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Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your Christmas generosity in allowing us an extra minute to speak. I wish you, all Members and those who look after us so well in the House a very happy Christmas.
Members have spoken about court closures, racing stables and winter tyres. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) talked about the wonderful food in Norfolk, and I could not let this opportunity pass without saying not only that is Norfolk food good, but that Devon food is excellent. With one's Christmas pudding, one must have some Devonshire cream and make sure that one has some grass-fed Devonshire lamb and beef to go alongside it-perhaps a bit of turkey too.
I rise to speak about heating oil, another matter very important to rural constituencies. My constituency is 40 miles long; it starts on Exmoor and ends up in the sea at Seaton. There is a huge rural area within those boundaries, and many of the villages and hamlets there have no mains gas supply. Their only alternative to electricity for heating is oil. That is why the postcode lottery on what people pay for heating oil must stop.
During business questions last week, I made the point that during November and early December, crude oil prices went up by 17% and that the price of heating oil went up by 70%. There is no justification for that. Within rural areas, there are many old properties-some are farm houses, some are small cottages-and they are difficult to insulate with modern insulation and expensive to heat. People need more fuel to heat them, and if we lump on to that the huge increase in price, a lot of the heating allowances for poorer people just do not go very far at all.
About 2 million properties rely on heating oil; they are mostly in rural areas 828,000 of them are in England. Recently, as I said, there has been a spike in oil prices that could add as much as £540 a year to the average family's heating bill. The price of heating oil tends to rise gradually in the winter months, when demand is at its highest. A home owner might use anything between 2,500 to 4,000 litres of oil. Price rises during winter are unavoidable, but the price rises that we have seen cannot be justified simply by supply and demand.
Craig Whittaker: Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituents who have contacted me in the past couple of days to express the real suspicion that the supply of oil is being held back to inflate prices artificially, with the companies knowing full well that the average UK home that uses oil can store only up to 60 days' worth? In effect, those homes have to buy oil when winter is at its worst.
Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Furthermore, some oil companies unscrupulously deliver oil at a very high price and hold back on deliveries under contracts that are sold at a lower price. The issue really needs to be sorted out.
That brings me neatly to my next point. Crude oil accounts for 48% of the cost of heating oil. The largest next component, accounting for 45%, includes the cost of distribution and marketing. The refining process accounts for only 7%.
The average price of a litre of heating oil in Northern Ireland, which has had some of the worst of the recent weather, is 48p per litre, or 52p in Belfast-and given that weather, the cost of delivery and getting the tankers to the houses would be among the greatest. The average price in the south of England at the moment is 80p per litre, while in the middle of England it is 68p, in Wales it is 67p and in Scotland it is 64p per litre. What justification is there for someone in the south of England having to pay nearly twice as much as people in Northern Ireland? During the same period, the price of petrol at the pumps has gone up by only 10p per litre.
I say clearly to the Business Secretary that it is time that we did something about the situation. At the moment, he is considering establishing the position of an ombudsman to consider food prices and whether supermarkets' buying power is too great. I urge him to get on with that as quickly as he can. I do not know whether he wants to go down this route, but I suggest that having an adjudicator or ombudsman for heating oil might provide some sort of solution to the problem that I have outlined. I am not thinking of a huge bureaucracy but of somebody people could contact to ask why their heating oil is so expensive in their parts of the country. Those companies would have to justify what they are actually charging. At the moment, there is misery being made out of cold weather and some people have no source of heating other than oil fires, Agas and boilers.
As I said, many houses are difficult to heat and insulate, and people are having to pay an extra price before Christmas. The Government cannot just stand by on this matter. All hon. Members probably believe in some form of market forces, but in this case those forces are being used to drive up the cost of fuel unjustifiably. As I have said, weather conditions alone cannot justify what is happening because Northern Ireland has had some of the worst weather in this period, yet it has some of the cheapest fuel. We must ensure that constituents who use oil to heat their houses, wherever they live, pay a fair price for that fuel and are not held to ransom by either the oil companies or those who deliver the oil to houses.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): I put on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for how it has handled today's Adjournment debate in providing so many hon. Members with an opportunity to speak.
My remarks will focus on equality and diversity. We have had a diverse debate this afternoon, but I am confident that the Deputy Leader of the House will be more than equal to the challenge of pulling the issues together in his closing remarks. I fundamentally agree with much of what colleagues have said, but I must challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and say that every good Christmas pudding around the country will, of course, have Cornish clotted cream served with it.
Equality means something different to different people. Whether we are talking about equality of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, there is no such thing as being almost equal. There can be no grey areas. If hon. Members will forgive the pun, equality is a black and
white issue; someone is either equal or they are not. There is no doubt that the Government need to do more work across all the subjects I mentioned. However, I would like to focus some thoughts on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
As many hon. Members will know-indeed, it is something I put on the record during my maiden speech-I am proud to be an openly gay Member of Parliament. I firmly believe that hon. Members from all parties have a responsibility to champion equality both in the countries of the United Kingdom and abroad. Although the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of LGBT equality, the record of other countries around the world is not quite so rosy. In Gambia, sexual relations between men still carries a sentence of 14-years imprisonment. The sentence is 21 years in Kenya and 25 years in Ghana. In Tanzania, Barbados, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, the sentence can be life in prison, and in Nigeria and Pakistan-among other countries-sexual relations between gay men can lead to state-sanctioned execution.
