29 Mar 2011 : Column 43WH

The hon. Gentleman also touched on independent financial advisers. He should be aware that their advice is not free; it is paid for through commission, and it is not always entirely transparent how much is being paid. A move to a fee-based system will help improve transparency. It is important that consumers receive good quality advice. We live in a complex world of financial services, and as a Minister I deal with too many cases of consumers being given bad advice and paying a high price for that. There is a strong consumer-friendly element in the reforms.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the financial services compensation scheme levy. It pays for the cost of failure among IFAs. It is an important part of the mechanism to give consumers confidence that if something goes wrong, the bill is picked up so that they are not left out of pocket. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Financial Services Compensation Scheme should be reformed, and that someone else should pick up the levy, he should be clear which sectors should do so. My experience is that people are keen to offload the responsibility to someone else, but never clear who that should be. The scheme ensures that the sector swallows its own smoke.

Turning to the main issues raised by my hon. Friend the. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I recognise his concerns about the significant impact of branch closures in his constituency, and the fact that the HSBC branch in Rhayader has only limited opening hours. I also recognise that although people in rural areas experience the same financial challenges as people in towns and cities, living in a rural area may bring additional challenges. Exclusion from financial services may be less visible in many ways in rural areas compared with urban areas.

My hon. Friend referred to micro-managing banks’ activities. I am not interested micro-managing them, and that is as true for the banks in which the state has a significant stake as for those in which we have no shareholding. However, banks and building societies should serve the economy, and we are committed to improving access to banking, and transparency of financial products for consumers. Decisions on opening and closing branches are taken by the management team of each bank and building society on a commercial basis, and the Government do not intervene in such decisions.

My hon. Friend should recognise that the role of banks is not just about branches. They play a much a wider role in helping the UK economy, and we reached agreement with them earlier this year to encourage them to work in partnership to support the recovery, to increase the amount of money they lend to small and medium-sized enterprises, and to pay out lower bonuses than last year. They are more transparent about their pay, and are making an additional contribution to support business growth and the big society bank of £1.2 billion. However, there is more work to do to improve access to financial services, certainly among the most vulnerable groups, by supporting financial mutuals, and improving competition in the banking sector.

We are committed to improving access to basic financial services, especially for those who are vulnerable to exclusion, and we are working actively to ensure that all

29 Mar 2011 : Column 44WH

consumers can access an appropriate mix of financial services. Bank and building society branches are not the only channels for accessing financial services, nor are they necessarily favoured by consumers on low incomes. For many people, the barriers are significantly greater than simply having no local bank or building society branch to visit.

It is important that financial services adapt so that they fit the grain of how people run their lives. For example, many consumers without bank accounts express a preference for managing their finances in cash. They want direct control over their spending, and often believe that a bank account takes that away from them. For many, the financial services with which they engage most often are not in bank branches.

That brings me to the post office network, which has more branches than all the retail banks put together. An important part of the Post Office’s future sustainability will be the continued growth of revenue from financial services. The Government have promised that there will be no programme of post office closures, and in last year’s spending review we promised to provide £1.34 billion for the Post Office to modernise the network and to safeguard its future, making it a stronger partner for the Royal Mail. We have also said that expansion of accessible and affordable personal financial services available through the Post Office should be a priority. Our ambition is that all UK current accounts should be accessible through the post office network, making post offices the convenient place for people to access their cash.

Roger Williams: I thank the Minister for his comments on the debate. On a practical issue, people tell me that the one thing they value about banks is that they can talk in private about their financial concerns. That facility is not available in post offices. If the Post Office is to deliver more financial services, it must address that issue, as well as availability, with the public.

Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As it expands the financial services that it offers, the Post Office will have to think about how to encourage take-up, and how to provide support and advice, if that is the route that it wants to take. I was about to acknowledge that the range of services that the Post Office will offer will not be the same as a community bank, which is an idea that he outlined.

There is a real challenge in putting in place the right model of financial services in rural communities. It is not right to mandate a particular model as being right. The impetus for new ways of developing services should come from the financial services sector. The hon. Member for Arfon complained about the HSBC branch that has become highly automated. The challenge there is whether that meant that the branch could stay open, and whether new technology is being used to keep more branches open by changing the way in which services are offered. There are some interesting challenges, and banks must work their way through them.

When thinking about how financial services best support families and businesses, particularly in rural areas, we must think more carefully about their changing nature. There is a risk of getting stuck in a particular view of how banking should work. People are turning increasingly to prepayment cards or e-money. For example, Tesco is making payment to short-term employees with

29 Mar 2011 : Column 45WH

an e-money card, instead of paying money into a bank account. We can learn from other countries how they have tried to get around lack of bank branches. We should think about developing new safe and convenient financial services using different channels.

Mutuals were mentioned a couple of times, and I am conscious of the excellent work done by credit unions, particularly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. Mutuals can be more accessible for those who cannot or do not want to access banks. The coalition is committed to a strong mutual sector that should have the capability to enrich British society. It is in everybody’s interest to do whatever we can to help the mutual sector prosper and grow, and for that to be achieved sustainably. Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue with the mutual sector about its ambitions, looking at what services it can offer and how it can overcome the hurdles that have been holding it back.

Although mutuals benefit from not having to pay dividends to their shareholders, they have an obligation to their members. They have to strike a balance between meeting their wider obligations and providing returns to their members through higher returns on savings or lower borrowing costs, ensuring that they remain viable and competitive. Such considerations are at the heart of every decision made by a building society.

As a consequence of the financial crisis, there is clearly an appetite for change in the way financial services operate, and mutuals stand well placed to respond to that challenge. To help achieve it, the Government are implementing several legislative reforms to help create a more equal playing field in financial services, thus promoting diversity and providing a challenge to banks.

The legislative reform order on industrial and provident societies and credit unions has been a long time coming. It will be re-laid before Parliament shortly, and will introduce basic yet far-reaching reforms that will enable credit unions to modernise and grow. We will also take forward the implementation of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010 after the legislative reform order comes into force. That will bring the industrial and provident society name into the 21st century, and modernise the powers available to update legislation in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about reducing the burdens on building societies. We will shortly lay an order that gives mutual societies—including building societies—the option to use electronic communications to engage with members and distribute certain statutory information, as opposed to sending it by hard copy. That will reduce costs to businesses and enable them to invest more in services.

In recent years, credit unions have made great progress in providing affordable financial services to people who could not otherwise access them. They provide an alternative to payday lending, loan sharks and home credit, and I

29 Mar 2011 : Column 46WH

want them to continue to develop and strengthen. We are providing additional support to those institutions outside the regulatory legislative process. Building on the financial inclusion growth fund, the Department for Work and Pensions will continue to support credit unions for four years through a new expansion and modernisation fund worth up to £73 million. The fund will seek to extend access to basic, appropriate financial services to many people on lower incomes, through modernising delivery and customer support systems.

Roger Williams: One concern relayed to me by mutual societies, particularly building societies, is about the burden of reporting that has to be done on a regular basis, presumably to the Financial Services Authority. That seems to be out of proportion to the risk that building societies present, and certainly to that presented by large commercial organisations.

Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point to which I should have responded earlier. He lays down a challenge about the burden imposed on building societies and other financial services organisations. The FSA has looked carefully at the regulation of building societies. He will be aware that building societies were affected during the financial crisis, and there were several rescues as they had to consolidate. The concern is that a number of them moved into areas in which they were not entirely comfortable or well resourced to deal with, and that put the building society and depositors at risk. We need to ensure a proportionate regime for regulating building societies that recognises the risks posed to members and financial stability.

One area in which the Government are taking forward further work to support building societies, and an issue building societies have raised as a consequence of the financial crisis, is the need to find new sources of capital. We are working closely with building societies to identify an instrument that enables them to raise capital markets, will help absorb losses if they occur in the future, and is consistent with enhancing the stability and security of the building society sector. We are taking active measures to strengthen the mutual sector because we believe that its diversity can act as a spur to further challenges to the banking sector. It is an important part of the architecture of financial services, not just in terms of providing mainstream products, but in trying to provide greater access to groups that are harder to reach.

