afraid the truth is that world leaders failed to deliver the vaccines to all. At least 5 million people have now died of covid globally, but The Economist estimates the true excess deaths figure to be almost 20 million.
Huge public funding went into producing the vaccines. At least 97% of the funding for the AstraZeneca vaccine, for example, has been identified as coming from public funds, taxpayers or charitable trusts. The US Government funded and co-developed the vaccine sold by Moderna. Governments should have insisted that, in exchange for billions of pounds of public funding, vaccine producers must share any successful formula openly. Instead, our Government put the interests of pharmaceutical companies first. Companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech make $1,000 every second in profits from covid vaccines. Putting profits first means that less than 6% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated. Literally millions of people around the world have died avoidable deaths, and this has created the conditions in which new variants have emerged.
I will touch on what I am afraid is our Government’s shameful role. South Africa and India led the call for a temporary vaccine waiver, allowing technology to be shared. This has now won huge international support from many Governments and from President Biden, yet our Government, along with the Government of Germany, have been leading the opposition, putting profits before lives by blocking the global sharing of vaccine patents that would allow poorer countries to produce their own vaccines. A frankly racist idea, spread by those who make vaccine profits, is that Africa, Asia and Latin America are somehow incapable of making their own vaccines, even if patents were waived, but vaccine experts recently identified more than 100 companies in Africa, Asia and Latin America with the potential to produce mRNA vaccines.
Even if people are not morally outraged by the millions of unnecessary deaths, there is a simple additional reason to back the waiver: no one is safe until everyone is safe. The virus will keep winning if profit is put first. The covid-19 vaccine must be for the global public good—a people’s vaccine, not a vaccine for profit.
Thank you very much, Mrs Murray. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing the debate. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, which has been taking evidence every fortnight since July 2020, including hearing from Health Ministers across sub-Saharan Africa and other places who emphasise what we have been hearing today—the difficulties they have in accessing supply and the poor quality of supply they actually get.
It is certainly true that all of us have gained from the researchers who have developed new vaccines, and I pay tribute to the staff of the four national health services across the UK for the speed and skill with which they have delivered them. We have vaccinated almost 80% of adults with a third—or booster—shot, whereas access to even one shot in low-income countries is well below 10%. That simply highlights the inadequate access and inequity across the globe. High-income countries have literally hoovered up the vaccines as they were developed over the last year. That is indefensible. It is very reminiscent of AIDs, when people in Africa who were suffering from HIV or AIDs could not access the treatments that were available in the richer countries.
Last spring—well, actually, the spring before: 2020; I keep forgetting it is a new year—we heard lots of warm words about a global response to a global crisis. That is simply not what we have seen. We have seen that COVAX was established, and that the UK Government gave more than £500 million to it, but they did not give any vaccines until quite late last year. COVAX was meant to procure directly from companies. That never happened. Therefore, COVAX has ended up completely dependent on getting donated doses from wealthy countries that simply did advance procurements. That is the reason COVAX has delivered less than half of the 2 billion doses it was aspiring to deliver last year.
The UK Government promised 100 million doses in June 2021 at the G7—80 million to COVAX, and 20 million bilaterally. Less than a quarter of that has actually been delivered to COVAX. We are at the beginning of 2022. The 100 million is meant to be delivered by this coming June, which means 9.1 million per month to COVAX and a total of 11.5 million if we include any bilateral donations. The UK needs to radically step up donations of doses. That is the acute response, because that can be done in the short term. The UK has enough excess that it could carry out its third doses—and for many vulnerable patients, fourth doses, which I have had myself, as an immunocompromised person—and still accelerate the donation of doses to more than meet its target by June.
The problem is that wealthy countries think they can protect their own populations purely by vaccinating them. Omicron shows that that simply is not true. When we have large parts of the world, particularly in the global south, with low access to vaccines, that will generate high spread, and therefore more mutations—eventually, there will be new variants. Some of those variants may be as infectious as omicron—as transmissible and as good at escaping either natural immunity or previous vaccination—but may turn out to be much more severe. The fairy story that, inevitably, a virus is committed to becoming milder, is something that we are not in a position to count on.
We still, right now, two years into this crisis, need a global response. I therefore call on the Government to accelerate their donations, using the excess that we have. However, those must be predictable and in collaboration with the low-income countries that are receiving them. They also must have a decent shelf life.
We heard of Ministers having to visit their ports, every day, in case something had arrived. They had to keep stopping their own programmes because, suddenly, they got a delivery with a few weeks left on it. That is disrespectful to countries that do not have the health infrastructure that we have across the UK. It is critical to include consumables such as syringes and needles. It is also important to try to support the wider covid-19 responses.
Anyone looking at the WHO data will notice the incredibly low levels of covid—supposedly—in Africa. Africa does not have low levels; it has low levels of access to tests which means that cases are not being registered. We should not be using the doses as part of the already-reduced ODA budget, and certainly not charging more than the UK Government have paid for them.
That is the short-term approach, but the medium-term approach is to massively increase global production. The problem is that the TRIPS waiver has been being discussed for basically over a year. We would be in a totally different position if that had been moved on at the beginning. The UK is one of a dwindling number of countries that is blocking it. Over 130 countries now support it.
It is important to recognise that most of the leading covid-19 vaccines have been developed with public funding, either from university settings, which are largely publicly funded, or through the huge injection of funding made by the UK, US and EU Governments, and others. We touched on polio. The fact is that Salk did not patent his vaccine, Alexander Fleming did not patent penicillin and Röntgen did not patent X-rays, because they saw them as part of the global good.
As well as getting rid of the blockage of intellectual property rights and patents, it is important that there is proper sharing of data and technology transfer. Médecins Sans Frontières has identified 100 companies across Africa, Asia and Latin America that are certified by the European Medicines Agency, the United States Food and Drug Administration or the WHO for good manufacturing practice. To imply that it is not possible to produce vaccines to high qualities in the global south is frankly insulting.
The technology of messenger RNA vaccines holds hope for action against many tropical diseases in the future, such as TB, malaria and others. Sharing that technology now is not just about dealing with covid-19. It opens up the ability to tackle the scourges of infectious diseases that many countries face.
The UK should be increasing production of vaccines, to become a net exporter, instead of an importer. It is inexplicable why the UK Government pulled funding from the Valneva production site in Livingstone, when the trial data was about to be published. That vaccine was successfully developed using a traditional whole-virus approach, and people who were unwilling to take the messenger RNA vaccines may have been willing to receive the Valneva vaccine. It has not yet been trialled, but because it uses a whole-virus approach, it may provide a broader reaction that remains viable even when other variants arrive.
In comparison to delta, which had four mutations on the spike protein, omicron has 32 mutations. It is a totally different shape. Therefore, sadly with the AstraZeneca vaccine, the key no longer fits the lock. Pfizer does, but it wanes. We need to have broader vaccines so that we might be a bit more resistant to variants in the future.
The Government must maintain their support for routine vaccination. That means honouring the replenishment commitments to GAVI, because routine vaccinations have suffered due to the disruption of the pandemic. The UK has always been a leading funder of vaccination, and it must not pull back now. We must also think about future pandemics. The replenishment of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is coming up this year. The UK needs to commit to that.
We are all talking about the humanitarian and the moral need to support people in poorer countries to have the access we have had, but on top of the lives lost and the huge, multi-trillion economic hit to the world, it is important that we recognise that this was a global challenge. The international community has failed, so far. If we cannot get our act together now in facing this, that does not give great hope for that other challenge—the climate crisis.
It is my pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this hugely important debate. I think this issue will define this year, and the way this pandemic is remembered in history. I thank Members from across the House for their contributions.
From the very start of the pandemic, Labour and I have been clear that achieving global vaccine equity is a moral and economic imperative, yet the Government have failed time and again to answer the calls from our partners abroad, and the result is a catastrophic disparity between the countries that have and the countries that have not.
The facts speak for themselves. In the west, 70% of adults have received a vaccination, but many people in the world’s poorest areas are yet to receive a single dose. Nowhere is the covid divide clearer to see than in Africa, a continent in which immunisation rates in many countries are below even 1%, and three in four healthcare workers are yet to receive a single dose. The EU, the UK and the US received more doses in the last weeks of 2021 than African countries received all year.
