Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), who gave us a macro appreciation of these rail systems, and he obviously speaks with great experience

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and a degree of frustration. I want to deal with a micro issue that affects my constituency, but I hope that it illustrates some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about people’s frustrations.

First, however, I want to make a couple of general points, prompted by the comments of the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). I served on a development agency for four years and I was a councillor for 17 years in what was then quoted as Britain’s poorest borough. If we had spent the money that we subsequently spent year in, year out on system-built council estates and projects to upskill people on getting the transport link right, the rest would have followed, and we would have saved an immense amount. I want to discuss that in the context of regeneration.

Secondly, I congratulate the Minister and the coalition Government on doing the unexpected. Many of us did not expect what happened in the capital budget round, when so much was made available, particularly to the north-west. I am talking about the electrification of the lines between Liverpool and Manchester and between Preston and Blackpool and about the extra coaches on the west coast main line, which will help to relieve some of the pressure. I know full well that the Minister is determined to get the new contracts right and to have longer contracts so that we can deal with the explosion in the number of customers on the west coast main line. As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton said, the Government’s support for High Speed 2 is also important.

I should put on the record my total support for the hon. Gentleman’s concept that we start from the north and go south. While the home counties have their little difficulties, let us get on with building High Speed 2 from the north. I would start from Glasgow and Edinburgh and prove that we are going to reunite this nation. If we see this project actually happening, that will, of itself, provide the psychological boost that we want in the north and in Scotland. I totally support that concept.

I hope that the Minister does not see this as a north-west conspiracy, although I sometimes wonder what would be wrong with one. However, I want to focus on the town of Fleetwood in my constituency, which has the unenviable record of being one of the largest towns—it has a population of 58,000—without a railway connection. Funnily enough, it was the original end of the west coast main line in the 19th century. We have a Euston hotel because the line ran from Euston station to Fleetwood, where, before the railway managed to get over the Lake district, people got off the railway and got on the boats to get to Scotland. That rail line disappeared with the Beeching axe, as it was known. The four and a half miles of track between Fleetwood and the nearest railway station, Poulton-Le-Fylde, still lie unused. Fleetwood suffered recently when Stena Line pulled the ferry service to Northern Ireland, and the ferry service to the Isle of Man has also gone. To be fair, Fleetwood is at the end of the line for the tram upgrade from Blackpool. That in itself possibly offers some future improvement through getting bigger and faster trams on the line, but in the interim, overruns in the contract have nearly devastated a lot of small family business in Fleetwood; however, at least we are getting near to its end.

The key to Fleetwood’s regeneration is the railway line. The Fleetwood master plan states:

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“The reinstatement of the line is physically and operationally feasible.”

That takes us back to what the hon. Member for Southport said. As other hon. Members have said, some of these schemes are small-scale when compared with what happens in London. The plan continues:

“It would create significant economic and social benefits and a positive impact on the local economy supporting further sustainable growth that is hard to envisage without a rail link.”

At the moment, Fleetwood has a tremendous fish processing industry. The bulk of that fish no longer comes from the fishing fleet, which I think is down to two and a half boats, but comes in at night by truck from every other fishing port in Britain down a narrow A road. Even with the freight possibilities, rail could provide momentum to the expansion of an indigenous industry.

I want to illustrate that such a project could be seen as an example of the big society. The Poulton and Wyre Railway Society trust has operated for five years, and I hope the Minister can come and see at some point what it has done to restore Thornton station. It estimates that to reopen the line now would cost £5.5 million, and it hopes to apply for grant funding. I am asking the Minister for support. The trust is negotiating to get the lease for the remaining bit of the line, from Poulton to Fleetwood, to be assigned to it by Network Rail. That would save money, but the dealings with Network Rail have now gone on for more than two years. These are enthusiasts and volunteers, but I must say that the local council, Wyre borough council, supports them. I pay tribute to Councillor Don MacNaughton, who has been remorseless in trying to get this moving, but we seem to have hit an impasse in dealing with all the strands of Network Rail. I would be extremely grateful for any support the Minister could give. She stood beside that track before the general election, so she understands where it goes and the possibilities therein.

I am also interested in hearing from the Minister about the tram-train concept—I have met with a group to discuss that—which operates in Germany and which I understand might be tested in Rotherham. To be fair, that scheme was started under the previous Government. Particularly as Fleetwood is now getting the upgrade of a tram system, such a scheme could provide another solution, albeit a long-term one, for an area that badly needs uplift. I talked about the uplift to the psychology of the north-west from High Speed 2. If work on such a line were started in Fleetwood, that would in itself motivate the people there to realise that they can stay there, bring up their children and run a business, and that they can expect their children to get jobs there. That is the critical nature of the scheme.

In the Association of Train Operating Companies 2009 report, the Fleetwood-Poulton line was fourth from top in terms of cost-benefit when compared with other lines. Such schemes are possible; they do not need the mega-millions and billions that London has. One could argue about that and the justifications for it in different ways. However, we need ministerial support to unlock the connections among Network Rail, the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society and the council, to see if we can provide one more link in the chain that we need across the north-west—I accept what other hon. Members have said—and provide the lift and regeneration we need.

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John Pugh: It would seem to anybody listening to the hon. Gentleman expand on his scheme that a very small amount of money is needed to make a very important change. We could almost call it a social experiment, which, if it comes off, we could learn from and apply elsewhere. Does he agree?

Eric Ollerenshaw: I am grateful for that intervention, because the hon. Gentleman puts the possibilities into words better than I can.

The scheme and the enthusiasts are there, and, as the Minister has seen, the track is there bar one mile of it, but I am sure that we can easily borrow a mile of track from some other disused railway. I am asking for some ministerial support for the scheme, particularly in respect of Network Rail, and for another demonstration from the coalition Government that they are committed to the north and to the north-west in particular.

3.25 pm

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I add my compliments to those already paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate, and I apologise for missing the early part of his speech. Judging from the part that I caught, however, I am sure that reading his speech in the Official Report tomorrow will be instructive.

Given that the debate is about railway expansion and smaller schemes, the Minister will not be surprised that I wish to talk about several smaller schemes in my constituency about which I have spoken before. Although I support investment in the railway and some of the larger schemes that we have heard about this afternoon, part of the point I wish to make is that there are some very small schemes that do not require new infrastructure, nor even a mile of track, that would benefit the rail network. Decisions taken in previous decades have meant that the network has had to do without such schemes. My concern, and I think the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, is that in the old plans to which we still turn for our railways, we do not have a decision-making structure that is open to embracing such ideas.

The scheme in my constituency and county that I am keen to advocate first and foremost is the TransWilts project. I have been most encouraged for its prospects in the light of the Government’s announcement late last year on additional rolling stock. Given the correspondence and meetings that I have had with the Department, however, I have been on something of a rollercoaster about how optimistic I should be. On the day that the statement was made, I asked the Secretary of State if the determination on where the additional rolling stock would go would be entirely dependent on the commercial strength of the operator on any part of the network, or on wider economic benefits. I was told that it would not be exclusively about the commercial strength of the franchisee, but following further scrutiny, it has become apparent that getting additional rolling stock is a very competitive process, not least because of the strained public finances and concerns about the viability of the subsidy to what are termed the regional railways. The rolling stock will have to be paid for somehow, and without a source of support or the willingness to contemplate including these operations within existing

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franchise and support arrangements, it could prove very difficult to get additional rolling stock on to certain services without a franchisee in strong commercial health.

