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The statement delays the completion of Thameslink by two years to 2018, following the right hon. Gentleman's previous decision to delay the completion of Crossrail by a year. His Department is already missing its targets for extra spaces by 15% at peak time in London and 33% in other major cities. Does he not understand the
frustration there will be at his decision to delay the delivery of the new carriages that are vital to addressing this overcrowding?
On new carriages, the right hon. Gentleman tries to claim that the plans that Labour announced in government for 1,300 carriages were somehow a work of fiction. Perhaps I could remind him that his permanent secretary told the Public Accounts Committee in September that
"it was a commitment of the previous Government to deliver 1,300 carriages, for which they had a £1.2 billion budget."
"we had plans-clear plans-that we could evidence to the National Audit Office...to have acquired around 950 carriages and spent around £900 million."
"would enable us to get to probably around 1,300 carriages and to develop the full capacity, using the full budget of £1.2 billion."
Will the right hon. Gentleman now accept that he has cut the number of new carriages that we planned to be delivered in this spending review period, and that he must stop spinning? Why are commuters going to face overcrowding, which will not be substantially alleviated for almost 10 years, when the fares hikes that he says are to end overcrowding start this January?
People in Wales will feel most betrayed by the right hon. Gentleman's announcement, following his decision to delay giving the green light to electrification of the great western line beyond Bristol. His manifesto was very clear on this, so let me remind him that it said:
"We support...the electrification of the Great Western line to South Wales."
"further electrification of the rail network."
We are told that the Secretary of State for Wales is threatening to resign if high-speed rail goes through her English constituency. She does not seem to be threatening to resign over the fact that Wales, whose interests she represents in the Cabinet and is supposed to champion, is to remain the only European country other than Albania and Moldova with not a single metre of electrified track. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision not to approve the electrification of the great western main line to Swansea, as was planned by the previous Labour Government?
The right hon. Gentleman has also today ducked giving the green light to the intercity express programme. We are used to this Government going back on things they promised to do in their manifesto, but today's statement sees him going back even on what he promised in his Department's comprehensive spending review statement this October. I remind him that he said:
"Because aspects of Thameslink and HLOS rolling stock programmes, as well as projects to electrify the Great Western Mainline, and the rail routes around Manchester and Liverpool, are interdependent with the IEP decision, a full announcement on all these programmes will be made at the same time."
Will he tell the House what has changed? Will he now tell us the real story behind the repeated delays to today's statement and the real reason he has had to push so many of his decisions into next year? Is it true, as
some believe, that by changing the specification of the IEP carriages after a preferred bidder was announced he now risks a legal challenge from other bidders?
Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman understand the anger felt by passengers up and down the country at his decision to allow rail fares to rise by such a large amount? His coalition agreement said:
"We are committed to fair pricing for rail travel".
Can he tell hard-pressed commuters up and down the country why he thinks that allowing rail fares to rise by 3% above inflation after next year demonstrates his commitment to fair pricing? How does driving people off the railways and back into their cars help either our economy or the environment? Does he accept, as his Department has admitted, the very big impact on road congestion that is likely to be caused by his decision?
Is not the reality that he has come to the House today only because he said in his departmental plan that he would do so by the end of November 2010 and because his repeated briefings to the media have created an expectation that a statement was imminent? Does he not accept that his departmental plan commits him not to a statement, but to decisions? Has he today not just missed the first of his own targets in the departmental plan, which was supposed to be the Prime Minister's way of keeping Secretaries of State on track to deliver Government promises?
Is not the reality of today's statement that beyond re-announcing a whole series of investment decisions taken by the previous Labour Government and put on hold by him after the election, he has delayed the completion of Crossrail by a year, delayed the completion of Thameslink by two years to 2018, delayed giving the green light to electrification of the great western line beyond Bristol-that is a real betrayal of people in Wales-delayed giving any indication of when electrification of the midland main line will take place and delayed giving the green light to the intercity express programme? His statement pushes the delivery of projects into the next spending review period and ducks decisions on some of the country's most vital transport infrastructure projects. His delayed statement is itself nothing more than one long series of delays.
Mr Hammond: In her second response to me at the Dispatch Box, the hon. Lady adopts a rather churlish tone. She talks about wanting decisions to be made. She will get decisions from this Government, but they will be properly thought through decisions based on value-for-money cases and proper consideration of all the matters that need to be dealt with; they will not be press releases made up on the spur of the moment by a Government who have gone on a regional junket and need something to announce to keep the regional press happy.
The hon. Lady complains that we issued a written ministerial statement this morning, but she ought to be able to understand that the content of this statement, because it touches, in particular, on the procurement of the intercity express programme, is market sensitive, so it was essential that we made a statement this morning before the markets opened.
The hon. Lady talks about fares, and I readily acknowledge that nobody in the commuter fraternity will welcome the increase in the cap on regulated fares that we have proposed for 2012 to 2015. But that is one
of the tough decisions that we have had to take to protect the programme of investment in our railways. I have to say to her that I see no sign that anybody on the Opposition Front Bench is prepared to take tough decisions or to understand that without the ability and the willingness to do so they will simply have no credibility in the difficult debates on how we prioritise limited public expenditure.
The hon. Lady criticises the delay in delivering the complete Thameslink project-the 24 trains an hour in both directions. I do not apologise to her or to the House for taking a decision that the programme, as originally set out, contained too many risks-there were risks of cost overruns and risks to existing commuter services into London Bridge station. With Network Rail, we have revised the schedule to create a lower-risk alternative that is both less costly and less disruptive to existing commuter services.
The hon. Lady talks about the midland main line-she seems to have discovered it this morning. There was not a word about the electrification of the midland main line during the 13 years for which the Opposition were in government, but today she wants to bring it up as though it were some Labour priority we are abandoning. For the record, the case for electrification of the midland main line remains strong and we will consider it as a project for control period 5, which begins in 2014.
The hon. Lady attacks me for describing the 1,300 rail carriages to which her predecessors apparently committed as a work of fiction. She is new to the job, I understand, and these are difficult numbers- [ Interruption. ] I am quite new to this, too, and I can tell the House that they are difficult numbers. If she drills down and has a look, she will see that the figure of 1,300 was maintained early this year only by the inclusion of 400 of the 1,200 Thameslink carriages in the total-a complete and ongoing fabrication to avoid abandoning a number that was never sustainable. The Opposition could not have delivered them because they are not prepared to support any of the decisions that have allowed capital investment to continue. They do not support the fare increase, they do not support cuts in welfare expenditure and they do not support cuts in public expenditure to allow prioritisation of capital investment.
The hon. Lady has the audacity to raise the issue of Wales, but, as she says, Wales has not one metre of electrified railway-after 13 years of a Labour Government. We will take no lectures from her on electrification in Wales.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. As hon. Members can see, a number of them want to ask a question. We are time-limited, but I shall try to call as many Members as I can. You can assist me by asking just one question and, clearly, we need short answers, too. If Members were not in the Chamber for the full statement, I ask them not stand to ask a question: they must have listened to the entire statement.
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con):
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will ensure that the design of the new franchise for Greater Anglia will
maximise the incentive to the successful bidder to contribute to investment in track so that passengers on the West Anglia line and the Great Eastern line will get the advantages from such investment as he has outlined in his statement today?
Mr Hammond: I can assure my right hon. Friend that in re-designing the franchise arrangements, as we have committed to do, we will want to consider the opportunities for train operators to contribute to infrastructure improvements and to work more closely with Network Rail. We will also ensure that train operators' financial interests are clearly aligned with passengers' interests so that, under new franchises, when we have an overcrowding problem it will be in the train operator's interest to deal with that problem with its own money rather than, as under the current system, having to come to the Government cap in hand to ask us to solve the problem.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I have a direct question for the right hon. Gentleman. Will the outcome of the further long-grass review that he is considering for south Wales, Bristol and the whole line to London deliver rail electrification all the way to Swansea-not to Bristol, but to Swansea? In the run-up to the election in May, all parties stood on a platform of delivering rail electrification all the way to Swansea. The Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), has made a principled point on behalf of her constituents, saying that it is a resigning matter if a different link goes through her constituency. Will she apply the same principle if she fails to deliver rail electrification into Wales?
Mr Hammond: I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question to me, but I cannot answer for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales; he will have to address his question to her in person. There has to be a business case for electrification. We will work with the Welsh Assembly Government to strengthen and build that business case over the next few weeks and I shall make an announcement to the House as soon as we have made a decision on the IEP procurement that will cover both IEP and further electrification on the great western main line.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that what was originally called Thameslink 2000 by the previous Government will at last be delivered by this Government. Will the Secretary of State also direct those responsible to ensure not only that we have the new London Bridge station in my constituency, and all that goes with it, but that the maximum number of commuter lines are continued in south London? That is obviously of interest to people who live in London as well as those who live further afield.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is quite right to observe that we must get the balance right between building large new infrastructure projects and maintaining existing services. I have been out this morning to the site of the Blackfriars station development and seen just how incredibly difficult it is to build such a major project on a running railway line with trains passing backwards and forwards. It is very
complex, and allowing a little extra time will ensure that we do not have catastrophic disruption during the programme.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the news of investment in rail, although I am concerned about the three-year delay in the electrification of the Liverpool-Manchester-Blackpool line as well as the uncertainties on electrification of the great western line. Will the Secretary of State explain the percentage growth in rail that he is planning within these figures so that rail can grow without overcrowding and without the overpricing that drives people off the railways?
