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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 14 June 2011

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Coastguard Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson)

9.30 am

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Dr McCrea. This is the latest in a long series of debates on the coastguard service and I look forward to debating it again with the Minister.

With the coastguard station, police officers, community support officers and the second fire engine under threat in Crosby, it struck me as odd that the Government had not carried out a risk assessment of the impact of such cuts on public safety. I want to look at the co-ordination between the emergency services and see how police, fire and ambulance services will carry out their duties without coastguard staff, who have immense local knowledge and years of experience. There will also be an impact on the RAF mountain rescue service, the British Transport police and the many volunteers who carry out vital rescue services up and down the country. I plan to look at the ability of other emergency services to support the remaining coastguards to carry out their duties following the cuts to their budgets.

In the spirit of “Have I Got News For You”, I have brought along two guest publications. The Royal Yachting Association’s members’ magazine stated:

“It is clear that changes to the current system are needed to improve the safety of boaters.”

Will the Minister tell us how organisations such as the RYA were involved in drawing up the original plans?

The second guest publication, Firefighter, is probably well known to the Minister because he has a distinguished record in the fire service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I would not go as far as that.

Bill Esterson: Well, he has served in the fire service.

Firefighter states:

“Voluntarism, good neighbourliness and a desire to perform ‘public service’ have a limited place in the fire and rescue service on safety grounds.”

I raise that comment because cuts in budgets and staffing have led to the expectation that some of the work of the emergency services will have to be delivered by volunteers. The question is whether that is a safe or acceptable risk for the public. It would be helpful to see how the emergency services and public safety will be affected by the planned cuts. Coastguard staff at Crosby work closely with the police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue services.

I have a number of questions for the Minister, some of which he will be able to answer and some of which he may have to refer to his colleagues in other Departments. The proposed changes to the UK-wide service will have a huge knock-on effect and this debate aims to tease out some of the wider issues, many of which have been briefly addressed in our previous debates.

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There is a disagreement between the Minister and many coastguard staff and stakeholders about whether an adequate risk assessment was carried out as part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency plans. It would be interesting to hear what assessment was carried out of the impact on other emergency services and on their ability to continue to support the coastguard. I include in that assessment the impact of funding cuts on voluntary organisations, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—an organisation’s ability to raise funds may suffer as a result of the economic climate—and local volunteer services such as the Southport rescue service.

I attended a consultation meeting at which more than 200 people were present, including representatives from the Southport rescue service. Concerns were raised by the shipping industry, the oil and gas sector, search and rescue volunteers and pleasure craft users. Will the Minister tell us how far those sectors were involved in the drawing up of the original plans? It is said that staff were not asked for their views, and that has been repeated right the way through this process and by many hon. Members here today. Could the Minister confirm whether the plans were drawn up by former front-line staff with no recent operational experience? Will he tell us whether the police, fire service, ambulance service and volunteer search and rescue teams were asked for their views before the plans were drawn up?

The lack of front-line involvement in drawing up the proposals is a key flaw and a matter of grave concern for hon. Members here today and the staff and public who rely on the coastguard and other emergency services. It is at the heart of the difficulty that the Government face during this process.

The way in which Ministers pushed ahead with the proposals is similar to the way in which so many other policies are pushed through by the Government—too fast and too soon. They failed to engage with stakeholders and staff and they failed to involve the other emergency services when they drew up the plans. That led to many of the flaws that have been so graphically illustrated during the consultation. It would have been far better to get the proposals right in the first place and not to have the plans systematically dismantled by staff, volunteers, maritime experts, commercial and leisure users and the general public.

Like many other places in the country, the Merseyside fire and rescue service is set to lose its marine service as a result of Government cuts. I would be interested to hear what discussions have taken place between the MCA and the fire service about the work done jointly between coastguards and river and coastal fire and rescue boats, and what the impact of the cuts will be. Has the Minister spoken to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the cuts in the fire service and has he raised concerns about the impact of the cuts on Merseyside and elsewhere in the country?

Did the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government ask the Minister or the Secretary of State for Transport whether the cuts in the fire service would have any effect on the coastguards and what the impact would be on public safety? These questions would have been addressed if the fire service had been asked to help draw up the plans for the coastguard.

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Co-ordination between rescue services would have helped to deliver changes without compromising safety. This story appeared in the Liverpool Echo on 5 March:

“Four people had to be rescued from a pilot boat that caught fire on the River Mersey today. The alarm was raised at around 3.10 am that the crew of the Dunlin were drifting in the river after the fire knocked out the engine. The New Brighton RNLI boat was launched to save the people onboard, who were transferred to another pilot boat, the Petrel. Firefighters tackled the blaze on the water before the stricken Dunlin was towed back to the landing stage at the Pierhead. The fire crews finished dampening the smouldering boat down at around 6 am. No-one on the Dunlin was hurt.”

There is praise there for the RNLI and the fire service, but after the cuts, will the RNLI have the contacts to respond? Will the coastguard be able to direct the RNLI or another rescue team to the scene in time?

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr McCrea, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. Does he agree that the whole issue around the coastguard stations has opened a real hornets’ nest in a number of regions? In Northern Ireland, the Bangor station is causing something of a controversy. Does he agree with the First Minister in Northern Ireland when he said that reducing the Bangor station—the only coastguard station in Northern Ireland—to a daytime service would have a significant effect on the levels of service and rescue?

Bill Esterson: The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. His example ties in with the concerns that I was expressing about the co-ordination of rescue services and about getting them to the scene in a timely fashion.

That point was illustrated by the example I gave concerning the Dunlin which suggested that a combination of organisations work together to effect speedy rescue services; that all of them are affected by Government plans; and that all of them have raised questions for a variety of Government Ministers. I hope that we will start to get some answers from the Minister today.

The suspicion remains that the reorganisation has been rushed and that the cuts to police, fire, ambulance and voluntary agencies that provide an emergency response have also been rushed. The cuts to all the emergency services are possibly the worst example of cuts that are happening too fast and too soon, as they will undermine the ability of the emergency services to protect the public.

The issue of local knowledge applies to all emergency services. When discussing co-ordination of emergency services, it becomes a critical issue. The loss of Crosby coastguard station would mean that the police and fire services, working with search and rescue volunteers, would be ever more crucial in identifying where incidents take place. The cuts to police, fire and voluntary organisations mean that those organisations will not be in a position to provide a replacement service for the coastguard service. That brings me to another question that I want to put to the Minister—how will that replacement service be provided? I would like an answer to that question.

The Government must now come clean on the estimates that they have made about the increased time that it will take to reach maritime incidents as a result of these

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closures. If the coastguard at Crosby goes, if the local fire service loses its river service and if the funding for the RNLI and other voluntary rescue services is under pressure, what will happen in incidents such as that involving the Dunlin? How will co-ordination of services happen in future? What assessment was carried out before the proposals were published? Was the RNLI asked to help draw up the plans? Did the Minister ask his ministerial colleagues about the impact of cuts to organisations such as the RNLI and whether the funding of such organisations would be affected by the slow-down in economic growth that has resulted from the Chancellor cutting public spending?

Mike Penning: Evidence was given to the Transport Committee the other day by the RNLI, but what evidence is there of any cuts in the RNLI services anywhere in the UK and southern Ireland? If there is no evidence, the hon. Gentleman is scaremongering and frightening communities around the country. There is no evidence at all.

Bill Esterson: I am glad that the Minister has asked me that question, because it highlights the fact that that was the sort of issue that was not considered when the plans were drawn up. The reason that I raise the issue is—

Mike Penning indicated dissent.

Bill Esterson: The Minister can shake his head, scowl and express his dissatisfaction all he wants. However, the reality is that in a downturn—in tough economic times—charitable giving falls. He must know that; I think that everyone in Westminster Hall today must know that. I am interested to know what assessment was made of the impact of the downturn, not only on the RNLI but on all the voluntary organisations that provide emergency services. That is the key question and I had hoped that I had asked it clearly before.

Mike Penning: The specific point that the hon. Gentleman is making is that there are likely to be cuts in the service of the RNLI. The RNLI gave evidence to the Transport Committee only the other day and I myself have met local and national representatives of the RNLI on numerous occasions, and there is absolutely no evidence that such cuts will happen. To suggest that they are likely is scaremongering. As I say, I have met the relevant bodies and the Select Committee has taken evidence on this subject, so the hon. Gentleman must not scare the public by saying that there will be cuts to RNLI services.

Bill Esterson: I do not need lectures from the Minister about what I must and must not do. He should really think through what he is saying before he makes that sort of comment, because I am asking questions about the kind of assessment and analysis that was carried out about the impact of these plans, and about the process that was gone through when the original proposals were drawn up. This issue is of grave concern to many staff, many members of the public and many people who rely on the coastguard. It is about what analysis was done on a range of issues related to the ability of all the emergency services to protect the public. I am asking about that.

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I say again that in a downturn—in tough economic times—charitable giving falls. We have already seen evidence of that. I do not know what the situation is with the RNLI. That is why I am asking the Minister about the RNLI. It is a very important question and I would be very worried if the Minister did not consider it so.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I will declare an interest. I am a member of the council of the RNLI, so I know that there really are concerns about charitable giving. Obviously, that issue is separate from the issue of the Government plans. However, the evidence given to the Transport Committee inquiry—this was said very clearly—was that in the consultation about these cuts only about four or five of the hundreds of RNLI stations across the country gave evidence. Privately, many RNLI members are concerned about the level of cuts and the disappearance of local knowledge. That is a fact. If anyone talks to RNLI members, volunteers and full-time crew members, they will find that they are concerned about the impact that these cuts will have on local knowledge and on their operations.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend has addressed some of the wider issues that the Minister raised with me. I had been looking at the issue of funding, and we have heard evidence that there is concern about that issue. The point that I was making was about the way that the Government proposals were drawn up, but my hon. Friend makes a much wider point about the impact of the loss of local knowledge and the concerns that the RNLI has raised about that issue. I think that we will discuss local knowledge in greater depth shortly.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Regarding the wider point about the RNLI, I have long-held reservations about the way that the RNLI has gone about this process of consultation. Local crews have felt that they have not been able to speak out publicly and have had to go through RNLI channels. I know people who work on lifeboats who have plenty of opinions on this subject, but their opinions have not actually been fed through the RNLI. Actually, because of the process that the RNLI has gone through, I would say that the RNLI evidence is incomplete and it could have been stronger if there had been greater input from certain crews in certain areas. I will put it no more strongly than that.

Bill Esterson: I welcome the points that the hon. Gentleman makes and I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

I make the point that this issue is not just about the RNLI; it is about other voluntary rescue services too. I mentioned the Southport coastguard services, members of whom I met at the consultation meeting recently. There are other services in the Crosby area and of course around the UK that carry out these rescue services. They all make similar points about co-ordination and the loss of local knowledge and expertise; they are extremely worried about that loss. In addition, they all make the same point about funding. That is why I am asking about funding—it is an important question. Neither I nor the people I have listened to feel that that has been considered.

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Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I represent the RNLI headquarters; it is in my constituency. I had a meeting a couple of months ago with the chief executive of the RNLI, Paul Boissier. I just want to make it clear that he is an ex-admiral and an ex-commander of a nuclear submarine. The head of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is also an ex-admiral. They talk regularly and there is no holding back of views. The RNLI is in dialogue with the MCA all the time. If there were any general concerns, we would know about them. The RNLI is not holding back. There is a dialogue and a good relationship with the MCA. The RNLI wants the best service possible, so that the people who risk their lives every day can actually get out there and save lives.

