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2 Feb 2011 : Column 305WHcontinued
I want to point out a few issues that relate to my constituency and to try to get some clarity from the Minister. The consultation document discusses how the seas are becoming more congested and how ships are getting larger. It talks about oil carriers, a busier coastline and extreme weather conditions that lead to increased coastal flooding. All those issues apply fully and squarely to my constituency, where we have the largest container port in the country at Felixstowe and, as of April 2011,
the only area within inshore coastal waters where ship-to-ship oil transfers are allowed. I recognise that 70% of incidents involve leisure vessels-a high proportion of activities up and down the coast, and in and out of the creeks and estuaries, are leisure based-in addition to incidents in the shipping lanes around Felixstowe.
I am interested to understand how the decisions about which centres should remain open were made. Yarmouth and Thames both respond to a large number of incidents, of which there are more than in Dover. Dover also has responsibility for the Dover strait and the Channel Navigation Information Service. I would have thought that the number of incidents handled by each centre would have come into the review, but I do not see how that has been addressed. On a broader point about the Border Agency, I would have thought that the coastguard service would be one of the links in trying to ensure that we have safer borders. In the consultation, there is a focus on allowing senior managers to free up time to have such a relationship with other partners. The police are specifically mentioned, and I assume that that relates not only to people's safety but to crime and other such activities.
The narrative from my constituents includes the assumption that the closure of the coastguard centres means that there will be no full-time paid coastguards delivering the service. It would be helpful if the Minister were to clarify whether in areas where coastguard centres are to be closed, we will rely solely on volunteers. If that is the case, I will be genuinely concerned. I share the coastguard at Lowestoft, and its branch at Southwold, with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and the teams there are about 60% full. Southwold has five vacancies and Lowestoft seven, which means that we have only three people on the Southwold team.
The consultation document also mentions some of the roles that the coastguard will have in the future-vessel traffic monitoring, for example. It talks about how automatic identification systems provide
"precise real time data up to about 30 miles from the coast",
which is welcome, but it also states:
"In the coming years the development of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) will mean that ships can be tracked over much longer distances".
It would be interesting to understand the time scale for that, and how it will fit into the role of vessel traffic monitoring. There is also the creation of counter-pollution officer roles, which all seem to be based in Southampton, and an understanding of some of the risk assessments undertaken would help us to see in which parts of the country are perceived to have the greatest pollution challenges.
I come back to ship-to-ship transfers. I do not seek to use the debate to open up that issue, but when it was mentioned, Yarmouth coastguard agency was identified as the monitoring body.
I will finish here, Mr Hancock.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you very much.
Dr Coffey: I appreciate that. I was one of the hon. Members who submitted a letter requesting to speak before the debate.
I would be grateful if the Minister were to clarify whether the response to incidents will be solely from volunteers, so that instead of having to resort to freedom of information requests we could provide more detailed information, by centre, on timing and number of incidents. I would also be grateful if he were to refer to the monitoring of ship-to-ship transfers.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate.
My constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland plays host to two of the three fishing ports in Northern Ireland, and as a community we share a long, proud and sometimes difficult history of fishing and seafaring.
Over the years, my constituency has seen its share of tragedies and miraculous rescues at sea. Each time-whether it has been to bring family members' bodies home from the sea or to undertake those miraculous rescues-we have looked to our coastguard, which has always performed an amazing service.
In Northern Ireland, the Bangor coastguard station, which is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), faces possible closure. There is a proposal to transfer its operational role to another station, perhaps in Liverpool or Aberdeen, many miles away. Hon. Members will be aware that opposition to the consultation proposals is mounting, and I hope that the Minister will allay many of the concerns that have been raised.
Lady Hermon: Let me tell hon. Members, and particularly the Minister, that it is rare for any subject to unite all the parties in Northern Ireland. We are talking about saving the one remaining coastguard in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that risks losing its coastguard service. I extended an invitation to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a joint visit to the station, and I am delighted to say that both accepted it warmly. The First Minister is from the Democratic Unionist party, the Deputy First Minister is from Sinn Fein and the hon. Lady is a member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, so this issue has united all parties. I hope that the Minister remembers that.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. Sylvia, you have a lot of charm, but you are pushing it to extremes.
Lady Hermon: Thank you, Mr Hancock. I take that as a compliment.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Yes, it is a compliment. Only you would have got away with that.
Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is indeed correct.
The Northern Ireland coastguard service at Bangor provides a vital service to the fisheries and tourism sectors right from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough. Axing such a service will put at risk not only livelihoods, but lives. The Government must not take for granted the courage of those who devote time to rescue efforts on our shores. Funding must be protected.
We must remember that the coastguard protects not only the coast, but, as the hon. Member for North Down has said, Lough Neagh, Lough Erne, inland fisheries and inland lakes. It also provides an inland mountain rescue service for the Mornes and the Sperrins, and it is the point of contact for all helicopter operations in Northern Ireland.
The current proposals will leave Northern Ireland without a full-time coastguard station. This front-line emergency service has saved countless lives since its establishment. In the past year alone, the Northern Ireland team has dealt with more than 700 incidents. For me, my constituents and all my colleagues in Northern Ireland, saving lives is paramount.
The document that has gone out to consultation proposes that the Belfast Lough station, which is based at Bangor, might become a part-time station or that it might close, in which case our nearest coastguard would be the part-time station in Liverpool. The nearest full-time station would be at Aberdeen, on the east coast of Scotland. Co-operation is certainly important. Our co-ordination with Scotland and the south of Ireland have been invaluable in saving lives in previous rescue missions. I support north-south co-operation.
Ms Ritchie: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. We do not want a long debate about co-operation.
Ian Paisley: What an opportune time to get an intervention. In 1989, I was involved in an attempt to rescue two drowning children off the coast of Northern Ireland. They had been holidaying there, but, unfortunately, one of them died. However, if it had not been for the co-ordination that the hon. Lady has mentioned, there would have been a double tragedy. It is essential that people recognise and get to grips with the fact that Northern Ireland will be naked to the ravages of the sea if we do not properly protect our coastguard.
Ms Ritchie: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Co-ordination and co-operation are vital, particularly on the island of Ireland. Closing the coastguard station in Northern Ireland is foolhardy, because there is a need for both coastguard services on the island of Ireland to work together and to co-operate.
The chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Sir Alan Massey, has indicated that the closures can be offset by the introduction of new technologies, such as Google Earth. Although I support the introduction of such measures, which can help to save lives, they must supplement, rather than replace, existing provisions. Nothing can replace local knowledge of the waterways or, in the case of Northern Ireland, the mountainous regions. That knowledge has been built up by generations of people living in the local communities.
I represent the Liverpool coastguard station, so let me express a degree of solidarity across the Irish sea. The staff at Liverpool recognise exactly the points that the hon. Lady and other Northern Ireland Members have made about the dangers of Liverpool trying to look after Northern Ireland. They do not feel
equipped to do so, and although they welcome new technology, they also recognise that local knowledge and experience are critical. They do not want to stay open at the expense of Belfast, because they want both stations to stay open.
Ms Ritchie: It is important to emphasise for the historical record that, in 1994, the then chief coastguard, Commander Derek Ancona, told the Select Committee on Transport that the importance of local knowledge should not be underestimated, and that point needs to be taken on board.
Mr MacNeil: I am heartened to hear that Liverpool and Belfast are not accepting the framework that the MCA has given them to set them at each other's throats. We have had the same situation between Stornaway and Shetland, and we are not accepting that, too. We in the Western Isles believe that Shetland should stay open 250 miles away because it is needed for the safety of mariners there. Stornaway should stay open as well. I am pleased that our message to the MCA is the same.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. Ms Ritchie, I urge you to watch the time.
Ms Ritchie: Thank you, Mr Hancock. I will do so.
Previous attempts by Governments to implement large-scale technological developments have frequently encountered delays and cost overruns. We must ensure that we do not lose our existing resources and that we do not rely on the hope that needs can be met by using new technologies alone. Indeed, the same technology on which the coastguard is meant to depend has just been discarded by the UK's fire and rescue service, because it cannot rely on it. We risk people's safety becoming dependent on information technology that has not yet been implemented and which has not even been designed. Let us have new technology by all means, but we should supplement it with local knowledge.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will see fit to ensure that the proposal for the Belfast coastguard station at Bangor is abandoned. I hope that the message goes home to him and the Department that Northern Ireland needs to retain its services. My colleagues in Northern Ireland and I represent all the Northern Ireland constituencies, and we wholeheartedly oppose any attempt to remove those services.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. It is my intention to call Mr Gilbert, then Mr Owen and then Dr Wollaston. I will then try to fit everyone else in. Can we please give others the chance to make their contributions?