In my case, I am somewhat confident that there will be additional rolling stock on the Cardiff-Portsmouth line, which would address the congested trains on routes in and out of Bath and Bristol. However, it might be rather harder to make the argument—it is probably a much stronger argument from an economic point of view, but it is one that requires time for its case to be proved—for connecting the towns in western Wiltshire with Chippenham and Swindon through a TransWilts service. Given the excellent support that we have from the community rail partnership in Wiltshire and the enthusiasm of at least some of the councillors on Wiltshire council, however, I remain hopeful that between us we will be able to persuade decision makers in the industry about that.

Another long-standing campaign for a small but significant improvement to the railway in my constituency is for the reopening of Corsham station. That seemed very close at hand until around the time of the Hatfield train crash, when something of a retrenchment on the railways led to the withdrawal of plans for services that would have been able to serve Corsham station in a way that current high-speed services cannot. As we no longer have an Oxford-Bristol service passing over that piece of track, the campaign has been very hard to fight. However, moneys have been set aside—through section 106 agreements in relation to the substantial residential development that there has been—for redeveloping that station. We need a more joined-up approach between local government and the funds that it has available in this case, and decision making in the transport sector.

My final example is an extreme case that makes the point about the value that smaller schemes can provide. I am referring to the northern curve at Bradford junction, north of Trowbridge. That is an area where, essentially, tracks heading in three directions meet. At the moment, there is an east-to-south curve and a west-to-south curve. We have a railway line that forks in a Y shape, but traditionally there was a northern curve, which in effect created a triangle at that point. It does not take long to realise the flexibility that that would provide for the diversion of trains. People will know, especially if they travel on a Sunday, as I often do, that there are a lot of engineering works on the Great Western main line, which often mean that trains are not able to travel the full route, such as the one that I take into London from Wiltshire. We might be much better able to deal with that in our rail network if we had the option to divert trains in the way that we could if they were able to travel from Bath and then back up to Chippenham having taken that curve, even if work was being done on the intervening track.

The amount of track that we are talking about is very small. The land is still available for the railway—it has not been developed. I believe that that piece of track was not maintained because of the costs of improving the reliability of the electricity supply to the signalling infrastructure. Now that residential development goes right the way up to the railway line on the eastern side, the costs of improving the electricity infrastructure for that piece of track and the signalling used there would

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be rather less than they were at the time it was abandoned. I offer that scheme as an example of something that is very small and simple that would not make an enormous difference, but could prove to be of wider benefit to the resilience and flexibility of our rail infrastructure, especially if we are looking to the future following the Government’s decisions on electrifying the Great Western line, given the likely need to divert trains during the engineering works that will be required.

Time and again when I sought to make the case for many of these improvements, I found that if they did not make it into the Great Western route utilisation strategy produced under the previous Government, my hopes of being able to make the case for them were much diminished. However, the current Government have made some very enlightened decisions about the railways in the past 12 months that were not envisaged at the time of that strategy, whether we are talking about the decision that has already been made about the high-speed fleet for the Great Western line, the decision about electrifying the route from London beyond Bristol into Wales, and the decision that I referred to earlier about additional rolling stock that could be available for my part of the country. I hope that those hon. Members representing northern constituencies will forgive me for saying that my area is not part of the blessed London network that they have described and we have struggled to secure additional rolling stock under previous decisions. The fact that those recent decisions have been made calls into question some of the assumptions in that strategy, but they still exist and underpin the problems that campaigners encounter when trying to have decisions revisited.

I shall conclude shortly because I want to leave sufficient time for the Front Benchers to respond to the debate. If we really want to support and embrace smaller rail schemes, which can provide excellent value for money if we have a little confidence in the potential of our railways, we will need to loosen the straitjacket that I have described. We need a little more joined-up thinking between local government and the rail sector, more enlightened allocations of funding streams—be they from parking or from economic development—and perhaps even the ability for local authorities to take more of an equity stake so that it is not simply a matter of responding to a begging bowl.

I hope that some of these ideas will give us the ability to break the current cycle. Those of us who are campaigners in Wiltshire find that if we want to make an improvement to our railways, the Department says that local government should be able to promote those schemes, but local government says that operators need to be able to pay for them themselves, and operators then say that they will need support from the Department—a subsidy—if they are to be able to support a scheme. We therefore all go round in circles and progress cannot be made on our railways. I hope that we can build on the early decisions that the Government have taken and take full advantage of all opportunities, and not just those presented by the big projects of which we hear so much.

3.35 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate, which has been

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excellent. Clearly, it raises important matters about smaller rail schemes and how, in many instances, they could benefit local areas by increasing economic prosperity and improving access to the rail network for local communities. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that smaller rail schemes clearly should be considered as we consider how best to deal with expansion on our railway network.

We need to consider all ways of making our railways work in the most economically efficient way. Given that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) rightly said, there will be serious capacity issues all over the rail network in the years to come, we need to think about the best ways of expanding the railways for the best value for money, which clearly involves looking at the types of scheme that have been discussed today.

With more and more people wanting to travel by rail, continued investment in increasing rail capacity and expanding the network are vital. With passenger growth expected to increase by up to 50% by 2020, and rail freight expected to grow by 30% during the next decade, substantial changes to the rail network will be needed.

Clearly there has been a great deal of debate in the House and media coverage about larger rail expansion projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink, the electrification schemes in Wales and the north-west, and the ongoing discussions about high-speed rail. Those projects will clearly attract the lion’s share of transport funding in the future. However, growing demand on the rail network can sometimes be satisfied, as we have heard today, by smaller enhancements, such as lengthening platforms to allow for longer trains or doubling single tracks. The former approach has been taken on some London commuter routes, and the latter is appropriate in rural areas that have become bottlenecks.

Of course, local rail expansion has been made more difficult—particularly given the expectation that these schemes and their business cases will be primarily led by local authorities, integrated transport authorities where they exist, local enterprise partnerships where they exist, and so on—following the comprehensive spending review, which left a 28% cut in local government transport spending. That has implications for the immediate future. Sometimes smaller rail projects will not be the best solution all over the rail network. As we see on an increasing number of routes, peak trains are already at maximum length and no further trains can realistically be added.

I welcome the campaigning work of the hon. Member for Southport and particularly the work that he has done to make the case for the Burscough curve, which will help to revive the disused electric track between Ormskirk and Burscough, thus bringing links to Southport. He must have found it a bit disheartening that the present Government in effect slapped a four-year ban on funding such projects, as he discussed in his speech. However, he is to be congratulated on showing the determination to find alternative sources of funding for the scheme, which will certainly benefit his constituents. I wish him well with that.

As many of us in the room are north-west MPs—the exceptions are the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), the Minister and her parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke)—I agree with the hon. Member for

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Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) that people could mistakenly think that this is a north-west conspiracy. However, he knows that there is a great deal of rail congestion in the whole of our region, and many commentators have said that smaller schemes, many of which make up elements of what is called the northern hub, are key components in improving rail services across the north of England.

