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14 July 2010 : Column 294WH—continued

14 July 2010 : Column 295WH

One of the very few national Government presences in the Rhondda now, other than the police, is the Llwynypia magistrates court. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has moved out many of its staff who worked in the Rhondda. In fact it has been moving them out of Pontypridd as well. My argument to the Government is that I of course fully understand that savings must be made-the Ministry of Justice must ensure that it operates justice in the most financially efficient way available, especially in these straitened financial circumstances-but there are two functions involved. The first is that of providing justice efficiently and effectively; however, the other is how to create links with every other aspect of government. If it feels as though whenever a choice must be made, the Government constantly choose to close offices in more peripheral communities, longer-term economic problems are effectively created in the areas concerned, and they will have to be rectified by another part of Government.

The classic instance is crime in the Rhondda. If we have a greater sense of deprivation and of the Rhondda being a place where people lived in the past, but where they should not bother to live in the future, because even the Government cannot be bothered to keep a magistrates court there, we will have greater problems with economic revival in the constituency, and that will lead to greater crime problems. In addition, the Rhondda is not an easy place to get around without a car, and many of my constituents cannot afford one-in particular the 13,000 pensioners. Because of that geography, with two valleys-some say a passport is needed to go from one to the other-it is already all too easy for defendants never to turn up at court. For that matter, it is pretty easy for witnesses to crimes not to bother to turn up. Consequently, magistrates court officials and the police spend vast amounts of time pursuing defendants who should have been at court on a certain day, to get them to make an appearance the following week. That is one of the most significant elements of the inefficiency in the present service. I am concerned that the problems will multiply if Llwynypia magistrates court, which has managed to improve its statistics dramatically in the past 10 years, is lost and the services are moved to Pontypridd a few miles down the road, which has some bus services and a train service from one half of the constituency but not the other. The police will again spend more time trying to force defendants and witnesses to go to the first court date, rather than a second or third. That will mean that fewer people will get justice.

The Rhondda is not a high-crime area. Sometimes, because of the way the valleys are often presented by the BBC and national newspapers-we are of interest only when there is a drugs death-people think that the level of criminality is high. That is not true. For the most part it is a safe area, and many people still leave their front doors open perfectly contentedly, because they know that. None the less, there are significant areas of crime, including domestic violence in particular. The local senior police officer recently told me that if he added together the domestic violence cases from the three constituencies around mine he would not get to the number of cases from my constituency. An important aspect of the work done in our magistrates court is getting justice in domestic violence cases, particularly in light of the steady growth in such violence that may go
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on in a household. My anxiety is that if people feel that such justice will be more distant and that it will not be as easy to get access to it, we shall be likely to bear down less on the domestic violence problems in the Rhondda.

I have one other concern. I remember the last attempt to close the Llwynypia magistrates court, which was under a Labour Government. I was then Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Falconer, who was trying to close it, and I managed to see that closure off-with the help of the present interim leader of the Labour party, who was ferocious in my support. A key argument, besides equality of access, in particular for some of the poorest communities in south Wales, was the investment that had already been made in the building. The question arose of how to ensure that witnesses could have secure access and a separate entrance, to prevent intimidation, which can happen all too easily in small, tight-knit communities; how to provide secure accommodation for complainants; and how to make the whole process of involvement with the court safe and secure. That is possible in part because the court is in a beautiful rural area, immediately next to the Glyncornel park, which has, as I am sure the Minister will know, the largest colony of Deptford pinks in the country. I am concerned that if the magistrates court closes there will be yet another building in the Rhondda to symbolise the retreat of the Government from areas in the valleys. The sense of that, especially given that the building is not far from the old powerhouse where the Tonypandy riots happened a hundred years ago this year, will feel emotionally to the people in the Rhondda as if something important has closed.

As a final point, I hope that the Minister will consider this as he proceeds: "More haste, less speed." We have seen in the past few weeks that trying to make cuts too fast, and therefore producing inaccurate lists that lead to further problems, not only causes more anxiety in communities than necessary, but makes people feel that the judgments being made are somewhat arbitrary. I hope that the Minister will extend the consultation period by a month so that more people can take part, not least because some of the professionals involved want to be able to arrive at a coherent policy. None of us wants to oppose for the sake of opposing-we understand the financial situation-but I hope that the Minister will postpone the cut-off date so that it does not feel quite so arbitrary as it may do now.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has assured me that he will take only two minutes.

3.28 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Hexham constituency used to have three magistrates courts and now we have only one. We are the second biggest constituency in England and, if Tynedale magistrates court goes, an area well in excess of 1,150 square miles will have no magistrates court whatsoever. I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), whose position is similar to mine. As a former practising member of the Bar I find the idea that that would work on a regular basis astonishing.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. For his two minutes the hon. Gentleman should face the Chair.

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Guy Opperman: I am sorry, Mr Hood.

From many parts of the constituency there is no bus that would get me to Newcastle or Bedlington in the morning. The Government will clearly have to examine the way in which they look after rural services. Rural services and the rural economy must be reappraised. Many things have happened in the past, but I should not like the first step of this Government to be the immediate institution of a situation in which there is no magistrates court for 1,200 square miles.

3.30 pm

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this debate, which has been widely welcomed by Members from across the House. In particular, we have an extremely healthy representation of MPs from Wales, who are obviously concerned about this issue. The context of the debate is the truly massive programme of court closures that the Government announced by written ministerial statement on 23 June. The proposal to close 157 courts-almost 40% of all magistrates courts and nearly 25% of all county courts-is exceptional in its size and scale. It is not just me who thinks that. Frances Gibb from The Times called it

Andrew Porter from The Daily Telegraph said:

It is for the Minister to answer the points that have been raised during this debate, but I noted with interest the MPs who had things to say. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) spoke, as did the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who has come back for a second go. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made a contribution. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), whose constituency name has changed, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is one of our English participants, and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) also spoke.

3.31 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.46 pm

On resuming-

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. Divisions are a bit like the World cup-we get extra time, but no penalty kicks.

I call Maria Eagle again.

Maria Eagle: Thank you, Mr Hood. I was about to start setting out the position of Her Majesty's Opposition as we were called away for the Division.

We believe that there are legitimate questions to be asked about the scale and the purpose of these proposals for court closures. They are unprecedented in size and scale, which in itself means that there are questions that must be asked. The previous court closure announcement, which was made while I was a Minister at the Ministry
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of Justice, concerned 20 courts rather than 157. Given the scale of the proposals, the Minister must offer an explanation and make a concerted effort to reassure people.

Let me be clear that we do not oppose, by any stretch of the imagination, all court closures regardless of the circumstances; that is not our position. As we all know, courts have their ancient origins in much smaller administrative areas than those that exist today and they originated at a time when travel costs, travel patterns and the practicalities of getting across long distances within a reasonable amount of time were all very different from what they are today. Although individual Members have raised particular local issues as they know them in their own areas, that is just a case of Members being good local representatives; it is for the Minister to deal with the issues in his consultation.