I have been fortunate to have enough time to expand on the subject at some length. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that although the Government cannot intervene in the individual decisions taken by banks and building societies to close branches, we are committed to taking further steps to improve access to financial services throughout the country, in rural and urban areas alike. We recognise that particular challenges face financial services in rural areas, and we will continue to look carefully at those issues and listen to concerns raised by hon. Members.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 47WH

Solar Power and Feed-in Tariffs

12.26 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue today. I was astounded by the number of people who contacted me when they saw this debate was coming up, asking me to speak out against the Government’s proposals following the fast-tracked review of the feed-in tariff which has been in place for just 11 months. I know that the matter is subject to a consultation, but early in my speech I will be bold enough to suggest that the Minister and his team follow the example of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the sell-off of our forests, ditch the consultation and think again about the whole matter.

The feed-in tariff was designed under the assumption that the cost of a given technology comes down with increases in installed capacity. That has been the case in the solar PV market, and there have been impressive reductions in cost over the past 12 months, thanks in part to the feed-in tariff. I am told that in the past 12 months, market volume and competition have brought UK domestic prices down by at least 20%. In the same period, volatile oil prices have risen by 50%.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is he also aware that 300 new jobs have been created by Sharp Solar in my constituency on the back of the introduction of the feed-in tariff? Is he aware of any other policy that has been so successful so quickly?

Alex Cunningham: I am not aware of any policy that has been so successful so quickly, and I know that across the north-east of England, many jobs have been created as a result of that policy. Many more jobs could be created, but that could change under the Government’s change in policy.

The aspiration of the industry—and, I hope, the Government—is to bring the technology to the point where renewable energy will compete with grid electricity without subsidy. To put the matter firmly on the record, I have been told that even BP concedes that electricity from solar PV will be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020—a startling and very welcome statistic. To be clear, the Government’s decision to significantly reduce the tariff for schemes that are larger than 50 kW will cause havoc in this fledgling industry and make it less likely that community groups and schools, hospitals and churches will contemplate solar energy schemes, as they will simply be unaffordable. Schemes over 50 kW in size will see the feed-in tariff reduced by between 39% and 49%.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): If money is to be limited, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be best to prioritise larger-scale projects that offer a better return for the taxpayer and help to achieve our goal of increasing renewable energy?

Alex Cunningham: I will come on to some of those specific issues about the size of projects and the tremendous fear that the Government seem to have about larger projects, which could be controlled in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 48WH

A 50 kW scheme is not a large scheme in any way, shape or form, despite what the Government would like us to think. We are talking about an area that is just the size of two tennis courts—hardly the large solar farms that the Government claim to be worried about. But do not just take my word for it. The Government should be listening to the Renewable Energy Association, which says that the industry has been “strangled at birth”, and to the Solar Trade Association, which calls the decision “a total disaster”.

The fact is that solar energy is hugely popular. A study of public attitudes to energy generation technologies that was undertaken by Cardiff university last year showed 88% support for solar PV. It had the highest level of support of all technologies. More than 70% of people agree that supporting renewable energy sources such as solar or wind is a better way of tackling climate change than nuclear power.

Back in 2008, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who is now a Minister of State in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, stated when speaking about 5 MW projects:

“The idea behind it is to allow the inclusion of non-commercial scale projects, such as those that will be installed by homeowners, small businesses, local authorities, community groups, farmers and others. That would help out hospitals and schools that want to facilitate greater use of renewables and ensure low emissions as part of our 2020 targets.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 144.]

I cannot understand why the Government’s policy now goes against that very sensible statement. The Government are trying to present the decision as a choice between supporting home owners who want to install solar PV panels, and supporting big, commercial-scale schemes. The reality is that many community groups interested in medium-sized schemes—you know, the big society—will also lose out thanks to the proposed changes to the feed-in tariff.

In my constituency, a local project at the Norton sports complex has been hit hard by the Government’s decision. The complex was due to secure much needed funds through the FIT by using some of its previously unused land to install solar PV panels. The project was expected to be 1.5 MW in capacity, meaning that, thanks to the Government’s changes to the FIT, it will no longer be viable. I cannot emphasise enough what a disappointment that is. The Norton sports complex does tremendous work in the community, providing sporting and social facilities to local people, but has faced a difficult financial situation in recent years, as attendance at the social club part of the complex, which raises the money, has fallen by 60% thanks to the difficult financial circumstances in which many local people currently find themselves; many are out of work.

The chairman of the Norton sports complex was optimistic that FITs would provide a long-standing income for the complex and guarantee its future, but it will now have to go back to the drawing board, as the Government have pulled the rug out from under its feet.

Justin Tomlinson: I agree with pretty much everything that the hon. Gentleman is raising. He makes the point that a lot of time and money have already been invested in chasing a scheme for which the rules have suddenly changed. That puts groups such as the one that he has highlighted in a very difficult position.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 49WH

Alex Cunningham: Exactly, and there are countless schemes throughout the country that will now not happen as a direct result of what the Government have done. The Norton sports complex is only a few hundred yards from where I live, but I have been told of many projects further afield that were in the pipeline but will now fall by the wayside.

Ian Lucas: I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and to develop the point being made by my hon. Friend. The worst aspect is that the stable business framework that was in place previously has been wholly undermined by the Government’s decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that stability for business investment is hugely important and that the decision drives a coach and horses through the Government’s pretensions to be providing a stable framework for business?

Alex Cunningham: Indeed I do. The industry was excited by the scheme that was put in place by the previous Labour Government. It saw real possibilities. I will go on to talk about jobs and the effects that the industry has had in Germany.

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): On the point about uncertainty, I accept what has been said, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the REA, 165 of whose member companies are from the solar PV technology industry, has come out firmly and said that the review is the first step in a process that should ultimately end all uncertainty around these schemes?

Alex Cunningham: I do not think that the process will end any uncertainty. We will simply be saying to people, “Look, just walk away, because it won’t be financially viable for you to develop the sorts of project that you have in mind.” The Government policy is wrong. We need to ensure that the incentives are in place to develop these projects.

In Herefordshire, work is under way on a 300 kW installation on farm buildings that will not be viable when the new tariffs come into effect. Similarly, the UK’s first ever community-owned solar power station is due to be launched in Lewes in April and is expected to save more than 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Without the feed-in tariff, that development, to be built on the roof of a warehouse, will not go ahead either, as it is 100 kW in size.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Can he expand a little on the thought that there ought to be a difference between companies that are looking to take on this fantastic new way of producing energy for the country and would use it to run their factories, and venture capitalists who might want to jump in on it? Can he not understand that, ultimately, if there is no more money, there is no more money, but perhaps the Government might consider changing the arrangements for companies that are producing energy, so that they will be green companies for the future and will look after their local environment?

Alex Cunningham: With respect to the hon. Lady, that is not what this is about. It is about the feed-in tariff. I am all for companies developing their own solar

29 Mar 2011 : Column 50WH

power stations on the roofs of their factories or wherever to run their own businesses. They may well have a little surplus that they can feed into the grid. However, many organisations can develop solar power projects without relying on the feed-in tariff at all.

I could go on, but sadly I do not have the time to list all the projects and examples that I have been sent information on during the last few days. The Renewable Energy Association estimated, before the fast-track review of the FIT was announced, that, nationally, 17,000 new solar jobs would be created by the end of 2011. Those jobs are now unlikely to materialise as medium and large-scale projects are axed. At a time when the number of people unemployed stands at 2.5 million, we should be doing everything that we can to encourage the creation of green jobs. The Government’s review could end up costing jobs, rather than creating them.

Just as important is the renewables target, which aims to see 15% of UK energy coming from renewable technologies by 2020 under the EU renewable energy directive. We are third from bottom of the list of European countries in meeting our renewable energy targets, and the Government’s decision will not help. Many people in the renewables industry are very angry about that decision, and confidence in the Government has been shattered thanks to the mismanagement of the fast-tracked review.

Jeremy Leggett, executive chairman at Solarcentury, has said:

“Since the CSR, I’ve had numerous conversations with Ministers during which I have been assured that any urgent review of feed-in tariffs would be carried out after publication of a proper trigger and would in any case exclude built-environment PV. The Government has not only betrayed those assurances but today proposed feed-in tariff rates that would ensure the UK PV industry stalls. No renewables company or investor can easily be able to trust this Government again after the u-turn by Ministers who were so quick in opposition to call for a more ambitious feed-in tariff and so ready with empty promises in the early months of Government.”

That is quite a condemnation.