The United Kingdom needs to do more to stand up for equality around the world. Last week, I tabled an early-day motion expressing concern at a United Nations decision to remove a reference to sexual orientation from a resolution condemning arbitrary executions. Will the Deputy Leader of the House work with his colleagues to strengthen the Government's commitment to using our influence to push other countries towards true equality, particularly in relation to revisiting that UN resolution?
More work also still needs to be done on the issue in Britain. Research from the Library shows that suicide rates within the LGBT community are shocking. It is estimated that around 9% of the population have at some point considered taking their own lives. In the LGBT community, that figure is more than 50%. Indeed, while only 2.5%-a figure that is, none the less, tragic-of the population attempt suicide, 29% of people in the LGBT community try to take their own lives.
It is clear from those statistics that more work needs to be done to reach out to people across this country and explain to them that it is okay to be who they are. That is why I was pleased that one of the first actions of the Minister for Equalities was to launch the new equalities strategy for Government. Part of this strategy is the first ever cross-government programme to support LGBT people, and that is very welcome. Indeed, the Government have recognised that there are specific issues that transgender people face, and I welcome the moves to develop the first Government action plan on transgender equality next year.
In many ways, these steps build on the visible and vocal support that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have given to the LGBT community, not least in the run-up to Pride London this year, when they hosted an event in Downing street. I was very pleased yesterday to attend the launch of a new parliamentary support network for LGBT people here in the Palace of Westminster-ParliOut. That is an important first step for this House and everybody who works here in ensuring that we are able to provide support to Members, researchers and everybody else who comes and goes from this place. Of all places, people should feel able to be themselves here.
However, there is still further to go. As many Members know, I am a keen supporter and proponent of equal marriage for same-sex couples. As Mr Speaker said yesterday evening at the launch of ParliOut, it was a groundbreaking moment when Parliament itself was granted a licence to hold civil partnerships and when the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his partner were the first to benefit from that. However, it would have been much more groundbreaking for this House to enable full equal marriage for same-sex couples across the country-not necessarily a religious tie, unless that is what individuals and their faith groups choose, but crucially the same status and legal position as that of heterosexual married couples. I am delighted that Stonewall now supports this aim, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to mention the steps that the Government are taking to investigate it as an option and perhaps to introduce legislation before the end of this Parliament.
This week, Mr Deputy Speaker, saw your brave decision to reveal your own sexuality. I believe that that sends a hugely welcome and clear signal that this place has changed and that attitudes across the country are changing too. I would like to extend to you my best wishes and, I am sure, the best wishes of the whole House on that decision.
Ms Gisela Stuart: I am sure that in the season of good will the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge the extraordinary, groundbreaking contribution of the Labour Government to the way that we have moved on this issue. He mentioned the problems of those in the transgender group. Can he focus a little on the particular problems of women who do not want to get divorced even after the change of their gender, and the problems that they have over pensions? We should have addressed that and still have to do so. Does he have any thoughts on that?
Stephen Gilbert: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It would be remiss of me not to remark on the huge progress that was made under the previous Government. She identifies an area where there is still work to be done and where we need to go further and faster. The call that I am making to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the Government is that we finish this job and deliver true equality to all citizens in the United Kingdom as quickly as we can.
There is no doubt that attitudes have changed in the country, and in many ways this place is now playing catch-up to those attitudes. For everybody who is out there still struggling to come to terms with their identity, we need to be absolutely clear that there are no second-class citizens in the United Kingdom and that as a country we are stronger because we are not all the same. I hope that over the coming years this Parliament will work to send out a clear signal that all of us are equal and all of us are entitled to live our lives free from fear and with the same opportunities and protections as each other.
As the last Back Bencher to speak today, Mr Deputy Speaker, I think that that leaves me only to wish everybody a very merry Christmas and probably to turn off the light switch as I leave.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): But not before I have had a chance to try to respond to the debate.
The pre-recess Adjournment debate is one of the great parliamentary institutions, and I am very pleased that the Backbench Business Committee has decided to keep it going, albeit with a twist-a new format. I thank my ministerial colleagues for their contributions, especially those who are Ministers on the Treasury Bench but do not usually have the opportunity to speak from the Dispatch Box-the Assistant Whips. Members will have the opportunity to give feedback to the Backbench Business Committee and the Government on how the format has worked and on changes that they would like to see. I also thank the departmental clerks, who provide us with the information that we need to respond to hon. Members, and particularly those in the office of the Leader of the House and myself. We cannot answer everything, so some hon. Members will receive letters from Departments to deal with the details that they have raised.
