In his excellent remarks, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) talked about the north-south divide, for which this project is not a panacea. However, to say that it will not make a contribution is just fatuous. We have already talked about the pamphlet from Action Alliance—I like to call them the Amersham-based Action Alliance—that came out today. The argument

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that the benefits would accrue more significantly to the bigger city does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It implies that the M6 and the M1 are bad because they fix the north-south divide and I find that hard to believe.

I will not speak about the wider benefits of the project other than to say that the chambers of commerce in the north-west, Leeds and Scotland have come out strongly in favour of these transformative—actually, transformative is not a bad word—benefits. The impact on the north-west economy is calculated to be around £10 billion and we need that. It is easy to unpick the business case by saying, “Actually, my town is not really on the route and it is not too good for my town because we will have to do this and we will have to do that.” The truth is that we have to look at some of these decisions regionally. If £10 billion is injected into the north-west economy, it is just not possible that that will not help Warrington, whether or not Warrington is on the spur.

I have three points for the Minister. One is about timing. Once we accept and buy into the transformation benefits, there is an issue for the north-west in how the Government are going about this. Broadly speaking, Birmingham and the west midlands will receive this infrastructure, in which we all believe, about a decade sooner than Manchester and a further decade before Scotland, which is not even on the map yet.

Mr Donohoe: Does that not back up the argument that if this were to be a project that was about to begin, it should start in Scotland and move south, as well as from the south moving north?

David Mowat: There is certainly a case for not necessarily starting all the construction work in London and coming north. I do not know whether it should start in Scotland, Warrington or Manchester, but there is a case for going both ways. Let me come back to this timing point. There could be a decade of benefits accruing to Birmingham in inward investment, and a decade of benefits accruing to the west midlands in better links. We are all guilty in this debate of talking about links to London. It is about links not to London but to the continent of Europe through St Pancras. That decade is a worry. Given the current fashion for bringing forward infrastructure projects and the fact that the business case for this project is stronger than that of Crossrail, will the Minister tell us why we are not taking the opportunity to start some of the construction work in the north more quickly? That would take away the problem of the lost decade, which, without wishing to sound as if I lack confidence in our project management abilities, can sometimes turn into a lost decade and a half. Therefore, I am interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about the timing of the project.

We also need to pin down some of the existing uncertainties, especially on the north-south dimension. I may be wrong, but I do not think that it has even been accepted for certain that Piccadilly will be the final destination. That needs sorting out, as does the link to the airport. I do not want to become embroiled in the arguments about having a third London airport, but if we have a high-speed link between Manchester airport and Heathrow—a journey of, for example, 60 or 70 minutes, which would not be much slower than the journey to Gatwick—I find it difficult to see how there will not be some impact on, or some marginal benefit to airport

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congestion in the south. The whole issue of Scotland needs to be sorted out, at least in relation to the north. We have a plan—a business case—and we are beginning to understand where the route will be. However, I also want some assurance about when the route north of Birmingham will be set out, because we can then start to plan and to put in place the sort of local initiatives that we need to make the whole project work.

Finally, on local initiatives, I was struck by evidence that the north-west is a little different from Birmingham in terms of shape. Manchester and Leeds sit at the bottom of the north-west, which has a much longer shape, so connectivity matters much more, while Birmingham is more central to the west midlands. The northern hub has been mentioned, as has the need for it to be clearly linked with the whole project. I completely agree with that point, but I also agree with those who have said that we cannot just do nothing until everything is sorted. I am keen to hear assurances from the Minister on those three points.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): May I remind hon. Members that if they have requested to speak via the normal channels, but wish to speak at a certain point in the debate, they should let the Chair know, so that they can be listed accordingly?

3.12 pm

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and I hope that I will not test his rules for us too much. I may mention the case for High Speed 2, but I hope that he will forgive me. I shall do so from a perspective that is different from that previously taken, so I hope that it will not trouble him.

I want to make two points. First, we sometimes forget about connectivity in the north, although everyone assumes that they know about north-south connectivity now. Secondly, I want not only to consider northern cities and to build on the comments of other Members, but to look at bits of connectivity that are smaller but none the less truly important. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions about those minor bits of transport connectivity in the north of England and in Wales.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the problem that is regularly experienced by my constituents, many of whom travel by train and are frequent users of the west coast main line. The problem is not that they cannot get to London quickly enough, because they can certainly get to London quickly, although they have trouble getting to other places fast enough; their problem is that they will probably not easily find somewhere to sit comfortably. That is a problem of capacity, not speed—I can see hon. Members nodding, for which I thank them. Watching the media, I sometimes have the impression that people think that congestion happens only in the south, and that the north of England is a traffic-free zone, where people always sit comfortably on trains. That is just not the case—if only it were. The west coast main line is very crowded.

I regularly meet people from businesses in the Wirral and the wider Merseyside area who wish to grow their businesses, but the problem is that their ability to do so is partly limited by their ability to travel. I must declare an interest in that, in a previous life, I worked for two years for Network Rail, so I am not averse to discussing

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engineering. I know from my time there, as the Minister will also know, that we do not begin such projects by asking ourselves what the biggest piece of infrastructure is that we can conceive of to solve the problem. We should try to do the straightforward things first, and it is worth bearing that hierarchy in mind.

The rail industry has struggled with problems of connectivity and congestion for many years. One solution is to have longer trains and longer platforms, but the west coast main line has a very limited ability to do that. Another solution is related to signalling and whether more train paths can be fitted in, but that is again very limited. I well remember—this is an important point—the impact of the west coast main line modernisation project on Liverpool, particularly when it was the capital of culture and that project was at its height. We are therefore out of options, which is why we are where we are and why we are looking at High Speed 2. There is no question but that it is needed. Business men in my constituency are desperate to travel around to grow their businesses. They ask me all the time about rail fares and about the congestion from which they suffer, and we should always keep their perspective in mind.

To my mind, the case for High Speed 2 has been made, although others may still question it, but we need to consider other elements of rail in the north. I agree with hon. Members who have spoken about the value of The Northern Way and asked whether some group might be convened to look at what projects are necessary for the whole north of England. In my previous life working in the cultural sector, one of the hardest problems was building the cultural economy in the north of England, where there are very important visitor destinations in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. The pathways between them are extremely difficult. Liverpool to Manchester is not too bad, although, given that they are only 38 miles apart, the time it takes to travel between them is not good enough, but I hope that will be assisted by electrification. However, Liverpool and Newcastle, which are two extremely important visitor destinations for this country, are not well connected, and a future priority for the Government must be to look at that.

There is a huge amount of latent demand in our economy that we should try to develop. That is true of not only the visitor economy, but other parts of the country’s economy, including the energy sector, which would be assisted by transport connectivity. At the end of the day, the transport economy is there to serve the rest of the productive economy. I might just add that I have been encouraged by the support shown for central planning in this debate, albeit tempered by the need for localism, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

A cross-north path is very important, not least to the people of Yorkshire, who want much better connectivity to Manchester and Liverpool.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a very good case for connectivity across the north. We have always said that High Speed 2 is not the only solution and that we should create such connectivity. Recently, I took the train from Wrexham to Leeds, which took me four and a half hours, whereas people going to London arrived in about two and a half hours. Does that not make her point?

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Alison McGovern: I could not have come up with a better example. Wrexham is a town I know well. Hon. Members may not know that it is a fairly large industrial hub for the Deeside industrial area. Wrexham is a lynchpin, and so is Leeds, for business and legal services. The hon. Gentleman has lighted on a classic example. I implore the Minister to keep the Wrexham to Leeds example in her head, to remind her of the scale of the challenge in the north.

I do not really like making north-south comparisons, because the south has plenty of connectivity problems, I know; but the way London acts as the hub in the middle of large spokes—that is not what we have in the north—creates some of the difficulties.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on obtaining this important and worthwhile debate. On connectivity, I am a Yorkshire MP and there are two stations in my constituency on the Leeds-Manchester line, Slaithwaite and Marsden. Already there are concerns, because of electrification and the northern hub project, about the number of stopping services that will be available once the line is sped up. However, that is not necessarily a reason for us to be wary, or to be anti-high-speed rail; it just highlights other areas for investment in the rail network. I welcome the debate and what is being said.

Alison McGovern: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He clarifies exactly my point: we should be talking about what is necessary additional to High Speed 2.