Courts were run locally in the late 19th and early 20th( )centuries and they continued to be organised locally until the formation of Her Majesty's Courts Service in 2005. Things now are very different from how they were in the past and that can mean that we need different ways of organising things.

As a party we are still committed, as we were in government, to providing local justice and access to local justice. However, it is equally important that there should be a modern court estate that is properly aligned to local needs and that court services should be provided not on an historical basis, but on the basis of what we need today. It is important for there to be efficiency in the court facilities and in the utilisation of the court estate. Therefore, it is appropriate that there should be reviews and that Ministers, as they come and go, examine the issue of how the estate should be utilised. There is no problem with that.

It is also important that our more modern ways of doing things in the courts should be reflected in how the courts are organised. These days, that must include the separation and protection of witnesses, to ensure that special measures, which are increasingly used in our courts, can be dealt with properly. There must also be proper access for disabled court users. All those matters must be examined. In my experience, value for money is and always has been an important consideration. I believe that the formation of Her Majesty's Courts Service in 2005 has allowed a better overall strategic grasp of the entire court estate.

As an Opposition, we do not oppose all court closures per se as a matter of principle. Some court closures are clearly justified. Indeed, courts have closed in numbers over the years to deal with both the historical legacies and the practical requirements of a modernising system. Some of those closures were locally determined by magistrates courts committees and some were nationally determined.

Research indicates that there were about 650 magistrates courts in the late 1970s. There are now about 335; the Minister will have the precise figure, although given the performance of the Secretary of State for Education in respect of marshalling lists, I hope that the Minister has had a close look at his. I am sure that he will have double-checked it.

I accept fully that in certain circumstances and for appropriate reasons, courts might have to close. That might also mean that new ones should open-indeed,
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we opened 23 new magistrates courts during the last Administration. Given the size and scale of the proposals, I also think that the closures should proceed, if the Minister decides that they should, only after extensive and genuine consultation. The proposals are a major acceleration of any previous court closure proposals introduced in the past few decades. It is incumbent on the Government to be clear that they are getting it right according to all the correct criteria.

Many Members who have contributed to this debate have called for a proper extension to the consultation so that most of it will not take place in August, when people might reasonably be expected to be on holiday. I hope that the Minister will respond to that request. I cannot see why there should be any objection, so he should consider it. The Department has issued an extensive consultation document. We have heard from some Members that it has apparent inaccuracies; obviously, they will take up that matter with the Department. I hope that the Minister will listen to the consultation. Otherwise, on today's showing, he is likely to incur the wrath of his own colleagues.

I notice that if one looks at local newspapers, the Government appear divided on the programme. Senior members of both parties in the governing coalition appear to oppose it when it applies to their own constituencies. Has the Parliamentary Under-Secretary spoken to the Solicitor-General lately? It appears that the Solicitor-General opposes the programme of closures, at least in so far as it affects Harborough in his constituency. There are proposals to close courts in Harborough, Coalville and Melton to save £300,000 a year. The local bench opposes it, and the Liberal Democrat group has launched a petition against it, which the Solicitor-General supports, in opposition to the Under-Secretary's proposals.

The Solicitor-General said to his local newspaper, the Harborough Mail:

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The hon. Lady, like me and other Ministers, has had to sit in this Chamber on many occasions and listen to the genuine representations of Labour Members critical of the local aspects of her proposals.

Maria Eagle: The right hon. Gentleman is correct. However, I did not expect to read promises in local newspapers that members of my Government, bound by collective responsibility, would campaign against my proposals.

Dr Murrison: In a similar vein, does the hon. Lady recall the conduct of Jacqui Smith, the former Member for Redditch, in relation to the closure of facilities in her constituency when those facilities were the responsibility of the Department in which she was a Minister?

Maria Eagle: My view of ministerial and collective responsibility is that Ministers talk to each other behind the collective view of the Government if they want to make representations. They do not send press releases to their local newspapers.

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Chris Bryant: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Maria Eagle: Briefly, but I need to make my speech.

Chris Bryant: Does my hon. Friend remember all the excoriation poured on Jacqui Smith for doing precisely what she did?

Maria Eagle: I remember that also. The point is that collective responsibility is still a constitutional principle in this country, yet a senior Law Officer appears to be opposing an element of the Under-Secretary's proposals.

It is not only the Solicitor-General. The Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), opposes his Government's proposal to close Frome magistrates court and has made that opposition clear to his local newspaper, the Frome and Somerset Standard. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)-a Cabinet Minister, no less-has also

according to the Birmingham Mail. A swathe of newly elected Conservative Members also opposed the announced closures-we have heard from one or two of them today; more power to them-and the hon. Member for Ceredigion, who secured this debate, is also a member of a governing party. The Minister might have difficulty on his hands. He is in danger of starting a revolt among his Government supporters rivalling that created by the Secretary of State for Education. It will take some going, but he might get there.

How genuine is the consultation? A number of hon. Members have asked that question during this debate, partly because of the scale of the proposals, the speed with which they have been produced and the speed with which the Minister intends to proceed with them. How much is the announcement of a huge court closure programme driven by money alone, and by this Government's increasing dogma of slashing the size of the state-some might say for ideological reasons-at all costs?

The Justice Secretary made a speech on 30 June that was reported mostly for his comment that he wanted to reduce the use of prison as a way of tackling crime. However, he also said about the courts:

That smacks of a decision already taken and suggests that the consultations might be no more than window dressing. I am certainly not the only person who has raised that issue in this debate. The Justice Secretary has already determined the outcome:

Those savings depend on the closure of 40% of all remaining magistrates courts and 25% of our county courts.

We will be watching closely to see whether any of the Minister's proposals that we are discussing are not implemented. In the past, proposals to close courts have not all gone ahead. Some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen
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have explained today that they saved courts from closure proposals, which showed a listening Government who were willing to change their mind. Will this Government be willing to change their mind, or will the Minister go ahead with all the proposed court closures? We will be watching to find out.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Justice Secretary should be suggesting that the fall in crime by one third during Labour's tenure in office-at least he accepts that it happened; the Home Secretary does not-had nothing to do with serious and dangerous offenders being locked up. Both the MOJ and Home Office budgets will be cut by between 25% and 40%, inevitably leading to a justice system that is less able to cope with the number of people involved in it.

We have concerns about whether the closure programme is merely a part of the overall attempt to reduce the size of the justice system generally. We fear so. The Under-Secretary will no doubt protest that it is no such thing, but let us see how many of the proposed closures do not proceed. That will be one litmus test by which we can determine whether my fears or the reassurances that he will no doubt give are accurate.

As well as those assurances, I seek a couple of other answers from the Minister about whether he is taking important matters into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) raised the issue of domestic violence. How many of the courts that the Minister proposes to close are problem-solving courts, domestic violence courts, community courts, mental health courts or drug courts? Has he considered that?