One ambition of the northern hub project is to increase train services in the north by 40% during the next 20 years, including for cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. That would mean 700 more trains a day, which would make it possible for 3.5 million more passengers to travel by train each year. The estimated wider economic impact of the project is significant as it involves the creation of 23,000 jobs and a return of £4 for every £1 that is spent.

Although I welcome the recent announcement on the Ordsall curve, it has been frustrating for those of us who believe in the northern hub project that the Government have not yet made a firm commitment about when work on that worthwhile and economically beneficial project will begin. That would be a good starting point. I hope that any approval will not be piecemeal, however, because we need to take the northern hub project as a whole. I welcome the fact that the Ordsall curve will link Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria stations by the end of 2016, but that is only one aspect of the northern hub scheme. There is no Government commitment to the entire programme, so I ask the Minister to give a firm commitment that the project will be included in the next Network Rail control period.

Labour clearly remains committed to dealing with overcrowding and capacity problems on the network, and to considering how best to use further rail expansion to do so in the most cost-effective way. However, rail expansion and investment decisions can have a real impact on regional growth, and may help to perpetuate a cycle of increasing disparity of wealth between regions. Such decisions will be all the more important in the light of the abolition of the regional development agencies.

Smaller rail schemes obviously have beneficial effects in all areas of the country. In a previous debate, I played a parliamentary version of rail Top Trumps with the hon. Member for Chippenham over who had the worst rail service in the country—I think that I won with my example of one train a week in one direction only. However, the hon. Gentleman made a powerful case for extra investment in his constituency. I was disappointed that the Government sneaked out their decision to end all funding for local rail schemes developed by local authorities and integrated transport authorities on the same day that they announced the public consultation on High Speed 2.

Mrs Villiers: Does the hon. Gentleman know of any local authorities or local promoters that complained about that announcement? The fact is that none of those schemes is ready to kick off before April 2012, so they will still be subject to the same three-year consideration for national funding as under the system that we inherited from the Labour Government.

Andrew Gwynne: If that was the case, putting a block on the schemes was a pointless exercise.

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The Government’s decision means that no central funding will be available for new schemes until April 2015, which will obviously affect schemes such as that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southport. Why was that decision not included in the announcement about the comprehensive spending review? Such an important decision should have been announced on its own, rather than being overshadowed by an announcement on the same day about the public consultation on high-speed rail. That is a blow to further passenger choice and to economic regeneration.

The Eddington review outlined the significant returns that can result from smaller projects that unblock pinch points, saying that variable infrastructure schemes to support public transport in urban areas are likely to offer the highest returns. A recent report by the Transport Committee clearly identified the way in which the south, and particularly London, has benefited from rail investment, which was a point made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton and others. The report also noted that transport investment per head in London and the south-east was three times as much as in other regions of the country. I do not wish to be misrepresented, so I point out that Labour certainly supports investment in London and the south-east, but similar interest should be shown in the needs of the rest of the country, and my hon. Friend made a valid and powerful point in that respect. Some smaller rail projects might be a way to redress the balance, but we will have to wait to see what is included in the next Network Rail control period.

I wonder whether there is a greater role for tram-train, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. Such services could vastly improve local passenger services—and the passenger experience—by utilising existing infrastructure. It will be interesting to see the success or otherwise of the south Yorkshire trial and to note whether that can be adopted elsewhere.

Hon. Members will know that Labour is undertaking a fundamental review of all its policies, exactly as the Conservatives did when the Prime Minister became leader of his party. We are looking at all areas of policy, and I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton that that includes the question of High Speed 2. I urge him to take part in that because his serious points about capacity on the west coast main line and regional economic disparities should be fed into the process. Whatever the outcome of the policy review, the party will remain committed to assisting the Government to secure the legal powers for High Speed 2 in the hybrid Bill. Like my hon. Friend, I urge the Government to do so for the whole of the Y-shape network, not only the route from London to Birmingham.

Local rail schemes can make an important contribution to solving transport challenges. Many of the points raised today will help to inform the debate. However, as we heard from a number of hon. Members, many local rail projects may be suspended until funding is identified. What the hon. Member for Southport said about building a viable business case was extremely valid, and it is difficult to pursue the process through a vast array of bureaucracy. How will the Government cut through

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that maze of bureaucracy to bring forward schemes promoted by local partnerships, as described by the hon. Gentleman?

Will the McNulty review make suggestions, and if so what is the Government’s view? What further advice does the Minister have for local authorities to get funding for their projects? Will she make a statement about smaller rail schemes such as the Todmorden curve? What work has the Department done to examine the benefits of reopening other disused rail lines? What will happen to the schemes that were in line for funding before the Government’s announcement earlier this year? The Southport scheme and others represent a small proportion of the schemes on our rail network, and we hope that those and many others will be given due consideration by the Government for the next control period.

3.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate and on his eloquent and articulate speech. All contributions to this good debate have given us an insight into what approach to take on rail expansion, particularly with regard to local schemes. I highlight the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is in the room because he also takes a keen interest in local rail services in his constituency and campaigns to improve them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport acknowledged that there has been a problem in recent years due to a failure to address the increase in passenger numbers by increasing capacity. To be fair to the previous Government, they started to wake up to the problem, but rather late in the day. However, a significant programme of rail investment is now under way. That is a response to the sort of points that my hon. Friend made about the success of the railways in increasing passenger numbers, as well as about the significant economic and wider regeneration benefits that can be produced by the better connectivity that comes with the railways.

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no presumption against local rail schemes, as he indicated that there might be. He and other hon. Members have highlighted the benefits of local rail expansion, whether by reopening disused lines or providing better or more frequent services on existing track. The Government fully recognise the possible benefit of such schemes. I shall set out what assistance we can give on those and the sources of funding that local authorities might look to. However, it is also important to talk about some of the bigger capacity expansion programmes, because my hon. Friend is right that they are much needed.

Despite the deficit that we inherited, the coalition has placed a priority on capital spending on rail programmes for exactly the sort of reasons that my hon. Friend outlined. We have heard about the major electrification programme in the north-west, including for routes between Liverpool and Manchester, Liverpool and Wigan, and Manchester and Blackpool. As well as benefiting long-distance services, that enables local services to be operated by electric trains, thus providing faster journeys for passengers and releasing diesel carriages for use elsewhere on the network.

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New Pendolinos will be added to the west coast main line in the months to come. We have announced plans for the electrification of the Great Western line between London, Newbury, Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff. Long-distance services on both Great Western and the east coast will benefit from the new fleet of intercity express programme trains. Line improvements are also going on for the east coast. A major redevelopment at Reading station will benefit railway users right across the south-west of England and south Wales. The long-awaited upgrade of the London underground has been secured. Crossrail and Thameslink are under way and will provide a major boost for public transport capacity in London and the south-east. Funding has been secured for the whole of the CP4 programme of capacity enhancements. More than 2,000 new carriages will be introduced on to the network across the country by May 2019, around 1,800 of which will be additional capacity. That will include 650 extra carriages by May 2014.

We are also consulting on our plans to deliver a Y-shaped high-speed rail network connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. I am grateful for the graciously expressed support of the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). I assure him of our absolute commitment that the line will go to Manchester and Leeds, because we believe that will not only provide the vital uplift in capacity that he rightly highlights is needed on the west coast and east coast routes, but help to meet the ambition to rebalance the economy and close the prosperity gap between north and south. Our programme of rail and transport improvements includes significant investment in the north. When taking decisions about which investments to make, we of course take on board the wider regeneration issues and our ambition to rebalance the economy, not just the straightforward business case.