From our own struggles with the pandemic, we know how desperately important it is to get jabs into arms, and of course we encourage everyone to get vaccinated; it is the way that we beat this virus. Yet why is it that when it comes to the rest of the world, last year we lagged behind the EU, the US, France, Germany, Italy and Canada in the number of doses donated to low and middle-income countries? I know that the new Foreign Secretary is perhaps a bit distracted at the moment with her own leadership ambitions, but seriously, is this global Britain? The world is right to wonder why this Government have fallen so far behind. Although Britain could be once counted upon to be a dependable and trusted leader on the world stage, our reputation has been tarnished by the Government’s failure to heed warnings about the virus mutating in less vaccinated regions and to take decisive action.
With the COVAX facility falling short of its pledges last year by over a billion doses and revising down its forecast for 2021-22 by 25%, as well as revelations that many vaccine producers not only failed to prioritise deliveries to COVAX but violated their contractual obligations, now is the time for outward-looking nations to redouble their efforts to vaccinate the world. This is not a question of trying to achieve the impossible, nor is it a choice between jabs at home or jabs abroad. We have the expertise, the technology, the resources and the production capacity, so what is stopping us?
First, there has been a shameful level of mismanagement. It is an absolute scandal that despite repeated promises by the Government to distribute surplus vaccines, more than 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had to be destroyed after passing their expiry date in August last year. In the same month, it emerged that the UK had taken 500,000 doses from COVAX that were meant for poorer countries. What on earth was going on? The reality of the global vaccination effort is that the increasing reliance on ad hoc donations from high-income countries to fill the gaps has meant vaccines arriving in countries late, with little notice and limited shelf lives. That makes it impossible for people in those countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorptive capacity so that they can get those jabs into arms.
I note that of the 30 million doses that the UK pledged to donate last year, only a third had been delivered by November, with the Government leaving it until the absolute last minute to fulfil their promise. Life-saving health interventions must not be treated like essay deadlines. We must do better and give countries adequate notice, with transparent and ambitious timelines, as well as a good level of shelf life on doses when they arrive.
Striving for vaccine equity is not only a moral imperative, but wholly in Britain’s best interests. We know from painful experience that viruses evolve and mutate. Our country’s heroic efforts in the fight against covid have been seriously set back not once, but twice, with the emergence of the more transmissible delta and omicron variants. Neither of those variants originated in the UK, but once they arrived here they quickly swept the country. That is why it is so important that our fight against covid is global.
We know, with great sadness, that another strain of this deadly virus will emerge if we continue down our current path. That is why it is unbelievable that the Government cut by 70% research programmes that track variants. As Gordon Brown so rightly pointed out:
“The grim truth remains that until no one anywhere lives in fear, then everyone everywhere will have to live in fear.”
Simply put, the current pandemic is not something that we can booster our way out of. As the emergence of omicron has shown us, as soon as a booster is administered in the west, another strain of the virus may mutate elsewhere, most often in the fertile breeding grounds where vaccinations are difficult to access.
We must remember that striving for global access to vaccines also makes economic sense. Covid is not just a health emergency but an economic emergency, and instead of being preoccupied with how much global vaccination would cost, we would be better served by considering how much it would save.
Will the Minister therefore confirm how much it costs us per dose to procure vaccines, and will she tell us at what price doses are currently being accounted for on the Government ledgers? Does she agree that donations to low and middle-income countries should not be counted towards the 0.5% ODA target? The sooner we can put an end to the health crisis, the sooner we can put an end to the economic crisis. Only when we can confidently say that the pandemic is over will global supply chains be able to adjust, our economy recover and businesses have the confidence to invest and thrive.
As the managing director of the International Monetary Fund put it, the costs of ensuring global vaccine equity would be
“dwarfed by the outsized benefits”,
with economies likely to see
“the highest return on public investment in modern history.”
This is not rocket science. It is the common sense that Opposition Members have been pleading with the Government to adopt since the pandemic first began.
If the Government are serious about global Britain, they also need to be serious about global health. If we are to have any chance of stamping out this virus once and for all, we need to work with national Governments to ensure that those with the greatest need can access vaccines, regardless of their location or the depth of their pockets. Labour has led the way on this issue, setting out the steps that the Government should take. I encourage the Minister to look at the 10-point plan that the former shadow International Trade Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and I laid out in May last year.
In particular, I urge the Government to show global leadership by working with other Governments to negotiate a temporary patent waiver with the World Trade Organisation to allow developing countries to speed up their own vaccine production. The UK is out on a limb on this now. The majority of countries around the world have expressed support for the TRIPS waiver. It is backed by hundreds of human rights lawyers, IP scholars, civil society organisations, economists, medical experts, scientists, most Commonwealth countries and the First Ministers for Scotland and for Wales, as well as by India, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Only the UK, Switzerland and the European Union are still blocking this. There are more than 100 manufacturers across Africa, Asia and Latin America with the potential to produce mRNA vaccines. Let us give them the tools to manufacture more of the vaccine and get the world jabbed as soon as we can.
Finally, I urge the Government to leverage the UK’s world-leading expertise and work in close co-operation with national healthcare providers and trusted partners on the ground to ensure that systems are in place to allow vaccines to be distributed in an efficient and swift manner. After all, there is little point in turbocharging global vaccine production if those vaccines cannot be distributed to the people who desperately need them.
As we enter the new year, the Government have an opportunity to finally do the right thing. As a proud, outward-looking nation, we simply cannot continue down our current path, looking on as spectators while the world suffers vaccine apartheid. To do so would be not only grossly unjust, but catastrophic to the UK’s interests—our reputation, the world economy and our security.
The Government must commit here today, without qualification, to taking the urgent steps that Labour, Gordon Brown and so many more have urged all along: to look beyond our borders, recognise our mutual common interests and do the right thing. Let us make 2022 the year that we close the great covid gap and do our part to vaccinate the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this debate, and I thank the many hon. Members who have contributed to it. I will try to respond to many of the points that have been made.
It is now almost two years since the start of the pandemic. We have seen extraordinary and unprecedented progress in so many areas, but too many people across the world remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to the virus, particularly in lower-income countries and in the most marginalised communities.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Our G7 and UN Security Council presidencies last year drove an important international response on vaccine access. It included a G7 agreement to share and finance at least 1 billion doses for developing countries by June this year. Furthermore, last month, within days of becoming aware of the omicron variant, we convened G7 Ministers to agree a co-ordinated response. On 30 December, the Foreign Secretary announced £105 million in UK aid to help vulnerable countries respond to the omicron variant, including support to scale up testing, improve access to oxygen and provide communities with hygiene advice.
Last year, we also worked with a wide range of partners to design and fund the COVAX facility, with the participation of over 191 countries and territories, including up to 92 developing countries. Yes, COVAX faced constraints in 2021, but supply has increased rapidly, and the facility has delivered to 86 low and middle-income countries. We were a founder and, with our commitment of £548 million, we were one of the largest donors. The UK continues to support vaccinations through its contribution to the World Bank’s African Vaccine Acquisition Trust scheme. We have also pledged funding for developing covid-19 treatments and rapid diagnostic tests, and we have deployed emergency medical teams.
The UK has also committed to sharing 100 million vaccine doses. We have donated over 30 million doses so far, meeting our goal for 2021, and UK donations have helped to immunise health workers and those most vulnerable to covid-19.
The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), asked about the cost of those donations—I suspect that was the intervention that the hon. Member for North East Fife wished to make. The cost of covid-19 vaccine donations for 2021 has been additional to the ODA budget in the 2020 spending review. Our total ODA spend in 2021 will remain within 0.5% of gross national income, given growth forecasts. Departmental ODA budgets are increasing significantly over the period of the next spending review, and they will fully cover the cost of vaccine donations to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to donate 100 million doses by June 2021.
I am not going to take interventions right now, because I want to try to answer the points that Members have made in their speeches.
The spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), seemed to believe that the UK holds a stockpile of covid-19 vaccines. That is not the case; the UK does not stockpile covid-19 vaccines. We manage our supply chain very carefully, ensuring that vaccine doses are used and have an impact as quickly as possible, either in the UK or beyond. A number of Members spoke about vaccines that may have gone to developing countries, but were too close to their use-by dates. Right now, vaccines that are delivered by COVAX are delivered in consultation with countries that are ready and able to begin an immediate roll-out, and they are distributed in line with the World Health Organisation’s equitable allocation framework. For bilateral donations, we have sought assurance that recipients have the capacity to roll out that quantity of doses in line with their national vaccination programmes, ahead of their expiry dates.
Supply is increasing, but it needs to be sustained and consistent, so that countries can plan and implement their immunisation campaigns. A capacity to deliver vaccines quickly is now a priority of our focus. A new inter-agency global co-ordinator for delivery has been appointed to focus on in-country delivery, and several countries, such as Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa, have already administered most of the vaccines they have received so far. Yesterday, I spoke to our team in Ghana, where right now they are vaccinating half a million people every day, and even using drones to deliver vaccines to the hardest-to-reach communities. It is a truly remarkable effort, and we donated over a million vaccines to Ghana before Christmas as part of that work.
Although our vaccine donations make a difference and are a critical source of short-term supply, I recognise that dose sharing alone will not vaccinate the world. That is why the UK also backs the Oxford-AstraZeneca model of voluntary licensing to expand the production of affordable vaccines. About 2.5 billion Oxford-AZ doses have been delivered at cost to more than 170 countries, and about two thirds of those have gone to low-income and lower middle-income countries.
In addition, last year we announced a quarter of a million pounds for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in order to accelerate the collaborative development of vaccines against new diseases, including covid-19. CEPI is also providing funding to other UK institutions for the development of vaccines against other diseases, such as Lassa fever, Marburg virus disease and middle east respiratory syndrome. In March this year, the UK will host the global pandemic preparedness summit, which will mobilise resources for CEPI’s five-year strategic goal to reduce the time it takes to develop vaccines against new threats, including new covid variants.
The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the hon. Members for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and others called for an intellectual property rights waiver, but that is not the solution. There is a serious risk that a TRIPS waiver could undermine the intellectual property framework that helped to produce covid-19 vaccines, and could disincentivise future research and development investment.
I will answer the points that have been made on this, and if I have time, I will give way at the end. The flexibilities within the TRIPS system that were used to tackle the HIV/AIDS crisis are really important. We remain open to all initiatives that will have a demonstrable impact on vaccine production and distribution, and we continue to engage constructively in discussions at the World Trade Organisation to that end. However, we need to focus our efforts on actions that will make timely and substantive differences, such as further voluntary licensing and technology transfer agreements. That is why we support the voluntary licensing approach taken by the team at Oxford University and AstraZeneca. Their collaboration with the Serum Institute of India has massively scaled up manufacturing for global supply.
On manufacturing, we are also providing technical support to develop business cases for Biovac to manufacture vaccines in South Africa, to Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal and to the Moroccan Government. This technical support is helping to catalyse the investment that will see those vaccines produced on the African continent this year. We are also engaging with the new Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing. Focusing on supporting manufacturing on the continent of Africa is absolutely one of my key priorities. However, vaccine supply must be matched by the capacity of health systems to deliver them. We have been working to support and strengthen health systems in some of the most vulnerable countries, and we recently launched the “Health Systems Strengthening” position paper, which sets out our determination to do more on building overall capacity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and others point out, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is really important, and we continue to be a leading supporter. Our commitment of £1.65 billion over five years will help to vaccinate 300 million more children against preventable disease and improve health system resilience against future pandemics.
I will. I hope I have answered as many as possible of the questions that have been raised. That is what I have tried to do. The goal to vaccinate the world is monumental, and it is one that the UK is firmly committed to supporting. We have taken global leadership on that, especially during our G7 presidency. The points raised about manufacturing and distribution are live issues that we are tackling now. We will continue to champion the collaborative approach through CEPI, including on producing new vaccines for covid-19.
I am pleased to have you in the Chair for the conclusion of the debate, Mr Hollobone. With Thursday afternoon Westminster Hall debates, there is always the pressure to get back to our constituencies, and the fact that this debate was so well subscribed shows how important it is to many Members. I thank them for their attendance.
Let us think first about what we have agreed on. We are very proud of those who are involved in the development of vaccines, and those in our NHS who are involved in the supply and delivery of vaccines within the UK. We are also all proud of the UK’s previous record as a global leader in international development.
However, our differences of opinion, which became clear in the Minister’s concluding remarks, are about whether the UK is doing enough, whether it should be doing more and how it should be doing it. In relation to the TRIPS waiver, I absolutely get the intellectual property considerations, but why do 130 countries feel differently from the UK in that regard?
I say to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) that I looked at the IPU bits, and unfortunately it felt a little bit like COP26; where we have got to is the equivalent of moving from “phase out” to “phase down”, and there is clearly more to be done there. On Valneva, which the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) raised, if we can develop a vaccine that does not have those storage requirements, I do not know why we are not looking at that.
There was a degree of disquiet on this side of the Chamber when the Minister talked about donations. I saw somebody on Twitter say, in response to the debate, that our current approach is a bit like clearing the pantry of food that is about to expire, donating it to a food bank and feeling like a philanthropist.
Finally, there were lots of stats in the debate, and I thank the Members who raised them. As we have seen over the past few days, statistics are loved ones—they are people.
[Mr Phillip Hollobone in the Chair]
Before we begin there are some notices that Mr Speaker requires me to read. May I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate? This is in line with current Government guidance, and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Third Report of the Transport Committee, Rollout and safety of smart motorways, HC26, and the Government response, HC 1020.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is the Government response that I am particularly pleased to be discussing; Select Committees scrutinise and then put forward our recommendations, and in this particular instance, it is a great pleasure that the Government have accepted all the key recommendations—and gone further. I am grateful to the Minister, who is taking my thanks on behalf of the Department.
I also want to mention the previous incarnations of the Transport Committee and the work that they have done. I thank our former chair, Dame Louise Ellman, who chaired the Committee in 2016. I was a member of that Committee when a number of recommendations were made. For reasons that I will mention later, I believe that if those recommendations had been carried forward then we might not be where we are now. I also thank my predecessor, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who continued to shine a light on some of the failings of smart motorways. It has been a collective endeavour—a mission over the last six years—but I am pleased that progress is being made. It is also important to ensure that the Committee continues to focus on those assurances, and ensure that they are scrutinised and, ultimately, delivered. We will do so.
It would be remiss of me not to explain more about smart motorways and what their design and technology is there to do. It is there to control the flow and behaviour of traffic. There are three types and often people are baffled by the differences; I hope that I can explain them.
First, there are all lane running motorways, which tend to get the most focus because they do not have a hard shoulder at all. They rely on a series of emergency areas for motorists who become stranded. In 2019, there were 141 miles of all lane running motorway network. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles, which is measured from 2015 to 2019 for the purposes of this speech, was 0.12%.
Secondly, there are controlled motorways. These have a permanent hard shoulder at all times, but still have the smart technology. In 2019, they also accounted for 141 miles, with a lower fatality rate of 0.07%.
Thirdly, there is a dynamic hard shoulder motorway concept, which is where the hard shoulder is switched to a lane at busy times during the day. There are just 63 miles of this design, with a fatality rate of 0.09%. In comparison, there are 1,564 miles of conventional motorway, without the smart technology, which have a fatality rate of 0.16%.
The data shows that between 2015 and 2019, all three forms of smart motorways had lower fatality rates than conventional motorways. However, many are concerned because the data from 2019 alone shows that the reverse is true: smart motorways tend to be less safe.
The Transport Committee launched its latest inquiry in February 2021 and reported in November, with the Government responding this week. I will summarise what the Government have agreed to do.
Surely, to put it in context, it is best to start with why one would want to do this scheme in the first place. It is about traffic management and, in particular, reducing congestion in very crowded parts of our motorway network, especially at peak hours when people are going to work and with lorry traffic moving through. It is an enormously important part of our economy, particularly around the midlands motorway box where, I think the hon. Member would agree, the M42—the original smart motorway—works extremely well.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and take his point on board, although it is a bit difficult to go back to the start and do as he has suggested. However, it is a familiar topic about smart motorways that will come up later. He is absolutely right. If the design guide had followed the prototype—I intend to refer to the M42 and where things then moved—we might have found ourselves in a very different place.
