12.6 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing this timely debate. It is similar to the debate that I secured in May 2007, just before the publication of the then Government’s alcohol harm reduction strategy. In 2007 I was pessimistic about the direction in which the situation with alcohol was headed, but in 2012 I am optimistic. In 2007 the strategy was too limited and failed to tackle the need to reduce overall consumption and the harm caused by alcohol, as well as to be more ambitious about recovery from addiction.

Without going into too much detail, I would like to raise the issue of pricing, which, quite properly, has already been mentioned. In 2007, I was part of the Centre for Social Justice which recognised—perhaps going against its more traditional instincts of not wanting to bang the drum for taxation—that price has a particular impact on dependent drinkers and young people, which are the groups we wish to tackle when we see such enormous carnage in our communities. I am pleased that the Government are considering seriously the case for minimum pricing, and we await the outcome of those deliberations.

My experience comes not from being a politician, but from being a criminal defence solicitor. Sadly, my filing cabinet is full of notes about lives that have been damaged, or indeed lost, because of alcohol. Many of those cases involve not just one person, but a grandparent, a father and a son—the intergenerational cycle of alcohol misuse, which includes the impact of crime.

Last year in Hertford magistrates court I came across one individual—let us call him Lee—who was an alcoholic. He was aged 16, had just come out of a young offenders institution, and told me that he had been an alcoholic

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for three years. I asked him about his family and school background, and he said that everyone had given up on him. Indeed, when he left the young offenders institution, he stopped seeking any effective treatment because the only statutorily provided adolescent rehabilitation centre closed down last year. I asked him about school, and he said that he was known there as “Wasted.” That was how he was known, and that was how he felt. Sadly, such wasted lives litter our community, and the impact on children and young people is severe.

Some 9 million children are affected by a family member who has a problem with the misuse of alcohol. That is a massive figure, and children of parents who are problematic drug or alcohol users are themselves seven times more likely to develop a substance misuse problem.

We need to move away from the way in which we have historically dealt with alcohol treatment, focusing on the individual, to a whole-family-centred approach in order to tackle this intergenerational drug misuse. We need to ensure, as the Government are committed to ensuring, that it is not a Cinderella service—that people do not just come to the ball now and again when they show that they have a problem—but that the approach is systemic and integrated. That is what the drug strategy and the alcohol strategy show—that we are seeking to tackle drug and alcohol misuse and be much more ambitious about recovery.

We need to ensure that we recognise the evidential basis of alcohol treatment. We know from the UK alcohol treatment trials that every pound invested in treatment saves £5 in reduced health care costs, social care costs and criminal justice costs. Taking such action will ensure that the current Government are known not just for economic recovery, but for social recovery. Tackling alcohol misuse is one way to achieve that. I know that the Government are up for it. I am sure that we shall hear shortly that my hon. Friend the Minister is up for it as well.

12.10 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to speak under your distinguished chairmanship, Miss Clark. Like many other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing the debate, which is part of her campaigning work on what has almost come to be seen as her signature issue. It is a very important issue for us all.

I often speak in the House about things of particular relevance to inner-city communities such as mine, but no community is not touched by the scourge of alcohol abuse. That is true whether we are talking about the town centre or the accident and emergency department or even behind closed doors. This scourge is relevant to all of us as Members and is a proper subject for debate.

We have heard many very informed speeches. I shall touch on just three issues. I want to put the alcohol abuse problem in this country in an international context. I do not think that it is sufficiently understood how badly we are doing relative to other European countries. I want to touch particularly on what is happening to young people, because what is happening to them is particularly important. Finally, I shall talk about what would make up an effective alcohol strategy.

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It is not sufficiently understood that whereas alcohol misuse is trending quite sharply up in this country, as hon. Members have said, in Europe it is trending down. The picture in this country is much bleaker than that in countries such as France, Italy and Spain. France, Italy and Spain historically had very high levels of alcohol consumption in the 1950s. However, since the 1980s, alcohol consumption in France, Germany and Italy has been reduced by between 30% and 50%. At the same time, it has gone upwards in the UK.

We have heard about the numbers of deaths related to alcohol abuse and the panoply of social ills and social disorder caused by alcohol abuse. Why is alcohol abuse as a problem trending upwards in the UK but going downwards in other European countries? That is because—I say this with all due respect to the free-marketeers on the other side of the Chamber—Governments have taken action. If we look at a graph of alcohol abuse, we see the line for European countries going down and being intercepted by a line that relates to UK alcohol abuse, which is going upwards. How can the sixth-richest country in the world be unable to take comprehensive action against this scourge? I would hate to think that that was because politicians and Governments listened too much to the drinks industry and not enough to the cries of people suffering from alcohol abuse, whether they are in our town centres or in A and E or the alcohol abuse is taking place behind closed doors.

I want to say a little about why this is a particular issue for young people. As we have heard, among young people aged 18 to 29, alcohol is a bigger killer than any other disease. They are being killed either by the use of alcohol itself or in alcohol-fuelled incidents. Government Members are laughing, but they would think it a serious matter if they were the parent of a young person who had died in that type of incident. I have had occasion to meet parents of children who have died either through alcohol abuse or in incidents fuelled by alcohol. They do not laugh; they think that it is tragic and they want the Government to do more.

It is a fact that the alcohol industry has, in recent years, specifically targeted younger audiences. What are alcopops about other than encouraging young people who might be put off by the taste of alcohol to begin drinking alcohol with drinks that more naturally resemble soft drinks and sweetened fruit juice? It is a fact that in the 1990s the industry consciously increased its advertising budget. It went from £150 million to £250 million and, as I said, at the same time the number of schoolchildren drinking alcohol doubled. Targeting young people is a very serious matter, because we know that heavy drinking in adolescence leads to greater addiction levels and dependency in later life. We have heard more than once in the debate that levels of drinking in this country have levelled off, but levels of drinking among young people continue to spiral upwards. It is that vulnerability and the onward costs of adolescent heavy drinking that it is important to target.

We have heard many important facts about the results of alcohol abuse in this country, so what action should be taken? No one believes that pricing alone is a magic bullet. No one puts that forward—not the British Medical Association and not the alcohol campaigning organisations. However, there is no question but that an effective strategy against alcohol abuse must have pricing as part of the package.

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Last year, I visited Newcastle at the invitation of the leader of the Labour council, Nick Forbes, and I chaired a round table discussion on alcohol and tobacco, at which I heard about the impact of alcohol abuse in the north-east. I also heard about the work that Balance North East is doing on alcohol abuse. I heard that alcohol is sold for as little as 12p per unit in the north-east and that the NHS spends a very large amount of money dealing with alcohol harm.

The problem is that, in the midst of the reorganisation that is taking place, innovative programmes such as Balance North East are at risk because they are funded jointly by several local primary care trusts. I would be interested in what the Minister has to say on how regional programmes such as Balance North East, fighting alcohol harm, may be able to continue operating under the new commissioning arrangements that she proposes in the Health and Social Care Bill. How does she, under the new organisational arrangements, intend to see alcohol services improve? How does she intend to make them a public health priority? Does she intend to consider the specific recommendations made by the British Society of Gastroenterology? Those recommendations include the establishment of multidisciplinary alcohol care teams in hospitals linked to the community; alcohol specialist nurse services; co-ordinated policies of care in A and E and acute medicine units, including alcohol specialist nurses, liaison psychiatry and alcohol link workers’ networks; outreach alcohol services; and integrated alcohol treatment pathways.

As I have said, there is a real issue about alcohol and young people. I think it was the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) who said that he did not think that education had much of a role to play. One way in which we can learn is by looking at successful public health campaigns of the past. There is no question but that, along with Government action, education in schools has a lot to do with the fact that levels of smoking among young people are dropping. That was not an immediate answer, but we do know that education played an important part in relation to tobacco abuse, and I believe that education can play an important part in relation to alcohol abuse.

In the debate hon. Members have queried whether there is any evidence that price plays a role. I refer hon. Members to something that was referred to earlier—a study undertaken over 20 years in British Columbia, Canada. That showed that a 10% increase in the minimum price of a given alcoholic beverage leads to a 16.1% decrease in consumption relative to other drinks. As I said, that was a 20-year survey. No hon. Member has brought evidence that will counter that.