Further investment was announced in the Budget, including for the Ordsall curve, which is another important benefit for the whole of the north of England. A second project was the Swindon and Kemble redoubling, which will help to improve local services and resilience on the route to south Wales. The next high level output specification is in preparation, and we will give full consideration to the northern hub. The shadow Minister asked for the Government’s commitment to that, but I would be interested to know whether such a commitment is now official Labour party policy—I noticed that he did not specify that.

I welcome the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport about the Burscough curves. I know that he has campaigned for that project for a long time. I emphasise that the key first step to make progress on that is to get support from Lancashire county council and Merseytravel. It is important for local authorities to set priorities on a direct rail link between Ormskirk and Southport, and Southport and Preston. It is for local transport authorities to decide the best way to meet a local transport need.

John Pugh: Several hon. Members have voiced concern —the Minister is helping us a little with it at the moment—about the opaqueness of the procedure for getting these schemes to fruition. It would be helpful if the Department for Transport would give guidance to the campaign groups across the country about the stages through which they must go, the hurdles they

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must get over, who the groups need to get buy-in from, and who is necessary and who is incidental.

Mrs Villiers: Guidance is published on the Department’s website, but officials are always happy to engage with campaign groups and local authorities to help them to navigate something that is not an easy process. When one is talking about significant amounts of taxpayers’ money, we need to ensure that care is taken when judging how to deploy it. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office analyse very astutely whether we are making the right decisions on how money is spent, and that means that business cases have to be considered. My officials will be happy to engage with my hon. Friend on the issue. I will be happy to meet him to discuss the Burscough curves. My officials are heavily engaged with local authorities in the area about the Todmorden curve, which another scheme with considerable local support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) spoke eloquently about the potential for reopening the Poulton to Fleetwood line. I much enjoyed my visit there. If he is having problems engaging with Network Rail, I will be happy to take that up and to encourage Network Rail to work with the group mentioned by hon. Friend.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) on the TransWilts rail project, I know that the Secretary of State has looked at that recently. Again, if progress is to be made, the first step is to get the support of the local authorities. We want local authorities to be more heavily involved in decisions about rail and we are actively considering how best to bring down the cost of such rail schemes so that it is more viable to deliver the kind of improvements that hon. Members have asked for. We hope that the McNulty review will generate ideas on that point. In addition, we hope that projects such as the Rotherham tram train and the Abbey line tram project will give us an insight into whether light rail can provide a lower-cost alternative for some of the schemes mentioned today.

Sources of funding for such local schemes might include the private sector, if developer contributions are available. The local sustainable transport fund or the regional growth fund are also available. The spending review has provided significant funds for major local transport schemes—£1.5 billion up to 2015. A number of schemes have already been given the go-ahead, including improvements to Leeds station and the extension of the Midland metro. Projects such as Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge are under consideration.

A further funding source is available after a certain period. For projects that are primarily local in nature, we think that it is fair to ask the local authorities to take initial responsibility for getting the scheme up and running, and funding it. We recognise, however, that the railway network needs to adapt to population growth, and we are always prepared to consider the case for reopening disused local lines or the enhancement of local services on existing lines. When a local authority has chosen a rail solution to meet its transport needs, it is appropriate for it to demonstrate its commitment to that solution by taking initial responsibility for revenue funding. Once the service has run for a few years and demonstrated its success, we will then assess it on the same basis as existing franchised services. If the scheme

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has a good business case, and if the ongoing subsidy required is affordable and can be accommodated within available budgets, we are prepared to consider providing funding at a national level from the departmental rail budget. Schemes would normally be considered for such central funding after three years, but because of the constraints on the budget, we have made it clear that new schemes will not be considered for central funding on that basis until after 2015, although we do not believe that that will have an impact on any existing schemes.

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Brown Signs

3.59 pm

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure to have secured this debate. I am grateful to the Minister, who I have been corresponding regularly with on the topic of brown signs, for responding to it.

Brown signs, or more specifically white-on-brown signs, might not sound the sexiest or most modern topic for debate in this House, unlike high-speed rail or superfast broadband. Economically, however, brown signs are vital to attract tourists to our key destinations throughout the country. In the UK, 200,000 businesses are dedicated to tourism—

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.14 pm

On resuming—

Julian Smith: Before the Division, I was speaking about the importance of the tourism industry to Britain. It represents £52 billion of our GDP and more than 4% of our jobs, and is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy. For rural areas, such as the one I represent in north Yorkshire—Skipton and Ripon—tourism is a vital part of the economy, as it is for areas that colleagues here represent.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for having secured this debate. In my constituency, we are very proud to host Warwick castle. It is a fantastic tourist attraction, but we have many other, smaller attractions that similarly lack exposure. Does my hon. Friend not agree that, although it is important to have rules that prevent too many signs from being put up, we should be prepared to relax those rules to allow other attractions the necessary promotion—such as brown signs—to boost tourism and support local economies?

Julian Smith: I agree wholeheartedly, and I will come on to that recommendation later. I requested this debate as a result of the many representations that I have received, first as a candidate and then as an MP, largely because of the upgrading of the A1 just north of Ripon. The upgrading has opened up a Pandora’s box of brown sign issues. People who had them under the guidance that was in place in the early 2000s are fighting to retain them under the new guidance that came in a few years ago. Newby hall, which is thought to be the real-life Downton abbey, got a big shock a couple of years ago when its sign was removed during an upgrade, and it has had to fight hard for a replacement. It has been waiting several months now for confirmation that it will get a permanent new brown sign. The hall is one of the north of England’s most successful visitor attractions and stately homes.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I urge my hon. Friend to urge the Minister not to fall into the trap in which we seem to find ourselves in

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Wales, where this issue is devolved. There, McDonald’s has a brown sign in Haverford West, but the wonderful Slebech park in my constituency cannot, for some reason, obtain one.

Julian Smith: That is another excellent point, from a colleague who also represents a rural area.

Ripon cathedral, in my constituency, had a brown sign with the old A1, but with the new A1(M) it has to disaggregate its visitors into religious and tourist ones and no longer qualifies for a sign. Lightwater Valley, a theme park near Ripon, has been told that it cannot have a brown sign on an A road directing travellers up the A1(M), just in case cyclists get confused and start to travel up the motorway.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): I have written to the Minister on this point. He might know that Lincoln is not a million miles from the A1 either, but it is yet to have any brown signs pointing from that road to the city’s plethora of attractions, including its cathedral, the castle, various galleries and the Magna Carta, of which there are not many copies in this country.

Julian Smith: I am sure that travellers down the A1 would visit Yorkshire first, before Lincoln, but my hon. Friend makes a very good point.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I rise to express my concern that this problem exists not just in rural areas but in coastal towns. If someone were travelling along the A380, they would not know that Newton Abbot, my constituency, existed. Brown signs to highlight the cattle market in St Leonard’s tower would be welcome, but they are notable by their absence.

Julian Smith: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and again, as long as tourists come through Yorkshire first, I am sure that the Minister will encourage them towards the coasts.