Bill Esterson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is very important that there is communication at the top of the organisations involved. However, I think that everybody would accept that communication happens at many different levels and one of the main concerns about the way that these proposals have been put forward is the lack of involvement of front-line staff in the process of drawing them up. So, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point about top-level communication and I accept that point, but we also need to look at issues right the way through the organisations involved and around the UK, because the RNLI is not just one organisation in one area with one central structure. It is much more of a devolved organisation than that.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): On the point about funding, on Saturday I met my volunteer lifeboat men in Looe who have just raised an enormous amount of money in a very short space of time for the provision of a new vessel. I must make it clear that there may not have been the impact on RNLI fundraising that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. However, there is a lot of concern among the people working at the sharp end that the proposals will adversely impact on their doing their jobs and on marine safety, and that needs to be put on the record as well. The hierarchy might be putting a particular message forward, but that is not what we are hearing at the coal face.

Bill Esterson: The hon. Lady speaks from tremendous personal experience, and I know that all Members recognise her involvement in the matter and the sadness around the loss of her husband. I pay tribute to her involvement in putting the case for the coastguard. She has made a very good point about the RNLI, and I am pleased to hear the evidence about fundraising—that is very important. The reason for my question is to tease out that sort of information and to look at the wider impact.

I have raised the issue of the impact on the fire service, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has submitted a series of written questions about cuts to the maritime incident response group by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Does the Minister have any further information on that?

Many Members have expressed concerns about how the plans were drawn up. The maritime industry was asked for its views about pleasure craft users and the fishing industry, but was it asked about the impact of the cuts in fire, police and ambulance services and about the loss of the ability to co-ordinate services?

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On the police, Merseyside police authority says that it is not recruiting new officers. It expects to lose 480 officers over two years, and its budget for community support officers ends in two years’ time. The Liverpool Echo estimates that up to 800 front-line officers will go over four years, and across England and Wales the figure is 12,000 over two years. Has the Minister discussed with the Home Secretary the impact of such job cuts in the police service? How will police officers replace the relationships they have built up with coastguards, and will police officers be available to cover some of the work done by coastguards and search and rescue volunteers who tell us that they will call it a day because of fears for their own safety without the co-ordination of trusted, local coastguards with years of experience? If the Government perform the U-turn that they should, what will happen to the joint working with police and fire services anyway?

I have asked many questions about co-ordination, about the impact of the MCA plans on police, fire and voluntary emergency services connected to the coastguard, and about the effect of the cuts on the ability of emergency services to support the coastguard, whether or not the Government close most of the coastguard stations. The more I investigate the matter, the clearer it is that this is yet another issue governed by pound signs rather than by efficiency, putting saving money before saving lives. A recent Crosby Herald article stated that the original review had excluded Crosby coastguard station in my constituency. Crosby was hastily reinserted, however, when Ministers were reminded that the work force there were well organised and would almost certainly put up a fight. That is the view of staff and of local people. The suggestion is that the consultation was a sham and that Crosby was going to be closed whatever the outcome. We will clearly see before very much longer whether that is true.

I am sure that the Minister will remind me of his visit to Crosby. He told staff there that the coastguard was like the fire service and that he, as a firefighter, did not need to be told where the fire was. It was pointed out to him that along the coast of north-west England there are many mud and sand banks, but no roads, and creeks and gullies with similar names, and that it could easily take someone who did not know the area many minutes to identify the correct location to which to send search and rescue. A delay of a few minutes could well cost lives.

My questions today suggest that if a coastguard station closes, the lack of local knowledge could become even more critical because of the cuts to other emergency services. The coastguard, the other emergency services and the public all need assurances that the Government’s plans for the coastguard are not one of their many political cuts, and that they will reconsider the proposals. The reality is that the coastguard cuts, along with the cuts to the other emergency services, go too far and too fast. They have not been planned or thought through, and they should be reversed.

9.54 am

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. I am pleased that we

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are looking at the co-ordination role of the coastguard co-ordination stations, which has not always been focused on in other debates, and at their role in overseeing incidents at sea. It is the local coastguards who pull together the emergency services during an incident and who, over many years, have built up relationships with those services. We remove that local relationship at our peril.

I firmly believe, as did my late husband, that there should be modernisation of coastguard equipment to allow, for example, the position of vessels transmitting with the voluntary class B automatic indicator system to be identified easily, but that there should be no cull of marine rescue co-ordination centres. Because of my personal position, I have received representations from concerned sea users all over the country, but it is appropriate for me to concentrate on my own area.

The marine rescue co-ordination centre in Brixham covers my constituency of South East Cornwall, and has built up unique experience from so many incidents over many years. The search and rescue area covered by Brixham stretches from Dodman Point halfway along the south coast of Cornwall to Exmouth in Devon, and it is essential to emphasise something I am sure the Minister will recognise and agree with—that local knowledge of topography saves lives. The care that I was afforded on 25 March by Looe RNLI crew and Brixham and Looe coastguards was beyond anything I could have expected, and I thank all those involved in the emergency services, and indeed the south-west fishing industry, for their kindness.

This past Saturday I spent time with my local RNLI personnel and my local volunteer coastguards, who are all concerned about the Minister’s proposals. They feel that he has not had the opportunity to speak to people who operate at the sharp end, and I would like to invite the Minister to visit Looe—if his busy schedule allows it—to hear for himself their concerns.

Some examples of co-ordinated sea rescues undertaken by Brixham are the Santa Anna, the MV Willy, the MV Kodima, the Ice Prince, the Kukawa and the Bothnia Stone.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Would I be right in saying that Brixham dealt with 1,300 incidents in 2010, saving 300 lives? Its work is absolutely valuable. When we talked about introducing technology, we said that we would move to a paperless society, but we have not, and although technology undoubtedly has a place—we need modernisation—without local knowledge we will not save the numbers of lives that we have done in the past.

Sheryll Murray: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I was coming on to the number of incidents. As far as technology goes, it was only last Wednesday that the London ambulance service system failed, and it was recording emergency calls with pen and paper.

The incidents involving MV Willy and MV Kodima both happened off the coast of my own county division, when I sat on Cornwall county council. I witnessed at first hand the superb co-ordination provided by the Brixham marine rescue co-ordination centre, with the marine emergency rescue organisations and the Cornwall fire service and its emergency planning department. I doubt that the Minister has experienced that unique

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way of working within a coastal fire and rescue service, but I appreciate that he has absolute expertise as far as an inland fire and rescue service is concerned.

I would like to highlight in more detail three incidents in which Brixham MRCC has been involved in co-ordination with other emergency services. The first occurred just before midnight—that is, outside daylight hours—on 13 January 2008 and involved the Torbay and Salcombe RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue helicopter India Juliet, HMS Cumberland and several merchant vessels. They proceeded to merchant vessel Ice Prince, with 20 persons on board, 27 miles south-east of Start point after its cargo shifted in heavy weather and it began to list to port. The vessel was abandoned by 12 crewmen, one with a suspected broken leg, and they were airlifted to Portland by helicopter. The remaining eight were rescued by Torbay lifeboat and conveyed to Brixham. A French tug attended the scene, and damage was assessed in daylight.

The second incident occurred on 11 October at 8.38 am and involved a missing person. Brixham took broadcast action and tasked the warship Westminster and coastguard helicopter R106 to assist the French coastguard at Cross Corsen in a mid-channel search for an 80-year-old male reported missing from passenger vessel Balmoral.

Finally, on 10 February this year at 6.43 pm—again, outside daylight hours—Brixham coastguard received a mayday distress call from fishing vessel Amber J reporting that fishing vessel Admiral Blake had collided with MV Boxford approximately 30 miles south of Start point. The Amber J reported that two crewmen from the Admiral Blake had entered the water and only one had been recovered. Salcombe RNLI’s all-weather lifeboat, coastguard rescue helicopter 106 from Portland and Royal Navy helicopter 193 were tasked to search for the missing crewman. After a mayday relay, numerous vessels assisted in the search, along with a rapid rescue craft from the Boxford. After a brief search, the missing crewman was located by the Boxford’s rapid rescue craft, winched aboard the coastguard rescue helicopter and taken to hospital. Rescue helicopter 193 stood by while the Salcombe lifeboat assessed the damage to the Admiral Blake. After the damage was assessed and controlled, the Admiral Blake was towed back to Plymouth, where the Plymouth lifeboat met the vessel and took her into port. That shows essential local partnership working among our local coastguard stations at the moment.

Complicated incidents at Brixham have increased year on year since 1998, when 767 incidents were recorded. In 2002, there were 903 incidents, in 2003 there were 1,025, in 2009 there were 1,324 and last year there were 1,355. Of greater concern is the fact that this year, there have already been 546 incidents, an increase of 90 from the same period last year. I acknowledge that, taken at face value, the number of incidents at Falmouth appears higher, at 971. However, that can be broken down into 233 incidents similar to those that I have just described and another 738 that occurred under the international global maritime distress safety system. Some of those incidents might have been search and rescue, but others would have been passed to the relevant MRC centre to deal with.

I am afraid that I must take issue with the Minister’s comments about Falmouth’s international role during a debate on 2 February this year. He said:

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“Falmouth is internationally renowned for its international rescue capabilities. If we have a problem in Falmouth, where does that get picked up? Nowhere.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 320WH.]

He is clearly unaware that Brixham takes over GMDSS when Falmouth suffers an outage, and has taken over the system every Thursday for the past 12 months. Perhaps he will take the opportunity when he speaks to correct the statement that he made in February. It would also be interesting to hear from him whether there have been any incidents in which both stations in a pair have gone down at the same time.

As I am sure the Minister knows, Falmouth was allocated GMDSS due to its proximity to Goonhilly Downs satellite earth station, which has closed. Many incidents are subsequently passed on to other coastal co-ordination stations, and it is unfair of him to include them in the number of incidents dealt with by Falmouth alone.

I am disappointed that the Minister chose to describe Brixham and Falmouth as “ridiculously close” during the Adjournment debate last week. In fact, Brixham and Portland, Milford and Swansea, Thames and Yarmouth, Portland and Solent, and Forth and Aberdeen have fewer road miles between them, and if we measure as the crow flies, we can also include Holyhead and Liverpool on the list. Does he consider those stations to be ridiculously close?

Brixham MRCC is bought and paid for. We now need to cover only the station’s running costs. It contains an operations co-ordination room, an emergency planning room, a coastal safety manager’s office, a sector manager’s office, coastguard rescue equipment for the Berry Head rescue team, a coastguard rescue emergency vehicle, a marine surveyor’s office, a coastguard training office for the region and an aerial site, and it still has space to expand. Brixham has been approached to lease a whole floor to another emergency service for its offices and operation area. If the property is sold, new premises will need to be found and bought for all of the above.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady is making a fantastic speech. It underlines the fact that the more we find out about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s plans and the more detail emerges, the more concerned I become, as I am sure do other hon. Members, about what the MCA was thinking when it first took its plans to the Minister. I am sure that he would not have started the process if he had known the sort of detail that the hon. Lady has described.

Sheryll Murray: I am absolutely certain that my hon. Friend the Minister has the best intentions, and that he does not intend to make savage cuts to the best rescue service in the world.

Brixham is the busiest fishing port in England. It has the third highest number of leisure vessels registered on CG66, the voluntary safety identification scheme, at 2,200, and that number is increasing daily. It has a search and rescue area and is a popular holiday destination. Brixham has unique expertise in UK search and rescue. Due to its position along the busiest shipping lanes in the world, it has gained unique search and rescue expertise from incidents such as those that I have listed.