I have also been in touch with Eco Age, a company that has been involved in project managing the installation of a number of large 1 MW to 5 MW solar PV systems, which I am told have now all been frozen and are unlikely ever to happen thanks to the FIT review. I am told that just one of the projects—a 1.5 MW solar PV system on the roof of a 550,000 square feet UK super-warehouse—is likely to go ahead. That will be one of the largest roof-based solar installations in the country. Surely it is the type of project that we should be encouraging, but sadly, thanks to the Government’s decision, similar projects have now been scrapped. Eco Age makes the important point that large companies that were engaging with the idea of solar PV schemes have, as a consequence, also embraced other more sustainable practices across their businesses in relation to waste, water transport and procurement. That is a welcome development.

Various representatives from the industry have told me that DECC’s concerns about large-scale solar farms taking up too much of the FIT are unfounded. Large-scale roof-mounted systems are difficult to develop because most commercial property is leased to the tenant, who is not in a position to grant a lease for the roof to a PV company. Ground-mounted schemes, such as those on farms, are far easier because farmers really understand

29 Mar 2011 : Column 51WH

that we need 25 to 40-year lease arrangements to make developments worth while. Although interest in such schemes has been significant, the industry does not expect many actually to go ahead, because it is anticipated that many will struggle to get planning permission.

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is speaking eloquently about large-scale PV schemes, but is not the problem that the previous Government’s estimates of the feed-in tariff quantum allowed for zero commercial take-up of large-scale schemes, which is precisely why we have the problem we do? The hon. Gentleman has not even addressed that.

Alex Cunningham: That may well be the case. The industry has been so excited that it has really cranked up its activity in this area, and more and more people are showing an interest in it. The examples in Germany show that we have a real opportunity to grow this industry, and, believe you me, the revenues that flow into the Government’s coffers as a result could more than compensate for the money that is being spent.

Ben Gummer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham: I am going to move on, because I need to get through my speech.

Even if we accept that such large-scale sites are a potential concern, why can the Government not restrict the use of greenfield sites and set a reasonable kilowatt capacity limit to curb industrial-scale developments, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)?At a time when oil prices are rising and volatile, and when the nuclear crisis in Japan is highlighting to all the dangers of nuclear power, I am not alone in suggesting that the Government should look at ensuring that popular, green methods of meeting our energy needs get the support that they deserve. Medium and large-scale solar PV schemes can be part of the solution to serious energy security and climate change problems, but the Government seem intent on focusing just on domestic-scale installations.

The REA tells me that the Department has underestimated solar’s potential and overestimated its cost. Disappointingly, I do not have time to go into the detail, but this technology has exceptional and proven potential. I am told that in Germany—a country with a climate similar to ours—solar PV could reach grid parity, where no subsidies would be required, between 2013 and 2016, which is just two to five years away. Where will the UK be? Yes, left behind again.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers’ suggestion that slashing support for the solar industry does not matter because it affects only projects larger than two tennis courts really is ridiculous, given that an average secondary school could accommodate about 80 kW, which is considerably more than the 50 kW produced in an area the size of two tennis courts, which Ministers like to cite?

Alex Cunningham: Indeed. The hon. Lady arrived late, and that was the very example I used when I opened my speech.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 52WH

The fact is that we face a predicted energy gap in 2017, with power cuts anticipated for the first time since the 1970s. I am told that DECC had a taste of things to come last Thursday, when it was subjected to its own power cut, which meant that officials were unable to print important briefing notes for Ministers ahead of DECC questions on the Floor of the House. Perhaps that is why the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), was so badly prepared for questions that day and used the rather shabby comparison with Germany’s tariff scheme when seeking to defend the changes his Department has announced. He said:

“Community-based projects that are larger than 50 kW…and up to 150 kW…will still get a tariff comparable to that paid in Germany.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 1068.]

Craig Whittaker: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham: No, I have to finish.

The fact is that Germany’s solar industry is far more developed than ours. It has taken the Germans 10 years to build their industry, which employs 65,000 people, and they now have massive purchasing power and control supply chains. That enables them to undercut British construction companies by more than 25%. Indeed, solar generation in Germany exceeded nuclear generation for the first time just last week. The UK is a long way behind Germany, which is why we need to maintain effective feed-in tariffs if we are to have any hope of maximising the potential of this popular technology.

I hope that I have been able to outline the concerns in the renewable industry about not only the changes to the feed-in tariff, but the Government’s reluctance to acknowledge the real potential of solar energy. The decision to make medium-sized solar PV developments above 50 kW unviable is frankly bonkers. It is clear that the Chancellor, not the Energy Secretary, is dictating DECC policy, because the arguments put forward by Ministers for this shift in policy make no sense to those I have been in contact with in the renewables industry.

The fact is that this decision is dictated by the Treasury, not DECC. The spending review committed to finding £40 million—10%—of savings from the feed-in tariffs. We all know that the Tory-led Government are cutting too far and too fast—[ Laughter . ]We all get that in. The fact that the Government are cutting too far and too fast was made clear this weekend, when 250,000 people took to the streets of London to protest against the scale and pace of the cuts. The provisions we are discussing are one more victim of that ideologically driven policy.

We were told this would be the “greenest government ever”, but I think that that will be added to their growing list of broken promises, given that energy policy is now being dictated by the Treasury. It is time for the Government to admit they have got this one very wrong, choked off many schemes at birth, turned enthusiastic potential developers away, broken promises to the industry, lost the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and set back our chances of ever meeting our renewable energy targets. I hope to get an assurance today that the Government will start listening to the industry and the many others who will doubtless respond to the consultation on feed-in tariffs, as well as to organisations such as the Norton sports complex.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 53WH

In summary, I would like to pose three questions. First, how do the Government propose to restore confidence in their renewable policy, which has been severely shaken thanks to the shambolic way in which the decision on feed-in tariffs has been handled? Secondly, what is the Government’s long-term vision for solar PV? Evidence from other countries demonstrates that it has the potential to play a significant part in renewable energy provision, yet the Government’s policy is geared towards sidelining it as a purely domestic, small-scale technology. We are not being ambitious enough when it comes to solar PV. Finally, will the Government promise today to listen to the industry during the consultation, because it is very angry about this unexpected change in policy? Will they then act to ditch that ridiculous change in policy? If not, they risk alienating not only the solar sector, but the whole renewables sector.

12.47 pm

Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I start by apologising on behalf of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who, for reasons I have explained to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), is unable to be here today?

May I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate? He has a long-standing interest in the subject and has forcefully and passionately put on record his views. I thank other Members who have taken the trouble to come to the debate, including the hon. Members for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and my hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer). I am grateful to everybody for having come along today and made this an interesting debate.

I have certainly taken on board what the hon. Member for Stockton North has said and I will endeavour to reply as best I can to the points that have been raised by him and others. To the extent that time limitations and other factors do not allow me comprehensively to reply now, I am more than happy to ensure that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden give a proper reply subsequently.

The coalition Government are committed to renewables, particularly to meeting our European Union target of ensuring that 15% of all energy comes from renewable sources by 2020. The spending review shows that we are delivering on being the “greenest Government ever” and that we delivered an excellent settlement for renewables, which underlines the priority that the sector constitutes for the Government. Support for large-scale renewable electricity under the renewables obligation will be maintained over the spending review period, with the budget due to rise to £3.2 billion by 2014-15.

Heat makes up 49% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. It has long been neglected and requires significant investment.

Ian Lucas: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, who is a reasonable man, is responding to the debate, and I hope that we will see some sense on this issue. I have campaigned on it for many years, but, for a long time, I

29 Mar 2011 : Column 54WH

did not get a lot of sense from the Government of the day. However, has he seen the article in today’s

Financial Times

about private investment in clean energy plunging in 2010? Is he not concerned by the reaction of investors, including Sharp in my constituency,

to the announcement, which will strangle private, rather than public, investment?

Mr Vara: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I remind everyone that we are in difficult economic times. Every area has to be looked at, including this one, where the review has been brought forward. We are keen to emphasise that there is no cut-off up to 50 kW. That will cover the majority of the domestic market, which we are keen to protect. I hear what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Stockton North have to say, but I am keen to emphasise that there is a cut-off point, which will ensure that, to a large extent, the domestic market is protected.