Mr Hammond: I do not know where the hon. Lady gets the idea about three years' delay with north-west electrification. As I said, the Manchester to Newton-le-Willows section will be completed in 2013. Work will start next year. The team that is doing the work will then roll on to complete the electrification of the Liverpool-Manchester section and finally the Preston-Blackpool section. It will all be completed by 2016.
Let me explain the time scale. Electrification will allow the electric carriages released by the delivery of the new Thameslink carriages to be deployed. There is no point completing that electrification, except for the section from Manchester to Newton-le-Willows, until those electric carriages are available. The timetabling is perfectly logical and the early completion of Manchester to Newton-le-Willows will allow brand-new electric trains to be operated on the Manchester to Scotland routes.
The hon. Lady asked about capacity. The total announcements on Crossrail, Thameslink and the additional 650 carriages to be delivered before 2015 will amount to a 17% increase in the capacity of the network.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Commuters in my constituency, particularly those who use Three Bridges and Gatwick stations, will greatly welcome-as do I-the announcement about increased rolling stock through Thameslink. Will my right hon. Friend assure my commuters and constituents that the rolling stock will be of the highest available quality to ensure greater comfort and convenience?
Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Secretary of State's statement is the fourth time that the desperately needed new trains for the east coast line have been delayed. Will he tell us what he means by "in the new year"? What time scale is he talking about? Will he go for the dual-fuel trains?
The bi-mode trains are one option that we will consider. Let me explain again the reasons for the complexity and the delay. We have a preferred bidder, selected by the previous Government. That preferred bidder, Agility Trains, has come back to us with a revised proposal that is significantly more attractive than the original proposal. We have been asked by Sir Andrew Foster's review to reappraise the Agility Trains bid and to consider specific alternatives. We are carrying out that work. There are technical complexities
and legal complexities, because of the procurement process. Of course, we must build a value-for-money case and compare the two options. I hope that it will be possible to make an announcement in January, and I expect it to be made early in the new year.
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I welcome the Government's sincere commitment to the economic renewal of the north, but what does my right hon. Friend say to people in Buckinghamshire who challenge both the route and the national interest case for high-speed rail?
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Every analysis of the south Wales economy and its competitiveness shows that the single most important thing that could be done to improve the competitiveness not only of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport but all the valleys communities is the electrification of the line all the way to Swansea. Is there not therefore a strong business case, if one really believes in growth in the economy, for making sure that electrification goes ahead as soon as possible?
Mr Hammond: That is precisely what we will be looking at working with the Welsh Assembly Government to achieve-a strong business case. The hon. Gentleman might reflect on what he did in the years that he sat on the Government Front Bench when not a single metre of railway line was electrified in Wales.
Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I welcome this announcement and I thank my right hon. Friend for delivering an honest assessment of what is achievable. Will he confirm that improvements to Yorkshire and trans-Pennine routes will include upgrades to carriages and increased numbers to improve the journeys of the hard-pressed commuters who have suffered badly thanks to the neglect of the Labour party?
Mr Hammond: We expect that additional carriages will be delivered to the northern and trans-Pennine franchises, but my hon. Friend will understand that these are commercial matters and that we have to enter negotiations with the franchisees as single-tender actions. We have to negotiate with them on the reimbursements they envisage for operating those additional carriages, so it is not possible to give him a precise number today because that would remove our negotiating power in the franchise discussions.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Thousands of my constituents travel every day by Thameslink, as do I. The Secretary of State has disappointingly delayed this scheme by two years, euphemistically describing the delay as "reprofiling". He has specifically mentioned London Bridge, but what about Blackfriars, which he and I have visited? Will he at least confirm that the Blackfriars interchange with the Circle line will be completed on time and will not be delayed?
Mr Hammond: My understanding is that, yes, the station's new interchange with the Circle line will be completed by the end of next year and that 12-car train-running through Blackfriars will begin at that time. His constituents will see the first tangible benefits from the Thameslink project at that time.
Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I welcome the encouraging implications of the Secretary of State's statement for the maintenance of through-direct links from the north of Scotland to the London metropolis, particularly for the Highland Chieftain-his Department accepted the well-backed petition of The Inverness Courier on that. What is his prognosis for overnight services-the sleeping-car rolling stock-between the Scottish cities, plus Fort William, and London? They are long overdue and much needed.
Mr Hammond: It is for train operators to decide which specific services to offer on those routes, but the decision we take on IEP will define the type of rolling stock that is available to operate those services. I would be happy to discuss off-wire services north of Edinburgh with him if that would help.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): When will electrification of the Manchester-Chorley-Preston part of the line, which runs right through my constituency, take place? It seems to be missing each time there is a statement.
Mr Hammond: The hon. Lady tests my geography of the north-west. If she is referring to the cord that passes from Manchester to Newton-le-Willows, rejoining the west coast main line, that will be in 2013. The rest of the electrification programme will be rolled out between 2013 and 2016.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's whittling down of the options for the great western railway, but we in Swindon are waiting anxiously on the platform for a final decision on the electrification of the main line. May I urge him to make a decision that will benefit Swindon and the west country-in favour of electrification-and hold him to his promise to make a decision early in the new year?
Mr Hammond: As I have already said, that is my expectation, but, as hon. Members will understand, when complex legal, technical and commercial decisions are to be taken, we have to do the homework before we make the announcement-unlike the previous Government.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I recognise that future investment plans depend on economic growth and I represent one of the most productive towns in the country on the most old-fashioned railway line-the great western main line. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a group of companies from Slough that are anxious about the impact of other lines between Slough and Paddington, about the effect of Crossrail on the frequency of trains and about the lack of any connection from the west into Heathrow? Will he meet us to discuss his plans?
Mr Hammond: I should have thought that the hon. Lady welcomed the electrification of great western main line commuter services and the benefits that her constituency will see from Crossrail. I also have a great interest in the Airtrack project as my constituency is just south of Heathrow. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss these issues.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): One benefit of High Speed 2 will be a release of capacity on the commuter section of the west coast main line from Euston to Milton Keynes. Will the Secretary of State confirm that as a result of today's statement, rolling stock formerly used on Thameslink might be released to ease congestion on that line?
Mr Hammond: The release of rolling stock from Thameslink will provoke a cascade through the system so that Thameslink vehicles will be available for use on other lines. In some cases they will displace diesel units that will become available for use on still further lines. At the bottom of the pile, some old rolling stock is likely to be retired. By releasing large numbers of carriages into the pool we expect to change the market dynamics for leasing rolling stock, making it cheaper and therefore more affordable for the taxpayer and passenger alike.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows that if the Agility train project goes ahead it will create thousands of jobs in north-east England, including hundreds in my constituency where the trains will be built. If that does not happen and the door is slammed on north-east England-if the other option is chosen-will the contract have to go out to retender, thereby causing further delays while the tendering process takes place and delaying the intercity express programme further?
Mr Hammond: As I have said, there are complex legal and commercial issues to consider. The hon. Gentleman will understand as well as anyone the process of negotiating with Agility trains as the preferred bidder and that everything we do has to be within the constraints of the European procurement directive.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I, too, welcome the Secretary of State's announcement. Will he outline in more detail the benefit that will come from the 650 new carriages that he has announced for 2010 to 2014 and how the investment in Network Rail will benefit the east coast main line?
Mr Hammond: Network Rail is making significant investments on the east coast main line, which explains to some extent the less than exceptional service performance on the line in the past few months as that work has been carried out. It will bring benefits in due course in terms of greater line speed and reliability. The 650 additional carriages will be distributed across the network. Some of them have already been contracted with individual franchisees and some of them will be the subject of further negotiations, which we will now commence, but there will be benefits for all parts of the country.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): There will be bitter disappointment not just in Wales but in the south-west of England about the Secretary of State's decision to shelve the previous Labour Government's plans for the electrification of the great western line. Will he agree to publish in full the criteria that have informed his decision?
Yes. In accordance with our transparency agenda, we have made it clear-I made it clear in my previous announcement on roads-that we will in due
course publish the business case analysis that informs decisions about projects that go ahead and projects that do not.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): There is a pressing need for additional carriages on the Cardiff to Portsmouth line-indeed, a literally pressing need around Bristol, and on trains serving Bradford-on-Avon. Will it be need and overcrowding, or the commercial positions of franchisees, that drive the allocation of the 650 new carriages?
Mr Hammond: This is not about the commercial position of franchisees; it is about the economic benefits. We are not just looking at costs and revenue. If revenues were able to justify the costs, franchisees would be able to do the work on their own, without Government support. We are looking typically at situations where the revenue from fares does not cover the costs, but the wider economic benefits justify the investment of public money.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My constituents are served by Southeastern and face the highest fare increases in the south-east network. They also suffer from pixies on the line-or rather, PIXCs: passengers in excess of capacity-at peak times, and there is a plan to deliver 12-car trains at peak times on that section of the network. Do the Government still intend to deliver those 12-car trains and relieve the congestion on the line?