I end with a message that I hope the Minister will accept in the spirit in which it is given. He says that we will not end up with the proposal outlined in his consultation document, and I welcome those words. However, he

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must accept that by issuing a five-year-old proposal that takes massive cuts as a starting point, he has effectively moved the starting line as well as the goalposts. Coastguards all around the coast have told me that their response would have been different if they had not been working with a proposal to cut MRCC numbers and hours so drastically. That is why it is essential that we start with a blank sheet of paper.

No one knows better than I how dangerous the sea is and how important it is to co-ordinate all rescue services locally when an incident occurs at sea. The proposals remind me of 1994, when two fishermen lost their lives off the Cornish coast, below a recently closed coastguard post, and local people decided to open and restore the visual watch. That could not happen once we lose our marine rescue co-ordination centres around the coast, because they are professional. I make a plea to the Minister to think again about the closures. He has used examples of other nations operating with fewer stations, but has failed to mention that in those countries the coastguards operate in different ways, with different responsibilities. Yes, modernise, and yes, have better equipment, but please do not destroy the best coastguard service in the world.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I congratulate the hon. Lady on her courage in taking part in this debate. Several Members have indicated that they want to speak and I would like to get as many of them in as possible. However, we have to commence the winding-up speeches at 10.40 at the latest. I am, therefore, in the hands of the Members that I will call.

10.11 am

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this debate on such an important topic. My constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland has two fishing ports, so I know just how important the Bangor coastguard station is. I know of the necessity of maintaining a service that has developed a comprehensive knowledge of our seas. It is important that we keep the coastguard station in Bangor to protect those who use the seas around the island of Ireland, and those who use our coastal and inland waterways, including, in the case of Northern Ireland, those who use inland locations and are subject to search and rescue. Many of the people involved and those in other emergency services risk their lives to protect not only those in the fishing industry, but people involved in recreation and tourism.

The Government will announce their decision by 19 July and it is fair to say that the process has been marked by uncertainty for many people throughout Northern Ireland. Such uncertainty must give cause for concern regarding the outcome. The Government now seem to be re-evaluating and rowing back from their initial proposals. It is clear that they underestimated the value of the local knowledge developed over time by our vastly experienced coastguard personnel, and that they were prepared to risk losing this vital asset. I ask the Minister: was that really the purpose of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s proposals, or did it have better thoughts at heart about protecting the service?

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It is vital that the Minister and the Government listen to those experts who have spoken up during the consultation and arrive at a decision that safeguards those who use our waters. I and other hon. Members from Northern Ireland believe that there is a duty to protect our coastguard station in Northern Ireland and to ensure that it can operate at full-time capacity. I recently attended a meeting hosted by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) in Bangor, which the Minister, along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also kindly attended. It was made clear to the Minister, via a range of robustly made proposals by staff, that it was possible to retain the coastguard station in Northern Ireland on a full-time basis by using other measures and means. I and other hon. Members from Northern Ireland would like to hear the Minister’s response to those proposals in advance of the final outcome, because it is particularly important.

The other key point is that the Bangor coastguard station co-ordinates closely with the Irish coastguard. We would, therefore, lose out on that vital resource for protecting all of Ireland’s waterways. I recently had the opportunity to raise the issue with the Taoiseach—the Irish Prime Minister—and it is clear that closing or downgrading the Bangor station would be a great loss not only to the people of Northern Ireland, but to the people of the Irish Republic. Indeed, it is our coastguard that is nominated by the Irish Government to respond in the case of an emergency off the Donegal coast. It cannot be overlooked or ignored that our service operates on a cross-border, north-south basis on the island of Ireland.

Another difficulty in shutting the service and depending on a coastguard station in Liverpool—I use these words with caution, considering the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central—is that the island of Ireland operates with the Ordnance Survey at the point of origin, which is totally incompatible with the English mapping system. That is another reason why we need a full-time coastguard station in Northern Ireland.

All those concerns have been reflected during the consultation process. Indeed, I am reminded of the words of the chairman of the North West mountain rescue team in Northern Ireland, who expressed concern that the closure of the station would adversely affect the relationship between the Northern Ireland coastguard and the Irish Republic.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The hon. Lady has referred to the fact that the Northern Ireland coastguard also covers Donegal, but part of the reciprocation for that is access to the Irish Republic’s search and rescue helicopters. Does she share my concern that a breakdown in those closely maintained relationships on the island of Ireland could cause political difficulties and jeopardise some of that close co-operation?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point. I discussed the issue with the Taoiseach last week. He mentioned the need for greater north-south co-operation and made the point that the proposals could jeopardise services and the reciprocal agreement, which is vital for the running of an important maritime rescue service on the island of Ireland.

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The chairman of the North West mountain rescue team said:

“The local knowledge and the rapport the NI coastguard have with the Republic’s coastguard means that we get a very effective and efficient service and I would doubt that would happen if that local knowledge disappeared.”

There is no doubt that, if the service disappeared, that would jeopardise that vital north-south arrangement on an inter-governmental basis.

Mr MacNeil: I note the hon. Lady’s words on efficiency but, over and above efficiency, this is a maritime insurance policy. Sometimes, we have to be careful that we are not spoiling the ship for a ha’penny worth of tar. We have to make sure that when something is needed it is there and that we do not dismantle it beforehand. In that respect, it is important that we keep Liverpool, Bangor, Clyde, Stornoway and Shetland. Losing Oban a few years ago has had its own knock-on effects and I am sure that that will come through in the inquiries that are going on at the moment. I reiterate the importance of keeping those stations and the fact that this is an insurance policy over and above efficiency.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that vital intervention. He raises the serious point of co-ordination throughout the British isles. That should be taken on board and given due recognition during the whole consultation process. I hope that the Minister will respond to that particular point in an apt and empathetic way.

In conclusion, the courage of those who devote time to rescue efforts on our shores must not be taken for granted by Government. The Bangor centre is the only full-time station in Northern Ireland and its funding must therefore be protected. As we approach the end of the consultation process—it is one month away—we must end the current state of confusion. I strongly urge the Minister to respond in a helpful way to those officials in the Bangor coastguard station who have suggested strong and compelling proposals to safeguard the service for the people of the island.

10.19 am

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate and on giving us another opportunity to demonstrate the strength of feeling there is about the coastguard service.

The Government are, of course, right to consider ways of modernising the coastguard service—they must constantly look at options for improving all their services—but I want to draw their attention to my concerns about the closure of the Clyde coastguard station in Greenock, which is just outside my constituency. The tragic early death of David Cairns means that Greenock does not have a Member of Parliament at the moment, but it is incumbent on hon. Members such as myself and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who secured an Adjournment debate last week, to point out the importance of the Greenock coastguard station to the west of Scotland.

My constituency has many islands and peninsulas, which means its coastline is longer than that of France and that the Clyde coastguard station has a longer coastline than any of the coastguard stations to look

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after. Islands, peninsulas and sea lochs create a wide variety of currents and sea conditions, which is one reason why local knowledge is very important. The most spectacular area is the giant whirlpool in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. If I may put in a tourist plug, that is well worth going to see. In addition, as my constituency is on the west coast, its coastline is regularly battered by severe storms. All those factors make local knowledge very important.

I also want to stress the importance of local knowledge in differentiating between different places that have the same name. On the islands and the mainland of the west of Scotland, a large number of places are called Tarbert because Tarbert means a narrow neck of land in Gaelic. It would be easy for someone not familiar with that to send the rescue vessel to the wrong place. It is also important to be able to differentiate between, for example, East Loch Tarbert and West Loch Tarbert. They are only a few hundred yards apart as the crow flies, but one is on the Clyde and one is on the Atlantic, so it is very important for someone to know the difference between the two.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman mentioned East Loch Tarbert and West Loch Tarbert and said that one is on the Clyde and one is on the Atlantic. I would argue, of course, that one is on the Minch and one is on the Atlantic, but I am talking about the island of Harris.

Mr Reid: That is correct. There are plenty of other places called Tarbert, including one called Tarbet without an “r.” It would be very easy to get confused.

Those seas are sailed by a wide variety of different kinds of ships: for example, cargo ships, cruise liners, ferries, fishing boats, naval vessels—both surface and submarine—fish farm support vessels and leisure craft, in which there has been a significant increase. In addition, in the coming years, an increasing number of vessels will support offshore renewable energy installations. Over recent years, there has been a huge increase in the number of leisure craft of all kinds and it is important to remember that most of them are crewed by amateur sailors. If an incident should occur, inexperienced amateur sailors are obviously more of a challenge for coastguard staff to deal with. There are many new marinas around the coast and there will be a vast increase in leisure craft in the years to come.

Clyde station has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control, and seafarers have received a first-class service from the Clyde coastguard station over many years. Once the Government have had an opportunity to consider the responses to the consultation, I hope that they will recognise the unique challenges posed by the area served by the Clyde coastguard station and that they will keep it open to retain the valuable local knowledge that exists. It is important to point out that, if staff are forced to relocate to Aberdeen, as appears to be the case from the Government’s proposals, that is well over 100 miles away and many staff will not be able to do so, either for family or financial reasons. Valuable local knowledge will therefore be lost.

One positive part of the Government’s proposals is that there will be a significant increase in the number of regular coastguards who will be supporting Coastguard Rescue Service volunteers. It would make sense to spread

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those regular coastguards across the country to minimise their travel time to where the volunteers are based and to ensure that they have contact with local emergency services. It is important to stress that getting to the remoter parts of Argyll takes a long time even from Greenock. The journey would be even longer if the support staff were travelling from Aberdeen to remote parts of the west coast all the time.

I am aware that the lease for the Clyde station comes to an end in 2012. That appears to be a major consideration in the reasoning behind the Government’s decision to close the station.

Mr MacNeil: Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was when I mined into the MCA’s proposals and realised that, as he is saying, the lease of Clyde station is coming to an end? When I first spoke to the MCA, it was apparent from the outset that the prime driver for the decision on the Clyde station was real estate and not maritime safety. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that.

Mr Reid: The hon. Gentleman is right. Real estate considerations should not be paramount. Safety should be the prime consideration and the fact that the lease is up for renewal should not be a major factor. I am sure that there are plenty of buildings that the Government could secure in the Greenock area if they wanted to continue to have a coastguard station in that area. I hope that the Government will secure further premises.

For all those reasons, the most important of which is local knowledge, I hope that the Government will recognise the importance of the Clyde coastguard station and realise that they do not want to lose its staff’s experience and expertise. I hope that they will reflect on the consultation and will agree to keep the Clyde coastguard station open.

10.26 am

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Thank you, Dr McCrea, for calling hon. Members from all four nations to make a contribution this morning. I join you in paying tribute to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for her contribution to the debate and for the courage she has shown not just today but over the year she has been a Member of Parliament. When I have been in the Chair, I have seen her contributions to debates on fishing, coastguard and coastal issues. She brings experience, knowledge and a forthright and honest opinion that we need in such discussions.

This is an important debate. The linking and co-ordination between the coastguard and other emergency services is just as important as the coastguard’s internal co-ordination among the different stations. It is absolutely vital that that happens. I welcome the fact that the Minister has been listening through the long debates we have had since December and that the Government are prepared to pause and to look again at the proposals and the consultations. That is what we were calling for originally, and I think we have achieved that.