I will start with the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). Oddly, the first and last speeches of this debate mirrored each other, because they spoke of human rights, gender equality and the equality prospectus. They underlined that equality is an important facet of domestic and foreign policy. The hon. Lady mentioned the Ashtiani case, and she knows that the Government have made vigorous representations to the Iranian Government on that matter. She also gave sobering statistics on gender balance in some developing countries, to which everyone should pay attention, as they suggest that there is more than just discrimination against female children in those areas. We must keep banging on at such issues. This country has a good history of developing human rights and the awareness of them, but we can never be complacent, either in our country or abroad.
That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). It is apposite that he should raise the issue today, because I gather that it is the fifth anniversary of civil partnerships in England and Wales. This is a timely reminder of the importance of the equality agenda. Like him, I pay tribute to Mr Speaker, to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to all who were involved in the setting up of ParliOut. I hope that last night's launch was the first of many successes that the group will enjoy. We need to put this issue at the heart of the coalition Government's agenda. If we do not stand for equality, we do not stand for the basic human principles of decency. It is important that we do all that we can to make those principles a reality in this country. I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer on civil partnerships, other than to say that the matter is being discussed actively by Home Office Ministers, as I think he knows. We hope to come to a conclusion soon.
I will deal with a couple of points that hon. Members raised about business. The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), like me, has a small business background. It is of value for this House to have people who have worked in business, because they have contact with a world that often seems distant from politics. He made points about access to finance, red tape and scale problems-some things that
work in large businesses are more difficult to achieve when there are a limited number of people in the work force. Those were extremely valuable points.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) concentrated on infrastructure demands, and the need for railway and road connections to his part of the world. In fact, East Anglia has done rather well out of this debate. He mentioned the Beccles bypass and the Brandon bypass in a neighbouring constituency. I am pleased that he also mentioned the need for high-speed internet, because that will be crucial in many rural areas. We always think about infrastructure in its physical manifestations, but the internet will increasingly be the most important thing that businesses need to compete successfully.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) made a very good case for the development of the Hitachi works in Newton Aycliffe. He knows that I cannot give him an answer on the decision that the Government will take, but he also knows that the matter is being actively considered and that there will be an announcement early in the new year. As someone who needs Great Western rolling stock, I will take a great interest in whether it is built in his constituency or elsewhere. He rightly made a strong case for his constituents and mentioned Hitachi's good record in cold weather, which ought to be at the top of people's priorities at the moment. I am grateful to him and will ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport hears what he has to say.
The hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) talked about how we create jobs, how we get people back into employment and the role of the voluntary sector, and he made extremely important points. He was rather sad that he did not have a race course in his constituency, although he said that he had Camelot there. I have to say that I have the original Camelot in my constituency, but we will let that pass.
We then heard a string of seasonally related speeches, starting with the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) making a strong case for winter tyres. I think that we now agree about exactly what we mean by winter tyres, which perhaps was not quite the case in the earlier exchanges between the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and the Secretary of State, who I think was talking about studded tyres and snow chains rather than the tyres that she suggests.
The hon. Lady clearly made a sensible point, and we know that the Secretary of State has started an assessment of whether we are likely to see these very bad weather conditions regularly, and what changes to legislation or practice are needed to adapt to them. He will clearly have to take her point into account. Of course there are other matters on which we can engage people in good practice, such as tyre tread depth and pressure, but she made a very good point, from her own experience and in the wider interests of her constituency, about what many people will see as a sensible option.
To continue the seasonal theme, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) made what I can only describe as a "bootiful" speech. She mentioned turkeys, which we associate with Norfolk, but I had not previously associated goats on the roof with Norfolk. She also mentioned the very good eating qualities of
Norfolk apples, but I have to say that where the best ones come from depends on whether one thinks apples should be eaten or drunk.
The hon. Lady's key point was that we do not say enough about the very good-quality produce that we produce in this country. We have superb brand names in our ancient counties. For instance, Norfolk has real associations with certain foods, as does Somerset. I am even prepared, despite the cream wars earlier, to accept that Devon and Cornwall have associations with good foods. I sometimes think that we do not make enough of those associations in marketing what we produce.
Still on the seasonal theme, I associate Boxing day with going to Wincanton races, and we heard two important contributions about the racing industry. I have heard of Newmarket, but Wincanton is obviously a very important race course, and some of the best trainers come from my constituency. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) mentioned Kauto Star, who was trained in my constituency. I had my picture taken with him a year or so ago, and he bit me, but he is a very good horse. I know that the hon. Gentleman unfortunately could not stay for the end of the debate, but he said that he was a jockey himself and that there was little demand for ageing politicians as jockeys. I seem to remember that my late friend Sir Clement Freud acted as a jockey very late in his political life, so all hope is not extinguished.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the future of racing, the effect of the levy and the diminishing value of the levy board contribution. We have got to get it right because racing is an important industry-it is not just the race courses, the trainers or the betting industry, but all those things put together, and all the downstream industries that connect with racing. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) has met the levy board and the racing and betting industries to discuss how we can get the levy reformed or possibly replaced. I hope that the Government will shortly make the right decisions for the industry.