The renewable heat incentive, which will go ahead in 2011, represents more than £850 million of investment over the spending review period. That will drive a more than tenfold increase of renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting renewable heat from a fringe industry firmly into the mainstream. To prioritise those critical projects, we have needed to take hard decisions, reducing budgets to focus on the most important, and looking to reduce the burden on the bill payer. We will save money on support for small-scale electricity through feed-in tariffs, to prioritise the most cost-effective technologies and maximise value for money.

Justin Tomlinson: I understand the difficulty with pressures on budgets and the need to get the best return for the taxpayer. Surely the larger-scale schemes offer the better return to the taxpayer in terms of renewable energy produced and cost to install. Surely we should be considering those as a priority, perhaps at the cost of the domestic schemes.

Mr Vara: Clearly, many will argue that the domestic market has a priority; others will argue in the same way as my hon. Friend. A decision has been taken, though clearly this will be reviewed regularly. It is not definitive, it is an ongoing matter.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Will my hon. Friend consider asking Ministers whether they would contemplate allowing the same feed-in tariffs to community buildings, including sports clubs and other local organisations, rather than large-scale commercial manufacturing of solar power?

Mr Vara: I am more than happy to pass that on to the relevant Minister. I hope colleagues will forgive me: I have about eight minutes and I wish to make progress.

The coalition is determined to drive a step change in ambition for the deployment of decentralised renewables and clean microgeneration technologies. As part of that, we are fully committed to feed-in tariffs for small-scale, low-carbon electricity generation. To meet our 2020 and longer-term targets we need to make the best use of all technologies that deliver renewables. Solar photovoltaic is part of the total picture. We expect that it will deliver a relatively small proportion of the overall total, but it can make a real contribution, especially at the household and community scale.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 55WH

Solar PV has the advantage of being the only renewable technology that can be delivered easily at scale in the domestic context. It can be deployed quickly and does not have the disadvantages of noise and other local impacts, and at the small end of the scale does not need complex and expensive grid connections. Through permitted development rights, microgen-scale solar PV does not need planning permission. It can provide a range of benefits to the wider green agenda by engaging households and communities in the energy that they consume, and taking action to reduce their carbon footprint. Solar PV can work hand in hand with other initiatives, including the green deal.

It is important to remember that solar PV can be deployed on a range of scales. That can be small systems of 2.5 kW on domestic roofs that will provide a typical household with about half its electricity needs, through community scale schemes on school and hospital roofs of 10s of kW, to industrial scale schemes of several megawatts in fields or on warehouse or factory roofs. We need to question whether all those types of installation are appropriate for bill payers’ support at the current level of technological development. That is why we have launched the comprehensive and fast-track reviews of the FITs scheme.

Alex Cunningham: The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned sports complexes, as I did. There is one in my constituency that is considerably bigger than the Government want to support in the future. Does the hon. Gentleman not have sympathy for that sort of local sports organisation, which could make a major contribution to the community and green energy?

Mr Vara: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I would like to think that he did not really mean to say that the Government are not supporting it. The Government are supporting it, but have to take a decision at the moment to have the cut-off point at 50 kW. That will clearly be reviewed on a regular basis, because that is the way forward. We recognise that, but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, we have constraints given the current economic climate.

The first anniversary of the FITs scheme is fast approaching and we have been pleased with the success to date, which has seen more than 20,000 PV installations registered for FITs. When the FITs scheme was introduced by the previous Administration, it was made clear that all aspects of the scheme, including tariff levels, would be subject to periodic reviews and that, if necessary, early reviews could take place. I would add that the previous Administration were able to pass the measure because it was a cross-party matter, which had the support of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 56WH

“Feed-in tariffs: Government’s Response to the Summer 2009 Consultation” made that clear, and also provided examples of what reviews would consider. The context for the first review of FITs was set by last year’s spending review. The review made it clear that there are spending parameters within which the FITs scheme must operate. Put simply, there is no blank cheque for FITs. Particularly in the current climate, it is crucial that we take a more responsible and efficient approach to public subsidy to ensure that consumers receive value for money and new investors are not over-rewarded with public subsidy.

At the time of the spending review, we said that the first review of FITs would take place as planned in 2012, taking effect in 2013, unless higher than expected deployment triggered an early review. However, since then we have become increasingly concerned about the risk that larger-scale solar PV, unforeseen by the modelling undertaken prior to the start of the FITs scheme, could lead to long-term pressure on FITs costs. That risk provides a trigger consistent with the statements made at the time of the spending review.

Therefore, last month the Secretary of State announced the start of the first comprehensive review of FITs. As well as allowing the concerns mentioned to be addressed, bringing forward the review of FITs also allows for industry to be provided with certainty, sooner rather than later, about how the savings committed to as part of the spending review will be delivered. Many in industry have been pressing for that.

In the first scheme review, we want to secure the continued success of FITs, through sustainable growth rather than boom and bust. That means enabling industry to grow smoothly within the spending parameters confirmed by the spending review. Starting the review now provides us with a better chance of delivering the aim than allowing unsustainable growth, which might have to be reined in dramatically in the future. Furthermore, by fast-tracking consideration of solar PV larger than 50 kW, and farm-scale anaerobic digestion, we can address urgent concerns that have arisen.

The fast-track review is looking at FITs for solar PV above the microgeneration threshold of 50 kW. Solar PV mocrogeneration of up to and including 50 kW is not within the scope of the fast-track review and is therefore not being considered by this consultation, but will be considered as part of the comprehensive review.

I am mindful that time is pressing. I say in conclusion regarding the three points raised by the hon. Member for Stockton North that we believe that confidence is important, and we will continue to monitor. We firmly believe that by protecting the domestic market, confidence has not been damaged. On a long-term basis, this is the way forward, and we will continue to monitor. In response to whether the Government will listen, of course we will listen. We have listened today and will continue to do so. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton North and all other hon. Members and hon. Friends who have taken the time to make their voices heard.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 57WH

Carmel Bloom

1 pm

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I start by thanking everyone involved in allowing me this debate. Many times in the six years in which I have been honoured to be a Member of Parliament, when people have come to me with a case of a medical nature, I have regrettably had to say that I could not assist them because there was no way to take the case forward. I want to make it clear that this case is not one of them.

I shall start with a brief case history, and the family’s attempt to understand how a normally fit woman went from being perfectly healthy to tragically losing her life during an everyday, routine procedure from which, I am told, no one has ever died. Carmel Bloom, a healthy 54-year-old woman, walked into Bupa Roding hospital on the evening of 27 August 2002. She was found to be suffering from pain in her left side, and was therefore admitted as an in-patient. Earlier that evening, she had gone to the accident and emergency department at the King George national health hospital in Ilford, but because there was a 14-hour wait, she had gone on to the Bupa hospital.

The following day, 27 August, a scan and blood test showed that she had a urinary tract infection and that a stone may have lodged in her lower left urethra. The following evening, exactly 24 hours later, an everyday procedure was commenced in an effort to bypass the blockage and enable the free flow of urine. That was done by inserting a JJ stent—a small J-shaped rubber tube—into her urethra.

Seven hours after the procedure, Carmel was transferred by emergency ambulance to the intensive care unit at the NHS Whipps Cross university hospital. During the transfer, Carmel collapsed into an irreversible coma; she never regained consciousness. Tragically, 10 days later, on 8 September 2002, her life-support machine was switched off, and she was certified dead. Carmel’s family has spent nearly nine years trying to discover what happened on that fateful night, and to understand how a normally fit and healthy woman could die of an everyday complaint with which, I am told, no fatality statistics are associated if it is properly treated in a hospital environment.

The family told me that following Carmel’s admittance to Whipps Cross university hospital’s intensive care unit, it quickly became apparent that the doctors and nursing staff were ill at ease, and I am told that they became quite agitated when asked for further particulars of Carmel’s condition by Carmel’s sister-in-law. I should explain that she is a qualified medical doctor; she resides in Canada, which is why that had to be done by telephone. Which one of us, if we had a qualified doctor in the family, would not ask that person to request information? However, the doctors refused to accept any further calls from her after she requested further details of Carmel’s condition and treatment. I cannot say why that happened.

On 9 September 2002, Carmel’s death was referred to the Walthamstow coroner, as it had become apparent that her death was anything but straightforward. The following time line demonstrates the due process that the family were obliged to follow in their quest to find out how and why Carmel died. As you will hear, my involvement came seven years down the line, as I was

29 Mar 2011 : Column 58WH

not Member of Parliament for Ilford North at the time. Nearly nine years after Carmel’s death, the evidence shows that questions about the causes of her death have still not been properly answered. A number of agencies come into play, but today I shall restrict my comments to the health aspects of the case. At a later date, I shall seek to revisit other justice matters.