If the Minister had taken up my offer of coming to Holyhead station, he would have been very welcome. He could have seen at first hand not just the best

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practice of that coastguard station, but the co-ordination with other emergency services that takes place. Throughout the process, I have argued that, as a local station, Holyhead is strategically important to the whole of the Welsh coastline and, indeed, the Irish sea. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about the Irish link. That has been very important for Holyhead and RAF Valley. I want to talk about the search and rescue at RAF Valley, which is the headquarters of search and rescue for the whole of the United Kingdom. It moved there from a different part of the country because of the strategic importance of Anglesey to the whole of the United Kingdom—it is equal distance from many places in the north and the south—and also to the west in Ireland. Search and rescue at RAF Valley has been involved in scrambling to some very important rescues and incidents.

It is important and timely that we have this debate in an open and honest manner because although we are all talking about local knowledge and our local stations, we have been mindful—I pay tribute to every Member who has taken part in such debates since December—not to put down other coastguard stations. We have stressed the importance of our own areas and their strategic importance to the whole coastguard family in the United Kingdom.

In the short time available, I just want to give the Minister a few examples—I appreciate that we are rushed for time, otherwise I would have elaborated further—of the strategic importance of Holyhead in terms of search and rescue and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. On the record, I have to say that I speak regularly—on a weekly basis—with members, crews, volunteers and full-time crew members of the RNLI and that, as I indicated, I am a member of the RNLI’s general council. They are concerned that they did not get the opportunity to have their views put openly into the system, but that they were channelled through the RNLI. As I said, and as was pointed out in the evidence session to the Select Committee, only four or five out of 100 RNLI stations took part in the consultation. We have not, therefore, had a true flavour of the opinions of the RNLI.

Naomi Long: In Northern Ireland, many of those who work for the coastguard also volunteer for the RNLI, so the loss of personnel would have a direct implication for RNLI services.

Albert Owen: The hon. Lady makes an important point. Some people volunteer for both, or have members of their family who are in each of the emergency voluntary services. I want to echo the importance of that co-ordination. Time saves lives. Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive of the MCA, has said that there would be some time delay—he has been honest enough to acknowledge that. That could translate into the loss of lives if local knowledge and expertise is gone due to the closure of local stations.

We all want a modernised MCA with improved technology for the 21st century, but that must not be at the expense of closing local stations and losing local knowledge. I have been consistent in making that argument for many years. When my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) was the Minister and was given advice by the MCA, he carefully and

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rightly ignored it to an extent—not all of it—because this needed to be done properly. We now have an opportunity for a proper and open debate to look at all these issues. The consultation paper and the proposals, which the Government produced jointly with the MCA, did not allow that to happen. We have moved beyond that and we are having a better informed debate. The Government and the Minister can now come to the right decision, which is to retain the best coastguard services we have, retain local knowledge and enhance it with new technology and the best station personnel. They must improve the confidence, morale and abilities of station personnel, but also the co-ordination with the other emergency services, which are facing tough times themselves. As the Minister knows, the future of the search and rescue service has been put on hold and there is uncertainty. That causes great anxiety not just among the search and rescue people within the RAF, the MCA and the Royal Navy, but in the RNLI and other services—the family of search of rescue.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that public expectation and public confidence is critical to the Government’s overall direction of travel?

Albert Owen: Absolutely. I echo the point, made by hon. Members in their speeches and interventions, that the coastguard service personnel, volunteers and full-time, and the RNLI are important members of those communities too. They have strong links with other emergency services.

For the benefit of the Minister and the shadow Minister, I would like to highlight the link with the fire service. I recall a ferry adrift in Holyhead which had 1,200 to 1,400 people on board, and which had lost control. The local knowledge of the coastguard got the fire service there immediately. I have taken part in exercises with the fire service. I do not have the time to go into it, but of course the ship’s crew think that they tackle things better and that the firemen just get seasick when they come on board the vessels, and the firemen think that they do things better. The serious point is that there is regular dialogue and liaison between those important services. That could be—I believe would be—lost if we closed local stations and lost local expertise and knowledge. Time saves lives, and I think that the Minister understands that and wants to move forward. I want to work with him, and with other hon. Members, to have those strategic, important coastguard stations enhanced to do the job for the 21st century.

10.34 am

Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who gave what I know was a difficult, but well-heard speech.

I understand the great concerns that we have heard today. We have had numerous debates and that is why the Government are having a consultation—to hear what people say not only from this House, but local areas. I suspect that at any stage when there has been modernisation or change of the coastguard service, whether 20, 50, 70, or 100 years ago, one might have

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had similar concerns. The way of the world is that, years ago, we needed a lot more stations than perhaps we need today. With technology, the upskilling of the service and having to move people through a career path, there has to be change. I understand, however, that local knowledge is an issue. Indeed, Sir Alan Massey acknowledged that local knowledge has to be a key concern. I am sure that when the Government look at the consultation, that will be a key point in what they eventually decide to do.

I have really risen to make a plug for the RNLI, which I am glad has already been plugged by a number of hon. Members. It is a phenomenally good organisation with a wonderful ethos. We are very lucky, as a nation, to have an organisation that raises money, as a charity, to provide a vital service that has saved 139,000 lives since 1824. There were concerns about its income. I think that that income is holding up reasonably well, which is partly due to how people feel about the lifeboat service. Even in southern Ireland, the bucket tin collections are holding up well. Given its economic problems, that is a phenomenal tribute.

The lifeboats have had to amend and change, not least because as a nation we had a large merchant navy, fishing fleet and Royal Navy. Many people who now man our lifeboats are landlubbers who have to be trained. Poole has very good training facilities, where people can experience wave machines and go through a simulation of saving at sea. I do not want to say very much more, in order to let the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) speak. The RNLI is a phenomenal organisation. It is very well managed and organised. The fundraising is good, and people’s commitment is tremendous. This is a really dangerous job. There is a memorial outside the headquarters in Poole that lists all the lifeboat men who have died, and I was privileged to be there when that opened. The organisation has a very good outreach to many of the families who have lost loved ones in lifeboat disasters—it keeps in touch. I cannot speak highly enough of RNLI, and I think that all hon. Members appreciate what it does for our nation.

10.37 am

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) for being so generous in allowing me some time to make a few points. I thank the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing the debate. Rescue co-ordination in Northern Ireland raises particular challenges, and I want to touch on them.

I think that everyone supports the idea of modernisation, but there is concern in Northern Ireland that the loss of the Belfast coastguard station would be a blow not just to the North Down constituency in which it is located, but to Northern Ireland as a whole. The coastguard in Northern Ireland is held in universally high regard, and I think that that has been the case throughout its history. While people often focus on rescue at sea, and that is certainly an issue for Northern Ireland, there is also the matter that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) raised with regard to inland search and rescue, which is also co-ordinated by the Northern Ireland coastguard. It is worth noting that in Northern Ireland, unlike in other parts of the UK, there are only two category 1 responders to emergencies: the Police Service of Northern Ireland and HM coastguard. We

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are all acutely aware of the significant security pressures faced by the PSNI. It is therefore important that HM coastguard can provide that search and rescue facility at a local level.

The Belfast coastguard station is the only one in the UK with a direct land border with another European state, so it fulfils a unique role in providing liaison and co-ordination with the Irish coastguard. As I said in an earlier intervention, I am concerned that some of the close working relationships, which are not just beneficial to Northern Ireland, would be lost as a result of any changes to and relocation of that co-ordination point.

I do not wish to repeat much of what has been said and I do not have the time to do so. In conclusion, I want to mention the impact on volunteerism in the RNLI. I referred specifically to the fact that people who work for the coastguard also volunteer, as do their families. Given the work of Bregenz house, those local relationships have been hugely important in encouraging people to engage with the RNLI. My concern is that, with dislocation and distance, that link might not be as effective as it has been in the past.

The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) powerfully indicated the importance of local knowledge. I cannot add anything to her comments, so I simply commend her for what she said.

I am aware that the coastguard has produced alternative proposals, and I hope that those address not only the wish for modernisation but the concerns we have raised about the Government proposals. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I trust that he will be able to provide us with additional reassurance that the Government are listening and will respond positively.

10.40 am

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you presiding over the debate this morning, Dr McCrea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important matter again.

It is good to see the Minister in his place, back under pressure, which is where Ministers should be—keeps him honest. I know that he is well regarded by most Members in the House and by the shipping community, and we are also confident that he is doing everything he can to protect the service, given the coalition’s deficit plan.

As I have said before, the Opposition are not here to oppose all the coastguard reforms, nor am I a deficit denier. It is important to say straight away that the global financial crisis happened in every country—it was not a recession made in Britain, but was caused by the banks, and Labour accepts that we should have been tougher on them. Like every other country, though, we need to get the deficit down, which means cuts. We recognise the Government’s position.

However, the Tory-led coalition is creating a vicious circle in our economy because it is cutting too far and too fast. That is our fear about the coastguard proposals: they are too deep and too fast. We certainly disagree with the presentation of options, such as either Stornoway

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or Shetland, and we are uncomfortable with having to choose between Belfast or Liverpool—to name just two of the main locations. We therefore seek and hope to hear assurances about the future from the Minister.

We have heard from several Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central asked the central question about the role of the other emergency services and their relationship with the coastguard service. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) has more reason to be listened to on this issue than any of us—I am sure that the Minister is listening to her and her constituents. She made the point about local input. There has been huge interest in the consultation exercise, as we have heard from hon. Members. Despite the miles clocked up by the Minister, about which I am sure he will tell us in due course, areas such as Cumbria and the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), would have been pleased to have the opportunity to meet the Minister as well, to express their real concerns about the possible closure of the Liverpool station. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall made her points on local knowledge and the case for Brixham strongly—as ever.

The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) made a powerful case for the station at Bangor and the international implications given its cross-border arrangements. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) mentioned Greenock and, generously, that our departed and much missed friend, David Cairns, championed this matter when in the House representing his town. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned language issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who has spoken knowledgeably on the question on several occasions, again raised the issue of Holyhead. His role in the RNLI council gives him greater insight. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who was generous with his time, and gracious as ever, rightly applauded the RNLI and paid tribute to everyone involved. Given that he is the MP for RNLI headquarters, which I had the pleasure of visiting during my time as shipping Minister, he is the right person to make such comments. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) repeated the concern of her constituents—and more widely—about the future of their station.

I wish to ask about the maritime incident response group, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central and for Ynys Môn, and about the future of the emergency towing vessel contract in association with the reform of the coastguard services. I submitted some questions to the Minister, but can he furnish more information on top of his answers of 26 April? First, he addressed the maritime incident response group, which was set up to help fight fires on board vessels around Britain’s coast, given the gap in our armoury:

“We are finalising a risk assessment on the review of Maritime Incident Response Group which we hope to publish shortly.”

I wondered if that was likely to be soon. He also said a consultation exercise was going on with the fire and rescue services, and:

“Final decisions on future arrangements will be taken once this consultation is complete.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 91W and 92W.]

Has the consultation been completed? Finally on the response group, are discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government complete, given that it has responsibility for Britain’s fire services? What was the outcome of those discussions?

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The question of the emergency towing vessel contract still causes concern, which was expressed most powerfully by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) in the February debate because of the Donaldson inquiry and its recommendation about the contract and the £100 million cost.