We have heard about the social ills and the health problems caused by alcohol abuse. We know, because of our experience with tobacco, that these are not trends that we can stand, King Canute-like, and watch rising. There are things that Government and communities can do. Having waited so long for the Government’s alcohol strategy, I await with interest the Minister’s comments about the action that the Government plan to take and how it will fit with the changes in the organisation of the health service.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Clark. I congratulate my hon. Friend

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the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing the debate. As a GP, she has experienced at first hand the devastation alcohol can cause, and we all agree with her that excessive drinking affects our communities, ruins lives and all too often ends them.

The debate is very timely, because it marks the start of a big push by the Government to get information to people about the harm that alcohol can cause. We have the Change4Life adverts, which some Members may have seen, and 2 millions leaflets are being distributed. I can also recommend to hon. Members an online calculator that will help people to start understanding how many units they actually drink. Awareness of the harms of smoking is high among members of the public, and most people these days understand that being overweight is a problem and that they should probably exercise more, but the harm alcohol can cause is less well understood.

The constructive tension in the Chamber has been quite useful, and it is interesting that it is cross-party. Often on such occasions, the reporting of the evidence is somewhat selective, but one difficulty with the question why we drink so much and why drinking is a particular problem for northern Europeans is that it is complicated and the picture is complex. Some 57% of people drink fewer than three times a week, and a further 15% report abstaining from drink completely. However, 22% of adults drink more than the lower-risk guidelines, drinking 70% of all the alcohol consumed, which means that just under a quarter of people drink almost three quarters of the alcohol consumed.

As those figures suggest, the majority of people who drink do so in an entirely responsible way, but we cannot ignore those for whom drinking is a problem and those who cause others misery as a result of alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder. The ripple effect on families is, of course, also significant.

Some 21% of men and 15% of women are binge drinkers. Some 44% of violent crimes—almost 1 million crimes—are carried out by individuals under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol-related crime and disorder are estimated to cost our economy between £8 billion and £13 billion a year. There are also 1.1 million admissions to hospital as a result of alcohol-related crime, making alcohol the third biggest burden in terms of disease after smoking and obesity.

A problem that size needs a proper long-term solution. That is why we are developing a cross-Government alcohol strategy that will set out how different Departments can work together to reduce the harm alcohol can do to people’s health, as well as to society and our local communities, which are often blighted by alcohol-fuelled crime. The strategy will be published in the coming weeks, and I know the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is desperate to see it. It will be here soon, and it will highlight the importance of collective work, setting out the courses of action for all the relevant Departments across Whitehall, as well as describing the future roles of central and local government, the third sector, and other organisations and people.

This issue affects us all. It affects people in different ways at different times of their lives. As has been stated, there is no one silver bullet that will turn these things round. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and

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the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) made clear, we need to address this issue from lots of different directions. By taking a life-course approach, we can help young families and children to understand how much alcohol can affect them, putting them at risk of violent crime, exposing them to sexual dangers and having consequences for later life. We can help working-age adults to understand the seriousness of long-term drinking at levels above the guidelines, and we can help older people to understand how much such drinking can reduce their quality of life in old age.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman highlighted the lack of services for people dependent on alcohol, and we are running co-design pilots to address that. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) is working closely with me on that. As he said, we have a big ambition: we believe that people can recover from their addictions.

Home Office Ministers have legislated in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to overhaul the Licensing Act 2003 and rebalance it in favour of local communities. Those new measures will give the police and licensing authorities the capabilities to tackle irresponsible premises and to crack down on unacceptable sales of alcohol to children. Those measures will come into force this year.

On top of that—very importantly, sending a critical message—designated responsible authorities under the 2003 Act will be, in the first instance, primary care trusts, so that they can make a fuller contribution to reducing acute harm from alcohol. We are keen for health organisations to play a much bigger part in the licensing decisions made by local authorities.

On tax, we have said that we will raise alcohol duty by 2% above inflation—the retail prices index—each year to 2014-15. We have introduced a new extra duty on high-strength beers to discourage people from drinking cheap, super-strength lagers. Likewise, there is now a reduced rate of duty on lower-alcohol beers to encourage people to switch. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes talked about putting quality above quantity; that is something we are aiming for, and the industry is responding well.

Pricing will continue to be an issue. There are some misconceptions about the use of the phrase “minimum unit price”, although hon. Members have probably used it accurately today and described well what they meant. The fact is that shops sell alcohol at a loss to get customers through the door, and that can encourage binge drinking. That is why we are committed to banning the sale of alcohol below cost, and that is an important first step. There are many different ways to achieve that aim, and we will continue to review all the evidence. The alcohol strategy will outline what steps we are taking to tackle the issue. Interestingly, 65% of alcohol was bought in pubs a few years ago, but 65% is now bought in supermarkets.

I want to re-emphasise to my hon. Friend that the drinks industry does not dictate policy. If I do nothing else today, I want to dispel the myth that it is dictating policy to me or any of my colleagues in the Department. Through the responsibility deal, we are challenging the industry to take action. That can happen quickly, it does not need legislation and if we can make some progress, that will be a start. Some 119 different companies have signed up to collective responsibility deal pledges

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on alcohol, including on improving labelling to get information out to people and to ensure that 80% of alcohol products have unit and health information by the end of 2013. As a result of the deal, people will see information on the number of units in different drinks, whether they are buying from shops or in pubs and bars. We are also working with industry and non-governmental organisations to remove a significant number of units of alcohol from the UK market through changes in how alcohol is produced and sold. Customers can therefore expect a much wider choice—again, this is about targeting quality, rather than quantity.

There is no doubt that we need people to take more responsibility, but this is also about local communities, businesses and individuals, whether they are parents, people whose drinking is affecting others or those who are risking their own health. We all need to play a part in helping people to understand the risks better. Local authorities have welcomed our plans to transfer powers for public health to them. They will be well placed to decide which organisations to fund and how they can take action locally.

I want to take this opportunity to praise some of the work that is already being done in many areas. Street pastors have been mentioned—in my patch, they are called street angels—and there are also the local authorities. In my constituency, Guildford borough council has introduced byelaws and it is working closely with the licensed trade. Unfortunately, preloading means that the licensed trade gets an unfair reputation at times. People often go into pubs, clubs and bars having consumed considerable amounts of alcohol, and the licensed trade is left to deal with the problem. Areas such as mine are dealing well with the issue, and people have worked well with the council. As a result, we are seeing a difference on the streets; in fact, if Members walk around some of our towns where progress has been made, the difference is noticeable.

There needs to be action across the board from everyone, and our alcohol strategy will demonstrate that. That action must be based on evidence. I thank my hon. Friend once again for the debate. I must reiterate that we cannot, sadly, turn this problem around overnight, but we are deadly serious about this deadly problem, and that will be demonstrated in the forthcoming alcohol strategy.

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Wirral Borough Council

12.30 pm

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Miss Clark. I want to give an apology for my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who has just given birth to a lovely baby girl and obviously cannot be here today. However, she was very much part of a meeting two Saturdays ago, when Members saw the chief executive of Wirral borough council, and is committed to the conversation that we want to have with the Minister today and the strategy we want to lay out. I thank the Minister for finding time for yet another debate, but we want to draw on his considerable experience on how to move forward.

There has recently been a great deal of local coverage about the politics of our authority, but today’s debate examines the more fundamental matter of the administration of the authority. I believe that, although it does not have the razzmatazz that attaches to going on about politicians, it is much more important for the long-term well-being of residents. I shall in essence concentrate on governance in the local authority, which covers the Wirral peninsula, and cite examples of senior officers wilfully excluding councillors from the decisions that they have taken and the lack of good basic governance, which has surprised me. Indeed, if I were the leader of Wirral borough council—heaven forbid that that task should ever be allotted to me—I would assume that certain basic rules and governance would be in place. I have been shocked at their absence.

I shall give two examples of that failure. I have recently been involved in a whistleblowing case over Wirral’s biggest contract—in money terms—for the maintenance of the road system. At the meeting with the whistleblowers and the senior officers in Wirral, I was amazed that the council did not know the date when the whistle was first blown on what was happening. We were in the bizarre situation of the chief officers having to ask whistleblowers when they made their first complaint. It was reminiscent of Pasternak’s wonderful book “Dr Zhivago”, when the Bolsheviks were furious not at the suggestion that they killed Lara, which they willingly admitted, but at the accusation that they were inefficient and did not know where they had killed her. There is an element of that in Wirral’s not knowing the most basic information that it could be expected to know, particularly in the matter of whistleblowing.

