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To sum up, coeliacs want and need better awareness of their condition among the medical profession, an informed approach from the catering and hospitality industry, and an understanding from the Minister that prescriptions are vital but that we may be able to do things better.

3.20 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing the debate. I also thank Coeliac UK for its work in campaigning and research, and the information that it gives to many thousands of individuals who are diagnosed with coeliac disease.

I have two interests to declare. I am the chair of the all-party coeliac disease group and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said, I was diagnosed with coeliac disease nearly 10 years ago. I want to reiterate a point that my hon. Friend made, which is that what we are discussing is not the latest fashionable diet, or a lifestyle choice: it is a medical condition. Sometimes it seems from media coverage, and media understanding of the gluten-free diet, that people have a choice whether to eat foodstuffs containing gluten. We do not have that choice, because of the serious health conditions that my hon. Friend has already mentioned. It is important to ensure awareness and wider understanding, including among GPs.

It is worth reflecting on how people are diagnosed. I was diagnosed 10 years ago, at the age of 37. Did I know I was intolerant to gluten? No, I did not. It was only following a serious stomach operation that the consultant who treated me did tests and biopsies, and said, “You do realise that you are suffering from coeliac disease.” Had I heard of coeliac disease? No, I had not. As with all such things, people learn quickly. I have heard stories from talking to many members of Coeliac UK regional groups—and I thank the volunteers who run local groups for providing information. More often than not, the people I have talked to received mistaken diagnoses. Awareness among consultants, as well as GPs, is an issue.

One may ask what the average age of a coeliac is, but there is not one. I have met parents whose children became ill soon after they began eating food, by two and three years old. My 71-year-old mother was diagnosed only last year, and that was only because I asked her to insist that her doctor tested her for it. Interestingly, many of the complaints and health issues that she has had over many years were explained by coeliac disease, and the diagnosis has changed the way she feels. Awareness is important, therefore, not just in the wider population, but among GPs, to ensure that they ask the questions to find out whether a patient’s symptoms are down to coeliac disease—and the symptoms can be quite varied, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said.

I do not think that matters have been helped in the past few months by press coverage of prescription charges. Some of the debate is ill-informed. Earlier in the year a headline in The Sun ran: “NHS pays £32.27 for a loaf of bread”. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, if the story had been looked into, it would have been found that the sum was paid not for one loaf of bread, but for a number of products. However, there are underlying

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issues, which can be remedied by some of my hon. Friend’s suggestions. Nevertheless, the entire tenor of the article was that people are somehow getting free food on the NHS—not just loaves of bread but biscuits, cakes and things like that, which is not the case. Gluten-free products are a very expensive part of the household budget, certainly for families with more than one person affected. I do not get products on prescription, but purchase them. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) is right; the range of products available now is far wider than when I was diagnosed. As for the idea that people are getting foods free, as has been said, they are not: if they receive them on prescription they will pay for that anyway. Many people do not choose to take anything in that way.

The reaction to the publicity, and the pressure on NHS budgets to secure value for money, which we would all support, has been a knee-jerk reaction to go the other way and reduce the number of products that people can get. That is not acceptable for low-income families and those who rely on gluten-free products on prescription. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire talked about a cost of about £400 a year, but in some cases it could be more, depending on how many affected people there are in a family. It has been recognised that the condition is not a fad or lifestyle choice, but a disease that needs treatment; and proper management can save the NHS money. People will not present at GPs’ surgeries with undiagnosed conditions. They can live perfectly well with the condition if it is properly managed; and my hon. Friend might agree that in some cases that improves health, because the diet is quite healthy—including, in my case, not being able to drink beer.

There has been a knee-jerk reaction from some PCTs. Is it acceptable that arrangements with suppliers are costing the NHS money? No—and I think that the Cumbrian and Northamptonshire examples are a way forward. If we encourage PCTs to adopt the approach of having prescriptions managed by the pharmacist, not only will the NHS save a lot of money, but that will be better for people who suffer from coeliac disease than going to the doctor for a prescription. I have talked to my GP about it, and doctors do not really review what is on the prescription. They just keep signing it. At least if the process happens in the pharmacy, the pharmacist, who knows the people involved, may review the quantity or type of products that the individual wants. I think that it would reduce the possibility of people getting the same prescription repeatedly, whether they need it or not. The pharmacist would be able to manage things. If someone has a prescription for eight loaves, but does not need them, why keep paying for them?

The examples and pilots in Cumbria and Northamptonshire show that not only can costs be driven down, but the service to the patient can be improved. There is an easy win there, and Coeliac UK and pharmacists are quite keen on the idea, and so are GPs, because it would cut the person hours taken up in writing the prescriptions. The pilots provide good instances of how GPs’ time is freed up. I urge the Government to look seriously at that, and consider how such best practice can be moved across. Quite rightly, when there are lurid headlines about people paying £32 for gluten-free bread, on top of the actual costs, that is not acceptable.

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If we can do something to reduce that problem, it would be good. We need to see more positive and constructive articles. To be fair, the

Daily Mail

in its health section has carried quite a few good articles about coeliac disease, explaining its symptoms, and promoting the suitable food that is available.

Some quick wins are available for the Government and the NHS, if they are allowed to take them on board. As chair of the all-party group, I would like the Minister to attend a meeting if that could be fitted into his diary commitments, and to meet the members of the group and others from around the country.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and it would be extremely useful to attend such a meeting. However, he may wish to invite the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), who is the lead Minister on this medical condition.

Mr Jones: I am disappointed about that, because I was looking forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s attendance. He is a good friend, but I will obviously leave it to the Department to decide who is the best person to come, and we will certainly issue that invitation in the next few days.

I want to pick up some of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire raised, including the products that are available. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South was right when she said that products have changed remarkably in the last 10 years from bread like cardboard that was hardly edible without a pint of water to some very good products on the market now. It is interesting that on the commercial side, large bread manufacturers such as Warburtons are producing gluten-free bread, so it obviously sees a market. I have tried its bread, and it is very good. Likewise, the invention of products such as Genius bread has completely changed the type of bread that is available, and the technology for producing it.

The supermarkets have also changed. Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s in particular have done two things. First, they have shelving dedicated to gluten-free products, which is important. Secondly, labelling has changed, which is important for people who suffer from coeliac disease, because it is amazing how many products contain gluten. Some flavours of crisps contain gluten, but others from the same producer do not. Correct labelling is important for all products so that people may buy with confidence, and see that the products that they are buying are gluten-free. It is important that the supermarkets recognise that there is a large and growing market for such products, so anything we can do to encourage better labelling of food content is important.

My hon. Friend referred to eating out, which can be difficult, although some restaurants recognise the problem of gluten in certain foods. However, the bane of my life is organisations that provide food on airlines and National Express, on which I sometimes travel. The people serving the food have no understanding of what a gluten-free diet is, and offer everything from sandwiches to sausages. When asked whether those foods contain gluten, they look blank.

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The other reaction, which one gets from British Airways and which is amazing, is that whenever one asks for a gluten-free meal it thinks that that means vegetarian. I am not sure why, but it seems to think that one can eat what everyone else eats, but without the sauce. It seems to think that coeliacs are vegetarians, and my usual response is to ask whether I look like a vegetarian. There should be a campaign to persuade airlines and train companies that provide meals to ensure that their staff know what a gluten-free diet is. They could also be more imaginative about what they provide, because it is often inedible.