Mr MacNeil: Last week I happened to be in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands, where the West Nordic Council was meeting—Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, with Denmark present as well. Coastguard safety generally was discussed, but emergency towing vessels were taken especially seriously because of the increase in cruise ships in the north Atlantic, and that applies to the north and the west of Scotland. We should be playing our part internationally—international countries with difficulties were mentioned, Iceland in particular is having them, but it is not cutting back on maritime safety. In fact, Iceland is going in the opposite direction of travel. There is a lesson there for us, as well as for international safety—anyone we know could be on a cruise ship.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman speaks knowledgeably on the issue, which I am grateful that he raised, and which the Minister has been considering, so an update on whether the work on the replacement service or arrangements has been finalised would be helpful. Can he say anything further, given the suggestion of some movement in the area?

I am sure that the Minister has seen the Oxford Economics report on “The economic impact of the UK’s Maritime Services Sector”. I was generously supplied with a copy by Mr Doug Barrow of Maritime UK, who is well known and highly regarded in shipping circles. The summary of this authoritative report reminds us that the UK maritime services sector directly creates 227,000 jobs, contributes more than £13 billion to the UK economy and generates £3 billion plus for the UK Exchequer. It also supports considerable activity in other sectors, including direct, indirect and induced impacts supporting more than 500,000 jobs and generating more than £7 billion for the UK Exchequer. Given, in addition, the millions of recreational users of our seas and coasts, we must get the conclusions of the consultation right.

As colleagues have articulated this morning and previously, here in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber, there is much disquiet about the initial Government proposals. The Minister has given us some encouragement in previous appearances here and at the Dispatch Box that the proposals are not set in stone. The coalition’s policy adjustments in recent months—on forests, NHS reforms, sentencing guidelines, school sport partnerships and housing benefit rules, not to mention something we might be hearing today on bins—give some encouragement that the Government will listen to the various contributions from Members and from those outside the House and not proceed with the original proposals.

I congratulate all Members on their efforts. We know that there will be reforms to the coastguard service—of that, there is no doubt—but we will strive to ensure that they are neither too deep nor too fast. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

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10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing the debate, although most hon. Members linked it to matters wider than the link between the emergency services and the coastguard service. I pay tribute to their ingenuity in doing so, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for bringing her knowledge to the debate. I know how difficult that must have been, and she did so courageously. We may not agree on everything, but I promise that we will remain friends.

The Government set out the consultation process, we extended it, and we are reopening it so that the report of the Select Committee on Transport can be included in our thoughts. We will almost certainly have another consultation process because, as I have said since day one, as has the Secretary of State, what comes out of the process will not be the same as what we went in with, because we are listening. We have said that from day one, and I have said that as I have gone around the country. How that can be deemed a U-turn is strange. We did not say at the start that we would not come out with something different. Perhaps Her Majesty’s Opposition would prefer me to ignore everything that is said in the debates, be rigid, ignore public opinion, and have sham consultation, which is what happened under the previous Administration.

Mr MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I am conscious that colleagues have, rightly, used most of the time available, and I am also conscious that I may repeat what has been said again and perhaps again and again, but I will not give way because I have about nine minutes left, and I want to cover the issues, especially those that are slightly different from those that arose around the country.

I praise the hon. Member for Sefton Central, because the debate is important, and its title has helped me. I was not aware that there were problems regarding the roles of the Merseyside fire and rescue service and Her Majesty’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the Mersey estuary, especially involving mud rescues. That was interesting, but I understand now, and with some impetus from the debate and perhaps a bit of size 10 from me they will be resolved. Clearly, there is duplication in who co-ordinates the service.

May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that although I represent a landlocked constituency, I was a member of the fire and rescue service in Essex, and was based at a coastal station for many years? About the third major incident that I went to was a freighter fire. As the shadow Minister, my friend the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—he is my friend—knows, that is one of the most frightening experiences.

We heard that there is often a difference of opinion between the crew of a ship and the firemen about how best to put out a fire. That is not surprising, because firemen have a habit of chucking a huge amount of water at fires—that is what we are trained to do—and if you do that to a fire on a ship, it tends to sink. Such

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instances have happened around the world. There is a debate about what should be done about fires at sea. It is right that that debate is taking place, and it is happening around the world. The truth of the matter is that it is enormously dangerous to put fire crews on to ships at sea to fight fires, and we must make a decision between lives, cargo, pollution and other issues.

I met Roy Wilsher, the country’s lead fire officer and Chief Fire Officer of Hertfordshire the other day and we discussed where we are with the agreements in place, and where we should be.

Albert Owen: As an ex-merchant seaman, but a humble rating, I understand the dangers, as does the Minister from his perspective. My point referred to a master mariner—they must decide whether to abandon ship, or to protect cargo or the environment—who raised directly with me the importance of coastguard stations’ local knowledge. That is why I raised the matter in this debate.

Mike Penning: Such concerns were properly raised in the debate, and the shadow Minister raised the issue of fighting fires at sea, which was also important.

Another issue was the future of emergency towing vessels, and negotiations are continuing. We intend to terminate the contract, which costs £10 million a year, in September, and I am fixed in that position, because if I move one iota, the commercial sector and everyone else will say that I have gone soft, but they do not have to cough up the money. The key is where the risk is.

Mr MacNeil: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I apologise, but I cannot give way. I am sure that there will be another debate on the subject fairly soon. During the remaining five minutes I will not be able to answer all the points that have been raised, but I will write to every hon. Member about any specific points that they raised, and particularly those issues that do not come within my portfolio.

We have a legal responsibility to co-ordinate the work with other emergency services, and I know that that happened when I was a humble fireman. My previous history was praised, and I was proud to be a fireman but, as when I was in the Army, I did not rise far through the ranks.

Interestingly, although during these debates colleagues have not been saying, “Save my station and close someone else’s,” that is not quite what we have heard from the

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coastguards themselves in the larger and more detailed submissions that we have received. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to my visit to Bangor. It was a wonderful visit, and it was like groundhog day, because I had not been in the Province since I had served in another way. She rightly said that the proposals on the service’s future nationally, not just on individual stations, were detailed and indicated clearly that no change is not an option, as the coastguards are saying, and that nine or 10 stations is the optimum number. The shadow Minister said that some stations should not close, and it would have been interesting if he had said which ones should close, because that would have been informative, especially as most if not all the proposals were on the table when he was a Minister.

Sheryll Murray: Does the Minister accept that the response from the coastguards about closing one station or another is because he has moved the starting line? I know from my coastguard and others that if he started with a blank sheet of paper, he would not get the same answer. Does he accept that?

Mike Penning: I would like to accept that—I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from—but I cannot, because the proposals were on the table before I was the Minister and even before the shadow Minister was the Minister. There has been discussion about the matter and people have buried their heads in the sand for years and years. My hon. Friend asked whether, if we had a blank sheet of paper, the format of coastguard stations around our coastline would be as they are now. No, they would not. We must all accept that.

My hon. Friend asked me to retract what I said about only Falmouth carrying out international rescue. Falmouth is twinned with Brixham, and I fully accept that it picks up when Falmouth goes down, and that regular exercises take place—[ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend said from a sedentary position that it takes responsibility. Yes, it does, but it also regularly carries out exercises. Falmouth made it clear to me that it is the centre for international rescue. It gave evidence in its submission on the future of the coastguard.

I honestly believe that this is the way that consultation should take place. Political parties may play different games, but we will come out with a national emergency service with the resilience, pay and training infrastructure that it needs and deserves. I hope that everyone understands that the Government and the MCA are acting for the right reasons, and not just to make cuts. The issue was on the table years before cuts were thought about. What we need is a 21st-century service.

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Information Technology (NHS)

11 am

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am reminded of Fidel Castro’s old maxim that any speech of less than three or four hours cannot be any good, and when I reviewed the material available for this debate, I felt that it might be difficult to put everything I want to say into a shorter time. I appreciate, however, that this debate lasts only 90 minutes and that the Front-Bench speakers will be called fairly soon. I am not planning to take many interventions during my remarks, so that I can get through everything I wish to say as quickly as possible.

The importance of information technology to good health care cannot be overstated. As leading health informatics expert, Dr Anthony Nowlan, put it:

“Redesigning the ways care is organised and conducted and supporting those new ways with information science is more important to people’s health overall than any new drug we could develop in the next decade.”

He also stated that

“the engagement of clinicians and managers is not just about telling them what is going to happen.”

Sadly, those words accurately summed up a significant part of the problem that we faced.

The national programme for IT in the health service is the largest civilian computer project in the world. It was spawned in late 2001 and early 2002, after the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, met Bill Gates and was bowled over by a vision of what IT could do to transform the economy and health service. The idea was for information to be captured once and used many times, transforming working processes and speeding up communications. A far-reaching vision set out a programme that would supposedly lead to a transformation in people’s experiences of health care. Hospital admissions and appointments would be booked online—the choose and book system—pharmacists would no longer struggle with the indecipherable handwriting of GPs; and drug prescriptions would be handled electronically. There was to be a new broadband network for the NHS, a new e-mail system, better IT support for GPs and digital X-rays. Most important of all, medical records would be computerised, thus transforming the speed and accuracy of patient treatment through what became known as the NHS care records service.

The NHS care records service comprised two elements: first, a detailed care record that contained full details of a patient’s medical history and treatment. That was to be accessible to a patient’s GP and to local community and hospital care settings, so that if treatment were required, all the information would be available. Secondly, there would be a so-called summary care record that contained medical information about things such as allergies and would be more widely available.

It became clear that Tony Blair was in no mood to wait when he asked Sir John Pattison, who attended the Downing street seminar in February 2002 where these matters were discussed, how long the IT programme would take. Sir John Pattison later stated:

“I swallowed hard because I knew I had to get the answer right… and I said three years.”

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Tony Blair replied, “How about two years?” and they settled on two years and nine months from April 2003—in other words, until December 2005. Given the extent of the proposals, that was a ludicrous timetable. Nevertheless, the decision had been made, and everything had to be done at breakneck speed.

Sir John Pattison and his team set to work and produced a blueprint entitled “Delivering 21st century IT support for the NHS: national strategic programme”, which was published in June 2002. The aim was to connect the delivery of the NHS plan with the capabilities of modern information technology. There was, however, an odd discrepancy at the outset. At the back of the original document were four appendices, one of which contained the project profile model and stated that the project’s estimated whole-life costs were £5 billion. It provided a total risk score of 53 out of a maximum of 72. In other words, the project was very high risk. When the document was published, however, that project profile model had been removed and there were only three appendices—the likely costs of the project and the true risks were concealed right from the start. After the publication of the document, the Department of Health established a unit that later became the Connecting for Health agency. In September 2002, Richard Granger was appointed as director general of the NHS IT programme on a salary of about £250,000. His job was to turn the national strategic programme—which soon became the national programme for IT in the health service—into reality.

Richard Granger was a former Deloitte consultant who had successfully overseen the introduction of the London congestion charge. Speaking at a conference in Harrogate some months after his appointment, he announced that the cost of the IT programme would be £2.3 billion. That figure contrasted with the unedited version of Sir John Pattison’s “Delivering 21st century IT support for the NHS”, which a few months earlier had come up with the larger estimate of £5 billion.

Mr Granger commissioned a study by McKinsey into the health care IT market in the UK, which was then dominated by medium-sized firms that sold systems to hospitals and GP surgeries. The study concluded that no single player was capable of becoming a prime contractor in a multi-billion pound programme, and Mr Granger soon announced that the procurement process for the programme would be structured to attract global IT players. He had little respect for the skills of most public sector buyers of computing systems—perhaps with good reason if one looks at the track record—and knew that IT contractors routinely run rings around their customers in government.