We discovered, also at the very first meeting with the whistleblowers and senior officers, that there were no rules in place—although I thought that they were automatic for all local authorities—setting out when officers, particularly senior officers, must declare an interest in any contract that they were recommending to the council. In the case of the Colas contract, the interest was declared retrospectively, but at no point in the later stages of the council proceedings did the chief officer draw the councillors’ attention to the fact that he had made a late submission of interest and that they might want to bear that in mind when reading the papers before them.

I also want to speak about three major initiatives that the council could have taken, for which the Government were putting up taxpayers’ money. By the crass inefficiency

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of the chief officers, nothing happened. The first initiative related to a contract to do with Rock Ferry, the area where I live in Birkenhead. Of course, there are some parts of Birkenhead that will be grand enough to be on a par with the Minister’s constituency. Indeed, parts of the constituency, as the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) will know, would make Hampstead look positively downmarket. However, other areas of the Wirral are really hard pressed. Therefore, Governments’ attempts to redirect resources to us are immensely important, because of the possibility of opening up opportunities to people who are poor and would otherwise be denied them.

First, there was a contract of £5 million for Rock Ferry; English Estates was offering that to us to kick-start development. One of the senior officers just could not be bothered, or was not efficient enough, to get the contract in on time. In that year, English Estates had overspent, so it could not believe its luck that Wirral council was so inefficient and the £5 million grant that would have come to us, which would have kick-started redevelopment in Rock Ferry, would not now be made. That is the first of the appalling errors of administration that I am concerned about.

The second error is to do with the contract to upgrade and undertake a long-term rental agreement for the Cheshire Lines building in Birkenhead. That contract has cost the council £11 million. It did not have the full authority of the council, and it received a pretty horrendous report from the district auditor. The contract related to a building that the council did not own, although it owned—and still does, thank goodness— Birkenhead town hall, and the money could have been spent on the town hall, to bring the accommodation up to standard. The call centre work that the council wanted to do in the Cheshire Lines building could have been transferred to one of its own buildings. What happened was discovered only because a member of staff reported to councillors that major work for which no authority had been given was being undertaken in the Cheshire Lines building. Again, councillors were informed by sources outside the authority, not by the officers.

The third of my examples concerns the attempt to win a new academy building for the lower half of my constituency. Over two successive years, attempts were made by the previous Government to get the children and young people’s officer to make a proper application for a rebuilt academy. Thanks to an inquiry by the previous Government, we were reorganising secondary education in Wirral, and it was recommended that two schools should be combined. The first offer made by the authorities was years before the general election and it was for a new build. We were invited to bid up to £40 million. In the first year, the application was not in on time. In the second year—the year running up to the general election—again, the council failed to deliver the plans to the Department for Education, which would have allowed us to get a totally rebuilt academy. Instead of that, one school is closed and children travel miles to the second school, which has now had to take on the role of the main academy site.

A little adding up brings a figure of almost £60 million of squandered opportunities. I have been the Member of Parliament for a little over 30 years now. If we think

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about the effect on the rates, we realise that an extra 2p off the rates has been lost by the incompetence of a small group of chief officers.

I shall not go into the details of two other current controversies that are before the council: a major inquiry into how the whistleblower Martin Morton has been treated and the report by the auditor that is due by, I hope, Friday on how the Colas contract has been dealt with.

On the Martin Morton report, the name of a councillor trips on to one page and then falls off almost immediately, but the report is about the quality of and the judgment displayed by the senior officers of Wirral borough council in that case. That is not of course to excuse the politicians, because they are in charge of the political machinery of this country, but it was a damning report on the actions and the quality of a group of chief officers.

We await the publication of the Colas report on Friday. It will again emphasise how chief officers have behaved. I went through the piles of paper that the whistleblowers gave me on the decision about the Colas contract. I like reading and it is obviously part of my job, but I could not have found out what might have been going on without the help of the whistleblowers. The papers were presented to the council in a way in which the most diligent of the councillors would have found it very hard to understand what was behind them.

I turn to the Minister and ask him for help, and I do so with an example fresh in my mind. After the debacle over the non-new build of the academy, I asked if I could chair the governors. That was after the academy had been established, and I was presented with some very real problems, about which I sought legal advice. I phoned the two senior people in the Young People’s Learning Agency and in the Department for Education to tell them what I was doing and to seek their advice. Their advice was that, as I had one of the best lawyers in the business, I should follow the lawyer’s advice. In doing so and starting that procedure, however, I could not talk to anyone, least of all those in the Department.

At the end of the process, when an agreement was struck and signed at 5 pm on a Friday, I phoned the two senior people in the Department and, within an hour and a half, I was given four candidates to interview. They had just retired and had been very successful—outstanding—leaders of their schools or colleges. On the Monday, we were therefore able to have someone in place, if only temporarily, for the following two terms. I was surprised by the quickness of that and the quality of the advice.

The plea that I know all Wirral Members wish to make to the Minister is to ask him to see them to discuss what action he has the power to take to help us make real progress in getting quality leadership in the Wirral, of which we are proud.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said, which is the tip of the iceberg of what has happened in Wirral for the past 10 years. He mentioned the Anna Klonowski report. We have also had two reports made under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. We have had the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

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step in about the libraries. A lot has gone wrong there, but does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that for politicians to sidestep their responsibilities and hand over the blame to officers is political cowardice at its worst and that the people who were responsible and were leading the council should take the blame that is attributable to them?

Mr Field: The Minister will know that I am probably the last person to think that politicians should not stand up, take the blame and defend their quarter. In no way do I wish to counter what the hon. Lady has said but, even if we deal with that issue, we have a real problem about the quality of our chief officers. She knows who I am speaking about in this debate. I have not wished to claim privilege and name them, because I do not want that sort of press campaign; I want us to be able to think carefully about what help we might seek from outside so that, whatever political changes occur, we can be proud of the administration in the Wirral. I have clearly fingered two officers in my speech, because their fingerprints are over the issues that I have raised.

If at all possible, I want to advance this matter by seeking support to bring about decisive change, as we received at the academy from the relevant Department. I hope that this will therefore be the last debate that we will have to hold in Parliament about the running of Wirral authority and the last time that we have to raise the sort of examples about the role of politicians that were cited by the hon. Lady. I shall make way for the Minister, but I end on this note: we need his and the Department’s help, because we will clearly not make the changes to our senior officers without outside help.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Miss Clark.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on securing this important debate, which involves troubling and complex issues for residents of the Wirral. On behalf of all Government Members, I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on her happy news, and I am sure we are all delighted to wish her and her new baby well. At an appropriate moment, I will be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and other Wirral Members to discuss the issues. I am always happy to meet representatives of any local authority area, if I can be of help.

That does not, of course, mean that the Government can or should offer quick fixes for such problems. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead has set out the issues with characteristic care. I am sure he and everyone in the House will understand that I have to be careful and a little guarded in commenting on individual cases, the more so as some of them will be looked at by the appropriate agencies. I do not mean any disrespect if I have to be careful in that regard. I can, however, talk in broad terms about the work that the coalition is putting in place to devolve power and accountability to the lowest level, because those two things go together, and to help local people to hold their councillors to account and, in turn, to help the councillors to hold their officials to account. Equally, we are taking steps to

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encourage the local government sector as a whole to improve, and there are ways in which sometimes the Department, but very often that sector itself, can promote the improvements that we all want for the sake of the people of the Wirral.

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Wirral on a couple of occasions. I cannot remember if I have done so since I became a Minister, but I certainly did so when I was a shadow Minister and I enjoyed my visit. I should say that one of my oldest friends at the Bar is the grandson of a former lord mayor of Birkenhead, so I have a connection with the area. All I can say is that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right—I say this with personal feeling—that one should always take the advice of one’s lawyer. I am glad that he has found a good one and, I hope an economical one; I am sure that that is the case. It is true that my constituency has its grand elements, but it also includes wards that contain much the same deprivation as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West have to deal with. Councils are critical in delivering services for people in all circumstances in their communities, and that is particularly important for those who are vulnerable or under pressure.