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I hugely welcome the proposed new fleet, but, given the delays that Bombardier caused for First Capital Connect by the late delivery of trains, what discussions will the Secretary of State have with those who are to build the trains, to ensure that they deliver the rolling stock on time?
Mr Hammond: When we contract for, or enter into arrangements to support the contracting of, rolling stock, we will look to see that there are effective penalty arrangements to make it extremely costly for anybody to fail to deliver on time what they are supposed to deliver.
Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has drilled down hard on the numbers and taken an objective and exigent view of the returns that he expects from the investment. Can we expect a similar approach to HS 2? In the consultation, about which he was very open on the "Today" programme this morning, but has been less so with the House so far, will it be possible to look at alternative routes, not just geographically but in order to run HS 2 down existing lines?
I am delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman. Not many people who have addressed me on HS 2 have asked me to alter the line so that it runs through their constituency, as I think he has. I am grateful for his enthusiastic support for the project. The HS 2 consultation will include the detail of the route
from London to Birmingham, the wider strategic principles of the high-speed rail network and the selected route corridors, so his constituents, his local authority, and indeed he himself, will have an opportunity to make that point.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): My right hon. Friend is correct to assess carefully the different options for the intercity express programme, but when does he expect the first IEP trains to enter service?
Mr Hammond: At this point I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer; it will depend on which option is selected. Of the two remaining options, one is for a novel technology-the Agility Trains proposal for a bi-modal train, which is an innovation-and the other is for a standard high-speed electric train set with a diesel coupling at the end of the wires. Clearly the latter option could be delivered more quickly, but our decision must be based on the best long-term interests of the UK's railway.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will acknowledge that, in my constituency certainly, there will be huge disappointment that midland main line electrification did not merit even a mention in his statement. Some of my constituents could be forgiven for thinking that he has something of a grudge against the east midlands, although I am sure-and we all hope-that that is not the case. When will the decisions on control period 5 be taken, so that we might at least have the prospect of that much-needed investment?
Mr Hammond: No, I will not acknowledge that there will be huge disappointment. Only a few months ago people were telling me, and relevant publications were saying, that all this investment would have to be cancelled because of the squeeze on public spending. We should rejoice in the fact that we have managed to focus on and prioritise public capital infrastructure investment that will support economic growth in this country. I am a little disappointed that the hon. Gentleman does not sing the praises of the decision to support and invest in the Nottingham tramway, but I will say one thing for him: I cannot blame him for the actions of the previous Government, because he was not in it.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and thank him for his personal interest in the developments at Reading station. He knows, however, that there is particular overcrowding on the route from Reading to Paddington, so will he spell out the improvements that his announcement will make to commuting from Reading to Paddington?
Mr Hammond: The decision to electrify the line as far as Didcot will mean that services to Reading are more reliable and faster. It will also enable them to be more frequent, and they will have more passenger capacity. Put together, those factors will deliver a step change in the service that my hon. Friend's constituents experience.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab):
Will the light rail improvements in Sheffield, which I think I am going to welcome, include not merely the four extra trams but the nationally significant tram-train pilot? The lack of electrification of the midland main line is a
disappointment, but will the track improvements go ahead and include the extra £23 million requested, so that we can significantly reduce travel times to London, to less than two hours for the first train, and reduce times for the second train, too?
Mr Hammond: There are two separate projects in that context, at least as far as the Department is concerned: the additional vehicles for the supertram, about which we have already made an announcement; and a further proposal, for which-the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) tells me-there is a submission on my desk as we speak. I shall be happy to look at it and let the hon. Gentleman know how we can take it forward.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I welcome the decision to continue running through-trains to Aberdeen and Inverness, and the fact that that uncertainty has now gone. In choosing the rolling stock that takes those journeys, will the Secretary of State ensure that we can maximise the journey improvements north of Edinburgh on the unelectrified part of the line?
Mr Hammond: Judging by the technical information that I have seen so far, I believe that both options would deliver almost exactly the same journey time, so I do not think that our choice of IEP mode will affect the journey time to Aberdeen or Inverness.
Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Wirral businesses have worked hard to build our local economy, and they expect me to ask questions of the Secretary of State. He says that he expects work in the north-west to begin in the next year, but given the delays that we have seen, will he return to the House to confirm absolutely that the work he has set out today will in fact go ahead?
Mr Hammond: I can save myself a trip by confirming now that work will begin next year and be completed in 2016-barring some completely unforeseen catastrophe. That is in the programme agreed with Network Rail.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I welcome today's announcement of an extra 650 carriages for rail franchises outside London, as it could really help the vital London to Penzance service and the maritime line in my constituency. What assurance can the Minister provide that he is working with First Great Western to ensure that people in Cornwall benefit from the investments announced today?
Mr Hammond: First Great Western was first off the blocks today to welcome the statement, and we will continue to work with it. We expect additional carriages for First Great Western to be contracted as part of the 650-carriage programme, and of course, when decisions are made on the IEP and on further electrification of the great western main line, the company will ultimately be a significant beneficiary.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab):
The Minister knows that I am delighted with the extensions to our tram network, but unfortunately we cannot travel
to London on it. Electrification of the midland main line would make it possible to reduce the travel time from Nottingham to London to an hour and a half. The Minister acknowledged that the economic case for electrification is strong-I would say "overwhelming". Can he assure me that the Government have a strategy to achieve "Nottingham in 90", pending the development of High Speed 2?
Mr Hammond: The hon. Lady will have noted that the last Government failed to deal with the issue of the electrification of the midland main line. I thought for a minute that I was going to get a bid for a tramway extension to London; to be honest with the hon. Lady, I prefer the option of midland main line electrification. There is a strong business case for electrifying the midland main line. The Government strongly support electrification, but we have, of course, to work within the envelope of affordability. We will be looking at projects for the next Network Rail investment control period, which begins in 2014. Midland main line electrification will have a strong case for inclusion in that programme.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I warmly welcome the decision to proceed with the entire Thameslink programme, including the vital redevelopment of London Bridge-and the news that that will be done in a way that does not disrupt commuter services in south London. There is also the additional rolling stock for Thameslink, which should have a knock-on benefit for Southern passengers. It would be greedy to ask for more in this control period, but may I ask my right hon. Friend to consider improving the west London line in the next control period, so that south London, Gatwick, Surrey and Sussex have access to the High Speed 2 route?
Mr Hammond: I do not think I said that there would not be any disruption to commuter services during the massive reconstruction of London Bridge station; I certainly hope that I did not. I said that the reprofiling we have done will reduce the risk of serious disruption during that period. However, it will be a very major reconstruction project, and some disruption is inevitable. On west London services, of course we will examine proposals over the next couple of years as we prepare for the next Network Rail investment control period. Furthermore, the Mayor of London has an input into rail investment decisions for London commuter services.
Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I would like to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). I think I heard the Secretary of State say that the additional Thameslink carriages would facilitate the lengthening of the overcrowded trains that run through our constituencies to 12 cars. Will he just confirm that?
Mr Hammond: I thought that the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) was referring to Thameslink services that will run out to the south-east. If I have misunderstood that, I shall look carefully at the question that he asked, and will write to both him and the hon. Lady.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD):
I too welcome the news on new carriages, particularly given the broken promises of the previous Government. The
Secretary of State has recognised the need for additional carriages on the Northern Rail franchise, but I remind him of the need to deliver those sooner rather than later.
Mr Hammond: The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the broken promises of the previous Government. He will know that they promised 182 new carriages on the Northern Rail franchise, ordered 18, and delivered none. I hope that we will be able to do better than that for him.
Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I welcome the statement because I represent a constituency that needs support from the Government. I also have an interest in the matter as a former railway employee. The First Great Western railways in my constituency are generally very overcrowded. I think the Secretary of State knows the geography of the area, which is not far from his own constituency; if he does not, I will invite him to my constituency so that he can see the overcrowding. Can any extra resources be put in through First Great Western, so that there can be extra carriages to enable people to travel freely and comfortably?
The good news for the hon. Gentleman is that Crossrail will draw away some of the traffic that is using the services on which his constituents rely, and the electrification of the First Great Western main line commuter services will also provide them with additional capacity, faster services and greater reliability.
Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): From his own experience, the Secretary of State will know that the London-Ipswich-Norwich line could qualify as a heritage line; it has hand-me-downs that are not deemed fit for the west coast main line. To be fair, I must add that that situation has obtained for 150 years. Would it be good for us to be included within the IEP, so that for once we would get new rolling stock-fresh, not second hand?
Mr Hammond: The question of brand-new rolling stock versus cascaded rolling stock depends ultimately on the business case that can be made. It is expected that some brand-new rolling stock will be deployed on the Greater Anglia franchise. I cannot tell my hon. Friend that that will necessarily be used on the London-Ipswich-Norwich line, but it is expected that there will be some new rolling stock in that franchise.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I associate myself with the statements made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). On the High Speed 2 consultation, will the Government be expressing a preference about the Heathrow link based on their acceptance of the Mawhinney report? While the Secretary of State is at the Dispatch Box, will he say when the interim McNulty report will be published?