The previous Government planned to select and establish 128 domestic violence courts by 2011, and had reached 122 by the time of the general election. Domestic violence is a devastating and hidden crime. The courts that we set up brought together a range of aspects of the criminal justice system to ensure that that crime was tackled properly. It worked. Prosecutions have doubled in the past four years, with 72.5% of cases resulting in a successful prosecution. That is a great success.

What steps is the Under-Secretary taking to preserve the Courts Service's capacity to deliver such a difficult, problem-solving approach in the remaining court estate-however big that ends up being? What account is he taking of the need to preserve the excellent work that has been done, which has led to a joined-up and co-ordinated approach from all criminal justice agencies?

Finally, will the Minister give us some reassurances about the length of the consultation and say whether he will extend it? There is clearly a concern across all parties and among a wide range of Members that his swift announcement has provided too short a time to allow proper reassurance and proper consultation to take place.

4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): This has been a full debate, with many hon. Members speaking with passion for their constituencies and, indeed, for the courts in their constituencies. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for not only initiating the debate, but broadening the scope of the discussion to the whole Courts Service, rather than just focusing on the courts in his constituency. That is helpful in allowing me to set
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out the wider position, although I recognise that the number of hon. Members from Welsh constituencies who have attended the debate is significant.

I will set out the Government's position on the court reform proposals and discuss the reasoning behind the proposed reorganisation of court provision in England and Wales. In my new role, I have taken the opportunity to visit courts and I have been very impressed by all I have seen so far. It is evident that courts are run by a dedicated partnership of Her Majesty's Courts Service staff and judiciary. I am personally committed to continuing to support their contribution to justice.

What has also been clear in my first few weeks in office is the country's economic position and the immediate need to take action to address the structural deficit. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) compared the previous Government's 20 closures in five years with our consultation on a much larger proposed closure programme. She will appreciate that the deficit is somewhat larger now, which, as she recognised, requires that we get better value for the money we spend.

Following the emergency Budget, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor outlined our plans to consult on the closure of a number of courts, and to seek wider views on how court services could be modernised. That is one strand of the Ministry of Justice's plans to look critically and holistically at how we deliver justice and to think about how we continue to deliver those critical services in the future. We have also announced plans to look at sentencing and legal aid. I am committed to consulting on the proposals, and to considering broader ways to improve and reform the Courts Service, which is why I welcome this debate. However, I say to the hon. Lady that we consider the consultation period to be adequate in the circumstances.

The decision to consult on the closure of courts was not taken lightly or in isolation. I wish I could say to the hon. Lady that the savings would be adequate to meet Treasury requirements, which I think was a point she made. However, that is sadly not the case. It would be wrong to tie the number of courts that finally close after consultation to overall savings requirements. We know we cannot deliver the quality of facilities that the public rightly expect and deserve, because we are working out of too many courts.

A low utilisation rate of only 65% across England and Wales in the magistrates courts and an average of only 130 sitting days per year-compared with a target of 200 sitting days-in the county courts shows that we do not need the number of courts we have. Recent improvements in transport and communication links mean that people can travel further in less time if they need to and more can be done to access justice online and via the telephone. That reduces the circumstances in which a visit to court would be necessary.

Maria Eagle: Does the Minister accept that such under-utilisation is because of a fall in crime of more than a third during the last period of the Labour Government?

Mr Djanogly: There are a large number of issues. I will come to some of them, but if I give way frequently, there is no way I will get through the points made today. We need to focus on delivering more with less, and on ensuring that we are delivering value for taxpayers'
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money. When HMCS owns, manages and pays for a court building, it is my responsibility to show that it is cost-effective. It is right to set a minimum utilisation rate of 80% across each local justice area so that local courts and magistrates can make local decisions about where work should go.

The court reform consultation seeks views on proposals to close 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts that are underused and/or have inadequate facilities. The consultation lasts until 15 September and all responses will be fully considered before a decision is made. The consultation sets out a sustainable arrangement of court services across England and Wales to meet the needs of local communities, and allows us to deliver services in the most efficient way. The proposals will achieve running-cost savings of some £15.3 million per year, as well as enabling us to avoid a backlog of some £21.5 million of maintenance costs. A further assessment will be necessary of the level of savings that could be achieved and the potential value that could be released from the disposal of properties.

Local justice is important. We need to think about what that means for today's society, and I welcome responses to the consultation. People should not have to make unreasonably long journeys to reach a court. The vast majority of the public should be able to access a court within an hour's travel, but proximity to a court should not be the only consideration. We also need to consider utilisation, the maintenance situation, the speed cases are dealt with and the quality of the facilities for court users within a courthouse.

I confirm to the hon. Member for Ceredigion that we are considering how we can enable magistrates to work more effectively. HMCS will work with justices of the peace to rota them to the courts that are most convenient for them. The structure and organisation of our courts has evolved over years. We need to take a step back and think about how we would ideally organise this important public service. We need to make courts available in the areas that need them, but I contend that we simply do not need 530 courts across the country. Instead, we must focus on ensuring that our courts are multi-functional and able to deal with all the work quickly and effectively.

In recent years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in cases that need to go before magistrates and county courts. In answer to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, in magistrates courts that has happened in part thanks to the increased speed and efficiency at which the magistracy process works, allowing a reduction in the time taken between charge and disposal, and a dramatic reduction in the number of unnecessary intermediate hearings. However, we also know that more defendants are pleading guilty at the first hearing, and that certain types of case no longer need a judicial hearing, such as low-level nuisance offending and licensing cases.

It may help the hon. Lady if I mention some figures that illustrate that trend. Cases commenced in the magistrates courts fell by 33% between 2004 and 2009. In 2009-10, 33 magistrates courts sat for less than 33% of their total available hours, and 55 courts sat for less than 50% of their total available hours. Since 2007, the number of hearings per case has fallen by more than 20% to 2.26 hearings per case in 2009-10. So in five
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years, there has been an overall reduction in the magistrates work load of around a third. In turn, that has resulted in the magistrates court estate being utilised at an average of only around 65%. In county courts, reductions in work load stem from the wider availability of alternatives to court, such as the range of alternative ways of resolving disputes. If people can be spared the inconvenience and, for some, the stress of attending court for routine matters that do not need to go before a judge, we should do all we can to open up alternatives for them.

I turn to the matters relating to the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the proposal to close Cardigan magistrates court. He will have a fuller answer than other hon. Members, because he initiated the debate. However, if other Members wish to know more, they can write to me later.

If Cardigan magistrates court were to close, the work would mainly transfer to Aberystwyth magistrates court. Merging the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire local justice areas, as is also proposed, would allow cases to be heard at Haverfordwest magistrates court. I am aware that the utilisation rate of Cardigan magistrates court is extremely low-just 22%-which is in part because of the lack of custody facilities at the court. That has resulted in a much reduced variety of work being heard there.