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): I will make every effort to show atypical restraint in my remarks. I give notice to all colleagues that I will not give way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this absolutely key debate. The number of people here shows the concern that is shared across the House and the country, as well as across all parties. I also congratulate the hon.
Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on tabling her early-day motion, which I was pleased to sign.
I grew up by the sea in Cornwall. My great-granddad made his livelihood as a fisherman. My constituency's north coast is protected by services from Brixham, while its south coast is protected by services from Falmouth, so there is every danger that we will suffer a double whammy. My intention is to press the Minister for assurances that that will not happen, and that he will always put the safety of those who use the sea before any other consideration.
I do not think that any hon. Members doubt the importance of the sea for trade, our food supply, leisure and our ability to come and go from these islands and explore the rest of the world. The people who protect our safety and ensure that we can benefit from all that the sea, and sea lanes, provide are the coastguards. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said, in a well-argued and passionate speech, Falmouth is already a centre of excellence for what it does; it is the place the rest of the world looks to to learn how to do such things. It concerns me greatly that the Government choose, outside of anything mentioned in the coalition agreement, to consider the reforms.
I shall be brief, to give other hon. Members the chance to speak. I want some reassurance from the Minister that the consultation is a real one, that the outcome has not been prejudged and that he will listen to all the bodies that are responding to the consultation. I want his assurance that the Government are exploring all other options to make the necessary revenue savings without reducing front-line services, and that at all times the safety of those who use the sea will come before any other considerations. Other hon. Members have noted that we are of course dealing with the need to modernise the service and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said, improve resilience, adapt to modern technologies and face a new century in a different way; but we must remember that we are an island nation and need the sea. It behoves us in this House to protect those who use it.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate. I raised the issue of the need for a Government debate on the matter with the Leader of the House, because of its importance and the timing of the announcement a few days before Christmas. I want to praise coastguard workers, volunteers and officers, and to thank the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, among other organisations; I am a member of its council. Search and rescue is another important part of the mix, and we need proper co-ordination.
I have limited time-and will respect your judgment, Mr Hancock-and will concentrate on local knowledge and the Welsh dimension of that, which there has not yet been the opportunity to discuss, as well as previous inquiries by the Select Committee on Transport into the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Those are important. I agree with what has been said about local knowledge. It cannot be managed by a centre far away. The response time and co-ordination are essential, and require local knowledge, which cannot be transferred from one part of the country to another.
The current process has more to do with centralisation than modernisation. I support devolution and real localism, and what is happening goes against that by centralising services in the most northern and southern parts of the United Kingdom, rather than having them dispersed in different areas. I think there is an element of cost driving the process for the Government. I am sad to say that, but I think it has the potential to lead to loss of life. I see the badge that the Minister is wearing; I served in the merchant navy for more than 17 years and I have some knowledge of the sea, having worked on it, and representing an island constituency, so I do not make those statements lightly: I believe them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) who, when he was the Minister, did not duck the issue but dealt with it and listened. He had representations from all sides of the House when there was the potential for closures in the past, but he did not feel he should move forward with the speed and haste that is being adopted now.
Andrew George: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
Albert Owen: I am not going to take any interventions. I apologise, but I know that some hon. Members have made two or three interventions, whereas I only have a short time and did not make any.
There is a Welsh dimension to the issue. Swansea would be the only coastguard left under the proposals. That is a long way from Holyhead in my constituency in the north-west, which is strategically important in the Irish sea. I pay tribute to all those hon. Members from the west coast of Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland and the north-west of England who have spoken. We should not be pitting coastal communities against each other. We are talking about the safety of the British coastline and we need strategically important coastguard stations in that strategic overview. That could be compromised.
There is also a Welsh language issue, to do with local knowledge and the identification of places. Incidents have occurred in other emergency organisations that have been centralised, and I should like the Minister to look into the matter. The fire service, ambulances and police in north-west Wales have gone to the wrong location because either they cannot pronounce the place name or they have mixed it up with another location of the same name. That is a question of lives, and it is far too important to deal with it by saving costs and centralising, putting the service at risk and exposing it even further.
Finally, in 2003-04 the Transport Committee looked into the future of the MCA and closures in Oban, Tyne and somewhere else-it escapes me. The Committee concluded that there was a need for a proper safety impact study, and I do not believe-there is no clarity about it-that that has been carried out, years down the line. It would be a crying shame to rush into a new closure programme when the safety impact studies have not even been done on the previous recommendations of the Transport Committee. Holyhead is strategically important. There is a Welsh dimension to the question. The Minister had the courtesy to phone me up about
the matter. I said that I would raise it. Under the time constraints of this debate no hon. Member can do their area justice. We need a debate in Government time and I urge the Minister to suspend the consultation and proposals until the issues have been properly dealt with and seriously given the consideration they deserve.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I want to talk about Brixham maritime rescue co-ordination centre and its importance. Last year it co-ordinated more than 1,300 search and rescue incidents, assisting more than 1,900 people and saving more than 350 lives; 78% of those incidents were inshore or shoreline. Those are the incidents that need local knowledge, as I think all hon. Members would agree.
Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Local knowledge is an extremely important point from a west country perspective. I wonder where someone in Solent would direct services if a call came in that someone was in difficulties off Blackpool beach. We have a Blackpool beach, just as Lancashire does.
Dr Wollaston: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we have the equivalent of 22 full-time and highly skilled watch-keepers. I know that the Minister pointed out that local knowledge will not be lost because the individuals can be relocated-to Falmouth, in the case of my area. However, unfortunately Falmouth is also drastically cutting staff under the proposals, so I suspect that the highly skilled staff at Brixham will find that very difficult. I suggest that their important local knowledge would be in danger of being lost. The point about local knowledge is that Devon, for example, had 25.2 million visitors last year-bringing in £2 billion to the local economy-and those individuals have no local knowledge. I have been told by a coastguard that very often a distress call will come in from people who do not know where they are. They might know that they are in Devon but they will not know they are on Blackpool beach, for example. They have no local knowledge and are often very distressed. The highly skilled individuals dealing with them on the phone must cope with that, to find out where they are.
The other issue is IT. My experience of IT in the NHS, for example, is that we had a £12.7 billion project, which was very disappointing, over-budget and highly overrated. We have also seen what the fire service experienced, which I shall not talk about much as it is the Minister's area of great expertise. My understanding is that it cost £423 million and the Taunton regional fire centre has not opened. The air traffic control system went £150 million over budget and was much delayed. I would say, to coin a phrase, "Over-budget, overrated, over time and over here."
Andrew George: One of the primary drivers-in fact the primary one, to go by page 16 of the consultation document-is so-called limited resilience. As the document recognises, coastguard stations are paired. There is no suggestion that the resilience has failed. Yet we are not told anywhere in the document how resilience is improved under the proposals.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree. Currently, we have paired coastguard stations, which are directly linked by cable as part of an existing BT cable network. In addition, the stations are linked by
point-to-point communications on a so-called BT kilostream unique to the coastguard-a kind of private radio network used by VHF radios. However, I find it hard to understand why it is so difficult to piggyback on existing cable networks to network all stations. I am dubious of the argument that it would be immensely expensive. I suggest that it is possible to network all existing stations at less cost than has been stated. It has also been stated that coastguard radio equipment is 12 years old and needs upgrading, and that it cannot be installed in existing coastguard stations, but the vast majority of calls are made by phone.
Brixham has been disadvantaged by the costings. In the year the costings were made, Brixham received a brand-new roof and an upgrade to its generator, which means that the building will now be fully fit for purpose for the next century. Given that its ongoing running costs will be considerably lower, it seems a shame that those renovations have been taken into consideration.
Like the coastguard stations in many colleagues' constituencies, Brixham also performs other functions. For example, the marine surveyors, which are vital to the Brixham trawler, are based there. Brixham also houses cliff rescue equipment, a rescue vehicle and a radio station. I hope the Minister will take that into consideration.
As many Members have said, we do not want one station to be pitted against another. We call on the Minister and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to review the proposals thoroughly and hold a debate on the Floor of the House.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Thank you, Mr Hancock. I will dispense with the normal formalities to allow other people to speak.