Sir Roy McNulty's interim report will be published shortly. I intend to make a statement to the House in the near future about how we intend to take that process forward, looking at the structure and
affordability of the railways. I should make it perfectly clear that the consultation on HS 2 will be around a preferred route. It will be open to other parties to suggest alternative routes, but the Government will put forward one preferred route.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to ensuring value for money from the Government's investment in British railways. He is well aware of the importance, or potential importance, to the north-east economy of the Agility Trains bid for intercity express. Will he continue to accept representations from hon. Members from all parties who represent north-east constituencies and would like the investment to come to our region?
Mr Hammond: I shall be very happy to accept such representations. I talk regularly to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) about these things. I was in the north-east last week and met some representatives of local authorities there. However, my hon. Friend will understand that the European procurement directive imposes a framework of rules around what we can and cannot do in a procurement such as this.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Secretary of State may be interested to know that journey times between Cardiff and London Paddington actually increased during the 13 years of Labour Governments. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is working closely with the Welsh Assembly to build a business case for the electrification of the main line. Will he also meet Welsh Members of Parliament and Welsh Assembly Members so that they can help him with his homework before he comes to a conclusion about this important decision for the Welsh economy?
Mr Hammond: I shall be very happy to do so. I assure the hon. Gentleman that whichever of the two options under consideration is chosen, quite independently of the question of electrification, that will deliver a saving on the journey time to Cardiff that will get us back firmly below two hours.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. Commuters in my constituency were hit very hard by the previous Government. Fares went up by 10.3%; furthermore, RPI plus 3 for Kent was introduced in 2006, while trains to Victoria and Cannon Street were cut. May I ask for special consideration for commuters in the south-east in terms of both resources and fares?
Mr Hammond: As my hon. Friend knows, the Southeastern franchise fare formula was set on the basis of the need to contribute to and justify the huge investment in Javelin trains providing a super-fast service from Kent to London St Pancras. An objective analysis would say that commuters in the south-east have had a fair crack of the announcement today. Some 1,200 new railcars are to be delivered to the Thameslink service and some of the 650 additional cars to be delivered by 2014 will go to areas of south-east commuterland. There is also the commitment to proceeding with Crossrail. All those things will add massively to rail capacity into and around London.
Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I very much welcome the Secretary of State's statement, and the fact that stations were not overlooked. Clapham Junction in my constituency is one of the two busiest interchanges in the country. To make the railways really work, we need great modern interchanges. Although Clapham Junction never made it in any of the three previous control periods, will he join me in hoping that it will be closely considered by Network Rail for the next control period?
Mr Hammond: Network Rail is considering the section of line from Clapham Junction into Waterloo, and I will discuss its plans with it over the coming months and years. My hon. Friend might like to know that I have been told this morning that when the work at Farringdon is completed, Farringdon will overtake Clapham Junction in terms of train movements.
Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): Like many north-west MPs, I travel on the Glasgow to Euston Virgin Pendolino trains, which are heavily overcrowded during the main journey times. I understand that new rolling stock has been delivered for these trains, but Virgin Trains is not allowed to use it until the Government give it permission to do so. Will the Minister give Virgin permission to use those extra carriages, which are in stock, to alleviate the overcrowding on that line?
Mr Hammond: There seems to be a little bit of misunderstanding about this. The new Pendolino carriages have not been delivered. An acceptance test train will be delivered-in 2011, I believe-and acceptance trials will be required for certification of the additional train carriages. Virgin Trains Ltd is contracted to integrate those carriages into the Pendolino train sets, independent of what happens at the termination of the Virgin franchise on the west coast, so that work will go ahead.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I echo the calls to electrify the great western line fully, but I would press the Minister at least to secure the new fleet of all-electric trains with dual diesel use, to deliver much-needed faster journeys and greater capacity for my Swindon residents.
Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I welcome the statement on behalf of my constituents who use Thameslink. However, can the Minister advise me whether he will ensure that the Government's investment is not undermined by the unions? Under the previous Government, First Capital Connect staff worked to rule and Ministers refused to intervene, because many of them were dependent on RMT and other union funding.
I must say that I have been disappointed by the reaction of the unions to this morning's announcement. Far from welcoming this huge additional investment in the railway and this statement of confidence in its future, they have picked away at it much as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has done. We need to restructure the way in which franchises are let to give the train operators proper incentives to work with all their stakeholders, including
the unions, to find long-term solutions to the challenges on the railway. We have to get the cost of the railway down, and make it more reliable, affordable and sustainable for fare payers and taxpayers alike in future.
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on announcing such a significant amount of investment despite the economic legacy left to them by the previous Government. I also welcome his clear comments about midland main line electrification; I appreciate that we shall have to wait for that. His statement did, however, mention the midland main line-a fact that seems to be lost on Opposition Members. Could he enlighten the House about the improvements that will be made to the midland main line in the current period?
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's statement and the substantial investment in our rail network, but will he explain how much smaller projects such as the important Coventry to Nuneaton rail upgrade will be assessed for future funding?
Mr Hammond: My hon. Friend has on a previous occasion asked me to meet him and Opposition Members representing the area. I have agreed to do so, and I look forward to having a meeting with him in due course.
Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central) (LD): I welcome the news that travel times from London to Cardiff will be reduced by 15 minutes; as has been mentioned, that will take us back to the travel times of about 15 years ago. When making a final decision on electrification of the great western main line all the way through to south Wales, will the Secretary of State take into account the extremely strong view of businesses, politicians and commuters across south Wales that electrification is absolutely critical to the future prosperity of the region?
Mr Hammond: Of course we will take into account the views of the business community, in particular, but we will also look at the evidence. I now want to work with the Welsh Assembly Government on building that evidence.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): For 13 years, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire received the fluffy end of the lollipop when it came to transport policy. I therefore welcome the announcements on the trans-Pennine express and the east coast main line, which my two Yorkshire colleagues got to mention first. However, we also have in northern Lincolnshire some exciting open access proposals, including a line from Cleethorpes through Scunthorpe and direct to London. Will the Secretary of State work with those open access providers, and have his officials work with them, to help to bring those new services to our region?
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): I welcome the certainty that electrification out of Paddington will continue as far as Didcot. However, does the Secretary of State agree that it is a reasonable economic assumption that a continuous project of rolling out electrification through to Swindon, Bristol Temple Meads, Bristol Parkway and through the Severn tunnel is likely to provide better value for money than a piecemeal project where engineering teams, recruitment contracts and so on have to be reassembled?
Mr Hammond: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I should make it clear that we will make the decision on the total extent of electrification of the great western main line long before the physical work begins.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I welcome this statement, which is clearly overwhelmingly good news for rail customers and for the environment. However, may I also press for full electrification to Wales and the west country, and ask for the Department of Energy and Climate Change's new methodology for calculating the future cost of carbon to be fully factored into the Department's necessarily careful evaluation of the business case?
Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD):
Is the Secretary of State aware of the research published by the East of England Development Agency about the £3.7 billion of
potential economic benefit that greater investment in the great eastern main line would bring? Will he take that into the strongest consideration in his discussions with the franchisee?
Mr Hammond: There is not a franchisee on the east coast main line-[Hon. Members: "The great eastern!"] I am sorry, yes, the great eastern main line. Of course we will take into account all the evidence of economic benefits when we consider the future of this franchise.
Dr John Pugh (Southport) (LD): On a final jarring note, there is an impression that capital investment in rail usually means rail investment in the capital. What can the Minister do to disabuse me of my prejudice, perhaps by publishing per-region figures?
Mr Hammond: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is of course true that two huge rail projects are going ahead in the capital-Thameslink and Crossrail. The good news is that because both projects will between them deliver 1,800 new rail carriages, they will release large numbers of perfectly serviceable electric rail cars, which themselves make the case for further electrification of commuter lines in the north-west and on the great western main line. There are benefits for everybody, not merely for London and the south-east, deriving from the Crossrail and Thameslink investments.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you would be so kind as to convey to Mr Speaker the very real concerns of attendants and office keepers across the estate about possible loss of jobs due to the cost reduction programme. Many of those attendants and office keepers have worked in the House for years, and some of them are approaching retirement. They are concerned that their jobs will go to the Post Office or to outside contractors-and if they go to outside contractors there will probably be no savings at all. Will you ask Mr Speaker to look benignly on these wonderful servants of the House, who have given many, many good years of their lives to the service of the House of Commons?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I am grateful for notice of that point of order. I think that everyone in the House appreciates the great work of the people of whom the hon. Gentleman is talking. He is an experienced Member and he will know that only occasionally do the services and facilities of the House give rise to real procedural points of order. As the House knows, Members are being consulted about savings in the running costs of the House. The Commission welcomes comments on individual proposals, which should be made to the Finance and Services Committee, and Members can always raise such issues directly with the head of the relevant House department. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's words will be noticed by all the relevant people.