The town of Masham in my constituency has lost six directional signs off the A1(M) and is desperately trying to get a brown sign to replace them. This is a stunning part of the world, with Wallace and Gromit, Wensleydale cheese, James Herriot and the Black Sheep and Theakston’s breweries, together with many small inns, hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Local tourism relies largely on the traffic coming from the A1—the soon to be A1(M). Flo Grainger, who leads the “Keep Masham on the Map” campaign and runs the Old Station café, has described the double whammy that businesses in the area have received from both the recession and the Highways Agency policy on brown signs. We have been told time and again that it is just not possible to have a sign for a market town without that town having a specific tourism site that will attract 200,000 visitors a year or 40,000 in a given month. It is not even possible to have a brown sign denoting a well-known area—a generic label—such as the Yorkshire dales or Wensleydale, and yet recent visitor surveys by Welcome to Yorkshire have shown that the top concern of visitors to my constituency, and to north Yorkshire as a whole, is the lack of good signage.

My first question to the Minister is a specific one. Why has the upgrade of the A1(M) forced so many businesses to chase the Highways Agency for clarity on such a vital aspect of their business? Why am I, as their MP, having to hassle the Highways Agency to support

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the micro-businesses creating the jobs and wealth that we desperately need? The machinery of the Highways Agency and the regulations under which it operates do not seem to be on the same wavelength as the reality on the ground. The A1 upgrade has raised lots of questions about Whitehall’s responsiveness to small business and the Government’s policy on brown signs.

There are some positive indicators. A recent Department for Culture, Media and Sport tourism policy paper stated that brown signs had come in for a lot of criticism and that the Highways Agency would be asked to work much more closely with the Minister with responsibility for tourism to consider how they can be improved. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that he works closely with the Tourism Minister on the issue.

Fundamental issues are at stake. Yet again, Labour’s decade of disrespect for the countryside is being demonstrated. Why are rural areas—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, coastal areas—subject to the same visitor number rules as our country’s major towns and cities? Many tourism attractions in north Yorkshire and the other English rural areas represented by my colleagues here cannot attract a footfall of 200,000 a year or 40,000 in a given month. We must relax the rules and make special exemptions for rural areas. Why cannot our major market towns or areas such as the Yorkshire dales be given signs if they can attract good aggregate visitor numbers? Why can they not be recognised as areas of note? Not every pub or village should get a brown sign, but more judgment should be used for our rural areas. Rural England has lots of quirky, small visitor attractions that will never draw enough visitors for a brown sign, whatever the rules are, but if we could help them with brown signs to the general destination, it would make a major difference.

Brown signs should be seen as an opportunity to draw visitors to an area. A recent letter to me from a Liberal Democrat Minister in the Department for Transport said that brown signs

“should only be used where they will benefit road users, particularly those seeking a pre-selected destination that might require additional guidance in the latter stages of their journey.”

I believe that we should change the raison d’être of brown signs. Between 11% and 16% of visitors to rural areas decide what to do based on chance rather than deciding before they leave home. Seducing people to our major tourist areas should surely be part of the review of how and why we use brown signs. Brown signs should be the passionate signposts to England’s green and pleasant land.

The question of how the Highways Agency treats businesses needs addressing. I urge the Minister to set up a much clearer structure within the Highways Agency that involves individuals who understand business and will ensure that applications for brown signs are much shorter, sharper and swifter. The Treasury should also be involved. Tourist businesses are open about the fact that brown signs have value. Relaxing the rules a bit would provide an opportunity for a little income. While our economy remains in intensive care, we need to work with every industry to take immediate action to help. Better brown sign policy would make a difference to the tourist industry.

Will the Minister ask the Highways Agency to address the concerns of my constituents in Ripon, Masham and beyond? Will he ensure that visitor number targets for

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brown signs are lowered in rural areas? Will he consider relaxing the regulations, opening them up to include general areas of note and taking a more discretionary approach to the rules on brown signs? Brown signs are a practical and low-cost way for the Department for Transport to assist the Government’s growth agenda. I hope that the Minister can assure me that brown signs will be at the top of his in-tray before the summer recess, and that soon thereafter he will join me in Masham for a pint of Theakston or Black Sheep bitter.

4.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to speak in this debate, which affects nearly every constituency in the country. That is why so many hon. Members are here for a half-hour debate. I am conscious that I need to take up my time. I should be okay.

I am a Minister at the Department for Transport, but I have been corresponding with Ministers about this issue since I came here in 2005. I have the wonderful Ashridge management college in my constituency, in the fantastic Ashridge forest. I highlight that because everybody else seems to have highlighted something in their constituency, and it seems apt for me to do so as well. By the way, it is possible to get to Yorkshire, especially north Yorkshire, by going through Hertfordshire, although that is not a sensible thing to do. The reason I corresponded with Ministers about this issue is that brown signs involve a bureaucratic mess. Previous Ministers from various parties have wrestled with the conundrum of how best to inform the public and motorists without causing a hindrance on the road network. I am responsible for strategic road networks, so that is what I will be discussing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) mentioned the correspondence that he received from my coalition colleague, the Minister with responsibility for local transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The Minister was obviously referring to the policy agreed by Ministers in 2003 and inherited by us; the problem has been going on for a considerable time. The letter to my hon. Friend was factually correct when it described the role of a sign. We see the role of a sign in more common-sense terms.

The Department has been engaged for some time in a traffic signs policy review. Believe it or not, it has been going on for years, but it will come to fruition soon, and a report will come to Transport Ministers in May. That is not really what we are discussing today, though; it has more to do with clutter on the roadside and ensuring that our beautiful countryside is not scattered with poles and signs, some of which are completely irrelevant. Some were probably fine post-war, but are not useful at all these days. Different agencies also put up signs on different poles instead of on the same one.

I have been the Minister responsible for the strategic road network for nearly a year now, and during that time I have considered whether the Department for Transport and I as the Minister could issue common-sense guidance to the Highways Agency that could be replicated around the country so that local authorities and businesses

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could understand exactly what we want from a road sign. If we stick rigidly to the guidance from 2003, we will not get that. We know that to be the case.

Since becoming a Minister, I have had interesting debates with officials, particularly at the Highways Agency, involving the word “why”. Why cannot Warwick castle have a sign indicating that it is off the A1? Why, when a huge investment was made in the M1 in Bedfordshire, was no sign for Centre Parcs allowed, when that development was a multi-million-pound project to which people from all over the country will go? I hope that it is successful, but there is no sign for it.

Motorway services companies came to me asking, “Why can’t we say what’s in our services instead of just saying ‘Motorway service station’? Why can’t we say, for instance, ‘Costa Coffee’ or ‘McDonald’s’ or point out the different choices?”

What we have done in the past couple of months is deregulate that. As the Minister with responsibility for deregulation in the Department for Transport, I have started to use, I hope, a common-sense approach. For instance, if someone now drives down a motorway, they should be able to know whether a service station has a—I will get into trouble with all the companies that I do not name—Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Pret a Manger or Marks and Spencer. I have tried very hard to make sure that it is not a case of why we cannot do it; it should be a case of how we can do it, particularly with brown signs.