In the past week, the coastguard at Stornoway has dealt with a French fishing boat on Rum, rescuing 14 people aboard, and a Tornado aircraft in the water off Rubha Reidh near Gairloch. Submarines have grabbed the headlines. Sometimes it is not about the number but the seriousness of incidents. We have had only one Braer, but that was serious. If Lord Donaldson were alive today, I wonder what he would say about the proposals. I hope that the Government have approached the co-authors of the Donaldson report to ask them exactly what they think of the proposals.
Nearly all this week in the Hebrides, we have had force 6 to 7 gales. On Thursday night, we are expecting storm 10. A person has to be there to appreciate exactly what that involves. In cold, calm London-I refer, of course, to the weather-it is difficult to do so; it is necessary to be in the locality. We need coastguard stations in the locality.
The weather primarily affects maritime safety, which is where I expected the consultation to start. Unfortunately, I discovered through various consultations and briefings from the MCA that the proposals are driven not by maritime safety but by real estate considerations, lease deals and hangovers from old industrial disputes within the MCA. The MCA management has desired to do it for some time. Safety and risk have been way down the pecking order, coming in a distant and shabby last to all the other considerations. I find that absolutely amazing and appalling.
I find it even more amazing that a risk assessment was not carried out specifically on the consultations. I am now hearing that a risk assessment will be carried out after the consultations, to make up for what has been done. Who can trust a risk assessment done after a consultation? We will be suspicious of any risk assessment from the MCA that is done to dovetail with MCA proposals. I am shocked, as are many other people. When we had a meeting, all the Stornoway coastguard workers were shocked that no risk assessment had been done.
Leaving Scotland with only one coastguard station in Aberdeen, where staff turnover is high, is also worrying. We need Shetland and Stornoway. They are 250 miles apart. Stornoway covers about 50,000 square miles at the moment; I do not think that it needs more.
As I said, no risk assessment has been done. No evidence is available on the impact of the reforms. The councils in the Hebrides and Shetland have commissioned their own research into exactly what they will mean. We feel that the proposals are technically flawed, and there are serious doubts about the reliability of the communications technology on which they rest.
The proposed reforms are also being touted as an efficiency saving, but I argue that the potential gains are minimal. It is estimated that just over £120 million will be saved over the next 25 years, or about £4.8 million a year. To put it in perspective, that is such a small part of the Department for Transport budget that it was not even included in its comprehensive spending review figures. It is absolutely astonishing what is going on.
I am aware of the time, so I will come to an end fairly quickly. To give a wee illustration, if someone in distress is using their radio and the ship is at Miavaig or Meavaig, but they only say it once, where is that ship in distress? That is what we are talking about. Ultimately, we are considering not efficiency but a marine insurance policy. I have not even mentioned the tugs that we are losing on the west coast of Scotland. There are huge questions connected with the plans. They are ill conceived, ill thought out and ill advised. The Government should go back to the drawing board and make absolutely sure that we are not compromising safety or our insurance policy in the maritime arena.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this debate. I will précis quickly what I was going to say. I pay tribute to the crew of the Lowestoft lifeboat, who received awards last week for the great bravery that they showed during a storm in 2009.
The coastguard needs to be reviewed. I have five concerns. The first relates specifically to the East Anglian coast and the proposed closure of the Yarmouth and Thames maritime centres. I am concerned about increased activity off the East Anglian coast, including the building of 1,000 wind turbines, continued dredging, renewed activity in the oil and gas sector and forthcoming construction work at Sizewell, as well as ship-to-ship transfers, increased shipping movement from Felixstowe and Yarmouth and more leisure activity on the broads, in the estuaries and along the coast. The current system
has the advantage of close co-ordination with the helicopter rescue service at RAF Wattisham and ship service provided by Suffolk fire service. I therefore ask the Minister to review closely whether it is appropriate to close both stations.
My second point, which has already been made during this debate, is the importance of harnessing and retaining local knowledge. Members have spoken eloquently about it. I could speak about it as well, but the point has been well made.
Thirdly, I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that the review is a genuine effort to restructure and improve the service and that adequate Treasury funding has been secured to implement the proposals. It is vital that reorganisation is properly managed and resourced and that no effort or expense is spared to secure a successful transformation.
Fourthly, I understand that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will make a single representation. I do not know what the RNLI's thoughts are, but I urge the Minister to give them full consideration, as the RNLI will play a vital role in implementing any change.
Finally, I have a slightly unusual request concerning flares, which must be disposed of safely if unused. I am advised that in East Anglia at present, the nearest disposal station is the Thames coastguard. If that is closed, will East Anglian seafarers have to travel to Dover or Humberside? If so, will the Minister consider the provision of a closer and more accessible disposal station?
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this debate. I tried to secure it twice myself, so I am glad that somebody was successful. She mentioned Sir Alan Massey's remarks about the time delay. In an interview with BBC South West, he confirmed that there would be a time delay. Will the Minister address that apparent anomaly between Sir Alan's interview and what the hon. Lady said?
In his letter to me, the Minister said:
"You will be aware of the increasing levels of activity taking place on the coastline and waters of the UK."
Many of the staff at Crosby coastguard station have highlighted the irony of that statement, given the apparent reduction in the number of coastguard stations.
In the brief time that I have left, I will describe a couple of key issues raised with me. On consultation, staff tell me that the ideas that they have brought up in the past have never been taken on board. They were concerned that the people who drew up the proposals lacked recent front-line experience, and they were very concerned that Liverpool coastguard station was not included in the original draft consultation document and that it was earmarked for closure. Belfast would have survived and Liverpool was added only in the final version, which tells us a lot about the intention. The expectation is that Liverpool's closure is a done deal.
I will now allow the Front-Bench spokesmen to address the points that have been made. I urge the Minister to look at the issue again, go back to the drawing board
and use recent front-line experience to come up with a set of proposals that, as well as using modern technology, recognise the vast experience and importance of local knowledge.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I apologise to hon. Members who have been trying to catch my eye. I would have liked to give everyone an opportunity to speak, but I now call Jim Fitzpatrick.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hancock. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. The last time I saw you, you were posing with an inflatable elephant, so you are in a much more dignified position now, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I will try not to speak for a full 10 minutes in order to allow the Minister the opportunity to take a few interventions and respond to the points that have been made.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this important debate, and all those who have contributed by way of speeches or interventions. As has been mentioned, the number of MPs present indicates the importance of this debate. It is good to see the Minister present. He had an important engagement at Transport questions last week, during which I raised the issue under discussion. The Secretary of State responded to my question, the context of which was the cancellation of Nimrods; the ending of the emergency towing vessels' contract; coastguards being made redundant; the closure of coastguard stations, and air-sea rescue being sold off. All those proposals are serious and significant. Individually, every one of them has national significance; collectively, they raise serious concerns about maritime safety. My question last week was whether the Department acknowledged that. I would be grateful to hear whether the Minister recognises that concern. I thought that the Secretary of State's response was slightly ungracious, but that is a matter for him.
As the shadow Minister with responsibility for shipping, I have been lobbied, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), on the question of the Walney coastguard. I have also been contacted by colleagues from the Western Isles, Brixham and elsewhere. I cannot imagine the pressure that the Minister might be under, given that he has to make the decision. It is entirely understandable that colleagues have today been engaged in special pleading for their local coastguard station or geographical area.
The MCA's 2010 annual report reported an increase in coastal deaths in 2008-09. More people are holidaying in the UK-I believe it is called a staycation-and the current economic conditions mean that such activity is likely to increase, which, aligned with the possibility of more tourists and visitors coming to Britain, means that there will be even greater risks. One of the questions being asked-most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)-is whether the MCA has undertaken a risk assessment of the proposals. The consultation document mentions an equality impact assessment, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether I am correct in thinking that the impact, or risk, assessment will follow the conclusion of the consultation.
Parallels have been drawn between the proposals and the previous Government's plans for regional fire controls. The Minister and I share a little history: I was in the fire service, then he joined the fire service; I got elected to Parliament, then he got elected to Parliament; I was the Minister with responsibility for shipping, then he was the Minister with responsibility for shipping.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I am-not was-the Minister with responsibility for shipping.
Jim Fitzpatrick: My apologies. The hon. Gentleman is the Minister with responsibility for shipping, which is a very good place to be. He is doing a good job and I know that the shipping industry acknowledges that and respects him for his involvement, even though he has been in the position for less than a year. I am tempted to ask him whether he will make the same mistake as me on fire controls. That contract has been cancelled due to a number of issues. Does he, like several colleagues present, recognise a parallel between that and the proposals under discussion?