Against that background, we have sought, first, to achieve a much greater degree of transparency about how local authorities operate and, secondly, to ensure that there is proper accountability to the community, rather than the previous approach of accountability being largely centralised by means of making reports to Departments. For that reason, we moved away from the centralised regime of league tables through the comprehensive area assessment and the national indicator set. Evidence showed that it was possible for local authorities to tick the necessary boxes there, but that would not necessarily mean that there was the quality of service one would wish to see on the ground.

We have, therefore, swept that away and made it easier for local people to hold their elected representatives to account. We are doing that in planning matters, in which I know the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has taken a particular interest, and I look forward to continuing to work with him. We have done it through replacing capping council tax increases with referendums. In particular, we published in September 2011 a recommended code of practice on data transparency for local authorities. It is important—as the right hon. Gentleman has said—that councils should have an understanding of the data that they hold and that people can access the data so that they can properly hold their representatives to account. There should be awareness of the data, which should be published. There should be proper information in relation to contracts and tenders, as the right hon. Gentleman has rightly said.

Generally, local authorities have willingly put that in practice, with the exception of one authority, the city of Nottingham. That is not an issue in Wirral. Making that kind of information available in the public domain is critical. Devolution, decentralisation and transparency do not stop at the town or city hall. They have to go further, to an informed, I hope, community and electorate.

There clearly have been matters of great concern in Wirral. I am aware of the allegations made by the whistleblower referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. That whistleblower was able to make his concerns public through a local paper, The Wirral Globe, as well as by

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getting in touch with the right hon. Gentleman. Having openness and transparency with the local press and media is also important, which is why we have sought to protect the rights of local papers to access this sort of information.

It is fair to say that the previous administration of Wirral borough council—I know that there have been changes—commissioned the report by Anna Klonowski, which will be a matter of debate before the council in due course. I am not going to pre-empt decisions members of Wirral borough council take in that regard. That the then administration commissioned that report is obviously a step in the right direction. It is important to be transparent. I understand that an improvement plan has been put in place with the agreement of the various political parties on the council, which is a desirable step forward.

As a general rule, the Government are keen to encourage sector-led improvement. I know that is being done in Wirral’s case. As I understand it, the Local Government Association, which operates on a cross-party basis, has arranged for substantial peer support in Wirral, both at member and officer level. I am glad that Wirral has engaged in that process. The LGA has also helped Wirral to establish an independently chaired improvement board involving the various political parties and a number of representatives from the sector. That is an approach we seek to encourage. There is a great deal of learning in local government around these improvement issues, and the Department is keen to support that, but not pre-empt what is often best done by one set of practitioners to another, with the particular skills sets that they bring. It is worth paying tribute to the work of the LGA, because Wirral is not the first council to benefit from its peer support and interventions.

Rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach from Whitehall, it is important to take such steps as are appropriate from Government to set a framework in which local initiatives can take place. The “Open Public Services” White Paper is part of that, ensuring that procurement of local authority services is open to the sort of challenge that ought to highlight and redress practices that can become established, particularly if there has been a long tradition of political or officer stasis. That is important and the LGA has been much involved. Generally, local government has the highest record of commissioning of services in the public sector. I would not want anyone to think that all local authorities are not doing that. It is right that pressure is kept up for everyone to seek to be as good as the best.

Esther McVey: The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) rightly painted a picture of a failing council on Wirral. There is also the leadership of that council. There has been failure there, too, and there will be on Monday night a vote of no confidence in those who are leading the council. Does the Minister agree that that is the place—on Monday in the council—for this matter to be addressed, and for those who are failing Wirral to be dealt with?

Robert Neill: The thrust of our localism agenda is that accountability should no longer be regarded as being from the council to Whitehall but the council to

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its local community. The elected members of the local authority are there as representatives. Under our current system of leader in cabinet, an administration is formed. The ultimate political responsibility for the operation of any local authority must rest with the political leaders, of whatever complexion they may be. In the same way, Ministers must ultimately be responsible for the actions of Government, regardless of political directions. My hon. Friend is perfectly right in that regard.

Mr Frank Field: It might help the Minister in making these judgments to know about the political composition of Wirral borough council. It is shared among three parties. Going back to the Cheshire Lines building contract, which cost the council £11 million and was authorised without the political say-so of the councillors, the then leader of the council—the Labour leader who currently leads the council—brought in the Audit Commission, which gave the most damning report. The other two political parties—the Tories and the Liberals—voted to take no action. It is very difficult to reprehend or take more serious action against senior officers when the political parties themselves will not put the interests of Wirral first but seek party advantage.

Robert Neill: I was going to say that one course that is an appropriate safeguard where necessary is to make a reference to the district auditor. I note that the leader of the Labour administration called in the Audit Commission, which I am sure was the correct thing to do. It is not for me to judge. Equally, I note that it was a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that commissioned the Klonowski report, which is the subject of debate. I am glad for any member of any political complexion leading a council to stand up and take responsibility for actions. That is the key test. It is not for me to judge what decision Wirral borough council comes to about its future administration.

Esther McVey: Will the Minister give way?

Robert Neill: If I can finish this sentence, then I will. The key point—with which I think we all agree—is that if one stands for office one has to recognise that the buck stops and one has to take responsibility. We must ensure that members have the information and procedures to enable them to carry out those responsibilities properly and effectively.

Esther McVey: I wanted to say that it is not for us here today to pre-empt what will happen on Monday night. That is a vital night, with a vote of no confidence in those people who have misled the Wirral, and I think we leave it to them to do it.

Robert Neill: I am going to be careful not to be drawn too much into the debate that takes place on Monday night. I hope that I have indicated that the Government have set a clear agenda to improve transparency and encourage sector-led improvement. I am glad to hear that steps are being taken in the case of Wirral to take that on board and I hope it continues.

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Fishing Vessels (Safety)

12.59 pm

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Miss Clark.

This matter is very close to my son, my daughter and me. I no longer have a commercial interest in it, but the House knows of the loss I suffered on 24 March last year. If lives can be saved as a result of what has been learnt from Neil’s tragic accident, we will be content. I place on record my heartfelt sympathy for the family of the Mevagissey fisherman, Ian Thomas, who was so tragically lost last December, and I thank the maritime rescue services and the Fishermen’s Mission for their continued support for our seafarers. In the words of the Fishermen’s Mission:

“Over 13,000 men and women work in the UK’s toughest and most dangerous peacetime occupation: deep sea fishing. At sea, they face death and injury on a daily basis.”

Since 1991, the marine accident investigation branch—the MAIB—has recorded 153 accidents involving single-handed operations on board UK-registered fishing vessels, one in five of which have resulted in a fatality. Every fisherman is of course aware of the dangers posed by the working environment of certain fishing operations. Many of them are confronted with the economic decision of putting to sea in heavier weather conditions to support an adequate share of the catch for the crew, or working their boat single-handedly and working less weather. My own family faced that dilemma. Many fishermen choose to work alone on their fishing boat at their peril. Fishing gear and heavy machinery pose a genuine threat, and every fisherman I know is well aware of the dangerous environment in which they work.

Numerous recorded accidents demonstrate that fishermen’s work can be made safer by installing emergency stop buttons. In some instances, the use of an emergency stop button has been entirely responsible for saving a fisherman’s life. The incident on board Danielle is one such example. A deck hand sustained major injuries, but without the emergency stop button the injuries most certainly would have been fatal. Danielle was a UK-registered scallop dredger, and the deck hand was tipping each scallop dredge individually. He was using several turns of rope around the whipping drum on the port side of the winch house, when a riding turn developed. In an attempt to stop the winch and clear the riding turn, the deck hand slipped on the recovered dredges lying on the deck and his left hand became caught in the rope. He did two backward somersaults, whipping around the drum and the framework. He could not reach the stop button on his first attempt. He sustained horrific injuries, and he knew that if he went around a third time he might not survive, but he eventually managed to stand up, stretch and hit the stop button. That demonstrates that an emergency stop button is a vital piece of equipment. One needs to protect oneself against the worst possible scenarios when operating heavy machinery.