Let us move away from seasonal issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) initially raised the driver training centre at Trowbridge and said that he had campaigned on it. He may remember that, in the days when I could campaign about things in the House, I, too, campaigned for the retention of that centre, which served my constituency in Frome. I know that he knows that Ministers are considering the matter seriously, and I will pass on his comments. I can do no more than that from the Dispatch Box.
I will also pass on my hon. Friend's determination for the railway service in Wiltshire to be improved, particularly that in Melksham, which is so appallingly served by the current franchise. The key will be the local authorities and the attitude of Wiltshire unitary authority in deciding whether they want to take that forward. I know that the Department will be keen to work with Wiltshire if it feels that that is the right way to ensure that the necessary rolling stock is available to operate a new service for the area.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised a difficult subject, which we ought to discuss more often. He did not like the word "contact", so perhaps "parent time" is better, whereby parents who
are separated can share quality time with their children. I think that he has rightly drawn attention to the deficiencies in some parts of the family law system. He knows that the Government are conducting a family justice review to consider the family justice system as a whole, and to ascertain particularly how we can support better arrangements. As he says, that time is sometimes the subject of contact orders, which are sparingly enforced. That is one of the difficulties. I suspect that the answer may well lie in more mediation and-if he does not mind my using a cant term-a holistic approach to the relationships between children and their parents, ensuring that matters are examined in the round in the legal system.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) discussed paying housing benefit directly to landlords. I am sure that he knows that we are widening local authority discretion to pay housing benefit directly to the landlords, if it will help customers secure a new tenancy or remain in their current home at a reduced rate. We are working closely with local authorities to ensure that the provisions are used in specific circumstances, when landlords reduce rents to an affordable level for customers. I am afraid that the Government do not intend to revert to the position whereby landlords demand direct payments as a condition of the tenancy because that was open to abuse, and we do not want to return to such a situation. Clearly, that will be examined with increasing closeness in the next little while to ensure that we have an effective system.
The hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) talked about the closure of the magistrates court closure in Woking. If I say that I have enormous fellow feeling for the hon. Gentleman, I hope that that will not be misinterpreted, but having seen the closure of Frome magistrates court and Trowbridge county court, which served my town of Frome and the surrounding area, I know exactly how he feels. He asked me for information about the rationale. I can tell him only what I have been supplied from the Ministry of Justice. Woking magistrates court is to close because utilisation of the courts in Surrey was only 72% and, taking a whole-area approach, Woking was the most sensible option for closure because, although it has good facilities and relatively high utilisation, if that work is absorbed by the remaining courts in Surrey-specifically, if work from Woking were transferred to Staines and Guildford magistrates court-the utilisation rate for magistrates courts in Surrey will increase from 72% to 89%. The Ministry of Justice also makes the point that all other magistrates courts in Surrey are co-located with a county court, which allows significant economies of scale, and centralisation of resources and types of work. He will want to ask the MOJ about those figures and argue his case further, which is of course his right, but that information might be helpful to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) raised the effect of domestic violence and the hugely important work of women's refuges such as the Colchester and Tendring women's refuge. In the House and elsewhere, people sometimes duck away from that, but it is important that we do not do so. I believe that he said that that refuge houses 120 women and 194 children, which is a significant contribution to welfare in his area. He was very much supported by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).
My hon. Friend spelt out very clearly the social and economic value of such facilities. He spoke of the real contribution that that women's refuge and others make-his views are shared by MPs in neighbouring constituencies. I hope that by putting those views on the record, he gives pause for thought to Essex county council, and that it considers carefully where its priorities lie in setting its budget for this and future years.
I should not be remotely surprised that my hon. Friend raised the issue of the armed forces, but I should like to add my voice to his in sending our very best wishes and grateful thanks to the members of the armed forces who are serving in Afghanistan. I wish them a peaceful-so far as is possible-and safe Christmas. We all look forward to their safe return in the new year. I hope the whole House agrees with that.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), aside from his advert for Devonshire produce, raised an issue that affects all in rural areas-the cost of fuel oil. I declare an interest, because my house is heated by fuel oil. Luckily, I have a fairly full tank at the moment, so I am feeling smug, but many are not because the price increases are substantial. I listened very carefully to what the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said on that. Fuel oil and liquefied petroleum gas both fall outside the current regulatory arrangements, but he is clearly considering whether more needs to be done. The message is simple. If consumers feel that they are being unfairly treated, they should raise their concerns with the Office of Fair Trading. We asked the OFT to monitor the situation, and I hope that people use that opportunity so that it gets a clear picture of what is happening.
Last but not least, we heard the contribution of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess). A pre-Adjournment debate would not be complete without that-it is inimitable. In the space of just six minutes, he managed to mention the disability issues and sporting excellence of Joanna Cranfield; Mr West, who has problems with Equitable Life; his efforts on behalf of Steven Bristow, who has been in prison in Thailand for 27 years; Jackie Currie and the change in the status of prison visitors; Cherry Sholem and her child who has dyspraxia; and Ian Shirley, whose partner, Ida Hammond, has sadly passed away after suffering from dementia. He added Camp Ashraf to that and gave his best wishes to the ambassador to the Holy See on his retirement. His was a sterling performance, but I cannot answer all his points. I will ensure that those who need to hear them do so.