This is a short, two-clause Bill that reverses the proposed creation of unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter and puts to an end the uncertainty regarding reorganisation in the county of Suffolk. It was first debated and considered in some detail in the other House, then considered rigorously but briskly in this House both on Second Reading and subsequently in Committee. It reflects a coalition agreement and manifesto commitments of the two coalition parties, as well as the Government's desire, which we believe is well supported by the people in the areas concerned, to put an end to needless disruption, uncertainty and cost for local government. The issues have been well aired within their narrow compass, and I will be happy to respond to such issues as are raised in the debate.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I have some sympathy for the Minister, who is having to try to justify the Government's position on the Bill. Essentially, as he knows, he is trying to defend the indefensible. He knows that unitary councils are far more efficient than the two-tier model that he seeks to retain, and that they save money. He knows that the people in Norwich and Exeter want unitary councils. They want to have some control over their own destiny, and they do not want to be subject to the two-tier system that he seems to think is so wonderful.
The Minister also knows that most of the councillors in Exeter and Norwich support unitary status for those great cities, and that the unitary model is a better governance model for the local authorities there.
Chris Williamson: The Minister knows that we support local determination, and we know from the facts surrounding Exeter and Norwich that local councillors and the local people support unitary status for those cities. It is a fact that it offers a better governance model than the two-tier system.
Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): Can the hon. Gentleman explain why it took 13 years for the previous Labour Government to come to that view, by which time, with a general election so close, they knew that there was a fair chance that they would never be able to deliver on it?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition. If he looks at Labour's record of supporting local government and unitary councils around the country, he will see that we have supported unitary status where local authorities have requested it. Indeed, the previous Conservative Government created dozens and dozens
of unitary authorities. I do not understand why the current Government take a different view from the Conservative Government of the 1990s.
I would also make the point that, for local people, a unitary council is a model that is much more easily understood. Where there is a two-tier system, people are confused about which authority is responsible for which services, and in some areas there is a degree of duplication in service provision. That leads to considerable confusion, which I suspect is one reason people overwhelmingly want unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter.
The Minister is also aware, as members of the Government parties across the piece must be, that cities are a significant engine for economic growth. Freeing up local authorities through the creation of unitary councils enables those councils to innovate much more effectively than they can under the two-tier system. I shall give a few illustrations of what I mean by that from the three cities in my own region, the east midlands.
Let us take the example of Nottingham city council, which was made a unitary authority in the mid-1990s by the previous Conservative Administration. It has developed a wonderful tram line infrastructure in the city, which is the envy certainly of the region and probably of the country as a whole. It has certainly been an economic driver in bringing new inward investment into Nottingham.
Similarly, Leicester is another council that was made a unitary authority in the 1990s by the previous Conservative Administration. It, too, has been extremely successful in securing inward investment, and the Queen recently opened its wonderful new Curve arts centre, a multi-million-pound project that is very well used and much admired by residents in and around the city. It is a wonderful, new, innovative arts facility not only for the people of Leicester but for people in Leicester's hinterland and county area. That is the sort of thing that can be done if an authority is given the power to innovate through unitary status.
My own authority of Derby has also used the ability to bring inward investment into the city as a result of being a unitary council. Two or three years ago, I had the privilege of opening a wonderful new shopping centre that the council was instrumental in bringing about. That would have been considerably more difficult had it continued to be a lower-tier authority. Derby was yet another local council made a unitary authority by the previous Conservative Administration in the 1990s.
Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I know that the hon. Gentleman is making a case for unitary authorities, but does he not recognise that district councils do an equally good job in the county of Northamptonshire? The Corby district has just opened the new Cube building, a fantastic facility, and in Daventry district, which I represent, there is the iCon centre, which is a centre of excellence for construction. Surely there are points on both sides of the argument. I understand his point about self-determination, and surely that is the point of this exercise.
I hear the hon. Gentleman's point, and he points to excellent examples of district authorities innovating, bringing about wonderful new facilities and generating economic activity in their areas. However,
Norwich and Exeter are looking to secure freedoms that would enable them to innovate and deliver improvements such as those achieved by the district councils he mentions, but much more easily and effectively. That will be even more important in these straitened economic circumstances.
The Minister made a very short opening speech, perhaps because he is rather embarrassed to be standing here supporting the indefensible. He knows that he has to close ranks with the Secretary of State, who in effect has hung him out to dry.
With swingeing cuts being imposed on local councils, unitary status in Norwich and Exeter would offer some protection for front-line public services. It is an undeniable fact that it would be a far more effective and efficient use of public money to make unitary authorities responsible for all council services in their areas. That would eradicate duplication and free up funding, which could offset some of the swingeing cuts that will be imposed. Over the next four years, as we know from the comprehensive spending review, there will be 28% cuts on average, although some local authorities will see even bigger cuts, and it remains to be seen how Norwich and Exeter will be affected. If we can eliminate some of the duplication in Norwich and Exeter, authorities there would have a fighting chance of at least protecting a few more front-line services, which would otherwise be put to the sword.
Chris Williamson: It is pretty obvious, where councillors from the county authority represent Norwich and Exeter, and councillors represent the districts in Norwich and Exeter, that that in itself is a duplication. We heard the Conservatives say in the run-up to the election, and we know from their gerrymandering Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, that they want to make politics more cost-effective, but if they are genuinely serious about that, they would support the unitary status bid in Norwich and Exeter. That, then, is a duplication of the political process. There is also the duplication of the chief officers and the fact that the backroom activities of Norwich and Exeter duplicate those of Norfolk and Devon to some extent. I could go on-there is a long list of areas where there is duplication. That is surely a given.
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): On the hon. Gentleman's comment about Norwich, is it not correct that, even if there was a Norwich unitary, under the previous Government's proposals there would still be a Norfolk county council, so there would be no change in the number of chief executives? The hon. Gentleman's point does not make sense.
Yes, there would still be a Norfolk county council and a Devon county council, but the fact remains that there would be far fewer councillors than there are now. There would certainly be the reduction in backroom staff in Devon and Norfolk that is necessary at the moment. That fact was recognised by previous Conservative Governments, which is why they were so keen to create so many unitary councils, which Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and many other local authorities around the country benefited from. The hon. Gentleman
is on shaky ground if he is suggesting in some way that there is no duplication in the two-tier model that we have in Norwich and Exeter.
Simon Wright: What is the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the savings that would be produced by reducing the number of councillors? He said early in his speech that that was one of the main savings. I ask that particularly as the shadow boards that were set up paid considerable salaries to councillors who were already earning a council allowance.
Chris Williamson: The hon. Gentleman should not get too hung up on the issue of councillors. I explained that reducing their numbers represented not one of the main savings, but just one of the savings. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the impact assessment that was carried out at the time, he will see that it illustrated that the savings across the piece for Norwich and Exeter would be about £6.5 million per annum. That is an unanswerable fact, and I should have thought that the Government supported it.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Is it not absolutely astonishing that the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) is not aware of the figures in his own Government's impact assessment? They show quite clearly that there will be net savings within six years and then savings of £6.5 million every year. Those are not our figures-they are the Government's figures, but the Government have completely ignored them.
Chris Williamson: I agree with my right hon. Friend: what the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright), who represents one of the cities affected, says is astonishing. It is even more incredible given that the Liberal Democrat party in the hon. Gentleman's home city supports unitary status for the city. I do not quite understand why he has come here to justify and defend the indefensible. I know that the Liberal Democrats are on the leash of the Conservative party, but the hon. Gentleman perhaps takes things to the extreme.
The swingeing cuts that the Government are imposing will have a devastating impact on people around the country. I appeal to Government Members to consider for a moment what that will mean not only for people who work for the authorities affected, but, most importantly, for the recipients of those authorities' services. I should have thought that Government Members would have a moral obligation to look for ways to ameliorate the full impact of the cuts to which local authorities are subject. Giving Norwich and Exeter unitary status would go a long way towards ameliorating that impact, so I call on Government Members to look into their hearts and ask themselves whether they are making the right decision. Are they simply being driven by some dogmatic imperative or are they prepared to reconsider their position? Are they-this is why hon. Members are elected to this Chamber-prepared to stand up for ordinary people and to protect their interests. By supporting the position of the Opposition and of the people and councillors of Norwich and Exeter, they would be fulfilling the role for which they were elected to this Chamber.
Chris Heaton-Harris: I promise that I will not trouble the hon. Gentleman again, but how can he stack up the comments that he made earlier about making savings in back-office functions, and therefore making people redundant, with his comments now about trying to prevent cuts in the public sector?
Chris Williamson: The fact is that there will be cuts as a result of the decisions being taken by the Government, who are in charge of funding for local councils, but the Opposition do not accept that it is necessary to make cuts on the scale that is being proposed.
As for how I reconcile the points that I have made, I acknowledge that there will be some cuts, irrespective of whether Exeter and Norwich became unitary councils. My point, however, is that the savings that would be generated by unitary status could be used to protect front-line services. Moreover, freeing up Norwich and Exeter would give them the ability to bring in new inward investment and to innovate in a way that would create jobs in the private sector. The Government and the Office for Budget Responsibility claim that 2.5 million jobs are required in the private sector. We should support local authorities such as Norwich and Exeter in bringing in new inward investment and assisting the private sector to innovate and create the jobs that will be desperately required.
"town halls back in charge of local affairs"?