The right hon. Gentleman touched on the reason for this scheme, which, again, is to create the extra capacity that is needed to get people off the more dangerous A and B roads and on to the motorway network. Unfortunately, because of what has happened, there is a danger that the opposite is true, and if he will allow it I will expand on that.
There are seven key points in the recommendations that were accepted. First, there will be a pause of the roll-out of all lane running motorways yet to commence construction until five years of data is available for the smart motorway network built before 2020.
Secondly, the Government will pause the conversion of dynamic hard shoulder motorways to all lane running motorways and revisit the case for controlled motorways. Is it all about all lane running smart motorways or are other smart motorways better?
Thirdly, emergency refuge areas will be retrofitted to existing all lane running motorways to make them no further than 1 mile apart, for which the Government have announced £390 million of funding.
My hon. Friend will know that I was the roads Minister from the summer of 2016 through 2017, and had been at the Department for Transport prior to that under a different Government. As Minister, I raised the issue of the frequency of those refuges with my office and with Highways England. It seems to me that, for the reassurance of motorists and motoring organisations, it is vital that they come more frequently. The Committee’s report recommends that. I am pleased with the Government’s response, which seems to be positive. However, it is critical that on all lane running motorways—that is the difference he highlighted earlier—those refuges are regularly available so that people can get off the road if and when they need to, without delay.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the expertise he brings to this debate. He makes some fascinating points. I am interested in whether the advice was followed by Highways England, as it then was. This was a new concept. Our recommendations included giving Ministers and the Department a little more independent advice from the Office of Rail and Road—the roads regulator. Had that been the case, there might have been checks and balances in the system, so the advice that he received might have been better for him. He rightly makes the point that if the build-out had been followed as he approved, we might not be where we are.
The fourth point was the granting of powers to the Office of Rail and Road to evaluate the Government’s smart motorways project plan. Starting this year, the regulator will report on progress annually, and carry out an evaluation of stopped vehicle detection technology and other safety measures.
The fifth point, which comes with a consultation requirement, is to introduce an emergency corridor manoeuvre into the highway code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to access incidents.
Sixthly, the Government will investigate the granting of new road safety powers to the roads regulator before changes to design or operational standards are implemented on our motorways and key roads. Again, Ministers would then have that independent four-eyes approach when their advice comes through.
Finally—this is important—we need to revisit the entire business case and rationale for smart motorway conversion. It is interesting that the expectation was that for every £1 spent on smart motorways, £3 would be delivered back, because we would be creating more capacity. There have not actually been that many studies of whether that has been achieved, because a longer assessment period is needed, which is now consistent with the safety assessment. However, one project on the M25 was delivering almost £3 back, although it is fair to say that the experts’ view is that it dissipates after a year, as more people use the motorway network.
The headline is a pause on new smart motorways, but the aspect that I am really determined to ensure that the Committee follows is all the retrofitting work that is needed to make the existing smart motorway network safer. That means vital work has to start on reducing the width between emergency refuge sites. We have seen that if a car is travelling at 60 mph and the distance interval is 2.5 km, it takes 75 seconds for that car to get to the emergency refuge areas. Some 40% of all breakdowns occur in a live lane, and that has to be impacted by the fact that the emergency refuge area is too far for the cars to get to, so it is essential that this is delivered.
I will touch on the stopped vehicle detection technology, which the Government are committed to ensuring is rolled out on the existing network by 2022. The Government are right to say that it was originally planned for 2023, so it will happen a year earlier. The Committee’s frustration is that we were given assurances by Highways England, the predecessor to National Highways, in 2016 that “going forward” the stopped vehicle detection technology would be put in place in the delivery of all new smart motorways. That has not occurred. When we heard from National Highways, as it now is, in our current inquiry, we were told that “going forward” actually meant “after two years”, whereas, to me, going forward means “immediately”.
Of course, the challenge now—it will be a funding challenge as well as an operational challenge—is that once those motorways are open and running, it is a lot harder and more expensive to retrofit the technology in place, which we have been told will be one of the blockers. In my view, that is precisely the reason they should have been put in to start with. I know the Government are now committed to ensuring that whenever they finish the existing smart motorways—which, rightly, cannot be stopped because they are almost there—they cannot open until the technology is in place.
Maybe a future programme for the hon. Gentleman’s Committee is why such bad advice is being given to Ministers inside the Department. Given that the M42 already had a system that worked and delivered much more predictable journey times, reduced fuel use, reduced pollution and, incidentally, reduced accident rates—that is all in the data from the M42 experiment—why did they cut corners after that? In the same way, they saved about £10 million on the paper licence, but it is costing about £100 million a year. Is there not clearly a systemic failure in advice and capability inside the Department for Transport?
I would be interested in hearing from former Ministers and the current Minister, but from my study of the matter over the last six years, I think the answer is that the culture has been about creating the capacity. That makes perfect sense, because if we create the capacity on the motorway network, we take traffic off the more dangerous roads. However, the difficulty is that we have then not focused on ensuring that the new roads are as safe as they can be. If we had the refuge areas at shorter distances and had the stopped vehicle detection technology, that could be done.
It was quite interesting that when we spoke to then chief executive of Highways England and asked why some of the motorways were open, notwithstanding the measures that had been put in place, he maintained that drivers wanted to try the road once the tarmac had been delivered. He stated: “We get a lot of negative feedback from the public, who say, ‘We know this is a smart motorway and you’re opening it. Why can’t we use that lane now?’”. I think it is that that has driven the feeling of, “Let’s get on and move it,” and then the safety measures and the design side seem to get cut.
I think there was a mentality in the agency that it designed this, so it became very defensive about it and tried to stretch it as much as it could. I would say that the safety bit got somewhat left behind and was not given the prominence that it should have been given. We know that the agency has a zero-harm policy: it aims to reduce harm, in terms of deaths, to zero by 2040. That is a lofty target, but it is also one that should be focused on every bit as much as creating the capacity.
I will end with this summary, because it is important that everybody else has the opportunity to speak and that we hear from former Ministers, with their ministerial expertise—there are two here to provide that. It is welcome that the Government have agreed to these recommendations. I applaud them for doing that, but it is essential that we now crack on with the safety measures that should have been there in the first place. They have not been there, but we now need to focus on getting them delivered as soon as we can.
It is vital that we use the Office of Rail and Road more, as it is the regulator and is able to challenge some of the assumptions. I welcome the acceptance of that recommendation, but the Office of Rail and Road is going to have to change as well. Of 350 employees inside that organisation, only 19 are dedicated to roads. It used to be the Office of Rail Regulation, but has been extended to cover roads; in reality, it is about rail. We do not want to get to a situation in which the culture is such—as perhaps it is with rail—that safety becomes the only issue, and we cannot ever get on and deliver innovations, because that might not be 100% safe; nothing is. We need to ensure that we still have a road-building programme in place.
Ultimately, it is really important that the Government look to whether they will continue with smart motorway build-out by assessing the data over this paused period. I very much hope that if the safety measures are brought in, that will strengthen the case for smart motorways, because the final point that I want to send to the public is that smart motorways are safe. The motorway network in this country is one of the safest in the world. People should be encouraged to use the motorway network. But we can make those smart motorways even safer, and I very much hope that this report and the Government’s response to it will help to that end.
Order. The debate will last until 4.30 pm. I am obliged to start calling the Front Benchers no later than seven minutes past 4. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister, and then the Chairman of the Transport Committee will get three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are five Back Benchers, with a humongous amount of highways expertise, seeking to contribute, and it is Back-Bench time until seven minutes past 4. The first of those will be Grahame Morris.
I appreciate your calling me in this debate, Mr Hollobone. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I begin by commending the work of the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and the way in which he has not only gone about the gathering of evidence for the inquiry, but actively promoted the response from the Government and the conclusions of the Committee. He is to be commended for that. I would also like to record, on my behalf, and, I am sure, that of all members of the Transport Committee, our thanks to the members of staff, the subject specialists and all the support staff who have been involved in preparing this third report of the current Session.