Going to sea alone is ultimately more dangerous than going with others. Statistics show that a fisherman has a higher chance of survival in an accident if he has other crew members on board, even more so if there is an emergency stop button, which will increase his safety. The dangers of fishing alone can be seen in the loss of the skipper of Breadwinner, who was dragged overboard

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and drowned while shooting prawn creels. The boat was being operated single-handedly, with no one to assist the skipper when he became trapped in a creel leader rope. The MAIB concluded that an emergency stop button would have most probably saved his life.

Cases involving serious injuries but not fatalities because other crew members were on board include that of Blue Angel. The fisherman was dragged overboard when his leg became caught in the back rope of a fleet of creels that was being shot over the stern. The two remaining crewmen managed to recover him and administer first aid, and he was transferred to hospital where he made a full recovery. The evidence shows that fishermen are putting themselves at direct risk by fishing alone, as they have no one to assist them if they get into a critical situation, and that is why an emergency stop button is vital for fishermen who choose to do so.

The 2007 code of practice for the safety of small fishing vessels recognised the importance of emergency stop valves, and a requirement was introduced for all new vessels to be constructed and outfitted in accordance with the latest Seafish Industry Authority standards, including the fitting of emergency stop buttons to the operational machinery.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House, and on her courage. We know just how much this means to her.

Clearly it is essential that the safety stop valve is put on boats, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the cost. Is she also aware of the EU grant? I understand that the EU will give a grant of 40% of the cost. This is a devolved matter in the regions, and in the one that I represent—Northern Ireland—the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will have to give some commitment as well. Does the hon. Lady feel that the EU and the regional Administrations can work together to ensure that safety on the boats can be achieved?

Sheryll Murray: I will come on to funding a little later. I have obviously looked at England, but there is work to be done with the devolved Administrations as well.

The modification to the net drum aboard my husband’s stern trawler, Our Boy Andrew, and on many other vessels was completed before 2007, and there was therefore no legal requirement for emergency stop valves to be fitted. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency had previously published an industry-sponsored safety leaflet entitled “Single Handed Operation”, which provided a simple list of safety do’s and don’ts, but it was no longer in print at the time of the accident aboard Our Boy Andrew. I am delighted that the MCA has, as an interim measure, reinstated the leaflet on its website, and I hope the Minister will join me in calling for all single-handed fishermen to source and read that list of do’s and don’ts. One of the leaflet’s recommendations is the fitting and maintaining of emergency stops. The most recent investigations by the marine accident investigation branch have recommended the provision of emergency stops.

On the costs of the emergency stop valve, the expense is considerable for a small boat. A family-owned boatyard in my constituency, C. Toms and Son, was kind enough to give me a quotation. The installation of one emergency

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stop button would set back a fisherman about £981, with extra valves costing £35 each. The more stop buttons that are installed, the more the price of the wiring drops. The cost of a foot control with a heavy lead, which would enable the fisherman to move it around the deck, would cost about an extra £333. That is a total of £1,314, which is a large expense for a small, lower-grossing vessel. The economics is forcing more fishermen into single-handed operations, yet fitting emergency stop buttons is seen as an expensive modification, which is often put off until a later day. Knowing fishermen as I do and understanding the economic pressures they face, with fuel costs, harbour dues and insurance having to be found from the catch before they can provide for their families and pay household bills, I understand only too well how that can happen.

With that in mind, I approached the Marine Management Organisation to find out whether there was a possibility of financial help through the European fisheries fund, and I am delighted to have received a positive reply. The MMO confirmed:

“Further to our recent correspondence regarding the above, I would like to assure you that the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is fully committed to anything which improves the safety of fishermen and we are…pleased to be involved”

in this

“application. We have considered the eligibility in-line with the European Fisheries Fund regulation and national strategic priorities. I am delighted to confirm that safety stop valves are eligible under the scheme and we will be able to offer the following funding rates to applicants across England”.

Vessels under 12 metres not using towed gear can get 60% funding. Vessels under 12 metres using towed gear will get 40% funding. Vessels between 12 metres and 15 metres using all fishing methods will get 40% funding.

The reply continued:

“The funding sits within Axis 1—Vessel Modernisation and selectivity Measure 1 Improvement of safety on board. Applications can be submitted either by…individual fisherman or…an association of fishermen for consideration by the MMO. Application forms and guidance are available”

from the website,

“direct from the MMO Business Relations Team”

or from its coastal offices.

“Funding is available across England for all eligible vessels. It is…worth highlighting that boat yards and installers who carry out the installation of…safety stop valves must be registered businesses and the MMO cannot recommend individual companies.”

It concludes with:

“Please be assured we will make colleagues in our coastal offices aware of this new funding opportunity so they can…publicise it across the industry. In closing the MMO are very pleased to be able to support this safety addition to vessels and we are hopeful of receiving applications shortly.”

I have demonstrated today some very real scenarios of what can happen to fishermen when they go to sea without an emergency stop button. The MMO has undertaken to publicise the availability of funding and to help with the purchase of the equipment. Will my hon. Friend the Minister for Shipping join me in urging all fishermen to take advantage of the European funding and enhance safety on board fishing vessels? No one knows more than I do that our fishermen do a heroic and very dangerous job, and I hope they will now all fit emergency stop valves to their vessels as soon as possible.

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1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I think this is the first time either as a Minister or a shadow Minister that I have served under your chairmanship, Miss Clark, and it is a pleasure to do so this afternoon. I warmly thank my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for securing the debate. The only word to describe her and her family is “dignified.” We cannot imagine the loss to her family, but how she has taken the arguments forward, so that others do not suffer in the way that she and her family have done, is moving. The House needs to pay tribute to the work that she has done and will do, and some of that work will, I hope, be with me.

The really serious situation that my hon. Friend has brought up has touched so many families around this great maritime nation of ours. The shipping industry has been with us, and dangerous, for as long as anybody can remember, but it is particularly difficult at the moment, especially for the smaller inshore fleets, simply because the economics of having a crew on a ship sometimes makes it almost impossible to make the trade viable. With the costs of insurance, harbour dues and fuel, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the one saving available to skippers is to limit the number of crew on their ships, thus limiting their costs, and many of them have made that decision. I used to live on the coast in Southend, and I watched the inshore boys regularly going out single-handed. It helps them in that it reduces their overheads, but it also puts them at enormous risk. Anything that we can do to help them to limit the risk is one of the highest priorities for any Government of any colour or persuasion.

When I took on this job and looked across my portfolio, I was pleased that I shared part of it with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has responsibility for fisheries policy, and shared responsibility for the Marine Management Organisation, which was a new entity, with a DEFRA Minister. One of the MMO’s key jobs is to ensure that we finance the right priorities in the right way. We have something like 17,500 part-time and full-time fishermen in the UK. Even though the debate is about England, I hope that my colleagues and fellow Ministers in the devolved Administrations are listening, because if we can secure money from the Commission, I am pretty certain that they can.

Jim Shannon: I thank the Minister for that very encouraging response. Does he intend to contact the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to make them aware of the funding? I have talked to some of the fishing organisations back home and I think that they are aware of it, but sometimes a wee nudge from the Minister enables them to move just that wee bit quicker.

Mike Penning: I know that I am enormously popular in Northern Ireland in particular at the moment, so I am sure that a nudge from my size-10 boot would not go amiss. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will contact all my counterparts in the devolved Assemblies to ensure that they are aware of the debate and the research that my hon. Friend the Member for South

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East Cornwall has done on behalf of all fishermen, and to give them a subtle hint, because as my hon. Friend knows, it is not quite as simple as it sounds.

It sounds as if I could stand here as Minister and just say, “We all know the safety benefits that could come from installing the emergency stop valve on a boat, so make it compulsory.” Why not regulate to avert such dangers? The biggest reason that I am not going to do that is not because I do not think that it would work, because it would, but because of the costs. The costs would be so bad for small inshore fishermen. The figure of £1,300 is interesting, but the true figure might be £1,300 plus VAT, if they are registered for VAT. It might be more than that in certain parts of the country, but it might be less in parts of the country with more competition. Some fishermen could not even get £1,300 with an overdraft or a loan, and so would not be able to go to sea.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I appreciate the Minister’s concerns about costs; it is a very salient issue for smaller vessels in particular. My concern about regulation is that the experience of recent years has been that where fishermen’s organisations themselves own the issues, self-regulation has been effective, as we have seen with conservation measures. I urge him to continue on the path he is taking.