Dame Anne Begg: My hon. Friend may agree that if one tells an organisation that is providing a sandwich lunch that one wants a gluten-free sandwich, it always seems to provide the worst possible gluten-free bread, without the same filling as everyone else. One is given processed cheese or a bit of cold ham, and looks lovingly at the filling in everyone else’s sandwiches. Not only does one get the worst bread in the world, one gets the worst filling in the world, when it would have been easier to take out the original filling and put it on a plate to make quite a good salad.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. Time is passing, and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman and the Minister must make their winding-up speeches, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will draw his comments to a close.

Mr Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend. When I was a Minister, it took at least six months to convince those in my private office at the Ministry of Defence that I did not want a salad whenever I went anywhere.

I congratulate the House authorities on the steps that they have taken in the House of Commons to provide gluten-free products, including meals, and to put the crossed grain logo on menus and so on to inform people. I hope that the House of Lords will eventually follow the same principle. That shows that it is possible for catering establishments to provide for people who need a gluten-free diet, and the House of Commons should be congratulated. There are some important issues to consider, and I hope that today’s debate has raised awareness about people who suffer coeliac disease, and provided some practical suggestions, which I hope the Minister will consider.

3.37 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I apologise for being a few minutes late for the debate. I was speaking in the debate on Health and Social Care (Re-committed) Bill that is taking place in another part of the building.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this important debate. It is always important when hon. Members with personal experience of an issue or condition take the opportunity to make the rest of us aware of that experience, as he has done.

As we have heard, Coeliac UK is doing excellent work, and one of the concerns that it has raised with parliamentarians is the challenge that people with coeliac disease face when eating in hospital. It says that hospital food is often restricted, and even unsafe. It receives

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many calls from members who have been in hospital, and have returned home malnourished and having suffered considerable weight loss. Sometimes friends and family have to provide gluten-free food. I hope that the Minister will tell us what action his Department is taking to ensure the availability of gluten-free food in hospitals throughout England and Wales.

Hon. Members will be aware that as well as securing today’s debate, my hon. Friend tabled an early-day motion in June 2010 to raise the issue of diagnosis rates. He has spoken very well on the matter this afternoon. In a parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) asked what information the NHS provides to people who are diagnosed with coeliac disease on managing their condition. The departmental response referred to a website with detailed information. The site also has information on how to ensure a gluten-free diet, with helpful examples of food to avoid. However, in the light of the large number of undiagnosed cases that we have heard about, I wonder whether the Minister has recently discussed the diagnosis and management of coeliac disease with representatives of the Royal colleges and other bodies representing medical professions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) tabled an early-day motion early this year on issues relating to the hospitality industry, which we have heard more about this afternoon. What discussions, if any, has the Department held with the hospitability industry?

Outside Parliament a wide range of organisations, including Coeliac UK and the British Society of Gastroenterology, carry out excellent work on the condition. In particular, the British Society of Gastroenterology feels that an active case-finding strategy will increase the number of patients detected with coeliac disease. Does the Department have such a strategy at present?

Last year the British Society of Gastroenterology published its “Guidelines for the management of patients with coeliac disease”, in which it made a number of recommendations on what testing for coeliac disease should incorporate and how to best manage patients. Has the Department looked at those recommendations, and does it have a position on the management of patients with coeliac disease?

We have already touched on the excellent work of Coeliac UK and its ongoing campaigns such as the “Eating Out” campaign, which focuses on the food service sector, or the “Product” campaign mentioned earlier, which is about having a greater availability of gluten-free foods in supermarkets and on prescription. Of course, Coeliac UK is concerned that the medical profession has under-recognised coeliac disease so far. It is not routinely tested for, and Coeliac UK is campaigning to change that. We must build on the successes achieved, and I would be interested to hear how the Department plans to support the ongoing campaigns and the further work of Coeliac UK.

We have already heard about diagnosis, and the Minister will know that Coeliac UK has petitioned the Government to improve the rate of diagnosis of coeliac disease by including a target for GPs in the quality and outcomes framework. If a target on coeliac disease were to be included into that framework, GPs would have to deliver a better rate of diagnosis of the condition. That campaign has attracted nearly 9,000 signatures, and Coeliac UK is

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continuing with that and has made a new submission to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence for such a target to be included. It would be helpful if the Minister updated us on the Government’s position on the issues raised in that petition.

Apart from early diagnosis and the management of coeliac disease, my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire called this debate to discuss community-led pharmacy prescriptions. He has spoken effectively on that matter.

Moving on to the socio-economic impact of coeliac disease, we know that it is difficult to assess the overall burden of the disease owing to the absence of recorded information on diagnosis rates. There is a need for a central register of patients with coeliac disease, and I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that. We know that coeliac disease has an impact on both the individual and the community because of its high prevalence and the long-term complications arising from late diagnosis. The development of osteoporosis or bowel cancer has an impact not only on the individual affected but on the community and the health service. Even in the short term, the absence of diagnosis has a socio-economic impact. My hon. Friend said how shocked he was when his GP said, almost lightly, that he had missed two other cases of the disease that month. According to an independent study commissioned by Coeliac UK in 2006, just under half of people with coeliac disease who had been wrongly diagnosed believed that their job or career had suffered due to the condition prior to diagnosis.

As we have heard, Coeliac UK wants to see greater understanding and familiarity with the disease among GPs, and higher levels of referral to dieticians. A survey of registered dieticians conducted by Coeliac UK showed a wide variation nationally in the provision of dietetic expertise for patients with coeliac disease. Current provision is around one third of what it would be were we to provide diagnosed coeliacs in the UK with basic support and an annual review.

I will conclude my remarks by saying to the Minister that there is a continued cost to the health service due to repeat visits to GPs by people with undiagnosed coeliac disease—my hon. Friend referred to that in his personal case. Furthermore, left untreated or undiagnosed, coeliac disease can lead to more serious complications such as bowel cancer, which puts an even bigger drain on health service resources. Coeliac UK recognises the competing demands on health service resources and budgets, but coeliac disease is easily controllable once diagnosed—we can see that by looking at my two hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire and for North Durham (Mr Jones), who are able to be excellent and inspirational Members of Parliament because their coeliac disease is so well managed. It is a disease that can be self-managed if diagnosed early enough in life.

Government policy needs to acknowledge the scale of the impact of coeliac disease across a large segment of the population. Policy must also take into account the potentially serious nature of the disease, the cost in financial terms, and the suffering of the undiagnosed. In particular, measures should be taken to address the lack of awareness about the disease and provide a framework to ensure that GPs receive appropriate training and resources. Ongoing training should be provided to enable GPs to give better care in the community.

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Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire on securing this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham on chairing the all-party group on coeliac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis. A number of colleagues from all sides of the House take a keen interest in this issue and wish to commend the work of the all-party group in promoting awareness about the disease. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

3.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Dr McCrea? I will begin with some congratulations and an apology. The congratulations go to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this debate and on raising the issues faced by people living with coeliac disease. It was genuinely fascinating to listen to him speak about a long-term condition that, as was mentioned by other hon. Members, is unknown to a vast majority of people in this country. To hear at first hand about the day-to-day living of someone with that long-term condition was extremely interesting and illuminating.