It is proposed that staff numbers will fall from 491 to 248. There is an historic question of underpayment of coastguards. Historically, many coastguards were recruited from former members of the Royal Navy or the merchant navy. They came with pensions and were able to be paid a little less than the going rate-certainly less than the other emergency services. That tradition has, of course, been outlived. It was one of the issues with which I grappled as a Minister and, I think, managed to solve with the support of the MCA and Department for Transport officials, whose service I commend-there are many excellent people in both organisations. We managed to persuade the Treasury that that issue needed to be looked at, and I would be interested to hear what discussions the Minister has had with the Treasury about the issue.
How many of those who lose their jobs does the Department estimate will receive compulsory redundancies? The savings are estimated to be £120 million over 25 years, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)-or the Western Isles as the rest of us like to call it-said. The Lord Donaldson inquiry into the Braer disaster recommended an emergency towing vessel for Stornoway. It is suggested that, if that contract is abandoned, it would take 18 hours for a privately contracted vessel to arrive. That one incident involving the Braer cost £100 million, which will wipe out 25 years of savings if the Government proceed with their proposals. Does the Minister acknowledge the connection between emergency towing vessels and the coastguard proposals?
Much is made of volunteers and volunteering. We have a proud tradition in the UK, as do other countries, in that regard. However, as we have seen only today with the noble Lord Wei's decision to cut his hours at the Cabinet Office from three to two days, volunteers can face problems in giving a commitment due to the pressures on family and business life.
We all acknowledge the need for deficit reduction after the global banking crisis. The real concern is that the Department seems to be going too far, too fast and too deep with these cuts, and the consultation, with which the Minister is encouraging everybody to get involved, will demonstrate whether that is the case.
In conclusion, shipping is pretty much invisible to most people, but it is absolutely critical to the UK, as has been articulated by many colleagues this afternoon. It generally does its job quietly and efficiently, which is to the huge credit of everybody involved in an industry that serves us so well. Safety for those involved and for the millions of recreational seafarers, citizens and visitors who enjoy our coastline is paramount. The proposals are causing serious concern among that whole community. As others have said, I am certain that we will return to the issue time and again, with more debates and more questions, in the months ahead. I look forward to hearing from the Minister to allow that debate to begin.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, it would be remiss of me not to apologise to those who did not get an opportunity to speak, and not to thank those who showed courtesy and played their part in making this a worthwhile debate. I hope that the debate's message is not lost on the Minister or the usual channels: Members of this House expect and require a further debate on the issue sometime in the near future because, as has been demonstrated, it touches so many of them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): Thank you, Mr Hancock. It is a pleasure to serve as the Minister with responsibility for shipping under your chairmanship. Like the shadow Minister, I come from an emergency service background, so I am exceptionally proud of my position. The issue is not devolved, and we should be very proud of the fact that there are people throughout this great country of ours who wish to serve their community. I shall try to touch upon as many points as possible in the very short time available to me. I want to state from the outset how proud I am of the emergency services that serve under me, whether they be the coastguard-my volunteers and my full-time staff-or the other emergency services that work with us, namely the RNLI and the hundreds of volunteers who work in other boats, crews and rescue services that, while they may not be generally well known, are well known in their communities.
It is way above my pay grade to decide whether there will be a debate on the Floor of the House, but I will speak to my Whips about it. Of course, we have a new wonderful system, under which we can go to the Backbench Business Committee. Thursdays are also available for exactly this sort of debate. That hint might be taken up by some of our colleagues. It will be very difficult to do the debate justice in the short time we have had together. If I do not answer each individual point, my officials are listening and I will write to colleagues. If hon. Members want a meeting about any specific points, that option is available. My officials, including the coastguards who are represented here today and are listening, will be available to hon. Members.
I thank colleagues who took time yesterday to come to the Back-Bench meeting that we had upstairs. For some colleagues, it was a busy time in Parliament, but I think those who attended the meeting felt that it was useful to have face-to-face conversations, and not just with me. It was a cross-party meeting. Interestingly, not as many colleagues attended as are here today, but I can understand that. We will arrange some further meetings.
The consultation is progressing. I stress that, at this point, we have not made a decision. That is why it is a consultation and I am pursuing people to take part in it. There is no opportunity for no change at all. All the union representatives to whom I have spoken around the country accept that. Only the other day, when I was at a coastguard station, one of the senior officials said after discussions, "Well, we think it should be nine."
Mr MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: I will make some progress and, if there is time, I will take interventions. However, there have been a lot of interventions during the debate and I think my hon. Friend-I call him that because I know him very well-has done very well at getting in. Colleagues might want to listen to the Minister a bit now.
Interestingly enough, I do not know what those nine stations are. I hope-the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) was present when it was said in his constituency and I met the coastguards there-that some proposals are made to us. Proposals in some shape or form, not dissimilar to those we have been discussing, have been on the table for a considerable time-before I became the Minister; when the shadow Minister had the role. The chief coastguard has been in the role for two years. He said to Back Benchers yesterday that the proposal was on the table when he arrived two years ago.
The debate is about: where, how many, resilience and how we take this into the 21st century. As much as there is expertise in, passion for, dedication to and, in some cases, love for the coastguard service, it is not a 21st century service. If we try to say, "It's okay. We could each individually save our coastguard station," we are not doing the service justice. We have to make progress.
There is a debate about the matter, and when I first looked at the list, there was certainly a discussion on which stations would close, which would go to part-time working and which would be made into larger hub stations-the national resilience stations. The hon. Member for Sefton Central is absolutely right: Liverpool was listed for closure. I apologise, if it is not technically Liverpool, but it is Liverpool on the paper. I said, "No. It is a very balanced argument between Belfast and Liverpool." We will look at that matter.
Lady Hermon: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: No, I will not give way because I did not do so before. I looked again at Scotland, where there was a similar situation. We looked at the document and inserted the other stations, so that we could balance the two that I mentioned.
Let me discuss what we are proposing and what we have got now. I have heard some passionate contributions from hon. Members who represent areas from all over the country. What is great about having this post is that the subject with which I deal is not devolved; it is about the United Kingdom, complete and in its entirety. It is about the protection of the fleet, of people on holiday and of communities, whether people are visiting the community or not. Let us consider what we have today. I shall use one classic example and look at Belfast,
which is the only station in Northern Ireland. That station is paired with Clyde. If Belfast-Bangor station-goes down, where is all that knowledge and information, which is mostly stored in people's heads, not on paper? It is lost. If we have a power cut or resilience problems, the station that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) represents is paired with Clyde. After listening to the hon. Lady's arguments, with the best will in the world, Clyde does not have that knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge is trapped in Belfast and in Northern Ireland. The same applies to Falmouth, Brixham and the Humber.
Andrew George: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: No, I will not. I have listened to the debate. To be fair, hon. Members asked for a debate and I need to respond to it. As we go around the country, each station is paired with another one. However, there is not a transfer of knowledge. Falmouth is internationally renowned for its international rescue capabilities. If we have a problem in Falmouth, where does that get picked up? Nowhere.
Mike Penning: If Falmouth goes down, the relevant knowledge does not exist anywhere else.
Mike Penning: It does not. The knowledge is in Falmouth. The international rescue knowledge is based there. I know that everyone will try to defend their own individual situations, but we have to bring that knowledge together and use it.
Dr Wollaston: I take issue with the Minister because I know that Brixham coastguard takes over from Falmouth in international incidents, when Falmouth is unable to respond.
Mike Penning: The case that we heard earlier, which was brilliantly made on behalf of Falmouth, referred to the fact that it is the centre of excellence. That is the place with all the knowledge, all the information, all the expertise and skill. It is not duplicated identically across stations.
Albert Owen: Will the Minister give way on that point?
Mike Penning: I gave way previously because I specifically referred to Falmouth. If we are to go forward, we have to be honest with our constituents about what is going on. Let me just touch on some of the points and some of the things I have heard on the airwaves and read in the paper.
There will be no reduction in the cover provided to rescue people. The service provided by those fantastic almost completely voluntary people who give up their time to go out will be enhanced and invested in. That service will not under any circumstances be touched. We will invest and go forward. They know that. We worked with the unions very early on and we talked to them all the way through. It is wrong-really wrong-to use emotive language and say that people would die if
these changes take place because there is no evidence for that. I listened to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) earlier talking about such things. I have been at incidents where people have died. I have gone in and done everything possible, like the people in the crew that was mentioned. We do not know whether that crew would have got there any quicker under a new or existing system. What I will do-this has been touched on several times in the past few minutes-is publish the risk assessment next week; not at the end of the consultation, but next week. That will mean that everyone, including hon. Members' constituents, can look at it. I have been accused of not publishing it and not acting. It will be published next week and it can be part of the consultation as we go forward.