Lastly, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you and the staff of the House-particularly the Doorkeepers, and particularly Maxwell, who is retiring as a Doorkeeper after 17 years-very best wishes for Christmas and the new year. Yet again, it has been a delight to answer the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate, and I hope that I have answered at least some of the points that hon. Members have raised.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans):
Before we move on to the next business and while some people are still here, on behalf of Mr Speaker, myself and the
other Deputy Speakers, I wish all the staff of Parliament who keep it all going a merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy new year-from the cleaners to the cooks, from the Clerks to the contractors, and from MPs and their staff to Hansard and the journalists. More importantly, our thoughts and thanks go to the armed forces at this special time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at this day's sitting, consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour .-( Robert Goodwill .)
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I present this petition after receiving a similar petition with more than 2,500 signatories.
The Petition of Liverpool Community College students and staff,
Declares that the petitioners oppose the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA); that the petitioners believe that the EMA helps thousands of young people to reach their full potential; that the petitioners believe that the loss of EMA will damage the country's economic future and impact on social justice by making it harder for disadvantaged young people to access education; and that the petitioners believe that the abolition of the EMA will lead to cuts in local provision as colleges respond to reductions in learner numbers.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government not to abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance and to continue supporting adult learners through the Adult Learning Grant.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Stephen Crabb .)
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me the chance to raise with the Minister responsible for roads-especially when the prevailing weather conditions are occupying his thoughts at this difficult time-the vital need for a bypass around the village of Tintwistle and the surrounding area in my constituency. As the final parliamentary act of 2010, I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for attending this evening at a time when, like many of our colleagues, he would rather be heading off home to his family and his constituents.
The relative serenity in the Chamber tonight is something that many of my constituents living adjacent to the A57 and A628 in Glossop and Tintwistle crave. Every day, about 36,000 commuting cars and heavy lorries drive through the two places, creating severe traffic jams and pollution on those two trunk roads. They are also ruining some stunning local landscapes and shaking parts of the village of Tintwistle to their very foundations. This is also having a knock-on effect as the congestion forces many other vehicles on to small back roads through tiny villages such as Charlesworth, pushing congestion and traffic dangers into a wider area.
When I made my maiden speech, on 8 June this year, I stressed the urgent need for this scheme. I recognised then that money is tight and will be for some time, but subsequently I have had the Prime Minister's assurance that some £30 billion is still available for transport investment, which means that there will be schemes that can go ahead. I hope to get the Minister to see that this scheme should be one that gets the green light.
The need for a bypass is not new. When researching for this debate, I found a parliamentary question answered in 1962. The then Minister's response informed the House that a scheme for the improvement of this road was included in the five-year trunk roads programme, so for almost 50 years my constituents have been given such promises. For almost 50 years, they have put up with the congestion and the rumbling of around 4,000 heavy goods vehicles a day pounding through their villages and past their schools. For almost 50 years, they have been told yes, but not now-later.
The need for this bypass is older than I am. My aim tonight is to convince the Minister not that Tintwistle and Glossop need a bypass-as I will explain, that case has been made already. Instead, I hope to convince him that they have a compelling case for being one of the sites to be developed during this round of spending. If I cannot get him to agree to that tonight, I will look to him to confirm at the very least that he will agree to come and see the need for himself. He could, of course, take the quick and easy option and simply give the scheme the go ahead today-after all, it is Christmas, and miracles have happened at Christmas before.
If the Minister is in need of further persuasion, however, and agrees to come to my constituency, he will see why the Highways Agency is so convinced that a bypass is the only way forward. The status quo is untenable and detrimental not only to local communities but to the local and regional economy. The plans for a
bypass in the area date back to the 1990s, following publication of the 1989 "Roads for Prosperity" White Paper. A route was chosen in October 1993, but then plans were put on hold in 1996, when the national road building programme was revised.
Ministers from several administrations have visited High Peak, and seen the beauty of the area and how it, and the lives of the people who live there, were being badly affected by the constant stream of traffic. They each recognised the importance of such a scheme, although gaining support from the top has not guaranteed action. I understand that one Minister made the journey, promised that something would be done, but was sacked on his journey back to London. According to Lord Pendry, the former Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, the former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson), visited the area and tried to cross Manchester road to attend a meeting at the then Tintwistle parish council offices, whereupon she narrowly escaped being knocked down by a truck.
Unsurprisingly, that proved to be a persuasive argument, and in 1998 the Labour Government published "A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England", which included the bypass. Then, however, more difficult arguments started to emerge as the preferred route for a bypass became an issue. The new road entered the Peak District national park, whose representatives naturally raised concerns. However, many objections were also raised by people who were not familiar with the area and assumed that all of the new bypass would be in the park. The Highways Agency's submission to the regional planning bodies in November 2002 concluded that there was no realistic alternative to a bypass if we are to solve the problems that exist.