The Government's position on this issue calls that statement into question-it is something of a sick joke. If the Secretary of State genuinely wanted to put town halls back in charge of local affairs, he would support the democratic wishes of the elected officials in Norwich and Exeter and of the people who live in those cities. This is a bad Bill-it has all the hallmarks of a political stitch-up. It is more to do with placating Tory county backwoodsmen in Norfolk and Devon than with modern, progressive local democracy.
The Bill is not about looking forward at all. It harks back to the disastrous period for local councils in the 1980s, when the Secretary of State was the leader of Bradford council. If passed, the Bill will represent a sad day for the people of Norwich and Exeter, and a sad day for local democracy. For all the Secretary of State's blustering hyperbole, it seems that he has already written the obituary for democratic localism even before the ink has dried on his much-vaunted localism Bill.
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I do not wish to detain the House for long on Third Reading, because much was said on Second Reading and in Committee and we have covered the issues. However, I wanted to update the House on the Norwich and Norfolk situation.
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) referred to the potential savings, which in Norwich were just under £2 million. That sounds good, but there is an up-front cost of £20 million, and most savings would be made only after five or six years. In most organisations, such potential savings are never delivered after that amount of time because things change.
Chris Williamson: I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the impact assessment. He is right that the cost of implementing unitary status in Norwich and Exeter is around £40 million, but the savings over that same period work out at £39.4 million, so the net cost of implementation is only £600,000, and there is an additional, ongoing saving of £6.5 million per annum.
Brandon Lewis: The hon. Gentleman helps me to make my point: just think how much we could save if we did not have the up-front costs of a top-down, forced unitary authority. In Norfolk, local authorities and the county council are working together to find ways of sharing services and to make the savings of £6 million a year-or potentially more-across Norfolk without going to the trouble and cost of creating a unitary authority that is forced on them from the top down.
We must remember there was no screaming desire on the part of people in Norfolk or indeed Norwich for that change, and no opinion poll showed that they wanted it. The only review-published by the previous Government-showed an overwhelming desire for the status quo across Norfolk and that if there was a preference for unitary, it was for a Norfolk unitary rather than Norwich unitary, which could have meant an awful lot of savings. Changing Norwich city council, which has not had a great track record recently, into a unitary would not save anything in officers or councillors. The real benefit to Norfolk will come from local authorities working together and sharing services. Those discussions are ongoing, and I hope that savings can be made much earlier than they would have been made under a unitary authority. That might even happen before Christmas.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) said, this is a sad day for two of our great, historic English cities. I was brought up in one of them-Norwich-and I have represented the other in the House since 1997. The Government's measures will not be lost on the voters of either city. Indeed, in local government elections in September-they were forced on us by the Bill-the Conservatives did very badly, the Liberal Democrat vote completely collapsed, and Labour retook control of the council. I predict a similar bloodbath for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Norwich when voters there have the opportunity to use their democratic right.
The quisling stance of the Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) will not be missed by the voters of Norwich. As a candidate, he advocated Norwich's unitary status; since then, he has voted with the coalition Government in favour of the Bill and against our amendments that would have kept the ambitions of Norwich and Exeter alive.
There is a long history to the Bill. For hundreds of years before 1974, Norwich and Exeter enjoyed self-government. Long before county councils were even thought of, let alone invented, Norwich and Exeter had their own unitary local government that made decisions on behalf of their citizens. In 1974, the then Conservative Government robbed those two great, historic cities of their right to self-determination in their reorganisation.
They handed most of the services, including the most important ones-education and social services-to the county councils.
We have heard a lot in debates on the Bill about dealing with the problems of two-tier local authorities. That principle used to be held by all parties in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North reminded us, the previous Conservative Government were very permissive in granting unitary status, including to the two other main urban areas in Devon, Plymouth and Torbay. It is funny that they were happy to grant Conservative Plymouth and Conservative Torbay unitary status but not Exeter, which is of even greater economic importance and value to the wider sub-region. The Conservatives have completely changed their position, and it is not really very clear what the Liberal Democrats position is.
There are many reasons to advocate unitary government, and they have been taken up by all parties. My hon. Friend spoke of the economies involved, but almost as important to my constituents is the feeling that they have some democratic control, and that councillors have some democratic accountability. They do not currently have that. Countless decisions that affect Exeter and Norwich are made by county councillors who are not from those cities and who do not have their interests at heart. That is one reason why all parties in the House have supported unitary government in the past. It is more efficient and cheaper, and there is a direct line of democratic accountability, which voters prefer and value.
In the course of debates on the Bill, the Government have been absolutely unable to produce evidence for it. Their own impact assessment made it quite clear that unitary status would mean significant savings to the taxpayer in the medium and long terms. They have been unable to challenge the fact that unitary status in Exeter and Norwich enjoyed widespread support. In my own city of Exeter, every single party on the local council, including the Conservative party, the Liberals, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, supported Exeter's unitary ambitions, as did our university and business community. In Norwich, support was almost but not quite as unanimous-the Conservatives were the only party on that local authority to oppose Norwich's bid.
The Government have produced absolutely no evidence for what they are doing today. My hon. Friend was quite right, therefore, to imply that the only possible reason for the Bill is political spite. There is no other reason for it at all. The voters will long remember and not forgive that, but all is not lost. I was pleased that in an earlier debate on the Bill, Labour Front Benchers gave a very clear commitment that under a future Labour Government, the just and rightful aspirations of the people of Exeter and Norwich will be honoured.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on a remarkable display of political chutzpah. I kept my opening speech brief not because I am embarrassed by the Bill-I am not remotely embarrassed by it-but because when I was a young barrister, those who taught me often said, "The stronger
the case, the shorter the argument should be." As briefly as possible, I shall briskly rebut some of the points that were made in the debate.
First, the Bill is not about the merits or otherwise of unitary authorities per se, but about the specific proposals for Norfolk and Norwich and Devon and Exeter, and the hangover arrangements relating to the county of Suffolk-no more than that. That came about, I observe, because the former Labour Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), attempted to rush through these unitary proposals, against the advice of his Department's accounting officer and his own party predecessors, in the dying days of the last Parliament. That was struck down as unlawful by the High Court, however, so the matter remains outstanding and has to be brought to a close.
Robert Neill: On the contrary, it is clearing up an act of partisan manoeuvring by the previous Government, who abandoned their own criteria. It is worth remembering that a previous Labour Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), concluded that neither the Exeter bid nor the Norwich bid met the value-for-money test that she had set. Was she acting out of political spite? I rather doubt it. It was also concluded that the Norwich bid was questionable on the affordability test. So the Labour party set out certain criteria, but these proposals did not meet them, and it then completely changed its tune. It is the ultimate hypocrisy, therefore, for Labour Members to accuse the Government of having changed their stance; it is they who have been so inconsistent that the High Court overturned their attempted gerrymandering.
Chris Williamson: How does the Minister respond to the point that the impact assessment concluded that there would be ongoing savings of £6.5 million per year? Surely that is an example of good value for money, and it would be brought about by creating unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter.
Robert Neill: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises the impact assessment, which I was going to come to, because throughout this debate Labour Members have singularly failed to understand how the impact assessment operated. First, it set out and commented on the costs and savings by reference to the previous Government's assessments. If they think there is a problem with the previous assessments, it is not our difficulty-we did not create them. It was the previous Labour Government who judged that these proposals did not meet the financial criteria and, in the case of Norwich, the value-for-money criteria as well. They cannot have it both ways; their impact assessments were used by their own Ministers to condemn proposals that they later chose to bring forward-so I will not hear any arguments on the impact assessment.
Secondly, it is quite clear-there is ample evidence from across the country, from joint working by local authorities, including those in Devon, Suffolk and Norfolk-that considerable savings can be made through
collaborative working without the on-costs and up-front costs of reorganisation. So we can have the benefits without the costs.
At the end of the day, this was a political act by the Labour Government, who, finding it inconvenient to stick with the decisions of their own Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, decided to wriggle out of it by inventing a reason that had never existed before for departing from their own criteria. That was struck down by the High Court. We have concluded that enough is enough, and that this would not serve the good interests of the governance of the counties of Devon and Norfolk, of which the cities concerned are an integral part. I commend the Bill to the House.
That the draft National Assembly for Wales Referendum (Assembly Act Provisions) (Limit on Referendum Expenses Etc.) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 21 October, be approved. -(Mr Goodwill.)
That the draft National Assembly for Wales Referendum (Assembly Act Provisions) (Referendum Question, Date of Referendum Etc.) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 21 October, be approved. -(Mr Goodwill.)
That, at the sitting on Thursday 2 December, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr Kevin Barron relating to Publication of Information about Complaints against Members, Power of the Parliamentary Commission for Standards to Initiate Investigations and Lay Membership of the Committee on Standards and Privileges not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion; and such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved.- (Sir George Young.)
(1) the matter of the implications for Wales of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee for its consideration; and
(2) the Committee shall meet at Westminster on Wednesday 1 December at 9.30 am and between 2.30 pm and 4.30 pm to consider-
(a) a statement by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury; and
(b) the matter referred to it under paragraph (1) above.- (Sir George Young.)