Rosie Cooper: My hon. Friend talked about connectivity generally and the fact that it takes quite a time to get from Liverpool to Manchester, which is a distance of 38 miles. In this general discussion I would like to drive that further. For example, Skelmersdale does not have a railway station at all, so in rail terms it could take for ever to get from Skelmersdale to Manchester, or Skelmersdale to Liverpool. Skelmersdale to Preston takes for ever. To go by road—by bus—from Skelmersdale to the local hospital in Southport takes one hour and 23 minutes. I have done it.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Ormskirk bypass earlier. People can get up and down Lancashire, but not across it. I fought and fought on that.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Order. That is a speech, not an intervention.

Rosie Cooper: Sorry. Add to that the fact that there is no railway station, transport is poor and people cannot use the roads either: it is impossible. We are not talking about big things. We cannot move.

Alison McGovern: My hon. Friend’s intervention brings home why all the things we are discussing matter. When I worked in the rail industry and spent a lot of time talking to engineers, I was constantly impressed by their abilities. However, sometimes I think that they forgot, a tiny bit, about the people. We should focus on articulating, as my hon. Friend has just done, issues such as being able to get swiftly to hospital. For people who live in

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Skelmersdale, having options in the current hard times in the labour market, and being able to get swiftly to the employment centres of Manchester or Liverpool, is crucial. We are not engaged in a dry discussion about the best way to engineer a railway; the discussion matters to our constituents on a daily basis, and my hon. Friend made that point well.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Before coming into Parliament, I did a lot of travelling in my previous job, in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber. Getting to places from Durham is not just a matter of arriving swiftly, or at all: it is a question of the pressure being put on the roads. To go north-south from Durham, where I live, to Yorkshire, I used to travel by train. If I was going to Manchester, and had plenty of time or was staying overnight, I went by train. If I wanted to get there in a hurry, or to go to Liverpool, I drove, adding to the congestion on the motorways. We need to take that into account as well.

Alison McGovern: My hon. Friend is right. We should not aim to design bits of railway across the north just for fun, because it would be nice to have a bigger train set. We should consider the total impact of what we are doing, not least on the economy, but also, as my hon. Friend said, on the environment. People’s stress levels are also affected. People tell me that one of the great things about the new west coast main line timetable is the fact that, because it is swifter, they arrive in a relaxed way. The performance of that bit of the network has largely been good, so they arrive ready to work in a relaxed way, which is what we want.

I want to conclude by talking a little about Wales and Cheshire. I hope that that will not test the definition of the north too much. We sometimes wonder about Cheshire and how far it qualifies as part of the north. Wrexham, as I mentioned in response to an intervention, is a crucial place industrially. It links to the Deeside area where lots of businesses are located. Connectivity between Wrexham and Liverpool is very poor. There is the Wrexham to Bidston line, on which there is one service an hour—it is terrible, and I have raised it with Ministers before. We need electrification of that line and a much better service at some point in future. It would be a massive help in getting people from north Wales to Liverpool airport. The line goes through areas of severe deprivation, where we want to get people to work as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) was here earlier, and there are also issues to do with connectivity in the bit of Cheshire closest to the River Mersey. It is astonishingly difficult to travel by rail through that part of the network. I hope that in planning for the coming of High Speed 2 we will look not just at the major towns that we need to connect but at all the smaller elements of rail. The High Speed 2 project enables local areas to consider some of the planning, and work out what would best help them to make the most of High Speed 2. It is not just the major cities across the north but the smaller communities that need to be connected in, additionally, to the larger project.

The case is really made on the basis of capacity alone, but we will not achieve the benefits that are possible unless in the intervening years we focus on cities in the

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north, and the way to ensure the best possible connections between communities and the economies they want to work in.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): The winding-up speeches will begin at exactly 20 to 4, so perhaps the remaining two speakers will divide the time accordingly.

3.27 pm

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I shall be brief to allow others time to contribute. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to speak, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), my colleague on the Transport Committee, on securing the debate.

It is good to see that the subject is the impact of high-speed rail in the north, rather than concerns about its impact on particular constituencies. I am conscious that the debate about high-speed rail has so far been dominated by MPs with understandable concerns about the effect of HS2 on their constituencies and the lives of their constituents. I would not decry any hon. Member for doing their job in representing the interests of their constituents. Any infrastructure project of this size will cause a significant amount of disruption and heartache for the people it affects.

I have personal experience of the issue in my constituency, because of the difficulties with the Metrolink extensions, which the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has mentioned. Constituents have understandable concerns about changes to the local infrastructure and the impact of those changes on their lives. I understand why some residents turn against schemes that they support in principle, because of incidents in their area. That is why it is vital that the decisions that are made about the local environment and how it will be protected are clear and transparent to the people most affected on the particular route. No doubt we will have the same issue to contend with when there is more clarity about the exact routes through to the north of England, once the decisions about those routes have been made.

The last time that I took part in a debate on high-speed rail, it was timely because the Transport Committee was about to embark on its inquiry into high-speed rail. By coincidence, this debate comes the day after the Committee took quite some time to discuss the draft report. After listening to all the arguments, both for and against, I am even more convinced of the need to press ahead with high-speed rail to the north and beyond. I have always been a strong supporter of creating a high-speed rail network that connects not only Birmingham and the west midlands but the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, and Scotland. There is clear evidence that a new network is required to cope with capacity demands in the future, which is the principal argument for supporting high-speed rail to the north.

By pressing ahead with a high-speed rail network, we can ensure sufficient rail capacity for the foreseeable future. Some opponents of high-speed rail have argued that upgrading the existing main line networks would deal with any capacity constraints, but that would only address the problem in the short term. Ultimately, at

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some point a high-speed rail network will be necessary. For a change, we are considering long-term need rather than short-term necessity.

Some £10 billion has already been spent on upgrading the west coast main line, but on 1 March this year the new chief executive of Network Rail made it clear that the west coast main line would be at full capacity within six to 10 years. In answering my question, he said that

“the West Coast line, within 10 years at the absolute maximum, and probably six years, will be at capacity, and that is with additional carriages included in the area. We can look at other tactical interventions in that line to put more capacity in there, but in the end it comes down to capacity: we will, across a number of key parts of our network, run out of capacity.”

The chief executive of Network Rail is absolutely clear that, even with extra costly improvements, the west coast main line will not have enough capacity to deal with growth in rail travel. We need the high-speed rail network to accommodate future rail travel.

Competing services and franchises are already battling for space on the existing network. We in Manchester are lucky that we have three trains an hour to London—a train every 20 minutes. Due to the success of that franchise, Virgin wanted to extend the service to four trains an hour, but doing so would have adversely affected both local and regional services, and so Virgin’s plans were opposed locally. At every review of timetables, certain services lose out. As attempts are made to tweak the timetable to optimise capacity and services, local trains are always the losers. The creation of a high-speed rail network will release significant capacity on the existing network, allowing the expansion of those regional and local services that are completely constrained at the moment by the needs of longer-distance inter-city services.

High-speed rail is about not only improving capacity, but economic benefits. The HS2 business case concluded that phase one to the west midlands would generate £20 billion in economic benefits, and the total benefits for the Y network to Leeds and Manchester were estimated at £44 billion, including an estimated £6 billion in wider economic impacts. Geoffrey Piper, the chief executive of the North West Business Leadership Team, has argued that HS2 is

“vital for the long term prosperity of the region.”

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has rightly mentioned our visit as members of the Transport Committee to France and Germany, where there are clearly big differences in the economic benefits of high-speed rail between different areas. What is certain, however, is that high-speed rail brings economic benefits.

My only word of caution about high-speed rail relates to the potential impact on investment in the classic railway network. The north of England is crying out for investment in the rail network, and we are desperate to see the announcement of funding for the northern hub in the next control period. Opponents of high-speed rail sometimes argue that we should not proceed with the scheme because it will result in a lack of investment in the existing network as all the money is diverted into paying for the high-speed network. That must not happen, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that it will not happen.

The coalition Government have already shown a commitment to investing in rail infrastructure despite the difficult economic times. In Manchester, we all

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warmly welcomed the announcement in the Budget of funding for the Ordsall curve—or the Ordsall chord, or whatever people might want to call it. That project will have a dramatic impact on capacity and journey times. The investment in high-speed rail must not come at the expense of investment in the existing rail network. Instead the two must go hand-in-hand to ensure that Manchester and the rest of the north of England reap the full benefits of high-speed rail.

3.35 pm

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): Thank you, Ms Dorries, for squeezing me in at the end of the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I shall try to be brief.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and geographical co-partner in the Fylde area, who set the tone for the debate, which has been of a much higher standard than previous debates on this topic. The cross-party nature of the debate today has been extremely successful.