The question of illumination is where I get to my apology. I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman because I am afraid he got the monkey rather than the organ grinder this afternoon. As he will know, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), is the lead Minister in the Department for issues such as coeliac disease and other long-term conditions. As the hon. Gentleman will understand, deliberations on the Health and Social Care Bill are reaching their concluding hours on the Floor of the House of Commons as the legislation approaches Report and Third Reading. The Minister of State’s debate on Report clashed with this debate in Westminster Hall, so I am an inadequate stand-in for him. I assure hon. Members, however, that I will draw his attention to a number of points that have been raised this afternoon, and I know that he will be interested to read the debate tomorrow. If there are other issues that he needs to answer, I will make sure that he does so. In the time available, I will try to respond to as many points raised by hon. Members as I can. If time does not allow all those points to be answered, I will ensure that they receive a letter to clarify any outstanding issues.

For those hon. Members who are not aware of coeliac disease—I know that there are none in the Chamber today, but I am sure that there will be some MPs who follow health issues assiduously in Hansard but who are not as knowledgeable as those present in the debate—let me say that the disease is a common condition that affects approximately one in every 100 people in the UK. Rather surprisingly, women are two to three times more likely to develop the condition than men, although there seems to be no apparent reason for why that should be the case. Cases of coeliac disease have been diagnosed in people of all ages, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned when illustrating one of his points. It is therefore crucial that information, education and support are available for individuals as well as the other people involved in their lives, such as parents, teachers, carers, employers and others.

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There is only one clear path to get properly diagnosed—again, early diagnosis was another theme that was echoed by all three hon. Members who took part in the debate. That is an extremely important issue. The points that hon. Members raised in making the case for early diagnosis are unanswerable. It is crucial. However, as they will know, getting a proper diagnosis requires a blood test and endoscopy with biopsy. We of course welcome any new tools that can help to get more people diagnosed. However, it must be recognised that pinprick self-testing kits do not replace a medical diagnosis. Indeed, for a definitive diagnosis, it is important that people have not already taken gluten out of their diet as a result of self-diagnosis, because that can lead to the diagnostic tests being inconclusive, with all the unfortunate results that that has.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of coeliac disease should seek the advice of their doctor to get a proper diagnosis and professional dietary advice on how to manage their condition. We must ensure that people living with coeliac disease get the best clinical advice and support available, that they are involved in decisions about their care and that they are fully supported to make informed choices.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said, “Why not use the QOF?” With regard to the testing of people and of members of their family to see whether they may have the disease, we believe that it is up to people to raise any concerns that they have as a result of a family member having the disease, and that is likely to result in a test for coeliac disease for those people.

I think that the hon. Gentleman specifically asked—I hope that I have got this right—when or if there would be NICE guidelines. On that issue, I have what I hope is some rather good news for him. There are already NICE guidelines on diagnosis and recognition. They were published on 27 May 2009. The reason that the guidelines were drawn up is that they were part of a determined campaign in the NHS and, to be fair, by the Government of the day to improve recognition of the disease and to increase the number of people diagnosed with it.

Gordon Banks: I am well aware of what the Minister is referring to; indeed, I alluded to it in my contribution. What I am saying is that there is now an opportunity through the QOF framework to make coeliac disease one of the 150 measurable outcomes for GPs to be measured against.

Mr Burns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He makes a perfectly reasonable point. I will certainly ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of NICE, because of course it will be NICE, working with the Department of Health, that draws up the list of conditions. That is apart from the standards that it is already working on. As the hon. Gentleman said, between 150 and 180 are being considered. I will ensure that his comments are drawn to NICE’s attention.

Gordon Banks: With regard to the points that the Minister has made, which I did allude to, those are not mandatory, enforceable measurements. That is why we need something more.

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Mr Burns: I am grateful and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s recommendation and the points associated with that are drawn to the attention of the relevant bodies, so that they can be considered as NICE considers its programme for the standards.

The question of managing coeliac disease in the NHS featured in a number of contributions today. The NHS is best placed to determine and manage its services locally, supported by clinical guidelines and close community and partnership working. The NICE guidelines on recognition and diagnosis of the condition are supported by prescribing guidelines for professionals on prescribing gluten-free foods, developed in association with the British Dietetic Association, the Primary Care Society for Gastroenterology and Coeliac UK.

The NHS also has to ensure that the resources that it has available are used to greatest effect. That is another theme that I think was developed by all three hon. Members who took part in the debate. Some of the comments concentrated on the question of prescriptions. One area in which spending needs to be more effective in order to meet rising demand for services is prescribing, as hon. Members said. A range of programmes is in place to try to reduce the money spent on prescribing drugs, and the review of gluten-free food prescribing is part of that process.

Discussions are taking place throughout the country on that matter. In the south-east—the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire referred to this—a review was conducted of gluten-free prescribing policies across the region. That was led by medicines management leads, who are pharmacists, from the different counties. They made recommendations that caused concern to some patients. However, as a result of their subsequent discussions with patients and, indeed, the role played by Coeliac UK, a number of changes are to be made to their original proposals. I will add that GPs are not prevented from such prescribing if specific patients are considered to have a special clinical need. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

It is a matter for doctors’ clinical judgment which products they prescribe for their individual patients. They are not prevented from such prescribing if patients are considered to have a special clinical need. We fully expect GPs and other health professionals who prescribe gluten-free products to assess the dietary requirements of individual patients, taking into account not only their nutritional requirements but their lifestyle and other needs. We expect the provision of food items to be based on individual needs, not on a preconceived idea of what someone ought to receive.

We believe that patients stand to benefit from the modernisation of commissioning, as that will enable GPs to focus resources to meet the local needs of their population and enable local people to be involved in shaping services that are crucial to them. It will be for

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consortia to determine how they organise themselves to commission services for patients affected by coeliac disease. The new arrangements in the NHS are designed to ensure that GPs are in the driving seat on commissioning services for their local population.

Gordon Banks: In my contribution, I spent a considerable amount of time talking about pharmacy-led prescribing. The Minister has gone around the houses on that; he has not really addressed it directly. In the last two and a half minutes of the debate, could he deal with it in a little more detail?

Mr Burns: I am planning to come to that, but first I want to deal with another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised—food labelling. I will then move on to prescribing. If I run out of time, I will ensure, as I promised, that I write to him.

Food labelling is crucial to patients’ quality of life, and improvements have needed to be made. The coalition Government want to see health and social care provided in a way that achieves better outcomes and delivers personalised services, focused around individuals, not organisations, and ending up with care and support that is of a higher quality and safer than ever before.

For people living with coeliac disease, having the right information about the gluten content of food is crucial. That has certainly emerged in the course of this debate. Prescribed foods represent a small proportion of an individual’s diet. People with coeliac disease buy most of their food from high street shops, like everyone else. It is therefore important that food labelling is comprehensive and reliable. It has got better in recent years, particularly in supermarkets, which the hon. Member for North Durham mentioned, and in some restaurants—although there is a long way to go—as more and more people become aware of the condition. Indeed, a wide selection of gluten-free foods is now available at supermarkets. That was not the case 10 years ago.

New labelling requirements introduced in January 2009 for full implementation on 1 January next year are designed to reduce confusion and to help people with coeliac disease to make safer choices about the food that they eat. The legislation sets out new low limits for gluten in foods making “gluten-free” and “very low gluten” claims, so that consumers can understand how much gluten there is in the foods that they buy. The Government are working with industry, health professionals and Coeliac UK to provide advice for consumers on what the new legislation means for them.

As I am running out of time and sadly have not been able to cover all the points, I give hon. Members a categorical assurance that they will receive a letter answering in detail the outstanding points that they have validly raised during an extremely interesting and high-quality debate.