Let me make the situation clear. The utilisation rate across the whole Dyfed Powys criminal justice board area is just 47%, which means that there is a general over-supply of courtrooms and little justification to spend additional money on new facilities and courts in the area. If Cardigan magistrates court were to close, the hon. Gentleman is understandably concerned about the difficulty his residents and people who live in the surrounding area would face in travelling to court elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman made the case generally for west Wales. He should advise the consultation of his concerns, which will be listened to and considered in the consultation's impact assessment. I welcome responses on that and any other concerns about potential impacts.

Mr Mark Williams: I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said so far, but I would like to hear a little more about rural-proofing. I was concerned enough about Ceredigion and west Wales, but having heard some of the earlier contributions, I am now even more concerned about the situation in Hexham and in north Wales generally. People will have to travel vast distances, and the public transport system simply does not comply with those needs.

Mr Djanogly: Let us consider that travel problem as it relates to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which I am sure he wants to hear about. The distance between Cardigan and Aberystwyth is 38 miles, which is about an hour's drive, or approximately two hours by bus. The distance between Cardigan and Haverfordwest is 29 miles, which is a drive of around 48 minutes or a bus journey of approximately one hour and 15 minutes. I accept the point that those distances are measured from the current court and that some of his constituents will have longer journeys.

However, by merging the Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion local justice areas, it should be possible to be more flexible and effective and to have fewer cases, with the location of victims, witnesses and defendants in mind. For example, HMCS could work with the police to
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ensure that cases originating south of Cardigan are heard at Haverfordwest and that those originating north of Cardigan are heard in Aberystwyth. However, when discussing travelling distances and times we must bear in mind that people in the surrounding area often have their own transport arrangements for other purposes. In any case-I say this in reply also to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison)-most members of the public will need magistrates court services pretty infrequently in the course of their lives.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to the redevelopment of the court at Aberystwyth, which I realise is of as great interest to him as the potential closure of the court at Cardigan. Although work from Cardigan could now easily be absorbed at Aberystwyth, he will be aware that HMCS plans to build a new court at Aberystwyth. Nothing would please me more than to give him greater certainty about the future of that project, but he will appreciate that I am unable to do so at the moment. It is within the HMCS portfolio of major building projects and is at the final business case stage, but as the proposed construction will run into 2011-12, the project will need to be assessed by the Treasury in the spending review process.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) referred in his speech to the magistrates court at Ammanford, and I assure him that we have given thought to its inclusion in the proposals. There are two courts in his constituency on whose closure we are consulting-Ammanford and Llandovery magistrates courts. If closed, it is envisaged that work from those courts would be transferred to Llanelli and Carmarthen magistrates courts, but no decisions will be made on work load transfer until the consultation responses have been considered and the Secretary of State has decided which courts will close.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) today made his second passionate speech
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in defence of his local courts, and I agree with him. He will wish to make his further findings known to the consultation.

I will write to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) to respond to his numerous questions, but I can assure him now that in our view the consultation period is adequate. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) has much court experience, and he spoke strongly about the courts in his constituency being consulted about closure. I assure him that access to justice is relevant to the consultation, but good, efficient and timely justice is not necessarily a question of bricks and mortar.

We need fresh thinking on the wider question of access to justice. We need to consider whether the ideas of the past about needing a court in every town are relevant today, or whether, as with almost every other aspect of modern life, things can be done differently. We need to embrace innovation and technology to ensure better access to justice and meet the needs of modern society. We are already doing much to improve the service experienced by witnesses, defendants and other users of the courts. We have increased access to online and telephone services; currently, 70% of money claims and the vast majority of possession actions in the county courts are issued centrally via electronic channels. People can pay fines online for driving infringements or for not paying their TV licence fee on time. They can also pay off debts or court fees online using a wide variety of methods.

I am not sure how much time I have remaining, given the suspension.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Less than one minute.

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire spoke up for his court in Trowbridge, which I understand is-

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Frenchay Hospital

4.15 pm

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): Thank you, Mr Hood, for allowing me to initiate this important debate on the future of Frenchay hospital. My constituency is currently served by Frenchay hospital's acute hospital facilities, so its downgrading is one of my constituents' most important concerns. The decision to downgrade the hospital and establish a new super-hospital at Southmead in Bristol was taken as part of the Bristol health services plan in March 2005. Meanwhile, Frenchay is to become a community hospital, the development of which will take place in 2014.

Five years might seem a long time ago, but over those years the future of the hospital has remained an ongoing point of concern and debate. The decision to downgrade is deeply unpopular and has been challenged by South Gloucestershire council and tens of thousands of local residents, nearly 50,000 of whom petitioned the then Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, to allow for the decision to be referred to an independent reconfiguration panel. In my view, those are 50,000 reasons why the hospital should be saved, but the petition was rejected, as was a request by South Gloucestershire council's health scrutiny sub-committee that the matter be referred to the same panel. Instead, the then Health Minister, Lord Warner, said that he saw

The current Health Secretary also supported at the time the move for a referral to the independent reconfiguration panel. In a letter dated 27 July 2005, he wrote to Ms Hewitt, stating:

I agree with that letter; he was right that the decision to downgrade the hospital should have been independently scrutinised, as clearly the decision did not, and still does not, have the support of the local community across south Gloucestershire.

In October 2007, there was further hope that the then Secretary of State for Heath, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), might reconsider the case for the decision to downgrade the hospital to be referred to the independent reconfiguration panel. However, he replied to the request by the council's health select committee simply by stating:

The leader of the council, John Calway, commented at the time:

Councillor Calway then stated:

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That is a view I continue to share.

Ultimately, the previous Government's decision not to refer the decision to downgrade Frenchay hospital to an independent reconfiguration panel has resulted in the current situation. Five years after the original proposals for the Bristol health services plan were formulated, the contracts for the new super-hospital at Southmead were finally signed in February 2010. The result, I am informed, is that that has ultimately dealt a death blow to any chance of the hospital retaining its acute hospital facilities. I am also informed that, the contracts having already been signed under the previous Government, reversing that decision seems impossible as it would come at massive cost to the NHS and the Government because of the legal implications.

I would be grateful to the Minister for any comments he might have on that matter. Has the previous Government's refusal to allow local people to have their say on where their local hospital and acute facilities should be located meant that it is too late to intervene?

I understand that on 20 May 2010 the Secretary of State wrote to all NHS chief executives, advising them that their current and proposed reconfigurations must meet four criteria: they must have the support of GP commissioners; they must have strengthened arrangements to ensure that local people's views are not ignored; they must be supported by clear clinical evidence; and they must support and develop patient choice.

I am very interested to hear from the Minister whether there has been any response to that letter from North Bristol NHS Trust, as many local people would not agree that those four criteria have been met. I hope that that is not the case but, if it is, does the Minister agree with me that the downgrading of Frenchay hospital was Labour's downgrading? If Frenchay must lose its acute facilities in 2014, that was not the decision of the current Government, but of the previous one. The downgrading of Frenchay hospital, if it is to take place, is a testament to Labour's NHS record in Kingswood and south Gloucestershire. That is, in my mind, both a tragedy and a national disgrace.