Having said that, I shall disagree with my hon. Friend in saying that we have already had high-speed rail in my constituency. That involved the first west coast main line in the 19th century, which went from Euston station to the Euston hotel in Fleetwood, which was the end of the west coast main line. The train ran at between 30 mph and 50 mph—apparently it did not frighten the cows, but it transformed Fleetwood. As the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) has said about the railway in her constituency, that railway has now gone, although the line itself is still there. In fact, the Minister has actually stood on that empty railway line, which runs from Fleetwood to Poulton. One can see that the decline of Fleetwood was matched by the decision to end that railway. Perhaps if the 1928 yellow book on rail safety had been put into practice, we would not have had that disaster.

High Speed 2 will be transformative, but the line will go through my constituency, as is the case with other hon. Members who have spoken today. The argument is not between north and south, because there will be similar arguments in the north to those in the south about exactly where the line should be.

Like the constituencies of the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for my constituency this issue is about connectivity and releasing capacity. I want to add to that something that has been mentioned in the past, particularly by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). If anybody remembers the last time that the west coast main line was upgraded, they will know that it took more than 10 years and caused absolute chaos. Anybody who thinks that we can tinker any further with that line and produce any extra capacity must take a serious look at the history over the past 15 years.

I appear to be running out of time, so I will conclude by welcoming what the Government have done already. I particularly support those hon. Members who have said that high-speed rail is not the key answer to the north-south divide, but it is a start. This issue is not about a poor north and a rich south, because we have really successful businesses in the north, including BAE Systems, the nuclear industry and what is coming in the

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future, but it is about the national economy. For the coalition Government and MPs alike, high-speed rail is becoming the touchstone of the coalition Government’s commitment to do something about that divide between the north and the south, which exists, and even more importantly about links to Scotland. I support the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, who asked, “Why did we not start the building from Glasgow and Edinburgh down?” And I also hope that the hybrid Bill, which will be introduced by the Minister, will mention not only Birmingham but Manchester and Leeds, and hopefully Glasgow and Edinburgh, too.

3.38 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Ms Dorries. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing what has been an excellent debate, with worthwhile contributions from all parties, including an interesting contribution from the hon. Gentleman himself. He made many good points. He also spoke about the need for an all-party consensus on this issue and today he has spoken, if I may say so, like a one-man all-party consensus. He said that even today he has searched his soul and he remains a Conservative, and that is fine. However, in bemoaning the loss of the regional development agencies and the Northern Way, he is speaking like a Labour Member.

Paul Maynard: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Woodcock: I will of course give way to the hon. Gentleman, but before I do so I will just add that, in castigating his own Government, he is acting like a Liberal Democrat.

Paul Maynard: For the avoidance of doubt, I am fully behind the decision to abolish the regional development agencies.

John Woodcock: If the hon. Gentleman says so, that is fine. How he will get on with his colleagues after today I do not know, but whenever he puts forward sensible proposals, we will work constructively with him to further shared objectives, if he is willing to do so.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points about the northern hub, but Opposition Members believe that it is important to guard against letting the Government off and facilitating them by easing up on lobbying about delivering the project in parts and effectively leaving sections of the northern hub on the shelf.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Woodcock: Of course. I welcome the Minister’s contribution.

Mrs Villiers: The Labour Government had 13 years to deliver the northern hub but they did not do any of it. We have already committed to delivering a major plank of it—the Ordsall curve.

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John Woodcock: The Minister knows that much progress was made in planning under the Labour Government. It is critical to the area that the current Administration finish the job we started and I hope that, in her reply, she will expand on her attitude towards taking the project in parts.

Alison McGovern: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is slightly odd of the Minister to describe us as having had 13 years to deliver the northern hub? The Labour party might have been in government for 13 years, but much of the first half of that time was spent sorting out the mess created by privatisation, and much of the second half was about developing the kind of proposals that we have spent our afternoon talking about.

John Woodcock: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She knows that we took forward high-speed rail and the High Speed 2 project. We want the project completed by a future Labour Government.

Mrs Villiers: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that only a few years ago, in 2007, the then Labour Secretary of State for Transport, Ruth Kelly, produced a White Paper that ruled out high-speed rail for 30 years? It was the Conservatives who led the debate on high-speed rail.

John Woodcock: Let us see what the Minister says today about taking forward what are Labour’s proposals. I want to come on to why it is critical that she strengthen her commitment to the north of England.

Eric Ollerenshaw: In the manner of the debate, it might help if northern Members of all political complexions could keep some consensus about the issue we are trying to debate.

John Woodcock: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am trying to set out the grounds for a consensus. I might suggest that if people did not keep intervening on me—[ Interruption ] ––and disagreeing with me, I might be able to make more progress.

David Mowat: Will the Shadow Minister give way?

John Woodcock: I will give way one more time and then I really need to make some progress because I have only 10 minutes.

David Mowat: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Shadow Front-Benchers have been ambivalent about this issue over the past 18 months? The Evening Standard recently stated that Labour had announced:

“a root and branch review of…transport policy with nothing ruled in or out,”

including high-speed rail. Is that no longer the position?

John Woodcock: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been in the House over the past couple of weeks for the important Back-Bench debate on high-speed rail, in which we set out with crystal clarity our support for the project. We were absolutely right to look at the project again in Opposition because it is a major one and will require substantial and sustained investment. We have concluded that we will back the

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Government, and try to strengthen their resolve when we think they are not giving enough of a commitment to the north.

Paul Maynard: I am sorry to have to intervene yet again. On Monday, the hon. Gentleman’s party announced support for a version of HS2 that would go through Heathrow and up the M40, which was the model that the Conservative party proposed pre-election, so can he confirm that he is not now supporting the Government model?

John Woodcock: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and I want to get on to it. I hope that I can now get an opportunity to do so.

We believe that the north of England and Scotland, indeed the whole UK, deserve a proper commitment from the Government to a new high-speed line running right up to Manchester and Leeds. Many Members on both sides have made that point today, and I hope that they will support us in agreeing that failure by the Government to legislate for that in one go leaves a question mark over their commitment to jobs and growth in the north. We urge the Government to reconsider, and I hope that the Minister will come back having done so.

The first stage of High Speed 2, as far as Birmingham, is vital transport infrastructure. It relieves the already mentioned congestion and overcapacity on the main line from Euston and cuts journey times to the west midlands significantly. It provides new capacity to shift freight on to rail, and could provide—from the outset, Opposition Members hope—fast links to Heathrow airport from across the country. On that point—as it was raised—the Minister was quoted as saying that our alternative suggestion was unhelpful.

Given the strength of our support for the overall scheme and the widespread unease about the current route, which is shared by many Government Members, I hope that the Minister will make clear what she really thinks in her closing remarks. Does she recognise that linking directly to Heathrow would strengthen the project because it would be cheaper overall than building the proposed route with a separate spur, it would increase the opportunity to lever in private investment in a way that the Old Oak Common proposal does not, and it would generate a complementary benefit for Heathrow by providing a rail substitute for short-haul flights, thereby releasing capacity, and that it is therefore worthy of serious consideration?

The second stages of HS2 beyond the west midlands to Manchester and Leeds would provide benefits that dwarf those of the first stage. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys does not like the word “transformative”, but this project could redraw the economic geography of the UK and that is why there is such wide-ranging support for the stages beyond Birmingham, not only from Members, as demonstrated today, but from business groups and local authorities across the north. Once completed, HS2 would bring Leeds and Manchester within 80 minutes of London and 96 minutes of Liverpool. In addition to the tens of thousands of extra jobs, it would create new businesses, new investment, a modal shift from domestic air to rail, more reliable journeys, more frequent trains and more seats, and God knows we need that on the line. A clearer

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commitment now to the extension beyond Birmingham, would make the business case for HS2 stronger and private sector investment more likely and secure valuable political and business support across the north.

There has been no shortage of warm words from Ministers in recent months, but we need a commitment to one hybrid Bill. There is no need to delay getting spades into the ground on stage one if the Government decide to re-consult and put the route to the north in the Bill.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): I remind the hon. Gentleman that the two Front-Bench speakers have a total of 20 minutes, so will he please make this his last minute?

John Woodcock: Absolutely. I was in my final minute. I hope that the Minister will make her commitment to the north clear, as it is currently under question. We know that we cannot start talking about detailed ticketing prices, but when will she agree to begin setting out the funding model as it affects passengers? High-speed rail that only the wealthiest people can afford will never deliver the full potential that communities across the north richly deserve.