Colleagues touched on an issue when they said that they have a plethora of different historic places, monuments and facilities in their constituencies. Lincoln is a classic example. I know Lincoln fairly well from my military days. How many brown signs should be put on the road side and the strategic road network to indicate what is in Lincoln? I think that the answer is to have a sign indicating that Lincoln is an historic city. That is the way in which it needs to be done. There is, however, a tradition within the Department, based on previous legislation—civil servants do what they are told based on the legislation and the rules that they are given—which means that the issue is difficult for them, unless we review it carefully and work together.

Colleagues have touched on tourism. I was pleased to receive yesterday a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who is responsible for tourism and heritage, reminding me of a meeting we had and of our agreement that the

“Highways Agency will work with DCMS and other interested parties to ensure its approach best reflects the needs of drivers and gives the industry a helping hand at the same time.”

That pragmatic approach is brand new and cross-departmental, and we are working on it. The working group of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Highways Agency and VisitEngland officials is due to meet for the first time on 16 May. We will discuss not how we can restrict, but how we can best promote safe roads, informative signs and tourism throughout the United Kingdom.

I know that I do not speak for the whole nation, because a lot of the powers are devolved, particularly in Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has mentioned. If people are not careful, they will miss

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what they are looking to do and advertise something that is not a tourism site, but a straightforward business. There is sometimes a grey area between the two. What constitutes tourism? Is it an area of outstanding natural beauty, a world heritage site, or are we talking about a business that employs lots of people locally and that would like to be promoted by a brown sign? I think that what we will get from the meetings is a definitive position on what the brown sign is. Will it be where we started with the 2003 legislation? No, it will not. It will be a relatively new and pragmatic approach for England, and I hope that the devolved Assemblies and other parts of the country will look carefully at how they opened Pandora’s box without thinking through carefully how it could be done.

It is important that we do not just stick to a mantra. I shall quote something that was going to be in my speech. I am not being derogatory in any way to my officials. The speech asked me to mention “TA 93/04 Traffic Signs to Tourist Attractions and Facilities in England—General Introduction”. If colleagues want to read that, it is available on the Department website, but it will make them none the wiser—to touch on what has been said—about how we will work better with local businesses and local authorities in particular, so that we do not dictate to them, but work with them.

It will be difficult to balance what should and should not be advertised. I use the word “advertising,” but my officials and I are not technically supposed to do that. The legislation needs to be tweaked, so that we can carefully work through what constitutes promoting road safety—in other words, giving people an option to get off nice and early, so that they know where they are going—and what constitutes impulse tourism, which is something that I have done for most of my life, especially since my kids came along. I want to go somewhere and they see somewhere else, but we end up going somewhere completely different. That is what impulse tourism is about. If someone is in one of the beautiful parts of the country represented by colleagues present, that is part and parcel of what goes on.

I was in Cornwall the other day, and for the first time in many years, I was being driven. I went to Cornwall many times on holiday as a young man and when I was in the military and always drove. It is a completely different county if one is being driven, because one can see some completely different things. I saw signs, advertisements and tourist attractions that I did not even know existed when I had visited previously. I had an excellent time. It is about how we manage this. It is a big change, after years of a review of road signage to look at how we make sure that strategic road network signage works.

Colleagues have talked about specific areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon was worried about certain aspects of what happened after the road improvement on the A1. That was based on new guidance that was introduced after the initial signs were put in, so when the new road improvements went through, the new criteria were met. I am sure that my hon. Friend was pleased with the road improvements on the A1. If not, I could mention other parts of the A1 north of Newcastle where people are screaming for me to address their part of the world, as is the case in other parts of the country. I accept that, sometimes, if things have

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been there for several years—many years in some cases—and new road improvements are made, all of a sudden the question is, “Where are my signs?”

I accept that there have been delays, but I hope that issues about particular road signs have been addressed. I am informed that several road signs were removed after the Dishforth to Leeming works were done. In accordance with TD52/04—that is what officials are still working to—the tourist attractions affected were invited to re-apply, apart from Ripon cathedral, which was accepted without re-applying. If there was a delay for Ripon cathedral, I do not understand how that was the case and perhaps my hon. Friend and I can correspond on that again. The cost of re-signing was part of the actual project cost.

I apologise—I have misread. We may need to correspond on what happened with Ripon, because it says here that the Ripon sign had insufficient justification, which is probably what my hon. Friend was alluding to earlier. That does not make any sense to me.

I argue that, if we are talking about tourism and historic sites, a sign on the A64 that reads “Farmer’s Cart/York Golf Range” would probably not, these days, fit the criteria of an area of outstanding natural beauty, a world heritage site, or a site such as Ripon cathedral. That is the sort of thing where we have to be careful with the balance.

The numbers game that the Department plays with the legislation is another grey area. If a certain number of people go to Newton Abbot for the races or for the beautiful coastline, why should it be designated as a problem if the numbers are taken from a particularly bad summer? I hope that that does not happen and that the tourism industry does fantastically well, as it has over the Easter weekend. I do not understand why, if we have fixed criteria, one area of outstanding natural beauty is not as great as another simply because the numbers do not go there. A lot of that is to do with the weather and our wonderful climate in this country.

I think that we can work together and that the Highways Agency is learning fast, with the new Administration under a coalition Government, that it is not about why we cannot do something, but about how we can do it. I met my officials this morning to discuss several brown signs that are not in areas represented by any colleagues present, but those issues need to be resolved quickly. There is no logic as to why those signs could not be used.

To sum up, are things being done? Yes, they are. Do I accept that the Highways Agency needs to work more efficiently and be more responsive to local authorities and businesses? Yes, but there are myriad different communication routes to the Highways Agency. I ask colleagues, particularly in local authorities, to try to channel their applications through a single route, if possible. That would make it much easier for the local authority to be supportive of the brown sign of a local business or tourism attraction. Singing from one hymn sheet tends to achieve a more cohesive approach.

Over the next couple of months, I will keep a very close eye on exactly how the Highways Agency responds and how the new working relationship with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Tourism Minister works. If the two Ministers have agreed to work closely together to promote tourism in the United Kingdom, it

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is absolutely crucial that the civil servants behind that mechanism listen to what Ministers have been saying and take action.

At the same time—I am going to make a rod for my own back here—if there are individual attractions, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites or anything else that colleagues think should have a brown sign, I will be more than happy to listen to delegations of colleagues from across the House to discuss how we can promote the UK. We are coming out of a difficult financial situation that we have inherited. No matter what the Government do with cuts and how careful we are with taxpayers’ money, growth is the way forward. Tourism has to be part of that growth and anything that my Department and my officials can do to help to promote growth in tourism will get my backing.

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Coroners (Recording of Suicides)

4.41 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I look forward to taking part in the debate this afternoon under your excellent, impartial and always fair chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I must admit that I have already had a certain amount of generous time offered to me by the Minister and his team to discuss some of the issues that I wish to raise. However, these matters are of such importance that I want to rehearse them again here, so that the Minister can hear them outside the meeting that he had with me in his Department with Professor Keith Hawton from Oxford university and Professor David Gunnell from Bristol university, both of whom are from departments of suicide studies.

This is a very serious issue. Every suicide is a tragedy for the individual who takes their own life and for their friends, family and community. More than 4,000 people take their lives in this country every year. Only heart disease and lung cancer are responsible for the loss of more years of life. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young men. The figures are shocking, but it is vital that statistics about suicide are recorded accurately in our effort to ensure that fewer people feel that they have to take their own life and fewer people lose a loved one in such a tragic way.