Ian Paisley: Will the Minister give way?
Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman will have to bear with me because I have two minutes left.
We should not sit back and, on behalf of our constituents, say that we think all stations can stay open and that everything is fine. I know that the previous Government looked at the matter because it was on the table when I was appointed. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)-I call him my hon. Friend because we have been friends for many years-has been sensible and this has been quite a sensible debate. What worries me is that, when hon. Members go home, they will say to their local papers tonight-I have seen such things in the papers that land on my desk in the morning-that lives are at risk and are going to be lost. The headlines will be : "Cuts to your service," "Cuts to the frontline," "Cuts to this." That is not going to happen. There will be job losses. Some will be voluntary and some will be compulsory.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Some 200 jobs are going.
Mike Penning: We do not know the numbers.
On a point of order, Mr Hancock. The Minister has made reference to the unions agreeing with his proposals in some form. I would not wish him
to mislead the House. I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union group in Parliament. That group represents 500 members who will be affected. The unions have not supported these proposals and will not accept 220 jobs being cut, which they believe will put lives at risk.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): That is not a point of order, Mr McDonnell, but an issue for debate. There are 30 seconds left.
Mike Penning: This is a very healthy debate. I have worked with the unions and sat down with them. They know that there needs to be change and they also know that there will be job losses. That was discussed before I became the Minister and since. A trade union dispute has gone on that has affected these wonderful volunteers for years. That has to stop.
I agree, Mr Hancock, that the matter needs further debate. My closing comments are these. The consultation is open. The matter is not actually decided. I will be in Belfast the week after next. I will be in Scotland. I should have been in Stornoway last week, but I could not go. I will do my best to go around, and my officials will be at the public meetings-
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry that I had to cut in on you, Minister. Can Members who are leaving do so quietly and quickly? We have a Division.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I am delighted to say that we can start in advance of 4.15 as most of the participants in the debate are in the room. It is a unique occasion to have a Liberal Democrat in the Chair, a Liberal Democrat as the Minister replying and a Liberal Democrat Member opening the debate. It must be a first.
Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): I begin by reading what a constituent of mine, Jan Laverick, who suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis, wrote to describe her condition:
"ME is sudden and extreme muscle weakness to the point of not being able to lift a glass. It is collapsing with exhaustion and not being able to move for hours. It is struggling to sit up long enough to eat a meal that has been placed in your lap. It is tachycardia, seizures, paralysis and black outs. It is sensitivity to light, sound and touch. It is extreme abdominal bloating, nausea, loss of appetite, excruciating stomach cramps...It is daily fevers and sweats. It is inflammation and horrendous joint, nerve and muscle pain. Imagine suffering from these symptoms only to find there is little research into the cause or cure, that you might not be taken seriously by your GP or the benefits system. Your condition might even have been dismissed as 'yuppie flu'."
I welcome the fact that the Department of Health now accepts ME as a genuine medical condition. However, it is clear from speaking to sufferers and medical professionals that diagnosis can still pose a problem because ME symptoms are similar to those present in several other medical conditions. I recognise that one of the main obstacles to the adequate treatment of ME is the lack of knowledge and consensus about the disease, and I will argue that funding and research must be focused on the biomedical factors involved, and not simply on managing the psychological symptoms.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a subject that I know is close to his heart. It has been raised with me, as it has with him, by a number of constituents who are concerned about it. I echo his comments and point out that, at present, no funding is available for biomedical research into the causation of ME. Does he agree-I believe he just said that he does-that this is an area we want the Government to look at again, and that we should encourage them to take seriously?
Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Gentleman; indeed, that is right. I am not sure whether no funding is available, but it certainly is the minority of funding, and that seriously needs addressing.
My goal is to see the Government-funded Medical Research Council work with ME sufferers and biomedical researchers to achieve a proper understanding of the condition's challenges and to change the unjust perceptions of it.
Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is almost a year since I had a similar debate, but I am not sure that we have moved on since then. Recently, the MRC announced £1.5 million for research, but does he agree that there appears not to be an overall strategy to deal with research into ME, and that there still seems to be concentration on the symptoms and not enough attention given to the causes?
Ian Swales: I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, the lack of a strategy focused on the latest information is one of the problems.
I was delighted that two days after this debate was announced, the MRC announced £1.5 million for further research into ME-I am sure that it was just a coincidence. That important step shows that leading medical researchers and the Government are finally admitting that current thinking on ME is inadequate.
The condition affects an estimated 250,000 people in the UK. It is not a disease of the elderly: onset commonly occurs during the 20s to 40s in adults, and between 11 and 14 in children, wrecking the lives of so many young people. Studies show that the vast majority of patients never return to their pre-illness level of functioning, and relapses can occur several years after remission. ME is an extremely complex disease for which there is no scientifically proven cause or cure. The main symptom is severe fatigue following almost any mental or physical activity which does not go away with sleep or rest. That often leads to its being defined under the term "chronic fatigue syndrome". However, an important step in changing the misleading perceptions of ME is to recognise that CFS is a loose umbrella classification covering a wide range of illnesses of which fatigue is a prominent symptom, and that those illnesses may be neurological, malignant, infective, toxic, genetic or psychiatric in nature. Fatigue is a loosely defined symptom which can occur to some degree in a wide range of conditions.
Using that umbrella term has further compounded the already significant obstacles to the diagnosis and treatment of ME, which is now identified on the basis of at least nine different definitions. A major problem lies in the fact that different types of illness are also contained under the CFS umbrella. That makes sound scientific research difficult to conduct, as different illnesses have different biomarkers. A research group that consists of people with completely different physical and psychological causes of their fatigue or tiredness can have only limited use, and certainly cannot lead to the development of any sound findings on the causes of ME.
ME, on the other hand, has a clear definition. The term "myalgic" means muscle pain, while "encephalomyelitis" means inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and represents a clearly defined disease process which has been included in the World Health Organisation's "International Classification of Diseases" since 1969. That poses the obvious question of why research has been mainly focused on psychological symptoms, when the very definition of the disease refers to a physiological condition. "Fatigue" is also a clumsy way of describing a complex range of extremely debilitating symptoms. It is not the kind of fatigue that non-sufferers would recognise. ME, as we heard from my constituent, can involve sudden and extreme muscle weakness to the point of not being able to lift a glass. What recognition is there in the Department that ME is distinct and different from the much broader term CFS? Equally, in the light of the recent MRC funding announcement, I urge the Minister to encourage the Department to focus its research, as treating ME/CFS as a single homogeneous condition will only encounter the problems I have just outlined.
That blurring can also lead to a uniform approach to treatment, which is unreasonable and even dangerous. An indiscriminate, blanket approach to treatment was advised by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in 2007, no matter what the disease process, infectious agent or psychological condition. Again, the
symptom of fatigue gets flagged up and treated in the same way in nearly all cases. That can be ineffective for many, and positively dangerous for others. That lack of recognition of ME specifically happens at every level; yet I believe it essential that GPs have the ability to spot ME early and to prescribe appropriate, tailored advice. I would like the Government to recognise the many differences between and subtleties of ME and CFS, and urge the Minister to do the same, as the current treatment guidelines are completely unacceptable.
I decided to call for this debate because the issue has been under-researched. The lack of understanding and stigma surrounding ME have meant that sufferers have had to live with the condition without recourse to the treatments and research they deserve. I initially tabled early-day motion 778 to gauge support, and I am delighted to report that, as of yesterday, 100 colleagues from all parties have put their names to it. That shows the strong feeling in Parliament that significant changes need to be made. There has been a distinct lack of funding into ME research in the past decade. Between 2000 and 2003, not a single penny was spent by the MRC on researching the condition. Things did improve, peaking with just over £1.3 million allocated in 2007-08, but that dropped to just £109,000 in 2009-10.
I welcome the recent funding announcement. However, more than 80% of the MRC's expenditure on ME research so far has been allocated to psycho-social therapies, instead of biomedical studies to prove the existence of a physical cause. That research has continued to pursue a well-trodden path and ignored a vast landscape of other, potentially more rewarding areas. I am concerned to see whether the new MRC funding will focus on that biomedical work. Not only has there been a palpable lack of funding for research; a past study commissioned by the Department of Health found that the quality of research was poor. For a long-term condition that affects 250,000 people in this country, with no known cause or cure and huge costs to the NHS, the amount of research funding dedicated to it, even with the recent announcement, is pitiful.