In 2002, the first inquest was adjourned; coroner Dr Stearns stood down because of a conflict of interest. In 2003, the inquest was adjourned again; Dr Dolman, the second coroner, stood down but refused to disclose his reasons. In 2003, the third coroner, Andrew Walker, brought in a verdict of death by natural causes. In 2003, the Home Office suggested that application be made for a new inquest.

In 2003, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, intervened. In 2004, he granted consent for the High Court to quash the inquest verdict of natural causes. In 2004, in the High Court, Lord Justice Tuckey quashed coroner Andrew Walker’s verdict, and ordered that a new inquest be held with a jury. In 2005, the inquest jury overturned the natural causes verdict, finding that a series of failures had contributed to Carmel’s death.

In 2006-07, the Healthcare Commission investigated Bupa Roding hospital. I should say that it is no longer a Bupa hospital. The commission found a series of shortcomings and a serious lack of training and equipment in the hospital, together with false reports being given to them following Carmel’s death. The commission brought no charges against the hospital, stating that it had no power to act in retrospect. Following the investigation, Bupa sold its 26 hospitals.

In 2007, the General Medical Council started an investigation into the conduct and fitness to practise of Mr John Hines and Dr Paul Timmis. In 2007, the London ambulance service disclosed previously withheld evidence—the AS/1 emergency call receipt document and Bupa Roding Hospital’s 999 tape recording. I have seen the transcripts and heard the tape, and there is a gap of approximately 15 seconds in the recording; to the best of my knowledge, it remains unexplained to this day.

In 2007, the police began an investigation into Carmel’s death and looked into Bupa’s alleged false report to the Healthcare Commission on the events that led to her death. As I said earlier, I shall not speak about the police at this stage, except to say that, between 2007 and 2009, the Ilford criminal investigation department referred the case to the Metropolitan Police Service’s homicide and serious crime command unit, following the discovery of new evidence. In 2008 and 2009, the homicide unit referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service. In March 2008, Bridget Matthews, the night sister on duty at Bupa Roding hospital on 29 August 2002 and the nurse in charge, was interviewed under caution by the Met’s homicide and serious crime command unit, SCD1.

In 2009, the Ministry of Justice investigated a complaint against the 2005 coroner. It was said that the coroner withheld key evidence from the inquest jury. Unfortunately, however, no inquiry took place; the judicial review office cannot investigate coroners’ non-disclosure of evidence to a jury. The non-disclosure of evidence enabled the court to understate Carmel’s condition, but that issue is not the object of today’s debate. I became involved in 2009, when my constituent’s family came to

29 Mar 2011 : Column 59WH

see me. I intervened, and approached the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), then the Secretary of State for Justice.

In 2010, the General Medical Council’s fitness to practise hearing against Bupa doctors Mr John Hines and Dr Paul Timmis commenced. At that stage, I wrote about the case in my newspaper column and in articles, and I thank the Ilford Recorder and the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian for printing them. In my writings, I asked if anyone had information relating to Carmel’s tragic death. I pay tribute to Julie Moody, who came forward as a whistleblower. She made a statement, which caused her great difficulty; that was done at great cost to her personal and professional life, and I record my gratitude for her bravery. She displayed enormous courage and compassion. She was a senior nurse and an ex-employee at the Bupa Roding hospital. She contacted me with vital new evidence about Carmel’s treatment during the night following her operation. I provided this new evidence to the Ministry of Justice and the Met borough commander, but it was withheld from the GMC’s fitness to practise panel hearing against Mr Hines and Dr Timmis. The GMC decided to proceed with the hearing, even though a whistleblower had come forward, casting new light on Carmel’s treatment at the Bupa Roding hospital, with evidence of serious negligence during Carmel’s operation. Entirely inappropriate post-operative treatment was also alleged.

Let me read out the remit of the General Medical Council:

“Our statutory purpose is to protect, promote and maintain the health and safety of the public by ensuring proper standards in the practice of medicine.”

It is vital, not only in this case but a number of cases, to decide whether the GMC is a union for doctors—if it is, fine—or whether it is there to represent patients’ interests.

In 2010, the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence considered an appeal to the High Court against the GMC hearing’s decision not to prosecute or even issue a warning against the two doctors, even though, between them, they pleaded to, or were found guilty of, 79 charges, including one where the doctors’ conduct was so serious that it increased the risk of Carmel suffering hypoxia—I apologise for any mispronunciations of medical terms; I know that the Minister is medically qualified, but I am afraid that I am not—cardiac arrest, brain damage and/or death.

In 2010, there was an unsuccessful appeal against a decision of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The Metropolitan Police Service’s homicide and serious crime unit interviewed the night sister. In an extraordinary development that has still not been explained, the night sister said in her statement that she had been given the whistleblower’s highly confidential statement. That statement had been given only to me—I immediately put it in a solicitor’s safe in north London—the police and the Ministry of Justice. I cannot explain how that could have possibly happened.

In 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service was approached for the third time by homicide detectives who were considering instituting a criminal prosecution, but the CPS failed to reopen the case. In the same year, the GMC referred the Bupa nurses to the Nursing and Midwifery Council for misconduct in relation to the

29 Mar 2011 : Column 60WH

care and treatment of Carmel, leading to her death. Bupa’s resident medical officer, Dr Darko, was also referred to the General Medical Council. Further evidence from the whistleblower—Julie Moody—and a 500-page report were provided to: the Met’s homicide unit; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice; the General Medical Council; the Nursing and Midwifery Council; and myself.

All the way along the line, the family, who have suffered great distress over a prolonged period of time, have said that they simply want to know what happened, and want closure. That is why they asked for my assistance, and I have been trying to help to the best of my ability. We are awaiting a number of key developments: the Attorney-General’s consent to apply to the High Court for a fresh inquest; the outcome of a Nursing and Midwifery Council action against the two Bupa nurses; a decision to call for a full police investigation into the death of Carmel Bloom; the GMC’s decision to recharge the two doctors involved; and the decision by the health service ombudsman regarding the London ambulance service’s actions and the part that it played.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. I appreciate that she will not be able to answer them today. I let her see a copy of what I was intending to say last night, but it was too late for her to get any replies to me. The family are concerned that the GMC, the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Healthcare Commission did not investigate the causation of death. I am not making any accusations against anyone; I am neither a lawyer nor a doctor. None the less, there are so many questions that need to be answered before the poor family can move on and have closure.

The coroner at the 2005 inquest wrongly withheld key evidence—I cannot give any reasons for that; I am not making accusations—contained in the London ambulance service’s emergency 999 call receipt document, to which I referred. That evidence was introduced into the inquest’s rule 37 bundle as an exhibit, but the detail and significance of this document was never pointed out to the jury. The information in that 999 call, which was made by the Bupa Roding hospital to the ambulance service, is significant.

The fact that there is a two-tier legal system is clearly demonstrated by the shocking and disproportionate lack of prosecutions. I am not saying who should or should not be prosecuted, or even whether anyone should be prosecuted. As I have said, I do not have the ability to go into that. However, there are so many conflicting reports and unanswered questions.

Before a fresh inquest for Carmel can be held, some medical personnel must be questioned and a number of medical documents must be disclosed. The X-rays taken during Carmel’s procedure, which would have shown the condition of Carmel’s kidney, have been removed from the hospital’s notes. The chest X-rays taken on Carmel’s arrival at the intensive care unit would show the condition of Carmel’s lungs. The hospital notes state that on her arrival, Carmel had a maximum four-star pulmonary oedema—fluid in her lungs—and no heartbeat. She was cold to the touch, had shut down, and her pupils were fixed and dilated. Forgive me—I am a layman—but those symptoms suggest to me someone who is, sadly, deceased. The operating department assistant

29 Mar 2011 : Column 61WH

anaesthetist who was present during Carmel’s botched operation needs to be questioned, and we need to know the identity of the radiologist who took the X-rays during Carmel’s operation. An investigation is also needed properly to establish the true identity of the anaesthetist who accompanied Carmel in the ambulance.