A public inquiry was convened in June 2007, but was adjourned indefinitely in 2008, after the Highways Agency admitted that it had submitted incorrect data. Later that year, the scheme was officially abandoned because the cost of undertaking the project had escalated and funds had been redirected to other areas. Some £20 million had been spent on investigations at this point-an utter waste of public money spent raising and then dashing the hopes of local people that the misery they endured daily had an end in sight. Indeed, I believe that the Minister tabled questions on this subject in the previous Parliament. So, with £20 million already spent and almost 50 years of acceptance that the route is a problem and that something needs to be done, the sad story that is the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass, like the traffic through the villages, rumbles on.
The problems that a bypass is needed to address can be clearly identified, and I will take a few moments to outline them. Many will recognise part of the A57 by another name-the snake pass. Particularly with the snow at the moment, it is often mentioned on the radio. It is the name given to the higher reaches of the road that are notoriously dangerous because they snake across the Pennines. This route, which takes motorists from the M67, through the centre of Glossop and on to Sheffield, is one of the busiest A roads in the country. Linking Greater Manchester with Sheffield and south Yorkshire, the road passes through Glossop where there are numerous junctions and pelican crossings, which
cause long delays for traffic, especially where on-street parking makes the road narrow, causing great disruption to the flow of the massive level of traffic trying to get through the town.
The congestion created in Glossop is not only causing misery for motorists and residents alike, but is now having a detrimental effect on the economy of this famous old town. My constituent, Gareth Lewis, of Online Selling Ltd, tells me that the congestion
"has stopped our business clients coming to visit us",
which causes his company to hold client meetings as far away as Manchester airport in an attempt to avoid the jams. Mr Lewis goes on to ask what the point is of taking office space in Glossop when his clients refuse to visit due to the congestion. In my work with Glossopdale businesses before and since I was elected, this has become an all-too-familiar story.
The second major road that would be relieved by a bypass is the A628, which is also known by another name-Woodhead road. It is of particular concern to my constituents from the small village of Tintwistle, which, together with neighbouring Mottram, in a neighbouring constituency, gives the bypass its name. Tintwistle is a small Derbyshire village, which, if it were a typical small Derbyshire village, would be quiet and peaceful, but it is not. The village shakes and shudders, as wagon after wagon and car after car trundle through relentlessly. Another of my constituents-a resident of Tintwistle called Anthony Hall-wrote to me only last month to tell me that he had
"counted over 50 HGVs rumble past my home in the last half hour."
Many houses in Tintwistle are only a yard from the side of the road-or, from their frontages. What Mr Hall described is not something that I would wish to tolerate. I am sure that it is not something that the Minister would wish to tolerate, and it is not something that I wish my constituents to tolerate for much longer either.
Although I do not wish to give the Minister an exhaustive account of each and every bend of the A628-unless forcing him to beg for mercy would help my case-while I have his ear, let me point out that the eastern end of the A628, through the village of Dodworth, has already enjoyed significant investment and road improvements. My constituents deserve the same concern, the same action and the same relief from their ongoing nightmare. Time and again, they have been told that the case for the bypass has been made. Time and again, they have been told that their misery will come to an end, that funds have been set aside and that work will start. Time and again, programmes have been redrawn, money has been diverted and bureaucracy has got in the way, and still the villages tremble at the freight vehicles thundering through, choking our businesses to the point that they cannot function.
The bypass would relieve not one but two major roads connecting the west of the country to the east. It would provide relief not for one, but for numerous small villages, both along the route and beyond, and would make existing roads immeasurably safer. I know that there are environmental questions that will doubtless be asked, but as I watch stationary cars and wagons belching out exhaust fumes in Glossop, Tintwistle and beyond, I am convinced that this can only be worse than having free-flowing traffic. My constituents have suffered too long and too much. That is why, as a fitting end to my first year in this House, I have asked to bring the
issue before Parliament this evening. It would be a merry Christmas indeed for my local residents if we were able to make some progress tonight.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) on securing this debate, and on providing an opportunity for the House to debate funding for highways and, specifically, the bypass that he so keenly wants for Tintwistle. This is an issue on which he has already made representations to me, and on which he clearly sets a high priority. His constituents can take comfort from the fact that he is actively championing their cause here in the House.
Let me preface my remarks by referring to the recent statements by both the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chancellor, and the related documents, which have been placed in the Library, on investment in strategic highways, and local major transport schemes. As the Chancellor stated in the October spending review announcement, the Government are determined to invest in Britain's long-term economic growth, through areas such as transport, science and green energy, as these will help to ensure that the economy is broadly based and less susceptible to failures in one sector. It is for that reason that transport spending has been prioritised as one of the main areas of capital investment over the next four years. On 26 October, the Transport Secretary was able to announce his plans for investment in strategic and local roads. On the strategic road network, he was able to commit to completing the eight major road schemes currently under construction by 2015, at a total cost of £900 million, as well as a further £1.4 billion to fund new strategic schemes between now and 2015.