Misinformation, widespread confusion and ignorance about ME and CFS have resulted in people with entirely different illnesses receiving the same diagnosis. A London sufferer, David Eden, drew my attention to some interesting research that has been taking place in the United States. Recent studies by the Whittemore Peterson Institute, the National Cancer Institute and the Cleveland Clinic have linked ME with the presence of a newly discovered retrovirus. Blood from 68 of 101 ME patients was found to contain a human gammaretrovirus, xenotropic murine leukaemia virus-XMRV-while only eight of 218 healthy patients were found to have the same retrovirus. While that result grabbed headlines, most subsequent studies have been less clear, although one other study did support the original findings. It remains uncertain as to whether XMRV is linked to ME and is involved in causation. I would like to encourage the Minister, therefore, to explore other areas of research, such as retroviruses, in order to ascertain once and for all whether they play a part in ME. To judge by the contact I have had with sufferers, there is constant frustration that the Government are failing to fund research into key areas.
Another, more practical consideration is the recognition of ME by the benefits system. Currently, disability living allowance is assessed by severity of condition,
and ME is treated like the vast majority of other conditions. Due to the lack of overt clinical findings, much of the assessment rests on anecdotal evidence and whether the person's description of their disability is consistent with their daily activities. However, despite the guidance on conducting these interviews, an ME sufferer will only be able to attend such a session on a good day. It is therefore impossible to judge accurately the severity of the condition at the assessment interview. I would argue that a more flexible approach to ME is needed. The effects of the condition can wax and wane unpredictably, meaning that often, a person's DLA is withdrawn because of a short-term respite of the symptoms. There needs to be more consultation with and input from GPs and other medical professionals who are in contact with the individual over a prolonged period. Obviously, I understand that this issue is not directly the Minister's responsibility. However, I strongly urge him to make representations, and to make this case, to the Department for Work and Pensions.
I thank hon. Members and the Minister for listening. To end the plight of ME sufferers, appropriate and correctly targeted biomedical research into the causes of the disease must be funded. GPs must be properly apprised of the specifics of ME; sufferers' disability must be recognised in the benefits system, with the support of GPs; ME and CFS must be properly classified; and fatigue must no longer be used as a catch-all symptom. The current situation, which has endured for decades, cannot be allowed to continue. As things stand, 250,000 men, women and children, their families and carers, face terrible injustice and neglect. I call on the Government to put that right.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Paul Burstow): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock, with the coincidence of speaker and respondent in the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate, and thank him and other hon. Members for their contributions. This is not the first time the House has debated these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) raised them-as have others, including me-when in opposition. My local ME support group has been encouraging, and what it has taught me has been an invaluable part of how an MP gets an insight into a condition they might not personally suffer.
I realise that this is a difficult and controversial subject, and I can understand why feelings run high. I appreciate the difficult and desperate struggles that people often face to achieve clinical recognition and relief from the condition, and a sense of hope that there is a direction of travel toward understanding the underlying causes, and eventually getting a cure.
I will ensure that the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar about benefits are passed on to ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. Although he made some important points in that regard, I will not address them as they are above my pay grade-or certainly outside it.
The basic challenge is that we do not know with any confidence what causes the distressing symptoms-indeed, the condition itself-that my hon. Friend so clearly
described. That is why he is right, as is the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), to highlight the need for research. On my hon. Friend's point about defining the condition, until we have a strong clinical evidence base, we have to keep an open mind about whether this is one condition or a number of conditions with similar symptoms but different causes. The Department does follow, and will continue to follow for the time being, the World Health Organisation convention in how we describe and refer to the condition-that is, to call it CFS/ME. That is the WHO definition; it is not a specific term that the Department of Health has alighted on and no one else uses. It is important that that be understood.
On present understanding, that definition best captures the spectrum of symptoms and effects that characterise the illness. As yet, there is no cure nor any consistently effective treatment for the condition. As my hon. Friend rightly said, we do not even have a standard diagnostic test to confirm the condition. Diagnosis is possible only through excluding other illnesses with similar symptoms. There is, however, strong international consensus that CFS/ME is a chronic and disabling neurological illness. I want to stress that it is a neurological illness; it is not a mental health problem. I know that that suggestion causes great concern-and, arguably, offence-for many sufferers who have campaigned vociferously against it. The strength of many people's reaction to that label says a lot about the stigma that is still attached to mental illness, and about the attitudes of health professionals towards it. We seek to tackle those two problems in the mental health strategy that the Government have published today.
Although CFS/ME has no psychological foundation, that does not mean that we cannot gain lessons and insights from cognitive behavioural therapy, and that where appropriate, it should not be used as part of a treatment plan, just as it is for many other long-term health conditions. The NICE guidelines, to which my hon. Friend has referred, include counselling and graded exercise as possible treatment options. Let me emphasise the words "possible" and "guidelines." Neither of those things is mandated, but they could form part of a conversation between the clinician and an individual about the appropriate, personalised approach to their situation.
The guidelines seek to help a person to manage their symptoms as much as possible. In lieu of any clinical cure, that is about social recovery and helping people to manage their symptoms, be clear about their goals and define their own recovery, rather than simply prescribing a clinical treatment. We know that the treatment in the guidelines helps some patients but, as my hon. Friend has said, for many people it does not help at all, and some people find it offensive. The obvious point-I will return to this in a moment-is that a doctor needs to work with the patient to find the most appropriate way forward. That is why personalisation is at the heart of our general approach to long-term conditions, which is critical in this debate.
With no cure, research is naturally a source of hope for those with the condition, and my hon. Friend has made a powerful and compelling case for further investment. However, it is not as simple as the Government saying,
"We will the end but we are not clear about the means when it comes to research," and it is not a case of allocating a research pot to a specific disease type. Down that road lies poor research, not discovery and real change.
We are protecting health research budgets overall. That decision was taken from the centre and made by the Chancellor in the spending review. However, decisions about how money is allocated remain-rightly-with the Medical Research Council and other funding bodies, not with a Minister behind a desk in Whitehall. That must be the case with other funding bodies.
The MRC has nominated CFS/ME as a strategic priority area for several years. Indeed, it has set up an expert group to focus specifically on the condition in a way that did not happen previously. The group comprises leading academics from across the country, as well as representatives from several organisations that have direct experience and interest in the condition. They are working together to improve the capacity and opportunities for research in the area.
My hon. Friend has acknowledged as good news the fact that the MRC is making up to £1.5 million available to support research into the causes of CFS/ME, which is welcome. Decisions on funding will continue to be made purely on the quality of research funding received. Critically, as in any area where we need more research, that sends a clear signal that the money is there and that there is a willingness to commit funds to research. The gauntlet has been thrown down to the research community to rise to the challenge and ensure that there are enough bids of sufficient quality to draw in that funding.
The funding call will focus on six priority areas identified by the expert group- autonomic dysfunction, cognitive symptoms, fatigue, immune problems, pain management and sleep disorders. I will ensure that the MRC and other research bodies look at this debate and see the additional points that have been made about biomedical research, so that that can be taken into account by the expert groups.
The call will also seek to build up research capacity, because one of the challenges has been attracting more researchers into the field. The expert group can only achieve so much on its own and, if I may be blunt, there has been a history of fractiousness and fragmentation between different groups with an interest in the area. Often, it is easy to agree on what we do not like, but harder to agree on the common ground and what the course of action should be to change things. I understand the heightened emotions that are often articulated by constituents who suffer from the condition, and I have spoken about that to people in my surgery. However, we will not achieve anything if organisations do not work together and engage with one another to find common ground and build alliances.
All patient groups need to look outwards and be positive about how they can work with the NHS, the Department, medical researchers and each other to influence change. One big challenge is to get more researchers interested in that area of work, but we are sometimes in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot by failing to show a united front.
Everyone with a stake in this area has an interest in ensuring that a constructive and supportive environment exists for research-that is key. Division and discord will not accelerate the pace of change, and I hope
that the reconstituted all-party group on Myalgic Encephalomyelitis will play its part in facing that challenge and driving us forward.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the XMRV retrovirus, and I want to underline his point. It is an area in which research is not conclusive and where further research is being pursued to establish whether there is a link. At this time, however, there is no robust evidence to suggest such a link. Research can provide hope for the future, but we need to do more now to improve care for people with the condition.