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for offering me the opportunity to debate a matter that I know will be of particular concern not only to Members of the House, but to the entire country.
The ceremonies of Remembrance Sunday are fresh in our minds. I know that most hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon will have had the honour of recently laying a wreath in their own constituencies-in my case, under the auspices of our amazing branch of the Royal British Legion in Corby and east Northamptonshire. It is perhaps appropriate that time has been made to debate how our country treats its veterans, and whether we have the prospect of a better model in front of us, in this month of November. It is my contention that the UK needs a fully fledged veterans administration.
A great opportunity lies before the Government, and I am full of hope because both in the manner of their conception, and the way they have governed since, the coalition Government have eschewed the piecemeal. Things are not being done by halves. They are a Government of big ideas, sweeping reforms and profound change. From the universal credit to free schools, from the spending review to the alternative vote referendum, the Government, like the infant Hercules strangling the serpents, have not failed to grasp nettles and do things differently, even in their earliest days.
Our veterans need things to be done differently. I am sure that all Members support the amazing work of the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, whose wrist band I am wearing today, ABF The Soldiers' Charity and the plethora of other worthy military charities operating in our country. However, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister will be aware, there is a great feeling out there among the public that it is shameful that our veterans rely so greatly on voluntary bodies and charitable giving.
As a candidate, I was heartened to see my party campaign on restoring the military covenant, and now, as a coalition Back-Bench Member, I welcome all the various steps the Government have taken for our troops-for example, the doubling of the operational allowance and the military covenant being sealed in statute. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as almost one of his first acts in office, announced a welcome review by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) into mental health care for veterans. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Education has announced that the pupil premium will apply to the children of military families, and to great acclaim has recently announced a troops to teachers programme, bringing ex-servicemen's expertise and valour into the classroom, so that they can benefit the nation's children.
All of that, taken as a package, is extremely heartening. However, I urge the Minister to consider whether the Government's efforts on behalf of troops and veterans do not point the way to a more comprehensive and unitary approach and a single co-ordinating veterans
administration taking care of everything, rather than to the provision of piecemeal help from individual Departments.
I shall return to the theme that I took up in my maiden speech, because the matter is so important to me. The UK is the only country in the English-speaking world not to have a veterans administration, veterans department or something similar, and that is a rebuke to this House. New Zealand has Veterans' Affairs New Zealand, with its own dedicated Minister; Australia and Canada both have Departments of Veterans' Affairs; and of course the United States has the gold standard in the Veterans' Administration.
"Throughout my review I have been struck by the almost grudging beneficence of past British governments towards uniformed men and women in stark contrast with that of other nations, particularly our Anglophone partners. I doubt our warriors will ever enjoy the hero worship that Uncle Sam lavishes on America's finest".
But why should that be? Since they are every bit as heroic-many of us would say more so-why should they not enjoy it? I urge the Government to go further than their already welcome efforts have. It is not simply a matter of cost. It is true that the budget for the US Veterans' Administration is a monstrous $87 billion-and because a good politician is a pragmatic politician, I am not asking the Government to go in that direction-but the budget for the Canadian Department of Veterans' Affairs is only 3.4 billion Canadian dollars. In this country, however, what is first required is not excessive extra cost, but merely co-ordination. The original United States Veterans' Administration was founded in 1930 with a mission to
"consolidate and co-ordinate Government activities affecting war veterans".
"many organisations...from Government and the voluntary sector"
"This can at times be confusing for those seeking help as they are unsure about which organisations provide what services."
I regret that that quotation is verbatim. The SPVA website, Veterans-UK, is supposedly the first portal through which our veterans are meant to access its services. It is an embarrassment, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is that really the best that we can do for our veterans, our serving troops and their dependants? If, as a soldier, you want to go online and find out why you are not entitled to priority in local housing-unless you are Welsh-this website is for you; and should you wish to be directed to a number of charities, which may or may not be able to help, this is for you. Anyone wishing to look up the Government's apparent "review of veterans policy", which the site is linked to, will be directed to the Minster for Veterans-no, not my hon. and gallant Friend on the Front Bench this afternoon, but a smiling photograph of my colleague on the Select Committee
on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who has not been the Minister for more than four years. That is the level of service that this country currently offers.
Written answers to questions from Members from all parties, in all parts of the House, including the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who had such a long-standing interest in veterans' affairs, have revealed, for example, a lack of data kept on the number of ex-servicemen in prison. Another answer showed that no estimate of the cost of family breakdown arising from veterans' mental health problems has been made. Far too many written answers from the Ministry of Defence concentrate on charities. The world is starting to notice. Sergeant Neil Duffy recently returned his medals to the Prime Minister in a protest over benefits cuts that had left him suicidal. That was apparently down to a Department for Work and Pensions error, but a co-ordinating veterans administration would have avoided any confusion between military benefits and civilian entitlements.
"a lavish American-style GI Bill of Rights is unlikely"-
"a bow-wave of demand for our welfare support".
"ought perhaps to think also of a future that, for some servicemen, is likely to be bleak"
There are many things that a veterans agency could do that would cost the Government absolutely nothing at all. Had I won the ballot on private Members' Bills, I would have introduced a Bill making it illegal to discriminate against a member of Her Majesty's forces on the grounds that he or she is wearing the Queen's uniform. I would like to see a drive, led by the Government, on cultural change, perhaps through education programmes in schools and public information programmes, to develop practices such as those that I witnessed when living in the United States with my ex-husband for several years, where military personnel are regularly thanked for their service. When I have taken the opportunity, as a Member of this House, to thank troops whom I have come across for their service, I am often told that nobody has ever thanked them before. Surely that is a crying shame.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire will, in the end, be surprised, because our troops deserve all the honour-all the hero-worship-that the Americans render to theirs. I hope that the Minister this afternoon will consider creating a fully fledged, co-ordinating veterans administration or department, bringing the UK into line with the rest of the English-speaking world. He is not only a Minister, but a distinguished former soldier. May I therefore take this opportunity to thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his service, and to commend this project to him, as the final seal on restoring the military covenant, to which my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are so committed?
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): May I begin by thanking you for allowing me to speak in this Adjournment debate about veterans, Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) on securing it in the first place? Needless to say, representing Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk on behalf of one of the finest strategic naval bases-indeed, one of the finest naval bases as a whole-and one of the most historic naval ports and cities that our country has.
There are two things that I would like to speak about in the next few moments. I will try to ensure that I do not take up too much time, but, first, if my hon. Friend the Minister and the Ministry of Defence are going to make a decision about the location of the national veterans weekend in 2012, I would like to ensure that Plymouth is up there in their considerations, as it most certainly should be. There is a genuine feeling that Plymouth was rather let down under the previous Administration and that Chatham pipped it at the post, but Plymouth has a good story to tell. Indeed, it is interesting to note that as we debate an incredibly important issue for my constituency, and for other Army, naval and Royal Marine bases, no members of the Labour party are here to participate.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is an Adjournment debate that was secured by the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe). She has given him permission to participate, but normally the convention is that only she speaks.
The second issue that I should like to raise is the whole business of combat stress and the mental health issues that go with it. I have been hearing some sad and depressing stories about how it can take 14 years for some veterans to come forward with combat stress. I have also heard stories of serving personnel who experience very big problems in their homes, because they have been overcome by their mental health issues. Unless we take action on that, we will face a whole series of related issues, including more drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and all those other mental health issues.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has produced his report, which I understand has gone to the Prime Minister and which, according to the Secretary of State, will be fully implemented. That is very good news. The report makes the point that we should incorporate a
"structured mental health systems enquiry into existing medical examinations performed"
"the number of mental health professionals conducting veterans outreach work from Mental Health Trusts in partnership with a leading mental health charity,"
"A Veterans Information Service...to be deployed 12 months after a person leaves the Armed Forces,"
"Trial of an online early intervention service for serving personnel and veterans."
All that is absolutely vital, because if we do not do something about these issues, we will see more people admitted to our mental health units, increasing numbers of people going to prison-and mental health issues in prison are a very big worry indeed-and an enormous amount more homelessness on our streets.
When I was first selected to be the candidate in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I was struck by the story of a man whom I met at Bretonside bus station who was living on the streets. He told me about how his relationship had broken down once he had left his regiment in the Army-the whole thing had gone very wrong for him-described the problems that he then encountered and explained how difficult he was finding it to get back into work. The whole issue of combat stress is vital, but caring for our veterans after they have served so gallantly on behalf of our country is vital too.
Combat Stress, the well-regarded national charity, told me earlier today that it has seen a vast increase in the number of people suffering from mental health issues since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the more help we can give our veterans and the better we can take care of them, the better. That is what we should be about.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): Let me start, as is traditional, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) on securing this debate to discuss the important topic of how we look after former members of our armed forces. I am glad to hear that I, too, am expected to grasp nettles like the infant Hercules; I am not sure whether there is a mixed metaphor somewhere in there, but there probably is, although that is my fault, because I am not such an illustrious author. By the way, I am not a very distinguished soldier either-although it was very sweet of my hon. Friend to say that I was. Never mind, I take all flattery when it is given.