3.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): Thank you, Ms Dorries. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate. I am sorry for my coughing fit during his speech; I was moved to tears not by emotion but by the flu. We have had a good debate—well informed, constructive in tone and cross-party—and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

On the points raised, the opponents of High Speed 2, who are thin on the ground today, claim that better, faster transport between north and south will pull economic activity into London and suck it out of regional cities. That is defeatist and thoroughly misguided. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) pointed out in his usual incisive and informed manner, isolation is not the way to ensure that our northern cities thrive. I have every confidence that bringing north and south closer together by shrinking journey times will provide a major boost to growth in the north. That confidence is based on the evidence from our European neighbours, which has been discussed in some detail.

It is not only places served directly by HS2 that will benefit from the project; so will many other towns and cities as trains run off it on to the existing network. From Preston and Liverpool in the west to York and Newcastle in the east, journey times will be reduced and connectivity improved, and the economic boost will be felt across the north of England.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): This debate has rightly focused on passenger traffic, but does my right hon. Friend agree that a spin-off benefit is that High Speed 2 will release capacity in the classic network for freight transport by rail, boosting all parts of the United Kingdom?

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Mrs Villiers: I agree thoroughly. I will come to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has been influential not just today but in the general debate on the issue. On the route up to Scotland, the Government are always open to working with the Scottish Government on such proposals. Why did we decide to start in the south rather than the north? As he will be aware, the rationale is that crowding is more serious on the southern leg of the west coast line, but we are anxious to press ahead as quickly as possible. I understand the frustration expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South about the pace of delivery, but I emphasise, agreeing with the points made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, that in order to make progress on the project as quickly as possible, we need to retain cross-party consensus.

I welcome the assurances given by the Opposition in the Back-Bench debate on the Floor of the House, but Labour’s decision to propose a new route after the consultation closed was odd. It strikes me as last-minute, and looks suspiciously like game playing. However, I assure hon. Members that all route proposals submitted by the 50,000 people who took part in the consultation will be considered thoroughly.

John Woodcock: The Minister is being clear—well, specific—about the point “submitted to the consultation”. Is she saying that our suggestion is being considered or not?

Mrs Villiers: I am saying that all 50,000 responses from the people who took the time to submit them before the consultation deadline will be thoroughly considered.

We see phases 1 and 2 of the high-speed rail project to Manchester and Leeds as the starting point for delivering a genuinely national network, but we should not underestimate the benefits that Scotland will gain from the proposed Y network even before high-speed rail goes north of the border. Trains running off the high-speed line to Scotland will cut journey times to about three and a half hours, producing major economic and connectivity benefits for Scotland, tipping the balance in favour of rail rather than air and providing significant environmental benefits as people switch from planes to trains.

We are not pursuing HS2 just because of the positive economic benefits. The case for high-speed rail rests on the pressing need to prevent big problems that would otherwise be heading down the track towards us. The demand for inter-city transport capacity is growing strongly. If we sit back and fail to deal with the capacity time bomb set to explode within the next 10 to 20 years, we will do lasting damage to our economy. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) pithily put it, in the end, it comes down to capacity. If we do nothing, our key transport arteries will clog up, choking growth and destroying jobs in the north and elsewhere. It is neither viable nor responsible to sit back, do nothing and hope for the best, as other Governments have done in the face of similar problems. HS2 is not about shaving time off the journey between London and Birmingham; it is about delivering the transport capacity between our cities that is essential if our economy is to thrive in future.

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However many times they are tweaked and repackaged, none of the alternatives proposed comes near to matching the benefits that HS2 can offer. None can release the capacity that is crucial, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) pointed out, to the Government’s high-speed rail strategy. On the contrary, the options favoured by opponents of HS2 would apply major new pressures to timetables on our existing railways, fundamentally damaging reliability, as the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Manchester, Withington pointed out. They would also involve immense disruption to the line during construction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) discussed.

Turning to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, the Northern Way did effective work. Like him, I want local enterprise partnerships and local authorities to have more of a say in transport decisions. I agree that it can be beneficial for local authorities to come together to make joint decisions about travel to work areas, but we do not want such solutions to be imposed from above. They must be bottom-up and proposed by the areas concerned. Like him and the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, I have great admiration for the work done in Manchester to deliver an integrated authority that considers transport issues across the board for a major travel to work area.

I assure the House that investing in HS2 does not mean that we will stop investing in and improving our current transport networks. We recognise fully the importance of continuing to enhance our existing network, particularly by improving links between northern cities, not least because that is essential if we are to spread the benefits of HS2. Despite the deficit, we are undertaking the biggest programme of rail improvements since the Victorian era, many of which will benefit the north. Electrification will benefit Manchester, Liverpool, Wigan and Blackpool. The Ordsall chord project, which has received the go-ahead 30 years after it was first proposed, will benefit Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull. That is only phase 1 of the northern hub project. Our commitment to it demonstrates how seriously we view its importance and that we recognise the benefits that it can bring. We will assess it and consider carefully, when deciding what improvements can be delivered in the next rail control period, whether we can deliver the whole programme.

The intercity express programme will create new jobs in the north and a brand-new fleet of trains. New Pendolino carriages will be delivered on the west coast in the next few months. Manchester’s Metrolink extension is going ahead, and just a few days ago, Burnley and Accrington residents welcomed the fact that funding had finally been secured for the Todmorden curve. We are committed to continuing strong investment in the north of England to help its economy grow, complementing the benefits that will be brought by high-speed rail.

In conclusion, the HS2 consultation received more than 50,000 responses, every one of which will be used to inform the Government’s forthcoming decisions on high-speed rail. I welcome the valuable contributions made in this debate.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Will Members please leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?

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Loft Conversions

4 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Although I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), will respond to the debate, it could equally have been replied to by a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government. The account that I am about to give relates not only to the responsibilities of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—from the perspective of consumer protection, company regulation and good business practice—but to those of DCLG in relation to building control and inspection.

Both Departments have responsibilities for tackling cowboy builders, which in this case involves companies associated with a Mr Robin Kiddle. He once had a company called Cavendish Conversions Ltd, but it is now “In Liquidation”, as stated on the credit check website, Mr Kiddle then formed a new company called Cavendish Loft Conversions Ltd, in what I say was a cunning and despicable way to avoid paying my constituent, Ms Lisa Handley, when she successfully sued his former company.

Alas for Ms Handley, the judgment was against Cavendish Conversions Ltd, not Mr Robin Kiddle. He emerged, phoenix-like, from the ashes of that company to appear as owner of a company with a very similar name, with the insertion of the word “Loft” into the title. With one leap, he was free of the winding-up petition that was granted in August 2006, having been advertised in the London Gazette in June of that year. He simply carried on trading in his new guise.

There were insufficient funds in the liquidated company to pay what Ms Handley was entitled to from the winding-up. She estimates that, thanks to the shambolic cowboy building work of Mr Kiddle’s company, she is now some £90,000 the poorer, and her home is now unsaleable other than at a huge loss. In its current state, no mortgage company would make a loan.

I am no building expert, but I have visited my constituent’s home and I was appalled at what I saw. Even I could recognise that invading the loft space of the adjoining semi-detached house is a serious matter, and something that any self-respecting builder would not do. That also brings into question the laxity of the inspection system, which should be there to protect consumers. More of that later, for that is another area where systems designed to protect consumers have failed in spectacular fashion.

This unhappy saga dates back to October 2004, when Ms Handley and her partner approached Cavendish Conversions Ltd about a loft conversion. The agreed price was £24,750—originally £28,576—on the proviso that £7,000 was paid in cash. Drawings were completed by someone trading as MR Designs, and submitted to Colchester borough council. Work commenced in March 2005.

Seven years have elapsed since Ms Handley first approached the loft conversion company; that is a longer period than the second world war, but in this battle my constituent has been abandoned and let down by all those whom consumers are led to believe are there to protect them. If the Minister tells me that there are statutory measures to protect consumers from cowboy

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builders such as Mr Robin Kiddle, whatever name he trades under—he is listed as being associated with two other dissolved companies—I have to tell him that they are not effective.

In summary, my constituent and her partner dispensed with Cavendish Conversions Ltd after a litany of criticisms and complaints about the poor and unsafe work carried out on their semi-detached house in Colchester. Detailed records kept by Ms Handley—the box file that I have with me today are just my records of this appalling failure of fairness and justice to my constituent—list a catalogue of failures that bring shame on those responsible for the shoddy workmanship, and for providing protection to the consumer.