As I believe the Chair of the Committee has already pointed out, this is not the first Transport Committee report scrutinising all lane running motorways. Although I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Transport Committee’s recommendations, safety risks on all lane running motorways, such as those raised by our predecessor Committee in 2016, should have been addressed before those motorways were rolled out.
My own party and I personally have long felt that the Government needed to halt the roll-out of smart motorways. The Committee identified considerable evidence that there are serious flaws. It is a tragedy that so many lives were lost before action was taken.
There is a slight danger of conflating smart motorways and all lane running motorways. There are smart motorways that work, as with the M42, which is a key part of the motorway box around Birmingham and vital to the economy of this country. We therefore need to differentiate, and to look at what has worked and at why that was not followed through on. It is enormously important not just for those travelling to work, but—given that this country and its economy runs on its trucking industry and its drivers, as we found out recently—to keep things flowing. We have to look at extending that, rather than wrapping all those together in one framework.
That is a reasonable point. I certainly do not disagree with my right hon. Friend. I point out that our third inquiry was launched in response to concerns that the Committee had received about the increasing number of fatalities and to criticism by professionals, including coroners, about the risks that arise when we do not have hard shoulders, or when they are used as an additional lane.
As we heard in the Chair of the Committee’s opening remarks, the number of miles of motorway without a hard shoulder increased from 172 to 204 between 2017 and 2019. Over those two years, the number of deaths on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder increased from five to 15. At least 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the past five years. On one section of the M25 outside London, the number of near misses has risen twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014.
Thanks to the dedication of bereaved families, the roll-out has been paused. As part of the Committee’s inquiry, we heard some of the most harrowing and moving evidence from the families of those who, tragically, have died on smart motorways. That testimony, I believe, was very valuable and I thank all those who gave evidence in person and in writing.
All lane running motorways were primarily a money-saving exercise. We skirted around that issue earlier. In the rationale, they were introduced to add capacity while delivering savings on capital, maintenance and operational costs compared with previous smart motorway designs. The aim was to achieve the savings required by the 2010 spending review while maintaining Highways Agency safety standards. Clearly, those motorways could reduce the costs of implementation by up to a quarter.
It is now evident, however, that cost-cutting has played a part in the utterly inadequate roll-out of smart motorway features. That has put lives at risk. Many of the problems with the safety of all lane running motorways remain, years after the original Transport Committee report.
Some important questions need to be asked, and agencies and individuals need to be held to account for the decisions made.
It is staggering that since the first smart motorways went live, those basic standard safety features referred to earlier and in the statement this morning have still not been fully implemented—that smart technology to detect broken-down vehicles in live lanes. Emergency refuge areas are too far apart. CCTV cameras on smart motorways are not routinely monitored, which is an incredible admission that the Committee uncovered. Compliance with and enforcement of red X signs remain problematic.
Cameras capable of enforcing compliance will not be fully rolled out until September this year. As the Chairman of the Committee alluded to, the Committee was originally promised that the deadline for that would be six years earlier and that those cameras and that technology would be implemented in 2019. Also, we have now been told that stopped-vehicle detection will not be rolled out across all lane running motorways until September this year, six years after the Transport Committee was told that the technology worked and would be part of the standard roll-out of these schemes.
Emergency services and traffic patrol officers still struggle to access incidents in a timely manner, especially during periods of heavy congestion. Of course, the introduction of all-electric vehicles brings a whole new dimension into potential chokepoints and road traffic accidents, if such vehicles were to run out of power on an all lane running motorway.
The Committee’s report makes it clear that engagement and clear communication with the public about smart motorways will be key to their safe and successful roll-out, so education is a key issue. However, almost half of the British public do not know what to do in the event of an emergency on a smart motorway. We do not have any smart motorways or all lane running motorways in the north-east, but my constituents travel down to London and use these roads, which do not have a hard shoulder, so education is absolutely vital. However, it was a profound mistake that the first public information awareness campaign about smart motorways was not launched until 2021, years after they came into operation.
We know that smart motorways, given their current form and inadequate safety standards, are not fit for purpose and put lives at risk. I believe that Ministers were wrong to press ahead with them when there was strong evidence that safety-critical features should be introduced as the sections of smart motorways were being developed.
I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged the Committee’s concerns and paused the roll-out of all lane running smart motorways until five years of safety and economic data is available, and improvements have been delivered and independently evaluated.
I will conclude with several questions for the Minister. First, is it not illogical that hundreds of miles of smart motorway will continue to be used? What about the remedial work? How is that being programmed? Does she agree that the delay of the roll-out programme, caused by the delays in installing the relevant technology to detect broken-down vehicles, has risked lives, and that the continuing use of hundreds of miles of smart motorways before remedial work has been carried out is a risk to public safety? And will she and the Department for Transport engage with the Transport Committee to agree what data will form part of the evidence-gathering assessment over the next five years to determine the relative safety of smart motorways?
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, Mr Hollobone, and to serve on the Transport Committee under its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).
This report is the most substantial and impactful that the Transport Committee has produced for many years. It has looked to address some particularly difficult issues. All of us—both Members of Parliament and the Government—should ask ourselves why has it taken six years and three inquiries to get to this point? None the less, I am pleased that we have reached a point where a Transport Committee report has been accepted pretty much in its entirety by the Government.
My contribution will focus specifically on safety. Today, National Highways is focused on delivery, providing capacity and basically getting tarmac on the ground but, as I asked a senior director of National Highways at a recent meeting, how many people have to die on our national road network for National Highways to take safety seriously? How can it be that a fundamental part of the system—stopped-vehicle detection technology—was not working, despite the assurances that had been given to the Committee and others that it would be delivered? That is an absolute disgrace.
I hope the Minister will address that issue in her response. I look forward to hearing what she, her Department and the Secretary of State will do to address the issue. It is fair to say that very few people believe—I certainly do not—that National Highways take safety seriously enough or ensure it features in its decision making.
That leads me to the role of the Office of Rail and Road. As most Members here will know, before I came to this place my career was with the railways. I worked in the transport industry for 20 years, and I had many dealings with the ORR, in different ways. As my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee said earlier, only 19 of the 350 employees of the ORR are focused on highways, because highway safety is not really part of the ORR’s portfolio.
In the same way that the ORR has safety responsibility for the railways, we should deal with the safety issue of our highways by having a proper safety regulator, in order to hold National Highways, and other organisations, to account. As we have seen in this report, and heard in other contributions, we have an organisation that has been able to wriggle out of delivering key safety measures. That is a national disgrace, and a matter of huge, enormous, personal pain for the families of those who have lost their lives on the smart motorway network.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee and the Transport Committee team for what they have done. This is undoubtedly the most impactful report we have seen for a long time. I am especially pleased that the Government have supported pretty much everything we said, but we now need to see the Government taking these actions forward. Going forward in my role on the Committee, I will focus on ensuring that the safety issues I have outlined, specifically around National Highways’ responsibility to deliver safety matters and the ORR’s responsibility to address safety, are dealt with in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I have enjoyed the contributions from all members of the Transport Committee. I welcome its report and the Government’s response.
I take a slightly different perspective on this debate, because the spine of my constituency is junctions 28 to 30 of the M1, in which we have 30 miles of all lane running smart motorway. To the south is junctions 25 to 28, which is a controlled motorway, and to the north is junctions 30 to 35a, which is 19 miles of smart motorway. The section just to the north of my constituency, around Woodall services up to Sheffield, is the section in which unfortunately many people have lost their lives, including people from neighbouring Rotherham and Mansfield. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) referred to people giving evidence and those bereaved families, and our hearts go out to them.
It is a very difficult stretch of motorway from Nottingham up to Leeds, and it is undoubtedly over capacity: the amount of traffic that goes up that stretch is beyond what that road was initially designed to cope with. The smart motorway was seen as a solution to that issue, but I am not sure that it has been wildly successful. Anyone who lives in my constituency will know that we make regular appearances on the Radio 2 traffic bulletins, because the section between junctions 28 and 30 seems to have an accident on a fairly regular basis.