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Wind Farm Development (Sedgefield)

4 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

Whenever we have a debate about wind farm development and the instigator of the debate opposes a planned wind farm, there are cries of nimbyism or of the Member being at the climate-change-denial end of the spectrum. I am the instigator of this debate, but I am not a nimbyist or a climate-change denier. Nevertheless, I am opposed to E.ON’s proposal to build a wind farm in my constituency of up to 45 wind turbines, each four times the height of the Angel of the North. It will cover 7½ square miles of my constituency, or 5% of its geographic area—equivalent to the size of Newton Aycliffe just to the west of the proposed site, which has a population of about 30,000.

If E.ON’s proposal was for the only wind farm in County Durham, I could stand accused of nimbyism, but it is not. There are already 16 in the county, and another has received planning consent but has yet to be built. The site in the Sedgefield county ward where E.ON proposes to build has a cluster of 17 wind turbines, 10 of which are run by E.ON and seven by Wind Prospect. If the E.ON proposal goes ahead, there could be as many as 62 turbines in one ward, and that does not include a further application for three turbines at Foxton lane, which is south of Sedgefield village and in the same ward. However, those are not the only developments that are being proposed or granted. It seems as if there is a steady stream of developers coming to my door proclaiming the merits of their schemes. In isolation, one scheme may have a lot going for it, but as one of many they have a cumulative impact, and the landscape’s capacity to take more turbines is questionable.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I wish to express sympathy with his cause. We have exactly the same problem in my constituency, with a huge number of wind farms coming along that will completely destroy the area. The hon. Gentleman should know that he is not alone; others feel the same. Virtually every resident of Montgomeryshire will sympathise with him.

Phil Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There is a lot of discontent in certain parts of the country, because the matter is pertinent to parts of Wales and Scotland, as well as to County Durham and to one or two other parts of the country. A case can be made for wind farms, but when there are dozens in one area it has an impact on the local landscape.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. His is a neighbouring constituency.

County Durham was the first county to reach its 2010 target, and it is well on its way to reaching its 2020 target for renewable energy. Like my hon. Friend, I have many wind farms in my constituency, which is largely rural and has two areas of outstanding natural beauty. Energy providers now acknowledge that the cumulative

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effect of ever more developers rushing to build wind farms is reaching saturation point in the county.

Phil Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. In a moment, I shall be pointing out how much of a role County Durham and Sedgefield residents are playing in combating climate change.

It is the job of each developer to promote their schemes, but because the planning system is run on a first-come, first-served basis there is a rush to the planning authorities, and local people are left feeling under siege and helpless. I shall give an example by detailing the level of interest in and around my constituency by developers. I say “in and around the constituency”, because when my constituents look out of the windows they do not see the boundaries between constituencies; they see pleasant countryside. Indeed, from certain parts of the constituency they can see magnificent views of the North Yorkshire moors and Cleveland hills.

This is the state of play. As I said, 16 wind farms are up and running in County Durham, and another has been permitted but has not yet been built; 67 turbines are generating 126 MW. A further five wind farms are in planning, with a further 10 turbines; and three are in pre-planning with 18 turbines. That is a total of 95 turbines. Then there is the mother of all wind farms, the Isles wind farm proposed by E.ON, which will raise the number of turbines, operational and proposed, to as many as 140.

Within hundreds of metres of the Durham county council border at Sedgefield, three turbines are operational near Elwick. Just to the south, along the A1, a further six have been granted at Red Gap farm. Three turbines have received planning consent at Lambs hill near Stockton, and they directly affect my constituency because of their proximity. In the borough of Darlington, an area that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), three are proposed at East and West Newbiggin. Banks Renewables has gone to appeal on a wind farm of 10 turbines at Moor House farm, just to the south of E.ON’s large proposal. The list goes on.

Local people feel inundated and helpless. I am sorry to say that they are resentful of a planning regime that does not seem to listen to them. I accept that not all the proposed wind farms will go ahead. However, the Minister cannot deny that they will have a cumulative impact in County Durham and the Tees valley plain. When I say no to the Isles wind farm, I do so because I know that my constituents in County Durham are doing their bit. Even the developers are starting to concede that point. A representative of Banks Renewables, wind farm developers that have sites in the county, was interviewed by the Teesdale Mercury on 24 August 2011. He said:

“An unfortunate repercussion of County Durham being forward thinking in its approach to renewable energy development is the potential for cumulative impact to occur...The pursuit of several wind farms within the county by competing developers has potential to cause an unacceptable impact upon the landscape.”

He is absolutely right; in my view we are already at that stage.

County Durham’s record on renewable energy is another reason why I believe that we are not being nimbyist in our approach. The county council was the first local authority in England to have a renewable energy strategy; it dates back to 1994. The renewable electricity target

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for County Durham in the regional spatial strategy—I realise that it does not apply any more—was 82 MW installed capacity by 2010. Since then, about 165 MW of installed capacity of renewable energy development has been permitted in the county. Only 11 MW of that was permitted on appeal—the majority, 154MW, was granted by the council.

A capacity of 165 MW will meet about 55% of County Durham’s household electricity consumption, or 22% of the county’s overall electricity consumption. That is a fantastic record, and one of the best in England. I am sure that the Minister will agree that County Durham is doing its bit, and I hope that he will pay tribute to the county’s record.

County Durham’s 2010 target has been met and exceeded by a substantial margin. The aspiration to double that target by 2020 has already been achieved, and progress is being made towards the more recent national target of 30% by 2020. That has been achieved through a planned approach based on the north-east region’s renewable energy strategy and development capacity studies commissioned and endorsed by local authorities in the region.

The Tees plain was identified as a broad area of least constraint for wind energy development. Its capacity was identified as being between 20 and 25 turbines. It is covered by four local planning authorities—Durham county council, and Stockton, Hartlepool and Darlington borough councils. A development capacity study was carried out by consultants Arup in 2008, when there were a total of 20 operational or permitted turbines in three wind farms. It concluded that there was potential to exceed the level of development anticipated, and that two additional wind farms totalling between nine and 15 turbines might be acceptable.

Since then, two additional wind farms totalling nine turbines have been permitted. The area is therefore at or approaching the capacity identified in the Arup report. Currently, there are planning applications for three additional wind farms and a single turbine development in the area, totalling 13 turbines; and one planning application for 10 turbines is in abeyance. Those applications will be determined against the development plans of the relevant planning authorities, having regard to both the Arup capacity study and the evolving cumulative impact picture as they progress through the system. According to impact assessment studies, the area chosen by E.ON at the Isles—the company has built many wind farms in the area—can cope with only four to six turbines, but E.ON plans between 25 and 45. Durham can meet its targets because we have proved willing to embrace other renewable technologies in the same area. In Chilton, which is in my constituency and north of the Isles, Dalkia has just opened a biomass facility, producing 15 to 17 MW of electricity. Some 24.4 MW of electricity is generated from biomass in the county, 12.7 MW from landfill and 2.1 MW from hydro. County Durham is playing its part. Everyone wants to share the benefits of renewable energy, but we also need to share the burden.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I hope my hon. Friend and my neighbouring MP will forgive me if I go off on a slight tangent. Does he agree that while our constituents are getting the pain of wind farms, they are not getting the benefits? That was perhaps best illustrated this week when EDF awarded all its contracts

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for a massive wind farm off the Teesside coast to companies abroad, instead of creating jobs in our constituencies for our people who have the skills and facilities with which to build that farm.

Phil Wilson: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Although the landscape in the area has begun to be reindustrialised, we are not getting any of the benefits.