In March 2005, Ms Handley made her first complaint to the Federation of Master Builders. Perhaps if it had acted then, we would not today be hearing of nearly seven years of failure of the system that we are told is there to assist consumers and protect them from cowboy builders. In June 2005, she made a formal complaint to the FMB. Much correspondence has followed, including lots of letters sent on her behalf to the FMB and others. I have also tabled parliamentary questions and written to Ministers in both this and the previous Government.

Ms Handley had requested money for remedial works. By then, Mr Kiddle had set up another company, virtually identical in name but with the word “Loft” inserted between “Cavendish” and “Conversion”. The original company was liquidated—how convenient! I submit that this was a deliberate move by Mr Kiddle to ensure that my constituent would not be able to extract any money from him, because her legal action was against the company, not him as an individual. It is my contention that that move could in itself represent fraudulent behaviour in breach of the Fraud Act 2006. Essex police have so far declined to take the matter forward. As a result of today’s debate, I shall be drawing the matter to the personal attention of the chief constable, to request that it be investigated at the highest level.

Where is the Federation of Master Builders in all this? Cavendish Conversions Ltd was a member of the FMB, but the FMB proved more of an obstacle than a help to Ms Handley when she sought its support. Although I had hitherto always thought highly of the FMB—in many respects, I still do—I have to say that its dealings in this particular case did not constitute its finest hour. To put it bluntly, the FMB proved to be more a defender of its rogue member than a help to the aggrieved consumer. The culpability of the FMB is obvious. As Ms Handley told me, referring to what happened in July 2007 when the regional complaints committee hearing took place,

“They found no fault with Kiddle or his workmanship or the fact that he had lied and deceived the FMB; and they condoned his conduct.”

Ms Handley is a fighter, not a quitter. She took on the FMB with such effect that it eventually felt obliged to strip Mr Kiddle’s new company, Cavendish Loft Conversions Ltd, of membership of the FMB. Perhaps this shut the stable door after the horse had bolted, but it is hoped that it will ensure that others thinking of engaging the company in future will notice that it is not recognised by the FMB.

What is extraordinary is that the FMB awarded membership to the new company in clear breach of its own rules, which state that a company has to be in

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existence for three years before membership can be considered. In effect, it simply allowed Mr Kiddle to switch membership from a liquidated company, against which there was clear evidence of poor and unsafe work, to a new company. Interestingly, both the liquidated company and the new company were given the same FMB membership number—12901. We can make of that what we will, but I contend that, if the FMB regarded them as the same entity, they should have compensated my constituent, not abandoned her.

Ms Handley asked me:

“Are the FMB fit to be a TrustMark approved scheme operator when they are willing to give such a highly regarded status to a cowboy builder?”

Mr Kiddle’s original company was in clear breach of both the Federation of Master Builders code of practice and the Government-endorsed TrustMark standards. An attempt by Ms Handley to involve TrustMark in spring 2006 did not make any significant progress. After this debate, I hope that the Minister will instruct his officials to investigate the body that had responsibility for TrustMark, because it is clear to me that its inept performance was a further example of those in the building industry who have a responsibility—so we are told—to protect the interests of consumers backing the builder, despite the clear and justified complaint made by my constituent. I ask the Minister: who regulates those who have responsibility for allegedly looking after the interests of aggrieved consumers? Clearly, the current arrangements are not working.

Essex trading standards was contacted in March 2008. Sadly, it was not able to help bring about a resolution to the situation relating to Mr Kiddle and his performance. The Health and Safety Executive was also consulted, but a blank was drawn there as well. In December 2008, Mr Kiddle was required, under section 235 of the Insolvency Act 1986, to be subject to an oral examination. Again, it did not produce a satisfactory outcome. Ms Handley told me:

“Kiddle told a pack of lies—he committed perjury.”

A year later, there was a further court hearing. I shall return later to aspects relating to a letter that Ms Handley wrote on 25 February 2010 to Lord McKenzie, who was, seemingly, then the relevant Minister, in which she said:

“I possess factual, documented evidence of fraud, abuse of power, misrepresentation, corruption and perverting the course of justice.”

I can vouch for the fact that her signature was forged on one document relating to the so-called inspection process, but more on that later.

To confuse matters a little further, in addition to the two companies with the name “Cavendish” that are associated with Mr Robin Kiddle, there is a third company with the word “Cavendish” in its title. This is Cavendish Lofts Ltd, which is not to be confused with either Cavendish Loft Conversions Ltd or the liquidated Cavendish Conversions Ltd. By an amazing coincidence, Cavendish Lofts Ltd is owned by a Mr Eric Anthony Kiddle, who I believe is the brother of Mr Robin Kiddle. By an even greater amazing coincidence, the registered address of the companies run by the brothers

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Kiddle is the same: Normans Corner, 41 Church lane, Fulbourn, Cambridge. I believe that Mr Robin Kiddle lives in Braintree, Essex.

Mr Robin Kiddle is confused about how many years he has been engaged in the building trade. When I checked his websites this morning, I read on one:

“we are a family run business with over 20 years experience”.

However, on another site, the business is said to be a

“family firm with over 15 years experience.”

Both are clearly misleading statements, because the company has only been in operation for six years.

The registration date for Cavendish Loft Conversions Ltd is 31 August 2005. That is significant. The company was established after the serious problems with the work on Ms Handley’s house emerged, but before legal proceedings were concluded. Cavendish Lofts Ltd, run by Mr Eric Anthony Kiddle, was registered on 16 August 2004. His company states that he is a member of the Federation of Master Builders and

“the new MasterBond and EBC”,

whatever those are. No such claim is made by Mr Robin Kiddle in respect of his company but, remember, he had been stripped of his FMB accreditation. Although the brothers operate identical businesses—albeit with different names—from the same address, it is the actions of Mr Robin Kiddle that are central to my debate.

I now come to another organisation that is supposed to protect consumers: the Construction Industry Council. In the case of my constituent, the CIC’s performance is just as bad as the FMB’s. The CIC seems more interested in protecting the approved inspector, Mr Ron Hilsden, who is trading as RH Building Consultancy, based in Cherry Hinton, Cambridge. Mr Hilsden seems to have failed to notice the shoddy workmanship of Cavendish Conversions Ltd during inspections of my constituent’s home. It is in the paperwork associated with those inspections that Ms Handley’s signature was forged. That paperwork consists of the initial notice submitted by RH Building Consultancy to the building control service of Colchester borough council with a signature, presumably that of Mr Hilsden, dated 14 February 2005, and the forged signature of Ms Handley, dated 11 February. I am not sure who appointed the approved inspector, but I wonder if it is perhaps more than a coincidence that RH Building Consultancy and Mr Kiddle’s company are both based in the Cambridge area.

On 14 December 2009, I wrote to Lord Mandelson, who was Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills at the time, and told him:

“It now transpires that crucial documentation includes a forged signature in the name of my constituent. Despite this, the building industry’s regulators have been unable to assist her. They have been shown to be useless in defending the consumer—it is time for the Government to intervene!”

There is further evidence relating to the activities of Mr Hilsden that perhaps should be the subject of an independent investigation—not one carried out by the CIC, whose performance in this matter falls well short of giving my constituent and me any confidence. For example, it failed to address matters relating to the Building Act 1984. There is a serious suggestion that offences have been committed, and Ms Handley is prepared to give evidence in support of that contention.

There is obviously a lot of detail associated with what has transpired over the past seven years that time does not permit me to mention. That said, my constituent is

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prepared to make herself available—I am prepared to make myself available, too—to any investigatory body that the Minister feels should look into the whole situation. Clearly things have gone seriously wrong with the way that Mr Robin Kiddle has been operating his separate loft conversion companies with confusingly similar names. The following matters need consideration: the manner in which he has avoided paying to put right the appalling shoddy work carried out at my constituent’s home; the prospect of the police being called in to review the manner in which the first company went into liquidation; and the abject failure of the bodies with responsibility for protecting consumers. In the case of Ms Handley, those bodies have not done the job that they are supposed to do.

As Ms Handley said in a heartfelt letter that she wrote to the then Prime Minister on 15 November 2009:

“I am a victim of a rogue builder, a corrupt approved inspector and an even more corrupt system operating under the guise of offering quality workmanship and consumer protection when nothing could be further from the truth”.

Later in her letter, she told the Prime Minister:

“I have been the victim of fraud, corruption, blatant cover-ups and perverting the cause of justice from the builder through to central Government. Why are my human rights, as a private citizen of this country, being so easily dismissed? Why are laws on the statute books being so easily flouted and ignored? And why are senior officials within the Construction Industry Council getting away with allowing their members to break the law whilst they go to any lengths to cover it all up?”