It is with that in mind that I read the report, and there are significant concerns about whether the introduction of the smart motorway has had the desired effects. I am not sure that it has. I am not sure that it has improved safety—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) just outlined, there are significant concerns about that—but there is also an issue with the road network in my part of the world and the fact that the A1, which covers a very similar stretch, does not do its fair share of lifting, because it is not really fit for purpose and needs significant investment. I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) were here, she would argue the same case.
However, I want to go back to the context that the M1 is absolutely central to the local economy in Bolsover. We have a huge number of logistics firms, so when the smart motorway—or the motorway in general—is not working, that has a big impact on the local economy. A number of my constituents are constantly caught in traffic jams because when the M1 is not running, to my west it can back up almost all the villages in my constituency, and to my east there is a significant pressure because people try to get over to the A1 on the A619, which runs through parts of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith). That has a big impact on a lot of my villages, Whitwell in particular, because of the number of diverted heavy goods vehicles.
Added to that context—the Minister will smile wryly at this point—is the fact that some of my motorway junctions on that particular stretch are not fit for purpose. In particular, junctions 28 and 29 are suffering, which is having a huge, detrimental economic impact on us. I am working with Highways England—or whatever it is referred to now—to improve that particular situation, but a smart motorway on junctions 28 to 30 has brought a huge amount of congestion, an increase in near misses and a problem with air pollution, particularly in the south of my constituency around South Normanton and Pinxton. I appreciate that the rationale behind the decision to bring in a smart motorway was to increase capacity on a particularly difficult stretch, but I sympathised with the hon. Member for Easington when he said that it was perhaps just a cheap alternative to properly upgrading the motorway and strategic road network in that patch.
Given that we are in the heart of the country, it is worth pointing out to the Minister that further work needs to be done, and that is before we come on to safety. I drive down from my constituency to Westminster on a regular basis. There is a new bit of smart motorway being installed between, I think, junctions 13 and 16— hopefully someone will correct me if I am wrong—but there are other stretches in which the red Xs are totally ignored on a regular basis. I regularly see emergency vehicles unable to get to where they need to get to, and that is a worry, because we are creating an additional problem that I see on a weekly basis.
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Transport Committee spoke about the evidence regarding the benefit-cost ratio of smart motorways, and the fact that Professor Metz—I think it was him, but forgive me if I have got that wrong—was concerned about whether the return on those projects has been what we want them to be, or whether it is a one-off hit. I think he said that in the first year, they show a return on investment, but then the problems continue.
My experience locally indicates that although we have a smart motorway, it is not doing what it needs to do. As such, although I welcome the report and completely echo the concerns about safety, I have to conclude that I am not sure smart motorways are the answer. I appreciate all the comments made by the Chair of the Select Committee about smart motorways being a good thing, but I am not sure that I entirely agree with him. I wish the report had gone perhaps slightly further by looking at what else could be done to improve the road network, but that may be a separate point. It is an important report and I very much welcome the Government’s proactive stance on taking forward the recommendations. I hope the Minister has heard the plight that many of my constituents face, and that she will be proactive in looking for solutions with all the stakeholders involved. Again, I thank the Select Committee and thank everyone for listening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to contribute to this important debate on smart motorways. The American poet Robert Frost spoke of two roads. We heard from the Select Committee Chairman that, in the case of smart motorways, there are at least three types of road. In a sense, that is the first point I want to make because that has led to confusion. As the Select Committee rightly concluded, there is a lack of understanding among many drivers of what smart motorways are, and particularly what all lane running is and what to do if, as the Committee put it, they break down in a live lane. As the Select Committee Chairman pointed out, 40% of breakdowns happen in such a lane.
People break down for two reasons. It is either a vehicular failure or some incident in the car, perhaps illness or accident. They need to get off the motorway quickly. The Select Committee also pointed out, however, that, contrary to what one might expect, hard shoulders are not actually the solution. They can cause more difficulties than they solve and can be dangerous places. Refuges are the answer, and I will return to that in a moment.
The key point I want to make at the outset is that the management and accountability of these matters needs to be urgently reviewed. When I was a Minister in the Department for Transport—I do not know if I am unique in the House, but I am certainly very unusual in having been appointed to that Department as a Minister three times—I was involved in setting up what was then Highways England. We looked at it very closely because we understood that the governance of that organisation needed to be such that Ministers could take power to direct it. Indeed, when I was speaking to my officials at the time, I said, “I want it to look as little like Network Rail as possible”, precisely because Ministers seem to have little authority over Network Rail.
There is the power of direction in respect of Highways England—what has now become National Highways—and it is necessary sometimes for Ministers to use that power, whatever their officials tell them. I do think, informed by the report and the excellent Government response to it, that from now on in Ministers need to take a very proactive approach when dealing with smart motorways.
The second point I want to make is about regulation. It has been made already, but it needs to be made again because it warrants amplification. The Office of Rail and Road is long established and, as a result, has a distinguished pedigree in regulating the railway system, but it has taken on roads only relatively recently, and it seems to me that the regulatory function needs to be enhanced, as the Select Committee has argued—that is a further way in which the decisions in respect of roads generally and smart motorways in particular can be made accountable. Both accountability to the regulator and being answerable to Ministers are vital as we move forward, and will provide the public with greater assurance about the safety of these new types of road. After all, they are a “radical change”, as the Select Committee says, to our road network, and confusing to drivers because of the various types of road that they may now encounter, particularly if they are not used to travelling a particular route. For instance, they may be going to a part of the country that they do not know and are therefore not familiar with the sort of road on which they are driving.
Finally, refuges are important not only because they provide an opportunity to get off the road in that 75-second period that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned, but because of what they broadcast about safety to drivers. They provide important reassurance to drivers that the road is indeed safe and that, in the case of emergency, there is a means of escaping the circumstances in which they might find themselves. That is why I made that point emphatically as Minister. I am delighted that the Select Committee has made it too, and that the Government have acknowledged and recognised it, although I notice the caveat in the small print that it is sometimes not possible to provide refuges at quite the regular intervals that the Select Committee recommends. None the less, I think the Government heard the message that I have emphasised once again.
It is important to see this in context. The most dangerous roads are not motorways, and they are not smart motorways. There is a good argument for thinking creatively and imaginatively about how we can make our roads more effective, as the Select Committee Chairman has said, and so build additional capacity to deal with congestion and so on. However, in order to do so, we must take the public with us. This pause is a huge opportunity for a programme of education, so that people know what kind of road they will encounter, what to expect and to feel safe accordingly.
The Select Committee has, as it should, done the House and the Government a great service. The Committee exists not only to scrutinise Government but to think about things that the Government would not otherwise consider. This is a good example of that. The Minister is an extremely diligent member of the Government. I hope she will indeed take seriously these recommendations, which are clearly made on the basis of both good faith and good information, and that we can move ahead to roads that are effective and make travel easier and, fundamentally, much safer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to speak on this important issue of road safety. Overall, this is an area where the UK has a very good and strong track record, with both deaths and injuries falling over many years. Some problem areas remain that have proven quite difficult to make improvements on. I think especially of rural roads and the challenges among younger drivers. However, we should note that that downward trend continues and we should welcome it. When I looked at the most recent data before coming to the debate, I was very encouraged, but I note that it is from the period of lockdown, so some caution is required about data points during this period.
We must never forget one important thing: behind every stat is a life lost, a family shattered. These are true tragedies, which is why we should never be complacent about any issues with road safety. There is always more to do, and we should be spurred on to tackle more and more things. I welcome this report by the Transport Committee. It has done a good piece of work. I have to say that it is a Select Committee that I have had quite a bit to do with over the years, but mainly by appearing in front of it, rather than being a member of it. As the Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), said, the report, “Rollout and safety of smart motorways”, is the result of much detailed and prolonged work. The fact that its recommendations have been so quickly adopted by the Government shows how well that work has gone.
It is good to see all nine recommendations adopted by the Government, but I will speak about just one of them. Colleagues have spoken with great insight into other areas, but I will focus on the recommendation on stopped vehicle detection—SVD—technology. Technology is critical to the future of our transport systems. I do not just mean things like electric vehicles or hydrogen trains, although I know they are transformative and very exciting. I also mean using technology as a facilitator to reach a solution to one of the biggest challenges in transport, and that challenge is how to make it easier, cheaper and more sustainable to move increasing numbers of people and goods around our country.