Mike Penning: I have absolutely no intention of regulating, and the reason for that is that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall has found a funding stream from Europe to the UK—what a fantastic thing. I wish we had a bit more like that. It is excellent news. If I regulate and make valves compulsory—I will give way to my hon. Friend if I am wrong—the funding stream ceases. Fishermen have to bid for the funding for themselves or as a group through the relevant bodies. If I say that I will lay before the House a regulation or statutory instrument using my powers, the funding stream will cease. That is the biggest reason I have not regulated.

I will encourage all fishermen who fall into the three categories my hon. Friend mentioned—I think there might be one other category—to apply for funding through the MMO. I will facilitate that. We will have links through our websites and ensure that we publicise it, to draw down the funding and get the valves installed as soon as possible. We must also look at new fleet. There are not as many new ships and many have been adapted from different uses over the years, but we need to ensure that when they come out of any of our boatyards, such technology is included at the point of manufacture.

I was disappointed when the Maritime and Coastguard Agency withdrew the single-handed leaflet. As soon as that was brought to my attention, I sought to address it. It will now be made not only available, but permanently available. It is not a temporary measure and it will be regularly updated, not least with the information that we have heard during this debate. It is crucial that we do that.

We need to work on other measures as well as the stop buttons. We need to address the culture among our fishermen and women whereby the odd injury or risk is seen as acceptable and a badge of honour. When I went to Grimsby earlier this year, I was disturbed to hear

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from a crew that one of their colleagues had been dragged overboard and had drowned because he was not wearing any buoyancy equipment. After that, they all started wearing such equipment, but the peer pressure suffered by the youngest member of the crew meant that, within six months, they had all stopped wearing it. We have to break away from that culture and work together as a Government and an industry to say that it is not big of someone to put their life at risk. People put their lives at risk enough by going to sea in order to earn a living. It is not a badge of honour to lose a finger. I have seen so many injuries, whether they be scars or the odd missing digit, just by shaking hands with fishermen around the country.

I have discussed this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and know that her husband, prior to his terrible accident, had had an injury at sea. We have a responsibility to the industry to say that this is not acceptable. We know that they are proud men and women and that they have a fantastic history, but it would be much better—this is a subtle hint—for their families and young ones if they were as able-bodied as possible when fishing in order to bring in their income.

Through Seafish, we are continuing with the training. Fortunately, we won the court ruling on the funding of Seafish, which is enormously important. The fishing industry safety group is chaired on my behalf via the MCA and I have asked it whether my hon. Friend could join. I ask her whether she is willing to offer her expertise and knowledge to the group. It would have liked to ask her before the debate, but felt that it was for me, the Minister, to do so. I suggested to it that it should have asked me earlier. Even so, if we can get more people with life experiences, as well as “experts,” involved in the industry, I think that we will be able to bring much more understanding to bodies such as the fishing industry safety group. That would be of benefit.

Sheryll Murray indicated assent.

Mike Penning: I see that my hon. Friend is nodding, but I shall give way so that she can formally accept my invitation.

Sheryll Murray: I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it would be an honour and a privilege to join the fishing industry safety group. Will he pass on my grateful thanks for the invitation? I would be delighted to accept.

Mike Penning: That is fantastic news, because the dignity and knowledge that my hon. Friend has brought to this debate and to that taking place in the country as a whole will now be part of the fishing industry safety group. I also hope that her membership of the group will shake it up a bit. We have got to know each other very well over the past 18 months, and we both know that the industry needs to be shaken up. I also fully understand that my own Department needs to ask “Why?” in relation to certain aspects of this particular area. I am not saying that that is true of everything, but there is sometimes a definite need to ask questions.

In conclusion—I have kept my remarks relatively brief, but there is no point in my waffling on—we completely agree with my hon. Friend and we will address the devolved Assemblies issue. I have nothing

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but admiration for the fishermen who go to sea. They do so not only to look after their families, but on our behalf, and bring in a wonderful plethora of seafish and crustacean from our wonderful waters, which are being protected more and more. Fishermen have had issues with discard, but that is more of an issue out at sea. I agree with their concerns and we are desperately trying to sort out the issue of discard. If we can continue to protect our fleet as new ships with safety buttons are introduced, and if I can for once not regulate and see some benefit from that—if I regulated, we would not see any benefits—that will be better for everybody, and so many families, such as that of my hon. Friend, would not be in the situation in which they find themselves.

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Economic Development (Barnsley)

1.26 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Clark. It is worth prefacing what I want to say in this debate with a few remarks about the town of Barnsley. It is a proud borough, which is characterised historically by the efforts of hard-working people. It now has a high proportion of welfare claimants, but let us remember that this area was at the heart of the fight for jobs in the 1980s. Coal miners in Barnsley fought a long, hard battle, at considerable personal cost, to keep their jobs—their battle cry was “Coal not dole”—so when we think of Barnsley as it is now, let us remember that this is an area in which people want to work. Their pride is built on their contribution to Britain’s economic performance in the past, a contribution that I would argue is not easily surpassed.

Seventy per cent. of Barnsley is rural. Indeed, part of it is in the Peak District national park. It is characterised not just by the most outstanding natural beauty that it is possible to find in the UK, but by a string of stately homes on the western side. That needs to be put on the record much more often than it is, because the images presented of Barnsley at a national level and in the media are invariably negative. Even some of those images presented in Parliament are incredibly negative. Those of us who live in the area know that Barnsley offers a superb quality of life. Perhaps Government themselves could do more to promote Barnsley as a place to live and work.

It is also important to put on the record that Barnsley had recovered to some extent from where it was about 15 years ago. It is now firmly in the global digital age, with a wide range of modern companies. If we now endure the humiliation of coal being taken to Barnsley, it is also true that Fosters bakery—one of the big employers in the town—sells its baguettes in France. The town has hidden secrets here and there, but a borough cannot live on bread alone, and Barnsley still has a long way to go.

Barnsley’s economy shrank by an alarming degree in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the demise of the coal industry left it bereft of alternative job opportunities. The inter-generational legacy of employment in hard manual labour—nowadays we talk about the inter-generational legacy of unemployment—was abruptly stopped and the social infrastructure provided by the largest employer in the town was withdrawn. That is often overlooked when we think of the social problems that are experienced in some of our ex-mining areas. We forget that one of the biggest providers of social and sporting opportunities was the coal board. The old social club network that was created in steel and coal has largely disappeared and has been left to fend for itself.

Recovery from that catastrophe was hard but, as I have said, progress was made only for everything to be sent backwards by the recession of 2008-09. Barnsley was always going to take longer to recover compared with other areas, but the recession and now the flatlining of the economy threaten the long-term recovery of that once great town.

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It is not difficult to see what needs to be done. We need private sector growth in Barnsley—nobody has ever denied that or said any different. We need that growth to build the jobs and the sustainable prosperity that the borough so badly needs. We need to rebuild what has been lost in the local economy in the past 25 years. That is even more the case now thanks to the impending loss of public sector jobs, as the Government’s huge cuts bite locally.

Before outlining what the Government could specifically do to support economic growth in Barnsley, it is worth spelling out the extent of the barriers that Barnsley still faces and that hold the town back from realising its full potential. First, it needs placing on the record that Barnsley has the lowest job density rate in the Yorkshire region at 0.56. An extra 32,000 jobs would need to be created in the borough to reach the national level.

Secondly, Barnsley has a below average stock of business. It currently has around 4,920 VAT-registered businesses, which is a deficit of around 1,500 businesses compared with the regional average. Barnsley also has a higher than average concentration of businesses in risk averse sectors, for example, construction, retail and transport. Those sectors are likely to be affected by future economic uncertainty and limited short-term growth. Barnsley also continues to lag behind national and regional survival rates for new businesses.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend is speaking powerfully about Barnsley. Many of the things she is saying could be said about other former coalfield areas. I am sure that she will go on to mention this, but is it not important for the Government to have a strategy for all the former coalfield areas?