Mr Granger made it clear that things would be different on his watch. Contractors would not get paid until they delivered, and those not up to the mark would be replaced. He even compared contractors to huskies pulling a sled on a polar expedition:

“When one of the dogs goes lame, and begins to slow the others down, they are shot. They are then chopped up and fed to the other dogs. The survivors work harder, not only because they’ve had a meal, but also because they have seen what will happen should they themselves go lame.”

Mr Granger started as he meant to go on, and potential contractors were left in no doubt that the procurement process was to happen quickly. In May 2003, potential

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bidders were given a 500-page document called a draft output-based specification, and told to respond within five weeks.

One of the classic failures in many IT projects is the failure to consult adequately with those who will use the systems once they are delivered. The national programme followed that pattern in many respects, but in this case that did not happen by accident. Mr Granger had no patience with what he saw as special pleading by medical staff, whom he believed were unwilling to accept the ruthless standardisation that was necessary to deliver the advantages offered by the IT system. He effectively believed that he knew what the clinicians needed better than they did themselves.

Some clinicians were keen to ensure that they had proper input into what was happening. Sir John Pattison asked Dr Anthony Nowlan, the health informatics expert who at the time was the executive director of the NHS Information Authority, to secure the involvement of health professionals in the programme. The aim was to obtain a professionally agreed consensus about what was the most valuable information to store, and what was achievable in practice.

After several months the group had hammered out a consensus, but although that work was fed in when the contracts began to be specified, it formed only a relatively small part of the overall specification. The large majority of the so-called output-based specifications, and the crucial major hospital systems at the heart of the programme, were developed without involvement and scrutiny by the leadership of the health profession. That happened despite the fact that involvement by users is essential if one wants software that works and that people will use.

The great speed at which contracting was completed meant that all complex issues had to be faced after the contracts had been let. Anthony Nowlan began to realise that his efforts were not welcome, and he told the Public Accounts Committee that

“it became increasingly clear to me that efforts to communicate with health professionals and bring them more into the leadership of the programme were effectively obstructed.”

Worse still, Nowlan was subsequently asked to provide a list of the names of hundreds of people who had been involved in specification work, so as to provide evidence to reviewers that the work was valid. In fact, all that had happened was that an e-mail had been sent out. Quite understandably, Dr Nowlan thought that saying that people had been consulted because they had been sent an e-mail was not consultation in any proper sense, any more than compiling a list of people who had been sent an e-mail was proper validation. He regarded the claims as a sham, and refused to co-operate.

It turned out that serious clinical input into the programme was not really wanted. As Professor Peter Hutton later told the PAC,

“it was like being in a juggernaut lorry going up the M1 and it did not really matter where you went as long as you arrived somewhere on time. Then, when you had arrived somewhere, you would go out and buy a product, but you were not quite sure what you wanted to buy. To be honest, I do not think the people selling it knew what we needed.”

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The result was a set of contracts that were signed before the Government had understood what they wanted to buy and the suppliers had understood what they were expected to supply.

When the then Health Secretary John Reid—now Lord Reid—announced the contract winners in December 2003, the value of the contracts had already shot up to £6.2 billion from the original £2.3 billion mentioned by Mr Granger in Harrogate. The time scale had tripled in length, and instead of the two years and nine months from April 2003 originally promised—to which Sir John Pattison had been obliged to commit at the Downing street seminar—the contracts were now to run for 10 years. Later, one of the most senior officials in the national programme, Gordon Hextall, even claimed that it was always envisaged that the programme would run for 10 years.

Four winning bidders were appointed: Accenture; Computer Sciences Corporation, or CSC; Fujitsu and BT. They were known as local service providers, or LSPs. BT and Fujitsu picked a US software firm, IDX, to work with, while Accenture and CSC both picked a British software company called iSoft. iSoft was a stock market darling that had been spun out of the consulting firm KPMG in the late 1990s. The company’s flagship was a software system called Lorenzo, which was portrayed enthusiastically in iSoft’s 2005 annual report and accounts. The chairman, Patrick Cryne, told shareholders that Lorenzo had made “impressive progress”, while chief executive Tim Whiston stated that Lorenzo would be “available from early 2004” and that it had

“achieved significant acclaim from healthcare providers”.

With such promising statements from the company’s directors, the stock market was delighted, and it was no surprise that iSoft’s share price rose sharply. Mr Cryne, Mr Whiston and their fellow directors then sold large tranches of their personal shareholdings in iSoft, making around £90 million in cash. In 2004, Patrick Cryne bought Barnsley football club.

There was a slight problem. The flagship product, Lorenzo, which was described in such encouraging terms by the directors, was not finished. That caused a big headache for Accenture, the biggest LSP, with two contracts worth around £1 billion each. It was in partnership with iSoft and was trying to implement software that was basically not implementable. CSC faced a similar problem in the north-west. Under the Granger rules of engagement, no one was supposed to get paid until something was delivered. As iSoft had not produced a working version of Lorenzo, the brutal reality was that neither Accenture nor CSC had any software to deploy.

There were still big concerns about the programme’s indifference to securing clinical buy-in from users—clinicians in hospitals—even though numerous studies had pointed to such buy-in as the key ingredient for success in any IT project. Professor Peter Hutton wrote to the then chief executive of the NHS, Sir Nigel Crisp, to express his continuing disquiet:

“I remain concerned that the current arrangements within the programme are unsafe from a variety of angles and, in particular, that the constraints of the contracting process, with its absence of clinical input in the last stages, may have resulted in the purchase of a product that will potentially not fulfil our goals.”

Soon after pointing out politely that the emperor had no clothes, Professor Hutton was asked to consider his position, and he tended his resignation. The IT people

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were simply not interested in what the doctors were telling them. To give it belated credit, however, the Department of Health began to realise that securing the support and buy-in of clinicians who would have to use the systems might be a good idea.

In March 2004, the deputy chief medical officer, Professor Aidan Halligan, was appointed alongside Richard Granger as joint director general of NHS IT, and joint senior responsible owner of the programme, with specific responsibility for benefits realisation. That was welcomed by clinicians. One delegate at the Healthcare Computing conference in Harrogate said that Halligan’s appointment was “really, really good” because

“he has the trust of clinicians and can stand up to Granger”,

although a general practitioner delegate at the same conference said that it “spoke volumes” that nobody like him had been in the post earlier. Halligan acknowledged that not enough had been done to win the support of clinicians, whose buy-in, he said, was critical to the success of the project. Listening to clinicians was now the flavour of the month. However, there was one insuperable difficulty—the contracts had already been signed. As Professor Hutton later explained to the PAC,

“it became clear from discussions with suppliers in early 2004 that what they had been contracted for would not deliver the NHS Care Record”.

Accenture and CSC struggled on with the unusable Lorenzo. Eventually they commissioned a study that produced a confidential report in February 2006, which confirmed their worst fears. The report stated that the Lorenzo had

“no mapping of features to release, nor detailed plans. In other words, there is no well-defined scope and therefore no believable plan for releases.”

That was over five years ago.

In March 2006, Accenture announced to its shareholders that it would use $450 million to cover expected losses on the programme. It made repeated offers to the programme that it would meet its contractual obligations by using other software. However, that might have bankrupted iSoft, and Richard Granger was having none of it. He responded with a threat when Accenture talked about walking away. Referring to tough penalty clauses contained in the contracts, he said that

“if they would like to walk away, it’s starting at 50% of the total contract value”.

Accenture had two of the £1 billion-a-piece prime contracts, so it appeared to be facing a cool £1 billion in penalty payments to the Government if it abandoned the programme. Strangely, it did not work out that way. Accenture engaged in swift negotiations with the health service and in September 2006, after making a penalty payment of just £63 million, it duly exited the programme. Mr Granger’s threat, that if Accenture left the programme it would face gigantic penalty payments, proved to be of little account. There were rumours that if Mr Granger had demanded any more money, he would have faced serious and embarrassing counter-claims from Accenture for failures by the national programme to stick to its own contractual obligations.

CSC, with its own £1-billion contract for the north-west and west midlands regions, was in no better a position than Accenture to implement the unfinished Lorenzo software. It was also struggling to mop up after having caused the largest computer crash in NHS history,

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when its Maidstone data centre was hit by a power failure, followed by restarting problems. The back-up systems did not work, and data held in the centre could not be accessed. That meant that, for four days, 80 NHS trusts could not use their patient administration systems and had to operate as best they could with paper systems.

Another worry for CSC was its shareholders. Accenture had set aside hundreds of millions of pounds against expected losses and told the stock market accordingly, but CSC had done no such thing. In addition to its problems with losses in the UK, the company had troubles back home in the United States, where it faced allegations of corruption. The US Department of Justice had alleged that CSC was part of an alliance, which included virtually all the major sellers of hardware and software in the United States, that had swapped unlawful kick-backs in Government agency technology contracts. CSC finally agreed to a $1.37 million payment to resolve those allegations. That was reported on the news blog of Cnet.com on 13 May 2008, under the heading:

“CSC settles with feds over kickback allegations”.

In such circumstances, having extra contracts from the NHS might look reassuring to the US stock market. Despite the fact that there was no implementable software—Lorenzo still was not finished—CSC quickly took on both Accenture contracts, tripling its involvement in the programme. However, there were continuing problems at iSoft, which was supposedly writing the Lorenzo software. One of the problems related to the publication of iSoft’s financial results, which had been repeatedly delayed, up to the point where one of iSoft’s own advisers, Morgan Stanley, a brokerage, declined to publish a profit forecast, stating:

“We don’t feel we have enough visibility to offer a recommendation”.

With friends like that in the stock market, who needs enemies? Finally, iSoft was forced to declare a loss of £344 million, which wiped out all the company’s past profits. The Financial Services Authority launched an investigation.

Now, three fifths of the programme was dependent on one troubled local service provider, CSC, which was using a software supplier, iSoft, that was itself under investigation by the FSA. One regional contractor, Accenture, had been replaced by another, CSC, which had less experience. The central problem remained: the software that they had been trying to deploy, iSoft’s Lorenzo system, was still not finished.

In those circumstances, iSoft started to deploy software products that predated the programme, which Connecting for Health duly paid for. Those older products did not meet the specifications for the national programme. It is important to remember that fact, because that is what many acute hospitals have now been given—old and outdated software that was deemed inadequate nine years ago to meet the programme’s specifications.

Meanwhile, the other two providers, BT and Fujitsu, were having their own problems. They were trying to implement American software, which is not such an easy thing to do in a British hospital, because American hospitals rely on billing for each and every activity and do not, conversely, expect to have to handle waiting lists. An American software system cannot be just uploaded to an acute hospital main frame and be switched on—it is not that simple.

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In June 2005, IDX was dropped by Fujitsu with Richard Granger’s consent and replaced by another American firm, Cerner, which had a software package for large acute hospitals called Millennium. BT, some 18 months after winning its LSP contract, was still struggling with IDX. By July 2005, BT was facing serious threats from Richard Granger that it could be axed if it did not start to perform. In an interview with Computingmagazine, Mr Granger said:

“BT had better get me some substantial IDX functionality by the end of summer or some predictable events will occur.”

However, it was not that simple. As the leading health care IT website, e-H ealth Insider, pointed out, replacing BT as the local service provider

“would represent a major failure for the programme, and raise questions over the whole IT-enabled NHS modernisation”

and lead to even more delays. The website added:

“Such a move would also potentially raise serious questions about whether the adversarial management style of Connecting for Health is the most likely to deliver new systems that provide clinical benefits to patients in a timely and cost-effective fashion.”