The NHS does not always get it right for people with long-term conditions in general, let alone those with CFS/ME. The problems faced by people with CFS/ME are consistent with those caused by other conditions. Care is fragmented rather than integrated, and people struggle to be referred to a specialist in a timely and appropriate way. Most importantly, there is a sense that health professionals see the condition, rather than the person in front of them. Although this debate is about how we describe CFS/ME, it taps into some basic ideas. All too often, the label ends up mattering more than the person. Health professionals decide how people are treated and to which services they should be referred, but that should not be the most important determinate. We want the patient and doctor to work in partnership in the consulting room, meeting as two experts-one on the person, and one on the appropriate ways to support and treat them.
The greater use of personalisation and care planning can play a part, and that must be an explicit part of the Government's plans for the NHS. However, it goes deeper than that, because it is really about patients being given the power of self-determination. The idea of, "No decision about me, without me," should be a governing principle of the NHS. People should be asked to set their own personal goals and work together with professionals to achieve them. Everybody is different, and we must ensure that the care they receive reflects that.
My hon. Friend did not mention commissioning, but it is important to touch on that issue. To achieve these changes and get the right services and specialists, we must make sure that support is available. I know from
my own constituency that excellent work is done in specialist CFS/ME clinics to integrate care for patients. Nevertheless, there is patchiness around the country that compromises the quality of treatment and reduces the options available. That is why we must improve commissioning, and GP consortia can help us involve patients much more in how local services are shaped.
I stress that the future of the NHS is local, not national. It is about local NHS and local GP consortia working with local patients' groups and making decisions based on a clear understanding of their needs and local needs. To commission effectively, GPs must understand the needs of patients with long-term conditions.
I hope that the Neurological Alliance can play an important role in that. Nationally and regionally, it has support networks that can make a huge difference by levering change in the commissioning of neurological services. I urge groups with an interest in CFS/ME to engage with the Neurological Alliance, use it, work through it and form connections with it, as a way of shaping and changing services in the future.
In conclusion, there are real opportunities ahead, and a real chance to address some of the frustrations and misery experienced by people with this condition. My message, and that of the Department of Health, is that there is an open invitation for representative groups to get involved in shaping the future of the NHS. We want the Neurological Alliance to be a key source of advice and support for GP consortia and health and well-being boards at local level. I am sure that the new NHS commissioning board will be keen to build links with the alliance in forming national policy.
The urgency exists, and the additional commitment to drive long-term conditions to the top of the agenda is one of the Government's ambitions. I thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues, and we will continue to work together to make sure that we improve the lot of his constituents and those of other hon. Members.
Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr Burstow. I ask those hon. Members who are not involved in the next debate to leave the Chamber quietly and speedily.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I begin the debate by warmly praising the work of Devon and Cornwall police. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Devon and Cornwall live in the fourth safest place in England. My experience as the MP for Exeter means that I know at first hand of the tireless work that my local police and community support officers and, indeed, civilian staff do in tackling and deterring crime, bringing down antisocial behaviour and making the people of Exeter feel safer on the streets.
Crime in Devon and Cornwall fell by a whopping 11% last year alone. That fall was unprecedented in times of economic recession, and it followed year-on-year falls in crime throughout the period of the Labour Government-a period during which crime fell by 43% nationally and by even more in Devon and Cornwall. I pay tribute to the men and women of Devon and Cornwall police and to their excellent chief constable, Stephen Otter, for such a fantastic record.
However, I fear that that record is about to be undone. It is inconceivable that the level of cuts being forced on Devon and Cornwall police by the present Government's reckless economic policies will not make it harder for our police to fight and deter crime. Before and after the election, we were assured by the Prime Minister and others that the cuts would not affect front-line policing. We now know those claims not to have been true. That is coming not from me or from Labour's shadow Home Secretary, but from Devon and Cornwall police themselves. They now have to cut £47 million, or 25%, from their budget during the spending review period. Seven hundred police officer posts are to go-that is a massive one in five officers from the current 3,500.
The chief constable, an accomplished diplomat who chooses his words very carefully, said that he was "disappointed", adding that the settlement was
"even worse than we had anticipated it would be."
Sergeant Nigel Rabbitts, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall police federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, says that some west country communities will never see a police officer in future. Even in those areas that will continue to see a police presence, the provision that was promised and ensured under the previous Labour Government of a dedicated police officer and community support officer will be unsustainable, according to an internal document published by Devon and Cornwall police about how they will cope with the cuts.
To add insult to injury, the Government have also scrapped the extra funding that Labour made available to Devon and Cornwall in recognition of the challenges and extra costs involved in policing a large rural region. It is deeply ironic that Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians who used to moan about the Labour Government ignoring rural areas-often flying in the face of the evidence-are now taking away Labour's rural policing grant. Devon and Cornwall's chief constable has made it clear that that will have a further disproportionate impact on Devon and Cornwall. Sergeant Rabbitts said that the force had been-I do not know whether this is unparliamentary language-"shafted" by the Minister's Department. Brian Greenslade, the former leader of Devon Liberal Democrats and head of
the Liberal Democrat group in the Association of Police Authorities, said that Devon and Cornwall had been the "big loser" in the funding round.
At a time when our police services are facing the most savage cuts in their history, why are the Government embarking on a costly and dangerous restructuring of the police that no one wants? The Government's proposals for elected police commissioners are madness, and the last thing we need against the current financial backdrop.
Mike Bull, the chairman of Devon and Cornwall police authority, which, let us not forget, is dominated by Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, is withering in his assessment of the Government's proposals. He says that they are a "shocking waste of money" that will bring "party politics into policing". He goes on to warn that a low turnout in the proposed election for a police commissioner could lead to extremists such as the British National party taking control of the police. Writing last month in our regional newspaper, the Western Morning News, Mr Bull asks:
"How...can one person be in touch with and understand the different communities across Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly?"
The cost of the election for the police commissioner will be nearly £2 million, not including the commissioner's proposed salary of £120,000. That is the equivalent of employing 50 police constables every year, and far more than the cost of the current police authority.
I therefore have a number of questions that I would be grateful if the Minister responded to. Why did he and the Home Secretary get such a poor deal from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the comprehensive spending review? Does he accept that the level of cuts imposed on Devon and Cornwall will mean-contrary to assurances given by the Prime Minister-that front-line policing is hit? On what basis has he scrapped the rural policing grant? Will he accept that that will hit Devon and Cornwall particularly badly? Why are the Government forcing us to have elected police commissioners? Will the Minister not accept that they are a waste of money and risk politicising our police? Can he name a single Conservative or Liberal Democrat member of Devon and Cornwall police authority who thinks they are a good idea? Where are the west country Conservative and Lib Dem MPs queuing up to intervene in this debate in support of the Government's proposals? Will the Minister rethink these disastrous plans before he does even more damage to our police?
I would be grateful if we did not get the usual excuses that we get from Ministers about having no choice in how they cut the deficit. Of course the deficit needs to be cut, and there are economies to be made in the police as there are in all our public services, but the present Government have taken the deliberate decision to eradicate the deficit in a single Parliament. The consequences of such recklessness are clear from last week's terrible growth figures-or rather, economic contraction figures-which saw Britain's economy go into reverse in the last quarter of last year. Let us contrast that with Barack Obama in America. He is following the course that we in the Labour party advocate, resulting in growth of 3.5% in the same period.
The Government's wrong-headed approach to the economy is not only wrecking the recovery, as we warned it would, but doing untold damage to our vital public
services, such as Devon and Cornwall police, completely unnecessarily, and risks reversing the huge improvements that we have seen in recent years.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I regret to say that I disagreed with almost every word that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said. Normally it is possible in these debates to agree about a great deal-about the value of the local force and so on-and I certainly agree with him in his assessment of the chief constable, but many of the points that he made were party political and he has not addressed what I accept are the considerable challenges that confront policing generally and his local force in a way that is sensible or helpful to the debate.
First, we have to deal with the deficit, but the right hon. Gentleman appears to be in denial about that. He should know that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was briefly shadow Home Secretary, accepted that the police would have to be cut. He said that he agreed with the independent inspectorate of constabulary that the police could make savings of some £1 billion a year. The previous shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), when he was Home Secretary, refused, at the time of the general election, to guarantee police numbers. The Opposition have admitted that they would have made significant cuts in policing. We also know that they had £40 billion-worth of cuts, but they had not said how they would make them.