For my Kingswood constituents, the decision, taken under the previous Government, to downgrade Frenchay hospital will be nothing short of disastrous. In this, the second decade of the 21st century, local services should be becoming more, not less, convenient and local. Many constituents are extremely worried about the consequences of the move to Southmead. They are concerned about how, in times of greatest need and when their lives might depend on it, they will be able to reach a hospital over the other side of Bristol. If Frenchay is to become a community hospital under the previous Government's downgrading, we need to look forward, to ensure that the maximum possible numbers of facilities remain there.

I do not propose to go into detail about the hospital's reconfiguration, as I understand that the Frenchay project board has yet to finalise details of its scheme. There is, however, concern over exactly what will remain at Frenchay when it becomes a community hospital. Concern has
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been voiced over the future of its world-class facilities-for instance, the head injury therapy unit, which deals with brain injury rehabilitation services for the community. There is also the Headway organisation, which is based in the hospital grounds and offers vital support to those who have suffered a brain injury and would like to remain at Frenchay. The organisation stated last year:

Then there are the excellent paediatric burns and neurological units, which will possibly move from Frenchay ahead of its becoming a community hospital, though decisions have yet to be finalised.

As the local MP for an area that depends heavily on Frenchay, I do not want to see the hospital, if it has indeed lost its accident and emergency facilities, to be run down to the ground and stripped of its world-class facilities. I raise these issues today because I would like to see the maximum possible number of facilities remain at Frenchay hospital. It is still an excellent world-class treatment centre, and I would like to pay tribute to all the fantastic staff, who have worked so hard to make it what it is today. Frenchay is, quite simply, too valuable to lose.

4.22 pm

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. Frenchay hospital is in my constituency, and as the local MP I would like to pay tribute to the doctors, nurses and other staff there. My constituents and I are proud to have it as our local hospital. Indeed, many of my constituents have contacted me about the future of Frenchay-about its downgrading and the loss of its accident and emergency facilities. What they want is simple: to continue to have a great local hospital.

In government, we must work towards and achieve good local health care facilities, so that local communities are able to feel safe and reassured that they, and their loved ones, will be looked after in their time of need. Many of my constituents are rightly concerned about the future of Frenchay and, while I accept that we need investment across the NHS, many of them feel that in south Gloucestershire we seem to be missing out to our neighbour Bristol when it comes to health care investment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) has already explained, the contracts for Frenchay's downgrading were signed in February this year. It is unlikely that that decision can be reversed without significant legal cost. Yet let us not ignore the fact that access to health care is a huge problem for my constituents. If left unchecked, it will continue to worsen in the years to come as a direct result of Frenchay's downgrading.

Recent growth predictions by South Gloucestershire council have stated that there will be a requirement for 21,500 extra houses in the local area by 2026. My constituency has already seen significant growth, particularly in the vibrant and thriving community of Bradley Stoke. Given the expanding population and the growth predicted, I have to question the logic of allowing Frenchay to lose its accident and emergency facilities.

Many of the local communities in Filton and Bradley Stoke are in rural areas. In an emergency situation, when they are in urgent need of treatment, people in
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those locations will have no choice but to travel the longer distance to Southmead hospital. The extra travel time in the most severe situations could be the difference between life and death, and that prospect horrifies and alarms me. It is important that we understand the situation in which we find ourselves. The decision to downgrade Frenchay might seem to be signed and sealed, but I know that I, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, will continue to fight for what the people of south Gloucestershire deserve.

If-or when, as is more likely-Frenchay is downgraded in 2014, we must remind ourselves that this was not the decision or desire of this coalition Government. It was, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the decision solely of the previous Labour Administration. For my constituents, the people of Filton and Bradley Stoke, the word "Frenchay" will come to represent the failure of that Labour Government in our local area. The word will come to represent how Labour let down every single one of my constituents, by denying them the chance of a good local hospital to treat their growing needs.

My hon. Friend has outlined the continuing fight, and we are tackling it together to ensure that Frenchay secures as many facilities as possible. We need to protect the future of its world-class facilities-the head injuries unit, the burns unit and the staff-and we will also ensure that the promise made about the number of beds is honoured. I will continue, as the local MP, to do all I can to fight for the future of Frenchay. Its future is of vital importance, and I look forward to the Minister's response and the Government's view.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Save Frenchay Hospital Group. Many of its leading members are constituents and friends of mine, and it has been my pleasure to work with them on this issue over the past few years. They have done a terrific job of bringing focus and attention to the issue, and their work will not be in vain. We will fight, and together we will win the battle to keep the best services possible at Frenchay for years to come.

4.26 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate. I know that local health services are a top priority for him, and I am sure that his constituents will appreciate all he has done in fighting for better health care provision for them. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on his contribution, given the constituency interest that he has in the future provision of health care in this area. I pay tribute to the NHS staff, both in Kingswood and across the whole of Bristol and south Gloucestershire, who provide such excellent care for my hon. Friends' constituents and those of other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood has outlined the strength of feeling in his constituency for the retention of as many services as possible at Frenchay hospital, following the expected completion of the new hospital at Southmead in 2014. I understand that he would like clarification on the Bristol private finance initiative scheme. The Government recently conducted a review of all major public spending commitments
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made between 1 January 2010 and the general election on 6 May, to ensure that they are affordable and consistent with this Government's priorities, given the horrendous economic situation that we have inherited and the staggering level of debt, which, we rightly believe, we should bring down as a priority because of its implications for the economy as a whole.

The north Bristol PFI scheme was considered as part of that review, and it was allowed to proceed. After final approval was given by the Treasury in February 2010, the scheme contracts were signed and construction is now under way. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the NHS would incur significant costs were it to cancel the contract, and I am afraid, therefore, that I have to tell him that cancellation is not a feasible option. The new Southmead hospital is going ahead, and is due for completion in 2014.

Both my hon. Friends are absolutely right that the decisions flowing from the reconfiguration in this part of Bristol and south Gloucestershire are the direct result of the actions of the outgoing Labour Government. They are not Conservative decisions. They were taken by the previous Labour Government and, as my hon. Friends will appreciate, it is too late to reverse them, and to prevent the implications for their constituents.

The business case projects that, due to a range of diagnostic tests being performed in the community and a greater number of out-patient appointments, there will be some 45,000 fewer acute hospital visits per year in the area. That will mean a far more convenient service for my hon. Friend's constituents.

I shall set the issue in context. My hon. Friend will be aware that, following a public consultation in late 2004 on the proposals to develop health services in Bristol, north Somerset and south Gloucestershire, the NHS agreed to centralise acute hospital services for north Bristol and south Gloucestershire at Southmead.