We are getting energy from other renewable sources such as hydro, landfill, and biomass, and now our constituents are beginning to wonder whether we are all in this together. They look at Hampshire, which is using three times as much energy as Durham but taking only about 4% of it from renewables. Moreover, there is not one on-shore wind farm in the area, despite the fact that it is the county in which the Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change has his constituency.

Only five members of the Cabinet have wind farms in their constituency. Some have a lot. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has 259 in his constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, but his constituency covers l,911 square miles—almost as many as there are amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill. The Scottish Secretary has 226 turbines in a constituency covering almost 1,500 square miles. The Foreign Secretary, whose constituency is adjacent to mine, has 24 turbines in an area covering 739 square miles. Sedgefield covers 151 square miles. If the developers get their way and all 87 turbines get the go-ahead, we could see one turbine for every 1.7 square miles. Does the Minister not agree that the planning system for such huge structures is chaotic?

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns of Newcastle airport about the concentration of wind farms and of the Ministry of Defence over the effects that such a concentration will have on using parts of the north-east for low flying?

Phil Wilson: That is an important point. Durham and Tees Valley airport, which is in my constituency, occasionally raises important issues about radar. I have seen the wind farms on its radar scopes. Pilots have to navigate their way round the wind farms to avoid hitting them. Moreover smaller aircraft have to cope with the turbulence that these turbines generate.

What we are facing in County Durham is the reindustrialisation of the landscape, but without the jobs. Durham county council has done tremendous work over the past 30 or 40 years in reclaiming the pit heaps that scarred the landscape for generations. At the height of the coal mining era, thousands of jobs were created in the area. Wind turbines are not bringing that kind of benefit to the region. Reindustrialisation with jobs is one thing; without jobs, both the land and the people are being taken for granted. Their good nature is being abused and that is simply not good enough.

According to the Renewable Energy Foundation, if the Isles wind farm goes ahead with 45 turbines, E.ON will see a revenue stream of more than £570 million over 25 years, some 54% of which is subsidised through our utility bills. E.ON has said that the Isles wind farm could generate enough electricity for 53,000 households. The subsidy would equate to £235 per household per

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year. The community benefit that it proposes is £460,000 a year or £8.60 per household. The company is taking with one hand and giving us back peanuts with the other. What plans do the Government have to reform or review the subsidy system for wind farms and for renewable energy in the round?

Only a handful of landowners on the Isles will benefit from the rental income from the turbines on their land. One developer said that the income from each turbine is, on average, between £10,000 and £15,000. I do not know the rental figure for the Isles, but even at £10,000, 45 turbines will bring in some £450,000 income for a handful of landlords—the equivalent in community gain for a population in the area of between 40,000 and 50,000.

The Government are looking at the business rates that would be generated if the wind turbines stayed with the local authority. According to the House of Commons Library, business rates income from the Isles would be less than £1 million. That may seem a lot of money, but it is not when we consider the plans of the Department for Communities and Local Government for business rates retention, which could see tens of millions of pounds removed from Durham county council’s budget. Again, this is about taking with one hand and giving back peanuts with the other.

The designs for the Isles place the turbines on either side of the A1 and the east coast main line—the main transport arteries through the north-east. If someone enters County Durham by road or rail from the south, they have to go through my constituency. I do not want the first thing that they see to be a massive wind farm of between 25 and 45 wind turbines, each four times the height of the Angel of the North, each a clone of its neighbour and each working only intermittently. Durham county council has informed me that the average capacity factor for a wind turbine nationally between 2004 and 2008 was 27%. Recently, the average for wind turbines in County Durham has been almost 20%. That belies the claim of many developers, especially E.ON, who say that the Tees valley plain is appropriate for wind farm development. They would not develop wind farms if it were not for the subsidy. Does the Minister not agree that it is time for that process to be reviewed and changed?

E.ON’s imposition on the landscape will affect tourism and the willingness of housing developers to build in the area. I want to see new industry come into the area, Hitachi is to build a train factory at Newton Aycliffe and I want that to be followed by more industry, which means that we need further housing in the area—not just affordable but executive as well—and leisure facilities. This massive wind farm could have a negative impact on such developments.

The Duke of Northumberland has said he will not allow wind farm development on his land. In The Daily Telegraph, he said:

“I have come to the personal conclusion that wind farms divide communities, ruin landscapes, affect tourism, and make minimal contribution to our energy needs and a negligible contribution towards reducing C02 emissions. The landowner and developer are enriched while the consumer is impoverished by higher energy costs. Turbines are ugly, noisy and completely out of place in our beautiful, historic landscape.”

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Will the Minister look closely at wind farm development in County Durham, as it has caused a great deal of anxiety in the community? I believe he will see that the cumulative impact is not just a threat but is already with us. He will find that developers are targeting the county because of the good nature of its people. Low incomes will provide the incentive for local people to accept the small amount of money from community gain and ensure that they will find it difficult to raise sufficient funds to campaign against the wind farms.

Local people feel as if they are involved in a David versus Goliath contest in taking on E.ON. Campaigners against the Isles have come together. The following towns and parish councils are against the development: Bradbury, Brafferton, Bishop Middleham, Bishopton, Bolam, Chilton, Coatham Mundeville, Elstob, Ferryhill, Fishburn, Foxton, Great Stainston, Little Stainton, Mordon, Newton Aycliffe, Nunstainston, Preston Le Skerne, Rushyford, Sedgefield, Trimdon, Windlestone and Woodham. The campaign group against the E.ON wind farm can be found on the web at www. theislescommunities.com.

It is now time to look at a planning system and an energy policy that fight climate change by taking people with them, rather than taking them for granted or making them feel helpless. We need a strategic view that ensures that all parts of the country share the burden as well as the benefit of renewable energy. My constituents are united in opposition to the massive imposition of the E.ON wind farm for the Isles. Durham County is known as the land of the prince bishops. I will not stand by to watch County Durham become the land of the wind turbine.

4.19 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Thank you very much, Dr McCrea, for calling me to respond to the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for securing the debate and introducing it in a very thoughtful and considered way. I understand that the subject is very emotional and emotive, and I am grateful to him for the points that he made. We have heard many of the points that he and his hon. Friends made before, but that does not reduce in any way the strength of the argument behind them. I hope to address as many as I can in the time available to me.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on particular applications, because their nature is such that they may well come to a Minister for final determination and I cannot say anything to prejudge that. However, it is important to say on the record that the E.ON process is currently a consultation. I think that he would wish his speech today to be considered as part of that process, and that the company will be keen to know the views of the local community and local business people on what they consider to be the right way forward on the application.

All applications for major energy infrastructure are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the views of local people. To the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I say that it is entirely proper that the views of the airport and the Ministry of Defence should also be taken into account in that process. That will continue to be the case under the

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national policy statements as they become part of planning policy. In addition, the decision maker has a duty to make a decision only after full consideration of the balance of the proposed development’s benefits and negative impacts; that includes consideration of the environmental impacts, which he and others might feel should be taken into account.

I think that the hon. Member for Sedgefield and I agree on the two most critical points: that renewable energy is necessary for energy security and environmental reasons, and that local communities should be given a say in shaping the environment in which they live. Consequently, in the few minutes that I have today I will seek to explain how I see those two aims coming together and set out the steps we are taking to ensure that they do. I also want to address the democratic deficit and show that wind farms can bring real benefits to communities, as long as they are situated in the right place and they have democratic approval.