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) here today, and I have heard his submission for Armed Forces day 2012. I am sure that he will make it again, but I will note it and take it into account when decisions are made.
I confess that I was rather sorry to hear that the title of the debate had changed from "Care for UK Ex-Servicemen" to "UK Veterans Administration". Although I am officially the Minister for veterans, I cannot help feeling that many of those who have served are more comfortable with a term that highlights exactly what they have done-that they have served their country in a way that is unique. My only qualification would be to add that today more and more ex-servicewomen swell the ranks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby raised several important points, and I shall respond at length on one or two. I do not want to take up too much time, and I may not have all the information to hand, but we will enter into correspondence about the issues. I do not agree with everything she said, as I shall explain, but what has come across clearly is that she and I, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and
Devonport, share two fundamental principles. The first is that the nation and the Government have a moral obligation to care for those who have made a commitment by joining the armed forces, and taking on the duties and sometimes the sacrifices that service requires. I will return to the question of the armed forces covenant later.
The second principle is that when we provide support, we must place the ex-serviceman or woman at the heart of what we do. Organisations and structures are only the means to an end, and what matters is how we can best help each individual, such as the person whom my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport met in a bus shelter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby highlighted the range of services that former service personnel may need to call on during their lives, and the variety of agencies that provide them. She argues that it would be more cost-effective to provide those services if they were brought together in a single administration. I do not agree, because when a service is already provided by one Department for the majority of the population, there needs to be a very strong case to set up a separate organisation to do the same thing for the remainder. Ex-service personnel live among us; they are not separate from the community that they have worked to protect. There are three ex-regular army officers in the Chamber and one former Territorial officer. We are here; we are not separate from the rest.
For the most part, veterans' needs are the same as those of their fellow citizens, whether they involve health care, housing or benefits. Most of our ex-service personnel do not want that period in their lives, which may be quite brief, to be the dominant factor in deciding how they access services for the rest of their lives. A great friend of mine, General Sir Robert Fry, recently said that some of the reaction to the armed forces at the moment is somewhat mawkish, and that is true up to a point. I do not mean that the armed forces, the House or I myself do not relish the fact that people are now giving due respect where it is deserved-but we must be careful that we do not adopt a mawkish attitude to people who are just getting on with their lives in the service of this country.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Some people might not consider that to be mawkish. From my time in Northern Ireland, I know some soldiers who would benefit greatly from better veterans' services. Our problem with mental casualties will increase hugely. On average, one person is killed for eight wounded, but in the Minister's and my time that was one to three. The problem will get worse, and we must ensure that our services for those veterans are as good as possible.
Mr Robathan: My hon. and gallant Friend not only spent a longer time in the armed forces than the rest of us in the Chamber today, but came away much more covered in glory and honour than anyone else. I assure him that I and the Government appreciate, as did the previous Administration, the long-term problems that may arise from many of the casualties in Afghanistan. I will return to mental health shortly, because I want to raise several issues.
The US model is often held up for comparison, but the great difference between ourselves and our American friends is, of course, that in this country we have a
national health service within a welfare state. It has the vocation to provide the very best care for everyone. Since 1948 the NHS has given excellent service day in, day out to millions of ex-servicemen and women and their families.
Ex-service personnel are entitled to priority in NHS treatment for conditions resulting from service. The main problem has been lack of awareness of that entitlement among ex-servicemen and women, and especially among practitioners, which is why we have supported recent steps to publicise it more effectively. At the new Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, we see evidence every day of the superb level of care that the NHS provides to our people who are injured in Afghanistan. They are still serving, of course, but that shows the first-class co-operation that can and does exist between different parts of Government. We must ensure that that is everyone's experience.
We must also recognise that part of the support for ex-service personnel comes not from the Government but from the voluntary and community sector; my hon. Friend the Member for Corby mentioned that. Sometimes the service charities are described as substituting for what the Government should be doing. I believe that that does them a great disservice. I say philosophically that Government bureaucracy is not necessarily the best way to deliver some of the extra services and care that service charities deliver. The help that charitable and voluntary organisations and-dare I say it?-the big society have given to people returning from warfare goes back a long way. It is not for the state to do everything, and the state is not necessarily best placed to do that. We all have social responsibilities, and service charities are an excellent example of the big society in action. I pay tribute to their vital and irreplaceable role in our national life.
This week-it seems to have been quite a long week-I had an opportunity to visit the Royal British Legion on the south bank, and Combat Stress, two organisations that work as active and independent charities, but collaborate closely with the Government in the interests of ex-servicemen. Several formulae have been suggested over the years to strengthen the focus on ex-service issues in the UK. They range from the full-blown US-style Veterans Administration to more modest changes to Government machinery. Some give a greater role to the Ministry of Defence; others look to central Government to take on the responsibility. The creation of a Minister for veterans can be seen against that background, but my role, quite properly, has its limits. I can act as an advocate or as an interlocutor for ex-service personnel, but I do not want to tell the Department of Health and its devolved equivalents how best to deliver health care. Rather, I want to see ex-servicemen and women treated correctly across government, and not pigeonholed.
If we are to rely on our current range of providers to support former members of the armed forces, that will impose two requirements on us. The first is that the services that the nation provides should be attuned to the particular needs of veterans, where that is appropriate. Mental health has been mentioned, and it is an excellent example. It is generally acknowledged that ex-service personnel who are suffering problems as a direct result of their service-for example, those with post traumatic
stress disorder- might respond better to an environment in which their particular experience is recognised and understood. I have heard this referred to as "cultural sensitivity". Hence the importance of the six mental health pilots, designed to trial best practice in this area, which are going on now.
Getting our mental health services right, and tailoring them to the needs of the ex-service personnel who need them, is a matter that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has considered fully in his recent report. We are now taking forward his recommendations. To illustrate the priority that we attach to this, when I visited Combat Stress headquarters earlier in the week and had a chance to learn more about its activities, I was joined not only by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire but by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns). I hope that represents a true example of joined-up government. I heard exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said on these matters, but rather than going into them in great depth now, I want to discuss one or two of the issues with him later. Perhaps he could buy me a cup of tea.
That joint approach brings me to the second requirement, which is co-ordination between providers. I think that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who used to do my job, will agree that the co-ordination between providers has not always been good. Ex-service personnel want services that meet their needs efficiently and effectively. They do not want to be shunted about, or to fall down the cracks. That has happened in the past, and it is still happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby has referred to the efforts that the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency makes to co-ordinate the different services that ex-service personnel can call upon. Its helplines are very successful, for example, handling 150,000 to 200,000 calls each year. When I visited Norcross earlier this year, I listened to some of those calls, and heard good practical advice being given in a clear and sensitive way. I would like to put on record today my appreciation for what the SPVA staff do to assist ex-servicemen and women. Whether it involves managing pensions and compensation, staffing the helplines, delivering the veterans welfare service or issuing veterans badges-which are very popular-they make a real difference.
We must ensure that Government Departments work together as a matter of course. They need to take into account the needs and concerns of former service personnel at all stages of their work, from developing policy to delivering services on the ground.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman's point about co-ordination at local level. We piloted the welfare pathway-I understand that he does not like that name-and I wonder whether he is going to roll it out further. It was all about getting people at local level talking to each other.
Mr Robathan: The hon. Gentleman knows that I recognise and pay tribute to the work that the last Administration did. If we look back 10 years, or even five, the situation was not what it is now-let us not blame whoever was in government 10 years ago-and I pay tribute to what they did. Now, the situation is very different from what it was even three years ago. He is quite right to say that I do not like the term "pathway"; it sounds a bit like new Labour-speak to me. However, in answer to his question, we are making no commitments at the moment, but we are certainly looking towards this way, because if it works, it will be the best way forward.
As I was saying, Government Departments need to work together as a matter of course, and to take into account the needs and concerns of veterans at all stages of their work, from developing policy to delivering services on the ground. I have even put into my speech here that I believe that the previous Government were right to emphasise that principle, when they published the command paper "The Nation's Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans". To ensure that that happens, the Cabinet Office chairs a Committee at senior level to bring Departments together.
What we have been discussing is at the heart of the military covenant. Our own commitment to rebuilding the covenant featured prominently in the coalition programme for government. That programme includes a range of proposals to benefit ex-service personnel,
from mental health to troops to teachers, which was mentioned only yesterday and, I noticed, was the subject of a headline in the Evening Standard. I am not sure that I quite understood the newspaper's interpretation of the proposal, but there we go. On Troops for Teachers, I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education yesterday confirming our commitment to a scheme that will help both ex-service personnel and our schools.
I suggest to the House that the key to making things work better for ex-service personnel is that kind of holistic, co-ordinated approach, working together to a common end, rather than an organisational upheaval. Our intention is that the new tri-service armed forces covenant will set the tone of what we do across Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby for giving us the opportunity to discuss these issues today. I will take up many of the points that she has raised and discuss them with her further. Her interventions remind us that one of the yardsticks by which a Government are judged is how well they treat their ex-servicemen and women. We are determined to treat them with dignity and respect and to reflect the huge debt, which my hon. Friend spoke about, that we all owe to all of them. It is our moral duty to do so.