Minister, I trust that today’s debate is not the end of the matter. Serious issues have been exposed in what I have said this afternoon. They need to be seriously investigated. My constituent Ms Handley and I are available to help with such an investigation.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) for bringing this matter to the House and securing the debate. It certainly gives me a chance to put on the record our view about consumer protections. Clearly, he will be aware that I am not au fait with all the details of his constituent’s case. The record will show that my hon. Friend has referred to his box file, which could no doubt add to my weekend reading. However, I would welcome his writing to me with a summary of the proposals, possibly providing a bit more detail than he has had time to do today. Although I cannot say that there will be a formal investigation, I will at least look at the matter with my officials and provide him with some comments that I hope he and his constituent will find helpful. I will take a dispassionate but constructive approach to the problems that he has raised.

Like him, I have constituents who have had problems with, shall we say, cowboy builders, who disappear and are difficult to trace or who reappear in a different form. The Secretary of State has raised the matter in the past, and we are therefore minded to consider what can be done in terms of consumer legislation and the consumer framework. My hon. Friend recognises that no law or framework can deal with absolutely every single circumstance, but we clearly need to improve things. I hope that he will not take what I will say today as being

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complacent and that he will recognise that we are trying to develop the strengths of the existing system and to improve it where we can.

My hon. Friend knows that loft conversion work comes under general consumer legislation covering the construction industry. He also knows what an important role the construction industry plays in our economy and how many of the business people in that sector are honest traders who do a fantastic job, many of whom have small businesses. He has given an example of a builder who appears to have been trading in a dishonest manner. Obviously, I will need to look at the details of the case before I can comment further, but we are aware that a small minority of builders apply their trade in a dishonest way and deliberately target specific groups of consumers—for example, vulnerable consumers and the elderly—and we therefore need protections.

Bob Russell: I point out that Ms Handley is a very articulate person and is not a vulnerable person. I am concerned that she could be duped in that way. What the Minister says is right, but if a very articulate person can be duped, we are talking about serious issues.

Mr Davey: From the way in which my hon. Friend has articulated his constituent’s case, it is clear that his constituent is a very capable lady who can fight her corner. However, I am sure that he accepts the point that we need to ensure that vulnerable consumers are protected in the regimes that we design, because if can protect vulnerable consumers, we are much more likely also to support those who are more articulate.

We must take a multi-pronged approach to protecting consumers in the broadest sense. The new Government have taken an approach that seeks to empower the consumer and make sure that they have all the relevant assistance from organisations to get the right information, so that they can make the right choices. The matter cannot simply rest there. We must have a legislative framework, which, of course, there is. The question is whether that framework can be reformed. We currently have the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, which requires traders to provide the services being offered with reasonable care and skill, in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. However, the Government are examining how that law might be modernised and simplified, so that consumers can have a clearer understanding of their rights and a greater awareness of their right to redress when they have experienced shoddy workmanship or have paid for goods that turn out to be defective.

On 19 September, I announced that, subject to consultation, we hope to introduce a consumer bill of rights, which will bring together 12 separate pieces of legislation to try to achieve those objectives. The 1982 Act is accompanied by other measures to protect consumers from unfair selling in their homes. Builders, including those undertaking loft conversions, fall within their scope. The Cancellation of Contracts made in a Consumer’s Home or Place of Work etc. Regulations 2008 give consumers the right to cancel a contract that they have signed without penalty within seven days. That cooling-off period is a valuable protection. It may well not have applied in the case presented by my hon. Friend, but he will understand that it is an important part of the protection framework.

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In addition to empowering consumers and having a legislative framework of consumer protections, there are enforcement bodies. It is important to ensure that enforcers, such as the Office for Fair Trading and local authority trading standards officers, have the right tools at their disposal to deal with dodgy builders. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations—known as the CPRs to those, such as myself, who write lots of letters about them—give enforcement bodies more effective means of tackling unscrupulous practices and rogue traders. That was a welcome reform introduced by the previous Government. CPRs can be used to ban traders in any sector from unfair commercial practices against consumers, particularly in relation to the sale and marketing of services. The regulations also ban any commercial practices that use harassment, coercion or undue influence that is likely to impair significantly the average consumer’s freedom of choice in relation to goods or services.

Taking those various measures together, there is a robust legislative framework. However, I have indicated that we want to reform it, because it is clearly not perfect. We also support a project being undertaken jointly by the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission, which is examining how private law might be reformed to provide consumers with a simple, clear right of redress where they are the victims of misleading or aggressive selling. We have also given funding this year worth £3.2 million to scambuster teams, so that they can continue the fight against rogue traders. We maintain their funding, despite the difficult financial circumstances, because we want to chase these rogues down.

Bob Russell: That is all very well. This situation involved a company knowing that it was going to be taken to the cleaners and going into liquidation, and the owners starting up another company and carrying on as if nothing had happened. Where is the legislation to deal with that?

Mr Davey: There is legislation, and the Insolvency Service, for which I am the Minister responsible, can take action in certain circumstances. One reason why I invited my hon. Friend to write to me is to consider what action could have been taken in that case. The Insolvency Service targets cases of misconduct or criminality and submits reports to the court for disqualification of directors for terms of various years based on the seriousness of the offence. I had a case in my constituency that was not dissimilar to my hon. Friend’s, and that was the route that we were advised to go down.

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As I do not know the details of my hon. Friend’s case, it is difficult for me to comment further, or indeed pass any judgment, on what has happened. However, that is why I started my remarks by inviting him to write to me with a synopsis of the case to see how it could potentially have been dealt with in a different and more successful way.

In the remaining time left to me, I want to touch on TrustMark, which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. It is sometimes difficult for consumers to know whether a builder is entirely genuine and can be trusted. For extra peace of mind when people are looking for tradespeople, the TrustMark scheme has been developed as a form of accreditation. It is a fairly easy way for consumers to identify a builder who has agreed to abide by industry standards for competence and fair trading, and to be independently inspected to ensure that they are meeting these standards.

In his case, my hon. Friend explained how the Federation of Master Builders, which I assume—I am not absolutely sure from his remarks—was accredited by the TrustMark scheme in this case, appears, from the remarks that he has made, not to have taken the action that he and his constituent wanted it to take. Again, one needs to look at the detail before making a judgment on exactly what happened. However, TrustMark scheme operators, such as the FMB, are required to investigate complaints against tradespeople and can de-list traders where it is found that traders are not up to the required standard. In many cases, TrustMark can carry out that role in addition to other schemes, such as the competent persons scheme and those operated by other trade bodies. It is, therefore, an important body in the building industry.

I do not know about the involvement of TrustMark and whether it investigated how the FMB dealt with the complaint. That is one of the reasons why I invited my hon. Friend to write to me, so that we can have a look at the details of his case. Clearly, the TrustMark scheme, which I think is valued and highly thought of by many people, needs to ensure that, if cases are brought to its attention, they are dealt with in a proper fashion, which is the way forward. The TrustMark scheme has an important role to play, and it is therefore important to ensure that it retains the confidence of consumers and those in the industry.

I hope my hon. Friend feels that I have dealt with his case. I have given him the chance to contact me personally, and he has given me the chance to describe the overall system that is in operation to support consumers.

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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

4.27 pm

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I feel privileged to be able to introduce a debate on the Government’s policy on preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.

I think you will agree, Ms Dorries, that many of the best campaigns in this House derive from constituency experience and the constituents who come to us with particular problems. About 10 years ago, a little boy, Dominic Rodgers, was found dead in bed by his mum, Stacey Rodgers. He had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 10 years of age. He had been killed by a faulty boiler in a house next door—the gas had leaked across from one premises to the next. At that time, I promised that young lady that I would never give up campaigning against unnecessary deaths by carbon monoxide.

Over the years, through the all-party parliamentary gas safety group and in other ways, we have had a constant campaign to try to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning. Many people do not realise how prevalent they are. The group has just had a major inquiry, chaired by Baroness Finlay. The latest statistics found in evidence that, every year, approximately 4,000 people are diagnosed by accident and emergency departments as having been poisoned by carbon monoxide. If they were poisoned by carbon monoxide, that means that they could have died from it.

I was talking to a casualty surgeon this week, at the launch of the Baroness’s report. Simon Clarke, an accident and emergency consultant from Frimley Park hospital, said that the other week he had a young woman come in who was not dead but severely affected by carbon monoxide. The two budgerigars in the house, however, were dead. Interestingly, I read a recent report that people do not keep budgies and canaries much these days—except in this case. The old use of the canary in the mine was to prevent the miners from being trapped by rising carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a very real problem that we face in this country. Many people do not recognise it because it is a silent killer—carbon monoxide is odourless and we cannot tell when it is around. The poisoning symptoms are tricky, and people might feel that they have a heavy cold or the flu. They might present themselves to their GP or even to A and E, but be sent home to the very environment that can kill because the symptoms are not recognised. We need a fully trained work force carrying out regular inspections in rented and owned property in this country.