Accurate statistics help academics to understand the causes of suicides and the key groups at risk. They help local and national Government and health care professionals to decide what prevention strategies will work best and where to target resources. Statistics about causes of death including suicide are collected by the Office for National Statistics based on reports submitted by coroners following inquests. As I will explain, the increasing use of narrative verdicts by coroners and the variation of practice between coroners risk undermining the reliability of the statistics that we have and our ability to combat suicide.

Like any cause of death, suicide rates vary by age, gender, background and geographic area. More than any cause of death, the way in which the suicide rate varies across those demographic groups changes over time. Twenty years ago, men aged over 75 had the highest risk of any group, but they now have the lowest. Men aged between 15 and 44 have the highest rate of suicide of any group, but women within that same cohort have the lowest.

External factors can have a dramatic effect on the rate of suicide and can affect different demographics. Economic recession and high unemployment have a particularly striking effect on the suicide rate of working-age men. Different areas have different profiles of suicide victims, and those demographic profiles change over time. A paper by Bristol university’s Professor David Gunnell and others published in December concluded that in the past 25 years

“there has been a marked change in the spatial epidemiology of suicide”.

Such changes must be accurately recorded if our work to prevent suicide is to be effective. I will return to geographic recording in a moment.

There is also the question of the occurrence of so-called suicide hotspots and suicide clusters, where suicides occur more often than would be expected. Those areas of research can help to have an impact on suicide prevention in specific geographic areas.

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University researchers have been able to use statistics to identify trends in suicide methods and increases in the use of a particular method. Professor Keith Hawton of Oxford university has produced work on the use of smaller packets of paracetamol and co-codamol, which reduces the use of those medications in suicides. The fitting of catalytic converters to cars reduced the number of suicides from car exhaust fumes, and the move from coal gas to North sea gas reduced the number of incidents of suicide by gassing. Such an approach does not just reduce the number of suicides by a particular method; it reduces the number of suicides overall because people do not tend to simply move to another method. Tackling and understanding the methods used is very important.

Information about geographic regions and suicide informs Government interventions and where resources need to be targeted to have the best effect. They also help us to understand the nature of suicide itself. However, the reliability of suicide statistics is being undermined by a significant rise in the use of narrative verdicts by coroners. In 2001, 111 deaths were recorded by narrative verdict. By 2009, the number had increased to 3,012.

Narrative verdicts were introduced to the UK as a requirement of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which includes a duty to investigate and prevent deaths and a duty for the Government to take action to prevent further deaths. Narrative verdicts were intended for fairly limited use. Although they can provide more details about the circumstances of a death, they do not use a standard verdict to express the conclusions. That presents a challenge for coders at the Office for National Statistics, which is responsible for collating coroners’ verdicts into usable data. Many deaths given a narrative verdict are likely to have been suicides, but they might not be identified as such by coroners.

The ONS uses international classification of disease rules, so it is not permitted to infer anything from the coroner’s narrative verdict. Coroners must use certain key words in their narrative verdicts for them to be properly categorised. Unless there is a clear reference to an intention to cause self-harm, the death must be recorded as accidental by the ONS, regardless of any other information given. Even a narrative verdict that gives a number of details surrounding a death could fail to specify the intention of the deceased.

Let us consider the following hypothetical example, which is used by the ONS to illustrate the problem. I apologise if this description causes distress to anyone, but it is hypothetical. Mr X, after being found hanging in his cell at X youth offenders institution on date X, died on date X at X infirmary. It was a serious omission by X young offenders institution not to have informed X’s parents on each occasion that X had self-harmed. The jury’s verdict was that X died from hanging, which caused his death. In that example, there is evidence of intent to self-harm because previous instances of self-harm are mentioned in the narrative. However, there is no mention of intent surrounding the initiating act that caused the death. Therefore, the death is classified as “accidental”.

The ONS has estimated that such examples could have resulted in the suicide rate being underestimated by at least 6%, which is a third of the target for reducing deaths by suicide established by the last suicide prevention strategy. If the use of narrative verdicts increases, the

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gap between actual suicides and those reported will rise further, thus making it difficult to estimate any progress that is being made in reducing deaths by suicide.

The Ministry of Justice was unable to provide me with information about the number of narrative verdicts given by each coroner’s district. However, narrative verdicts made up around 81% of the verdicts classified as “other verdicts” in MOJ figures in 2009. In one very large district, Birmingham and Solihull, more than 48% of the 962 verdicts were classified as “other”, compared to a national average of 13%. In contrast, there were four districts, each one recording dozens of deaths, in which no narrative verdicts were given. Almost a third of coroners’ districts used “other verdicts” less than 5% of the time. That is not a criticism of the way that any coroner practises. However, there is clearly a lack of consistency in the way that narrative verdicts are used and therefore in the records that can be collected.

At the root of the problem is the coroner system itself. In 2003, a review of the system concluded that

“the coroner is a law unto himself.”

Inquest, which operates a free advice service for bereaved people, has described coroners as operating

“as a fragmented, non-professional assortment of individual coroners who operate with no compulsory training and little accountability.”

The system, or the lack thereof, creates a lottery in how deaths are recorded. There is no consistency and no guidance on how narrative verdicts could be presented, so that they could include the information that is required by the ONS. Narrative verdicts vary from a couple of lines to a couple of pages.

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 contained a provision to create the office of chief coroner. Under that Act, the chief coroner would have responsibility for driving up standards in the system through training, and they would issue guidance and set national standards of service. The performance of the system would be monitored and there would be a consistent way of operating, which is the point most relevant to the debate today. In addition, differences between coroner areas would be kept under review.

The Government have determined that the function of the chief coroner can be carried out by others. I served on the Public Bill Committee for the 2009 Act, and I must say that we need a senior legal officer who oversees the coroner operation and ensures consistency in coroners’ courts. That is my preferred option, but a second option is to issue regulations and clear guidance to ensure that all narrative verdicts contain all the necessary information, with clear direction that any narrative verdict must include a statement on the intention, if any, of the person who has died. That would allow the accurate recording of the information that we need.

I want to mention briefly a third option, which is discussed in a paper by Lucy Biddle, a researcher at Bristol university. It is to remove suicides from the coronial system altogether. I will quote briefly from her paper:

“Indeed, suicide requests seem to be more to do with tradition than functional necessity, since their origins relate to when suicide was a crime and the property of those committing the offence was forfeited to the state. The suicide case is a misfit that presents today’s coroner with something of a contradiction in practice, since it still hinges around establishing intent and attaching a moral classification to the cause of death.”

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The primary recommendation of the British Isles suicide research group’s report on good practice and changes to court procedure in 2006 was that in non-complex cases, where the facts are not disputed and the family agrees, coroners should be allowed the discretion to process suicides without a public hearing. I hope that the Minister will at least agree to consider that option.

Finally, coroners’ offices are part of the judicial system, but they also play a vital role in assisting health services and researchers, so they should be considered as part of our health system, as well as part of our legal system. In the past, the MOJ has perhaps focused too narrowly on the judicial aspect of the coroner system. It has failed to recognise the importance of coroners’ work in the health care system and thus failed to ensure that coroners are provided with guidance and training that reflects that role. I hope that we can have a commitment to take a more proactive approach to the issuing of guidance and regulation. Anything that we can do to prevent further tragic deaths from suicide is vital.