In addition to that, we are able to provide more than £1.5 billion for local authority major schemes over the same period. Around £600 million of that is for schemes that are already under construction or that have conditional approval, including two schemes that will provide some benefit to the area in question, namely the £120.9 million Metrolink extensions from Chorlton to East Didsbury, and from Droylsden to Ashton, and the £40.5 million Greater Manchester retaining walls maintenance scheme. On top of that, we are committed nationally to a further £900 million of investment for new local authority major schemes. Taken together, that level of investment is greater than the average Department for Transport spend on local authority major schemes over the last 10 years.
In taking our decisions, we have looked carefully at the value for money offered by schemes, their strategic value-whether for local, regional or national journeys-and the degree of development and certainty of deliverability, as well as important non-monetised impacts including, of course, environmental impact. As a result of this prioritisation exercise, we are satisfied that we have chosen the most appropriate strategic schemes to start between now and 2015, subject to the reviews announced by the Transport Secretary. Although we are committed to significant investment in local major schemes as well as schemes on the strategic road network, it is inevitable that we have had to prioritise and make some hard decisions to select those schemes that offer the best value for investment.
I shall turn now to the specific issue that my hon. Friend has raised tonight. He has made a number of points about the long-standing ambitions to develop road solutions in Tintwistle and the surrounding area. As I have mentioned, he and other local MPs have already contacted me to ask why a scheme to deal with this problem was not prioritised as part of the spending review. The reason, as the Transport Secretary explained on 26 October, is that a fundamental requirement used to decide whether a scheme would be considered for funding, when spending review decisions were being made earlier this year, was that the Department needed to have received a business case before 10 June 2010, the date on which the Transport Secretary announced the suspension of all scheme work pending the outcome of the spending review. Given that no agreed solution has yet been proposed for Tintwistle and the surrounding area, we simply do not have a scheme sufficiently worked out that could be considered for funding.
It is also clear that, despite our considerable investment, the number of the schemes prioritised under the previous system of regional funding allocations is no longer affordable, and we are having to do our best to rationalise the programme. That is why the spending review reconfirmed that the 29 schemes with full approval, many of which are already under construction, would go ahead. In addition, three schemes have conditional approval, and we have placed a further 10 schemes in the supported pool and 22 schemes in the development pool. There are a further 34 schemes in the pre-qualification pool.
I should make it plain to my hon. Friend that the problem that we inherited-apart from the appalling financial situation, with which he is doubtless familiar-was a complete over-promise by the previous Administration of what could sensibly be delivered. They left us with an enormous pipeline of schemes all over the country, which, even if the economy had been working to its best effect, could not have been delivered within the available resources. They led many Members and individuals up the garden path, because they simply could not deliver on their promises.
The Secretary of State therefore had to bring the portcullis down, if I can put it in those terms, on 10 June, and to consider, in the light of the moneys available, which schemes had got past a certain point. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend's scheme had not got past that point on 10 June, for reasons with which he is familiar. So what happened was not a commentary on the value of his proposal; it was simply a recognition of how far the scheme had progressed through the pipeline by that point. That is why we are in this position now. I strongly regret that people across the country were led up the garden path by the previous Government and led to expect something that simply could not be delivered.
We have protected the transport budget significantly in the spending review, and the Department for Transport has done very well on capital projects because the Government recognise the value of investment in them. Even with that good settlement, however, the enormous pipeline of schemes that we inherited simply could not be delivered. I am very sorry for my hon. Friend's constituents, who have had to wait 50 years for a solution to this problem, and I fear that I shall have to
disappoint him again tonight. I understand the issues that he has raised, however, and he is quite right to do so.
I fully appreciate that there is a long and complicated history to the particular problems in Tintwistle and the surrounding area, stretching back many years, with strong views for and against any proposals. More recently, a full bypass of Mottram, Hollingsworth and Tintwistle was identified by the Highways Agency as a means of addressing the disturbance from high volumes of traffic on those sections of the A57 and A628. A local authority scheme known as the Glossop spur was also promoted by Tameside metropolitan borough council and Derbyshire county council to provide a link to Glossop from the proposed bypass. It was dependent on the Highways Agency scheme being constructed.
A public inquiry commenced in June 2007, but in September 2007 errors were found in the Highways Agency traffic model on which the evidence for the scheme was based. That was clearly very unfortunate. Pending production of revised traffic forecasts incorporating new national traffic growth forecasts, the inquiry was adjourned in December 2007.
In July of the following year, revised cost estimates were produced which showed the central scheme cost estimate rising to some £270 million, with a potential maximum cost of some £315 million. That made the scheme unaffordable under the proposed timetable. It was deferred by four years until 2016-17 in the north-west regional funding advice programme, with the Glossop spur development consequently also deferred until 2017-18.