Angela Smith: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, the north-east, south Wales and Kent are all areas where the withdrawal of the UK from mining coal and from allowing coal to make a contribution to the UK national economy has had a massive impact that has never been fully appreciated down here. The task of rebuilding those areas has also never been fully appreciated. Let us face it, one of the difficulties is that the coal industry was built around small villages. It is not easy to replicate an economic activity that is built around a series of small villages. It is easy to do so in Sheffield, where there are huge tracts of land and an economic centre to build on, but Barnsley is 70% rural, as I am sure my hon. Friend’s constituency is.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The Government are concentrating on foreign and direct investment and export-orientated companies, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that they concentrate more on the small, indigenous businesses? After all, no matter what part of the United Kingdom those businesses come from, they are the backbone of the economy.

Angela Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I was going to go on to say that one of Barnsley’s problems is that it continues to lag behind national and regional survival rates for new small businesses. That, of course, limits increases in the business stock and, in the end, job opportunities for local people.

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On the supply side of the equation, there are currently 6,962 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Barnsley. That is a rate of 4.7%, which is significantly higher than the national figure of 3.9%. Among young people, the figure is particularly high, with 12.1% aged 18 to 24 on JSA, compared with 7.8% nationally. Perhaps most startlingly of all, 20.7% of the working age population are claiming some form of out-of-work benefits, compared with 14.5% nationally.

At this point, I remind the Minister of my earlier comment that nowhere was the fight to save jobs in the 1980s more intense than in Barnsley. So please let us not assume that the high level of benefit claimants in Barnsley means that the area is somehow populated by the workshy, because that just is not the case. Indeed, I would argue that the opposite is true, and that the struggle to find work in an area such as Barnsley must be deeply dispiriting for a people who are for the most part proud of their community and their work ethic.

So what needs to be done? Well, the first and most important thing to say is that Barnsley needs a plan for jobs and growth from central Government. In other words, we need to get the economy moving again, and the Government could help to deliver the required stimulus in a number of ways. They could, for instance, support the development of the affordable and sustainable housing that the country so badly needs. They could also support more consistently the development of renewable technologies and the industry’s building around those technologies. Barnsley has around 30 solar-tech companies that employ hundreds of people in semi-skilled and skilled well-paid work. Yet, what we see at the moment is the pursuit of an appeal at the Supreme Court against the sudden and damaging reduction in the rate for the feed-in tariff scheme. We need more clarity and consistency from the Government and more awareness of the impact on business of sudden and damaging decisions, such as the one we saw in relation to FITs.

We also need the Government to reinstate the grant for business investment scheme that allowed small and medium-sized enterprises to make capital investments in plant and machinery where linked to company and job growth. That would be a more focused and useful means of supporting job creation than the regional growth fund, which is rapidly being discredited as it gets tangled in red tape. The regional growth fund is also failing to deliver the private sector leverage promised by the Deputy Prime Minister when he launched it. The biggest award so far has gone to a company in Chelmsford and is estimated to lever in just £3.70 for every £1 of RGF money allocated by the Government, compared with the £5 promised by the Deputy Prime Minister. Incidentally, Barnsley has not seen much of that money so far.

The Government also need to address the void left by Business Link Yorkshire. A national website is no substitute for the intensive and tailored support offered by Business Link, and we are worried that the gaps in provision may result in a higher than normal business failure rate. The Government also need to consider how best to deal with the problem of access to finance for SMEs in Barnsley, because business in the area is seen as inherently higher risk. Therefore, it is more difficult for companies to access finance for investment and expansion on sensible terms. The Minister’s commitment to at least

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look at that issue would be welcome. In other words, if businesses generally in this country are finding it hard to secure funding at sensible rates from banks, let us imagine how hard it is for businesses in Barnsley, where it is generally judged that they have a harder job to survive.

The Government also need to look at the work of UK Trade & Investment in attracting inward investment. If the Government are serious about rebalancing the economy, we need to see every part of what they do dedicated to that task. There is no better place to start than UKTI. Why not prioritise regions such as Yorkshire, particularly areas sorely in need of investment such as Barnsley, for UKTI investment—or rather for the investment that UKTI manages to secure from overseas sources? Why should the Government not put Barnsley first for a change, rather than London and the south-east?

Finally, we need more support for skills development in the borough. We need modern apprenticeship systems that are built on a long-term compact between labour and employers. Germany does that, and its youth unemployment rate is one third of the OECD average.

Barnsley is a proud town, which should have a prosperous future. It has been prosperous in the past. This country would not be what it is today if it had not been for the efforts and the sacrifices made by generation after generation of coal miners in places such as Barnsley—there is no doubt about that. Barnsley does not deserve to be where it is today. It deserves the support of the Government. The people living in Barnsley do not want to be dependent on benefits; they want a vibrant, diverse local economy. They want a Government who are committed to jobs and growth. They want a Government who are prepared to invest in a highly skilled work force—the work force that Barnsley needs for its future. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view on how best his Government can deliver what is necessary to achieve that.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con) rose—

Katy Clark (in the Chair): I have not had an indication that another hon. Member wished to speak, so it is my intention to call the Minister. Has the hon. Lady who secured the debate had an indication that another hon. Member wished to speak, and have you given permission for that?

Angela Smith: Yes.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): Has the Minister had notification that another hon. Member wishes to speak?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Norman Lamb): No, but that is fine.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): The normal convention would be for both the Minister and me to be informed, but that is not a problem in this case. I call Andrew Bingham.

1.41 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I apologise, Ms Clark. I spotted this debate on the bottom of the Order Paper only late last night, so I apologise for waltzing in and expecting to speak. I was going to make

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my point in an intervention, but I felt that there was probably time to say a few words. Thank you for allowing me to speak, Ms Clark, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) makes a good case for her constituency and for Barnsley. One may ask the question, “Why would the hon. Member for High Peak wish to speak on a debate concerning Barnsley?” There is a simple reason: the A628, which is the arterial road that goes from Barnsley across the Pennines to Manchester through my constituency of High Peak. On that road, we have a serious problem that causes a hiatus for traffic. It is known as the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass and is well documented in Hansard. I met recently with a councillor from Barnsley who told me that one of the difficulties for people in Barnsley is that they cannot travel across the Pennines for employment opportunities in the Manchester area, because the hiatus on that road makes the journey impossible. I highlight that because if we could deal with that problem it would increase the throughput across.

I was heartened that in the autumn statement the Chancellor committed to £5 billion-worth of capital in the next spending review, so plans can start now. We have had meetings on this, and I hope the Government will listen to our pleas in the next spending review. That would enable employment in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

Angela Smith: On a point of order, Miss Clark. This topic is more a matter for the Department for Transport than for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This debate is about jobs in Barnsley, not in Manchester.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. My view was that transport links are very closely linked to issues of economic development, so I did not rule the hon. Gentleman out of order. Has the hon. Gentleman finished his speech?

Andrew Bingham: Just to respond to that specific point—

Katy Clark (in the Chair): There is absolutely no need for the hon. Gentleman to respond.

Andrew Bingham: My point is in response to the meeting with a Barnsley councillor two weeks ago.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): Have you finished your contribution, or do you wish to continue?

Andrew Bingham: I just want to make that one point.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): I call Andrew Bingham.

Andrew Bingham: Representatives from Barnsley council remarked on the transport links in relation to employment in the Barnsley area. That is my only reason for raising that point.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): I now call the Minister to respond. Obviously, he will be able to respond only within the responsibilities of his Department.

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1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Norman Lamb): This is the second time in two days that I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Clark—too much of a good thing. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing the debate. She spoke passionately about the area that she represents. She is right to say that it is stunningly beautiful. The image is often entirely inaccurate—the proud town that she talked about, and the surrounding area, has so much to commend it. Everyone, nationally and locally, should talk up the various regions of our country, particularly the region that she has spoken about today.

The hon. Lady spoke, rightly, about the challenges facing an area that has gone through a dramatic change with the loss of coal mining. As that industry was based in a rural area, it is difficult to rebuild the local economy. Governments of all complexions have faced those challenges. It is important for there to be room to debate how we should respond to those challenges, so I was delighted that the hon. Lady secured this debate.