When I started campaigning, the real problem was student accommodation, particularly if not very good landlords had not inspected the gas appliances, which became neglected and ceased to work properly. Time and again, we read of tragedies involving students dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. The regulations were changed, and landlords now have to inspect their property annually and have the appliances in such accommodation checked every year. What a fantastic lifesaver! We now rarely hear of students or people

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living in rented accommodation suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet that regulation does not apply to ordinary people’s homes.

We are keen on warm zones and green zones and all the good things we do to insulate our homes, such as having double or triple glazing, cavity wall insulation and thicker stuff in our lofts or attics, to make our little domestic idylls warm and cheap to heat. At the same time, however, we block out all the draughts and incoming fresh air which, often, saved us from carbon monoxide poisoning in the old days. Both this Government and the previous one had programmes to improve people’s ability to keep warm at low cost, but at the same time we added to the danger because less fresh air was coming in. This week in London—they are still in the city I think—we had a wonderful couple, Ken and Kimberly Hansen, whose young daughter of 17 died of carbon monoxide poisoning two years ago when she was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. Ken and Kimberly are from Buffalo, in up-state New York, which gets very cold in winter. As our winters get colder, we will have the same problem, with people again trying to keep warm and cut down energy bills but not venting through chimneys any more, so when it gets cold they block off that bit of air that seems to cause a draught in the apartment or house and then, of course, the carbon monoxide kills.

Deaths can also be caused when people to whom we refer, probably disrespectfully, as “cowboys” are not properly licensed to attend to gas appliances in the home such as boilers and other vectors.

We are considering not only gas but solid fuel, such as wood burning stoves or barbecues. My next-door neighbour the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) will be saying something about barbecues, because he lost a constituent who used a barbecue on a camping holiday only this year. All forms of gas—propane, bottled gas, liquefied petroleum gas—kill people as well, with approximately 50 deaths a year from all sources, of 4,000 reported cases in A and E.

If people go on holiday—to France—they should take a portable gas detector. I do not have a portable one with me, but one for the home, which is still quite small. In France, there were 200 deaths last year from those little gas heaters that the French are so fond of in their bathrooms and kitchens. An early-day motion tabled by the all-party group, appropriately in July, was intended to make people aware of what was happening.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a great danger to our constituents. What we really want is regular servicing by properly trained engineers, and that annual check in all homes if we can have it. If we cannot have that, in the short term, we really need a detector in every home—such detectors are cheap. I sometimes ask the financial and insurance community why on earth a home insurance policy would be given without a detector in the home. The detectors can cost as little as £15 to £25, and they should be given to everyone who buys a home insurance policy or gets a mortgage. Forty-five thousand people a month in the spring and summer change their house, so why does a detector not go into a house every time one changes hands? I would like dual use with a smoke alarm, but a detector alone would be a great lifesaver. We have run the campaign for 10 years and I have become very intolerant of the slow approach. We want the detectors in the short term—now.

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Tomorrow, with my colleagues and on an all-party basis, I shall promote a symbolic Bill, which privately I call Dominic’s Bill after the little boy who died in my constituency, to demand a carbon monoxide detector in every home in the United Kingdom. That would save us from many deaths and many cases of poisoning through carbon monoxide. I have to tell you, Ms Dorries—I know of your interest in health—that even cutting down long-term exposure that is not fatal would be a great breakthrough, because all the research shows that any exposure to carbon monoxide influences health and ability to function and can damage brain function.

I do not want to detain the Chamber, except to say that the campaign came from constituents and from a brave young woman, Stacey Rodgers, who instead of turning in on herself and destroying herself as many of our constituents do when they have a tragic loss, started campaigning, as did that American couple. She has been campaigning for 10 years, going into schools and doing something; there is no one better than her at explaining to young people the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In a sense, we have reached a day of celebration, in that the “Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning” report came out on Monday, and Baroness Finlay should be given all the credit for it, although there was also the work of the people who gave evidence. The Minister had input into the report, so he must pretty much approve of the 17 recommendations and I hope that he will take them on board. I also hope that he will look at our Bill. Let us get some action. Let us cut the deaths and the exposure to carbon monoxide, and let us do something practical for the short and the long term for our constituents.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): May I check with Mr Sheerman and the Minister that it is okay for Mr McCartney to speak—you have cleared it?

Mr Sheerman: We agree to that—we plotted beforehand.

4.38 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Thank you for allowing me to speak in this important debate about a topic that involves saving lives. I pay credit and honour to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), whose constituency adjoins mine and who is co-chairman of the all-party gas safety group. We have both, tragically, had the deaths of constituents from carbon monoxide poisoning, the most recent occurring only this summer.

A number of carbon monoxide incidents in the country and throughout Europe were caused by the inappropriate use of barbecues. Barbecues were used in tents or under awnings, which perhaps seems practical when it is raining, but people were not aware of the carbon monoxide implications. The result was tragic for Hazel Woodhams from Slaithwaite in my constituency near Huddersfield. She was on a camping holiday in Norfolk when she died. The charcoal barbecue that had been used to cook on had filled the tent with carbon monoxide overnight—it had been brought inside the tent to keep it dry overnight.

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Her partner was also poisoned. He is still on sick leave after nearly losing an arm due to poisoning, and his kidney was damaged as well.

Even when people are aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide, they often associate them with appliances in the home and are unaware of the deadly carbon monoxide that barbecues can produce. Portable barbecues and charcoal packaging usually include a warning not to burn a barbecue indoors, but most do not give an explanation why. People may believe that it is due to the risk of fire, but they may not be aware of the deadly risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. A clear, meaningful warning would help draw the consumer’s attention to the potential hazard.

I will finish my contribution to this important debate by asking the Minister whether he agrees that retailers selling barbecues for boating or camping have a duty to warn customers of the dangers of carbon monoxide. Will he help us and the all-party group on gas safety to promote the use of carbon monoxide alarms at the point of sale of barbecues?

4.41 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for the work that they and the all-party group have done. The commitment that the group has shown, both in producing the report and in raising awareness of the dangers, is enormously valuable.

As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, this is an area where MPs working away over a period of time can genuinely influence change, as they clearly have done already. On a personal note, the first thing I did after visiting the all-party group last year was buy a carbon monoxide alarm, so I echo his comments about the desirability of doing that. I am sympathetic to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley about retailers, and my officials and I will look at what options are available to us.

We are very much aware of the threat that carbon monoxide poisoning can pose to people in their own homes, and of the devastating impact it has on people’s lives when things go wrong. Both Members spoke movingly about the terrible consequences of getting this wrong, and about the twin tragedies in their constituencies. I suspect that we would find similar tragedies in constituencies up and down the country. It is a tragic waste, often of a very young life, when such tragedies occur. That is why we are committed to supporting a range of measures taken by industry, health care professionals and others to prevent such tragic incidents occurring. That includes ensuring that we have appropriate regulation. I am not always a great fan of regulation, but regulations to ensure that we have properly trained gas engineers are entirely appropriate, as is raising public awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and working to improve early diagnosis of the symptoms. We wish to see that built into the training for any professionals.

There is a well-established, strong regulatory environment in relation to gas safety and exposure to carbon monoxide. It is a legal requirement that installation and maintenance of gas appliances be undertaken only by a suitably qualified and Gas Safe Register engineer. There are also legal requirements placed on landlords to ensure that

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they exercise a duty of care over their tenants. That is absolutely right. An annual check of gas fittings and appliances is required, and appliances must be maintained in a suitable manner. Those measures are important in providing protection for the public. When they have their boiler fitted or checked, they can be assured that it is done by a competent and properly trained professional. If that does not happen, the consequences can be devastating for the lives or welfare of individuals and families, as we know from too many bitter experiences.

Mr Sheerman: It should be on the record that we do have a system. Unlike New York state—we were talking about comparisons only this week—we have a regulatory framework, which is delivered by the Gas Safe Register. However, the Minister is aware of how many cowboys are out there. They are not registered; they do work on the side, and they do it very badly. We must be aware of the many who hire such people.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is correct. We have shifted the Health and Safety Executive’s focus away from monitoring low-risk, unproblematic business areas so that it can concentrate more of its efforts on the rogues out there in a whole variety of sectors. Our regulatory regimes should focus on the people who act as cowboys, as the hon. Gentleman says, not simply in one area but in a variety of areas. That is where we must make a difference.