BT was allowed to continue as the local service provider and eventually, with Granger’s consent, it was allowed to follow Fujitsu’s lead and replace IDX with Cerner Millennium.

At a London conference in July 2005, Mr Granger gave a stern warning to suppliers who were lagging behind on delivery:

“We will get very soon to a point where they will either come good with what they’ve got, or they will get a bullet in the head.”

Mr Granger was also showing signs of defensiveness about the programme, stating:

“It might be a policy disaster, but it isn’t an IT disaster. The system was delivered to spec”,

and he gave the example of the electronic staff record. He added:

“If some of my colleagues do not think sufficiently through as to what was wanted then it’s a specification error.”

Such statements by Mr Granger led to howls of rage from some industry observers, including one who, after Granger’s speech, posted a comment on the e- health Insider website, saying:

“Now and then I check myself from hatred of what Richard Granger stands for and has done to NHS IT, and then the sheer arrogance and ignorance of his public statements brings me back. He set the ridiculously short timescales for decision-making, procured before there was a clear idea of the scope, handed all the ‘choice’ from NHS clinicians to private contractors. CfH”—

Connecting for Health—

“hasn’t solved the funding crisis for computerising the NHS, rather landed us with a massively expensive way to do what some of us were achieving already”.

Meanwhile, the National Audit Office had embarked on a study of the national programme, which was due to be published in summer 2005, but there were considerable delays. As Members may know, NAO reports involve a clearance process, during which a report’s factual content is cleared with the Government before publication, and that has benefits for both sides. However, something different happened with the national programme report. It was as if Connecting for Health wanted to use the clearance process to expunge the slightest criticism of

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its activities. It undertook a war of attrition with the auditors, in a process that the NAO later described as fighting

“street by street, block by block”.

The final report was delayed again and again, and it finally appeared in June 2006. It was much weaker than seasoned health IT observers had expected. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who was then a member of the PAC, described it as “easily the most gushing” he had read, while a BBC correspondent described it as a “whitewash”. Most of the key criticisms were eventually excised, as Granger and his team ground down their opponents. It later emerged through freedom of information requests that earlier drafts had been much tougher.

Tom Brooks, a management consultant with years of worldwide experience in health care, wrote a devastating submission to the PAC, in which he questioned the whole rationale for central procurement in the programme. He said that

“the poor quality of the negotiation of the NPfIT contracts by Mr Granger”

was a subject of criticism. He described the view that central procurement would produce systems that met local requirements as “a fundamental error”. He told the Committee:

“MPs are mis-informed if they view the central infrastructure as making reasonable progress”.

Dr Anthony Nowlan, whom I mentioned earlier, described the programme as “back to front”, given that the contract stating what would be produced had already been let. He pointed out the sheer absurdity of a consensus document produced by the programme stating:

“Now that the architecture for England has been commissioned, designed and is being built, there is a need for clarity concerning how it will be used”.

A group of health IT experts sent the PAC a detailed paper offering a devastating critique of the entire programme. The group provided evidence that it was likely to deliver neither the most important areas of clinical functionality nor the benefits required to justify the business case. The group simply stated:

“The conclusion here is that the NHS would most likely have been better off without the National Programme in terms of what is likely to be delivered and when. The National Programme has not advanced the NHS IT implementation trajectory at all; in fact, it has set it back from where it was going”.

In view of the frequent misunderstandings about the national programme among so many journalists, broadcasters, politicians and commentators, it is worth quoting the expert group’s document at some length. It starts by saying:

“It is useful to begin with the question: What is the central point of NPfIT—its chief raison d’etre? Is it a shared medical record (otherwise known as the ‘Central Spine’ or ‘Central Summary Care Record Service’) across England?

The answer to this important question is simply: no…the central point of NPfIT is to provide the local Care Record Service...Compared with the local CRS, the Central Spine is a much lower priority because it is totally speculative and even if delivered is likely to result in very little clinical benefit…This is a subtle but critical point. The Local CRS systems…are a proven technology…These local CRS systems have always been costly investments (several million pounds per hospital over several years) but have been proven in the NHS and elsewhere to deliver real clinical benefits…This picture is entirely different for the

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so-called Central Spine record, or Central Shared Summary record, which NPfIT (and the government ministers) would like the public to believe is the central point of NPfIT. It is not. The Central Spine record is just a concept…The problem is that clinicians have told us medicine does not work like this. Clinicians do not just use a summary record to deliver care. They build and depend upon detailed and specific medical data that are relevant for each patient.

They do not rely on some other clinicians’ definition of what will be most relevant to put in a summary record. What is relevant clinically will inevitably vary from patient to patient.

The concept of a summary Central Spine record has no scientific basis and no significant clinical support to back it up—just an overly simplistic and naïve storyline about a Birmingham patient falling ill in Blackpool. In fact, no one has ever provided any figures on how often this situation is likely to arise to show whether or not the investment in the Central Spine record is worthwhile.

The point here is that the Local Care Record Service”—

I emphasise the word “local”—

“is the essential building block for clinically useful health IT to support clinical care in progressive, modern and proven ways. Yes, it is difficult to implement and can take 2-3 years to roll-out across the whole hospital (or organisation), and yet it is always worthwhile…These Local Care Record Service systems are the building blocks and are the point of NPfIT, and what NHS Trust Chief Executives want, need and expect. They are not waiting for a Central Spine record to run their hospitals.

However, the Local Care Record Service systems (or the Local Service Providers’ newest versions of them) are not likely to be fully deployed now (only the rudimentary patient administration elements of them will be) because NPfIT is putting in old ‘legacy’ products in place of new modern Local Care Record Service products in its panic to show deployment and because the systems have been so late in being delivered by the LSPs”—

the local service providers. The document continues:

“The key point of the National Programme for IT is to provide both depth of clinical systems functionality and breadth of integration in terms of delivering the contracted Local CRS functions across organisations and care-settings (acute, primary, mental health, social services).

This is the true vision of health IT promised by the National Programme which is embodied in the Local Service Provider contracts and it is what their price reflects.”

The trouble is, with all the delays, the LSP schedules are being down-scoped behind the NHS’s back and without any accountability to the local NHS Trust chief executives to whom the original vision was promised.”

In September 2006, with the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), I published a paper called “Information technology in the NHS: What Next?” In it, we identified four fallacies and offered a way forward. The fallacies were that

“Patient data needs to be accessible all over the country…Local trusts can’t procure systems properly so the centre has to do this for them…Large areas of the NHS need to work on a single massive system”

and that the

“National Programme saves money.”

The suggested way forward was to allow hospital chief executives to buy the systems they actually wanted, subject only to common standards, and to fund such purchases partially from the centre, while making local chief executives contractually responsible for delivery.

Shortly after we published that paper, the NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, introduced the NPfIT local ownership plan, but it did not follow our suggestion of giving local chief executives autonomy in what they bought. Under the NLOP, hospital chief executives

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would still be required to buy the software that the local service provider was contracted to provide—the difficult-to-install American system, Cerner Millennium, or the non-existent Lorenzo.

Furthermore, instead of there being one senior responsible owner for the programme, which is a central tenet of good project management practice, there would be many dozens of senior responsible owners dispersed among the different primary care trusts, strategic health authorities and hospitals across the country. Those bodies were given responsibility for implementing and delivering software that was not available or which did work properly, without a free choice to buy something else that did work. The NLOP looked more like an attempt to decentralise impending blame than a serious attempt at reform. That is why Tony Collins, one of the country’s leading computer journalists, playfully said that NLOP actually stands for “No Longer Our Problem”.

In February 2007, Andrew Rollerson, a senior Fujitsu manager who had assembled and then led the winning Fujitsu team in the original bid process, mentioned more or less en passant at an IT conference that his view of the national programme was that

“it isn’t working and it isn’t going to work”.

To many informed observers, it was just a statement of the obvious. The PAC called him to give evidence, and when asked if he felt that he had been the

“one who let the finger out of the dam”

and allowed

“a whole collective sigh of relief”

to go round the health IT sector, he replied

“I think that is absolutely spot on.”

Fujitsu then wrote to the Committee stating that Rollerson was not a senior executive of the company and had not been involved for a long time, but neglecting to mention that he had led the winning bid team.

By 2007, another accounting probe had been launched into iSoft by an accounting standards body, and in the following month, April, the PAC published its report, which concluded that

“at the present rate of progress, it is unlikely that significant clinical benefits will be delivered by the end of the contract period”.

By June 2007, Richard Granger had announced that he would quit at some point and shortly afterwards stated that he was “ashamed” of some of the systems put in by Connecting for Health suppliers, singling out Cerner for criticism. David Nicholson, the NHS boss, appointed several new senior executives to join Granger at the top table, while continuing to reject calls for a full review. Tony Collins wrote in Computer Weekly that the future of the national programme for IT in the NHS was “hazy” and that it was becoming

“difficult to delineate success from failure”.

Derek Wanless, whose major review for Tony Blair into the future of the health service had first identified investment in IT as an area for improvement, publicly questioned whether the NHS IT programme should continue without a full audit. He said that

“there is as yet no convincing evidence that the benefits will outweigh the costs of this substantial investment”.

In October 2007, the Department of Health rejected rumours that Matthew Swindells had been appointed interim chief executive of Connecting for Health, but in

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an industry survey he was named the 12th most influential person in the NHS—10 positions above Richard Granger. It appeared that Richard Granger’s influence was on the wane and that he was being eased out. Tony Collins mused on his blog that the programme might be even worse without Richard Granger—

“the thought of this juggernaut being without a driver is even more scary that when it had a driver but no controls”.

Mr Granger’s last day as an employee of the NHS was 31 January 2008, though, curiously, it was a week, on 6 February, before the interim director of NPfIT and systems delivery, Gordon Hextall, sent a letter to Connecting for Health staff to tell them that Granger had gone and that two appointments would replace him: a top-level chief information officer and a director of IT programmes and systems delivery. Meanwhile, the interim chief information officer would be none other than Matthew Swindells, whose involvement the Department had denied earlier.

In February 2008, the Commons Health Committee published a report on the electronic patient record, which stated that it was “dismayed” by the lack of clarity about what information would be included in the summary care record and for what the record would be used. It also said that there was “a stark contrast” between the “specific and detailed” vision set out for the integrated care records service in 2003 and the “vague and shifting” vision set out in 2007. The Committee concluded that there was now a

“perplexing lack of clarity about exactly what NPfIT will now deliver.”

In May 2008, the NAO published a progress update, which was much more robust than its earlier report. It concluded that the programme has

“largely failed to deliver on its central objective of detailed care record systems for acute hospital trusts”.

Not a lot was happening at that point because there was no software to deploy, so many people were employed but they were not necessarily doing very much. In October 2008, Nick Timmins of theFinancial Times wrote about the national programme in a front-page story:

“Progress has virtually ground to a halt, raising questions about whether the world’s biggest civil information technology project will ever be finished”.

He quoted Jon Hoeksma from e - Health Insider who said that

“the key part is stuck”

and added that hospital chief executives did not want to take the system

“until they had seen it put in flawlessly elsewhere”.

The second PAC report, published in January 2009, concluded that the programme’s failures raised questions about the feasibility of the whole project and that the central contracts—the enormous local service provider contracts—were an encumbrance. Only nine months into his job, Matthew Bellamy quit as the chief information officer’s right-hand man. Just before Christmas 2009, the then latest Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), gave an interview in which he sang the praises of the national programme and said that

“parts of the NHS cannot operate without it”.