In June 2008, as part of the Bristol health services plan, work began to plan community health services that would provide more care closer to home in general practitioner surgeries, community health centres and community hospitals. The Frenchay project board developed recommendations for commissioning community services at Frenchay, which were presented to the boards of the NHS South Gloucestershire and NHS Bristol primary care trusts at the start of 2010.

At the beginning of this year, the project board shared its recommendations on how services could be developed with local GPs, the then Members of Parliament and a range of community groups. The board has now shared its draft options with the overview and scrutiny committees of South Gloucestershire and Bristol councils. As my hon. Friend will know, local authorities will have a key new role in helping to join up services across the NHS, social care and public health. Overview and scrutiny committees will consider the project board's final recommendations before they are presented to the boards of NHS South Gloucestershire and NHS Bristol in December 2010 and January 2011 respectively.

Let me explain to my hon. Friends the principles of reconfiguration. I recognise that, in the past, local people have felt that changes to local services have been handled badly. However, given the changes that my right hon.
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Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made to the criteria for judging reconfigurations, that is a thing of the past, although it is of little consolation to my hon. Friends. If the final recommendations differ significantly from what was agreed as part of the Bristol health services plan, NHS South Gloucestershire will proceed with a formal public consultation that will follow the four crucial tests on service changes set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I understand that, to date, the process meets the new criteria for the involvement of the public and clinicians, because the overview and scrutiny committee has accepted that the correct procedures have been followed by the project board. Indeed, only last week, it commended the PCT on the process that it had undergone.

Although the new Southmead hospital is going ahead, I have been assured that any future consultation on community health services at Frenchay hospital will closely involve GPs, local authorities, local people and local MPs to ensure that any new developments meet the needs and requirements of the local population and satisfy the new criteria laid down by my right hon. Friend. I have also been assured that the project board has completed a needs assessment, taking into account travel requirements, transport routes and population growth.

I can inform my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood that no decision has yet been made on the location of the brain injury rehabilitation unit that is currently at Frenchay. Recommendations on the service will be put forward for consideration by the end of the year. However, detailed negotiation will be required, as the unit is subject to a private lease.

I am sorry that I have to tell my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood and for Filton and Bradley Stoke that the burns unit will move to the Southmead acute hospital, as set out in the outline and full business cases in February. In-patient paediatric burns and in-patient paediatric neurological services will be centralised, along with all children's in-patient services, at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. In-patient neurological services for adults will be based at the new Southmead hospital.

On other local services, the NHS treatment centre in Emersons Green opened in late 2009. It provides procedures for ear, nose and throat services, general surgery, gynaecology, minor orthopaedics surgery, ophthalmology and urology. It increases the choice of provider for my hon. Friends' constituents and reduces their need to travel to larger acute sites in Bristol. The PCT has assured me of its commitment to working with local GPs and patient groups to ensure that services are accessible to my hon. Friends' constituents. Minor injury services are already provided by a GP-led health centre in Kingswood and at a minor injuries unit in nearby Yate. Another minor injuries unit is due to open at Cossham hospital in 2012.

I applaud the determination that my hon. Friends have shown in championing their local health services. Their constituents, like those of all hon. Members, deserve local health services that have the full support of local GP commissioners and of local people themselves. By empowering local clinicians to decide how best to achieve the right outcomes for local people, this Government will ensure that the residents of Kingswood are provided with the very best NHS services now and in the future.

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It is a pity that that attitude-the regard for local people and the bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down one-was not adopted by the previous Government. If more attention had been paid to the interests and concerns of my hon. Friends' constituents, we might not be in the position that we are in today. As both of them rightly said, this is not-I repeat, not-a decision that has been taken by the current Administration. The coalition Government were not party to the proposals, which are a leftover from the Labour Administration.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, despite all the work that was done by a range of people, including him, to try to save services at his local hospital at Frenchay, their views were disregarded by the previous Administration and in the procedures for considering such things. He finds himself in a straitjacket because of past decisions. However, the new criteria set by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will apply to future such decisions, and far greater attention will be paid to the wishes and needs of local people.

My hon. Friend has an important part to play in continuing to engage with the local NHS on the community health services planned for Frenchay hospital, and I am sure that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke will do all they can to continue to fight for the interests of their constituents, to ensure that they get good, high-quality NHS provision in their local community.

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Renewable Energy Projects

4.38 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important issue, and for the support of colleagues who are in attendance. My basic case is that if we in this country are serious about tackling climate change, we have to get serious about increasing the amount of energy and electricity that we consume from renewable sources.

We face a familiar problem, which has been too familiar over recent years: too often, renewable energy projects have failed to get off the ground and to receive planning consent. Local people and local communities have felt disengaged from projects that they thought were being imposed on them and, as a result, far too often we have ended up with inappropriate sites or with projects not getting through the morass of the planning process. We have to find an acceptable way to change the balance, so that we can increase the number of renewables projects that gain consent in an area and get genuine local community buy-in to renewable energy.

I welcome some elements of the new Government's programme, including the wholesale theft, if I may call it that, of my party's manifesto pledge to empower local authorities-councils-to generate electricity from renewable sources. The Minister will know better than I do, from his brief experience of coalition Government, that it involves a little bit of give and take, but I had not realised that it would involve taking wholesale from Labour's programme. But let us face it, after we lost the election we were not in a position to implement that pledge any time soon, so it was good that the Government took it up.

I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the Government's interesting plans on business rates, with the potential for giving a reward, in effect, to local people who agree to renewable energy projects. We look forward to hearing more about whether the green investment bank will make a real difference and whether it is to be more than just a Budget item included to give the appearance of doing something.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): It is also important for the Minister to set out how the Government envisage resolving any tension that might arise locally between local communities, which have been empowered to advance proposals for renewable energy, particularly through co-operatives, and local authorities that are allowed to bring forward proposals for local energy generation as a source of revenue production.

John Woodcock: My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. There has to be a way to manage that tension. I will say more about co-operative energy solutions. A local authority's laudable objective must not crowd out the only way that we can get to the root of the problem. There can be a huge gulf between our objective to obtain more energy from renewable sources and the inability or unwillingness to agree locally.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with all the points that my hon. Friend has made. Does he agree that planning is at the centre of some of the problems relating to the tensions between
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local authorities and co-operative groups in respect of renewable energy projects? One way to redress the balance is to encourage more local authorities to regard community ownership positively in terms of giving planning consent, allowing them to support such a co-operative movement without crowding it out.

John Woodcock: My hon. Friend is right. We need to explore that key area. I will say a little bit more about that later.

I am proud to be the first Labour/Co-operative Member of Parliament for Barrow and Furness; although by no means its first Labour Member, I am the first Co-op-sponsored MP. It is appropriate to mention that during this debate, because community ownership is the most effective way for us to enable local communities to have a genuine stake in vital projects, the number of which we need to increase.