I do not think this is a modal question. The challenges lie in all modes. We have not built a new railway line north of London since the reign of Queen Victoria, or a new runway in the south-east of England since the passenger jet was invented, or had a road investment programme since the 1970s, so we are looking at a period of sustained under-investment. There are reasons for that, one being that successive Governments have sought to use the existing infrastructure more intensely. In some cases, that has been more successful than others. Key successes include rail line usage, where we have seen increasing developments in rail signalling, and air corridor use. The key point is that the factor that made that possible is technological advance. More intensive use of existing infrastructure has been at the heart of the smart motorway development. As has been said, all various iterations go back decades.
Ultimately, to protect our environment, people do not really want to see huge amounts of new infrastructure. It is an environmental issue as much as a cost issue, unless we have absolutely no choice. Safety must be at the heart of all the technology and developments that will come into play. Technology is developing so fast that it has to be a factor in delivering safety on our road network, too. There have clearly been concerns about the safety of our roads, and smart motorways in particular. The speed and the size of vehicles can make us feel unsafe on motorways, and we know that the data shows, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) has said, that the hard shoulder is where people can feel most vulnerable and where problems can indeed arise. I experienced that myself recently, in the middle of the night. On a cold, dark night, a hard shoulder can be quite a grim experience.
When we bring in new technology, we have to take people with us and address their concerns. The pause that has been announced gives us the chance to retrofit, implement and review the SVD technology and perhaps improve it. The pace of the development is so fast that I am sure that developments will come into play sooner rather than later. We should expect all modes of transport to become busier as we emerge from the pandemic, and that will include our roads. As that happens, road safety must never be compromised, but enhanced. My point is that technology and the advances in it are central now and will become even more so in future.
I want to finish with one request to both the Transport Committee and the Minister. I ask them to please put particular emphasis on recommendation 4 and the technology, its deployment and development, because I am absolutely sure it will save lives, and that should be the priority in road safety planning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I want to convey my gratitude to the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and the other hard-working members of his Committee and their predecessors for all of their excellent work in this area. We have witnessed excellent speeches from right hon. and hon. Members who have extensive experience in transport.
The Labour party welcomes the Transport Secretary’s announcement that he is pausing the roll-out of work not yet begun. The botched roll-out of smart motorways has cost lives. That is an undeniable fact. The Labour party has long warned about serious flaws in the whole process, and it is a tragedy that lives were lost before action was taken. It is thanks to the dedication of bereaved families and individuals such as members of the Transport Committee, a much-respected cross-party grouping, that the roll-out has been paused at all. We know that smart motorways in their current form, coupled with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose and are putting lives at risk. Ministers were wrong to press ahead, as strong evidence warned against it.
We all want increased capacity and reduced congestion. We all want an increase in economic activity, but it must be done safely. In 2016, as the Chair of the Transport Committee has said, his predecessor Committee expressed deep scepticism about the design and implementation of all lane running motorways. The promised safety improvements were simply not delivered. Frankly, it is simply staggering that years after the first smart motorways went live, standard safety measures to detect broken down vehicles in live lanes have still not been fully rolled out. As the report has found, the CCTV is not routinely monitored. It is unacceptable that the distance between emergency refuge areas on motorways in operation today is far above what should be considered safe.
Coroners ruled that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to four recent deaths. At least 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years. On one section of the M25 outside London, the number of near misses has risen twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014. Let us be clear: lives could have been saved if the safety-critical features identified by parliamentarians in report after report had been implemented.
Of course, we welcome the Minister’s announcement, but the devil is in the detail, as right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted. It is that on which I would like to press the Minister, and on two key points in particular. The first is the implications for the existing 200 miles of live lanes currently in use, and the second is the precise plan for the retrofitting of those lanes. I have to say that we are deeply concerned that yesterday’s announcement was an implicit acceptance that there are serious safety concerns on all lane running motorways, but they will continue to be in operation while the issues are addressed and the data evaluated.
At the very least, the announcement yesterday was an admission that the data do not currently support the continued roll-out of smart motorways. Otherwise, why has it paused for five years while we await further data? The clear implication is that motorists driving on the 200 miles of live lanes will be guinea pigs in order to justify the 67 miles left to be deployed. That is utterly illogical. It is quite simple: if Ministers cannot justify the safety of smart motorways on roads still to be built, they cannot justify the safety of those currently in use. The priority must be passenger safety.
My hon. Friend is making some solid points, and I just want to seek some clarification. It is also in relation to a point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) in respect of recommendation 4 and the stopped vehicle detection technology. My concern is that the Roads Minister previously told the Transport Committee that although stopped vehicle detection technology improves safety, it is not necessary to make all lane running motorways safe, because
“all-lane running motorways were designed to—and do—operate safely without it.”
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that we may not be using this five-year period to retrofit the safety-critical systems, if that is still the view of Ministers?
My hon. Friend is correct. I made this very point in the main Chamber earlier today, and I will come to the point about technology.
We reiterate our call for Ministers to reinstate the hard shoulder while the safety-critical work is carried out, the botched public information campaign is properly rolled out, and a further review of the evidence takes place.
Let me turn to the Government’s pledges on remedial work. Back in June 2016, the Transport Committee said that the roll-out of smart motorways should not continue unless there are emergency refuge points every 500 metres. Typically, they are now 1.2 miles apart. The difference for drivers may not sound like a lot, but in reality it is enormous. Forty-five seconds could be the difference between breaking down in a live lane or not. On average, 38% of breakdowns in all lane motorways are in live lanes. It can take approximately 20 minutes for authorities to be alerted to the breakdown, the lane to be closed and support to arrive. That is simply unacceptable and it will be the reality on hundreds of miles of motorway while this remedial work is under way and while safety-critical features are still not in force. How can the Minister justify that?
On the remedial work itself, the Government committed to an additional £390 million to install additional areas—but they were silent on the detail. We know the stocktake had an ambition for refuge areas 1 mile apart, so further clarification on this point is essential. Will the Minister provide a clear answer to the following questions? First, will 150 additional lanes be installed exclusively on live lanes currently in use, or does this include the 100 miles under construction? Secondly, when the remedial work is completed, what will the average distance between refuge areas be on ALRs? Thirdly, what will the distance be, once work is completed on the M25 in particular, where emergency refuges are furthest apart? Will the Minister deposit in the Commons Library an analysis of average distance between refuge areas on each motorway, making use of smart motorway technology and the estimated distance after this remedial work has taken place?
Ministers were warned that a gap of that distance was dangerous. They were wrong to press ahead in any event. They now must be open and transparent about the full implications of their announcement. On the roll-out of stopped vehicle detection technology, which my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) mentioned, it is frankly scandalous that this technology has not been put in place in parallel with the upgrade of motorways. The Committee noted starkly that had this been in place—as was promised way back in 2016—lives would have been saved. Will the Minister outline whether it is still the plan for the roll-out to be completed this year? Will she also explain why, if there are question marks over the effectiveness of this technology, CCTV is still not being routinely monitored? That is a recurring problem, as has been pointed out by various media reports.
Finally, on communication, it is distressing to discover that nearly half of motorists do not know what to do if they break down on a smart motorway. It is extraordinary that the first information campaign was not launched until 2021. What plans do the Department have to launch an effective mass information campaign to dramatically boost those numbers. Taken in total, it is clear that in the absence of a safe distance between refuge areas, a proper independent evaluation of data, the Department’s action plan, the roll-out of safety measures and low public awareness, existing all lane motorways simply cannot be considered safe. Ministers should have listened; they did not, and now the public are paying the price. Lessons must be learned.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I must begin by thanking the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and all the other members, for their hard work. I was once a member of a Select Committee, so I know the number of hours in preparation and effort that are put in by both the members and the team of staff that support the Committee to ensure that the information and witnesses that inform an inquiry are using evidence-based information and are fair and balanced. On behalf of the Secretary of State and all of us in the Department for Transport, I put on record our gratitude to the Transport Committee for its report and the way it has collaborated and worked with the Government. That is why we are in the position to take forward not one, two, three, four, five or six, but all nine recommendations in the report.