Our challenge is to build an economy that cuts our carbon emissions to tackle the threat of climate change, that makes our energy secure in a volatile world and that creates sustainable green jobs to help to bring back economic prosperity. As one of the most cost-effective and mature large-scale renewable technologies, the appropriate deployment of onshore wind will play a key role in meeting that challenge. We want Britain to be a global leader in the transition to a low-carbon economy. We are committed to producing 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and to reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. In July, we published the renewable energy road map, which sets out our approach to unlocking our renewable potential. It includes a comprehensive suite of targeted, practical actions to accelerate the development of renewable energy in this country.

Phil Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Charles Hendry: Given that I only have 10 minutes to respond to the whole debate, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to try to respond to as many of the points made as possible.

Our analysis suggests that approximately 90% of the generation needed to meet that target can be delivered from a subset of eight technologies and that onshore wind has the potential to contribute perhaps 10% to 14% of overall generation. Currently, there is 4.2 GW of operational onshore wind capacity in the UK; in capacity terms, it is the single most deployed renewable electricity technology.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government support the deployment of renewable energy through the renewables obligation which, by supporting generation rather than capacity, is structured in a way to incentivise the best use of the available resources and to maximise efficiencies. If an application has a very low load—I would consider 20% to be a low load—it will receive little benefit through the renewables obligation. The higher the load factor, the greater the support that an application will receive through the renewables obligation. However, we have recognised that it is time to review that approach; the review was scheduled for next year, but we have brought it forward because we think that it is right that communities and developers have early clarity about the thinking.

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I was not entirely clear about the thinking behind the points the hon. Gentleman made about Cabinet members’ constituencies and how that factor plays in. Most of the applications that we have seen were made well before they were actually in the Cabinet and it was a different set of Cabinet Ministers who were responsible for the policy. Indeed, much of the policy was developed under the leadership of the previous MP for Sedgefield when he was Prime Minister. I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman was seeking to go in that part of his contribution.

None the less, I acknowledge the important role that the north-east is playing in the transition to a low-carbon economy. I pay specific tribute to what is being done in Durham already. All of us who know the county know that it is an incredibly beautiful county—a very special part of the country—so we understand the competitive pressures already present there. We recognise the contribution that the county is making.

As a whole, the region has 150 MW of operational onshore wind capacity, which is 3.5% of the total UK deployed resource. Those onshore wind projects have also helped to deliver real economic growth and benefit to the local community, such as the work being done by the National Renewable Energy Centre to develop the region’s old manufacturing heritage, to help to pull the region out of recession and into recovery with new industries for the future.

I understand the concerns expressed today about the impacts that such a level of deployment might have. As the market brings forward applications for wind farms, we need to ensure that they are in suitable locations, taking account of viability and the concerns of local communities. Part of the renewables obligation certificate review is designed to ensure that wind turbines go where the resource is best, not anywhere in the country. The Government are keen to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and we consider that planning applications for wind farms are best assessed on a case-by-case basis. The national policy statements and the national planning framework set out a clear and simplified framework to do that, but it is a requirement of a planning regime that cumulative impacts, for example those in locations such as Durham, are considered in the total. We would expect the local planning authority to set out important local issues in its local impact report, just as we want host communities for the installations to reap the benefits of taking the assets into their communities.

I am pleased to say that through the Localism Bill we are proposing changes aimed at addressing some of the concerns that have been raised in this debate. They include abolishing regional spatial strategies and their top-down regional energy targets to move towards a localism-driven approach, so that more control is given to local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman wants; introducing provisions for projects submitted to local planning authorities, so that developers will have to show how they have worked with communities in developing their planning applications; closing the Infrastructure Planning Commission and merging its functions with a more efficient and effective Planning Inspectorate, which means that the ultimate responsibility for making decisions on nationally significant infrastructure, such as the application that the hon. Gentleman raised today, will return to democratically elected Ministers; and ensuring that energy decisions on major infrastructure projects

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are made by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change based upon recommendations from the new expert unit within the Planning Inspectorate. All decisions will be made in accordance with our recently designated national policy statements and important local considerations.

Our aim is to support appropriate renewable energy development, which the country needs, while maintaining environmental safeguards and, through local and neighbourhood plans, giving local authorities and communities a much greater say in how development is delivered. More broadly, if it is agreed, the framework will also enable local communities to set their own growth agenda according to local needs, and to plan and manage development to deliver that agenda.

As well as ensuring that local people have a real say in what happens in areas near to them, it is right that communities hosting renewable energy projects are rewarded for the contribution they are making to the wider society. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there is a concentration of renewable energy resources in different parts of the country and all of us are benefiting from the actions of the communities that decide to host those facilities.

As part of achieving that, we announced that local authorities in England, on behalf of individual communities, will be able to retain the business rates generated by renewable energy deployments, not just for one year, but on a continuing basis. I am pleased that, in parallel, the wind energy industry has published agreed minimum standards for the contributions that wind farm developers will make to community development in England, as part of an ongoing commitment to close consultation with communities. Financial contributions might include, for example, building new community assets, or investment in energy efficiency measures to reduce electricity bills. That would be on top of any direct benefits for those living in the area, such as economic activity, jobs or rent paid to landowners. Of course, the most powerful reward for a community is to have a direct stake in a project and we want to encourage that.

There are real economic benefits that can be delivered by these projects. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) talked about that and we want to prioritise it much further to ensure that where major applications happen, we see more jobs coming to the UK.

In these few minutes, I hope that I have been able to show that we very much understand the points that the hon. Member for Sedgefield made in his expertly argued speech—I am very grateful to him for making those points—and, that the Government are using our review of the renewables obligation and the wider policy framework to ensure that we respond appropriately.

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European Institutions

4.30 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful to the Speaker for granting me the opportunity to have this debate because, as the Minister for Europe already knows, one of my biggest complaints has been that we do not have enough time in Parliament to debate the EU and its institutions.

I want to cover a wide range of matters specific to various European institutions, those of both the European Union and the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, because I fundamentally feel that these institutions have grown in power and that, if they are left unchecked, without action by the Government, they will become more and more powerful, with potentially serious consequences for our country. I would like to stress to the Minister the importance of there being more debate on European affairs in the House of Commons, not just on the matters that I will touch on today, but on the broader issues right now within the eurozone, which is the first topic that I want to mention.

There has, of course, been continued speculation about the eurozone, and we have heard a great deal from France and Germany about proposed financial transaction taxes, which, in my view, would have disastrous consequences for the City and its position as a world leader in financial services. There is a clear determination across the eurozone to prop up the euro, irrespective, as we have seen with the Greek bail-outs, of the wider concerns about the ability of other eurozone countries to pay their way. I take the view that we have seen some politically questionable arrangements in relation to bail-outs, regardless of the overall economic consequences, and I am concerned about the exposure of the British taxpayer, which is also somewhat questionable. It is not that surprising that we are now hearing alarm bells in relation to wider talk and discussion of fiscal union: a single regime of taxation and treasury, and unified public borrowing. That is not the solution to the continual problem, and it will, if nothing else, result in the further haemorrhaging of taxpayers’ money to Europe and the further surrender of powers.

What I would really like is for the Minister and the Government to clarify their position on fiscal union, as that could involve a new constitutional settlement with Brussels and could impact on British national sovereignty. British taxpayers must be protected further from any moves towards integration. If any change should come about, we should consider a referendum—we have heard a bit about that topic in the news today—because the British public must have a final say on the course of action that they ultimately look to the Government to take. I would welcome from the Minister a view on the current debate and discussions, and on the proposals that might be emerging in Europe right now. I would like to hear what position the Government might find acceptable or unacceptable, and on what it is that they are prepared to firmly stand up to Europe and question the future direction of travel. It is clear that the European institutions are very focused on closer European union. They are, in my view, using the current eurozone crisis as an opportunity to go for further integration.