Let me stress again that Carmel was not suffering from a life-threatening condition. It was a regular occurrence that could happen to any one of us in this Chamber today. If a person dies unexpectedly in a hospital and relatives suspect wrongdoing, negligence or criminality, there is no Government body or organisation— apart from the police, who refused to get involved—willing to assist.

One of the difficulties that I have found with this case is that it falls under the remit of a number of Departments, which is why I have not included certain aspects of the case in my speech. The Minister could not be expected to respond to them, so I will have to revisit them at a later date. I will wind up, because time is moving on and I want the Minister to have the opportunity to reply. Let me, in a removed way, make my own comments. During this case, I have been moved by the dignity of the family and the whistleblower. There have been times when the family have been under great pressure and stress, and I have had to explain that there are things that I can do, and things that I cannot.

When I first met the family more than two years ago, I pledged that I would stick with the case to try to get the answers and the closure that they need and deserve. I pledge again today that I will stay with the case. When this first started, I received a phone call warning me off the case. To this day, I do not know who that was or what their reason was. I do not pretend to be a remarkably brave person, but if I give my word, I stick to it. I brought this case before the Chamber today, and I feel honoured to have done so. I thank you, Miss McIntosh, for your time and await the Minister’s response.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss McIntosh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate. He has set out, with considerable passion, some of the detail that led to the death of Carmel Bloom following her operation to remove a kidney stone. It was a moving speech and I commend him for the support that he has given to Ms Bloom’s brother, Bernard, who has worked tirelessly to try to establish the sequence of events that led to his sister’s death.

My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly to give support not only to Ms Bloom’s brother but to the family. I should like to take this opportunity to extend my sympathies to the family. Being unable to find out the circumstances of Ms Bloom’s death or to get any closure is a terrible burden to live with.

As my hon. Friend has eloquently said, there have been numerous investigations and inquiries into the treatment that Ms Bloom received. I know that in 2002 there was a coroner’s inquest that recorded a verdict of death by natural causes. The second post mortem did not provide conclusive statements and a further inquest in the presence of a jury found the cause of death to be

29 Mar 2011 : Column 62WH

“progression of pre-operative infection following surgery, to which the absence of post-operative intubation, ventilation and monitoring contributed.”

However, none of those investigations or inquiries has brought the closure that is required by the family, or a feeling that they have found out the true circumstances of what happened.

As my hon. Friend has said, there were fitness to practise hearings into the behaviour of two clinicians, but those hearings found that the failings of neither clinician amounted to misconduct. The hearings came to the judgment that it was not necessary to issue a warning in either case. As I say, none of those investigations or hearings has resulted in an explanation that has satisfied my hon. Friend or indeed Ms Bloom’s relatives.

I have nothing but admiration for people who pursue answers to questions, sometimes, sadly, in the face of considerable adversity. Unfortunately, it is really down to their tireless efforts that we learn more and more about the failings of systems. What is important is that we ensure that we learn lessons and that those failings do not happen again.

As my hon. Friend said, Mr Bloom has taken up his case with the Metropolitan Police Service and so my hon. Friend will appreciate that, in the light of ongoing inquiries, I cannot comment further on any police action. I know that that might be a disappointment to Mr Bloom, but it is essential that due process is allowed to take its course free from interference from the influence of Government Ministers.

I also want to commend my hon. Friend for his tribute to Julie Moody. Whistleblowers, for want of a better word, are an important part of this process and we have strengthened the protection of people who have information that we feel is important. That information, when it reflects on the safety and efficacy of treatment, is absolutely vital and it is important that those people are protected.

Services provided by independent hospitals such as the Spire Roding hospital are subject to regulation and inspection. All health care providers in England, whether they operate in the independent sector or in the NHS, are subject to both professional regulation and system regulation. It is important that those things work and are effective.

Health care professionals are required to be registered with their relevant professional regulator. As my hon. Friend knows, in the case of doctors, that is the General Medical Council. He is absolutely right that the GMC’s purpose is not to act as a trade union—the British Medical Association is the trade union for doctors—but to protect, promote and maintain the health and safety of the public by ensuring proper standards in the practice of medicine. It does that by controlling entry on to its register, and by setting standards for medical schools and postgraduate education and training. The GMC registers doctors to practise in the UK and, where necessary, it has the power to issue warnings, remove a doctor from the register, suspend a doctor or place conditions on a doctor’s registration.

Interestingly, in preparing for this debate, I got out some figures about the GMC. In the last year that we have figures for, the GMC undertook 270 fitness to practise hearings, which resulted in 68 instances of doctors being struck off the register and 77 instances

29 Mar 2011 : Column 63WH

of doctors being suspended. I think that those figures give my hon. Friend some idea of the sort of activity that the GMC is engaged in.

At the time of Ms Bloom’s death, independent hospitals were registered with the then Commission for Health Improvement, but since that time a new system of registration has been introduced, which focuses on the outcomes of care that matter most to patients. Although I will not be able to respond to all my hon. Friend’s comments and questions today, it is perhaps important for me to set out some of the changes that have been made.

All health care providers are required, as part of their registration with the Care Quality Commission, to have an effective complaints mechanism that will enable them to learn from the experience of patients. That is an important point to make. Often we cannot change what has happened and we cannot always correct mistakes. People want to know what happened, but most importantly they want to know that things have changed as a result of what has happened to them or to their family and that lessons have been learned.

In the first instance, a complaint would be considered by the provider itself. In the case of the Spire Roding hospital, if a complaint is not resolved to the satisfaction of a patient at the hospital level, I understand that an independent review can be requested from Independent Healthcare Advisory Services. On 1 October last year, the registration of independent health care providers was transferred to the new registration system operated under the Health and Social Care Act 2008. Under that new system of registration, all providers of a regulated activity—whether they are privately or publicly funded—are legally required to register with the CQC. Providing a regulated activity without being registered is indeed a criminal offence and in order to be registered a provider has to meet and must continue to meet 16 registration requirements. Those requirements set out the essential levels of safety and quality for the provision of health care and adult social care in England. Those are essential levels of safety and quality, and as I have said already they focus on the outcomes that matter to patients and all service users.

Where a provider provides services that do not meet those essential levels of safety and quality, the CQC now has additional enforcement powers that were not available in 2002. For example, it can now issue a warning notice for non-compliance and a new financial penalty notice can be issued in lieu of prosecution

29 Mar 2011 : Column 64WH

through the courts. In extreme cases, the CQC has the power to close down a specific service or ward, or to cancel a provider’s registration and/or to bring a prosecution for non-compliance. If the CQC does bring a prosecution, the courts are now able to impose a larger fine of up to £50,000 where a provider has failed to meet essential levels of safety and quality. Those powers should provide some assurance to patients and service users that wherever they access health and adult social care they will receive a service that at the very least meets essential levels of safety and quality.

The CQC is risk-based and it should be a transparent regulator. That transparency is very important. Its inspections are informed and guided by the intelligence that it gathers about providers, and its inspection reports are publicly available on its website. I understand that there have been three inspections of the Spire Roding hospital in the last few years and that there were two inspections in 2009.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we want robust and effective regulation of health care providers and that we want to improve current arrangements. The health reforms that are currently before Parliament will strengthen the role of the CQC, by giving it a clearer focus on regulating the essential levels of safety and quality. In addition, we have also set up HealthWatch as a new and powerful consumer champion for users of health and social care services. It is very important that that voice for patients and the public is heard. HealthWatch will be established as a committee of the CQC and it will provide a direct route for the views of service users to reach the regulator.

Mr Scott: Would the Minister be willing to get back to me on the points that time obviously has not permitted us to cover today?

Anne Milton: I know that time is running out on us and I will certainly get back to my hon. Friend. My door and the doors of other Ministers are always open if it would be useful to have a meeting to clarify some of the issues that we have discussed. Of course, as I have said we cannot necessarily interfere in processes that are already under way.

I know that what I have said today will not change things for Ms Bloom’s brother and the rest of her family and friends, and I also know that the ripple effect of a case such as this one goes far and wide. Sadly, what I say today cannot provide the closure that they want, but hopefully I can work with my hon. Friend to give him and Ms Bloom’s family and friends some of the answers that they so desperately seek.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 65WH

Road Vehicle Wheel Safety

1.29 pm

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Miss McIntosh, and I am very grateful to have this opportunity to highlight the growing concerns about wheel safety, in particular in relation to commercial vehicles. I do so having been alerted to the lack of an adequate system for checking and inspecting heavy goods vehicle wheels by a company based on the Sharston industrial estate in my constituency. Motor Wheel Service is the largest distributor of HGV wheels in the UK and across Europe.