I know that the Committee took evidence from many experts with differing views. I believe, as do the Secretary of State and the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, that the resulting report is a thorough examination of issues. It is a rounded report, with sensible and pragmatic recommendations, which the Government will take forward. Members will have seen the Government’s response, published yesterday, 12 January. I hope they will agree that it demonstrates our commitment to help ensure that these motorways continue to be as safe as they possibly can be.
Our motorways are among the safest in the world. Compared with the rest of Europe and the United States, we stack up particularly well. Are they as safe as they can be? There will always be room for improvement.
I pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in the campaign that has informed the recommendations. The actions we are taking are certainly, in part, a result of their effective campaigning.
I will make a number of general points, then will address some of the questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members today. First, we must remember why smart motorways were developed. A smart motorway can carry 1,600 additional vehicles an hour in each direction. They decrease journey times and provide more reliability on our busiest stretches of motorway. They have a lower impact on the environment, with five times lower carbon emissions from construction, a decrease in loss of biodiversity and a lower land take through construction. They are also provided at a lower cost—estimated at 50 to 60% less costly than widening—and are delivered more quickly.
Secondly, we should also acknowledge that the evidence to date supports the safety case for smart motorways. In terms of fatality rates, all-lane-running motorways are the safest in the country based on the available data. Smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder account for 1% of fatalities, motorways with a hard shoulder account for 5%, and all other fatalities—94%—occur on other roads.
While we are on the subject of other roads, it would be remiss of me not to make a case for Lincolnshire. We do not find motorways in Lincolnshire, smart or otherwise, but we do find a number of key arterial routes that carry an immense amount of traffic and need improvement. While I am here and the Minister is here, too, I ask her to look again at support and funding for those roads that feed our arterial routes—those connecting roads. When I was responsible for the road investment strategy, I made it clear that those connecting routes are critical, both in terms of capacity and in terms of safety. Let us have more money for Lincolnshire roads.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent case for road improvements in his South Holland and the Deepings constituency. I have some sympathy with that challenge. I, too, have no motorway in my Copeland constituency. It is about an hour and 20 minutes for me to get to junction 36 on the M6, so I know how important good connectivity is. I am sure the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, and our officials, will have heard his calls.
Thirdly, we should recognise that the focus and attention of many stakeholders and the media has resulted in a significant investment in the existing smart motorway network, and we are now going even further to invest £390 million in additional emergency areas, which we have heard an awful lot about today. That will bring us an extra 150 emergency places to stop—safe refuges, as they have been referred to today—which I know are important in creating safe perceptions for drivers.
The Government accept that there is more work to be done to move to a position where all drivers feel confident on smart motorways. That is where we need to get to.
The Minister has quoted some statistics, but I would refer to the statistics that were quoted earlier in the debate regarding the number of accidents on smart motorways that have been caused by vehicles that have broken down. I cannot remember the precise figure, but I think it was 48. Could the Minister clarify her view on the retrofitting of stopped-vehicle technology? Is she committed to ensuring that this five-year period is going to be one in which the retrofitting of specialist technology cameras to detect broken-down vehicles will be accelerated?
I absolutely can confirm that, and I will move on to that when I address Members’ comments. The Government are bringing forward work to ensure that it is complete by September, which is six months ahead of the previous target.
We are taking forward all the recommendations made by the Transport Committee, including the recommendation to pause the roll-out of future all-lane-running schemes in order to gather further safety and economic data. We want to make sure that we have five years of that data across a wider network of open all-lane-running motorways. We want to complete and evaluate the roll-out of measures within the stocktake, which the Secretary of State commissioned, and the action plan with its 18 actions. It will enable evidence to be gathered to inform a robust assessment of options for future enhancements of capacity on the strategic road network as we prepare for the next road investment strategy. We will also take forward the recommendations to pause the conversion of dynamic hard-shoulder smart motorways to all-lane-running motorways until the next road investment strategy.
We will retrofit more emergency areas across existing all-lane-running schemes. We will conduct an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of stopped-vehicle detection technology. We will explore the introduction of the emergency corridor manoeuvre into the highway code, and we will investigate the benefits of health and safety assessments being undertaken by the Office of Rail and Road.
I thank the Minister for the points she is making. Can I press her on the point about health and safety assessments by the Office of Rail and Road? It is very clear from a lot of the work that we as a Committee have seen that there is a fundamental and systemic problem with the prioritising of safety within National Highways. Does she agree that the need to have an assessment might not be quite as substantial as it should be? Will her Department look to consider a substantial regulatory role for road safety within the ORR going forward?
Thank you, Chair. I am aware of that. To respond briefly to my hon. Friend’s point, who has experience with the Office of Rail and Road, we will shortly be establishing an expert panel to help us review existing regulatory responsibilities. It will report back to Ministers later this year. I hope that is helpful.
Moving on to other Members’ points, my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) mentioned how important it is to have places to stop in an emergency. As I have said, that £390 million, which is part of the £900 million, will be invested in ensuring that we have an extra 150 safe refuge areas at least every mile and, ideally, every three quarters of a mile. That is a huge improvement on what is available at the moment.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), I am delighted to hear that the M42 is working so well. I note his calls for better awareness. That is why the recommendation for the highway code to feature the emergency corridor manoeuvre is so important. I have just realised that I got the hon. Member for Easington mixed up with the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who has the M42—apologies. I can confirm the continued working relationship between the Department for Transport and the Transport Committee, which has been an incredibly successful one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) has conducted an exceptionally passionate campaign for improvements on his section of the M1, with its 13 miles of all-lane running motorway between junctions 28 and 30. The Roads Minister in the other place will have heard those calls. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s appreciation of the Transport Committee report and of the swift action taken by the Department.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has great experience as a Transport Minister, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). It is correct that hard shoulders are not safe places. Indeed, one in 12 fatalities on our motorways takes place on hard shoulders. It therefore does not make sense to stop the progress that is being made and to send people on to motorways where there are hard shoulders or, even worse, on to local roads—smart motorways are safest, in terms of fatalities.
To conclude, as we have heard today, the Secretary of State takes the concerns expressed seriously, as demonstrated by our response to the Committee’s report and by the additional investment that we have committed to. I can say genuinely to right hon. and hon. Members that we are wasting no time in taking immediate steps to progress the actions set out in the Government response. I will keep the Commons and Parliament updated on progress. We will continue to be transparent with the data as it emerges, so that the public may assess for themselves the safety of motorways. I very much hope that they will have the confidence that they should have in our motorway network, especially smart motorways, thanks to the Transport Committee.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Hollobone. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.
I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who represent the finest of our Committee membership. I am very fortunate as a Chair to have such brilliant members. We are not particularly diverse on gender, but we are on thought. We all work hard together to make recommendations. I am grateful to them.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher). I know junction 28 to 30 well—I was a candidate for two and a half years in North East Derbyshire. I would have been his neighbour had I been more successful there. He made good points about his fascinating local experience, and he has educated us all.
I heard fantastic speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who have experience in the Department—that was particularly fascinating. I thank them for their expertise—we will focus not just on recommendation 4, but on the lot, in delivering.
I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for his words, and I thank the Minister of course. She is a popular presence, and we look forward to continuing to work with her.
With this pause, we clearly now have the opportunity to ensure that the safety record and evidence can be demonstrated properly on smart motorways. That must guide the Department and National Highways on what we do in future. Are they as safe as conventional motorways? Are they in fact even safer, which means that the case has been made for them to be rolled out further? We need to know that, and the time allows us to get that understanding and that crucial evidence base.
Equally during the pause, we have the opportunity to ensure that smart motorways can be retrofitted with the safety measures that the Committee has called for before. We know that those will now be delivered. We have to ensure that they are, and I know the Minister will take that seriously. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings is right: public perception is key. To get more people to use the motorway network, we must show them that it is safe. The RAC has shown that 84% of those polled were concerned about the removal of hard shoulders from the network and said that it compromised safety. That is crucial.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).