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Regarding EU directives and their regulatory impact on British business—on businesses in my constituency in particular—the businesses all recognise that we are dealing with the uncompetitive aspect of the EU, which has become a drag upon our economy and upon them individually. I refer specifically to the raft of gold-plated directives that keep coming out of Europe and have a disproportional effect on and an ultimate cost to British businesses, not only affecting jobs in this country but having an overall impact on economic growth. I urge the Minister and the Government to use every opportunity to renegotiate and to repatriate powers to the UK and, where possible, to axe the costly red tape and regulations that are coming out from Europe and affecting, and strangling, British business.

I also look at the advancement of the Europe 2020 strategy and the possible further threats in the form of Europe’s influence on economic, employment and social policies. I again urge the Government and their Ministers to resist all attempts at further competence creep in that area. Both business and the public have become fed up and feel isolated, because of Europe controlling more and more aspects of our lives and our country. Having been denied a referendum on the Lisbon treaty under the previous Government, there is an understandable degree of cynicism and distrust towards the Government—any Government—on this matter.

My views on all matters Europe are well known. If the Government have a sense of conviction and determination to bring an era of transparency and accountability to Europe—we see that more in our domestic policies, and there is a greater case to be made to use Britain’s role to urge Europe to do more of it—we can effectively find ways for the British public to bring powers back to Britain and at the same time engage the British public in the wider debate on matters such as transparency and accountability. If that does not happen, the Government will continue to face this wall of pressure, both from the public and parliamentarians, including me, to hold a referendum on the future of Europe, and on withdrawal from the EU as well. In the years ahead, the Government must pursue the virtues of less Europe and more Britain.

In addition to repatriating powers to Britain, we need an assertive approach to challenging the EU on its budget. The British Government must stand firm in this area, because culturally and institutionally the EU is wedded to an unreformed culture of high budgets. The European Council press release in July said that the EU budget for 2012 was to be trimmed in recognition of the difficult economic circumstances—somewhat an understatement—in many EU countries. What did the so-called trimming result in? It led to an approved increase in the EU budget of more than 2%. The public want the Government to stand up for hard-pressed British taxpayers. How can it be right that we are all financially squeezed here at home while we are bankrolling increased expenditure abroad and footing the bill for what I see as EU propaganda programmes—vanity projects such as EU citizenship programmes?

As part of budget negotiations, I also urge the Government to take a tough stance on defending the UK’s rebate, which is worth £65 billion to British taxpayers, and in particular to stand up against continued attempts by Europe to take what is left of that rebate. The Office for Budget Responsibility has already stated that the

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UK’s net contribution to the EU will increase to somewhere in the region of £8 billion to £9 billion per year during this Parliament alone. British taxpayers need a commitment from the Government that they will take all necessary action to block any future increases in the budget and to ensure that our rebate is safe.

Another subject that I want to touch on briefly is EU immigration. With the EU set to expand to include Croatia and other Balkan countries, we need stringent immigration controls. I look to the Minister for some assurances, primarily because we have suffered from uncontrolled levels of immigration following the expansion of the EU into eastern Europe. At a time when we need to get Britain working again, we cannot afford to lose more UK jobs to the next generation of European workers.

It is time for Britain to take robust action on the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe and its associated institutions, which include the European Court of Human Rights. From November, the UK will hold the chairmanship of the Council of Europe and in advance of that it is essential that this Parliament gets to debate the UK’s priority. The opportunity for reform must be grasped, as there are plenty of areas in which the UK should focus its attention to protect British sovereignty and the sovereignty of our Parliament, specifically in relation to human rights. Currently the Committee of Ministers, the Commissioner for Human Rights and other officials pass a lot of diktats and impose burdens upon countries, and we have heard a lot about some of the burdens that they would like to impose upon us. Those diktats are used by the European Court of Human Rights to influence judgments but we do not get the debates—they are agreed but the British public do not get to have a say on them.

One issue on which that has effectively happened this year is prisoner votes. The European institutions are thoroughly unaccountable to the British public, yet they exert an outrageous degree of control over this country. While the Government are seeking further delays in introducing legislation on prisoner votes because another test case is being considered by the Court, there is a chance to send a clear message to Europe that this country will not be bullied any more into changing its laws. This Parliament has spoken on prisoner votes, and our view should remain as it was in the debate in February. By doing so, the Government could set a precedent, demonstrate a clear commitment to defending British interests from power-hungry European institutions and provide the effective check on their undemocratic and unaccountable ways for which this country is crying out.

I make a final plea. Ministers must not miss this opportunity to pursue transparency and accountability and to tell Europe to bring its powers back into the hands of the British people, where they belong.

4.40 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): This is the second day in succession that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this debate. I am certainly aware of her long-standing interest in the European Union and European institutions. As she rightly said, it

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would be good to have more opportunities to discuss such issues, and I would welcome the prospect of many more Members taking part in those debates. It is a pity that, often, only a number of committed aficionados attend European debates. I would like the issues to be debated more generally. As she rightly said, the decisions that British Ministers negotiate at European level have a direct and, in many cases, significant impact on the lives of the people whom we represent.

I listened carefully to the points that my hon. Friend raised and I agree that the European institutions that she mentioned have many shortcomings that, coupled with the previous Government’s reluctance to involve the people in important decisions about the European Union, have led to a growing sense of disconnection between the British electorate and the European institutions. I assure her that this Government are committed to addressing that disconnection and the issues underlying it.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): In that case, can the Minister assure us that any new European Union treaties will be put to a referendum of the people, as will any new measures, particularly fiscal ones?

Mr Lidington: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a subject to which I was planning to come in the next stage of my remarks. The Government are intent on working hard within Europe to deliver the kind of Europe that suits British interests and the British people, in the knowledge that we now have, for the first time, a proper guarantee that, if it is ever proposed to pass new competencies or powers from this country to Brussels, the British people will get a vote in a referendum. That guarantee is provided by the European Union Act 2011, which recently came into force. For the first time, British voters will have their rightful say over any further expansion of EU powers. I believe that that will put our participation in the EU on a sturdier and more democratic footing. If a new treaty amendment or a brand-new treaty were to be introduced that involved the transfer of further competencies or powers from this country to the European Union, that treaty or amendment would be caught by our new Act of Parliament, and a referendum would be required subsequent to primary legislation here so that the British people would have the final say over whether those powers were transferred to Brussels.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): That is all very well, and it is welcome as far as the future is concerned, but is not the problem that, under the Lisbon treaty and other measures, far too much power has already been ceded to Brussels? What we need is to get some of it back. Should it not be the Government’s priority to use the current situation in Europe to negotiate the repatriation of powers to the British people? That is the key issue as we move forward.

Mr Lidington: As the right hon. Gentleman says, the Act is not a panacea, and I have never claimed that it would be. It does not address the repatriation of powers. That was not its purpose. Under the coalition agreement, the Government are committed to examining the existing balance of competencies and what they mean for Britain, and we continue to consider that issue. I appreciate that

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both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Witham would have liked the coalition agreement to commit us to returning important powers from the EU to the United Kingdom. During the 2010 general election, I stood on and campaigned for exactly the same manifesto as my hon. Friend did. I do not resile from anything to which I committed myself then, but we must abide by the political reality of the outcome of that election, which the British people delivered. The coalition agreement forms the basis for this Government’s policy.