I am also grateful to the Minister for how he has responded thus far to my concerns. We have corresponded, and have met industry representatives to discuss the issue. Although I have yet to convince him of the need to take further action, I know that he is still listening and that he takes road safety extremely seriously.

I had always assumed that wheels and tyres were regulated in the same way, since the safety of one clearly has a direct impact on the other. Tyres are closely regulated; they all have an E-mark, which is a number printed on the tyre wall confirming that it is approved and meets certain standards. When it comes to wheels, however, there is no registration or marking, no regulated standards, and no testing or checking. It is an offence to fit and supply defective or unsuitable parts, but the problem is that people do not know whether a wheel is defective because the monitoring system is so weak.

As it stands, a wheel could be damaged in a serious accident and yet be back out on the road the very next day fitted to a different vehicle, without any inspection or accountability. The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency has never been tasked with routinely inspecting wheels when checking HGVs and, although I have no doubt that it would view the loss of a wheel in an accident very seriously, in other incidents it rarely looks to see if wheel failure has caused the problem. I accept that in the past there might have been less to worry about because of the very limited number of manufacturers and suppliers in the field, but the situation is changing, and wheel suppliers suspect that over the past three years there has been an annual increase of approximately 10,000 substandard and potentially hazardous second-hand HGV vehicles entering the UK market. The fear is that in difficult times companies will be tempted to cut costs and use wheels that are not fit for purpose, which would not only undercut legitimate business but put public safety at risk. There has also been a rise in the number of commercial vehicle wheels sourced from the far east entering the UK without any requirement to meet minimum standards of design, safety or maintenance. These wheels have no history or traceability but can be sold by anyone in the UK, with no requirement for technical procedures to assess their history.

An HGV wheel can be damaged in a number of ways. Dents and cracks can be caused by over-tightening the wheel nuts, and wheels can be involved in collisions or constantly pounded on kerbs and in the potholes with which we are all too familiar. They can also rust and suffer wear and tear as a result of age, weather or road surface conditions. The implications of purchasing a faulty wheel are enormous. A 45-tonne lorry travelling

29 Mar 2011 : Column 66WH

at 55 miles an hour can cause serious damage if a tyre fails, and numerous measures are in place to prevent that. It simply cannot be right that similar measures are not in place to prevent wheel failure from causing exactly the same type of damage.

Burton Copeland, a leading criminal practice in the north-west of England, has warned that the absence of regulation and testing would be no defence if HGV wheel failure caused a death and if an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found that the company concerned had not carried out its own risk assessments or, perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, had fitted faulty second-hand wheels to the vehicle. In Burton Copeland’s view, if there was evidence of negligence, the company director responsible could face a police investigation, and even a charge of corporate manslaughter.

People in the industry should take their responsibilities seriously, and I know that wheel suppliers are playing their part in educating their customers about the risks of failing to adopt high standards. Nevertheless, the Government’s own monitoring and testing system should do more to hold companies to account and to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.

In our meeting last November, the Minister promised to review the available evidence. I was very grateful that he commissioned a review, and in a subsequent letter he confirmed that over a 15-year period there had been 23 accidents and a total of 103 cases involving heavy commercial vehicles with recorded wheel defects. It would be helpful if the Minister gave more details of the kind of problems that were identified in the search that his officials carried out. The Minister also told me in that letter that VOSA had identified 60 incidents of defective or fractured wheels. That was in a sample of 197,000 inspections, but the fact that the numbers are small is no reason for complacency. One catastrophic wheel failure could be enough to cause a very serious incident and loss of life.

VOSA’s findings are not really a surprise, as it is hardly likely to identify many wheel failures when it does not set out to look for them in its inspections. A hairline crack in a wheel could have disastrous consequences, but would not be picked up in a routine VOSA roadside check. Therefore, although the Department for Transport does not currently believe that wheel failure is a significant factor in accidents involving HGVs, the truth is that no one really knows, because the checks are inadequate. It is not possible for the Minister or his officials to be absolutely confident when the checks are not carried out as thoroughly as they should be.

I pay tribute to my colleague Brian Simpson MEP, who has been raising this issue in the European Parliament, where a draft report on European road safety up to 2020 is currently being considered. As I understand it, paragraph 33 calls on member states to monitor imported accessories and spare parts more closely, to ensure that they meet European consumer protection standards. In the absence of adequate standards and checks, it would be interesting to know what the UK’s response would be to such a call, and perhaps the Minister can tell us what the current thinking is. It certainly would not present a problem to his counterpart in the German Government, because there they have adopted a system known as TÜV approval, which includes a comprehensive system of wheel certification—the kind of system that we should seek to develop in the UK.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 67WH

In order to make progress, I want to put to the Minister two practical suggestions, to at least make a start down the road to better safety. First, he should identify a senior official in the Department for Transport to act as a point of contact for the wheel supply industry, so that the industry can forward directly to that named individual any evidence of defective wheels. I have learnt from briefings by industry representatives that there are those on the front line of the HGV wheel supply industry who hear stories and come across evidence of faulty second-hand wheels being used irresponsibly. It would be a positive and inexpensive move in the right direction if those concerns could be reported officially and investigated properly, rather than remaining as mere anecdotes. We all know that when tales get told in that way and there is no point of reference for their investigation, confidence can be undermined unnecessarily. We need to have those reports made and proper investigations carried out.

Secondly, I would like the Minister to consider commissioning a year-long trial in one area of the country, in which VOSA would operate an enhanced testing programme, including greater scrutiny of wheel safety. He will argue—perhaps reasonably, based on his evidence—that moving to a full-blown system of enhanced inspection throughout the country is not warranted, especially at a time of difficult decisions about public expenditure, which neither his nor any Department can escape. However, a limited trial of one year in one part of the country could be justified, and would test his assertion that the problem is not widespread.

I do not argue completely against the Minister, as I do not have the evidence, but neither does he. If he were to commission the trial, we could begin to gather evidence to test his assertion. If he is right, I am happy to accept and abide by that, but if a trial such as the one I have suggested produced evidence to the contrary, it would argue for a more developed and widespread scheme across the country. I hope that the Minister is prepared to put his current view to the test. If a trial confirms that there is no major problem, I will be happy to accept the findings. Better that than waiting for a catastrophe before taking action.

When we are elected to this place, we come with our own experience and background, and we have the opportunity to raise issues that have become important to us in debates and questions. We meet constituents who reveal issues and problems that we can then bring to Parliament on their behalf. We also learn lessons from companies in our constituencies. I had never even considered wheel safety until a year ago. As I said, I assumed that wheel safety and tyre safety were bound up together, but I have discovered differently. When we find out such information, we are duty bound to bring it before Ministers and ask them to respond. Even when a conscientious Minister such as this one does not want to take action immediately, we do not give up easily. We persist and continue to look for evidence. If, in the end, the evidence does not exist, we accept that, but at least we know that a proper search has been carried out.

The company is based in my constituency on the Sharston industrial estate, close to the M56 and M60, and five miles from the M6. Every day, HGV vehicles pass in front of my house. I am only too aware of what

29 Mar 2011 : Column 68WH

could occur in all those scenarios if something went wrong. I now have nagging doubts about wheel safety, and I believe that it is important that the Minister follows up the matter. As I said, he is a conscientious Minister who has responded constructively and positively to the questions that I have raised. I look forward to hearing what he has to say and hope that we can take the issue forward in a more thorough way, so that the public can be satisfied that everything is being done to make the vehicles on our road as safe as possible.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs McIntosh, for the first time as either a Back Bencher or a Minister of the Crown. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) on securing this debate. I am not surprised that he put his name into the ballot for a debate after our meetings. It is natural for a Back Bencher to follow up meetings and correspondence with Ministers in that way. I gave him some assurances, which I followed up in correspondence, and I have more evidence today regarding what I promised when I met him and industry representatives.

It is a pleasure to set out the Government’s position on wheel safety. Having held an HGV licence for the past 34 years, I have been conscious of the issue for a long time. However, in all the time that I was driving, I never experienced or saw a wheel give way in normal service, except in a road traffic accident. In my 11 years of attending road traffic accidents with the fire service, I never saw a wheel buckle, unless—I will discuss this later—it was due to an ill-fitting tyre or to the vehicle’s being overweight. I have seen overweight vehicles on which a wheel could not take the pressure.