Let me begin by dealing with the macro-economic context. The Government aim to achieve sustainable long-term economic growth to ensure that we rebalance the economy both geographically and in terms of business sectors. First, that means keeping interest rates low for longer and tackling the public sector deficit, which will be a continuing drag on capacity for growth unless we sort it out. Secondly, we need to invest in emerging technologies—the hon. Lady talked about the importance of renewable energy as a developing, emerging sector—but not rely on consumption to rebuild growth. We should be promoting innovation throughout the country, not just in the south-east, and also focusing—she mentioned UK Trade & Investment—on export potential and looking at what the regions that she and others who have spoken today represent can do to develop that potential.

Barnsley has a proud industrial heritage. Today, there are a number of key businesses in the borough, including the online fashion retailer ASOS and Fosters Bakery, to which the hon. Lady referred. Barnsley is making real progress in its transition from traditional coal mining and glass making to developing opportunities in new industries such as low-carbon, creative and the digital sectors. There are working environments for companies of all shapes and sizes, including the Digital Media Centre for creative and digital businesses; the Barnsley Business and Innovation Centre, which is spread over two sites and caters for a wide range of businesses; and a number of business centres and a broad range of industrial sites. Areas of Barnsley are also part of the enterprise zone within the Sheffield city region—I understand that it does not cover the town centre, but it does cover part of the council area.

The Enterprising Barnsley programme has helped to create more than 600 jobs and has protected almost 400 jobs since it was set up in 2009. By providing coaching support to companies it has supported 575 companies, which employ approximately 6,000 employees—nearly 10% of the borough’s total work force. Zebra Steel Fabrications, which makes architectural metalwork, has won several contracts in London close to the Olympic village site. AVQ Water Solutions has won contracts with South West Water that have enabled

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it to expand into new premises. Turnover is expected to increase threefold this year—a real local success story, which we should celebrate.

The “I Know I Can Barnsley Big Challenge 2011-12” competition is a borough-wide initiative that encourages young people between the ages of 11 and 19 to set up their own business in a supported environment, with the chance of receiving an initial £25 loan from a local entrepreneur, plus ongoing support, to help them develop their business idea to make money and to compete with other businesses for top honours. We should be encouraging those youngsters to become the entrepreneurs of the future. The hon. Lady was right to talk about the need to develop, in places such as Barnsley, a vibrant, diverse local economy—I think she used those words—and that depends on entrepreneurs coming through in future. Schemes such as that one should be applauded.

Barnsley market is important locally. I understand that negotiations are under way for the council to acquire the site so that regeneration can take place. It is important that that matter is concluded.

In terms of local growth, as a Government we recognise the need to enable areas like Barnsley to grow by providing the right framework, based on real, local economic areas. That is why we invited local businesses and civic leaders to establish their own local enterprise partnerships to help remove the barriers to local growth. The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of Government driving growth in places such as Barnsley, but there has to be a partnership. The Government have a critical role to play in setting the framework, but in a sense this Government’s approach is to enable and give the capacity to local areas to rebuild their economies themselves, with support from government. That is the right approach to take. This model is designed to give back to local communities a much greater say in their economic future, not least by bringing business and civic leaders together in a shared partnership.

The LEPs are leading the development of the 24 new enterprise zones, which will not only accelerate the creation of new business opportunities and jobs. The additional business rate revenue generated by enterprise zones will be retained locally to be spent across the whole area of an LEP, as it sees fit. We are working with LEPs that have a zone on additional options to suit local circumstances. We have agreed enhanced capital allowances for plant and machinery where there is a strong local focus on manufacturing, in areas such as Barnsley, for example, including for sites within the Sheffield city region enterprise zone. We are also working on tax-increment finance to boost the long-term viability of the area, as well as on support from UKTI for inward investment or trade opportunities. Even Barnsley town centre, which is not part of the enterprise zone, can share in the wider benefits from the nearby enterprise zone that I mentioned.

Barnsley is especially well placed to benefit from our approach, because we recognise its location and have agreed that it should be a full member of both the Leeds and Sheffield city region LEPs. Sheffield city region is, for example, focusing on growth in advanced manufacturing and technology. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the university of Sheffield was announced as one of seven partners in the Government’s first technology and innovation centres. This will focus on high-value manufacturing and includes

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partners of the calibre of Boeing and Rolls Royce. Sheffield city region is also looking to exploit the potential of creative, digital and low-carbon industries, which the hon. Lady mentioned, where there are real opportunities in Barnsley, such as the emerging eco-vision for the Dearne valley, which I understand is within the Sheffield enterprise zone.

The hon. Lady mentioned the feed-in tariffs court action that is under way. A genuine problem with the original design of the FIT scheme had to be resolved, but it is important that we do everything we can to promote the emergence of new technologies. The Government are already planning the green investment bank, which will help investment in renewable energies. There is, of course, also the green deal.

Angela Smith: I appreciate that the Government are establishing the green investment bank, which could be located in South Yorkshire if they were to really think about helping our local economy. The fundamental underlying point is that we still need demand in the economy if the local enterprise partnership is to deliver the success that the Minister is outlining as possible with these new arrangements.

What will the Government do to stimulate the demand that will feed the development and growth of new businesses in Barnsley?

Norman Lamb: In particular, export-led growth. There are enormous opportunities for companies in Barnsley and elsewhere to benefit from opportunities that have not, in the past, been properly exploited.

The hon. Lady mentioned funding opportunities. The Government’s approach to local economic development also includes several new funding streams in addition to the enterprise zone programme, including the regional growth fund and the growing places fund.

The regional growth fund is focused on creating private sector jobs—the sort of jobs that the hon. Lady mentioned in her introduction—which are so important for the future of Barnsley, which has in part, following the loss of the coal mining jobs, been over-reliant on public sector jobs. The first two rounds of the fund are well under way, with two thirds of projects from round one started, and a third of all projects are under way.

I challenge the hon. Lady’s view about the extent to which the RGF is leveraging private money. With roughly £6 of private money being unlocked for every £1 of public money spent, the regional growth fund is now starting to have a real impact and is expected to generate 325,000 jobs. That is an incredibly important contribution to rebuilding the economy. A sum of £1 million has been conditionally offered to a bid from Fosters Bakery to enable it to expand on to a site that will also house food innovation and an incubation centre, aiding wider growth. Road Tankers Northern, based in Barnsley, is set to benefit from the Leeds city region advanced manufacturing regional growth fund package. Things are happening in Barnsley as a result of the regional growth fund.

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In the autumn statement we announced an additional £l billion for the regional growth fund for England, extending it into 2014-15 to provide ongoing support to grow the private sector. Details of the third round of the scheme will be announced shortly. Last year we announced the £500 million growing places fund investment to unblock stalled local infrastructure projects and stimulate further private sector investment.

I am pleased that local enterprise partnership allocations have now been confirmed. Sheffield city region will receive £12.5 million under this fund and Leeds city region will receive £24.5 million, and Barnsley will have access to both funds. That is important if we are going to unlock the potential for growth in the area.

Local areas are also making decisions on how to use their allocation, including by matching with other funding to create larger investment pots. I understand that initial expressions of interest have been submitted in Sheffield city region, with decisions on which projects to support in March. In Leeds city region a fund prospectus will be launched in the next weeks and the first successful projects will be confirmed in May or June. These are important developments to help in the Barnsley area.

The hon. Lady mentioned access to finance. There have been real problems for small businesses accessing the funding that they need. Project Merlin has led to increased lending to SMEs in this financial year compared with the last financial year, which is important. The British Banking Association has introduced a system that allows small businesses to appeal against decisions to turn down loan applications. Quite a significant percentage of those appeals are succeeding. I encourage small businesses, if they are turned down, to use the appeal system to challenge the decision that has been taken.

The Government are also doing what they can, through the enterprise finance guarantee, to facilitate additional bank lending to viable small and medium-sized businesses that lacked the security to secure a normal commercial loan. To date the fund has helped 14,700 businesses, underwriting more than £1.4 billion-worth of loans. But more needs to be done. The hon. Lady is right. The Independent Commission on Banking committee set out in its report last year:

“Local banks can provide a better quality of service to customers and hence our push for new entrants to the sector.”

That is an important initiative. This approach is proving successful, with Metro, Virgin and Silicon Valley banks all having recently entered the sector. There needs to be more competition in banking.

The Government share the hon. Lady’s desire to see Barnsley flourish, along with the rest of the country, which is why we are going all-out to create a business environment that will give companies the confidence to invest and grow. Local communities are being freed from central control so that they can help determine their own economic future.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).