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Unfortunately for him, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), took a different view—and said so in a television interview a couple of days later. He said that the national programme was

“not essential for the front line”

and announced that he was imposing a £600 million spending cut that took its budget down from £12.7 billion to a mere £12.1 billion.

Meanwhile, new year 2010 was not a happy one for the iSoft directors. The Financial Services Authority—the chief City regulator—announced that it had laid criminal charges against four former directors of iSoft: Patrick Cryne, the founder and former chairman; Timothy Whiston, the former chief executive; and former directors Stephen Graham and John Whelan. They were accused of conspiracy to make misleading statements. The four denied the charges.

Where are we now? We have yet another NAO report, published on 18 May this year, which states in even more bald terms that

“the aim of creating an electronic record for every NHS patient will not be achieved under the Programme.”

The central aim of the programme will not be achieved under the contract. Several conclusions regrettably emerge about Connecting for Health. The first is about overpaying. It massively overpays: acute trusts are costing £23 million, when they should be about £8 million; the system for mental health and community trusts—RiO—is costing £8.9 million per deployment, when it should be about £1.5 million; and the other systems, such as the picture archiving and communications systems for digital X-rays—PACS—and N3 broadband, which everyone says is not particularly good anyway, are also massively overpriced. I should say in parenthesis that the digital X-rays are very good, but Connecting for Health should not have paid so much for them.

The second conclusion is on de-scoping. Connecting for Health has dealt with the problems it has faced by drastically reducing the scope of what is being delivered, but without corresponding reductions in cost. The third conclusion is the hiding of increased costs. The late deliveries meant there have been no running costs for systems that have not been delivered, and the surplus cash is being used to hide the increasing cost per deployment.

Fourthly, there are serious doubts about the commercial judgment and skill of Connecting for Health. It seems that every contract revision makes things worse. Very little of the originally expected system has been delivered, but despite that, the NHS seems to have little or no commercial cover. The Fujitsu termination, when it was fired from the programme, was farcical and generated massive potential costs and liabilities. The local service providers appear to be running rings around Connecting for Health commercially. As the Financial Times noted on 25 May this year, CSC is offering a one-third reduction in the cost of its contract in return for doing two-thirds less work. As the Cabinet Office observed, that would roughly double the cost compared with the original agreement.

The fifth conclusion is the danger of future high costs. When the contracts finish, there is inadequate provision to manage the systems in future. It takes a special skill to leave trusts stuck with systems that are

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functionally very poor and out-of-date, which were not deemed adequate nine years ago, and still manage to expose them to enormous future costs over which they will have very little control. That is precisely what Connecting for Health is managing to do. Finally, there is a serious danger that Connecting for Health will put CSC in particular in a monopoly position. The proposed revised agreement may be open to legal challenge from other suppliers who have not had the chance to bid.

What should happen now? It is plain that the NHS IT programme has not worked and there is no evidence that it will work. Rather than squandering another £4 billion to £5 billion, which is still unspent, the NHS should recognise reality. Connecting for Health has failed to achieve its central purpose and should be closed down. I am afraid that it will not help and is now more interested in the preservation of its own position than in protecting the interests of taxpayers. NHS trusts must be set free to choose the systems that meet the needs of patients and medical professionals. They should have the power to source products locally that suit their needs, subject only to common standards.

11.38 am

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing the debate. In this field, he is very expert, persistent and learned, and I believe that he is writing a book on the subject—I shall give him a plug because he is too modest to do it himself. We have both followed the debate for a fairly long time. We have had Commons debates and there have been PAC sessions on the subject. We have attended meetings with Mr Granger and been to numerous conferences. We have even sat in Richmond house and watched the Lorenzo system work—it proved to be a little more difficult to get it to work in a hospital in real time, but none the less it looked good when we saw it.

I do not want to sketch out the sorry history, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk has done so most lucidly. Everybody in the Chamber realises that it was a procurement disaster, and a project management disaster. It did all the things that are not supposed to be done, such as failing to shift risk to the private sector, failing to be clear about the actual benefits, failing to involve practitioners and stakeholders, and failing to control costs. It was a bright idea, but it was not realistically assessed and ultimately had to be scaled back.

Much of it, as the hon. Gentleman said, might have happened anyway. The good side of it, if I can so describe it—the PACS, e-prescriptions, improved broadband access, telemedicine and so on—might well have happened, and we ought to recognise the fact. However, the project would not have done well in front of Alan Sugar on “The Apprentice”, let alone the Public Accounts Committee. That is history, however, and to some extent we must now consider the present.

We are in unprecedented times of cash restraint, and we have to find £20 billion within the health service over the next few years. I doubt whether we will succeed, but we cannot abandon that target. Twenty or so hospitals will not achieve foundation trust status, and we cannot magic away their PFI debts or ignore the consequences that flow from dodging difficult reconfiguration issues. However, as we roll out Connecting for Health, the cost

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certainly matters. I believe that some of the costs, particularly those of the patient administration systems, are still being picked up by the ailing hospitals.

It is not easy to see how current health reforms will ease matters, as they will increase the diversity of providers and complicate somewhat the recording of data, as providers do it in different ways. That will add to the potential problems of data sharing and interoperability. Ultimately, we will require some merging of social care and medical records, and the changed landscape will necessitate appreciable changes in the choose and book system. I do not know whether we will be transferring or binning the existing IT programmes of PCTs, but it could be said that what we originally designed is now inappropriate—that NPfIT, an awful pun, no longer fits.

I believe that the Government have done all the sensible things in response to a difficult situation. They have allowed NHS trusts to adapt and develop existing systems. They have emphasised open standards and interoperability, and continue to do so, in order that we can have variety without undue chaos and do not end up being captive to a major supplier. That is the ultimate nightmare, and it was a big fear throughout the process. Indeed, although Granger tried to prevent it, it seems that he could not. The Government have sought to reduce and shave costs through negotiation or by cutting back on specifications. However, there appear to be a few problems with what is otherwise a sensible strategy.

First, I understand that, in these difficult circumstances, some of the key managers of the programme are to be the chief executives of strategic health authorities, but when they have gone I have no idea who will persist with the task and take up the burden. Secondly, savings within the NHS will lead to many of the much-maligned back-office staff going, and I presume that that will include NHS client-side IT people. The loss of client-side expertise will be a big worry, as it will make us even more dependent on the expensive consultants who got us into this mess. I note that McKinsey was pivotal in advising us to go ahead. I note also that, to this day, McKinsey has its feet well under the table in Richmond house, and is advising the Government on a number of problems.

The big problem, however, appears to be that we do not seem able easily to extricate ourselves or to revise contracts. Everyone agrees that that is necessary at the moment. Rather, I should say that we seem unable to do so without making matters worse. We seem doomed to spend another £4.3 billion, yet we need to save a further £20 billion. The fatal breakfast that Mr Blair had with the IT industry in February 2002 has come back to haunt us. Mr Blair might have been worried about his legacy, but it is now a worry for us.

I understand through the grapevine that this was a matter of heated debate at the last meeting of the PAC, which was a rather rumbustious affair. I saw Mr Nicholson shortly after that meeting, and I have to say that his account of events differed slightly from that of some hon. Members, in terms of how satisfactory an occasion he thought it was and how far they had got in their Socratic examination of the flaws. However, it seems that he and we are trapped between a rock and a hard place, and that there is not an easy way out.

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The dilemma is not only ours; it is one also for the IT industry. The industry can help us to meet the Nicholson challenge, or it can compound it. It can work ever more closely in areas such as telemedicine and so on, and on how to produce genuine cost savings, including on the implementation of IT; or it can simply go on as before, selling us more kit that we do not need and software that we cannot use. If that is the industry’s choice—it is the industry’s choice as much as ours; we have to throw down the challenge to suppliers—it will face years of adversarial attrition as we try to cut costs, presumably followed by bad feeling and empty order books, and endless fulmination from the hon. Member for South Norfolk, who becomes increasingly frustrated as the drama continues. However, the industry could accept that it is a collective problem.

It is a very big collective problem, because at some point in time it will throw into stark relief what we do with the summary care record, which has less utility than we ever imagined and more complexity than we ever realised.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): As a member of the PAC who was present at the rumbustious meeting to which my hon. Friend referred, I gained the impression that the suppliers were completely unprepared to consider the correct option of considering things differently and trying to be positive. It seemed that they were prepared to protect their positions to the hilt, which is partly why it was a rumbustious sitting. Does my hon. Friend have any advice on how to change the attitude of the suppliers?

John Pugh: Given that, uniquely in the UK, many suppliers are dependent on Government contracts in the long term, they have a stark choice between pleasing their shareholders and pleasing their long-term customers. They must recognise that. However, I am not sure how to achieve that while doing anything useful with the summary care record. I suspect that that may be a matter for another debate—and possibly a longer one.

11.47 am

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his tenacity in pursuing the subject. I know that he has a long-standing interest in it, and rightly so given the amount of money being spent on the project. I cannot compete with the way in which he articulated his case, or with his forensic and almost anorak-like knowledge of the subject, but I associate myself with the conclusions that he draws.

The project has always been over-ambitious. We would all agree that it has been poorly led and ineffectively delivered. As with many procurement projects in the public sector, the cost has escalated considerably. We have seen it happen too many times, and it is always entirely predictable. Indeed, senior leaders in the NHS were warned about that from the start.

The intention to ensure that health data should be made available at any time and anywhere was laudable, but delivering it has to be offset against the cost and whether it offers good value for money. Clinicians, practitioners and IT specialists throughout the NHS said that it would not work. Ultimately, clinicians will

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find their own way of doing things, and a top-down system will not work unless it is executed from the bottom up. As my hon. Friend explained, the decision to involve clinicians in the design of the system was not taken until late in the day and probably beyond the point when they could have had a useful input to ensure that the programme was fit for purpose.

Let me underline what my hon. Friend said. If we look at the initial programme of delivery and what we have achieved, we can see that we have not progressed far. Of the 4,500 sites that were contracted to receive the system, some two thirds have yet to receive anything. If we examine the progress made by Computer Sciences Corporation—my hon. Friend has outlined the history of its involvement with this case—we will see that it is contracted to deliver its systems to 97 hospitals, but so far it has delivered only four and none has been able to confirm that the system has been installed satisfactorily. Put simply, CSC has not delivered the goods against its obligations on the contract.

Once the contract is in place, everyone signs up even though it is quite clear that the company is not delivering what it promised. To be fair, in this case, the NHS started to renegotiate the contract in December 2009. None the less, more than 18 months later, no new contract or renegotiated contract is in place. CSC is still working on the same terms that it initially agreed to and we still do not have adequate delivery.

The NHS was quite clear when it said that it would not sign a new contract until it could see that Lorenzo was working. It is clear that we have to take some tough decisions because it simply is not working. As it is taking so long, we have to decide whether we are managing the project efficiently. Just how poorly does a contractor have to perform before a serious charge is made as to whether that contract should be maintained?

The NHS is an extremely powerful client. I know that suppliers have duties and obligations to their shareholders, but surely maintaining a good relationship with a customer that is as big as the national health service or even as the Government is important. We would expect suppliers to be slightly more conscious about what they are obliged to deliver.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I listened very carefully to the initial speeches in this debate. The story that I heard was that there are suppliers and contractors who have fallen by the wayside and who have been shot and had their business fed to the others. That leaves us with the dilemma of what happens if we are left with only one supplier. Where does that leave the bargaining position of the NHS? My hon. Friend will find that there have been contractors who have found that they were not going to get paid because of their inability to deliver on their contracts.