Road safety is crucial, and I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised it. It is one of my passions in life, given my background, and it is a priority for the Government. We have the safest roads in the world, but according to the most recent figures, 2,222 people were killed on them last year. Our roads are not safe enough yet. We intend to build on our history and safety programme. We are developing a new safety strategy, which will be published in the next few months. The overall approach of the framework is to focus on localism and targeted education, particularly remedial education, wherever possible. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned how we educate the industry. The industry has a role to play as well as the Government. We will be publishing on many other road safety issues at the same time, not least the problem of drink and drug driving. I know that the industry is looking particularly at drug driving, and I recently met the representative bodies of the haulage industry to discuss it.

On the specific points, I agreed when we met that I would consider carefully what existing data had been published and what had not. We considered the data for the past 15 years, as the right hon. Gentleman said, and they were fascinating. Of 197,000 roadside inspections, 60 found defective wheels. Admittedly, we do not know at present exactly what those defects were. They may well have been due to over-tightening of nuts or to incidents in which the vehicle was not involved; the wheels could have been transferred. It happens all the time. In salvage yards around the country, one can see it on cars as well as HGVs.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 69WH

When I met the industry and the right hon. Gentleman, I said that I had considered the risk. That is crucial. We cannot wrap everybody in cotton wool; we must consider the risk. Out of 197,000 roadside inspections, 60 found defective wheels, which represents a failure rate of 0.006%. I am not saying that any risk is acceptable, but that is a pretty low rate. At the same time, we considered an analysis of more than 4,000 heavy commercial vehicle MOTs—in my time, it was called plating, but we have moved on, and everybody understands MOT terminology—in which no wheel was found to be defective. In considering the evidence, it is important that we consider the risk. I have kept an open mind throughout. In 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available, there were 198,000 inspections. We expect the figure for the first eight months of this year to be about the same, and we have found only 33 problems involving wheels. There were a similar number the previous year, and it looks as though the figure this year will be lower, unless we have a surge in evidence, but it does not look as if that will happen.

The reason is, I think, the rigour of annual testing on HGVs. Unlike MOTs, an HGV must have a test every year, no matter how old or young the vehicle is. A brand-new vehicle must have an MOT after 12 months. Anybody in the industry who says that the test is easy or that it is not taken with due rigour has not attended one. If the right hon. Gentleman likes, I will arrange for him to do so, either at VOSA or elsewhere—we are now outsourcing tests to the industry—to see for himself how rigorous they are. Defects are found on a regular basis. I remember vividly how, when I used to come home on leave and do part-time work, I would be asked to take one of the lorries down to the testing centre. It was one of the most frightening experiences that I had ever had. The lorry had been jet-sprayed and sandblasted, everything was spotless and still they found something wrong. That is why, as the junior guy, I used to be sent; the others were frightened of going down there. It is right and proper that the test should be rigorous.

Paul Goggins: The Minister makes a generous offer, and I would be happy to take him up on it, because I would like to test precisely what questions are asked and what examinations take place. I contend that the close scrutiny applied to tyres is not applied to wheels. That is the problem. Will he comment further? It is not surprising that the numbers are so small considering that those questions are not asked and those issues not investigated in the same depth as for other aspects of the vehicle.

Mike Penning: I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from, but there is a difference between a tyre and a wheel—in manufacturing and in actual product. The key to knowing what is going on is not what questions are asked, but visual inspection. Anyone can say whatever they like about where the vehicle has come from, what sort of work it has been doing, and whether it has been off-road or on-road. By the time a vehicle arrives for its plating or MOT, it has been jet-blasted, cleaned and painted, and everything looks immaculate, but if the inspectors get deep into the vehicle, they will find any defects.

The failure rates are also an issue. We are not picking up defects at MOT stage. As I have said, 4,000 had no defects. I accept, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that they might not be looking closely enough, but one

29 Mar 2011 : Column 70WH

would still expect more failures for vehicles that are in use on the roads. A failure rate of 0.0004% does not seem to be huge. I promise the right hon. Gentleman, however, that I will keep an open mind.

On priorities in relation to funding and to where we need to put our assets, the right hon. Gentleman asked me to go to the next stage and announce a year-long inquiry into or validation of the issue, but it is difficult for me to do that, because I do not have the evidence that that amount of failure is occurring. If I did, I assure him that I would do not only a localised inquiry, but a national one. However, it has to be evidence based and, at the moment, the evidence is not there.

I have made sure that a senior official at VOSA, which is part of my Department, will be responsible for dealing with complaints, and he will probably be inundated with them. Anecdotal complaints are always difficult. The gossip machine and tribal drums go on and people talk about things, but we will try to identify genuine complaints and concerns. Local authorities also have powers under the Road Traffic Act 1988, and I am more than happy for the Department and my office to be contacted directly. If anybody feels that they have a problem that is not being dealt with or that they think should be taken straight to the top, they can bring it to my Department or office and I assure them that it will be investigated. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, a lot of complaints are anecdotal, but I have to base everything that I do in the Department, especially on road safety, on my evidence base. We have three separate pieces of research. The first mentions 4,000, the second notes 1,900, and it looks as though this year’s figure might show that failure rates are lower than they were last year. It is, therefore, difficult for me to respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s request.

Trading standards have a role to play, particularly in relation to the concerns about foreign imports. There is a concern about the quality and standards of Chinese imports. We will continue to look at that. I am aware of what the German Federal Government are doing. Their form of Government is different from ours, and I will leave it to others to decide whether theirs or ours is right. We have safer roads than Germany and I am sure that that will continue to be the case. It is entirely up to the German Government if they wish to operate under their own legislation. The general product safety regulations fit in with this. If there is evidence that the products coming in from abroad are defective or sub-standard, we should be made aware of that and we, along with other Departments, will investigate it fully.

It is difficult for me to accept the suggestion that minimum standards like those for tyres be set. If we stand back from the issue, we will realise that tyres are a completely different product. Wheels are solid steel in most cases, particularly on lorries and public service vehicles, while there are myriad different types of manufactured wheel-product for cars. They are a different product. I do not want to ban products that are still serviceable from being transferred from one vehicle to another because of the sheer expense that would cause the industry as a whole. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the product must be safe. Salvage is a form of recycling. We have all done it over the years. I certainly have—I have been in many a scrap yard over the years to get products that I could not afford directly from the manufacturer.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 71WH

Paul Goggins: I mentioned in my speech the “E” number system that operates for tyres. Does the Minister think that a similar system would help in relation to wheel safety? If that stamp was on a wheel that was transferred from one vehicle to another, it would at least show that it had met the industry standards.

Mike Penning: That is something that I am more than happy to look at. However, if we compare the failure rates of tyres with those of wheels, we will see that they are a very different product.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me to look at two specific points, but I am sure that he will come up with more at a later stage. I do not say that in a derogatory manner, because that is the nature of a campaign. I cannot agree to do a specific year-long report, because the evidence from the three reports—this year’s report is about eight months in, so we will get its figure pretty soon, in about four months—do not show the failure rate to be as significant as the industry feels so passionately that it is. As I have said, I am more than happy for a senior official in VOSA to be the point of contact. If anybody thinks they have a defective product, not only do I encourage them to go to their local authority, but I am more than happy for them to report it to my own office and Department.

29 Mar 2011 : Column 72WH

To reiterate, if there is a concern, we have to carefully look at the risk and make sure that it is evidence based. I know that this will be a disappointment to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent and his business, and to the right hon. Gentleman himself, but I do not see the evidence to support Government expenditure on a further plan. I will, however, keep a close eye on the evidence that my Department receives. The way in which the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue today, in correspondence and in meetings means that it certainly will not leave my eye for a considerable time. VOSA knows full well—my officials are present—that this is something on which I intend to keep a close eye, but the situation will not change unless the evidence changes to show that the failure rate is more significant. I apologise for citing the figure 0.0004% a few moments ago. The actual figure is 0.0006%.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands my and the Government’s position. I congratulate him on his campaign and on bringing it to the Chamber’s attention today. I will work closely with him, based on evidence, but at the moment, I think the industry is doing fine.

Question put and agreed to.

1.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.