There is no disagreement about the fact that, in the current circumstances, the police would have to make savings, because there would be cuts to their budgets under Governments of either party. We might disagree about the scale of the cuts, but for the right hon. Gentleman to pretend to his local force that it will not have to make savings is wrong.
I simply do not accept-I shall return to this-that because forces have to make savings as part of their contribution to dealing with the deficit, it will necessarily impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the service that they provide to the public. The right hon. Gentleman did not make the case that there would be a detrimental effect on the public; he simply asserted it and quoted one sergeant. That is not a responsible suggestion. All parties agree that forces will have to make savings. We need to debate how the forces can make savings, and where the priorities should lie.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman said that we have scrapped extra funding for Devon and Cornwall police. I understood him to mean that we have scrapped the rural policing fund.
The right hon. Gentleman did not note that we have maintained the neighbourhood policing fund, which will enable the continued funding of police community support officers for the next two years. It will then be for the locally elected police and crime commissioners to decide how to deploy those funds-I shall return to that later. The general direction of travel is to roll all those grants into one, so as to give greater
discretion to chief officers about how they can spend the money, but it is not true to say that we scrapped extra funding simply because the grant has gone.
The rural policing fund has been consolidated into the rule 2 grant, which has been the case since 2006-07. The decision behind rolling the rule 2 grant, the crime fighting fund and the basic command unit fund into the main police grant from 2011-12 is, as I have argued, to give more freedom. The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that no force will lose funding as a result of rolling that grant into the main grant over the next two years.
Mr Bradshaw: Is the Minister saying that the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall is wrong on that point?
Nick Herbert: I am not sure, because I do not know exactly what he was quoting the chief constable as saying. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman, and if necessary the chief constable, that the nominal loss of the rural policing fund will not mean that forces will lose funding in the next two years. It is simply that the grants have been rolled into one. The right hon. Gentleman has said that we have scrapped extra funding, and he has implied that we somehow do not care about rural areas, but I challenge him on that.
I meet chief constables regularly, and I have spoken to the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall. I recognise the significant challenge that he faces, and I realise that he has to make considerable savings. There will be a loss of police officers, which will not be easy for him, the force and the staff who will have to go. However, I am impressed with his commitment to do everything that he can do drive savings in areas that will ensure that service to the public is not reduced. Indeed, his declared ambition is to improve the service that the public receive and to improve the visibility of local officers, despite the savings that he has to make. That can be done by more effective deployment, by changing shift patterns and by improving productivity on the front line. He tells me that his ambition is for the number of police officers engaged in local policing to go up slightly. Chief constables, including in Devon and Cornwall, are rising to the challenge of reduced funding, recognise the situation that forces are in and are finding savings, in accordance with the view of the independent inspectorate of constabulary that those savings are available.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that the Home Secretary reached a poor deal with the Chancellor, but I disagree. The reduction in grant is lower than was indicated by the Chancellor at the time of the emergency Budget. It is a 20% loss of overall grant in real terms over four years, but that does not take account of the fact that the force meets about a third of its funding from local council tax payers through the precept. When that is taken into account, the loss in grant faced by the force is not 20% in real terms over four years. I accept that it is a significant sum, but the savings can be made.
I do not agree-in fact, I strongly disagree-with what the right hon. Gentleman said about police and crime commissioners. It was the previous Government's policy to introduce direct accountability into police authorities, and they proposed two sets of policies before abandoning them. He should know that is now
Opposition policy to have directly elected police chairs of police authorities, but the cost of holding those direct elections once every four years would be exactly the same as the cost of electing police and crime commissioners. His argument that the policy is unacceptable on cost grounds goes out of the window. That is now Opposition policy, which would cost more.
I want to make it clear that we are determined that police and crime commissioners will cost no more to run than police authorities, because there is no reason why they should do so. However, there will be a cost to holding elections for these new posts once every four years. It will cost £50 million once every four years, but that money has been found by the Chancellor and allocated to the Home Office. The money will not come out of individual force budgets, because it was separately negotiated by the Home Secretary and provided separately by the Chancellor. It is not true to say that money has been wasted on this policy. In any case, it is a bad argument against the introduction of democracy in any form to object to it on the ground of cost.
How many referendums did the Labour party propose in its manifesto? Did the party advance arguments of cost when it proposed referendums left, right and centre in its manifesto? No, it did not. Does the Labour party advance the argument that we should not hold a referendum on AV in May on the ground that the referendum will cost money? No, I do not think so. The cost will be minimal-it is a tiny fraction of the overall policing budget-and it will be incurred only once every four years.
The benefit will be far greater accountability, because an elected individual will represent people in the force area and hold the police to account. That will help to drive more efficient and efficient policing that is responsive to the local community. It is not surprising that members of police authorities are opposed to this policy, because the authorities will be abolished. I hardly expect their members to say that they would like to go, and many of them are campaigning to keep their positions.
A single elected individual will represent the whole of Devon and Cornwall, holding the police force there to account just as the chairman of the police authority covers the whole area now. Every local authority will be represented on the police and crime panel, including district councils, and they have not been represented before in the governance of policing. Local areas will continue to have a say.
Mr Bradshaw: I do not think that Conservative members of Devon and Cornwall police authority will take kindly to the Minister's suggestion that they oppose the idea only because they are worried about their own jobs. These are honourable people who have entered public service and who care about the quality of the police authority. The chairman of the authority, Mike Bull, is non-political and independent. He has no interest in defending the police authority, because his term of office will come to an end. Those are not my words-they are what he said about the costs and drawbacks of the Minister's proposals. If the Minister's proposals are so good and so popular, why is it that no member of his party in Devon and Cornwall supports them?
Nick Herbert: I was just making the point that I do not expect members of police authorities to be first in line in supporting a policy when their own positions are to be abolished. Their stance is hardly surprising. The general direction of travel towards democratic reform and having a greater democratic say in policing has been very popular in London, and it will be in the rest of the country.
I also reject the argument that the policy will somehow allow extremists to be elected. We know that the British National party polled a very low share of the vote nationally at the general election-I think that it was less than 2% of the national vote. It polled 15% in its best performance in a parliamentary constituency, which was in Barking where Nick Griffin stood. Given the size of the constituencies that we are talking about in relation to directly elected police and crime commissioners and the electoral system, it is almost inconceivable that such people will be elected. In fact, that argument is a complete red herring. The people must decide whom they wish to represent them, and it is right to give the people a say.
In conclusion, I am always willing to talk about the challenges confronting Devon and Cornwall police. I am absolutely committed to helping the force deliver efficient and effective policing and to ensuring that the officers will be there for the public who value and need them. I appreciate that the force, like other forces around the country, faces a considerable challenge. We have treated all forces equally, with each having to make an equal share of the cut. Chief constables know what the challenge is, and it is essential that they continue to drive savings in the back office, as the inspectorate says that they can, and drive savings in the middle office-
Mr Bradshaw: The Minister has referred to the inspectorate's report three times now. Will he confirm that the report that he is talking about from the inspectorate of constabulary stated that a "redesign" of the police system could
"at best...save 12% of central government funding"?
That is nowhere near the cuts that his Government are now imposing, which is an important distinction.
Nick Herbert: I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the speech that I gave to the City Forum last week. I set out how the savings that the inspectorate identified-they amount to more than £1 billion a year, which is, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, equivalent to 12% of central Government funding-can be delivered. There were also other things that the inspectorate did not take into account. For instance, there are the savings that will be realised from the two-year pay freeze. Those savings will amount to some £350 million. Some £380 million of savings are expected to be realised from procuring IT and other equipment together. Those were not taken into account in the inspectorate's report.
There are also a number of other ways in which we can make savings. If police forces work together and redesign their businesses, we are confident that we can drive real savings in such a way that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of policing and not affect the service that the public expect-front-line policing, officers in neighbourhoods and on the streets, satisfactory response times and the investigation that is needed if crimes are committed. We believe that the service can be improved even as it becomes leaner.
I do not underestimate the challenge that faces the whole force, but we are in this position because, to quote the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the previous Government, "There is no money." This Government were left with the biggest fiscal deficit in our peacetime history. It is our responsibility to deal with it and it is in the long-term interests of all our public services that we deal with it. We must ask the police to make a share of the savings. We know that
they can do so, and we will do everything possible to support them and to continue to protect policing, including in Devon and Cornwall. I am absolutely committed to doing everything I can to secure that and to working with the chief constable.