If the Government's commitment to the big society becomes more than an idea that is yet to be defined-I will not say "ill-defined" because that would be uncharitable-I hope that they will wholeheartedly embrace this area and do more than just give words of support.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend has made some good points. When I was lucky enough to be a Minister, some excellent civil servants worked for me, but only a small handful of them really had an understanding of and a grip on the co-operative and mutual movement. Could not the Minister usefully direct some of the staff of energy regulators, and more staff in his Department-other than those who have probably faced a steep learning curve helping him prepare for this debate-to visit community energy mutuals, such as the Baywind co-operative in the Lake district?

John Woodcock: My hon. Friend is right. I need no encouragement to agree with anyone who suggests a visit to my constituency of Barrow and Furness, which is always a fantastic idea, and particularly the Baywind energy project, which prompted me to call for this debate. I am sure the Minister is aware that Baywind has blazed a trail since the mid-1990s. The Baywind wind turbines in my constituency, which are part of a co-operatively owned energy project, have changed people's understanding of renewable energy and of the capacity of a local area to have a genuine stake in that form of energy.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend talks about the benefit that communities realise from community renewable projects. I am sure that he is aware that there are good examples of that in Scotland, for example, in Fintry and on the island of Gigha. It has become clear that the lack of available funding is a stumbling block for community renewable developments. Is he aware of the studies being carried out by the Scottish agricultural college on a loan scheme for renewable energy projects, including community ones, which may help get over that initial problem, to develop more community renewable energy projects throughout the country?

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John Woodcock: I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point.

My hon. Friends have mentioned practical ideas as to how Government can help support such vital projects, potentially facilitating loans, and so on. Baywind is an example of a local community-owned project succeeding, which happens all too infrequently at the moment. I hope that the Government will consider seriously their lack of co-ordination in a difficult and complicated field.

Stella Creasy: Does my hon. Friend agree that we could learn some interesting lessons from Denmark, and how it has used the tax system to encourage community ownership of renewable energy projects and incentives, and to encourage people to participate in and support them at local level?

John Woodcock: Absolutely. We all recognise that money is tight throughout the country. The Government do not hesitate to paint a far more drastic picture than is the case, but we must find a way of breaking the deadlock. The importance of doing so is not simply to tackle climate change, fundamental though that is, but to ensure a greater level of energy security. Renewable energy projects can contribute not only to moving away from fossil fuels and the rising cost that will be tagged to such fuels in coming years, but to increasing energy security for the UK.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Stroud, which the Minister has already visited, is awash with good ideas for renewable energy. I want to focus on micro-hydro schemes, because some obstacles must be removed, including possible objections by the Environment Agency. We must discuss that, and I have mentioned it in the House.

Social enterprises are important to provide traction for ideas, and plenty of information exists about them. Many people in Stroud know about them, and many people throughout the country should know about them. The previous Labour Government set out some interesting ideas about that and various mechanisms. A key point-

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is too long.

John Woodcock: The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point, and to indicate the variety of renewable energy schemes that we must embrace. The issue is not just about onshore wind or offshore wind. The potential for hydropower is enormous in the UK at both micro level and a wider level. I was an adviser in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under the previous Government, which kicked off the study into the Severn barrage, but that is a subject for another debate. I will not take interventions on that, but it is crucial.

Community-owned schemes may make a difference because they engender a level of buy-in from the community. Baywind has paid a dividend to local residents who have bought into the scheme since its inception in 1996. As an educational establishment, it accepts regular visits from local schoolchildren and adults, and promotes the cause of renewable energy. The key point for onshore wind is that community ownership of the turbines has
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allowed the co-operative to avoid the controversy that has often surrounded turbines in other areas of the Cumbrian hills in my patch.

Neil Carmichael: I will be brief, Mr Hood. This Government are paving the way for communities to become involved in all sorts of renewables by returning business rates back to the community, and that is something to embrace. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

John Woodcock: I made the point at the beginning that the scheme is interesting and welcome, and it is a contribution, but it does not go to the heart of the matter and that incentive will not tackle the problem. I will come on to the barriers facing co-operatives such as Baywind and local communities that want to establish their own energy supply.

I turn to the planning system. Energy4All is a not-for-profit organisation to facilitate community-owned renewable energy schemes such as Baywind. It may cost communities £150,000 simply to be part of the planning process, and at the moment they cannot be confident of success in navigating through that process. The coalition programme for government states explicitly that the Government

That is in addition to the pledge on business rates.

As my hon. Friends said, local authorities should encourage community ownership, but at the moment we just ask them nicely to do so. Will the Minister consider ways of giving genuine preference in the planning system to community-owned projects? There must be safeguards, but community-owned schemes already show local buy-in, and we could greatly slim down the cost of the planning process by streamlining it to recognise that the ownership model has already achieved a level of community buy-in.

The Co-operative party has called for creation of a community energy and climate change unit, based on the successful Supporters Direct model, which promotes mutual ownership of football clubs. The core functions of the unit would be to bring together silo working in government. We are all guilty of that when in government; it is not a new phenomenon of the new Government. The unit would be able to give advice on legal structures, financial assistance, business planning and the regulatory framework, but it would not be prescriptive. There are many ways to skin a cat, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is a cat to be skinned, and will come up with some suggestions for his preferred method of doing so.

One way of making start-up costs easier for community projects-the model has been identified by Energy4All-is to encourage residents not necessarily to go for full ownership of a project, but to take a part-stake in commercial developers' wind farms. In that system, the developer identifies the project and takes the risk, and the community simply buys a stake. The developer gains from improved community relations, and the community gains a direct stake in a project in its locality. However, there is currently little or no take-up of that opportunity, so we should all consider ways-I am interested in the Minister's views on this-of giving developers a push and changing the culture of communities and commercial developers. Planning incentives may help, as long as there are proper safeguards.

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Even under the current timetable, National Energy Action estimates that there are close to 5.4 million people in Britain-one in every five households-who are classed as fuel poor. Currently, we cannot say that renewables are a cheap form of energy. However, the previous Government's proposals for micro-delivery and for local areas to come together in co-operatives could drive down the cost and make renewables more cost-effective. That was a key part of my party's manifesto, and I hope the Minister will say that he will take up that proposal.

In the context of rising fuel poverty and the need for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions, the UK needs a major improvement in domestic energy policy and the way renewables are delivered. I recognise that that would require a culture change and that it is not simply about the Government, but I hope that in his response, the Minister will recognise the role of the Government in empowering communities. At their best, communities can do better than any Government or state organisation by taking direct control of the means through which they power their homes and making a direct contribution to lowering carbon emissions. In their own way-and this is what we all individually want to do-communities can tackle one of the greatest challenges that we will face over the coming years and decades, both for our country and for the world.

5.1 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I shall start by congratulating the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on an excellent speech. Although he is a new Member, I know that he is not new to Westminster and the processes of government. He brought the experiences that he gained working behind the scenes to the fore with great aplomb, and I found his contribution helpful and useful.