The delays led the Highways Agency to recommend to the then Secretary of State in March 2009 that it should withdraw from the public inquiry, and that recommendation was accepted. The scheme was subsequently removed from the Highways Agency's programme to allow regional partners to undertake further consideration of the most appropriate scope of future work to solve the transport problems in the area. I am afraid that there are currently no plans to reinstate the Highways Agency scheme in the programme, but the agency continues to monitor conditions on the A57 and A628, and will invest in its future maintenance in line with its established approach for safe roads.
I understand my hon. Friend's frustration at the ongoing difficulties experienced on that section of the network, but it is now for the parties to consider the options in the current funding environment. Let me put that in context. The total contribution requested from the Department for Transport for new major local authority schemes that we are considering in the current spending review period-after the coming down of the June 2010 portcullis-is £1.7 billion, nearly double the available finance of £900 million for such schemes. We are trying to reduce the ratio through improved funding offers from promoters and through sifting of schemes, but it means that at present we cannot consider schemes other than those already announced for the current spending review period, or accept any new bids for schemes that were not prioritised in the last Government's regional funding allocations process.
I want to view the future constructively. We intend to work in partnership with local communities to develop a new framework for the funding of major local transport
schemes over time. We want it to involve a reduced role for central Government and give a proper voice to locally elected representatives and business interests, with local enterprise partnerships-individually or in consortiums-playing a role in strategic investment choices in functional economic areas. In that context, we intend to enable local communities to identify and invest in what they consider to be their priorities in the next spending review period. So one possible avenue is central Government funding after 2015, if the present arrangement continues; another is the creation of LEPs which will be able to influence local priorities.
However, other avenues might be explored. They could include tax increment funding, details of which will be announced in due course, and the local sustainable transport fund, for which I am responsible and details of which I announced recently. Although the LSTF is not designed to support the cost of a full major scheme, it would potentially fund a package of complementary measures to support economic growth and reduce carbon. For parts of the route, Greater Manchester might choose to look to its own resources through the transport fund that it has created for a possible solution, particularly if it can free up resources as a result of successful bids to the regional growth fund or the LSTF for other projects. There could be a knock-on effect.
I understand that earlier this year Tameside metropolitan borough council, together with the Government office for the north-west, led a study group which included the Highways Agency and Greater Manchester to steer the development of an alternative integrated package of options, mainly in the Longdendale area, known as the Longdendale integrated transport strategy. I imagine that my hon. Friend is familiar with it. I understand that Tameside has since consulted on a list of options including new and improved railway stations-I must confess that, having looked at the map, I am not sure where they would be, but perhaps my hon. Friend knows-a short bypass of Mottram together with a revised Glossop spur, and innovative new treatments for the existing trunk road including new junctions, bus lanes and reduced speeds.
Andrew Bingham: My hon. Friend is right about the smaller scheme, but Tameside council designed it without consulting High Peak, and many of its proposals were not in its gift because they required the consent of the Highways Agency and Derbyshire county council. In my view-I was and still am a councillor, and of course am now the local Member of Parliament-it did nothing for High Peak, nothing for Tintwistle, and nothing for Hadfield. I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said about the general scheme of things and I understand the position, but the proposal that was advanced earlier in the year did not strike me as beneficial to my constituency in any way.
Norman Baker: I hear what my hon. Friend says and I am sorry that that is the analysis locally of the proposals put forward in the transport strategy. I was trying to find some crumbs of comfort for him in a difficult situation.
I understand that no final recommendations have been identified or proposed for that strategy, but Tameside council tells me that it intends to publish early in the new year the results of the consultation exercise which
it thinks has been carried out. I understand that before the spending review, Greater Manchester authorities had also identified £100 million to fund the agreed outcome of the strategy, but that relied on a significant contribution from the regional funding allocation budget, which no longer exists. It is up to the Greater Manchester authorities whether they wish to proceed with their own funding for that.
For the future, any new scheme to deal with the traffic problems in Tintwistle and the surrounding area will have to meet the challenge laid down by the Secretary of State in his October statement to compete for finite resources against other projects in future spending rounds. Serious consideration needs to be given to how schemes can be delivered more efficiently and economically-in other words, to get the cost down and the cost-benefit ratio up-particularly where greater access is possible to alternative sources of funding, including the private sector.
I fully understand my hon. Friend's desire to see a positive decision on the funding for a solution to the transport problems in Tintwistle and the surrounding area. However, I hope he will acknowledge that the Government have had to make some difficult decisions on the best use of the funding available for an unrealistically large number of competing projects. It will now be important to look at how schemes can be made more cost-effective, and to identify new funding sources and systems for funding. Although I will continue to consider any future proposals for dealing with the transport
problems in the area, I am afraid that I can offer no particular assurances at this stage regarding the future availability of funding for such proposals.
My hon. Friend asked whether I would come and visit his constituency. I do not wish to raise false hopes, for the reasons that I have given tonight, but if he wants me to come and visit, I am happy to do so and look at the problems first hand. I cannot give him a Christmas present of a bypass, but I can give him a Christmas present of a visit, although the precedent that he mentioned when a previous Minister went up there and got sacked on the way back does not encourage such a visit.
Sitting suspended (Order, 19 December).
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).