4.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Thank you, Mr Robertson, and good afternoon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this debate. I am certainly aware that coroners’ use of narrative verdicts at inquests is a subject in which she has taken a keen interest. Indeed, as she mentioned, we have met before to discuss this topic, in her capacity as chairman of the all-party group for suicide and self-harm prevention. I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to improving the coroner system for all those who come into contact with it.

The hon. Lady set out the statistics about the number of suicides in the UK. I know that last October she held an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on suicide, discussing the subject more broadly, when the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), responded and discussed the Government’s new suicide prevention strategy.

I want to begin today by setting out the background to the use of narrative verdicts by coroners. Coroners are independent judicial office holders, who are appointed and paid for by local authorities. Except for a few technical areas, the Ministry of Justice has no operational responsibility for coroners and is responsible for coroner law and policy only.

Coroners are required by law to inquire into violent, unnatural or sudden deaths of unknown cause, and into deaths that occur in prison or police custody. When investigating a death, it is the coroner’s duty to establish, first, who the deceased was, and secondly, how, when and where they died. At the close of an inquest, coroners are required to return a verdict covering those questions and to certify the verdict in an inquisition.

A suggested list of verdicts that may be returned, commonly referred to as “short-form” verdicts, is contained in the Coroners Rules 1984. These are: natural causes; accident or misadventure; suicide; unlawful killing; lawful killing; industrial disease, or open verdict. An open verdict, of course, is where there is insufficient evidence

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for any other verdict. I should point out that the standard of proof that needs to be satisfied if the coroner is to return a verdict of suicide is the criminal standard, that is “beyond reasonable doubt”. Therefore, suicide can never be presumed and a suicide verdict cannot be based on ambiguous evidence. A verdict of suicide can only be returned if the coroner is satisfied that the death occurred as a result of a deliberate act by the deceased and that in doing so they intended that the consequence would be their own death.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the list of verdicts provided by the Coroners Rules 1984 is not mandatory for coroners to use in all cases. Indeed, the list is only supplied as a suggestion. That is particularly important as inquests are detailed fact-finding exercises that involve the careful discovery and interrogation of facts. It follows that it is sometimes difficult to achieve a tidy reduction of a lengthy consideration of facts into a one-word or two-word verdict.

Before 2004, coroners sometimes found cause to return verdicts that were narrative based. Those were used in cases in which it was not possible to return a short-form verdict because of a series of findings that was not conducive to a single, short-form verdict. That approach was approved in case law. However, in 2004, the House of Lords handed down its judgment in Middleton v. Coroner for the Western District of Somerset.

Inquests are the principal way in which we discharge our obligations under article 2 of the European convention on human rights and the judgment in Middleton held that short-form verdicts might not always be adequate to satisfy the requirements of that article. The House of Lords went on to clarify that, in some cases, coroners might need to interpret more broadly the requirements of the Coroners Act 1988 and determine not simply “how”, meaning “by what means”, a person came by their death, but rather “how”, meaning “by what means and in what circumstances.” In the light of the Middleton judgment, therefore, coroners are at times bound by case law to return a narrative verdict. That is the reason for such a substantial increase in the use of narrative verdicts since 2004.

I realise, however, that hon. Lady’s primary concern is not to suggest that there should be any limit placed on coroners’ discretion to return narrative verdicts. Such a suggestion would impede their judicial independence and would be wholly inappropriate. Additionally, I would not like to suggest that the hon. Lady is concerned about the standard of proof that needs to be applied when considering the verdict of suicide.

It is clearly inappropriate to suggest that coroners apply the civil standard of proof to a verdict as serious as suicide. Indeed, it is understandable that coroners might return narrative verdicts for cases where suicide is suspected but cannot be proved. That might be because the deceased was intoxicated at the time of death, or was suffering from depression, and it cannot be proved that they were fully aware of their actions. A coroner would have to consider such issues in the hon. Lady’s example of death by hanging in a cell. It is fair to say, therefore, that, arguably, such deaths include some suicidal elements, even if they cannot be deemed as “suicide” at the close of an inquest.

A key concern of the hon. Lady, as I see it, is the effect that the increased use of narrative verdicts might have on the accuracy of mortality statistics, in particular

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in deaths that could involve some elements of suicidal intent. That is because, it is argued, some narrative verdicts do not give statisticians enough clear information to indicate whether the event leading to the death was carried out intentionally or accidentally. Statisticians are, understandably, not permitted ever to infer what happened and must use the information provided by the coroner. However, if they cannot derive any intention from the action of the deceased, they must record the death as an accident. I appreciate that that might lead to inaccuracies in national mortality statistics, the associated risk being that local authorities might not be able to identify, procure and provide adequate preventive measures against, for example, suicidal intent.

The hon. Lady went on to say that some coroners are seen as a law unto themselves. I must repeat that they are independent judicial appointments and, as such, they cannot be forced into doing the same thing. It is important to realise that a chief coroner would not have had any powers of coercion in any event. To address such issues, however, I will outline the work on the issue that is currently underway in my Department, in conjunction with the Department of Health, the Office for National Statistics and the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales.

My Department has issued guidance to coroners on narrative verdicts in the past. We are currently considering revising that guidance, with a view to highlighting some of the concerns discussed in the debate and elsewhere. In addition, my officials will consider exploring whether any further training can be given to coroners on the use of narrative verdicts. I understand that such training has been given in recent years, but we can certainly look to repeat it. We have no plan for private hearings for suicide inquests—that was a new idea, which I will look at, and I will come back to the hon. Lady on her suggestion.

The Government plan to launch shortly for formal consultation a new strategy for suicide prevention. The plan builds on some of the successful measures of the previous suicide prevention strategy and takes into account the changing demographics within our society and the current economic climate. Development of the

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new strategy has been supported by leading experts in suicide prevention, including members of the national suicide prevention strategy advisory group under the chairmanship of Professor Louis Appleby. The strategy will set out its high-level objective to deliver a reduced rate of suicide among the general population and improved support to those bereaved or affected by suicide, through a series of shared areas for action and working with other key partners in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

In relation to that, the Office for National Statistics published the latest edition of “Health Statistics Quarterly” in February, which included a short paper, “Narrative verdicts and their impact on mortality statistics in England and Wales”. It is interesting to note that, while the paper confirmed that the use of narrative verdicts has increased in recent years, it concluded that that increase has not had a detrimental effect on the Office for National Statistics’ mortality statistics. At the same time, however, the paper also cautioned that a continued rise in the use of narrative verdicts could start to affect the accuracy of those statistics.

As I explained when I met the hon. Lady, the Office for National Statistics is reviewing its coding practices, in conjunction with the Coroners’ Society, and I will take an interest in that matter. The work has been ongoing and will also feed into any work that might be taken forward on the possible implementation of part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. In particular, the Ministry of Justice will look to liaise with the Office for National Statistics on the development of any new coroners’ rules and regulations.

I hope that the hon. Lady is therefore somewhat reassured that such an important matter is receiving proper consideration. Finally, I caution that, as the work is taken forward, we must be careful not to impinge on coroners’ judicial independence, or to do anything that might prevent them from following established case law.

Question put and agreed to.

5.7 pm

Sitting adjourned.