Gas Safe Register operates the statutory registration scheme for gas engineers. There is now a good kitemarked list of registered engineers. We have the highest ever total of people—more than 130,000—now on the list. It is quick and easy to find a Gas Safe Register professional who can do the job in a proper, effective way. There is no need for anyone to turn to a cowboy, but that does not mean that it does not happen. There are industry-backed schemes for other fuels such as oil, and there is the heating equipment testing and approval scheme for solid fuels. That enables consumers easily to find professionals with the appropriate qualifications, so that they can make sure that fittings are safe.

Mr Sheerman: Will the Minister take on board what one of the witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry under Baroness Finlay told us when I was part of the team? He told us that things may look good on paper, but he knew of cases where someone who was a taxi driver one month was a gas fitter a month later after satisfying the gas-fitter regulations.

Chris Grayling: There are often anecdotes, but it is always difficult to know how substantial they are. I believe that we have a good system. I do not claim that it is flawless, because I do not think that such a system has yet been invented by mankind. Clearly, it is important to ensure that the training provided is of an appropriate quality. That does not mean that people cannot change careers, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that people who make such career changes need to have the appropriate skills, particularly in such a sensitive area.

The message to the public is simple and compelling. We can avoid the devastating consequences that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley described by using people who have the requisite skills, training and certification. In that way, families can be certain that the person who has done the

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job is not operating in an unregulated environment. It is certainly not sensible to hire cowboys, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly pointed out.

Of course, as we have heard today, and as we see in the report, there is a big challenge to get the message out. One of the report’s contributions was to underline again the nature of the challenge in building awareness of the issue. We have made good progress with smoke alarms, but we have much further to go with carbon monoxide alarms.

Mr Sheerman: It is worrying; we have smoke alarms in 85% of homes, but the figure for carbon monoxide detectors is still languishing at 18% or 19%, which causes serious concern.

Chris Grayling: It does, and that is why the work done by the Gas Safe Register organisation is tremendously important. We have given it the task, as did the previous Government, of running communication campaigns and undertaking other activities to encourage the use of its services to raise awareness of the dangers. There have been major campaigns targeting particularly vulnerable groups, and we recently had the first gas safety week. Also, there are other influences. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the recent “EastEnders” storyline relating to carbon monoxide poisoning. If we can get that kind of media penetration into the public consciousness, we have a real chance of building awareness in a way that Governments struggle to do. Something that people see in a soap opera on a Tuesday night has much more impact.

Mr Sheerman: The Minister is generous in giving way. One of the first campaigns that I got involved with in Parliament was on seat belts, and I organised and drove through legislation on that. This is a good moment to mention Jimmy Savile, who sadly died the other day; he was a great part of that campaign. However, even despite “Clunk-click, every trip,” and all the television advertising, we never got more than 35% of people wearing seat belts. Wherever we advertise, and regardless of “Coronation Street”, “EastEnders” or whatever, we will not increase the number of people using gas detectors unless we bring in regulation. Is the Minister willing to consider legislating for every home to have a detector?

Chris Grayling: We have rules relating to landlords and tenants, and I would be happy to consider such a measure in those cases. It is difficult, however, for Governments to instruct the public about what they should do in their houses, and we do not have such regulations for smoke alarms. I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point away and give it due consideration.

Mr Sheerman: Is there not an alternative? I know that the Government do not like regulation, but could it not be put in law that a house could not be insured unless it had a gas detector? That would make insurance companies deliver on the measures that I have suggested. As I say, why should insurers and big mortgage providers not ensure that every home has one of these cheap items?

Chris Grayling: I praise the hon. Gentleman for his work in encouraging insurance companies to act, but it becomes quite problematic if Governments start instructing insurance companies in law, and telling them what they should put in their policies. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, but it is about the degree to

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which coercion is used and measures are imposed on society. This issue is one of many challenges that society faces when it comes to the health and welfare of individuals, and we must decide where to draw the line between regulation, advice, guidance and encouragement of the kind that is provided in various campaigns. I am not giving him an absolute no, but I am not sympathetic to the idea of an all-encompassing regulation. It is difficult to legislate against all the different risks to society.

Mr Sheerman: The Minister and I work well on these issues, but let us return to seat belt legislation. Would he remove the regulation on seat belts for adults?

Chris Grayling: No, I would not.

Mr Sheerman: A lot of people were against it.

Chris Grayling: A lot of people were, but I would not change it. We introduced seat belt regulations for the back seats of cars. The issue is about where we stop legislating against risk in society, and where we start. As for my preference, on such issues, particularly when we are talking about requiring people to have something in their homes, I am instinctively in favour of the work done by the hon. Gentleman and the all-party group to encourage people to do things differently.

As I have said, I will happily look at all the recommendations in the report, and I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said today. We will also look at whether there are further things that we can—and should—do. Work is already under way on some of the conclusions in the report, and that is right and proper. We share the common objective of trying to ensure that people do not tragically lose their lives through carbon monoxide poisoning. The question is how best to do that, and the work carried out by the hon. Gentleman and his group has given the Government a timely reminder about a number of other things that they might consider doing.

Mr Sheerman: A real opportunity is coming up with the green deal; 27 million homes will be improved with Government help and money. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), was helpful and amended regulations on the green deal—well, they were amended in the House of Lords—to ensure that if a house becomes airtight as a result of the green deal, it will be obligatory to put a carbon monoxide monitor in it. We will soon see a change in the way we look at homes in this country, because smart metering will provide a chance for every house in the country to look at how its energy is provided.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman makes some sensible points. I have committed to looking carefully at all his comments and recommendations, and at the content of the report. I will not give him an instant reply, but I share his objectives, and we should try to mitigate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning whenever possible and prudent to do so.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to his constituent. When I attended a meeting of the all-party group last year, I saw a number of people from different areas who have engaged with this issue because of

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tragedies that they have suffered. We owe it to those people to look at the best ways to ensure that such tragedies do not happen to other households and families. I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will look carefully at all the recommendations in the report and at his comments this afternoon, and consider further sensible and prudent measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of tragedy striking elsewhere.

We must also look at the health care arena. The hon. Gentleman made the point that early diagnosis in an A and E department or a doctor’s surgery is extremely important in ensuring that somebody who has been exposed to carbon monoxide is helped, and that their condition does not become worse so that they potentially lose their lives.

It is crucial that medical professionals are aware of the risks and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, so that they can provide early and effective diagnosis. A lot of work has already been done to increase that awareness and knowledge. Three years ago, in 2008, and again earlier this year, the chief medical officer and nursing medical officer wrote directly to all GPs and accident and emergency consultants about carbon monoxide poisoning. Those messages also contained an algorithm developed by the Health Protection Agency to aid diagnosis. Similarly, earlier this year guidance was issued to smoking cessation clinics on the detection and diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning from sources other than smoking. Just last month, GPs and other health professionals were alerted to the new estimate of the number of people who attend A and E departments each year displaying signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is, therefore, a concerted and ongoing programme to raise awareness and keep the issue on the agenda for front-line health care professionals. That is an important part of the support and strategy that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the all-party group believe need to be implemented.

Much has already been done, and the hon. Gentleman has had considerable influence in this area over the years. We recognise, however, that there is more to do, and that continued efforts are required to prevent tragedy striking as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. The group’s recommendations in the report are enormously helpful, and we will consider them carefully with our officials. As I have said, some of the recommendations are already in place, and work is being done to make changes. New thoughts and ideas will be considered carefully as a team, and we will respond in detail on issues that have been raised, setting out what we believe we can and cannot do. We intend to do everything that we can, and we recognise the importance of the issue.

Mr Sheerman: I will give one last little prod, which I know is not necessary because the Minister is a good colleague on these matters. Carbon monoxide detectors carry VAT, as do flue gas analysers. I know that it is difficult to remove VAT, but it would be a step forward if people did not have to pay that tax. Would the Minister’s colleagues in the Treasury consider that? These days, a lot of our constituents are in much more danger of carbon monoxide poisoning when they travel to France and other countries. I know it is difficult, but is the Minister talking to the European Union and the European Commission about what is being done to protect people in other parts of Europe?

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Chris Grayling: I think the hon. Gentleman will have to talk to the Treasury on the tax front. I would like to sort things out in this country first, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s message filters through to Brussels.

Question put and agreed to.

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4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.