It is encouraging to see that several new Members are present, even if they have participated only by way of interventions. I hope that the positive dialogue engendered in Westminster Hall debates can continue. We do not claim to have the monopoly on wisdom; this is a new agenda. I am a new Minister and I am sure only that we need to be ambitious and radical, and that pottering along under the status quo is not an option. Together with my officials, I am looking at a range of options. If other hon. Members, regardless of whether they are part of the coalition Government or in opposition, come forward with positive contributions-particularly examples of successes in their own constituencies, such as Baywind-we should look at those contributions.

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that my officials will shortly be meeting Energy4All to discuss some ideas. Those ideas will incorporate five different ownership models: the community co-operative model, which enables 100% ownership of an entire project; the shared ownership model, where a co-operative owns one or more of the turbines on a wind farm, with the remainder being owned by a landowner, private developer or a community trust; the royalty instrument model, which is where a developer builds a wind farm in a region and the community purchases a stake in the future revenue of the project through a co-operative; the regional co-operative model, where finance is raised through a national or regional energy co-operative
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covering a wide geographic area and a range of different projects; and the loan model, where the community project may approach an existing energy co-operative and obtain a simple loan to get a new project off the ground. Those are some of the innovative ideas that are springing up, and we need more of them.

I have taken a personal interest in the decentralised energy agenda since 2005 when I first started shadowing the environment brief. It became clear that there were many advantages to decentralised energy, not only in the way that it can contribute to the decarbonising of our energy supply, but also in the security of our domestic energy supply and the sense of ownership and empowerment that it can bring to local communities and consumers. Politically, there is a huge power in the broadest sense of the word-pardon the pun-in that agenda. It is one of the few things on the energy agenda that engages local people in a way that they can understand and in which they can participate.

When the hon. Gentleman introduced this debate, he was right to say that there were problems and that, historically, there has been resistance to renewable energy projects in all of our constituencies. Some of that resistance was well based, but often it was based on misconceptions. It is difficult to blame local communities for resisting renewable energy because often they are asked to have something imposed on them that spoils their view or the amenity of the local land, and brings them no benefit whatsoever. If we are to see an increase in the number of such installations, we need a more equitable settlement. We need a greater sense of community participation both in decisions about where the installations are to be sited, and in the returns that flow from them. There are potentially remunerative streams of profit to be gained under those arrangements, and it is right for the communities that host renewable energy sources to benefit in that way.

Our coalition programme is clear. We plan to help communities become more self-sufficient in the way that they use heat and power. The programme also makes clear our plans to encourage more community ownership of renewable energy. Vision, localism and decentralised energy all empower communities.

We have a range of technologies. We have spoken about wind, particularly onshore wind, but a host of other exciting technologies such as micro-hydro power are available, and we should do more to advance them. There is also biomass, solar power and combined heat and power. Ultimately, I would like to see the notion of local energy economies widely accepted. People have got used to the notion of a local food economy. We have seen local farmers markets spring up, and links between local schools and community projects, and local food producers, farmers and retailers. We must do more to encourage the notion of local energy economies, where people see a closer link between the energy that local communities consume, and the way it is produced.

In my constituency, I have encouraged a greater link between farmers who have woodland that is not in productive use, and a local school that is putting in a woodchip CHP boiler. A local farmer will bring woodland back into productive use so as to supply that boiler on a long-term contract. Coppicing is better for biodiversity and flora and fauna.

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Stella Creasy: I appreciate what the Minister is saying. Does he share my sadness at the decision to cancel the wind turbine as part of the Olympics park in the borough of Waltham Forest? That could have been the legacy of a local renewable energy co-operative in Waltham Forest. Will he commit to working with me to look at alternatives such as biomass and photovoltaic cells, and see whether they could be the start of such a co-operative project in Waltham Forest?

Gregory Barker: I am not familiar with that project or with the reasons behind the cancellation of the wind turbine. However, I would be happy to work with the hon. Lady to try and encourage the uptake of other renewable energy sources. That is absolutely key, and we want the Olympics to be the greenest Olympics ever, just as we want the Government to be the greenest Government ever.

Community ownership is a key part of our localism agenda. In the common themes and principles that bind the coalition together, localism, concern for the environment and action on climate change are three of the most powerful issues that drive our agenda. We are determined to create the right framework for building a low-carbon economy. We realise that we need to make game-changing interventions to increase energy efficiency in local communities. That is why at the heart of the energy Bill that I hope to introduce in the autumn sits the green deal, which will transform homes in all our constituencies. If we are to save consumers money on their energy bills but also make their homes more efficient and reach our carbon reduction goals, we will need game-changing policies such as the green deal, but we also need a game change in our culture and our approach to community ownership.

We are already working on measures to ensure that communities can benefit from renewable energy, taking advantage of incentives provided by feed-in tariffs, but we will go further and encourage more community ownership of renewable energy. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made excellent points about the fact that where there is community ownership of energy installations, many of the objections in the planning system will simply fall away. I cannot comment directly, but I do hear the points that he makes about the need for that to be recognised in the planning system itself. There is a virtuous circle here. Part of the reason why there are so many delays to many local projects is that there are so many local objections. If there are fewer local objections, there will be fewer delays. In an ideal world, we would not have to tinker greatly with the planning system, because it would be self-fulfilling, but we are examining ways in which we can work with the planning system to give communities more power to shape the places that they inhabit.

The coalition agreement made clear our intention to publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development. That should include local community-owned installations. My Department is working with the Department for Communities and Local Government on extending permitted development rights for both domestic and non-domestic microgeneration technologies.

We are also developing a website, called community energy online, to develop best practice and to support local authorities and community groups in developing
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their own renewable energy. Often, the greatest spur to that is not just what we can do at Westminster, but clear examples of action being taken in the community, out there in the real world. The more that we can spread that best practice and knowledge, the better.

I have a few more points, which I shall run through quickly in the time remaining. First, I shall say a few words about overturning the ban on local authorities selling electricity. It was nonsense that the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, introduced by a Labour Government, prevented councils from selling electricity from local wind turbines-not that there were many in those days-or from any form of local generation or, indeed, from anaerobic digestion, which we are also keen to promote in the coalition agreement. I hope that by the end of the year, local authorities will be able to sell electricity from renewables, generating revenue to help local services and keep council tax down. That will see local communities truly benefiting from the low-carbon transition. It will allow local authorities to take full advantage of the incentives available through
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feed-in tariffs to invest in renewable energy in their own buildings. We are also keen for local authorities to work with other partners on community-scale renewable electricity schemes that can be supported by FITs.

At this stage of renewable development, I am not as worried as the hon. Gentleman about crowding out different initiatives, because we are at such an early stage. One of the mechanisms that we see as key to encouraging local community schemes is the retention of business rates. As the coalition programme for government made clear, we will allow communities that host renewable energy projects to keep the additional business rates that they generate. We are working up plans to make that a reality.

Overall, the hon. Gentleman has made a very good start with this debate. We welcome his input and I look forward to continuing the discussion with him.

Question put and agreed to.

5.14 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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