My hon. Friend argued that ongoing negotiations on EU reform could be an opportunity to deliver a new EU agenda. The current problems in the eurozone were predictable—and, indeed, predicted, not least by British Conservatives—but that does not change the fact that, although we seek to expand British trade with the world’s emerging powers, 40% of it is still with the countries of the eurozone, so it is in our national interests that the eurozone countries prosper and find a way through their difficulties.

The economic logic of a monetary union, as British Conservatives have argued frequently, is greater fiscal and economic union, and we see some signs that the eurozone countries are moving in that direction. If they wish to do so, we should not stand in the way of their progress. If, at some stage in the future, moves towards greater fiscal union among the eurozone countries lead to a treaty, there will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom to ask, “What is in our national interest?” That is the approach that we took on the treaty change to establish a European stability mechanism for eurozone members. As the Prime Minister said, Britain would benefit from taking some powers back from Brussels. However, I caution my hon. Friend that although events are fast-moving and predictions risky, there is no sign of an immediate move towards such a treaty change. Treaty change is neither easy nor straightforward, and the eurozone countries know that, whatever the position in the United Kingdom, several countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Slovakia, have provision in their constitutional arrangements for referendums in some circumstances, so it would be a complicated matter. For that reason, I do not think that there is pressure at the moment to go down that road.

My hon. Friend raised more general points about the future of the eurozone. Although the Franco-German proposals appear to be a step in the right direction, we must consider the detail carefully. She is absolutely right that we should not let ourselves be sucked into the deeper fiscal integration on which the eurozone appears to be embarking. That is important to the Government.

On financial transaction taxes, clearly, unless such taxes applied to all financial centres globally, we would see a relocation of trading from centres where taxes apply to centres where they do not. Therefore, a financial transaction tax that applied only to European Union countries would be extraordinarily damaging for every financial centre in the EU, including the City of London. The Government are taking an active role in international discussions exploring financial sector taxation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear on many occasions that he thinks that the idea of an EU-only financial transaction tax would be profoundly counter-productive and unwelcome.

My hon. Friend mentioned budgetary discipline and financial efficiency in Europe. Both are cornerstones of the Government’s policy towards the European Union.

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We want all institutions to ensure that their spending and activity produce genuine benefits for our citizens. We are taking firm action on the 2012 EU budget. Of course, the annual budgets of the European Union are ultimately determined by qualified majority voting. We do not have a right of veto. Although the current proposal for an increase of about 2% is greater than the British Government would have wished, it is still roughly equivalent to a real-terms freeze in that budget, and it is significantly less than the Commission’s original proposal of 4.9%. I also note that it is almost €8 billion less than the budget ceiling for 2011, which was agreed by the previous Labour Government in 2005. We will continue to work with other like-minded countries to get the very best deal possible for the taxpayer. I shall embark on a further stage of that work when I go to Brussels next Monday for the General Affairs Council.

Bob Stewart: Is it possible that we could just say, “No, we are not giving you that money”? We know that that would break a treaty, but surely we are not alone in Europe in that respect. Would not one option for us to think about be for Britain to say no, as Margaret Thatcher did?

Mr Lidington: However tempting my hon. Friend’s suggestion might be, the problem with unilateral action is that it can so easily be used to justify unilateral action by others that would be profoundly detrimental to our national interest. Aspects of the European Union—most obviously the single market, the creation of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government—have benefited the prosperity of and employment among British citizens. They have helped attract vast foreign direct investment to these shores. Other European countries have, at times, fumed and sworn at the fact that the single market meant that they had to dismantle protectionist barriers. However frustrating some aspects of the way in which the EU is organised may be, and however we might aspire to see changes in those structures, I caution my hon. Friend against unilateral action, because that could set a damaging precedent.

We in this Government believe that tax policy is for member states to determine at national level. The Commission has proposed certain new EU taxes. We think that those would introduce additional burdens and damage European—not just British—competitiveness. The United Kingdom will oppose any such new EU taxes.

If we look beyond the annual 2012 budget to the next, probably seven-year, financial perspective, where unanimity rather than qualified majority voting applies, we will see that the Prime Minister has stated jointly with his EU counterparts that the maximum acceptable expenditure increase is a real freeze in payments and that that should be year on year from the actual level of payments in 2013, not from the level of commitment, which is usually above the level of the money actually paid out.

I also assure my hon. Friends that the Government will certainly defend the United Kingdom rebate, which remains fully justified owing to expenditure distortions in the EU budget. We should not cease to remind the British people of the fact that the increases in our direct contributions, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has referred, are the product of the shoddy

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budgetary deal negotiated by our predecessors, Mr Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), when they were in office.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I welcome what the Minister has said about EU taxes and his approach to the budget, but what are we going to do about some of the social directives about temporary workers and so on when we desperately need to deregulate our economy to get growth? What are we going to do about that avalanche of new regulation coming from Europe?

Mr Lidington: The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is working hard to assemble a coalition of like-minded Ministers and is engaging with the Commission to seek to avoid the sort of damaging additional social regulation to which my hon. Friend rightly refers. We are also keeping a particularly close eye on the position of the working time directive. The Commission may come forward with new proposals in the next 12 months. Our priority will be to protect the opt-out, which is valuable to British competitiveness. If there also prove to be ways in which to mitigate or reverse the impact of the European Court of Justice judgments that defined time on call as working time we would seek to do that as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham called for greater efficiency and the reduction of waste. I support her on that, as I do on her call for increased transparency over all the activity and detailed expenditure of the institutions. The more transparency we have over EU spending and the legislative process, the greater evidence we will find to support our arguments for improved efficiency and the reduction of waste. An important part of transparency is scrutiny, and I am keen to ensure that we do everything possible to make our own parliamentary scrutiny processes still more significant. It is a vital part of the democratic process and the Government are committed to ensuring that scrutiny committees can clear proposals before we agree to them at ministerial level.

My hon. Friend is right that the priority should be growth, competitiveness and jobs. That is where Europe should be focusing its energy and attention now. We are pushing for a further drive on the liberalisation of the single market, on breaking down barriers to trade, and on making European regulation less burdensome and expensive, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, on which so many jobs throughout Europe, not just the United Kingdom, depend. We are determined to resist any gold-plating of European Union legislation.

My hon. Friend talked about the Council of Europe and prisoner voting. The Commons has given a clear view that prisoners should not have the vote. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has echoed that call. The Government believe that it is right to consider the final judgment in the Italian case of Scoppola, as well as the wider legal context, before setting out the next steps on prisoner voting. I want those next steps to be as close as possible to the clearly expressed will of the House of Commons.

Mr Dodds: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Lidington: Forgive me, but I want to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham. On immigration, the Government are committed to applying transitional measures on the migration of workers from new member states. The framework for this has already been agreed with Croatia for controls of up to seven years. Under the terms of Croatia’s accession negotiations, member states can apply the same type and length of restrictions to Croatian workers as those that apply to Romanian and Bulgarian workers, who may obtain permission to work on the basis that they are highly skilled or have the offer of a skilled job. The precise controls that we will apply for Croatia have not yet been determined. My colleagues in the Home Office are considering that at the moment.

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The Government believe in championing the British national interest within the EU. We champion the UK position on every issue. Sometimes, getting the reforms that we want to see is a hard and slow business, but we will be relentless in our commitment to get the best possible deal for the prosperity, security and well-being of our own citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.